Free Popcorn at the Courthouse – Constitution Day Honored in Shakopee

I had court in Scott County – that’s Shakopee, MN – on Monday September 17th. I headed straight for my courtroom, thinking it strange that someone had set up a theater-size popcorn machine by the entrance to the building and was obviously dishing out free popcorn. I was concentrating on how to get my client’s charge reduced. What was up with that would have to wait.

Later in the morning, after I was finished in the courtroom, I took a look at the table near the popcorn machine, and saw that it was covered with material about the Constitution and Constitution Day. I found out that the woman in charge of the table and the popcorn was one of the librarians from the Scott County Law Library. First she asked me if I wanted some popcorn. I declined. Next she asked if I wanted a free, pocket-sized copy of the U.S. Constitution. I said yes, and could I have two extra for the other two lawyers I office with.

Before I left I had received not only three free pocket-sized Constitutions, but also a tour of the Scott County Law Library. They have two computers set up where the public can access Westlaw, Lexis and Fastcase – three of the leading law research services. They also subscribed to some of the lesser research services as well. I made a mental note: If I can’t find what need the law elsewhere, maybe I should drive down there and try their resources. Before I left I also got one of the librarians to agree to perhaps checking something for me if I asked by phone, provided I was polite and respectful when I called.

I still have not seen or heard of any mention of Constitution Day except that article in the Duluth paper that I mention in my previous posting. I checked Monday’s Star Tribune – there was no mention of it. I want to commend those librarians for their efforts, and suggest that Constitution Day would be something to which we should all give more attention

Preferences in Bankruptcy

I often advise my clients that if they are sure they are going to be filing a Chapter 7 bankruptcy, they should stop trying to make payments on the debts that they expect to have discharged. It is surprising how many people just don’t follow that advice, or think it doesn’t apply to them, or believe it shouldn’t apply to some particular bill that they really want to pay. Often they make such payments only to find that after the bankruptcy is filed, the Trustee is demanding that the creditor who they paid must now give the money back – back to the Trustee of course.

One of the principles of bankruptcy law is that all of the creditors are to take their losses equally. In the event that the debtor has paid an unsecured creditor $600 or more in a consumer case or $5,000 or more in a business case within the 90 day period before the case is filed, the Trustee can go to the creditor and demand that money. The trustee will recover the money and, after perhaps using some to pay administrative costs, distribute it equally on a prorata basis to all the unsecured creditors. The term for such a large payment to a creditor within the 90 days before filing is “preference.” It’s not OK for one creditor to be preferred over another.

Another type of preference is a payment made on a debt owing to an “insider.” Insiders are either close relatives or close business associates. There’s no dollar limit on this type of preference, and under Minnesota law the Trustee may be able to go back as far as six years to recover these payments. This insider thing can get very nasty, and you should be sure to disclose any possible problems in this area to your lawyer. There are some defenses to these insider claims, and your lawyer should be able to tell you if one might apply to your situation.

Lifetime Dream Fulfilled – Helping a Friend

I attended a dinner last night which was hosted by my friend and former mentor, now retired attorney Alan Stiegler. He had invited me and several others to thank us for the part we had in getting his law review note, Redemption, finally published. Being on the law review is the highest honor that a law student can have. It is a student publication that reviews and comments on the legal issues of the day, but only about the top one percent or higher of the law students get to have anything to do with it. A “note” is an article, which these days can easily run over 100 pages. Mr. Stiegler’s note, Redemption, was supposed to have been published in the 1949 edition of the University of Minnesota Law review, but it never was. It was excellent work, and it is quite clear that the reason it was kept out of the publication was religious and ethnic discrimination.

I have known Mr. Stiegler for decades, but I heard this story for the first time during a visit I had with him in March, 2007. I asked him if he still had a copy of the transcript. He did. I suggested that these days with the Internet there must be dozens of places it could be published, perhaps even my web site. A few days later he dropped off a copy of the transcript at my office. After reading it, I felt even more strongly that it should be published somewhere. I began looking into possible sites where it could be posted; but Mr. Stielger felt so encouraged by the possibilities that he picked up the phone and called the office of the University of Minnesota Law review.

