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Miller in her living room near a collection of her sons’ trophies. Photo by Andrea Morales for ProPublica

OVASHA MILLER PUSHED THROUGH the revolving doors of the black glass tower on Jefferson Avenue last December and felt a rush of déjà vu. The building, conspicuous in Memphis’ modest skyline along the Mississippi River, looms over its neighbors. Then she remembered: Years ago, as a teenager, she’d accompanied her mother inside.

By Paul Kiel with Hannah Fresques
ProPublica

Now she was 32, herself the mother of a teenager , and she was entering the same door, taking the same elevator. Like her mother before her, Miller was filing for bankruptcy.

She’d cried when she made the decision, but with three boys and one uneven paycheck, every month was a narrow escape. A debt collector had recently won a court judgment against her and, along with that, the ability to seize a chunk of her pay. Soon, she would be forced to decide between groceries or electricity.

Black people struggling with debts are far less likely than their white peers to gain lasting relief from bankruptcy, according to a ProPublica analysis. Primarily to blame is a style of bankruptcy practiced by lawyers in the South.

Bankruptcy, she figured, despite its stink of shame and failure, would stop all that. She could begin anew: older, wiser, and with a job at a catering company that paid $10.50 an hour, a good bump from her last one. She could keep dreaming of a life where she had money left over at the end of each month, a chance of one day owning a home.

What Miller didn’t know when she swallowed her pride and called a local bankruptcy attorney is that she would probably end up right back where she started, with the same debts, in the same crisis. For the black debtors who, for generations, have made Memphis the bankruptcy capital of the U.S., the system delivers neither forgiveness nor renewal.

Up on the sixth floor of that tower where I met Miller last February, the U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the Western District of Tennessee appeared to be a well-functioning machine. Debtors, nearly all black like her, crowded the wedge-shaped waiting area as lawyers, paralegals and court staff, almost all white, milled about in front. Hundreds of cases are filed here every week, and those who oversee and administer the process all proudly note the court’s marvelous efficiency. Millions of dollars flow smoothly to creditors, to the court, to bankruptcy attorneys.

But the machine hides a harsh reality. When ProPublica analyzed consumer bankruptcy filings nationwide, the district stood out, both for the stunning number of cases in which debtors were unable to get relief, and for the reasons why. In Memphis, an entrenched legal culture has made bankruptcy a boon for attorneys while miring clients like Miller in a cycle of futility.

Under federal bankruptcy law, people overwhelmed by debt have a choice: They can either file under Chapter 7, which wipes out debts and, since most filers lack significant assets, allows them to keep what little they have. Or they can choose Chapter 13, which usually requires five years of payments to creditors before any debts are eliminated, but blocks foreclosures and car repossessions as long as debtors can keep up. In most of the country, Chapter 7 is the overwhelming choice. Only in the South, in a band of states stretching from North Carolina to Texas, is Chapter 13 predominant.

The responsibility of knowing which path to pick falls to those seeking relief. In Memphis, about three-quarters of filings are under Chapter 13. That’s how Miller filed. She thought the two chapters were “the same,” she told me.

Initially, they are. Upon filing, debtors are shielded from garnishments and debt collectors. But whereas under Chapter 7 those protections are generally made permanent after a few months, under Chapter 13 they last only as long as payments are made. Most Chapter 13 filers in Memphis don’t last a year, let alone five.

As efficiently as cases are opened, they are closed — usually because debtors fail to keep up with payments, according to a ProPublica analysis of court data. In 2015, over 9,000 cases in the district were dismissed — more cases than were filed in 22 other states that year. Less than a third of Chapter 13 cases in the district result in a discharge of debts. And when their cases are dismissed, debtors are often in worse straits, because as they struggled to make payments, the interest on their unpaid debts continued to mount. Once the refuge of bankruptcy is gone, the debt floods back larger than ever. They’ve borne the costs of bankruptcy — attorney and filing fees, a seven-year flag on their credit reports — without receiving its primary benefit. A system that is supposed to eliminate debt instead serves to magnify it.

Driving this tremendous churn of filings is a handful of bankruptcy attorneys with what sounds like an easy pitch: immediate relief, for free. In Memphis, it typically costs around $1,000 to hire an attorney to file a Chapter 7, but most attorneys will file a Chapter 13 for no money down. Ultimately, the fees for Chapter 13 filings are higher — upwards of $3,000 — but the payments are stretched over time. For many people, this is the only option they can afford: debt relief on credit. For attorneys, they gain clients — and a regular flow of fees — they might not otherwise get, even if few of their clients get lasting relief.

Chapter 7 Filing Rates Are Higher in Black Areas, With Patterns Similar to White Areas…

Chapter 7 Filings per 1,000 Residents — Majority Black Zip Codes vs. Majority White Zip Codes

…But Chapter 13 Filing Rates Are Extremely High in Black Areas, With a Larger Racial Gap

Chapter 13 Filings per 1,000 Residents — Majority Black Zip Codes vs. Majority White Zip Codes

Source: Department of Justice data, ProPublica analysis

For black filers in Memphis, relief is particularly rare. They are more likely than their white peers to file under Chapter 13 and less likely to complete a Chapter 13 plan. Because failure is so frequent in Memphis, many people file again and again. In 2015, about half of the black debtors who filed under Chapter 13 in the district had done so at least once before in the previous five years. Some had filed as many as 20 times over their lifetimes. Here, bankruptcy is often not the one-time rescue it was envisioned to be, but rather a way for the poor to hold on to basic necessities like electricity for a couple months.

“The way we have it set up, our culture, has a lot of unintended consequences,” said Judge Jennie Latta, one of five bankruptcy judges in the Western District of Tennessee. Since 1997, when she took the bench, the racial disparities in Memphis have been evident, she said. “It was troubling to me then, and it’s still troubling to me.”

When I asked judges, trustees, who administer the cases, and debtor attorneys what could be done to reduce racial disparities and improve outcomes, I was mostly met with resignation. I heard a lot about the poverty in Memphis and a legal culture with deeply rooted traditions. But ProPublica’s analysis identified bankruptcy attorneys in Memphis who had much more success in getting their black clients out of debt. These attorneys had a different approach, preferring Chapter 7 to Chapter 13, and, crucially, allowing more flexibility in what clients paid upfront in fees.

Scrutiny of Memphis is important, because the racial differences we found there are present across the country. Nationally, the odds of black debtors choosing Chapter 13 instead of Chapter 7 were more than twice as high as for white debtors with a similar financial profile. And once they chose Chapter 13, we found, the odds of their cases ending in dismissal — with no relief from their debts — were about 50 percent higher.

Meanwhile, the $0-down style of bankruptcy practiced in Memphis, long common across the South, is quietly growing in popularity elsewhere. Chicago in particular has seen an explosion of Chapter 13 filings in recent years. A recent study found that the “no money down” model is becoming more prevalent, prompting concerns that it is snaring increasing numbers of unsuspecting debtors and ultimately keeping them in debt.

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