United States District Court, D. Delaware
In re TRIBUNE MEDIA COMPANY, et al, Reorganized Debtors.
TRIBUNE MEDIA COMPANY, et al. Appellees. ROBERT HENKE, Appellant,
before me is an appeal filed pro se by Robert Henke
seeking vacatur of the Bankruptcy Court's Order
Sustaining Objection to Claim of Robert Henke and the Opinion
related to that Order, both dated May 25, 2016. (D.I. 1-1,
1-2). I have jurisdiction over this appeal pursuant to 28
U.S.C. § 158(a)(1). Briefing is complete, and the
Parties have submitted supplemental letters on the Bankruptcy
Court's procedure. (D.I. 18, 19, 20, 28, 29). For the
reasons that follow, the order of the Bankruptcy Court is
VACATED, and the case is
REMANDED for further consideration
consistent with this order.
Henke's claim stems from an October 7, 2007 article
published by the Baltimore Sun ("the Sun") titled
A Modern Day Ahab-In Pursuit of Geologic
Immortality, Inventor Robert Henke Has Sacrificed Everything:
Comfort, Career, Family ("the Article").
(See D.I. 10-2 at 50-62). The Article appeared on
the front page of the Sun and spanned more than two pages of
the Sunday paper. (D.I. 18 at 23). The Sun also published the
Article online. (D.I. 10-2 at 50). The Article discusses Mr.
Henke's childhood, family life, and career with a focus
on his efforts to develop a soil testing technology that
predicts how soils will react in an earthquake. (Id.
Henke, proceeding pro se, filed a lawsuit against
the Sun on October 3, 2008 in the Circuit Court for Baltimore
City, Maryland ("Maryland Court"). (D.I. 1-1 at 4;
Bankr. D.I. 11931-3, Exh. D (original
Complaint)). The Maryland Court received the Complaint
on October 7, 2008. (Bankr. D.I. 11931-3, Exh. D). The clerk
rejected his submission, however, for failure to follow
certain court procedures. (Bankr. D.I. 11931-3, Exh. E). Mr.
Henke responded to the clerk's rejection on October 13,
2008 but did not provide a new copy of the Complaint. (Bankr.
D.I. 11931-3, Exh. F). The Maryland Court received his
response on October 17, 2008. (Id.). On December 18,
2008, he learned that the Maryland Court had no record of his
case. (D.I. 10-3 at 66). Mr. Henke again submitted his
Complaint on December 30, 2008. (Id.). The Maryland
court docketed Mr. Henke's Complaint on January 12, 2009.
(Bankr. D.I. 11792-3).
on December 8, 2008, the Sun entered Chapter 11 Bankruptcy.
(D.I. 19 at 6). The Bankruptcy Court established June 12,
2009 as the final date for individuals holding claims against
the Sun to file proofs of claim in the Chapter 11 case.
(Id. at 7). Mr. Henke filed a proof of claim on June
8, 2009. (Bankr. D.I. 3796-2). He included in his proof of
claim various filings from the Maryland Court action and his
original Complaint. (Id.). The Debtors objected to
Mr. Henke's claim on March 19, 2010. (Bankr. D.I. 3796).
They argued that Mr. Henke's claim was time-barred under
Maryland law and that Mr. Henke had failed to state a claim
as a matter of Maryland law. (D.I. 19 at 7-8).
the Debtors filed their objection, the Parties discussed
potential resolution of Mr. Henke's claim and the
possibility of allowing the Maryland litigation to go
forward. (Id. at 8). In March 2012, not having
reached a resolution, the Parties agreed to advance the Claim
Objection in the Bankruptcy Court. (Id.). Mr. Henke
filed a new claim with an Amended Complaint and the Debtors
maintained their objections. (Id. at 9). On July 11,
2012, the Bankruptcy Court held a hearing on the claim
objection where the Debtors and Mr. Henke presented oral
argument. (Bankr. D.I. 11988; D.I. 10-3 (transcript of
the hearing, the Debtors argued two points. First, they
argued that Mr. Henke had not filed his defamation claim
within Maryland's one-year statute of limitations period.
