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FRBP 9033 Review of Proposed Findings of Fact and Conclusions of Law in Non-Core Proceedings

Monge v. Rojas, et al. (September 25, 2014)
Issues: Individual Debtors (as Plaintiffs), brought adversary proceeding against multiple Defendants. All secondary Defendants settled prior to and during trial; only primary Defendants remained. Most of Plaintiffs’ claims against remaining Defendants and Defendants’ counterclaims against Plaintiffs were based exclusively on state law causes of action, and some claims and counterclaims were based on the Bankruptcy Code. Prior to trial, all remaining parties consented to entry of a final judgment by the Bankruptcy Court. However, given the recent holdings of the Fifth Circuit regarding the constitutional authority of the Bankruptcy Court to enter a final judgment on state law claims even with consent of the parties, the Bankruptcy Court submitted 178 pages of Proposed Findings of Fact and Conclusions of Law to the District Court for review under 28 U.S.C. §157(c)(2) and Bankruptcy Rule 9033. Following review, the District Court largely adopted the Bankruptcy Court’s proposed findings and conclusions, and entered final judgment for Plaintiffs.
The disputes centered around four different residential properties and commercial property developments located in the States of New Mexico and Texas. In general, Plaintiffs sought turnover of and declaratory relief regarding certain real property in the possession of Defendants, and actual and exemplary damages based on breach of contract, fraud, breach of fiduciary duty, negligence, gross negligence, the Texas Deceptive Trade Practices Act, equitable theories under state law, and violation of the automatic stay. In general, the remaining Defendants asserted counterclaims and affirmative defenses based on the Texas Property Code, breach of contract, equitable theories under state law, statute of limitations, and section 365(i) of the Bankruptcy Code. The Bankruptcy Court conducted a six-day trial on the merits, which featured over 15 witnesses and thousands of documents. Holdings: The Bankruptcy Court proposed (and the District Court adopted) a judgment in favor of Plaintiffs and against the remaining Defendants for turnover of possession of one of the real properties, and actual damages, attorneys fees, and pre-judgment interest totaling about $1 million. In general, the Bankruptcy Court’s proposed findings and conclusions (1) awarded damages to Plaintiffs based on breach of contract and violation of the automatic stay; (2) determined that Plaintiffs were entitled to possession and turnover of certain real property held by Defendants; (3) found that the Texas Property Code did not apply to real property located in the State of New Mexico; (4) found that section 365(i) of the Bankruptcy Code did not apply to a lease/option which expired by its terms prior to Plaintiffs’ bankruptcy filing; (5) found that several of Plaintiffs’ causes of action relating to some of the properties were barred by the statute of limitations; (6) determined that the fraud-based claims of Plaintiffs should be denied; and (7) found that some of the damages sought by both Plaintiffs and Defendants were speculative.