Interview with US Bankruptcy Judge, Hon. Roger Efremsky

The Honorable Roger L. Efremsky has served as a United States Bankruptcy Judge for over 10 years in the Northern District of California and is now serving as Chief Judge. The Contra Costa Bar Association is extremely pleased to present the following interview with Judge Efremsky conducted by Mary Ellmann Tang, a board member of the Bankruptcy Law Section of the Contra Costa County Bar Association.

Q: How do your duties as Chief Judge differ from those of other bankruptcy judges?

A: In addition to carrying a full caseload, I work closely with Eddie Emmons, the Clerk of the Court, who is wonderful.  We work on budget, human resources, security and facility issues, to name a few. I meet semi-annually with the other chief judges of the Ninth Circuit. I also have the pleasure of working with Chief Judge Phyllis Hamilton of the Northern District to develop a unified plan for the district and bankruptcy courts, as well as EDR/EEO issues.

When Judge Jaraslovsky retires on July 1 after 30 years of service on the bench, the Ninth Circuit is not filling his position. Several of us will take on his caseload, but since filings have decreased, it should be manageable.  Similarly, there was no replacement for Judge Weissbrodt when he retired in 2016. If another judge retires, that position will also likely not be filled, leaving six judges to cover the area from the Oregon border down to San Benito County.  In anticipation of these changes, the District has been building smart courtrooms to maximize the potential for fewer judges to handle the workload. When the San Francisco Bankruptcy Court was moved from 235 Pine to 450 Golden Gate, the courtrooms were built out to have cameras, video equipment, and documents that come up on screens electronically. Now Judge Montali sitting in San Francisco can manage calendars in the new courthouse in Eureka using the videoconferencing equipment. The Santa Rosa courthouse is being built out in March, then we will finalize Oakland in May. Funds have been approved for San Jose and we hope these changes will be complete in the next year or two. Judges will make an effort to be in the courtroom physically, but if we have a short calendar or weather conditions are a problem, we can rely on the smart courtrooms.

Upon Judge Jaraslovsky’s retirement, Judge Montali will take over the Chapter 13s and 12s in Santa Rosa, Judge Novack and I will take over the Chapter 7s and 11s in Santa Rosa, and Judge Lafferty will take over everything in Eureka. Marin bankruptcy cases have been assigned to the Santa Rosa court since 1978. Prior to that they were in San Francisco. I’m sensitive to the potential for Chapter 7 trustees in Santa Rosa to lose business with the Marin Chapter 7 cases moving back to San Francisco, so I asked Tracy Hope Davis to let the Santa Rosa trustees continue to handle those cases. We are also concerned about the financial well-being of the bar that represents the trustees as well as individuals.

Q: What do you know now as a judge that you wish you knew when you were an attorney?

A: I have a much greater appreciation for the importance of due process. As an attorney, I would be frustrated when I would see another attorney misbehaving and wonder why the judge did not immediately discipline the attorney. As a judge, I make sure that I afford each person the time and opportunity to respond before leveling sanctions or disciplinary action. This requires patience.

Q: What is the most difficult aspect of being a bankruptcy judge?

A: The toughest thing for me to deal with in bankruptcy court are the family disputes. Married couples going through a separation or divorce may file bankruptcy. Add to that a nondischargeability action and there is the potential for a family to be torn apart.  I’ve had situations where debtors or their parents are crying at the end when I’m giving a decision. After the recession and the slow recovery, money got very tight with the banks, and people had to be more careful with their money. They weren’t buying a new car every 5-7 years. In the Bay Area it seems that many couples feel pressured to stay together because it takes two incomes to survive here.

Q: In your time on the bench, you have seen bankruptcies increase in 2006 due to BAPCPA which was followed by the Great Recession wave. What is happening now?

A: When I came on the bench in August of 2006, we had the BAPCPA rush. Then in my second year in San Jose, in 2008 with the Great Recession, we saw a massive increase in case filings through 2010/2012. Then case filings started to drop dramatically. Last year, for the entire district, we didn’t even reach 10,000 cases.  It used to be that Oakland, on its own, would reach 10,000 cases 3/4 of the way through the year. The Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts predicts that bankrutptcy cases will continue to decline through mid-2018.

Q: How is the new model Chapter 13 plan working?

A: We are looking at revising the model plan for the Northern District.  Right now Oakland and San Francisco have been using it since August 2013.  San Jose went live last year in February. Santa Rosa will go mandatory in July so we will have one plan for the District. The Bench Bar Committee is seriously considering a conduit/non-conduit plan. Also, the judges are looking at a uniform way of paying attorneys in Chapter 13 cases. It costs attorneys more to handle cases now than the $4-6,000 provided for in the current Guidelines. We would like to have “no look” fees for all divisions, based most likely on some sort of cafeteria plan.

Thank you very much. We appreciate your time and your work on the bench.