It was not long before a team of law review students was helping Mr. Stiegler check the citations, retype and edit the text, and prepare the “note” for publication in the current pages of the Law Review. The final form of the note can be found by clicking this link: http://www.law.umn.edu/lawreview/v91stiegler.htm. This brings you to a page with a link to a pdf document at the bottom. That pdf document is the “note.”

My part in this was quite small. Others attending the dinner included several of the students who had been staff of the Law Review, the professor who was their faculty advisor, and the librarian who will be adding Mr. Stiegler’s article to the University of Minnesota Law School’s permanent archives. My understanding is that the librarian also had a hand in helping the students find some of the publications, now in the rare book section of the law library, which had been originally cited by Mr. Stiegler.

An injustice which took place in 1949 has been corrected, and Mr. Stiegler – a well-deserving combat veteran or World War II – is happier and more at peace as a result. I want to thank those at the University Law Review, the law library and the faculty advisers, who choose to see that this was completed.

Back from Vacation – 35W Bridge Concerns

I just got back tonight from a week up north – mostly camping at Grand Marais, right by Lake Superior. It is good for the soul, and I feel refreshed in body and mind.

My wife and I have a 1999 Coleman pop-up camper – the Sun Valley model. In my younger days I was a purist. Camping meant hanging a tiny light-weight tent from my back pack and hiking as far into the woods as I could go. I would spend days out on the trail, and the more isolated it was the better. Now, however, I have gotten used to certain amenities, such as a microwave oven, an air conditioner, a propane heater, cable TV, cell phone service and wireless Internet. I still like to hike, but I don’t think I will ever go back to camping out of a backpack.

Last night after we packed up most of our stuff so we’d be ready to buzz for home this morning, we headed for a restaurant in Grand Marais called “My Sister’s Place.” I highly recommend this place. On our way over there my cell phone rang and it was a good friend, who told me about the collapse of the 35W bridge. Shortly after we got to the restaurant, I noticed that a lot of the people there were receiving cell phone calls. I could overhear a word or two so I knew that most of the calls were about that bridge. A certain subdued mood settled over the place. I imagined that similar scenes might be taking place all over the state, or at least anywhere that people from the Twin Cities might be gathered. Several folks started making calls, obviously to check on family or friends. I made a few of those calls too, but not until after leaving the restaurant.

I have a son in law who works within a few blocks of that bridge, so my daughter – his wife – was the first person I called. He had not yet come home from work, she couldn’t get him one the phone, and she was a bit worried. Eventually he showed up and all was well. Apparently I and the customers of My Sister’s Place were not the only ones making such calls to check on friends and family, and the Twin Cities phone system got really jammed up for a while.

So tomorrow it’s back to the law. I feel that my thinking will be clearer for having taken this trip.

More to life than just the law?

After a couple of bankruptcy hearings this morning, I’m heading to Wisconsin for the weekend where I am scheduled to walk my daughter down the aisle at her wedding. I will admit that the prospect of this event is distracting me from my usual preoccupation with solving legal questions. Could it be that there are a few things in life that are more important than my law practice? I guess so, but a lot of days it is hard to keep a healthy perspective.

Life Estates: An Idea from Hell

This topic is an example of how it pays to have some knowledge of more than one area of the law, since it crosses several borders from one practice area to another.

It has become a fairly common tactic for elderly people to transfer ownership of their home or farm to their children, and to keep a life estate. In other words, the children are given a deed which gives them ownership but provides that as long as the parents live, they retain possession of the property. People do this because besides avoiding probate, they hope it may help keep the property away from the state in the event that the parents wind up in a nursing home receiving Medicaid.

I cannot state more strongly how in my experience this has almost always turned out to be a bad idea. There is a waiting period of several years before it helps with the Medicaid issue, and most folks never wind up on Medicaid anyhow. Meanwhile, this is a non-exempt asset which any creditor with a judgment may be able to attach. Or in the event that one of the children has a bankruptcy or divorce, this is an asset that gets all tied up in those processes.

