Certiorari To The Supreme Court Of Arizona

No. 15-1031. Argued March 20, 2017--Decided May 15, 2017

The Uniformed Services Former Spouses’ Protection Act authorizes States to treat veterans’ “disposable retired pay” as community property divisible upon divorce, 10 U. S. C. 1408, but expressly excludes from its definition of “disposable retired pay” amounts deducted from that pay “as a result of a waiver . . . required by law in order to receive” disability benefits, 1408(a)(4)(B). The divorce decree of petitioner John Howell and respondent Sandra Howell awarded Sandra 50% of John’s future Air Force retirement pay, which she began to receive when John retired the following year. About 13 years later, the Department of Veterans Affairs found that John was partially disabled due to an earlier service-related injury. To receive disability pay, federal law required John to give up an equivalent amount of retirement pay. 38 U. S. C. 5305. By his election, John waived about $250 of his retirement pay, which also reduced the value of Sandra’s 50% share. Sandra petitioned the Arizona family court to enforce the original divorce decree and restore the value of her share of John’s total retirement pay. The court held that the original divorce decree had given Sandra a vested interest in the prewaiver amount of John’s retirement pay and ordered John to ensure that she receive her full 50% without regard for the disability waiver. The Arizona Supreme Court affirmed, holding that federal law did not pre-empt the family court’s order.

Held: A state court may not order a veteran to indemnify a divorced spouse for the loss in the divorced spouse’s portion of the veteran’s retirement pay caused by the veteran’s waiver of retirement pay to receive service-related disability benefits. This Court’s decision in Mansell v. Mansell, 490 U. S. 581, determines the outcome here. There, the Court held that federal law completely pre-empts the States from treating waived military retirement pay as divisible community property. Id., at 594–595. The Arizona Supreme Court attempted to distinguish Mansell by emphasizing the fact that the veteran’s waiver in that case took place before the divorce proceeding while the waiver here took place several years after the divorce. This temporal difference highlights only that John’s military pay at the time it came to Sandra was subject to a future contingency, meaning that the value of Sandra’s share of military retirement pay was possibly worth less at the time of the divorce. Nothing in this circumstance makes the Arizona courts’ reimbursement award to Sandra any the less an award of the portion of military pay that John waived in order to obtain disability benefits. That the Arizona courts referred to her interest in the waivable portion as having “vested” does not help: State courts cannot “vest” that which they lack the authority to give. Neither can the State avoid Mansell by describing the family court order as an order requiring John to “reimburse” or to “indemnify” Sandra, rather than an order dividing property, a semantic difference and nothing more. Regardless of their form, such orders displace the federal rule and stand as an obstacle to the accomplishment and execution of the purposes and objectives of Congress. Family courts remain free to take account of the contingency that some military retirement pay might be waived or take account of reductions in value when calculating or recalculating the need for spousal support. Here, however, the state courts made clear that the original divorce decree divided the whole of John’s military pay, and their decisions rested entirely upon the need to restore Sandra’s lost portion. Pp. 6–8.

238 Ariz. 407, 361 P. 3d 936, reversed and remanded.

Breyer, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Roberts, C. J., and Kennedy, Ginsburg, Alito, Sotomayor, and Kagan, JJ., joined. Thomas, J., filed an opinion concurring in part and concurring in the judgment. Gorsuch, J., took no part in the consideration or decision of the case.


Certiorari To The Supreme Court Of Kentucky

No. 16-32. Argued February 22, 2017--Decided May 15, 2017

Respondents Beverly Wellner and Janis Clark—the wife and daughter, respectively, of Joe Wellner and Olive Clark—each held a power of attorney affording her broad authority to manage her family member’s affairs. When Joe and Olive moved into a nursing home operated by petitioner Kindred Nursing Centers L. P., Beverly and Janis used their powers of attorney to complete all necessary paperwork. As part of that process, each signed an arbitration agreement on her relative’s behalf providing that any claims arising from the relative’s stay at the facility would be resolved through binding arbitration. After Joe and Olive died, their estates (represented by Beverly and Janis) filed suits alleging that Kindred’s substandard care had caused their deaths. Kindred moved to dismiss the cases, arguing that the arbitration agreements prohibited bringing the disputes to court. The trial court denied Kindred’s motions, and the Kentucky Court of Appeals agreed that the suits could go forward.

