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In re Stevenson

United States Bankruptcy Appellate Panel of the First Circuit

April 30, 2018

JANICE LORRAINE STEVENSON, a/k/a Janice Wilson Stevenson, Debtor.
v.
TND HOMES I, LP, Appellee. JANICE LORRAINE STEVENSON, Appellant,

          Appeal from the United States Bankruptcy Court for the District of Massachusetts (Hon. Frank J. Bailey, U.S. Bankruptcy Judge)

          Janice Lorraine Stevenson, Pro Se, on brief for Appellant.

          Scott D. Carman, Esq., on brief for Appellee.

          Before Lamoutte, Finkle, and Harwood, United States Bankruptcy Appellate Panel Judges.

          Lamoutte, U.S. Bankruptcy Appellate Panel Judge.

         Janice Lorraine Stevenson ("Stevenson") appeals pro se from the bankruptcy court's August 3, 2017 order dismissing her chapter 13 case (the "Dismissal Order"). For the reasons discussed below, we AFFIRM.

         BACKGROUND[1]

         Stevenson filed a petition for chapter 7 relief on September 8, 2016. At that time, there was a summary process action pending against her in state court in which her landlord, TND Homes I, LP ("TND"), alleged nonpayment of rent in connection with her lease of a residential apartment (the "Property"). TND filed a motion for relief from the automatic stay (the "motion for relief"), seeking authorization to continue the summary process action. Stevenson opposed the motion for relief, accusing TND of "erroneous billing practices." Following a hearing, the bankruptcy court denied TND's request for relief from the automatic stay, on the condition that Stevenson make certain rent payments to TND. In addition, the court directed TND to correct its electronic records to accurately reflect the amounts Stevenson owed.

         TND subsequently moved to voluntarily dismiss the summary process action after receiving full payment of the rent amounts due from Stevenson. Stevenson received a discharge on January 6, 2017, and her bankruptcy case was closed on February 14, 2017.

         After receiving her discharge, Stevenson again stopped paying rent. According to TND, Stevenson also "persisted in her refusal to complete recertification paperwork, "[2] failed to permit inspection of her unit, and violated her lease by keeping a dog on the Property. TND issued a 30-day notice to quit on February 24, 2017, and on April 10, 2017, commenced a new summary process action against Stevenson alleging that her tenancy had been terminated for cause. Stevenson filed an answer and counterclaim in the summary process action, asserting that the Property lacked heat and hot water. The state court scheduled the matter for a bench trial on April 20, 2017.

         On April 21, 2017, Stevenson filed a petition for chapter 13 relief, thereby commencing the bankruptcy case that is the subject of this appeal. By letter dated May 3, 2017, TND notified the state court of Stevenson's bankruptcy filing and requested a stay of the summary process action.[3]

         On her Schedule A/B: Property, Stevenson reported $30, 000.00 worth of assets, $20, 000.00 of which represented the surrender value of an insurance policy. She listed no creditors on Schedule D: Creditors Who Have Claims Secured by Property. On her Amended Schedule E/F: Creditors Who have Unsecured Claims, Stevenson listed only two creditors: Educational Credit Management Corporation ("ECMC"), with a claim of $15, 000.00; and Navient, with a claim of $5, 000.00.[4] On Schedule G: Executory Contracts and Unexpired Leases, Stevenson identified the residential lease with TND.

         On April 24, 2017, the bankruptcy court issued a notice stating that Stevenson was "not entitled to a discharge in bankruptcy because of prior case filings." The bankruptcy court issued another notice on the same date, warning Stevenson that, as a "repeat filer, " her rights might be affected by § 362(c)(3)[5] and/or (4).[6] Thereafter, Stevenson filed a motion to extend the automatic stay pursuant to § 362(c)(3)(B). The bankruptcy court ruled that the motion was moot because the automatic stay was still in effect, explaining: "Although [Stevenson] filed a prior case . . . within the preceding [ ] year, that case was not dismissed and, therefore, [§] 362(c)(3) does not apply."

         On June 2, 2017, TND filed a motion to dismiss Stevenson's chapter 13 case (the "Motion to Dismiss") pursuant to § 1307(c), asserting that "[a] chapter 13 case can be dismissed for cause when it is demonstrated that the case was not filed in good faith." TND contended that Stevenson had not filed her petition in good faith but, rather, for the sole purpose of "delay[ing] and frustrat[ing] TND, " and preventing the prosecution of the summary process action. Arguing that Stevenson's bankruptcy case amounted to a two-party dispute, TND elaborated that she remained in violation of her lease, she had no debts to reorganize other than student loan debt, and her claims relating to the condition of the Property should be litigated in the state court summary process action.

         Stevenson objected to the Motion to Dismiss, insisting that: (1) her chapter 13 case was filed in good faith; (2) she proposed to pay all rent arrearages over a 36-month period in her chapter 13 plan of reorganization; and (3) TND had committed "acts of intentional wrong doing" by, among other things, retaliating against her for asserting her right to habitable premises.

         On July 20, 2017, Stevenson filed her fifth amended chapter 13 plan of reorganization (the "Plan"), [7] indicating that: (1) she intended to "assume" the lease of the Property; (2) she would pay lease arrears in the amount of $6, 853.00 to TND through the Plan; (3) she owed TND an additional $28, 391.00, which she characterized as a nondischargeable unsecured claim for rent; (4) ECMC held a nondischargeable unsecured claim in the amount of $70, 240.96; and (5) general unsecured creditors would receive a dividend of "0.70%" of their claims.

         The Trustee filed an objection to confirmation, asserting that: (1) the Plan was not feasible; (2) Stevenson had overstated the amount of TND's claim and understated the amount of her student loan debt; (3) the Plan's liquidation analysis was incomplete; (4) Stevenson proposed to pay a dividend of .70% to the holders of unsecured claims totaling $105, 484.96, which Stevenson calculated as $31, 645.88, although the Trustee's calculation was $73, 839.47;[8] and (5) Stevenson had not filed her pre-petition state tax returns. ECMC also filed an objection to confirmation, arguing Stevenson had incorrectly listed her student loan debt as approximately $70, 000.00, although it was actually about $147, 000.00.

         The bankruptcy court conducted a hearing on the Motion to Dismiss on August 3, 2017. At the outset, counsel for TND characterized Stevenson's bankruptcy case as a "two-party dispute" and an "effort to . . . continue to hamstring" TND. He reiterated TND's contention that Stevenson's claims regarding the condition of the Property did not justify the filing of her chapter 13 petition, and added that Stevenson had filed six plans of reorganization, "none of which ha[d] come within striking distance of being confirmable." He concluded by arguing that Stevenson was merely a "month-to-month tenant, " as her lease had terminated pre-petition due to the recertification issue. Stevenson, in turn, conceded that she was withholding rent because the Property lacked heat and represented that her goal was to "resume" her lease under § 365.

         At the conclusion of the hearing, the bankruptcy court granted the Motion to Dismiss, explaining to Stevenson from the bench:

[Y]our lease is [ ] terminated. There's nothing that I could do to revive that lease.
And you've been through a chapter 7.
. . . .
You've gotten a discharge.
. . . .
[Y]our problem isn't debt. Your problem [ ] is that you're in a continuing dispute with this landlord.
. . . .
[A]nd the right place to [complain about uninhabitable conditions] is ...

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