Just for good measure, if one of the children has a problem with the IRS or the Department of Revenue, this creates a handy asset for the tax men to grab.

My advice to most older people who may be thinking about this: keep your home ownership, keep your dignity; the problems you are about to create may be much worse than the possible aniticpated problem you are trying to solve.

They got her full tank of gas!!!!

I tell this story with permission from the person to whom it happened. To me it is sad, profound, a sign of the times and just awful – all at once. This sort of thing may have something to do with the fact that I seem to enjoy filing bankruptcies and more or less thumbing my nose at the big banks and credit card companies.

It seems here a few days ago that a woman from Minneapolis, who was behind in her auto loan payments, drove to the gas station and spent over $50 filling her tank with gas. With the prices going up as they have been, this is becoming a more common experience. I know it just happened to me.

Then after going home, and before having a chance to even use that gas, along came some repo guys with a tow truck who hooked up the car and drove away with it. On top of taking the car, they got her full tank of gas!!! How sad. How terrible.

I must admit to having a few unkind thoughts about the repo guys. I can’t help but wonder: by the time the car got to the lender or impound lot or whatever place they were taking it, did it still have the gas in it; or would repo guys be doing a bit of a black market gas business on the side?

Despicable Practice by Mortgage Lenders

Here’s a nasty practice by engaged in by many mortgage lenders which is just coming to light.

Background. Most debtors in bankruptcy have certain things they want to continue paying, such as automobile and mortgage payments. The lenders prefer to have these debts reaffirmed by means of a reaffirmation agreement. Reaffirmation agreements reinstate the loan as if the bankruptcy had not taken place; but even without such an agreement the lender continues to have authority to either foreclose or repossess of the loan in question is not paid.

Under the new law, however, a debtor and the debtor’s attorney have to certify that reaffirming the debt will not create a hardship – otherwise the court will not approve the reaffirmation. This is almost never true, so my policy is that I will not sign such certifications. If I sign it and there is difficulty later, I’m in trouble. Without such a certification, the court will probably not approve the agreement. Bottom line is that in most cases, reaffirming is not an option for most debtors.

My advice is don’t reaffirm, but in most cases do keep paying your mortgages and car loans. Most of the time the lender is glad to take the money and will leave you alone.

Despicable Practice. Several of the mortgage lenders are making it a practice that they accept payments and don’t foreclose in cases where there has been no reaffirmation; but they will not report to the credit agencies that they are receiving payments. So people who are making their payments have credit reports that look as if they are not paying anything. They say “you didn’t reaffirm, so we don’t have to report your payments.”

They are in punishing debtors for not reaffirming while still getting all their money. The debtors in most such cases couldn’t get a reaffirmation approved if they wanted to. This is nasty, and I would like to compile a list of lenders who are doing this and publish that list. If this is happening to you, please leave your comments here with the name of the lender.

Homestead Exemption Heaven

This past Monday Governor Pawlenty signed into law a revision to the Minnesota homestead exemption which does two things. First it increases the amount of equity in a homestead which is exempt from the current $200,000 to $300,000. Second, it increases the amount of land which is considered exempt from half an acre for the usual homestead located in a city to 160 acres.

When this new law goes into effect, which should be on August 1st, it should be much easier to claim a homestead as exempt in a bankruptcy or in any proceeding where a creditor is going after a homeowner in this state.

Questionable Police Incident in or near Chaska

I got a call a few hours ago about an incident at a high school prom in the Chaska, MN area. If what was described to me is true – and I always recognize that it might not be – there was an incident in or near Chaska this past weekend where the police just decided to throw the constitution out the window.

A limo load of prom attendees were supposedly met when they got out of the limo by a number of police officers with portable breath testers and asked to take breath tests on the spot. The last I checked, police officers were required to have probable cause to believe that a crime had been committed before they can detain someone and start collecting evidence. The only reason the police had, as far as I know, was that these young people were on their way to a prom. That’s no kind of probable cause I ever heard of.

For a summary of underage drinking consequences in Minnesota, check out my site at http://www.mn-dwi.com.