The Kentucky Supreme Court consolidated the cases and affirmed. The court initially found that the language of the Wellner power of attorney did not permit Beverly to enter into an arbitration agreement on Joe’s behalf, but that the Clark document gave Janis the capacity to do so on behalf of Olive. Nonetheless, the court held, both arbitration agreements were invalid because neither power of attorney specifically entitled the representative to enter into an arbitration agreement. Because the Kentucky Constitution declares the rights of access to the courts and trial by jury to be “sacred” and “inviolate,” the court determined, an agent could deprive her principal of such rights only if expressly provided in the power of attorney.

Held: The Kentucky Supreme Court’s clear-statement rule violates the Federal Arbitration Act by singling out arbitration agreements for disfavored treatment. Pp. 4–10.

(a) The FAA, which makes arbitration agreements “valid, irrevocable, and enforceable, save upon such grounds as exist at law or in equity for the revocation of any contract,” 9 U. S. C. 2, establishes an equal-treatment principle: A court may invalidate an arbitration agreement based on “generally applicable contract defenses,” but not on legal rules that “apply only to arbitration or that derive their meaning from the fact that an agreement to arbitrate is at issue,” AT&T Mobility LLC v. Concepcion, 563 U. S. 333. The Act thus preempts any state rule that discriminates on its face against arbitration or that covertly accomplishes the same objective by disfavoring contracts that have the defining features of arbitration agreements.

The Kentucky Supreme Court’s clear-statement rule fails to put arbitration agreements on an equal plane with other contracts. By requiring an explicit statement before an agent can relinquish her principal’s right to go to court and receive a jury trial, the court did exactly what this Court has barred: adopt a legal rule hinging on the primary characteristic of an arbitration agreement. Pp. 4–7.

(b) In support of the decision below, respondents argue that the clear-statement rule affects only contract formation, and that the FAA does not apply to contract formation questions. But the Act’s text says otherwise. The FAA cares not only about the “enforce[ment]” of arbitration agreements, but also about their initial “valid[ity]”—that is, about what it takes to enter into them. 9 U. S. C. 2. Precedent confirms the point. In Concepcion, the Court noted the impermissibility of applying a contract defense like duress “in a fashion that disfavors arbitration.” 563 U. S., at 341. That discussion would have made no sense if the FAA had nothing to say about contract formation, because duress involves “unfair dealing at the contract formation stage.” Morgan Stanley Capital Group Inc. v. Public Util. Dist. No. 1 of Snohomish Cty., 554 U. S. 527. Finally, respondents’ view would make it trivially easy for States to undermine the Act. Pp. 7–9.

(c) Because the Kentucky Supreme Court invalidated the Clark-Kindred arbitration agreement based exclusively on the clear-statement rule, the court must now enforce that agreement. But because it is unclear whether the court’s interpretation of the Wellner document was wholly independent of its rule, the court should determine on remand whether it adheres, in the absence of the rule, to its prior reading of that power of attorney. Pp. 9–10.

478 S. W. 3d 306, reversed in part, vacated in part, and remanded.

Kagan, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Roberts, C. J., and Kennedy, Ginsburg, Breyer, Alito, and Sotomayor, JJ., joined. Thomas, J., filed a dissenting opinion. Gorsuch, J., took no part in the consideration or decision of the case.


Certiorari To The United States Court Of Appeals For The Eleventh Circuit

No. 16-348. Argued January 17, 2017--Decided May 15, 2017

Petitioner Midland Funding filed a proof of claim in respondent Johnson’s Chapter 13 bankruptcy case, asserting that Johnson owed Midland credit-card debt and noting that the last time any charge appeared on Johnson’s account was more than 10 years ago. The relevant statute of limitations under Alabama law is six years. Johnson objected to the claim, and the Bankruptcy Court disallowed it. Johnson then sued Midland, claiming that its filing a proof of claim on an obviously time-barred debt was “false,” “deceptive,” “misleading,” “unconscionable,” and “unfair” within the meaning of the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, 15 U. S. C. 1692e, 1692f. The District Court held that the Act did not apply and dismissed the suit. The Eleventh Circuit reversed.

