HALIFAX FINANCIAL GROUP LP v. HAZEL
ORDER DISMISSING appeal for want of jurisdiction. Signed by Judge Richard L. Young on 2/27/2017.(TMD)
UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
SOUTHERN DISTRICT OF INDIANA
HALIFAX FINANCIAL GROUP L.P.,
SHARON D. HAZEL,
SHARON D. HAZEL,
ORDER DISMISSING APPEAL
Chapter 13 debtor Sharon D. Hazel and her husband jointly own their residence,
which sits on three parcels of land in Morgan County, Indiana. Because the Hazels failed
to pay their property taxes, the three parcels were sold to Halifax Financial Group L.P. in
a tax sale on October 1, 2014. By virtue of that sale, Halifax acquired a lien against the
parcels, but not the title, as the Hazels had one year to redeem the land. Ind. Code §§ 61.1-24-9(c)(1), 6-1.1-25-4(a)(1). On September 30, 2015, one day before the redemption
period was set to expire, Hazel filed her voluntary petition in this case. Her filing
triggered the automatic stay of 11 U.S.C. § 362(a), which prevented Halifax from taking
the next step in the tax sale process–petitioning for a tax deed.
Halifax filed an Emergency Motion for Relief from the Automatic Stay on
December 1, arguing that the Bankruptcy Court should lift the stay because, inter alia,
Hazel’s bankruptcy petition was part of a scheme to delay, hinder, or defraud Halifax.
See 11 U.S.C. § 362(d). In that motion, Halifax asserted that it required emergency relief
because Indiana law imposes a strict deadline by which a tax sale purchaser has to
petition for a tax deed. See Ind. Code § 6-1.1-25-4.6(a). Failure to file a petition by that
deadline results in termination of the lien. Ind. Code § 6-1.1-25-7(a).
With the deadline looming, the Honorable Robyn Moberly of the United States
Bankruptcy Court for the Southern District of Indiana promptly held a hearing on
December 15, and then denied Halifax’s motion without prejudice on January 7, 2016.
Halifax appeals this Order, asserting that the Bankruptcy Court abused its discretion in
refusing to lift the stay. In addition to arguing that the Bankruptcy Court should be
affirmed on the merits, Hazel maintains that Halifax “jumped the gun” by appealing too
soon. While this is a close question, the court holds that the Bankruptcy Court’s Order
was not a “final order” for purposes of 28 U.S.C. § 158(a)(1), meaning that a district
court is powerless to exercise appellate review at this juncture. For that reason, the court
DISMISSES the appeal for want of jurisdiction.
Pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 158(a)(1), district courts have jurisdiction over appeals
“from final judgments, orders, and decrees” issued by bankruptcy judges. Final orders
subject to this provision are immediately appealable as a matter of right. Unfortunately,
what constitutes a final order in bankruptcy is an area of law that “suffers from a lack of
clarity.” In re Comdisco, Inc., 538 F.3d 647, 651 (7th Cir. 2008). “Finality is a fairly
strict concept in most federal litigation” in that a litigant must generally “wait for the
entire case to be disposed of before taking an appeal.” In re McKinney, 610 F.3d 399,
401 (7th Cir. 2010). But “the rules are different in bankruptcy.” Bullard v. Blue Hills
Bank, 135 S. Ct. 1686, 1692 (2015). This is “for a good reason,” as bankruptcy cases
“are not simple ‘A + B versus C + D’ matters.” Bulk Petroleum Corp. v. Ky. Dept. of
Revenue (In re Bulk Petroleum Corp.), 796 F.3d 667, 671 (7th Cir. 2015). Rather, “[a]
bankruptcy case involves an aggregation of individual controversies, many of which
would exist as standalone lawsuits but for the bankrupt status of the debtor.” Germeraad
v. Powers, 826 F.3d 962, 965 (7th Cir. 2016). This proves problematic because those
individual controversies “may come to a final conclusion before the estate has been
wrapped up.” In re Morse Elec. Co., 805 F.2d 262, 264 (7th Cir. 1986).
Accordingly, courts often refer to the concept of “flexible finality” in the context
of bankruptcy appeals. See e.g., McKinney, 610 F.3d at 402. In assessing finality, a
district court must determine whether the bankruptcy court’s decision “finally disposed of
a discrete dispute within the larger case.” Schaumburg Bank & Tr. Co., N.A. v. Alsterda,
815 F.3d 306, 312 (7th Cir. 2016) (citing Bullard, 135 S. Ct. at 1692). Put another way,
“To be ‘final,’ the order, judgment, or decree in question must conclusively determine a
separable dispute over a creditor’s claim or priority.” Id. at 313. See McKinney, 610
F.3d at 402 (“Generally, the easiest way to tell whether an order is sufficiently final in the
bankruptcy context is whether it resolves a proceeding within the bankruptcy that would
be a freestanding lawsuit if there were no bankruptcy action.”).
Notwithstanding those general principles of law, in the Seventh Circuit, it is well
established that “orders refusing to lift or modify the automatic stay are held to be final.”
In re James Wilson Assocs., 965 F.2d 160, 166 (7th Cir. 1992). See OneBeacon Ins. Co.
v. Archdiocese of Milwaukee (In re Archdiocese of Milwaukee), 523 B.R. 655, 658 n.3
(E.D. Wis. Oct. 5, 2014) (“The Court can exercise jurisdiction because orders denying
relief from the automatic stay are final and appealable orders.”); Hijjawi v. Five N.
