What the Bankruptcy Hearing is like? By Jillian Mckenzie (fictitious name for an actual client)
It is the day of the hearing. As I arrive at the Abraham A. Ribicoff Federal Building downtown, thoughts swirl through my head. I notice the heavy concrete planters at the edge of the courtyard out front. I think of the Oklahoma City bombing. These containers, I know, are meant to rebuff any similar attack. They will prevent a terrorist’s truck from pulling up close. I remember how a number of the Oklahoma victims were just ordinary citizens who happened to be checking Social Security records or something like that. Then, bam, it was all over. They were in the wrong place at the wrong time. Here, I hope the fates will be kinder to me. I am actually not in a bad mood. Rather, in a state of suspended animation. What will happen at the hearing? Will my lawyer show up? Will I have to give an impassioned soliloquy, making my case once again? Believe it or not, I am ready for this latter contingency. I’ve rehearsed my opening remarks. I have my “exhibits” at hand: clippings I trust will show I deserve to start afresh. It is 9:40 a.m. I am early. I pass through the airport-style metal detector and take an elevator to the seventh floor. My hearing is set for 10:00 a.m. I enter Room 742. It is windowless, lit by fluorescent lights. At one end is a long table, behind which sits Attorney Novak, bankruptcy trustee. He presides as judge. Court is already in session. A couple sits across from him. At their right is their attorney. Metal chairs fill the rest of the room. Some 20 people are occupying them, each waiting for his or her particular case to come up. I take a deep breath and sit down in the third row. Again, my mind makes an association. This time, it is an unlikely one. I think of the song (was it Patti Page who sang it) “Is that all there is”? That is a famous, poignant line. It has to do with the longing of pleasure. Now the analogy works the other way! Bankruptcy is supposed to be so horrible, so humiliating. Yet here I am-in the throes of it. And, it isn’t so bad. It too is not larger than life. Rather it is yet another version of it, another slice. The people seem to be of every stripe. I can’t stereotype them as pathetic or woebegone or anything. They simply look like a random collection: like the people waiting in the checkout line at Stop & Shop or queuing for beer at a Red Sox’s game. I listen as case after case goes on before me. Novak asks the exact same questions of each petitioner. A nearby recording machine gets it all down on tape: “Are you [so and so]? Is this your signature? Have you owned any real property in the past four years?… “Have you borrowed more than a $1,000 from friends or family members this past year and paid it back? Have you taken out a cash advance for more than $600 in the past month? Have you made any payment of more than $600 to a creditor in the 90 days?” This is boilerplate stuff. It is hard to get any real sense of the person making the replies. There are assorted references to “my ex-wife” or to “a net tenant who pays $500” or to “letting the bank take the house back in lieu of foreclosure.” Quickly it hits me. This is not the place for nuance, for philosophical pondering about just desserts. This is court. Court about money matters. Because of the caseload, it must operate like a machine, fast, swift, with as few breakdowns as possible. Part of me laments the hard edge aspect. That quality permeates much of government these days. I think of the callers to the Rush Limbaugh show and how they lambaste THE FEDERAL GOVERNMENT, and how much it “dominates” today. I flash on the architecture of the federal building itself: what a dull, colorless hulk it is. But then another part of me remembers the patriotic stuff that Tony told me: how the founding fathers put protections into the Constitution, even provisions that would help people rebuild. In the middle of this reverie, I notice my lawyer, Tony is already here. He is sitting in the back. He signals to me to go out into the hall. Our case will be coming up shortly. “Forget about stories,” he says. “This is not the place for stories. There is a prescribed set of questions they have to ask you. Just answer those questions.” In other words, there is no room for emotion. No place for tortured explanations for why thus and thus is so. No rationalizations. “Just stick to the facts,” he says. I am comforted by his guideline. In this setting, at least, I get a respite from self-interpretation. I don’t have to paint a flattering picture. I don’t have to paint any picture. Just have to answer a few questions. My anxieties are aroused, however, when he says, there may indeed be a few tricky points to my case. The Trustee may ask for more information. The session may have to be extended, a decision postponed. The potentially troublesome issue has to do with the fact that within the past four years I have owned property: the house I almost lost to foreclosure before my brother stepped in and helped. He bought it from the bank, paying cash. Now I am officially a “lifetime tenant,” a renter from him. Would the bank claim I somehow still had equity in the place? If so, they’d go after it. Novak has every incentive to pursue such a tact. For, as a trustee, he gets a percentage of every dollar he manages to extract. “Just answer the questions. Don’t volunteer extra information.,” Tony counsels again. How critical it is to have the right lawyer. For when involved in a legal case, you tend to be emotional. You need an experienced advocate to protect your interests. We go back into the courtroom. At 10:40, my case # 22-21242, is called. I move to the front of the room and sit at the table. Tony sits at my right. The questions will be directed to me. I am the one who must answer. But if there is any confusion, my lawyer can clarify or explain. I give an oath that everything I say will be “the whole truth and nothing but the truth.” I show my driver’s license as I.D. Novak starts with his list of prescribed questions. I answer the ones about having owned property. I do not own a business-“unless you say freelance writing is a business.” No, I am not in the process of suing anyone. Yes, if anyone dies and leaves me an inheritance within the next six months, I will let the trustee and my attorney know of that fact. The entire matter takes five minutes. Petition is granted* “Good luck,” says the Trustee. I find the closing comment to be a fitting one. For, it sums up bankruptcy itself. By definition, the petitioner has been unlucky-at least in the realm of money. Now, by God, he or she gets another chance. I bound to the elevator. Meanwhile, case #22-21243 is being heard.
* Editors Note “Petition is granted” is not actually what happened but Jillian probably heard it that way. The case was closed as a no asset case and a discharge of all of Jillian’s debts was issued 60 days later.
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