Supreme Court Denies Review on the Interplay Between the U.S. Bankruptcy Code and the Federal Arbitration Act

By Amy Foust

The Supreme Court today denied certiorari in GE Capital Retail Bank v. Belton, No. 20-481, an arbitration case in a bankruptcy matter.  The question presented by petitioner GE Capital, and rejected in this morning’s order list by the Court, was “whether provisions of the Bankruptcy Code providing for a statutorily enforceable discharge of a debtor’s debts impliedly repeal the Federal Arbitration Act, 9 U.S.C. § 1 et seq.”

The U.S. Bankruptcy Code section in question, 11 U.S.C. § 524(a)(2), provides in part:

A discharge in a case under this title— …

(2) operates as an injunction against the commencement or continuation of an action, the employment of process, or an act, to collect, recover or offset any such debt as a personal liability of the debtor, whether or not discharge of such debt is waived[.]

The case, on cert petition from the Second U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New York, suggests a tension between this section of the bankruptcy code and the Federal Arbitration Act, which provides that written agreements to arbitrate are “valid, irrevocable, and enforceable” (9 U.S.C. §2), and that if there is no issue with the making of the agreement, a court “shall make an order directing the parties to proceed to arbitration in accordance with the terms of the agreement.” 9 U.S.C. §4. 

The underlying dispute was a putative class action related to GE Capital’s efforts to collect debts discharged in bankruptcy.  The plaintiffs–the discharged debtors–brought contempt proceedings under § 524 arguing a violation of the injunction against continued recovery.  GE Capital moved to have the dispute referred to arbitration. 

The case of Respondent Belton and two others similarly situated were addressed in a consolidated decision by the federal bankruptcy court in New York’s Southern District, finding that referring these cases to arbitration would defeat the purpose of seeking bankruptcy protections.  The U.S. District Court for the Southern District reversed the bankruptcy court and sent Belton’s case to arbitration. 

But around the same time, the Second Circuit decided Anderson v. Credit One Bank, N.A., 884 F.3d 382 (2d Cir. 2018), a case involving similar facts to GE Capital. In Anderson, an appeals panel found an inherent conflict between § 524 and the FAA because the discharge injunction is critical to the bankruptcy code’s purpose; the contempt claim requires the bankruptcy court’s continuing supervision, and denying the court the power to enforce its own injunctions would undermine bankruptcy code enforcement. 

In response to a request for reconsideration in view of Anderson, the U.S. District Court reversed itself and denied the motion to compel arbitration.  GE Capital appealed to the Second Circuit, which affirmed the district court. 

GE Capital then appealed to the Supreme Court, framing the issue as an implied repeal of the FAA, citing the Court’s support from Epic Systems v. Lewis, 138 S. Ct. 1612, 1627 (2018), where the Court rejected a request to have the National Labor Relations Act override the Federal Arbitration Act. 

In a response to GE Capital’s request asking the nation’s top court to decline to hear the case, Respondent Belton had argued that the Second Circuit was correct in its analysis of this narrow issue, which is not the subject of any circuit split and did not merit the Court’s attention.

So the Second Circuit decision stands, allowing the respondents to proceed with contempt sanctions against major banks for continuing attempts to recover debts that had been subject of a bankruptcy discharge.

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The author is an LLM candidate studying dispute resolution at the Straus Institute, Caruso School of Law at Malibu, Calif.’s Pepperdine University, and an intern with the CPR Institute through Spring 2021.

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