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Can “Dance Mom” Star Dance Her Way Out of Bankruptcy Fraud?: Bankruptcy Fraud Basics

By Daniel Hart, Paralegal  and Salene Mazur Kraemer, Esquire.

In October 2015, every Pittsburgh local news outlet and national entertainment magazine reported on the bankruptcy fraud story of Abby Lee Miller.  We have previously written here about her Chapter 11 Case:  “Dance Mom” Instructor Abby Lee Miller Files for Chapter 11 Protection: Public Disclosure of Private Facts:   Abby is the controversial star of the reality television show, “Dance Moms”.  Her often abrasive personality is in contrast to the glitter of dance and beauty of her young dancers.  She is quick to throw scathing insults at any of the children and their sometimes overly zealous Dance mothers.

Abby Lee filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 2010, in Bankruptcy Court here in Pittsburgh.  After some television surfing by a local bankruptcy judge and a subsequent investigation by local authorities, Abby may have committed bankruptcy fraud.

What is bankruptcy fraud?  It is a white-collar crime that generally has taken four general forms:

  1. Debtors conceal assets to avoid having to forfeit them;
  2. Individuals intentionally file false or incomplete forms (underreporting income, overstating liabilities);
  3. Individuals file multiple times using false information or real information in several states;
  4. Debtors bribe a court-appointed trustee.

Nearly 70% of all bankruptcy fraud involves the first form, the concealment of assets.  At the 341 meeting of creditors in each bankruptcy case, a debtor is required to testify under oath as to the accuracy of his or her bankruptcy petition and schedules.  A bankruptcy trustee appointed by the United States Department of Justice probes each debtor about the facts and circumstances surrounding each case.

A bankruptcy trustee can only liquidate unexempt assets that are a part of the debtor’s “bankruptcy estate”.  If the asset is not listed on the debtor’s schedules or the debtor does not reveal the asset, it can fly under the radar.

I tell each of my bankruptcy clients always to “tell the truth, reveal everything, err on the side of caution.”  “You don’t want to end up in jail over this filing.”

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The effects of bankruptcy fraud are often passed on to businesses, financial institutions, and the general consumer in the form of higher interest rates, greater loan fees, and higher taxes.

Bankruptcy fraud is a criminal offense.  When a bankruptcy trustee suspects fraud but does not have enough evidence, he/she can compel testimony and document production from just about anyone through a Bankruptcy Rule 2004 examination.  If fraud is suspected, the trustee refers the case to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI).  The agency will undergo its own investigation.  A debtor guilty of bankruptcy fraud faces stiff penalties as outlined at 18 U.S.C. §152 which can result in a fine up to $250,000 for each count of fraud, or up to a five-year prison sentence, or both.

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  A  federal grand jury indicted Abby Miller on 20 counts of bankruptcy fraud, alleging she concealed about $755,000 in assets and made false bankruptcy declarations.  Federal Bankruptcy Judge Thomas Agresti nearly approve Miller’s Chapter 11 reorganization plan but then he was channel surfing one night and saw commercials for the new season of “Dance Moms”.  Miller claimed in her bankruptcy reorganization plan that she did not have a signed contract for a new season and that her income from the show was “volatile.”

It is alleged that Abby did in fact, have a signed contract and steady income.  During the past three years while the the bankruptcy proceeding was pending, as required by the Department of Justice for all debtors, Miller was required to deposit her income into a special DIP (Debtor in Possession) account and report that income to the court on a monthly basis.  Instead, it is alleged that she set up other bank accounts and funneled her income from the TV show and other ventures into those accounts.

If found guilty, Abby Lee faces up to five years in prison, not to mention outrageous fines given 20 counts.  The surprising twist in this case is that Abby’s bankruptcy plan, we believe, provided for a 100% payout to unsecured creditors (a rarity); it appears that she would have had no need to hide assets; she was obligated to pay unsecured creditors 100% anyway!  We shall see!

