Where the wife of the debtor initiated a contempt proceeding to enforce a domestic support obligation after the petition for bankruptcy was filed, the contempt proceeding violated the automatic stay. Although the wife argued the contempt proceeding was exempt from the automatic stay because it was a “collection” of a non-estate domestic support obligation, that argument was rejected.
Creditor Yvonne Evans appeals an order from the bankruptcy court granting debtor James Evans’ motion to hold her in contempt of court. The bankruptcy court found that Yvonne violated the automatic stay by filing a petition for rule to show cause in the Augusta County Circuit Court, and that the filing did not fall within any exceptions to the automatic stay.
Upon the filing of the petition, the Bankruptcy Code bars the commencement or continuation of any judicial, administrative or other action against the debtor that was or could have been commenced before the commencement of the bankruptcy case or to recover a claim against the debtor that arose before the bankruptcy case. However, the automatic stay is not without limit. Pertinent to this appeal, § 362(b)(2)(B) provides that the filing of a bankruptcy petition “does not operate as a stay … under subsection (a) … of the collection of a domestic support obligation from property that is not property of the estate.”
Yvonne argues that the contempt proceedings she brought in state court constituted a “collection” of a non-estate domestic support obligation. In doing so, she asks the court to construe § 362(b)(2)(B) broadly to include the initiation of such contempt proceedings. James argues for (and the bankruptcy court below adopted) a narrower reading of “collection” that purports to be consistent with the express language found in other exceptions to the stay and maintains that § 362(b)(2)(B) cannot be read to encompass contempt proceedings to enforce domestic support obligations.
The Fourth Circuit has not directly addressed this issue. While there is a split of authority on this question in lower courts, this court is persuaded by the bankruptcy court’s reasoning and its interpretation of § 362(b)(2)(B).
Section 362(b)(2)(B)’s exception to the automatic stay applies to “the collection of a domestic support obligation that is not property of the estate.” As courts have observed, several exceptions to the automatic stay instead refer to “enforcement” or acts to “enforce.” The Supreme Court has held that “[w]here Congress includes particular language in one section of a statute but omits it in another section of the same Act, it is generally presumed that Congress acts intentionally and purposely in the disparate inclusion or exclusion.”
Yvonne characterizes the filing of the civil contempt suit to enforce the PSA as mere “collection.” In reality, Yvonne’s state-court contempt action could be more accurately described as the “commencement . . . of a civil action or proceeding”—namely, contempt—for the “enforcement” of the PSA and other “domestic support obligation[s].” And reading the entire statute makes clear that Congress knew how to create automatic-stay exceptions for the “commencement” of certain “civil action[s] or proceeding[s],” and for the “enforcement” of certain legal obligations, but chose not to use any of those terms in the exception Yvonne relies upon here. This court is obligated to accept that Congress was purposeful in its word choice and thus that there is no exception to the automatic stay for the commencement of civil contempt enforcement litigation with respect to a domestic support obligation.
Evans v. Evans, Case No. 5:22-cv-00026, March 20, 2023. WDVA at Harrisonburg (Dillon). VLW 023-3-137. 15 pp.