In State of Montana Dept. of Revenue v. Blixseth, No. 18-15064, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals held that a creditor only has standing to file an involuntary petition against a debtor if the entirety of its debt is not subject to a bona fide dispute. If the amount of the claim is even partially disputed, the creditor cannot be a petitioning creditor. Pursuant to Section 303(b)(1), a petitioning creditor’s claim must not be contingent or the subject of a bona fide dispute as to liability or amount. In Blixseth, the debtor’s 2004 taxes were under audit. The debtor conceded that a deduction he took was improper but there were other adjustments and deductions that were unresolved and were in the process of being tried in front of the Montana State Tax Appeals Board. While the complaint was pending, plaintiff and other creditors filed an involuntary petition against the debtor. Plaintiff’s claim in the involuntary petition consisted only of the taxes owed, which flowed from the deduction issue that was resolved. Plaintiff contended, however, that it had total claims against the debtor of much more than what was asserted and that most of the additional claims were disputed. The bankruptcy court acknowledged that a taxing authority “has but one claim for each calendar year of a taxpayer’s life” and that plaintiff failed to show that it was allowed to create separate claims. The bankruptcy court held that since some of the debtor’s liability to the plaintiff for the 2004 tax year was disputed, plaintiff’s claim was subject to a bona fide dispute and plaintiff did not have standing to be a petitioning creditor. The district court agreed and the Ninth Circuit affirmed.
Because of the harsh penalties to creditors that can be assessed under Section 303(i) (such as costs and attorneys’ fees and even punitive damages if the court finds bad faith) if the involuntary case is eventually dismissed, creditors should tread carefully in joining or filing an involuntary petition against a debtor. The creditor should have an iron clad claim, none of which is disputed.
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