507 U.S. 380 (1993), 91-1695, Pioneer Investment Services Company v. Brunswick Associates Limited Partnership

Docket Nº:No. 91-1695
Citation:507 U.S. 380, 113 S.Ct. 1489, 123 L.Ed.2d 74, 61 U.S.L.W. 4263
Party Name:Pioneer Investment Services Company v. Brunswick Associates Limited Partnership
Case Date:March 24, 1993
Court:United States Supreme Court
 
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Page 380

507 U.S. 380 (1993)

113 S.Ct. 1489, 123 L.Ed.2d 74, 61 U.S.L.W. 4263

Pioneer Investment Services Company

v.

Brunswick Associates Limited Partnership

No. 91-1695

United States Supreme Court

March 24, 1993

Argued Nov. 30, 1992

CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS

FOR THE SIXTH CIRCUIT

Syllabus

As unsecured creditors of petitioner -- a company seeking relief under Chapter 11 of the Bankruptcy Code -- respondents were required to file proofs of claim with the Bankruptcy Court before the deadline, or bar date, established by that court. An August 3, 1989, bar date was included in a "Notice for Meeting of Creditors" received from the court by Mark Berlin, an official for respondents. Respondents' attorney was provided with a complete copy of the case file and, when asked, assertedly assured Berlin that no bar date had been set. On August 29, 1989, respondents asked the court to accept their proofs under Bankruptcy Rule 9006(b)(1), which allows a court to permit late filings where the movant's failure to comply with the deadline "was the result of excusable neglect." The court refused, holding that a party may claim excusable neglect only if the failure to timely perform was due to circumstances beyond its reasonable control. The District Court remanded the case, ordering the Bankruptcy Court to evaluate respondents' conduct under a more liberal standard. The Bankruptcy Court applied that standard and again denied the motion, finding that several factors -- the danger of prejudice to the debtor, the length of the delay and its potential impact on judicial proceedings, and whether the creditor acted in good faith -- favored respondents, but that the delay was within their control and that they should be penalized for their counsel's mistake. The District Court affirmed, but the Court of Appeals reversed. It found that the Bankruptcy Court had inappropriately penalized respondents for their counsel's error, since Berlin had asked the attorney about the impending deadlines and since the peculiar and inconspicuous placement of the bar date in a notice for a creditors' meeting, without any indication of the date's significance, left a dramatic ambiguity in the notification that would have confused even a person experienced in bankruptcy.

Held:

1. An attorney's inadvertent failure to file a proof of claim by the bar date can constitute "excusable neglect" within the meaning of Rule 9006(b)(1). Pp. 387-397.

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(a) Contrary to petitioner's suggestion, Congress plainly contemplated that the [113 S.Ct. 1491] courts would be permitted to accept late filings caused by inadvertence, mistake, or carelessness, not just those caused by intervening circumstances beyond the party's control. This flexible understanding comports with the ordinary meaning of "neglect." It also accords with the underlying policies of Chapter 11 and the bankruptcy rules, which entrust broad equitable powers to the courts in order to ensure the success of a debtor's reorganization. In addition, this view is confirmed by the history of the present bankruptcy rules, and is strongly supported by the fact that the phrase "excusable neglect," as used in several of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, is understood to be a somewhat "elastic concept." Pp. 387-395.

(b) The determination of what sorts of neglect will be considered "excusable" is an equitable one, taking account of all relevant circumstances. These include the first four factors applied in the instant case. However, the Court of Appeals erred in not attributing to respondents the fault of their counsel. Clients may be held accountable for their attorney's acts and omissions. See, e.g., Link v. Wabash R. Co., 370 U.S. 626. Thus, in determining whether respondents' failure to timely file was excusable, the proper focus is upon whether the neglect of respondents and their counsel was excusable. Pp. 395-397.

2. The neglect of respondents' counsel was, under all the circumstances, excusable. As the Court of Appeals found, the lack of any prejudice to the debtor or to the interest of efficient judicial administration, combined with the good faith of respondents and their counsel, weigh strongly in favor of permitting the tardy claim. As for the culpability of respondents' counsel, it is significant that the notice of the bar date in this case was outside the ordinary course in bankruptcy cases. Normally, such a notice would be prominently announced and accompanied by an explanation of its significance, not inconspicuously placed in a notice regarding a creditors' meeting. P. 397-399.

