Ninth Circuit Creates Split Re Meaning of "Actual Damages" in 11 U.S.C. s. 362(k)(1)
Per Sternberg v. Johnston, --- F.3d ----, 2009 WL 3381162 (9th Cir. Oct. 22, 2009):
Sternberg also argues that the bankruptcy court erred in calculating Johnston's damages because it awarded attorney fees not only for the work associated with remedying the stay violation but also for the subsequent adversary proceeding in which Johnston sought to collect damages for the stay violation. We agree. . . . The relevant statute, 11 U.S.C. § 362(k)(1), states that “an individual injured by any willful violation of a stay ... shall recover actual damages, including costs and attorneys' fees, and, in appropriate circumstances, may recover punitive damages.” . . .
[W]e conclude that the plain meaning of “actual damages” points to a different result. The dictionary defines “actual damages” as “[a]n amount awarded ... to compensate for a proven injury or loss; damages that repay actual losses.” BLACK'S LAW DICTIONARY 416 (8th ed.2004). Following this definition, the proven injury is the injury resulting from the stay violation itself. Once the violation has ended, any fees the debtor incurs after that point in pursuit of a damage award would not be to compensate for “actual damages” under § 362(k)(1).
We recognize that the Fifth Circuit appears to have held to the contrary: “The lower courts in our Circuit have concluded that it is proper to award attorney's fees that were incurred prosecuting a section 362(k) claim [,]” and “[w]e adopt the same reading of section 362(k) and therefore agree.” Young v. Repine (In re Repine), 536 F.3d 512, 522 (5th Cir.2008). We do not create a circuit split lightly. But the above-quoted language is all the court said on the issue. Without more, we are hard-pressed to find this decision persuasive.