Sources: http://triblive.com/news/adminpage/9263325-74/bankruptcy-miller-prosecutors#axzz3psRPmrWl

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Movie Financier Hedge Fund Files for Chapter 11 Over Increasing Litigation Costs

by Justin A. Saporito, Law Clerk

Aramid Entertainment Fund, Limited filed for Chapter 11 protection in the Bankruptcy Court for the Southern District of New York on June 13, 2014.  Debtor has declared assets of $237.3 million and consolidated debt of $11.5 million.  Debtor was assigned case number 1:14-bk-11802, a judge has yet to be assigned.  Approximately 96 creditors were listed in the petition; among them are several other Aramid entities including Aramid Liquidating Trust, Ltd. and Aramid Entertainment, Inc. which jointly filed with the Debtor and were assigned consecutive case numbers.

aramid-logo-618x400                    Aramid Entertainment Fund, Limited is part of Aramid Capital Partners, LLP, a London based hedge fund that specializes in financing movies.  According to their website, Aramid Capital has provided financing for thirty-two (32) movies including Paranormal Activity, W., and How to Lose Friends & Alienate People.  Please click here for a list of their productions.

                   Debtor filed for Chapter 11 protection due to the cost of ongoing litigation against several of its borrowers who failed to repay loans or violated film-financing agreements.  One such suit began in February 2012 and is over an alleged $44 million in losses.  Debtor invested $22 million in a financing deal between Relativity Media, LLC and Sony Pictures.  Debtor alleges that executives from Fortress Investment Group, LLC used Aramid’s confidential information, which was allegedly obtained during a 2010 portfolio review as part of a proposed purchase of Debtor’s assets, to make a deal with Sony that destroyed Debtor’s investments.

                     Debtor and its affiliates are represented by James C. McCarroll, a partner at Reed Smith, LLP who specializes in Financial Industry, Commercial Restructuring, and Bankruptcy.

Pittsburgh Riverhounds Stumble as They Declare Chapter 11 Bankruptcy

By:  Justin A. Saporito

The  Riverhounds Event Center, L.P. and Riverhounds Acquisition Group, L.P., the limited partnerships that own and operate Highmark Stadium and the Pittsburgh Riverhounds Professional Soccer Club respectively,  jointly declared voluntary Chapter 11 bankruptcy on March 26, 2014.  Debtors filed in the United States Bankruptcy Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania, assigned case numbers 2:14-bk-21180 and 2:14-bk-21181 respectively.  Both cases have been assigned to the Honorable Jeffery A. Deller.

The Riverhounds Event Center, L.P. owns and operates the newly constructed Highmark Stadium located in the South Side area of Pittsburgh and claims assets ranging from $1 million to $10 million with liabilities between $10 million and $50 million.  Of those liabilities, $7.2 million is mortgage debt and $1.5 million in bank loans.  riverhounds_logo

The Riverhounds Acquisition Group, L.P. is the limited partnership that owns the Pittsburgh Riverhounds minor league soccer team and claims assets ranging from $500,000 to $1 million with liabilities between $1 million and $10 million.  The Pittsburgh Riverhounds  was founded in 1999 and currently plays in the United Soccer Leagues.  Much of the debt leading up to the bankruptcy was incurred in 2012-2013 during the construction of Highmark Stadium.  The bankruptcy is not expected to affect the 2014 season.

Debtors share some creditors such as Shallenberger Construction, Inc.,  First National Bank of Pennsylvania, and Urban Redevelopment Association of Pittsburgh.  Both debtors are represented by John M. Steiner of Leech Tishman Fuscaldo & Lampl, LLC.

Quiznos Turns to Bankruptcy Amidst Increased Competition

quiznosBy: Stephen Krug, Law Clerk

The various entities that comprise the Quiznos sandwich chain (“debtors”) filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in the United States Bankruptcy Court for the District of Delaware on March 14, 2014.   A motion filed by debtors for joint administration of the cases was granted on March 17, and the case has been assigned to the Honorable Peter J. Walsh.

While debtors’ liabilities range from $500 million to $1 billion, the assets are only estimated to fall between $0 and $50,000.  However, Debtors maintain that, although assets are low and 10,001 to 25,000 creditors exist, funds will be available for distribution to unsecured creditors. U.S. Bank National Association, as administrative agent and collateral agent under debtors’ second lien financing facility, is the largest unsecured claimant with a claim for approximately $174 million.  Horizon Media Inc., MG-1005, LLC, and ESPN Inc. also hold substantial unsecured claims.

Debtors have proposed a pre-packaged reorganization plan that would slash debt by more than $400 million and would permit the handful of company-owned sandwich shops to remain operational.  Sandwich stores operated by franchisees are not part of the bankruptcy proceedings and thus are not provided for in the pre-packaged plan.

