Judge Orders Fire Department Liquidated

A superior court judge has ordered the liquidation of a struggling Rhode Island fire district.

Judge Brian P. Stern today ordered the Central Coventry Fire District liquidated by May 16, 2014 to pay the financial obligations it owes to its creditors. The district was placed into receivership in 2012 when it was unable to pay its bills.

What is receivership?

A receivership is a legal proceeding where a court is asked to appoint a “receiver” to take custody of property, assets, or a business in order to protect, preserve, and if necessary liquidate it. Receiverships are often used for troubled businesses that are unable to pay their bills and more recently have been used to aid municipalities on the brink of bankruptcy.

In a receivership, the “receiver” is appointed to oversee and manage the property or business. The receiver works for the court and must report back to the court with a plan to resolve outstanding debts. In the process the receiver works with various creditors to reach an acceptable resolution of outstanding debts and related issues.  In the mean time the court retains jurisdiction over the assets and property involved. This prevents creditors from seizing assets without court approval – which in the case of a fire department would prevent creditors from seizing fire trucks and equipment.

Receiverships may be established under both state and federal law, depending upon the jurisdictional issues in the case. Municipal insolvencies are typically handled under state law.

Is receivership the same as bankruptcy?

No. While both bankruptcies and receiverships commonly involve parties who cannot pay their bills, they are quite different. First of all, bankruptcy is governed by federal law and trumps virtually all other types of legal proceedings. Once bankruptcy is filed, all other civil proceedings involving the debtor (the entity being placed into bankruptcy) are stayed and most creditors will have to refile their claims with the bankruptcy court who then has jurisdiction over the claim. That does not happen in receivership.

Bankruptcy courts also have broad discretion to force creditors to accept a settlement of their claims, whereas receivers have considerably less latitude to force a settlement.

At the end of bankruptcy, all of the debts of the debtor are discharged (with very few exceptions that we won’t go into here). That is not that case under a receivership where any debts that were owed remain on the books. Thus after a receivership a creditor can continue to pursue a debtor although as a practical matter that is often not worthwhile because the debtor has no assets from which to collect.

About Curt Varone

Curt Varone has over 40 years of fire service experience and 30 as a practicing attorney licensed in both Rhode Island and Maine. His background includes 29 years as a career firefighter in Providence (retiring as a Deputy Assistant Chief), as well as volunteer and paid on call experience. He is the author of two books: Legal Considerations for Fire and Emergency Services, (2006, 2nd ed. 2011, 3rd ed. 2014) and Fire Officer's Legal Handbook (2007), and is a contributing editor for Firehouse Magazine writing the Fire Law column.

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