A recent federal court decision highlights the importance of an association’s manager or board contacting the association’s attorney whenever a homeowner files for bankruptcy protection. When an individual files for chapter 13 bankruptcy protection, she is allowed to repay her debts over a period of up to five years through a court-approved payment plan, and her creditors are barred from attempting to collect on those debts unless first granted permission by the bankruptcy court. The plan is administered by the bankruptcy trustee, an official who collects money from the individual in bankruptcy (known as the “debtor”) and pays the creditors. In order to be included in the chapter 13 payment plan, a creditor, such as an association, must file a legal document with the bankruptcy court known as a “proof of claim.” The proof of claim sets forth the amount the debtor owed to the creditor as of the date she filed for bankruptcy protection (the “pre-petition debt”). Unless the debtor successfully objects to the proof of claim (i.e., convinces the court of some legal reason why the money is not owed or should not be paid through the bankruptcy), the creditor should be included in the plan and receive payments toward the pre-petition debt.

Because unpaid assessments are a lien on a homeowner’s unit in favor of the association, an assessment obligation is a “secured” debt (The lien on the unit “secures” the obligation.). The Federal Rules of Bankruptcy Procedure provide a deadline for when a proof of claim must be filed if a creditor wishes to be included in a chapter 13 plan. However, while it is well accepted that “unsecured” debts such as credit card debt will not be paid through the plan unless the creditor files a proof of claim by the deadline, there has been some confusion over whether this deadline applies to creditors, such as associations, holding secured claims.

The federal Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals, whose jurisdiction includes Illinois, settled this confusion in May 2015 with its decision in In re Pajian. For the first time, the Seventh Circuit clarified the proof of claim deadline established by the Rules of Bankruptcy Procedure applies to both unsecured and secured creditors. If a secured creditor does not file its proof of claim by the deadline, it may not be included in the chapter 13 plan and will not receive payments from the bankruptcy trustee.

The upshot of Pajian for associations is managers and board members, in order to ensure the association receives payments to which it is entitled, must notify the association’s attorney immediately upon receiving notice that a homeowner has filed for bankruptcy protection. The notice typically mailed to creditors by the bankruptcy court includes the proof of claim filing deadline. Given the ruling in Pajian, the proof of claim must be filed by this deadline in order for the association to receive payments through the plan. While a secured debt, even if not included in the plan, survives a discharge in a chapter 13 bankruptcy, collecting that debt five years down the road can be a much more cumbersome process when all that could have been required was filing a form with the bankruptcy court. Therefore, when the association’s manager or board becomes aware of a bankruptcy, notify the association’s attorney so she may, if necessary, file a proof of claim.