The opinion of the court was delivered by: Hon. Harry D. Leinenweber
Related to: 09 BK 05868, 09-AP-00770, 10-AP-02239
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER
This case concerns four appeals stemming from a bankruptcy filing by Richard Sharif ("Sharif") and an adversary proceeding filed by his creditor, Wellness International Network, Ltd. ("Wellness"). After Sharif failed to respond to certain discovery requests, the Bankruptcy Court refused to discharge Sharif's debt to Wellness, entered a default against him in the adversary proceeding, and ordered him to pay certain fines and fees. Pending before the Court are Sharif's appeal of those rulings, as well as his sister Ragda Sharifeh's efforts to withdraw the reference to the Bankruptcy Court. Because all the appeals raise the same issues, the Court will decide them jointly. For the reasons stated, the motion to withdraw the reference is denied, and this Court affirms the Bankruptcy Court's rulings in their entirety.
This case has its roots in a dispute litigated in the United States District Court for the Northern District of Texas. In 2005, Appellant Richard Sharif (hereinafter, "Sharif") and others brought suit against Wellness International Network, Ltd. and Ralph and Cathy Oats (collectively, "Wellness"), alleging fraud and violations of the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act ("RIC0"). When Sharif failed to participate in discovery, the district court granted summary judgment to Wellness, a ruling that was affirmed by the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals. In a brief ruling, the appeals court found:
A review of the record on appeal demonstrates that Appellants' untimely performance in this court mirrors a lengthy history in the district court of dilatoriness and hollow posturing interspersed with periods of non-performance or insubstantial performance by Appellants and their counsel, leaving the unmistakable impression that they have no purpose other than to prolong this contumacious litigation for purposes of harassment or delay, or both. The time is long overdue to terminate Appellants' feckless litigation. . . .
Sharif v. Wellness Int'l Network, Ltd., 273 Fed. App'x 316, 317 (5th Cir. 2008). On remand, the district court ordered Sharif to pay Wellness $655,596 in attorney fees. See Sharif v. Wellness Int'l Network, Ltd., No 3:05-CV-01367-B, 2008 WL 5220526 (S.D. Tex. Dec. 12, 2008). Wellness attempted to collect those fees, in part by serving Sharif with discovery requests seeking information related to his assets. Sharif refused to respond to discovery and failed to appear for his deposition. He was held in contempt, arrested, and subsequently released on his own recognizance with a promise to respond to the post-judgment discovery. Sharif never responded, and filed for bankruptcy in the Northern District of Illinois.
A. The Bankruptcy Proceeding
Sharif's bankruptcy petition listed Wellness as a creditor, and Wellness filed a proof of claim. Wellness then obtained, through it own efforts, a loan application Sharif had submitted to Washington Mutual Bank, dated June 14, 2002, in which he admitted that he owned: (1) three businesses valued at $2.4 million; (2) three pieces of property valued at $1.4 million; (3) a retirement account valued at $1.4 million; and (4) three bank accounts with $180,000 in cash (the "Loan Application Assets"). Washington Mutual approved the loan based on these representations. Sharif never produced documents relating to these assets in the Texas litigation.
On March 25, 2009, the parties held the initial Section 341 creditors' meeting. Wellness requested that Sharif provide documentation related to the Loan Application Assets, and the meeting was continued until April 21, 2009, to allow him to do so.
At that time, Sharif failed to provide any documents related to those assets. Instead, he said he had lied on the loan application, and he did not own any of the assets. Rather, he said, they were owned by the Soad Wattar Living Trust, of which he claimed to be the trustee. (Soad Wattar, now deceased, was Sharif's mother.) Wellness requested that Sharif produce documents evidencing the formation and funding of the trust. The creditors' meeting was continued until June 3, 2009. Sharif failed to provide the requested documents and unsuccessfully sought a protective order requesting that he not have to turn over that information.
On October 20, 2009, due to Sharif's failure to produce the requested documents, the Bankruptcy Trustee filed a Motion for Turnover of the property of the estate, which the Bankruptcy Court granted pursuant to 11 U.S.C. §§ 521(3) and 542(a). Among other things, the Bankruptcy Court ordered Sharif to turn over documentation related to the trust. Sharif failed to comply with this order.
B. The Adversary Proceeding
On August 24, 2009, after Sharif failed to provide documents related to the Soad Wattar Trust, Wellness filed an adversary proceeding against Sharif, individually and as trustee of the trust. The Adversary Complaint objected to the discharge of Sharif's debt pursuant to 11 U.S.C. §§ 727(a)(2), (3), (4) and (5). Essentially, the Complaint accused Sharif of hiding assets, and sought a declaratory judgment that the Soad Wattar Trust was Sharif's alter ego.