Debtors hope to emerge from bankruptcy more viable than ever. Moving forward, debtors hope to reduce food costs and place more of an emphasis on advertising.

Debtors are represented by Mark D. Collins of Richards, Layton & Finger, P.A. 

The Company You Own Files Bankruptcy: Can Creditors Still Come After You?

automatic-stayAs is almost always the case, principals of a distressed business have personally guaranteed the debt on a credit line or property or equipment lease. When a business files bankruptcy, an automatic stay is imposed against any adverse actions taken against the business entity, the Debtor. But what about the owners of the business? Often, I find myself seeking to extend the automatic stay injunction to those principals. This issue came up in a recent case we had pending in the Fourth Circuit. We were compelled to find case law regarding the standard for relief.

A factual example would be as follows: A distressed business ABC Recylcing owns a building, and the building has a mortgage on it in favor of Meanie Bank, N.A.  The business falls behind on payments. Meanie Bank initiates a foreclosure action to set an auction to sell the building. Jake, the owner of the business had to sign a guaranty in order for ABC Recycling to get the loan with Meanie Bank. ABC Recycling still operates with the faint hopes of reorganizing through a Chapter 11 bankruptcy. Once the Chapter 11 is filed, the foreclosure action is stayed as to ABC Recycling, but now the Meanie Bank is going after Jake. Help, my clients say.

ISSUE: Pursuant 11 U.S.C. §105 and §362 of the Bankruptcy Code, is a court likely to grant an injunction to protect the principal of a bankrupt business?

CONCLUSION: Where the principal Jack is a primary guarantor of the mortgage and Meanie Bank now intends to secure a judgment against the principal, the principal will only be able to obtain an injunction by demonstrating a mutuality of identity with the Debtor such that allowing Meanie Bank to proceed against Jake will substantially deprive the Debtor of a primary asset (its owner’s time and attention).  In Plain English, how important is the principal Jake to the Debtor’s operations?  A four-part test is employed to make that determination.

While automatic stay proceedings are usually only available to the Debtor, under unusual circumstances, the Fourth Circuit has held that the Bankruptcy Court can enjoin proceedings against third parties.  In re F.T.L. Inc., 152 B.R. 61 (Bankr. E.D. Va. 1993).  However, where no compelling or unusual circumstances exist, then under §362 the Debtor’s guarantors must file their own bankruptcy petition in order to be protected by the Bankruptcy laws.  Id. at 63. (this also happens often).

A court is only likely to grant an injunction to a third party non-debtor principal in the unusual circumstance that it is evident that the identity of the debtor and the non-debtor third party is so interconnected that it is clear that the creditor is proceeding against the debtor.   Under such circumstances, the court may apply a four-part test and equitably grant an injunction where the court finds that:

  • the plaintiff principal has a greater likelihood of succeeding on the merits;
  • plaintiff principal has shown that lack of relief will result in irreparable injury;
  • an injunction will not substantially harm other interested parties, and;
  • preserving the status quo until the merits of the controversy is decided will serve public interests. Id.

In re F.T.L., the primary secured creditor to a car wash company debtor, secured a judgment lien against the debtor’s guarantors, the plaintiffs. Plaintiffs are the primary owners and guarantors of the car wash and the creditor perfected its lien against plaintiffs’ personal residence.  Id. at 62.  Noting that the collection activities against the owners arose from the car wash’s debt to the creditor, the court applied the four-part test and found that the debtor was likely to succeed on the merits by proposing a confirmable chapter 11 plan; the debtor’s chapter 11 plan would be impossible if the owners were forced to file their own chapter 11 petition; very little harm was likely to come to the creditor if it was enjoined from collection activities against the owner, and; lastly the creditors as a whole were best served if the debtor were allowed to propose a plan for reorganization. Id.  The Court extended the injunction to the owners.

If you own a business and are wondering the same questions,  you should review the facts and circumstances of your workout with your attorney.  I think, by and large, the automatic stay is difficult to extend in Bankruptcy Court.  You have to make a really compelling argument that the principal will be so consumed with his or her own bankruptcy that the Chapter 11 reorganization will suffer.

