Bullard v. Blue Hills Bank

Citation575 U.S. 496,135 S.Ct. 1686,191 L.Ed.2d 621
Decision Date04 May 2015
Docket NumberNo. 14–116.,14–116.
Parties Louis B. BULLARD, Petitioner v. BLUE HILLS BANK, fka Hyde Park Savings Bank.
CourtUnited States Supreme Court

575 U.S. 496
135 S.Ct. 1686
191 L.Ed.2d 621

Louis B. BULLARD, Petitioner
BLUE HILLS BANK, fka Hyde Park Savings Bank.

No. 14–116.

Supreme Court of the United States

Argued April 1, 2015.
Decided May 4, 2015.

James A. Feldman, for Petitioner.

Zachary D. Tripp, for the United States as amicus curiae, by special leave of the Court, supporting the petitioner.

Douglas Hallward–Driemeier, Washington, DC, for Respondent.

David G. Baker, Boston, MA, Haneen Kutub, Liss Law, LLC, Brookline, MA, James A. Feldman, Counsel of Record, Stephanos Bibas, Nancy Bregstein Gordon, University of Pennsylvania Law School, Philadelphia, PA, for Petitioner.

D. Ross Martin, Joshua Y. Sturm, Erin R. Macgowan, Ropes & Gray LLP, Boston, MA, Andrew E. Goloboy, Ronald W. Dunbar, Jr., Dunbar Law P.C., Boston, MA, Douglas Hallward–Driemeier, Counsel of Record, Jonathan R. Ference–Burke, Ropes & Gray LLP, Washington, DC, for Respondent.

Chief Justice ROBERTS delivered the opinion of the Court.

575 U.S. 498

Chapter 13 of the Bankruptcy Code affords individuals receiving regular income an opportunity to obtain some relief from their debts while retaining their property. To proceed under Chapter 13, a debtor must propose a plan to use future income to repay a portion (or in the rare case all) of his debts over the next three to five years. If the bankruptcy court confirms the plan and the debtor successfully carries it out, he receives a discharge of his debts according to the plan.

The bankruptcy court may, however, decline to confirm a proposed repayment plan because it is inconsistent with the Code. Although the debtor is usually given an opportunity to submit a revised plan, he may be convinced that the original plan complied with the Code and that the bankruptcy court was wrong to deny confirmation. The question presented is whether such an order denying confirmation is a

575 U.S. 499

"final" order that the debtor can immediately appeal. We hold that it is not.


In December 2010, Louis Bullard filed a petition for Chapter 13 bankruptcy in Federal Bankruptcy Court in Massachusetts. A week later he filed a proposed repayment plan listing the various claims he anticipated creditors would file and the monthly amounts he planned to pay on each claim over the five-year life of his plan. See 11 U.S.C. §§ 1321, 1322. Chief among Bullard's debts was the roughly $346,000 he owed to Blue Hills Bank, which held a mortgage on a multifamily house Bullard owned. Bullard's plan indicated that the mortgage was significantly "underwater": that is, the house was worth substantially less than the amount Bullard owed the Bank.

Before submitting his plan for court approval, Bullard amended it three times over the course of a year to more accurately reflect the value of the house, the terms of the mortgage, the amounts of creditors' claims, and his proposed payments. See § 1323 (allowing preconfirmation modification). Bullard's third amended plan—the one at issue here—proposed a "hybrid" treatment of his debt to the Bank. He proposed splitting the debt into a secured claim in the amount of the house's then-current value (which he estimated at

135 S.Ct. 1691

$245,000), and an unsecured claim for the remainder (roughly $101,000). Under the plan, Bullard would continue making his regular mortgage payments toward the secured claim, which he would eventually repay in full, long after the conclusion of his bankruptcy case. He would treat the unsecured claim, however, the same as any other unsecured debt, paying only as much on it as his income would allow over the course of his five-year plan. At the end of this period the remaining balance on the unsecured portion of the loan would be discharged. In total, Bullard's plan called for him to pay only about $5,000 of the $101,000 unsecured claim.

575 U.S. 500

The Bank (no surprise) objected to the plan and, after a hearing, the Bankruptcy Court declined to confirm it. In re Bullard, 475 B.R. 304 (Bkrtcy.Ct.D.Mass.2012). The court concluded that Chapter 13 did not allow Bullard to split the Bank's claim as he proposed unless he paid the secured portion in full during the plan period. Id., at 314. The court acknowledged, however, that other Bankruptcy Courts in the First Circuit had approved such arrangements. Id., at 309. The Bankruptcy Court ordered Bullard to submit a new plan within 30 days. Id., at 314.