(D.I. 10-3 at 50). Second, they argued that Mr. Henke failed
to state a claim for defamation or fraud. (Id. at
51). The Court allowed Mr. Henke to respond. (Id. at
58-102). He was under oath for most of his argument.
(Id. at 64-65). Mr. Henke argued that his claims
were not time barred, explaining that he had initially
submitted his complaint prior to the close of the limitations
period. (Id. at 63-77). He also argued that his
complaint adequately stated a claim to move past the pleading
stage. (Id. at 77-93). The Bankruptcy Court allowed
the Debtors to cross-examine Mr. Henke following Mr.
Henke's argument. (Id. at 93-99).
Bankruptcy Court issued its opinion on May 25, 2016. (D.I.
1-1). The opinion states that it "constitutes the
findings of fact and conclusions of law" on the claim.
(Id. at 1 n.2). The issues the Bankruptcy Court
resolved in the opinion are: "(i) whether Mr.
Henke's defamation claim is barred by the statute of
limitations; (ii) whether Mr. Henke has proven his defamation
claims; and (iii) whether Mr. Henke has proven his fraud
claims by clear and convincing evidence." (Id.
at 8). The Bankruptcy Court found that Mr. Henke's claims
were not barred by the statute of limitations, that Mr. Henke
failed to prove his defamation claims, that Mr. Henke failed
to prove his fraud claim by clear and convincing evidence,
that Mr. Henke failed to prove his fraudulent concealment
claim, and that Mr. Henke failed to prove his conspiracy
claim. (Id. at 12, 35-36, 39-40, 41 n.148).
Henke filed a notice of appeal of the Bankruptcy Court's
decision on June 8, 2016. (D.I. 1).
Statute of Limitations
Bankruptcy Court found, and the Appellees do not dispute,
that the applicable Maryland statute of limitations did not
bar, as a matter of Maryland law, Mr. Henke's defamation
claim. (D.I. 1-1 at 8-12). Rather, the Appellees argue,
"The relevant issue is not whether the Clerk of the
Maryland Circuit Court properly rejected the complaint in
October 2008, but whether the corrected complaint filed in
January 2009 could relate back to the pre-petition period in
light of the imposition of the automatic stay." (D.I. 19
at 25). The Appellees mentioned this possible basis for
relief in a single sentence, with no analysis, at the
Bankruptcy Court. (Bankr. D.I. 11792 at ¶ 15
("Because the complaint was filed in violation of the
automatic stay, 11 U.S.C. § 362(a), it is void ab initio
under applicable bankruptcy law .. . ."). They do not
provide much more analysis on appeal. (D.I. 19 at 25-26).
not read the Bankruptcy Court's opinion as requiring Mr.
Henke to rely on "relation back" to fall within the
limitations period. Rather, as the Bankruptcy Court noted, a
civil action in Maryland "is commenced by filing a
complaint with a court." Md. Rule 2-101. Maryland law
deems a complaint filed as of the date it is received by a
Maryland Court, not as of the date it is docketed or date
stamped. (D.I. 1-1 at 9 (citing Mole v. Jutton, 846
A.2d 1035, 1039-40 (Md. 2004) ("[T]he date stamped on a
pleading or paper is not necessarily dispositive of the date
on which the pleading or paper was filed."))). Moreover,
in Maryland, a clerical error in the filing of a document is
not grounds to deny the filing of a complaint. (Id.
at 9-11 (collecting cases)).
as a matter of Maryland law, the Complaint that the Maryland
Court date-stamped January 12, 2009 was actually filed when
it was first received by the Maryland Court on October 7,
2008. The Clerk of the Maryland Court's clerical mistakes
do not negate that conclusion. The fact that the date stamp
on the document which the Maryland Court ultimately filed is
after the date of the automatic stay is similarly
7, 2008 is prior to the automatic stay imposed by the
Bankruptcy proceeding. Thus, the Bankruptcy Court properly