United States District Court, E.D. Missouri, Eastern Division
MEMORANDUM AND ORDER
JOHN A. ROSS, District Judge.
This matter is before the Court on appeal from a Bankruptcy Court order denying debtor Reynal Caldwell's motion for summary judgment and granting summary judgment sua sponte in favor of Defendants Alan E. DeWoskin, Alan E. DeWoskin, P.C., and Theresa Caldwell Lavender on debtor's Complaint for Violation of the Automatic Stay. (Doc. No. 4) For the following reasons, the Court affirms.
The following facts are undisputed by the parties. On May 30, 2008, debtor Reynal Caldwell ("Caldwell") filed a petition for dissolution of his marriage to Defendant Theresa Caldwell Lavender ("Lavender") in the St. Louis City Circuit Court, Cause Number 0822-FC00885. Defendants Alan E. DeWoskin and Alan E. DeWoskin, P.C. (collectively "DeWoskin"), represented Lavender in the dissolution. A Judgment of Dissolution of Marriage was entered on December 2, 2009 and later amended on February 22, 2010. Pursuant to that order, Caldwell was ordered to pay Lavender $2, 500 per month in maintenance, $3, 000 on a U.S. Bank credit card debt, $5, 544.75 in attorney's fees to Alan E. DeWoskin, P.C., and to pay or refinance the loans on property he owned. On April 6, 2010, Lavender filed a motion in state court seeking to hold Caldwell in contempt for non-compliance with the Judgment of Dissolution. On April 20, 2010, Caldwell appealed the judgment of dissolution.
On July 16, 2010, following a hearing, the trial court found Caldwell in contempt and ordered him to pay Lavender $20, 000 plus 9% interest for monthly maintenance payments accrued from December 2, 2009 to July 2010, to pay or refinance the loans on the property Caldwell owned (totaling over $243, 000), to pay the $3, 000 debt on the U.S. Bank credit card, and to pay Lavender's attorney's fees in the amount of $5, 544.75 with 9% interest from December 2, 2009 and an additional $1, 935.50 in attorney's fees, all no later than August 10, 2010. On August 11, 2010, after Caldwell had still not paid, DeWoskin requested the trial court hold a hearing on August 24, 2010 to determine whether a warrant and commitment order for Caldwell should issue for his failure to comply with the court's July 16, 2010 order.
On August 17, 2010, Caldwell filed a Chapter 13 bankruptcy case, In re Reynal L. Caldwell, Cause No. 10-49337-399, in the Bankruptcy Court for the Eastern District of Missouri. He also filed a suggestion of bankruptcy in the state court proceedings, Cause Number 0822-FC00885, and notified Defendants.
At the August 24, 2010 hearing, the trial court heard argument from the parties as to whether the automatic stay applied to the contempt proceedings. The trial court continued the matter to August 27, 2010, at which time it entered a Judgment of Contempt and Commitment Order, finding Caldwell guilty of indirect civil contempt and committing him to the St. Louis City jail until he had purged himself of the contempt. The contempt order only required compliance with the maintenance obligations owed to Lavender. Caldwell posted bond on August 28, 2014, but did not pay for the bond with his own money or property.
On September 14, 2010, the trial court held another hearing and instructed Caldwell to either make the next maintenance payment due on September 15 or the court would hold an emergency contempt hearing. On September 16, 2010, Caldwell appealed the judgment of contempt.
On or about October 5, 2010, Defendants requested the trial court issue a wage withholding directed to the Defense Finance Accounting Service (DFAS) to collect current spousal support. On November 9, 2010, Caldwell posted a $25, 000 appeal bond in the registry of the state court to stay collection of the judgment for maintenance arrearages pending the outcome of his appeal of the judgment of dissolution. Again, Caldwell did not pay for the bond with his own money or property. The court stayed the wage withholding application the same day. On March 22, 2011, the Missouri Court of Appeals affirmed the decree of dissolution. Caldwell v. Caldwell, 336 S.W.3d 201 (Mo.Ct.App. 2011). On April 28, 2011, Defendants requested and were granted a payout order on the $25, 000 bond to be paid to Lavender.
On May 17, 2011, the Missouri Court of Appeals reversed the judgment of contempt entered against Caldwell, holding that the trial court had abused its discretion in failing to find that Caldwell had the ability to pay. Caldwell v. Caldwell, 341 S.W.3d 734, 737 (Mo.Ct.App. 2011). Caldwell argued the automatic stay had been violated; however, the appellate court specifically stated it did not need to address the issue related to the automatic stay. Id . In so doing, the appellate court left in effect the trial court's determination that the automatic stay did not apply.
Caldwell's bankruptcy case was dismissed on July 20, 2011 and closed on August 4, 2011. The bankruptcy trustee paid out $6, 972.00, including interest, to Lavender on the domestic support arrearage.
On January 11, 2013, Caldwell filed a complaint for violation of the automatic stay in the District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri, Cause No. 4:13CV00054CDP. Caldwell alleged that Defendants committed civil contempt and violated the automatic stay statute, 11 U.S.C. § 362, when they prosecuted a motion to enforce the civil contempt order issued against him and filed wage withholding applications and a payout order for maintenance and attorney's fees. While the case was pending in the District Court, Defendants moved to dismiss Caldwell's complaint for, inter alia, lack of subject matter jurisdiction based on the Rooker-Feldman doctrine, and the issue was fully briefed by the parties. Alternatively, Defendants requested the matter be referred to the Bankruptcy Court. The District Court granted the motion in part and referred the case to the Bankruptcy Court.
Thereafter, Defendants moved to dismiss Caldwell's complaint on the grounds of laches, comity with state courts and failure to state a claim. The Bankruptcy Court denied the motion, and Defendants filed their Answer and Affirmative Defenses, including the affirmative defenses of res judicata and the Rooker-Feldman doctrine. Caldwell then moved for summary judgment on the issue of liability. Defendants referenced the application of Rooker-Feldman in their response to Caldwell's motion.
On June 27, 2014, the Bankruptcy Court denied Caldwell's motion for partial summary judgment on the question of liability and granted, sua sponte, summary judgment in favor of Defendants on Caldwell's complaint "in that [Caldwell's] complaint for violation of the automatic stay shall be dismissed." (Doc. No. 1-6 at 15) The Court held it was barred under the Rooker-Feldman doctrine from considering whether the automatic stay applied to Defendants' actions. The Court further held that the wage withholding requests were exempt from the automatic stay under§ 362(b)(2)(C) because they were for payment of current spousal support, a "domestic support obligation" under Bankruptcy Code § 101(14A). The payout order of the $25, 000 bond was also held exempt under § 362(b)(2)(B) because the money came from Caldwell's friends; it was not his property or the property of his bankruptcy estate. Finally, the Bankruptcy Court held that Caldwell himself had committed a stay violation when he appealed the ...