Wabash Condo. Ass’n, 495 B.R. 839, 843 (N.D. Ill. 2013) (“The Seventh Circuit has
consistently held that orders refusing to lift or modify the automatic stay are held to be
final.”) (quotation marks omitted). The rationale behind this rule is that the automatic
stay is a statutory injunction that operates much like a preliminary or permanent
injunction under the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. James, 965 F.2d at 166. Of
course, 28 U.S.C. § 1292(a)(1) authorizes appeals of interlocutory orders “granting,
continuing, modifying, refusing or dissolving injunctions, or refusing to dissolve or
modify injunctions.” But James and its progeny do not appear to contemplate an
emergency motion for relief from the automatic stay being denied without prejudice.
Indeed, there appears to be no case from a court within this circuit that is squarely on
The court finds that this case is unique and therefore warrants departure from the
general rule that orders denying relief from the automatic stay are final and appealable.
The court reaches this conclusion for several reasons. Most importantly, the Bankruptcy
Court’s Order does not satisfy the Seventh Circuit’s standard for finality because it does
not “finally dispose of a discrete dispute.” Schaumburg Bank, 815 F.3d at 312. The
overall dispute about whether Halifax is entitled to relief from the automatic stay has not
been conclusively resolved, as demonstrated by the fact that the Bankruptcy Court denied
the motion without prejudice. Denying a motion without prejudice strongly suggests a
lack of finality on the matter. It seems that the Bankruptcy Court merely issued a
preliminary decision, which it expected to revisit at a later date. Indeed, the Order
expressly states, “The stay will not be lifted at this juncture.” (Order at 7) (emphasis
added). This interpretation is reasonable given the procedural history of this matter.
Halifax filed its emergency motion just two months into the case, and the Bankruptcy
Court was obligated to render a decision shortly thereafter in order to address Halifax’s
concerns about the impending deadline to obtain a tax deed. At the time the Order was
issued, the case was still in its infancy–the record was still developing, the claims bar
date had not passed, Halifax had not filed its proof of claim, and a plan had not been
confirmed. A bankruptcy court needs an opportunity to resolve the dispute based upon a
full consideration of the merits before a district court exercises review, and that has not
Halifax suggests that dismissing the appeal and requiring it to re-file its motion
would be futile because the Bankruptcy Court conclusively rejected its legal arguments in
the Order. That is incorrect. In advancing this contention, Halifax wholly ignores that
two of the issues it raises in its opening brief are whether the Bankruptcy Court erred in
failing to address significant legal arguments presented in the emergency motion.
Specifically, it alleges that the Bankruptcy Court neglected to meaningfully discuss why
relief from the stay was not appropriate under 11 U.S.C. § 362(d)(1) or (4). These
provisions respectively require a bankruptcy court to lift the automatic stay “for cause,
including the lack of adequate protection of an interest in property of such party in
interest,” or “if the court finds that the filing of the petition was part of a scheme to delay,
hinder, or defraud creditors.” Dismissal is especially appropriate in this case because it
will give the Bankruptcy Court an opportunity to fully address those issues, and thereby
conserve judicial resources.
Finally, the court notes that dismissing the appeal does not prejudice Halifax.
Halifax styled its motion for relief from the automatic stay as an emergency motion
because its deadline to petition for issuance of a tax deed in state court was rapidly
approaching. If it did not file its petition by the deadline imposed under Indiana law, its
lien against the parcels would terminate. In its Order, the Bankruptcy Court explicitly
rejected this idea, concluding that 11 U.S.C. § 108(c) tolls the time for Halifax to file a
petition until 30 days after the stay expires. Section 108(c) provides, in relevant part,
[I]f applicable nonbankruptcy law . . . fixes a period for commencing or
continuing a civil action in a court other than a bankruptcy court on a claim
against the debtor 1, . . . and such period has not expired before the date of the
filing of the petition, then such period does not expire until . . . 30 days after
notice of the termination or expiration of the stay under section 362, 922,
1201, or 1301 of this title, as the case may be, with respect to such claim.
Thus, Halifax’s interest in the three parcels will not terminate while the stay remains in
place. In its reply brief, Halifax notes that it accepts the protection of this “safe harbor”
provision and has not appealed this portion of the Bankruptcy Court’s ruling.
Petitioning for a tax deed under Indiana law is likely considered an action against the property,
not the debtor. However, the Bankruptcy Code broadly defines the phrase “claim against the
debtor” to include “claim[s] against property of the debtor.” 11 U.S.C. § 102(2).
Upon dismissal, Halifax can file a new motion for relief from the automatic stay in
the Bankruptcy Court. The Bankruptcy Court may be inclined to grant the motion after
considering the fully-developed record and the specific arguments it allegedly overlooked
before. But, even assuming, arguendo, that the Bankruptcy Court denies the renewed
motion in a final order and Halifax prevails in this court after filing a second appeal, there
will have been no harm to Halifax outside of a general inconvenience. At the conclusion
of that second appeal, Halifax would be able to petition for issuance of a tax deed, which
is what it ultimately wants.
This appeal from the United States Bankruptcy Court for the Southern District of
Indiana is DISMISSED for want of jurisdiction.
SO ORDERED this 27th day of February 2017.
Distributed Electronically to Registered Counsel of Record.
Disclaimer: Justia Dockets & Filings provides public litigation records from the federal appellate and district courts. These filings and docket sheets should not be considered findings of fact or liability, nor do they necessarily reflect the view of Justia.
Why Is My Information Online?