Getting sued by a creditor is a wake-up call to consider filing bankruptcy. If it is the right thing to do, there are advantages to filing before your deadline to respond to the lawsuit.
If you get sued by a creditor, as discussed in my last blog it’s dangerous both short-term and long-term not to consult with an attorney. Today’s blog is about the immediate effect on that lawsuit if you do file bankruptcy.
The Basic Automatic Stay
The filing of your bankruptcy stops that lawsuit instantaneously. It doesn’t take a separate court order or any action by the bankruptcy court or judge to stop it. It’s the mere act of filing the bankruptcy case of itself that stops the lawsuit against you. In the words of the Bankruptcy Code, “a [bankruptcy] petition . . . operates as a stay . . . of . . . the commencement or continuation . . . of a judicial, administrative, or other action or proceeding against the debtor . . . commenced before the” filing of the bankruptcy case. (See Section 362(a)(1).) The word “stay” in that statute means “stop.”
The Immediate Effect of the Automatic Stay
Timing is important with a lawsuit. A judgment will be entered against you if you don’t formally respond to the lawsuit by the stated deadline, and that judgment would give the creditor more ways to get money out of you. The entry of a judgment can also create a lien against your real estate, and filing bankruptcy afterwards may or may not be able to clear that lien off your title.
So stopping the judgment from being entered in the first place can be very important. The safe way to do that is to file bankruptcy plenty of time before your deadline to respond to the lawsuit. But if you are cutting it close, it helps that the automatic stay is effective instantaneously. If the creditor’s attorney is about to file documents to enter a judgment at court, but your bankruptcy is filed before that happens, that attorney can’t try to get a judgment quickly before the bankruptcy court acts, because the bankruptcy court doesn’t need to act. As its name says, the stay is automatic.
Telling the Suing Creditor about the Bankruptcy Filing
All your creditors will receive a formal notice of your bankruptcy filing, by mail and in some situations perhaps electronically. But that mailed notice is of course not instantaneous. It is mailed out a few days after the filing of your bankruptcy case, so that all of your creditors should know about it within about a week after you file. But that may well not be fast enough to stop the judgment documents from being filed by the creditor’s attorney and entered by that court. So in urgent situations either you or your attorney need to directly inform that attorney about the bankruptcy filing.
Creditors’ Violations of the Automatic Stay
But what if that attorney just goes ahead and submits the judgment papers, either from not finding out in time about your bankruptcy filing or in spite of knowing about it?
The judgment will not be effective, and the attorney will be required to undo the paperwork. If the entry of the judgment results in any damage to you (such as a garnishment of your bank account), the creditor would likely have to compensate you for the damage it (or its attorney) caused. These damages can include your attorney’s fees for enforcing the automatic stay. In circumstances where the bankruptcy court is persuaded that the creditor needs to be taught a lesson, the court may order the creditor to pay you punitive damages. (See Section 362(k) of the Bankruptcy Code.) Because of these potential penalties, most creditors are cooperative about stopping their lawsuits immediately when they are informed about a bankruptcy filing.
The Bottom Line
As soon as you are sued by a creditor, the clock is ticking for a judgment to be entered against you. So use this lawsuit as an incentive to see an attorney right away to find out the short-term and long-term ways the judgment could hurt you. Find out whether bankruptcy is or is not a sensible option, and whether it is in your best interest to file a bankruptcy case before a judgment can be entered against you in the lawsuit.