09 June 2014

Law in Plain English: Executive Benefits Insurance Agency v. Arkison

This is one in a series of posts designed to describe court decisions in plain English. For more detail and background on the legal issues, see the link to the case below. For similar posts, click here.

SCOTUSblogExecutive Benefits Insurance Agency v. Arkison

Argument: Jan 14 2013 (Aud.)

Discussion: Nicholas Paleveda and his wife, Marjorie Ewing, operated Aegis Retirement Income Services, Inc. ("ARIS") and the Bellingham Insurance Agency, Inc. ("BIA"). ARIS designed and administered defined-benefit pension plans, and BIA sold insurance and annuity products that funded those plans. BIA became insolvent, and Paleveda used BIA funds to incorporate the Executive Benefits Insurance Agency, Inc. ("EBIA"). In the meantime, BIA filed a voluntary Chapter 7 bankruptcy petition. The Trustee, Peter Arkison, filed a complaint against EBIA and ARIS to recover the commissions deposited into the EBIA/ARIS account, which the Trustee alleged to be property of the estate. The complaint alleged fraudulent transfer claims and a claim that EBIA was a successor corporation of BIA and therefore liable for its debts. The bankruptcy court granted summary judgment in favor of the Trustee, concluding that the deposits into the EBIA/ARIS account were fraudulent conveyances of BIA assets and that EBIA was a "mere successor" of BIA. The bankruptcy court entered a final judgment for $373,291.28. EBIA appealed to the federal district court, which affirmed the judgment. EBIA appealed again, and now for the first time claimed that the bankruptcy judge was constitutionally proscribed from entering final judgment on the Trustee's claims. The Ninth Circuit concluded Article III bars bankruptcy courts from entering final judgments in actions brought by a noncreditor absent the parties' consent, but that EBIA consented to the bankruptcy court's jurisdiction. As a result, that court's entry of summarj' judgment in favor of the Trustee was acceptable.

Issue: The questions before the Court are  (1) whether Article III permits the exercise of the judicial power of the United States by bankruptcy courts on the basis of litigant consent, and, if so, whether "implied consent" based on a litigant’s conduct, where the statutory scheme provides the litigant no notice that its consent is required, is sufficient to satisfy Article III; and (2) whether a bankruptcy judge may submit proposed findings of fact and conclusions of law for de novo review by a district court in a “core” proceeding under 28 U.S.C. 157(b).

Holding: In a unanimous decision, the Supreme Court ruled that under Stern v. Marshall, a bankruptcy court may not enter final judgment but may issue findings of fact and conclusions of law to be reviewed de novo by a district court.
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