Chief Judge Boroff’s State of the District 2009

The following is the text of the remarks delivered by Hon. Henry J. Boroff, Chief Judge of the United States Bankruptcy Court for the District of Massachusetts, at the BBA’s Bankruptcy Bench Meets Bar Conference, held May 14, 2009, in Boston.
–The Editors

Before we begin, I just want to take a moment to again welcome Frank Bailey to the court. He certainly has hit the ground running, and his contributions have already been felt and appreciated by his colleagues. As I told Judge Bailey the other day, this is his last acknowledgement of welcome. Hereafter, he is old news.

Thank you all again for allowing the bankruptcy judges of this district to participate with you in this wonderful program. Not only do the judges get the benefit of fine continuing legal education, but the program gives us the opportunity to partner with many of you as well as with the law students who bring so much to this program. We want to thank particularly your colleagues Patricia Antonelli, Christopher Mirick, Richard Pedone and John Rao for their efforts and especially express our appreciation for the contribution of the B.C. law students, Brandi Buehn, Joel Goloskie, Marie Gonzalez, Gabriel Hindin and Sarah McGarrell. After the program, please take the opportunity to spend a moment thanking those students who took time away from studying for their final exams to help us out here.

It has been tradition for the Chief Judge to start with filing statistics, and they are as remarkable as you might have guessed. A comparison of the 12 months ended March 31, 2009 to the 12 months ended March 31, 2008 reveals that:

  • Chapter 7 case filings have increased 31%
  • Chapter 11 case filings (although still relatively few in number) increased 66%

Interestingly, Chapter 13 case filings decreased 15%, reflecting, I think, a resignation by many debtors and a realization that their homes can not be saved. Rather than viewed as good news, I think that a substantial increase in Chapter 7 case filings coupled with a decrease in Chapter 13 case filings reflects the depressed economy and the poor job outlook. Total case filings increased by 18% over the last year and – also surprising to me – total case filings for the 12 months ended March 31, 2009 reflects an increase of 72% over the past two years in total case filings; 100% in Chapter 7 case filings.

Also of great interest to us and with a great deal of satisfaction we see a decrease over the past year of 23% in the number of pro se case filings. Although the raw number is still unacceptably high (almost 1,000 pro se case filings in the past year) the percentage decrease is good evidence that the work of Leslie Storm, our wonderful pro se law clerk, has had real effect. As many of you know, Ms. Storm’s first task is to encourage potential pro se case filers to “lawyer up” whether it be on a full fee, reduced fee or pro bono basis. As a point of information, over the 10 months ended March 30, 2009, Leslie had communicated with over 750 pro se debtors.

Our and her focus over the past year has particularly been to secure attorney services, even on a very limited basis, when pro se debtors are faced with a need for emergency legal services. In that connection, we want to express our appreciation to the Boston Bar Association and its lawyer referral service, the Hampden and Hampshire County Bar Associations, and the attorneys of the Western Massachusetts Foreclosure Hotline, all of which have established panels of attorneys not only willing to take pro se debtors as clients but who have offered to talk to pro se debtors on an emergency basis. At the very great risk of leaving someone out, I do want to acknowledge Bill McLeod; Susan Grossberg, Gene Berman, Justin Dion and Walter Oney, all of whom have been involved in the organizational aspects of these panels and obviously Leslie Storm who puts it all together. The Worcester County Bar Association has also recently established a reaffirmation clinic, largely based on the BBA model.

Special thanks as well to Chief Judge Sandra Lynch; Gary Wente, our Circuit Executive and Susan Goldberg, Deputy Circuit Executive who have been supportive, particularly during this time of budget constraint when it has not always been easy to offer that support. But we continue to need your help. Please respond as generously as you can when your colleagues call looking for your assistance. And for those in the larger firms, please let Ms. Storm know what pro bono programs have been established in your firms that could meet this great need.

For our part, we have tried to help in the best way we could, consistent with our obligations. I’m sure that many of you have seen three Standing Orders that the court has recently issued.