Sharif was to respond to Wellness's discovery requests by March 15, 2010, and his deposition was noticed for March 24, 2010. On March 12, 2010, almost a month after being served with discovery, Sharif's counsel requested an extension of time to complete discovery. Sharif's counsel said he believed Sharif had traveled to Syria.
On March 24, 2010, Sharif filed a motion to postpone his deposition and delay his discovery responses. Sharif did not appear at his deposition. On April 7, 2010, the Bankruptcy Court denied that motion. On April 13, Wellness's counsel conferred with Sharif's counsel to resolve the dispute over the discovery responses. Wellness wanted Sharif to respond to the discovery requests by April 23, 2010, but Sharif's counsel could not agree to that because he did not know when Sharif would return to this country.
Wellness responded by filing a Motion to Compel, which was granted by the Bankruptcy Court on April 21, 2010. The Bankruptcy Court ordered Sharif to respond to all outstanding discovery requests by April 28, 2010. The Bankruptcy Court warned that if he did not do so, an Order of Default would be entered against him. On April 27, 2010, Sharif produced about 1,500 pages of discovery. On May 13, 2010, Sharif sat for his deposition. Unsatisfied with his answers, Wellness supplemented its Motion to compel with his deposition testimony. At a hearing on May 24, 2010, counsel for Wellness identified several categories of documents that Sharif had failed to produce, including: (1) documents related to the Richard Sharif Trust, which was listed on his Bankruptcy Petition; (2) documents relating to accounts at A.G. Edwards in Sharif's name;
(3) documents relating to certain bank accounts at Banco Popular, J.P. Morgan Chase, and Wells Fargo that Sharif owned or to which he had access; (4) documents related to the formation and founding of the Soad Wattar Trust; and (5) documents showing the disposition of the Loan Application Assets. Following a lengthy recitation of these various deficiencies by counsel for Wellness, Sharif's counsel said that Sharif had made a good faith effort to comply with the discovery requests. He said that Sharif was unable to meet the deadlines because he was in Syria with his dying mother, and produced proof of the Syria trip. Sharif's counsel objected that counsel for Wellness had not consulted with him before supplementing its motion to compel and moving for default. Sharif did not attend this hearing.
After the evidentiary hearing, the Bankruptcy Court issued a ruling granting Wellness's motion to compel on July 6, 2010. The Bankruptcy Court found that Sharif was prohibited from opposing Wellness' claims in the adversary proceeding, struck his answer to the adversary complaint, and entered a default judgment in favor of Wellness. The Court also denied Sharif a discharge pursuant to 11 U.S.C. § 727(a)(2)--(a)(6). This order was entered both in the adversary proceeding and the bankruptcy proceeding.
In its ruling, the Bankruptcy Court outlined various failings by Sharif in connection with his discovery obligations, including his failure to sign or verify certain discovery responses and his continuous failure to provide documents requested by Wellness and the bankruptcy trustee. The Bankruptcy Court then outlined several categories in which Sharif was deficient. Specifically, Sharif failed to produce: (1) documents related to the Washington Mutual Loan Application and the assets listed therein; (2) documents related to the Richard Sharif Revocable Trust that he listed in his sworn bankruptcy schedule; (3) certain bank statements and financial records; (4) records showing the disposition of certain assets in which he once claimed an interest; (5) records showing the formation and funding of the Soad Wattar Trust; (6) signed tax returns; and (7) documents evidencing alleged debts to family members.
The Bankruptcy Court found that Sharif had not made a "serious effort" to comply with the discovery requests either before or after his mother's death. The Bankruptcy Court further found that counsel for Wellness had met its obligation under Local Rule 37.2 to consult with counsel for Sharif before filing the initial motion to compel. The court noted that while Sharif's counsel asserted that additional documents had been turned over following the deposition, those documents were still produced after the April 28, 2010 deadline. Nor did counsel for Sharif explain what the documents contained, why they were not produced sooner, or whether they were responsive to Wellness' requests.
The Bankruptcy Court concluded by noting, "This court has stated time and time again that Bankruptcy Courts provide extraordinary relief that requires extraordinary cooperation." Because Sharif had failed to comply with most of Wellness' discovery requests, and because the lack of compliance was part of a pattern dating back to the underlying litigation in Texas, the court granted the motion to compel.
Subsequently, on August 9, 2010, the Bankruptcy Court awarded attorneys' fees and costs to Wellness in connection with the motion for sanctions in the amount of $54,405.99, and $8,349.75, respectively. On November 18, 2010, the Court entered an order granting Wellness fees and costs in connection with the 341 creditors' meeting.
Sharif appealed all of these orders. Initially, three of the appeals were pending before Judge James B. Zagel, but this Court granted the parties' joint motion to consolidate all the appeals before this Court, which ...