May 6, 2015

Tenth Circuit: Fundamentally Ambiguous Questioning Required Plain Error Reversal

The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals issued its opinion in United States v. Hale on Tuesday, August 12, 2014.

Thomas Hale filed a voluntary Chapter 13 bankruptcy petition in 2005. He listed three pieces of property in Schedule A, including a Salt Lake City property he listed as valued at $190,000 despite a property tax assessment indicating the property was worth $268,900; he had challenged the property tax valuation. He moved to convert his Chapter 13 case to Chapter 7 in July 2006 and an order was entered to that effect. This transferred control of his non-exempt assets, including the Salt Lake City property, to a bankruptcy trustee, Elizabeth Loveridge. Loveridge questioned Hale under oath at a creditors’ meeting on August 22, 2006, and Hale testified that the information he provided in his bankruptcy document was true, complete, and accurate. However, that same day, he advertised the Salt Lake City property in two newspapers for $396,075 or appraisal. A real estate agent contacted him and eventually found a buyer for the property who would pay $395,000 if Hale paid half the closing costs. Hale entered into a contract with the buyer and did not inform the buyer about the bankruptcy proceedings. Hale also signed an agreement with the buyer that Hale could continue to live on the property. He did not inform the trustee about the transaction.

When a title insurance representative contacted Loveridge, she instructed him to cancel the sale. Hale appeared at her office twice that day unannounced and appearing “agitated and angry.” At the second meeting, he gave Loveridge several documents, including an ex parte motion to approve the sale and a motion to revert to Chapter 13 status, both of which he had filed with the bankrutpcy court. He attached a letter to the ex parte motion dated ten days previous and an affidavit by his office manager that the letter was mailed on that previous date. However, the letter referenced the ex parte motion, which was filed ten days later and would not have been created if Loveridge had received the letter.

Loveridge hired a real estate agent to renegotiate the contract with the buyer. The renegotiated contract specified that all tenants would be evicted. The bankruptcy court approved the sale and Loveridge initiated eviction proceedings. Hale sent Loveridge several handwritten notes via fax, one of which advised her of a possible haz-mat problem in an orange package. When the orange package arrived, Loveridge called the police. After much inspection, the package was opened, and it contained a baggie with unidentified material and a note that said “Possible haz-mat? Termites or hanta virus [sic] from mice?” It was eventually determined to contain no hantavirus material.

After a jury trial, Hale was convicted of making a materially false statement under oath during the bankruptcy proceeding regarding the value of the Salt Lake City property, concealing the purchase contract from the trustee and creditors, and perpetrating a hoax regarding the transmission of a biological agent. Hale challenged his convictions.

The Tenth Circuit first addressed Hale’s challenge for knowingly and fraudulently making a false statement under oath. The government alleged that he knew well that his property was worth more than he listed in the bankruptcy documents at the time he made statements under oath that the documents were true and correct. Hale countered that the questions were fundamentally ambiguous. The Tenth Circuit conducted a plain error review and concluded that the statements were indeed ambiguous based on prior Tenth Circuit precedent involving similar questions. The Tenth Circuit reversed Hale’s conviction based on this charge and remanded for entry of judgment of acquittal on the false statement charge.

Next, the Tenth Circuit turned to Hale’s concealment of the purchase of the Salt Lake City property. Hale argued that the purchase agreement was void or, alternatively, that it did not meet the statutory definition of “property belonging to the estate of a debtor.” The Tenth Circuit did not support Hale’s argument that the contract was void ab initio, instead finding it was voidable. Hale conceded that the proceeds would be property of the bankruptcy estate but the contract was not. However, the purchase agreement created an interest in proceeds, so the Tenth Circuit affirmed Hale’s conviction on this count.

Finally, the Tenth Circuit addressed Hale’s conviction for perpetrating a hoax involving biological weapons. Hale had relied on the pending U.S. Supreme Court decision in Bond v. United States to render the error plain by holding an analogous statute unconstitutional. However, the Bond ruling did not reach the constitutional issue. Hale’s attack to the sufficiency of the evidence failed and the Tenth Circuit affirmed his conviction on this count.

The order of the district court was affirmed in part, reversed in part, and remanded for entry of acquittal on the false statement charge.

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