Even though it’s illegal for creditors to try to collect on a debt that’s been discharged (legally written off) in bankruptcy, once in a while they may try. What makes chasing a discharged debt illegal? And what penalties can get awarded to you if a creditor breaks the law?


In my last blog I wrote about Capital One Bank illegally filing documents in 15,500 bankruptcy cases demanding payment on debts which had already been written off in prior bankruptcies. This extensive pattern of bad behavior was discovered when the U.S. Trustee in Massachusetts learned about one case in which the Bank was trying to get payment from a couple whose $5,500 debt had been discharged in a bankruptcy 14 years earlier. The U. S. Trustee (an office of the U.S. Department of Justice which acts to protect “the integrity of the bankruptcy system”) came to realize that this was not an isolated event for Capital One, and sued the bank because of all of its illegal filings. Nobody—including Capital One–knew how many cases all over the country it had filed claims for money it was not owed. So as part of the settlement of that lawsuit, the bankruptcy court required Capital One “to hire an independent auditor, chosen by the court and paid for by Capital One” to do an audit of about 2.2 million claims that it had filed in bankruptcy cases from the beginning of 2005 through 2010. It is from this audit that Capital One’s 15,500 illegal filings were uncovered.

While the Bankruptcy Code makes it perfectly clear that trying to collect on discharged debt is illegal, it does not clearly say what, if anything, the penalties are for a creditor caught doing so. Section 524(a)(2) of the Code says a discharge of debts in a bankruptcy “operates as an injunction against” any acts to collect debts included in that bankruptcy case. But that section of the Code says nothing about what happens if a creditor violates that injunction. Feel free to read the whole section through the link above. Have fun—Section 524 goes on for pages!

Well, even though no penalties are specified in Section 524, there is a strong consensus among courts all over the country that bankruptcy courts can penalize creditors for violating the discharge injunction through another section of the Bankruptcy Code, Section 105, titled appropriately enough “Power of Court.” The basic idea is that the injunction against pursuing a discharged debt is a court order, and so a creditor violating it is in contempt of court. So the standard penalties for being in civil contempt of court apply.

Depending on the circumstances, the penalties for civil contempt can include “compensatory” damages and “punitive” damages. Compensatory damages are to compensate you for harm you suffered because of the creditor’s violation of the injunction. These potentially include actual damages such as time lost from work or other financial losses, emotional distress caused by the illegal collection, and attorney fees and costs you’ve incurred as a result. Punitive damages are to punish the creditor for its illegal behavior, and so the judge looks at how bad the creditor’s behavior was in determining whether it punitive damages are appropriate and how much to award.

The vast majority of the time creditors in a bankruptcy case write the debts off their books and you never hear about those debts again. But, as the Capital One story illustrates, some creditors don’t keep good records or simply aren’t all that vigorous about following the law. So if, after you receive your bankruptcy discharge, you hear from one of your old creditors trying to collect its discharged debt, contact your attorney right away.  It’s something that you want to nip in the bud. And if the creditor’s behavior is particularly egregious, you and your attorney may want to discuss whether to strike back at the creditor for violating the law. There might possibly even be some money in it for you.

One can understand if a major U.S. credit card company forgets that one of its customers had earlier written off that company’s debt in bankruptcy. But forgetting this very important fact for 15,500 of its customers?!?

It is bad enough that Capital One lost track that its old debts had been legally written off (“discharged”). But in each one of these 15,500 cases it didn’t bother to check if the debts were discharged, and so it actually filed documents in subsequent bankruptcy cases asserting that the debts were still legally owed. Each of these “proofs of claim” were dated and signed by a Capital One representative, with the signature right next to this statement: “Penalty for presenting fraudulent claim: Fine of up to $500,000 or imprisonment for up to 5 years, or both.” Now, I don’t think anyone is alleging that Capital One is purposely and fraudulently chasing stale debt, but they sure are being awfully negligent in their internal recordkeeping, or maybe even reckless in blindly chasing debts without bothering to find out if they are still legally owed.

This whole ugly mess was uncovered by the “U.S. Trustee.” People filing bankruptcy may hear that the U.S. Trustee is somebody who is not on your side, mostly someone who can turn your Chapter 7 case into a Chapter 13 one if you don’t follow the rules. But its watchdog role is much broader–it “protects the integrity of the bankruptcy system by overseeing case administration and litigating to enforce the bankruptcy laws.“ Obviously, a creditor filing a document in a bankruptcy case saying that it is owed money when it not is in violation of the bankruptcy laws. Doing this in 15,500 cases is majorly bashing the integrity of the bankruptcy system, and causing havoc to “case administration.”

How so? Think about it. A creditor’s proof of claim is generally considered accurate unless somebody challenges it. The creditor usually attaches some documentation, which makes the debt look authentic. The debtor usually has little incentive to spend time or money on the issue because usually that proof of claim does not change how much the debtor has to pay, instead only how the creditors will divide up the money. When Capital One gets paid on a false claim in an asset Chapter 7 case or a Chapter 13 case, that inappropriate payment reduces the trustee’s payouts to all the other creditors, the amount of reduction depending on the size of each one of the other creditors’ claims. So now in 15,500 individual cases Capital One has to give back whatever money it actually received—amounting to $2.35 million—and the trustee in each case has to precisely recalculate how much each one of the other creditors was short-changed, and then cut checks for all those other creditors in those amounts. What a huge waste of time.

What does this mean for you? As to Capital One, if it is or was one of your creditors and you are (or will be) in either a Chapter 13 case or asset Chapter 7 case, have your attorney keep a close eye on any proofs of claim this creditor files. As to creditors in general, this is good reminder that creditors sometimes file inaccurate documents—purposely or not—in bankruptcy court. Proof of claims specifically, and other documents as well (such as motions for relief from stay) need to be scrutinized carefully, not just accepted as face value. Much of the time most creditors keep decent records and file accurate documents in court. Just don’t assume all of them do all the time. Especially Capital One.