Billing Services Company Penn Data Services, Inc. Makes a 2nd Trip to Bankruptcy Court

By:  Justin A. Saporito, MAZURKRAEMER Law Clerk and Salene Kraemer, Esquire

Penn Data Services, Inc. filed a voluntary petition for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection on October 1st, 2013 in the Bankruptcy Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania (Pittsburgh).  The case has been assigned to the Honorable Judge Carlota M. Bohm under case number 2:13-bk-24153.  A summary of the docket can be found here.double bankruptcy

This is the debtor’s 2nd consecutive voluntary filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, having previously filed over a year ago on August 21st, 2012 (that is referred to as a “Chapter 22” by those in the industry).  That case was assigned case # 2:12-bk-24156 and was also overseen by Judge Bohm.  The 2012 case was dismissed on August 30th, 2013 for failure to timely file a Chapter 11 Plan and Disclosure Statement.  A docket summary of the initial filing for the 2012 case can be found here.

Penn Data Services, Inc. is a billing services company founded in 1996 and located in Natrona Heights, PA.  The debtor claims assets of less than $50,000 with liabilities between $50,000 and $100,000.  Christopher M. Frye of Steidl & Steinberg P.C. is again representing the debtor, having been debtor’s counsel for the 2012 case.

Affairs Afloat, Inc. Takes On Water With Chapter 11 Filing

By:  Justin A. Saporito, MAZURKRAEMER Legal Clerk

Affairs Afloat, Inc. voluntarily filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy relief on October 15th, 2013.  The petition was filed in the Bankruptcy Court for the Southern District of New York.  The case has been assigned to the Honorable Judge Burton R. Lifland, under case number 1:13-bk-13356. (Click case number for docket summary.)

queen of hearts

The debtor is a river cruise operator that operates in New York City out of Pier 78 on West 38th Street.   Affairs Afloat, Inc. was established in 1988 and provides services through its two river cruise ships, The Queen of Hearts (pictured right) and The Star of Palm Beach.  The Queen of Hearts is a three level ship that is Coast Guard certified for 450 guests plus staff and crew.  The Star of Palm Beach is a two level ship and is Coast Guard certified for 380 guests plus staff and crew.

Affairs Afloat hosts various cruises on specified dates in addition to its weekly cruises such as its Shadow Nightclub on Tuesday nights, Cruise Brasil on Wednesday nights, Candela Cruise on Thursday nights.  Debtor also holds a Kiddie Cruise on Sunday afternoons.  Debtor offers group packages for many of its events and its services are also available for private events.  For more information about debtor’s programs and services please visit their website here.

Debtor claimed assets and liabilities of between $1 and $10 million with HSBC Bank, the Internal Revenue Service, the Security Exchange Commission.  It appears that the Chapter 11 filing has not affected debtor’s operations as it is accepting reservations for cruises for Halloween and New Year’s Eve.  Affairs Afloat, Inc. is represented by Jonathan S. Pasternak of DelBello Donnellan Weingarten Wise & Wiederkehr, LLP.

Freedom Industries, Inc. Files for Chapter 11 Bankruptcy Following Historic WV Chemical Spill

By: Justin A. SaporitoMAZURKRAEMER Law Clerk

The following case is of particular interest to Salene since she is  originally from Weirton, West Virginia and attended West Virginia University.

freedom_industries

Freedom Industries, Inc. filed a voluntary petition for Chapter 11 bankruptcy on January 17, 2014 in the United States Bankruptcy Court for the Southern District of West Virginia.  The case has been assigned to the Honorable Ronald G. Pearson.  Both assets and liabilities are estimated to be between $1 and $10 million.  Approximately 700 creditors are listed in the petition including multiple WV state agencies, service companies, and private individuals.  Multiple motions were filed along with the petition including motions to allow payments to essential trade vendors and to pay $2.4 million in unpaid taxes to the IRS.  A summary of debtor’s filings can be found here.

Debtor is a specialty chemicals manufacturer founded in 1986 and located in Charleston, WV.  It manufactures chemicals for the mining, steel, and cement industries and is wholly-owned by Chemstream Holdings, Inc.  The Charleston chemical plant is located along the Elk River and has recently been widely publicized as the cause of a chemical spill that contaminated the Elk River on January 9th, 2014 which led to state and federal states of emergency being declared.  The spill left 300,000 residents without running water for several days.  The chemical that leaked into the river is used in coal processing.  The local water supply is currently said to be safe for residents in the nine affected counties except for residents in certain towns.  Additionally, pregnant women in the affected areas are advised to drink only bottled water at this time.

