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In re Rivera

United States Court of Appeals, Ninth Circuit

August 10, 2016

In re Maria G. Rivera, Debtor,
v.
Orange County Probation Department, Appellee. Maria G. Rivera, Appellant,

          Argued and Submitted June 6, 2016 Pasadena, California

         Appeal from the Ninth Circuit BAP No. 13-1476 Bankruptcy Appellate Panel Kirscher, Pappas, and Latham, Bankruptcy Judges, Presiding

          Brett H. Ramsaur (argued) and Todd E. Lundell, Snell & Wilmer, Costa Mesa, California, for Appellant.

          Adam C. Clanton (argued), Deputy; Laurie A. Shade, Senior Deputy; Nicholas S. Chrisos, County Counsel; Orange County Counsel, Santa Ana, California; for Appellee.

          Before: Stephen Reinhardt, and Kim McLane Wardlaw, Circuit Judges, and Mark W. Bennett, [*] District Judge.

         SUMMARY[**]

         Bankruptcy

         The panel reversed the judgment of the Bankruptcy Appellate Panel, which had affirmed the bankruptcy court's denial of a debtor's motion to sanction Orange County for persisting post-discharge in its efforts to collect a debt arising from the debtor's son's involuntary juvenile detention.

         The panel held that the debtor's liability for the costs of support of her son while in detention was not a "domestic support obligation" and thus was not excepted from discharge in bankruptcy under 11 U.S.C. § 523(a)(5).

          OPINION

          REINHARDT, Circuit Judge:

         Introduction

         We must decide whether a mother's debt to Orange County arising from her son's involuntary juvenile detention is a "domestic support obligation" and thus excepted from discharge in bankruptcy. We conclude that it is not.

         Factual Background

         Appellant Maria Rivera is the mother of a minor who was held in juvenile detention in Orange County for more than a year, from 2008-2010. Upon her son's release, the County Probation Department sent Rivera a bill.

         California law makes the parents of juvenile detainees "liable for the reasonable costs of support of the minor while the minor is" held in detention. Cal. Welf. & Inst. Code § 903(a). A county may seek reimbursement under § 903 only "for food and food preparation, clothing, personal supplies, and medical expenses, " id., and the statute imposes a cap of $30 per day. § 903(c). Within those constraints, the statute limits the bill to the parents' "ability to pay" at the time the debt is imposed. Id.

         As a result, Rivera's bill did not cover the entire cost to the County of her son's detention, but it was a large sum nevertheless. The County sought to recover $23.90 from Rivera for each day her son was detained, and $2, 199 for legal expenses. The total bill came to $16, 372.

         Rivera did her best to pay. After selling her house, she paid $9, 508 on May 10, 2010. Part of the debt remained, however, and the County continued sending Rivera regular bills. Eventually, she was served with an order to appear before the juvenile court, and when she failed to do so, the court entered a default judgment against her. The judgment stated that she still owed the County $9, 905, despite her earlier payment.[1]

         Several months later, in September 2011, Rivera filed for bankruptcy under Chapter 7 of the Bankruptcy Code. She had no assets to distribute, only debts to discharge. In January 2012, Rivera received a full discharge and, thus, the "fresh start" that the protections of the Bankruptcy Code seek to provide. Harris v. Viegelahn, 135 S.Ct. 1829, 1835 (2015).

         Orange County, however, persisted in its efforts to collect Rivera's debt even after the conclusion of her bankruptcy case. The County believed that Rivera's debt was a "domestic support obligation" ("DSO") like alimony or child support - the kind of debt that is not dischargable in bankruptcy under 11 U.S.C. § 523(a)(5).

         Rivera believed that any remaining debt to the County had been fully discharged. In her bankruptcy petition, she had listed her unpaid obligation to the County as a priority unsecured debt, not a DSO, and the County did not object in writing to this characterization. Rivera moved to reopen her bankruptcy case and asked the bankruptcy court to sanction the County for attempting to ...


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