By William Sawyer, Chief U.S. Bankruptcy Judge for the Middle District of Alabama (Montgomery) (Used with permission. Court News and Views, Volume 18, October 2020)
Lawyers who practice regularly in bankruptcy court invariably make many appearances at motion dockets. This article provides practice pointers to lawyers who do not practice often in this Court to familiarize them with our procedures and perhaps provide a brush up for those that do.
- A well-drafted motion or objection is the first step. The motion should recite facts which relate to the case at hand. Boilerplate motions are not well received and may result in a denial, without prejudice, leaving the lawyer to begin anew.
- The motion should state specifically: (a) what the pleader wants; and (b) why the Court should grant the relief requested.
- If there is an opposing party, counsel should reach out and attempt to resolve the matter. It is a poor reflection on both counsel when the Court calls a mater which is not resolved and counsel for the parties have not talked to one another.
- Settlements are encouraged. Most matters are either settled or are granted by default. If a matter is settled, one counsel should be assigned to contact the Court by e-mail at least one day in advance. The Court has an administrative order on this point that should be observed. If a matter is settled more than 24 hours in advance, and an e-mail was sent to the appropriate Court e-mail, counsel need not attend the hearing.
- Agreed orders should be submitted using the Court’s prescribed e-order process. Directions are provided on the Court’s website.
- Is a continuance to be requested? The reason for the continuance and the amount of time needed to resolve the matter should be provided. Multiple requests for continuance are not well received.
- Counsel should interview their clients before the hearing. It is bad form for counsel in open court to be asking his client open ended questions as to why chapter 13 plan payments have not been made.
- When a matter is called, moving counsel should speak first and advise the Court as to the status of the matter. Is it resolved? Will an e-order be submitted? If it is not resolved, is an evidentiary hearing necessary? If so, what issues have to be tried? Has counsel attempted in good faith to resolve any issues not in dispute? If there are legal issues to be decided, will briefs be necessary? At this stage of the proceedings, the lawyers are expected to know more than the Court about the matter at hand and should be able to explain, succinctly, how the matter is to be resolved.
- If an evidentiary hearing is necessary, counsel should provide a good faith estimate as to how much time he expects the Court will need to hear the matter –an hour, a day, a week? How many witnesses will be called? Will there be documentary exhibits? If so, how many? A handful, several dozen, several hundred, more than a thousand?
- Talking out of turn is in bad form. Moving counsel goes first. The exception is if opposing counsel no longer contests the motion and is giving up. After moving counsel has been heard, any other parties who support the motion may be heard. Next, opposing counsel is heard. Moving counsel may reply if she wants to be heard again. Generally, that is it. We generally do not hear further argument.
- Motions to reconsider should be filed only for extraordinary reasons, and only where counsel has met the appropriate legal standard. A motion to reconsider simply to take another bite at the apple is in bad form.
- Counsel should address the merits of the matter at hand and not engage in ad hominem attacks on opposing counsel or opposing parties.
- Counsel should be addressed by the appropriate title and surname, i.e. Mr. Jones or Dr. Walker, not Bubba or Gus. The Court should be addressed as “Your Honor” or “Judge Sawyer,” not, “Hey Judge.”
- When appearing on a telephonic docket counsel should keep their phones muted until their matter is called. Guidance for muting your phones is found on our website.
- Counsel should be guided at all times by notions of professionalism and collegiality.
This article provides practice pointers for lawyers who practice in our Court. Using these pointers should help all of us move our cases along quickly, efficiently, and collegially.
The Honorable William R. Sawyer was appointed as a Bankruptcy Judge for the United States Bankruptcy Court for the Middle District of Alabama on May 24, 1999. He served as Chief Judge from 1999 to 2006 and a second term from 2013 to 2020. His chambers are in Montgomery, Alabama, with satellite courthouses in Dothan and Opelika, Alabama. Judge Sawyer served as the Eleventh Circuit representative to the Board of Governors of the National Conference of Bankruptcy Judges from 2014 to 2016. Judge Sawyer graduated from Valparaiso University School of Law in 1982 and was admitted to the Indiana bar the same year. Upon graduation, Judge Sawyer joined the law firm of Clifford, Claudon, Alexa and Sawyer, in the private practice of law in Valparaiso, Indiana, until 1986. In June of 1986, he accepted a position as a Trial Attorney for the United States Department of Justice, Tax Division, as a Trial Attorney, working in Washington, DC. In 1989, Sawyer accepted a position as an Assistant United States Attorney in the Southern District of Alabama, serving there until 1999, when he was appointed to the bankruptcy bench. He was admitted to the Alabama bar in 1991. Judge Sawyer has served as an Adjunct Professor at Faulkner University, Jones School of Law, teaching bankruptcy law since 2005. Judge Sawyer served as an Adjunct Professor at Huntington College, teaching business law, from 2002 to 2006. He lectures and writes frequently on bankruptcy related issues. He authored two articles for the Alabama Law: (1) Top 10 Things Never to Say to a Judge, 72 Ala. Law 476, November 2011; (2) Civil Actions and Bankruptcy Proceedings: A Collision of Two Very Different Worlds, 68 Ala. Law 290, July 2007.