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Mary Ann Hood v. American Express Centurion Bank

April 20, 2011


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Reagan, District Judge:


A. Procedural Overview

Now before the undersigned District Judge is Mary Ann Hood's appeal from a ruling the United States Bankruptcy Court for the Southern District of Illinois. The procedural chronology culminating in this appeal is somewhat tortuous but can be summarized as follows.

Hood, who had filed a voluntary petition for Chapter 7 bankruptcy protection, objected to a claim against her bankruptcy estate made by American Express Centurion Bank (AECB). On October 25, 2010, United States Bankruptcy Judge William Altenberger held a hearing, at the conclusion of which he overruled Hood's objection to AECB's claim. Hood challenged the October 25th ruling via a series of motions, all of which sought the same relief (reconsideration and a different ruling on her objection to the claim).

Ultimately, Judge Altenberger sua sponte construed one of Hood's challenges -- an amended motion to vacate (Doc. 147 in the Bankruptcy Record, "B.R.") -- as a notice of appeal to this District Court.

Hood asks this Court to reverse the Bankruptcy Court's determination that AECB's claim was valid. The issues are completely briefed. Hood filed an Appellant's Brief with supporting materials February 7, 2011; AECB filed an Appellee's Brief with appendix on March 4, 2011; and Hood filed a Reply Brief on March 25, 2011.*fn1

For the reasons described below, the Court rejects Hood's appeal and affirms the Bankruptcy Court ruling.

B. Summary of Key Facts

On June 30, 2009, Mary Ann Hood filed a voluntary petition for bankruptcy under Chapter 7, Title 11 of the United States Code. The petition proceeded through the Bankruptcy Court as In Re Mary Ann Hood, Case No. BK 09-31704. AECB timely filed a general unsecured proof of claim in the amount of $5,021.99 for the unpaid, pre-petition balance due on Hood's credit card account. In fact, Hood had listed a debt owed to "American Express" for the same amount on her sworn Schedule F of unsecured non-priority claims, as well as on the amendment thereto.

On June 25, 2010, Hood filed an objection to AECB's claim, asserting that AECB had failed to attach any supporting documentation to the claim, that the claim was comprised of unsubstantiated interest and penalty charges, that the claim lacked an account assignment, and that the claim was barred by the statute of limitations.

AECB amended its claim, supplying the account agreement, account statements from 2004, and payment checks. Hood continued to maintain that AECB failed to provide sufficient supporting documentation to show that the debt was valid or to confirm the balance she allegedly owed.

The disputed claim stemmed from a credit card account that Hood held with American Express from 1985 until roughly June of 2004.*fn2 Hood closed her account with AECB in June 2004 over fluctuating and excessive interest rates. She maintains that her balance at that time was only $1,271.00.*fn3 AECB has provided duplicate credit card statements for the relevant period (prior to June 2004) indicating that Hood owed over $5,000. But Hood says she reached an oral agreement with the manager of American Express's accounting department whereby she would pay only $100.00 per month towards her principal until her account was paid in full, and she would be spared further interest and late charges. She claims that she submitted three $100.00 payments but stopped making payments after she again was charged interest and late charges. Hood further claims that charges made prior to closing the account which were presented for payment after the account was closed were accepted by AECB.

Hood was a Missouri resident during the entire span that her account was open. AECB is a Utah state-chartered hank. The account agreement submitted into the record by AECB provides an applicable law clause (Appellee AECB's Appendix, p. 65).

Applicable Law: This Agreement and your Account, and all questions about their legality, enforceability and interpretation, are governed by the laws of the State of Utah (without regard to internal principles of conflicts of law), and by applicable federal law. We are located in Utah, hold your Account in Utah, and entered into this Agreement with you in Utah.

The Bankruptcy Court heard the matter on October 25, 2010. Judge Altenberger found and orally announced that under any possibly applicable statute of limitations, AECB's claim was not barred. On that basis, he overruled Hood's objection to AECB's claim.

Largely unrelated to this central issue (whether AECB's claim was barred by a statute of limitations), Hood's briefs are peppered with complaints regarding the assistance lent her by attorney Stephen R. Clark (her counsel for part of the bankruptcy proceedings) and the conduct of Judge Altenberger. These complaints do not detain this Court long.

Hood's dissatisfaction with her lawyer do not furnish a basis to overrule (are not properly presented via this appeal from) Judge Altenberger's ruling. Indeed, Mr. Clark requested to withdraw from representing Hood, and the Bankruptcy Court granted that request on October 25, 2010. Hood also complains that "Judge Altenberger. refused to disqualify himself in spite of his intense dislike and bias towards" her, and "[h]is responses to the Appellant's motions appear to be acts of malice and vengeance with a dedicated determination NOT to provide a fair and impartial hearing or decision in the Appellant's favor in spite of compelling evidence that disputes his ruling as proper" (Appellant's Brief, p. 12). Hood contends that after allowing her counsel to withdraw, Judge Altenberger unfairly denied every motion she filed. The record is wholly devoid of any support for this attack, and as further described below, these arguments are meritless.

C. Subject Matter Jurisdiction and Standard of Review

This appeal is taken from a final order of the United States Bankruptcy Court for the Southern District of Illinois. The undersigned District Judge enjoys jurisdiction to hear this appeal pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 158(a).

Federal Rule of Bankruptcy Procedure 8013 provides that, on appeal, the District Court "may affirm, modify, or reverse a bankruptcy judge's . order . or remand with instructions for ...

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