In the case of Mantiply v. Horne (In re Horne), 876 F.3d 1076 (11th Cir. 2017) the Eleventh Circuit decided an issue of first impression in the Circuit: Whether the Bankruptcy Code authorizes payment of attorneys’ fees and costs incurred by debtors in successfully pursuing an action for damages resulting from the violation of the automatic stay and in defending the damages award on appeal.
The stay violator argued on appeal that the debtors were not entitled to appellate fees as a matter of law under Section 362(k)(1) of the Bankruptcy Code because the statute only provides for mandatory fees for damages and attorneys’ fees incurred in ending a stay violation, not incurred in pursuing a damages award nor fees incurred in defending a damages award on appeal.
The Eleventh Circuit disagreed with the stay violator and held that Section 362(k)(1) of the Bankruptcy Code specifically departs from the American Rule and authorizes costs and attorneys’ fees incurred by the debtor in ending a willful violation of an automatic stay, prosecuting a damages violation, and defending those judgements on appeal.
Specifically, the Court reasoned that, unlike Section 330, Section 362(k) specifically and explicitly provides for the recovery of “costs and attorneys’ fees” in the measure of damages arising from a willful violation of the automatic stay, allowing for a departure from the American Rule. Moreover, nothing in the text of Section 362(k)(1) limits the scope of attorneys’ fees to solely ending a stay violation. Instead, Section 362(k)(1) speaks to full recovery of damages including fees and cost incurred from violating the stay. The Court noted that this result makes sense in the context of bankruptcy litigation where the lion’s share of damages from violations of the automatic stay are attorneys’ fees and the debtors are least able to afford them.
The Takeaway? While there are always exceptions to the rule, it is generally best to attempt to settle “willful” stay violations early on. The damages in what may seem like a simple matter, escalate quickly. If you choose to litigate and lose, you could be responsible for paying “actual damages, including costs and attorneys’ fees” to the debtor(s) for all the proceedings related to the stay violation dispute and, to add insult to injury, your own attorneys’ fees and costs.
Heather L. Ries is an attorney with the Financial Restructuring and Bankruptcy Department of the law firm of Fox Rothschild LLP. Heather focuses her practice in matters related to bankruptcy, creditors’ rights, commercial workout and foreclosure disputes, and commercial litigation. You can contact Heather at 561-804-4419 or firstname.lastname@example.org.