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In re Tribune Media Co.

United States District Court, D. Delaware

February 15, 2019

In re TRIBUNE MEDIA COMPANY, et al, Reorganized Debtors.
TRIBUNE MEDIA COMPANY, et al. Appellees. ROBERT HENKE, Appellant,


         Presently 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.

         I. Background

         Mr. 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. at 50-62).

         Mr. 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)).[1] 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).

         Meanwhile, 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).

         After 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 hearing)).

         During 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).

         The 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).

         Mr. Henke filed a notice of appeal of the Bankruptcy Court's decision on June 8, 2016. (D.I. 1).

         II. Statute of Limitations

         The 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).

         I do 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)).

         Therefore, 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 insignificant.

         October 7, 2008 is prior to the automatic stay imposed by the Bankruptcy proceeding. Thus, the Bankruptcy Court properly ...

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