Debtor is represented by Mark E. Freedlander of McGuire Woods LLP and Stephen L. Thompson from Barth & Thompson.  Debtor also filed a motion to Employ Pietragallo, Gordon, Alfano, Bosick, and Raspanti, LLP as Special Litigation Counsel.  

DragonFire, Inc. Running Out of Breath as it Files Chapter 11

By: Justin A. Saporito, MAZURKRAEMER Law Clerk

DragonFire, Inc. filed a voluntary petition for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in October 25th, 2013.  The petition was filed in the United States Bankruptcy Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania and has been assigned case number 2:13-bk-24517.  Debtor’s Disclosure Statement, Balance Sheet, Declaration of Schedules, and other documents were due by November 8th, 2013.  For a complete list of the documents due please refer to the document summary.1366998187

Debtor is the corporate entity for DragonFire Japanese Steakhouse and Sushi Bar located at 1500 Washington Rd. in the Gallery Mall in Mt. Lebanon, Pennsylvania.  As the name suggests, DragonFire specializes in hibachi and sushi.  For those unfamiliar with hibachi, it is a rectangular Japanese style barbecue grill.  Customers often sit at a counter that spans three sides of the grill.  The chef stands at the fourth side and prepares the meal (which typically consists of fried rice, vegetables, and various meats) with much fanfare.   DragonFire also boasts a robata grill, a traditional Japanese slow grilling method. For more information about DragonFire, you can visit their website here.

Debtor has declared between $50k and $100k in assets with between $500k and $1 million in liabilities with approximately 20 creditors listed in the petition.  Debtor is represented by Donald R. Calaiaro of Calaiaro  & Corbett, P.C.

Philadelphia’s Marathon Grill Hits “The Wall” with a Chapter 11

By: Justin A. Saporito, MAZURKRAEMER Law Clerk

The entities in charge of the 1818 Market Street location for the Marathon Grill Philadelphia restaurant chain, 1818 Market Street Marathon Grill, Inc. and its general partner 1818 Market Street Marathon Grill Associates , filed for chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in the United States Bankruptcy Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania (Philadelphia) on October 9, 2013.  1818 Market Street Marathon Grill, Inc. is the corporate entity for the 1818 Market Street location and has been assigned to the Honorable Judge Magdeline D. Coleman under case number 2:13-bk-18861.  1818 Market Street Marathon Grill Associates, the partnership in charge of the location filed separately and has been assigned to the Honorable Judge Eric L. Frank under case number 2:13-bk-18863.  (Please click the hyperlinks for docket summaries).  Motions for Joint Administration of both cases were filed by each entity on October 9, 2013.  The debtors listed the same creditors with the exception that 1818 Market Street Marathon Grill, Inc. also lists NNN 1818 Market, LLC, the building management company in charge of 1818 Market St.

marathon-grill-950

The Marathon Grill began as a 10-seat hamburger restaurant in Northeast Philadelphia in 1984.  It eventually grew into a six location restaurant chain before shrinking back down to operating three locations at 1818 Market St., 19th & Spruce St., and 16th & Sansom St.  The bankruptcies affect the 1818 Market St. location, the largest of the three restaurants.  The filings were made in response to learning that the landlord intended to take possession of the restaurant space over an ongoing dispute over unpaid back rent and fees of approximately $540,000.

1818 Market Street Marathon Grill Associates declared assets between $500,000 and $1 million with liabilities between $100,000 and $500,000.  1818 Market Street Marathon Grill, Inc. declared assets between $50,000 and $100,000 with liabilities between $1 and $10 million.  The debtors entities are represented by Aris J. Karalis and Robert W. Seitzer of Maschmeyer Karalis P.C.  The bankruptcies do not affect the other Marathon Grill locations and the debtors have pledged that the 1818 Market St. location will remain open during the bankruptcy proceedings.

Salene: In my younger years as a lawyer at Weir & Partners LLP in Philadelphia (2002-2004), I used to grab many late dinners at the Marathon Grill location at Sansom Street.   It was hip, for sure.   What is the formula for sustainability in the restaurant industry?