This article appeared in the April 10, 2020 edition of Lawyers Journal, which is published fortnightly by the Allegheny County Bar Association.
Keri Ebeck, Esq.
Partner at Bernstein-Burkley
As the United States and other countries begin to process dealing with the pandemic of the new coronavirus, the federal courts collectively have made it known that business shall continue in the most normal fashion that it can. Our judicial integrity and economy depend on the courts functioning on a daily basis. The federal courts have each issued their own orders of continued operation and procedures for dealing with ongoing court matters while recognizing the importance of social distancing and combating this virus.
Recently, Judge D. Brooks Smith, Chief Judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit, issued a statement in which he was quoted, “While all of our judges and court employees recognize the seriousness that attaches to the declaration of a national emergency….the Third Circuit is not in the midst of a judicial emergency.”
During a discussion amongst the ACBA Bankruptcy and Commercial Law section (which includes attorneys, law clerks, court staff and Judges of the Western District of Pennsylvania Bankruptcy Court), it was agreed that the bankruptcy process must move forward for both debtors and creditors, and that this process should not be stalled or delayed in order to protect the integrity of the bankruptcy process.
As a section member and an attorney whose firm represents both commercial debtors and creditors, Kirk Burkley of Bernstein-Burkley said that “the financial need of companies and individuals doesn’t stop due to COVID-19; in fact, those needs are exacerbated. Many debtor-in-possession loans have a very specific shelf life. It is important for the bankruptcy process to continue so that debts can be restructured and companies and individuals survive, while creditors make appropriate recoveries so they can pay their employees and vendors.”
That is exactly how the Bankruptcy Court in the Western District of Pennsylvania is handling its everyday court business. The court is operating with essential staff in both the courthouses in Erie and Pittsburgh. Most, if not all hearings, are to be conducted telephonically through a court call. Chief Judge of the Bankruptcy Court of the Western District of Pennsylvania, Carlota M. Böhm, issued a standing order on March 13, 2020 (available at www.pawb.uscourts.gov/news/standingorder-20-204-telephonic-appearancehearings-mandatory).
According to Judge Böhm, “The Bankruptcy Court is open and operating efficiently. The majority of the staff is operating remotely but processing all matters and responding to inquiries. All hearings are being conducted telephonically. If anyone needs help they should contact my office or the clerk of court.”
Additionally, the Court has communicated that given the fluidity of the situation, people should consult the court’s website regularly for updates. That site is: www.pawb.uscourts.gov/. The Court has stated that while protecting the bankruptcy process, it recognizes that these times require flexibility and adaptability, prompting the court to temporarily revise many of its processes, procedures, and forms, but it’s business as usual. The message also received from the court is that judges will be inclined to grant continuances, but normal processes of filing motions in each case need to be followed and each case will be reviewed on a case by case basis.
Ronda Winnecour, Chapter 13 Trustee for the Western District of Pennsylvania, is adept to keeping her office and procedures moving forward as well during this time. Winnecour indicated that, “We are doing our very best to get monies from debtors to creditors each month.” Winnecour also is incredibly cognizant about local attorneys and law firms who rely upon her disbursement checks each month to make their own payroll and also processing debtor refunds quickly. Winnecour’s office is operating remotely, but was still able to get its March disbursement completed.
Section member Brian Thompson of Thompson Law Group, who represents debtors in all chapters of bankruptcy, agrees that the bankruptcy process must move forward on a regular basis.
“The bankruptcy process was designed to offer individuals and businesses relief from overwhelming financial burden. That is why it is so important during the health crisis, which was quickly turned into an economic crisis, for the bankruptcy court to remain open, so that those who qualify can seek the relief necessary for a fresh start in life,” he said.
In times like these, keeping up to date with the court’s orders and mandates is important as the pandemic is a fluid situation that is ever evolving. The bankruptcy process is crucial to debtors being able to seek relief under the bankruptcy code, and therefore, it must remain a constant. Around the country, courts are issuing orders and directives and practitioners should keep up to date in each jurisdiction in which they practice.
For more information on the federal judiciary preparedness for coronavirus (COVID19), please go to: www.uscourts.gov/news/2020/03/12/judiciary-preparednesscoronavirus-covid-19.
Ebeck is Chair of the Bankruptcy and Commercial Law Section of the ACBA.