Held: The filing of a proof of claim that is obviously time barred is not a false, deceptive, misleading, unfair, or unconscionable debt collection practice within the meaning of the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act. Pp. 2–10.

(a) Midland’s proof of claim was not “false, deceptive, or misleading.” The Bankruptcy Code defines the term “claim” as a “right to payment,” 11 U. S. C. 101(5)(A), and state law usually determines whether a person has such a right, see Travelers Casualty & Surety Co. of America v. Pacific Gas & Elec. Co., 549 U. S. 443–451. The relevant Alabama law provides that a creditor has the right to payment of a debt even after the limitations period has expired.

Johnson argues that the word “claim” means “enforceable claim.” But the word “enforceable” does not appear in the Code’s definition, and Johnson’s interpretation is difficult to square with Congress’s intent “to adopt the broadest available definition of ‘claim,’ ” Johnson v. Home State Bank, 501 U. S. 78. Other Code provisions are still more difficult to square with Johnson’s interpretation. For example, 502(b)(1) says that if a “claim” is “unenforceable” it will be disallowed, not that it is not a “claim.” Other provisions make clear that the running of a limitations period constitutes an affirmative defense that a debtor is to assert after the creditor makes a “claim.” 502, 558. The law has long treated unenforceability of a claim (due to the expiration of the limitations period) as an affirmative defense, and there is nothing misleading or deceptive in the filing of a proof of claim that follows the Code’s similar system.

Indeed, to determine whether a statement is misleading normally “requires consideration of the legal sophistication of its audience,” Bates v. State Bar of Ariz., 433 U. S. 350, which in a Chapter 13 bankruptcy includes a trustee who is likely to understand that a proof of claim is a statement by the creditor that he or she has a right to payment that is subject to disallowance, including disallowance based on untimeliness. Pp. 2–5.

(b) Several circumstances, taken together, lead to the conclusion that Midland’s proof of claim was not “unfair” or “unconscionable” within the terms of the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act.

Johnson points out that several lower courts have found or indicated that, in the context of an ordinary civil action to collect a debt, a debt collector’s assertion of a claim known to be time barred is “unfair.” But those courts rested their conclusions upon their concern that a consumer might unwittingly repay a time-barred debt. Such considerations have significantly diminished force in a Chapter 13 bankruptcy, where the consumer initiates the proceeding, see 301, 303(a); where a knowledgeable trustee is available, see 1302(a); where procedural rules more directly guide the evaluation of claims, see Fed. Rule Bkrtcy. Proc. 3001(c)(3)(A); and where the claims resolution process is “generally a more streamlined and less unnerving prospect for a debtor than facing a collection lawsuit,” In re Gatewood, 533 B. R. 905, 909.

Also unpersuasive is Johnson’s argument that there is no legitimate reason for allowing a practice like this one that risks harm to the debtor. The bankruptcy system treats untimeliness as an affirmative defense and normally gives the trustee the burden of investigating claims to see if one is stale. And, at least on occasion, the assertion of even a stale claim can benefit the debtor.

More importantly, a change in the simple affirmative-defense approach, carving out an exception, would require defining the exception’s boundaries. Does it apply only where a claim’s staleness appears on the face of the proof of claim? Does it apply to other affirmative defenses or only to the running of the limitations period? Neither the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act nor the Bankruptcy Code indicates that Congress intended an ordinary civil court applying the Act to determine answers to such bankruptcy-related questions. The Act and the Code have different purposes and structural features. The Act seeks to help consumers by preventing consumer bankruptcies in the first place, while the Code creates and maintains the “delicate balance of a debtor’s protections and obligations,” Kokoszka v. Belford, 417 U. S. 642. Applying the Act in this context would upset that “delicate balance.”

Contrary to the argument of the United States, the promulgation of Bankruptcy Rule 9011 did not resolve this issue. Pp. 5–10.

823 F. 3d 1334, reversed.

Breyer, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Roberts, C. J., and Kennedy, Thomas, and Alito, JJ., joined. Sotomayor, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which Ginsburg and Kagan, JJ., joined. Gorsuch, J., took no part in the consideration or decision of the case.