WD Equipment v. Cowen, No. 15-1413 (10th Cir. 2017)Annotate this Case
Plaintiff Jared Trent Cowen’s 2000 Peterbilt 379, a commercial truck, was in need of repair. To cover the cost, Cowen borrowed money from Defendant WD Equipment, which is owned and managed by Defendant Aaron Williams, in exchange for a lien on the truck and the promise of repayment. After the Peterbilt broke down again only a few weeks after the repairs, it was towed to a local repair company, which estimated that fixing the truck again would cost more than Cowen could afford. Because his Peterbilt was in the shop, Cowen could not make installment payments to WD Equipment. So, in early August, 2013, Cowen began taking steps to refinance the loan. Williams gave Cowen several, contradictory responses as to how much Cowen would need to pay to settle the debt, and he accelerated the payoff date several times, before ultimately setting a deadline. Around the same time, Cowen defaulted on another loan secured by another one of his trucks, a 2006 Kenworth T600. This loan was owed to Defendant Bert Dring, the father-in-law of Williams, who held a purchase-money security interest in the truck. Dring lured Cowen under false pretenses to his place of business to repossess the Kenworth. Cowen filed a voluntary petition for relief under Chapter 13 of the Bankruptcy Code on the day of the deadline for paying off the Peterbilt, and which was within the ten-day cure period for the Kenworth. He notified Defendants of the filing and requested the immediate return of both trucks. But Defendants refused. Cowen moved the bankruptcy court for orders to show cause why Defendants should not be held in contempt for willful violations of the automatic stay. The bankruptcy court granted the motions and ordered Defendants to “immediately turn over” the trucks to Cowen. When Defendants did not comply with the bankruptcy court’s turnover order, Cowen filed an adversary proceeding for violations of the automatic stay. A few months later, the bankruptcy court dismissed the underlying bankruptcy case because, without the trucks, Cowen had no regular income, which rendered him ineligible for Chapter 13 relief. However, the bankruptcy court expressly retained jurisdiction over the adversary proceeding. During the adversary proceeding, Defendants again asserted that Cowen’s rights in the trucks had been properly terminated by Defendants before the bankruptcy petition was filed, and so they could not have violated the automatic stay. The court disagreed, and Defendants timely appealed this decision to the district court, which reversed on the calculation of damages but otherwise affirmed the bankruptcy court’s order. Defendants then appealed to the Tenth Circuit, arguing, among other things, that the bankruptcy court exceeded its jurisdiction, that it lacked constitutional authority to enter a final judgment in this adversary proceeding, and that the bankruptcy court misinterpreted section 362 (the automatic stay provision). The Tenth Circuit agreed, reversed and remanded.