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Robinsonn v. Hagan

United States District Court, Southern District of Illinois

November 3, 2014

ANNA F. ROBINSON, Appellant,
v.
CYNTHIA A. HAGAN, Appellee. Appeal from Bankr. No. 13-40176

MEMORANDUM AND ORDER

STACI M. YANDLE DISTRICT JUDGE

This matter comes before the Court on appellant Anna F. Robinson’s appeal of the September 30, 2013, and October 24, 2013, orders of the bankruptcy court. Robinson and appellee Cynthia A. Hagan (“the Trustee”) filed their briefs (Docs. 5 & 9), and Robinson filed a reply brief (Doc. 10). For the following reasons, the Court vacates the aforementioned orders of the bankruptcy court.

Background

In 2003, Robinson was working for the Stinson Memorial Library in Anna, Illinois when she saved from destruction a First Edition Mormon Bible (“the Bible”) published in 1830. As a member of the The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, the Bible was particularly important to Robinson. Ultimately, the library relinquished ownership of the Bible to Robinson and provided her with documentation to confirm her ownership. Because of its poor condition, Robinson keeps the Bible sealed in a Ziploc bag for protection. While she does not use the Bible regularly, she does take the Bible out of the Ziploc bag to show it to her family and fellow church members. In 2003, the Bible was appraised as worth at least $10, 000.

On February 25, 2013, Robinson filed her Chapter 7 Bankruptcy Petition in the United States Bankruptcy Court for the Southern District of Illinois. On “Schedule B – Personal Property, ” Robinson disclosed an

old Morman bible (debtor is of Morman faith, unknown the value of the old Morman bible) debtor has been told that there is a 100% exemption for bibles but valuable bibles may or may not be covered under such exemption. (sic)

In re Robinson, Case No. 13-40176-lkg, Doc 1, p. 9. On “Schedule C – Property Claimed as Exempt, ” Robinson listed the Bible as 100% exempt citing to 735 ILCS 5/12-1001(a) as the law specifying the exemption.

The Trustee objected to the exemption claimed by Robinson arguing that it did not qualify for an exemption under the cited statute. Specifically, the Trustee maintained that the Illinois exemption statute at issue was not intended to exempt bibles that were not of ordinary value. The trustee first argued that the word “necessary” modified all items listed in the statute, and because Robinson had other Mormon bibles, this valuable bible was not necessary. Second, the Trustee argued that allowing the exemption of the bible would violate the intent and purpose of the Illinois exemption statute. Ultimately, the bankruptcy court found that “allowing the debtor’s exemption will violate the intent and purpose of the statute. The plain language of the statute as well as its context supports the Trustee’s second argument.” The bankruptcy court did not address whether the Bible was “necessary” under the statute.

Thereafter, Robinson filed the instant appeal. Robinson argues that the bankruptcy court erred in determining the Bible was not exempt because: (1) the plain meaning of Illinois’ personal property exemption statute exempts the Bible; (2) the personal property exemption statute must be liberally construed in favor of the debtor; (3) the legislature did not include a value as a qualifier of an exempt bible; (4) the court based its opinion on guesses of the legislative intent; and (5) the order violates the First Amendment. In response, the Trustee argues that (1) exempting the Bible would frustrate the purpose of the statute, (2) the Bible is not necessary under the statute, and (3) Robinson’s First Amendment argument lacks authority and merit.

Analysis

In a bankruptcy appeal, the bankruptcy court’s findings of fact “shall not be set aside unless clearly erroneous, and due regard shall be given to the opportunity of the bankruptcy court to judge the credibility of the witnesses.” Fed.R.Bankr.P. 8013; see In re Krueger, 192 F.3d 733, 737 (7th Cir. 1999). A finding is clearly erroneous when the reviewing court, having considered the entire body of evidence, is left with the definite and firm conviction that a mistake has been committed. Shaw v. Prentice Hall Comp. Pub., Inc., 151 F.3d 640, 642 (7th Cir. 1998). The standard is highly deferential to the bankruptcy court, and if its view of the evidence is plausible in light of the record as a whole, the district court cannot reverse even if it takes a different view of the evidence. Matter of Love, 957 F.2d 1350, 1354 (7th Cir. 1992). On the other hand, where questions of law are concerned, the district court reviews the bankruptcy court’s ruling de novo. In re Krueger, 192 F.3d at 737. The district court may affirm, modify or reverse a bankruptcy judge’s judgment, order or decree or it may remand with instructions for further proceedings. Fed.R.Bankr.P. 8013. Here, because a question of law is at issue, the Court will review the bankruptcy court’s order de novo.

When in engaging in statutory construction, the primary goal of the court “is to ascertain and give effect to the intention of the legislature.” In re Detention of Lieberman, 776 N.E.2d 218, 307 (Ill. 2002). The court must first look to the language of the statute, “which is ‘the most reliable indicator of the legislature’s objectives in enacting a particular law.’” Id. (quoting Michigan Avenue National Bank, 732 N.E.2d 528, 535 (Ill. 2000)). Where the statutory language is clear, the court must give the statute its plain and ordinary meaning. Michigan Avenue National Bank. 732 N.E.2d at 532.

The Illinois exemption statute provides as follows:

The following personal property, owned by the debtor, is exempt from judgment, ...

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