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In re Fields

August 24, 2010

IN RE STEVEN A. & HOPE M. FIELDS, DEBTORS,
HOPE M. FIELDS, APPELLANT,
v.
RETAILERS CREDIT ASSOCIATION, APPELLEE.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Frank C. Damrell, Jr. United States District Judge

MEMORANDUM AND ORDER

This matter is before the court on pro se appellant Hope M. Fields' ("Fields" or "appellant") appeal of the bankruptcy court's entry of judgment against her, following trial on September 10, 2009. Pursuant to 28 U.S.C § 158(a), appellant elected appeal to this court.

The court has reviewed the parties' briefs and the underlying record and by this order, issues its decision AFFIRMING the bankruptcy court's ruling that the Sacramento Superior Court properly determined Fields incurred the subject debt from Jack's House of Music after her bankruptcy procedings, and under the doctrine of collateral estoppel, Fields could not relitigate the issue.*fn1 Appellant also moves for reversal of the bankruptcy court's judgment on the ground that the proceedings before the bankruptcy court violated her due process rights. This court finds that appellant was given sufficient due process in the bankruptcy court.

BACKGROUND

In 1981, appellant filed her first petition for bankruptcy protection in the Eastern District of California; however, in 1982 that filing was dismissed. (Appellee's Appendix ["A.A."], filed May 17, 2010, at 186, 187 [Fields Depo., 23:17-20, 24:17-18]).*fn2 Appellant filed a second bankruptcy petition in this court in June 1982. (A.A. 188 [Fields Depo., 25: 10-14]). The second bankruptcy was filed as a Chapter 11 bankruptcy, but it ultimately was converted to a Chapter 7 bankruptcy. (A.A. 188-89 [Fields Depo., 25:24-26]). Those proceedings concluded in 1984. (Appellant Br. pp. 3-4.)

The litigation that lead to this appeal centers on a debt owed by appellant to Jack's House of Music for a musical instrument appellant rented for her daughter. (Appellant Br. p. 3 ¶ 1). The debt was not listed in either of appellant's bankruptcy petitions. (A.A. 188, 189 [Fields Depo., 25:1-9, 26:4-16]). There is also no evidence in the record that Jack's House of Music was informed of either of appellant's bankruptcy filings. (A.A. 190-191 [Fields Depo., 29:21-30:15]).

In 1988, appellee Retailers Credit Association ("appellee" or "RCA") began its attempts to collect the debt, in the amount of $200.00, owed by appellant to Jack's House of Music. (A.A. 51-52);(A.A. 48 [Espinda Testimony, ¶ 6]). Appellee states that on three occasions*fn3 it contacted appellant regarding the debt to Jack's House of Music, and appellant did not mention in the telephone conversations that the debt had been discharged in bankruptcy. (A.A. 52-53);(A.A. 48 [Espinda Testimony,¶ 9, 11, 12]). Appellant asserts, to the contrary, that she received telephone calls from appellee starting in 1984, and that she informed the caller during each conversation that the debt had been discharged. (Appen. Tab J pp. 34-35 ¶ 8).

In 1990, appellee sued Fields. (A.A. 48 [Espinda Testimony, ¶ 12]). On August 28, 1991, a default judgment was entered against appellant in the amount of $374.13. (A.A. 106). Appellant asserts she was never served with RCA's complaint, and only discovered the judgment in 1998 when she attempted to obtain credit and was informed that appellee had a lien against her.

(Appellant Br. p. 5 ¶ 10, 12).

Thereafter, appellant filed a motion in the Sacramento County Superior Court, dated March 25, 2001, to vacate the default judgment against her, claiming that the judgment was for a debt that had been discharged in her bankruptcy. (A.A. 107). As alleged in appellant's 1990 complaint, on August 10, 1988, Fields entered into a contract with Jack's House of Music wherein appellant agreed to pay Jack's House of Music $200.00 for the lease of a musical instrument. (Appellant Br. p. 5 ¶ 12). In her motion to vacate the default judgment appellant claimed she never signed a contract with Jack's House of Music, in 1988 or at any other time. (Appen. Tab K p. 43 ¶ 5). The superior court denied appellant's motion to vacate the judgment, finding that "the debt was incurred after bankruptcy and is unaffected by it." (A.A. 121). Appellant moved for reconsideration and also appealed the superior court's decision. (A.A. 121-148). The court of appeal affirmed the superior court's order. (A.A. 149).

In August 2008, appellant filed two adversary proceedings against appellee. (Appellee Br. p. 8). In the actions, appellant requested a declaration that the judgment of the superior court was void and also sought damages in the amount of $1,000 per year for every year the judgment remained pending against her. (Appellee Br. p. 8). The adversary proceedings were consolidated, and the trial of the consolidated action took place on September 10, 2009 in the bankruptcy court. (A.A. 1-13). Prior to trial, the parties submitted direct testimony and documentary evidence to the court, pursuant to Bankruptcy Local Rule 9017-1. (Appellee Br. p. 9; A.A. 14-41). On September 10, 2009, appellant was given the opportunity to present evidence and was questioned by the court. (Id.). Ultimately, the court ruled in favor of appellee, stating its findings of fact and conclusions of law on the record. (A.A. 1-13, 12: 8-10). The court found that appellant did not establish that the debt to Jack's House of Music was incurred prior to her bankruptcy filings, nor did she establish that the debt was listed in her bankruptcy schedules or that Jack's House of Music had any knowledge of her bankruptcies. (A.A. 4:3-8, 6:1-8:2, 10:8-11:7). Further, the court ruled that regardless of appellant's factual showing, her claim failed as a matter of law because the superior court had already determined that the underlying debt was incurred after her bankruptcies and the doctrine of collateral estoppel precluded relitigation of that issue. (A.A 4:9-14, 6:1-7:6, 11:10-18).

STANDARD OF REVIEW

A district court's standard of review over a bankruptcy court's decision is identical to the standard used by circuit courts reviewing district court decisions. See In re Baroff, 105 F.3d 439, 441 (9th Cir. 1997). Thus, the bankruptcy court's factual findings are reviewed for clear error, and its conclusions of law are reviewed de novo. See Fed. R. ...


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