Bullard appealed to the Bankruptcy Appellate Panel (BAP) of the First Circuit. The BAP first addressed its jurisdiction under the bankruptcy appeals statute, noting that a party can immediately appeal only "final" orders of a bankruptcy court. In re Bullard, 494 B.R. 92, 95 (2013) (citing 28 U.S.C. § 158(a)(1) ). The BAP concluded that the order denying plan confirmation was not final because Bullard was "free to propose an alternate plan." 494 B.R., at 95. The BAP nonetheless exercised its discretion to hear the appeal under a provision that allows interlocutory appeals "with leave of the court." § 158(a)(3). The BAP granted such leave because the confirmation dispute involved a "controlling question of law ... as to which there is substantial ground for difference of opinion," and "an immediate appeal [would] materially advance the ultimate termination of the litigation." 494 B.R., at 95, and n. 5. On the merits, the BAP agreed with the Bankruptcy Court that Bullard's proposed treatment of the Bank's claim was not allowed. Id., at 96–101.

Bullard sought review in the Court of Appeals for the First Circuit, but that court dismissed his appeal for lack of jurisdiction. In re Bullard, 752 F.3d 483 (2014). The First Circuit noted that because the BAP had not certified the appeal under § 158(d)(2), the only possible source of Court of Appeals jurisdiction was § 158(d)(1), which allowed appeal of only a final order of the BAP. Id., at 485, and n. 3. And

575 U.S. 501

under First Circuit precedent "an order of the BAP cannot be final unless the underlying bankruptcy court order is final." Id., at 485. The Court of Appeals accordingly examined whether a bankruptcy court's denial of plan confirmation is a final order, a question that it recognized had divided the Circuits. Adopting the majority view, the First Circuit concluded that an order denying confirmation is not final so long as the debtor remains free to propose another plan. Id., at 486–490.

We granted certiorari. 574 U.S. ––––, 135 S.Ct. 781, 190 L.Ed.2d 649 (2014).


In ordinary civil litigation, a case in federal district court culminates in a "final decisio[n]," 28 U.S.C. § 1291, a ruling "by which a district court disassociates itself from a case," Swint v. Chambers County Comm'n, 514 U.S. 35, 42, 115 S.Ct. 1203, 131 L.Ed.2d 60 (1995). A party can typically appeal as of right only from that final decision. This rule reflects

135 S.Ct. 1692

the conclusion that "[p]ermitting piecemeal, prejudgment appeals ... undermines ‘efficient judicial administration’ and encroaches upon the prerogatives of district court judges, who play a ‘special role’ in managing ongoing litigation." Mohawk Industries, Inc. v. Carpenter, 558 U.S. 100, 106, 130 S.Ct. 599, 175 L.Ed.2d 458 (2009) (quoting Firestone Tire & Rubber Co. v. Risjord, 449 U.S. 368, 374, 101 S.Ct. 669, 66 L.Ed.2d 571 (1981) ).

The rules are different in bankruptcy. A bankruptcy case involves "an aggregation of individual controversies," many of which would exist as stand-alone lawsuits but for the bankrupt status of the debtor. 1 Collier on Bankruptcy ¶ 5.08[1][b], p. 5–42 (16th ed. 2014). Accordingly, "Congress has long provided that orders in bankruptcy cases may be immediately appealed if they finally dispose of discrete disputes within the larger case." Howard Delivery Service, Inc. v. Zurich American Ins. Co., 547 U.S. 651, 657, n. 3, 126 S.Ct. 2105, 165 L.Ed.2d 110 (2006) (internal quotation marks and emphasis omitted). The current bankruptcy appeals statute reflects this approach: It authorizes appeals as of right not only from final

575 U.S. 502

judgments in cases but from "final judgments, orders, and decrees ... in cases and proceedings." § 158(a).

The present dispute is about how to define the immediately appealable "proceeding" in the context of the consideration of Chapter 13 plans. Bullard argues for a plan-by-plan approach. Each time the bankruptcy court reviews a proposed plan, he says, it conducts a separate proceeding. On this view, an order denying confirmation and an order granting confirmation both terminate that proceeding, and both are therefore final and appealable.

In the Bank's view Bullard is slicing the case too thin. The relevant "proceeding," it argues, is the entire process of considering plans, which terminates only when a plan is confirmed or—if the debtor fails to offer any confirmable plan—when the case is dismissed. An order denying confirmation is not final, so long as it leaves the debtor free to propose another plan.

We agree with the Bank: The relevant...

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