Effect of Government Shutdown on Consumer Bankruptcy Proceedings

On December 22, 2018, the federal funding for certain agencies lapsed, and the United States government entered into a partial shutdown. The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ), including the United States Trustee Program (USTP), was one of the agencies that shut down. United States Trustees (“UST”) representing the USTP appear and litigate in a multitude of bankruptcy proceedings. USTs also actively participate in out-of-court settlement discussions, plan negotiations, and the like. Pursuant to the partial shutdown, regular operations at the USTP ended, with only “excepted employees” continuing work on limited matters.

USTP excepted employees comprise a total of 35 percent of its employees. Excepted employees work without pay during the shutdown but will receive back pay after the government reopens.  Remaining USTP employees who are not excepted are furloughed and will only receive compensation if Congress passes a bill allowing for it.

The contingency plan sets forth changes in the duties of DOJ employees. The contingency plan directs that civil litigation be halted except where the safety of human life or protection of property are at stake. Much of the civil litigation in which the USTP is a party does not involve such issues. The contingency plan further notes that DOJ attorneys should request stays in civil cases and reduce civil litigation staffing only to that necessary to protect human life and property. Several UST and DOJ attorneys involved in bankruptcy litigation have filed motions seeking stays of proceedings and extension of deadlines until the government reopens.

As the USTP continues to operate with its skeletal staff, certain bankruptcy processes will likely encounter delays. Although federal courts have rearranged funds to remain operational through January 18, should the shutdown extend beyond that date, bankruptcy matters such as plan confirmations and other court hearings will encounter similar delays.

Proceedings involving Chapter 7 and 13 trustees, including out-of-court discussions or negotiations, are unlikely to be delayed as these parties receive payments outside of government assistance.

What Does This Mean for the Financial Services Industry?

It appears that the shutdown will most strongly impact bankruptcy litigation in which the USTP is a party or heavily involved and final disbursements in cases which require USTP approval. Out of court, because the USTP is directed by the contingency plan to work only on crucial matters, certain matters such as settlement discussions and plan negotiations will likely be postponed. Accordingly, although the shutdown may interfere with proceedings that would require USTP approval, other activities in consumer bankruptcy cases should not be impacted or altered. However, court delays may occur if the shutdown continues past January 18.