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Howell-Robinson v. Albert

March 20, 2008


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Richard W. Roberts United States District Judge


Debtor Diane Howell-Robinson appeals the bankruptcy court's decision that $58,000 in proceeds from a personal injury settlement were not exempt from inclusion in a bankruptcy estate under District of Columbia Code § 15-501(a)(11)(D). Howell-Robinson claims that personal injury proceeds are a valid exemption under District of Columbia law. Marc Albert, the trustee, asserts that no such exemption exists. Because Howell-Robinson has not shown that the statute's text or legislative history creates an exemption, the bankruptcy court's judgment denying the debtor's claimed exemption will be affirmed.


Howell-Robinson was injured in a car accident and received $58,000 in a personal injury settlement. (Appellant's Br. at 5-6.) Due to her medical expenses, Howell-Robinson filed for bankruptcy under Chapter 7 of the Bankruptcy Code. (Id. at 5.)

In the District of Columbia, a debtor can choose property exemptions based on federal bankruptcy law or on District of Columbia law, In re Lewis, 305 B.R. at 614, and Howell-Robinson chose the latter. In the bankruptcy filing, she listed the proceeds of the personal injury award as exempt under D.C. Code § 15-501(a)(11)(D), which reads:

The following property . . . is free and exempt from distraint, attachment, levy, or seizure and sale on execution or decree of any court in the District of Columbia: . . . (11) the debtor's right to receive property that is traceable to . . . a payment, including pain and suffering or compensation for actual pecuniary loss, of the debtor or an individual of whom the debtor is a dependent.

D.C. Code § 15-501(a)(11)(D).

Albert objected to the exemption, arguing that "D.C. Code Ann. § 15-501(a)(11)(D) does not create any exemption in personal injury proceeds, and thus the proceeds are property of the bankruptcy estate, not the Debtor." (Appellee's Br. at 1-2.) The bankruptcy court sustained Albert's objection, relying on its prior decision in In re Lewis, 305 B.R. 610 (Bankr. D.D.C. 2004). (See Appellant's Designation of Record, Ex. 2 (Order of Bankruptcy Ct.) at 2-3.) In In re Lewis, the bankruptcy court concluded that the text of § 15-501(a)(11)(D) did not create an exemption, and that since the court had not been presented with any legislative history of the D.C. statute, there was no basis to speculate about the intent of the District of Columbia Council ("Council"). 305 B.R. at 613. Instead, the court used the principles followed by the United States Supreme Court to interpret the statute. Id. at 613-14. At Howell-Robinson's bankruptcy hearing, the available legislative history was presented and considered, but the court declined to depart from its reliance upon In re Lewis. (See Appellant's Designation of Record, Ex. 6 (Tr. of Bankr. Hr'g on Objection to Debtor's Claim of Exemptions Filed by Marc. E. Albert ("Hr'g Tr.")) at 19:1-2.)

Howell-Robinson argues on appeal that the bankruptcy court erred because the legislative history supports her interpretation that § 15-501(a)(11)(D) exempts her personal injury proceeds without limit and that any ambiguity in the statute should be interpreted in her favor. (Appellant's Br. at 11-12.) Albert seeks affirmance of the bankruptcy court's decision arguing that the statute should not be rewritten and that equity does not favor creating an exemption. (Appellee's Br. at 3.)



"If dissatisfied with the Bankruptcy Court's ultimate decision, [a party] can appeal 'to the district court for the judicial district in which the bankruptcy judge is serving[.]'" Celotex Corp. v. Edwards, 514 U.S. 300, 313 (1995) (citing 28 U.S.C. § 158(a)). A district court "may affirm, modify, or reverse a bankruptcy judge's judgment, order, or decree or remand with instructions for further proceedings." Fed. R. Bankr. P. 8013; In re WPG, Inc., 282 B.R. 66, 68 (D.D.C. 2002). Because Howell-Robinson's appeal involves a legal question, the bankruptcy court's determination will be reviewed de novo. Alcom Am. Corp. v. Arab Banking Corp., 48 F.3d 539 (D.C. Cir. 1995); Miles v. I.R.S., Civ. Action No. 06-1275 (CKK), 2007 WL 809789, at *3 (D.D.C. Mar. 15, 2007); In re Johnson, 236 B.R. 510, 518 (D.D.C. 1999).


Federal courts in this jurisdiction generally "defer to the District of Columbia Court of Appeals on questions of statutory interpretation" involving the D.C. Code unless the court "detects an egregious error." United States v. Edmond, 924 F.2d 261, 264 (D.C. Cir. 1991).*fn1 The District of Columbia Court of Appeals interprets a statute by first looking at the text. The statute's words are to be interpreted "'according to their ordinary sense and with the meaning commonly attributed to them.'" Peoples Drug Stores, Inc. v. Dist. of Columbia, 470 A.2d 751, 753 (D.C. 1983) (quoting Davis v. United States, 397 A.2d 951, 956 (D.C. 1979)). When the plain meaning is unambiguous, the intent of the Council is not called into question and the plain meaning should be used. However, a court can look to the legislative history when there are ambiguities underlying a statute's superficial clarity, when the plain meaning result would be absurd or would result in an obvious injustice, or in order "to effectuate the legislative purpose" when the plain meaning ...

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