943 F.2d 673 (CA6 1991), affirmed.

WHITE, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which REHNQUIST, C.J., and BLACKMUN, STEVENS, and KENNEDY, JJ., joined. O'CONNOR, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which SCALIA, SOUTER, and THOMAS, JJ., joined, post, p. 399.

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WHITE, J., lead opinion

JUSTICE WHITE delivered the opinion of the Court.

Rule 3003(c) of the Federal Rules of Bankruptcy Procedure sets out the requirements for filing proofs of claim in Chapter 9 Municipality and Chapter 11 Reorganization cases.[1] Rule 3003(c)(3) provides that the "court shall fix and for cause shown may extend the time within which proofs of claim or interest may be filed." Rule 9006 is a general rule governing the computation, enlargement, and reduction of periods of time prescribed in other bankruptcy rules. Rule 9006(b)(1) empowers a bankruptcy court to permit a late filing if the movant's failure to comply with an earlier deadline "was the result of excusable neglect."[2] In this case, we.are

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called upon to decide whether an attorney's inadvertent failure to file a proof of claim within the deadline set by the court can constitute "excusable neglect" within the meaning of the rule. Finding that it can, we affirm.

I

On April 12, 1989, petitioner filed a voluntary petition for bankruptcy in the United States Bankruptcy Court for the Eastern District of Tennessee. The petition sought relief under Chapter 11 of the Bankruptcy Code. Petitioner also filed a list of its 20 largest unsecured creditors, including all but one of respondents here. The following month, after obtaining extensions of time from the Bankruptcy Court, petitioner filed a statement of financial affairs and schedules of its assets and liabilities. The schedules, as amended, listed all of the respondents except Ft. Oglethorpe Associates Limited Partnership as creditors holding contingent, unliquidated, or disputed claims; the Ft. Oglethorpe partnership was not listed at all. Under § 1111 of the Bankruptcy Code, 11 U.S.C. § 1111(a), and Bankruptcy Rule 3003(c)(2), all such creditors are required to file a proof of claim with the bankruptcy court before the deadline, or "bar date," established by the court.

On April 13, 1989, the day after petitioner filed its Chapter 11 petition, the Bankruptcy Court mailed a "Notice for Meeting of Creditors" to petitioner's creditors. Along with the announcement of a May 5 meeting was the following passage:

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You must file a proof of claim if your claim is scheduled as disputed, contingent or unliquidated, is unlisted or you do not agree with the amount. See 11 U.S.C. Sec. 1111 & Bankruptcy rule 3003. Bar date is August 3, 1989.

App. 29a. The notice was received and read by Mark A. Berlin, president of the corporate general partners of each of the respondents. Berlin duly attended the creditors' meeting on May 5. The following month, respondents retained an experienced bankruptcy attorney, Marc Richards, to represent them in the proceedings. Berlin stated in an affidavit that he provided Richards with a complete copy of the case file, including a copy of the court's April 13, 1989, notice to creditors. Berlin also asserted that he inquired of Richards whether there was a deadline for filing claims, and that Richards assured him that no bar date had been set and that there was no urgency in filing proofs of claim. Id. at 121a. Richards and Berlin both attended a subsequent meeting of creditors on June 16, 1989.

Respondents failed to file any proofs of claim by the August 3, 1989, bar date. On August 23, 1989, respondents filed their proofs, along with a motion that the court permit the late filing under Rule 9006(b)(1). In particular, respondents' counsel explained that the bar date, of which he was unaware, came at a time when he was experiencing "a major and significant disruption" in his professional life caused by his withdrawal from his former law firm on July 31, 1989. Id. at 56a. Because of this disruption, counsel did [113 S.Ct. 1493] not have access to his copy of the case file in this matter until mid-August. Ibid.

The Bankruptcy Court refused the late filing. Following precedent from the Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit, the court held that a party may claim "excusable neglect" only if its "`failure to timely perform a duty was due to circumstances which were beyond [its] reasonable control.'" Id. at 124a (quoting In re South Atlantic Financial

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Corp., 767 F.2d 814, 817 (CA11 1985), cert. denied sub nom. Biscayne 21 Condominium Associates, Inc. v. South Atlantic Financial Corp., 475 U.S. 1015 (1986)). Finding that respondents had received notice of the bar date and could have complied, the court ruled that they could not claim "excusable neglect."

On appeal, the District Court affirmed in part and reversed in part. The court found "respectable authority for the narrow reading of `excusable neglect'" adopted by the Bankruptcy Court, but concluded that the Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit would follow "a more liberal approach." App. 157a. Embracing a test announced by the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, the District Court...

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