  • The first, 09-01, permits attorneys, notwithstanding our local rules, to offer pro bono representation to a debtor on a limited basis with respect to a discrete matter in a bankruptcy case and to thereafter withdraw without court authority. Therefore, an attorney can render services in one matter without concern that the attorney will be compelled to render unrelated services in the same case.
  • The second, 09-02, requires that when a Chapter 13 debtor and a lender reach an agreement for payment of postpetition arrears over time, any agreement for the granting of relief from stay on account of a subsequent default that extends beyond the cure period be conspicuously highlighted.
  • And the third, 09-03, just issued the other day, permits a lender to send non-threatening statements and accountings to debtors and to engage in mortgage loan modification negotiations without concern that those conversations will be viewed as a violation of the automatic stay.

In some respects, I’ve oversimplified the provisions of those standing orders, and so I would encourage you to look at them. Those orders were issued as Standing Orders because the Bench Bar Local Rules Committee has been hard at work on a package of local rules amendments, but they are unlikely to be offered for your review and comment until the Fall. Great thanks go out to all of the members of that committee, whose names are on the court website. Please contact a member of the committee if you want to suggest a local rule or a local rule amendment that will assist you in your practice. But I would encourage you to look at your earliest convenience at the amendments to the Federal Rules of Bankruptcy Procedure that will likely go into effect on December 1 of this year. They can be found at www.uscourts.gov. Those amendments include a wholesale restructuring in the way that we calculate time deadlines under the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure and the Federal Rules of Bankruptcy Procedure. Almost all deadlines are altered so that they are multiples of the number 7. For example, most 30 day deadlines become 28 days, 10 day deadlines (including appellate deadlines) become 14 days, etc. And I would also urge you to review newly amended local rules of the First Circuit Bankruptcy Appellate Panel. We hope that they will assist you in your work.

The joint BBA/Bankruptcy Court M. Ellen Carpenter Financial Literacy Program for high school students goes full steam ahead under the fine stewardship of Judge Feeney and Janet Bostwick. Much thanks to them and to all of the participating attorneys for their hard work. The program continues to be offered in each of our divisions, and I would encourage you to participate. Everyone involved in the program has reported that participation is both fun and satisfying. And we are also eager to have new schools apply for this fabulous “free” program, which should be quite attractive to school systems struggling with state and local budget shortfalls.

Segueing from the word free, I am delighted to tell you that at a recent meeting of the Massachusetts Real Estate Bar Association, REBA has formally offered pro bono mediation services to bankruptcy debtors having real estate disputes. REBA is staffing up a large contingent of real estate attorneys interested in offering this service and has even arranged to get them mediation training. In this time of complex mortgage issues, this seems to us to be invaluable, and, of course very generous. Judge Bailey has carried the ball for us here together with Michael Goldberg, and I would encourage you to talk to them about those services after our program.

Before I turn to my last agenda item, I have two requests. First, I would ask that each of you take a minute to review our local rule 9018-1, our impoundment procedure. We find that there is a lot of confusion about that procedure, and that confusion often results in mistakes that could make things difficult for attorneys – for example, attorneys occasionally make the mistake of disclosing the substance of what is to be impounded in the motion seeking impoundment. Second, as you know, social security numbers, dates of birth, children’s names and financial account numbers are supposed to now be redacted from all documents filed with the Court. Our clerk’s office is not sufficiently staffed to review these documents to determine whether this prohibited information is disclosed nor are they authorized to make changes to filed documents. Therefore, the responsibility to redact is yours, and attorneys for both debtors and lenders need to be more careful to redact this information from their filed papers, particularly in exhibits and attachments to pleadings.

And, then finally, is the annual construction report. We have been in the new Springfield courthouse since last September. I hope that many of you will take an early opportunity to visit the courthouse. It has already won a major design award. And the work goes on at the McCormack Building in Boston. We continue to marvel at the beauty which is uncovered by its renovation. It is very exciting for us, and we know that you will be very pleased to practice your craft there. We are assured by GSA that the building will be ready for us to move-in in September. That may be too optimistic. But I do have confidence that this is the last year in which I will be ending this talk with a construction update. At least I hope so.