Some see hope as Orlando-area bankruptcies hit lull? but Record HIGH filings???





Some see hope as Orlando-area bankruptcies hit lull
Still, area's filings set record for 2nd-straight year


December 11, 2010


Near-record unemployment and foreclosures have propelled Orlando-area bankruptcies to record heights again this year, though a dramatic slowdown in new cases last month has raised some hope that the financial crisis may be bottoming out.

More than 21,800 bankruptcy petitions were filed in U.S. Bankruptcy Court in Orlando through the first 11 months of the year, eclipsing the previous annual record of 20,205 set just last year, according to the latest data from the court's Orlando division.

"We are the second-busiest bankruptcy-court division in the country," said Lori Patton, a veteran consumer-bankruptcy lawyer and a former president of the Central Florida Bankruptcy Law Association. "It is still pretty grim out there for many people."

Still, after several years of surging without letup, the number of Orlando-area filings essentially leveled off in November compared with the same month last year, court figures show.


Nearly 1,750 bankruptcies were filed last month, an increase of only 21 cases from a year earlier — the smallest year-over-year increase in more than four years. Nationwide, consumer bankruptcies rose 2.2 percent in November, according to the American Bankruptcy Institute.

Some local bankruptcy lawyers said the snail's-pace growth in November filings suggests economic conditions may be improving.

"We've seen a substantial drop-off in people inquiring about bankruptcy and contemplating a strategic default on their mortgages," said Jonathan Alper, a lawyer in Lake Mary. "So this might be the beginning of easing in the foreclosure problem, and perhaps a bit more optimism out there."

Orlando could use some good news after being ranked for several years among the leading metro areas nationwide in terms of unemployment, home-foreclosure and credit-card-delinquency rates.

As recently as October, it was the eighth-most "financially distressed" metropolitan area in the country, according to a survey by Atlanta-based CredAbility, a consumer-credit-counseling group.

Overall, more than 55,600 bankruptcies have been filed in Orlando's bankruptcy court since the recession took hold in December 2007, constituting about 35 percent of the nearly 162,000 cases filed throughout the federal court system's Middle District of Florida, which includes the Jacksonville, Tampa and Fort Myers metro areas.

Nothing was able to stem the rising tide of insolvencies during the recession — not even the reforms that Congress passed in 2005 to make it tougher for individuals to file personal bankruptcy. Although the number of cases fell sharply the year after the new law took effect, they began climbing again almost immediately.

The number of Orlando-area cases, for example, spiked to 17,770 in 2005 — as many people rushed to file ahead of the reforms' Oct. 1 effective date — then plummeted to 3,601 cases in 2006. But the number of local cases then jumped 96 percent in 2007, 81 percent in 2008 and 59 percent in 2009, according to court records.

If this year remains on track, though, the number of 2010 cases could wind up growing by less than 17 percent.

"Historically, bankruptcies go down before the holidays and pick up a few months after the holidays, when credit-card payments come due," said Alper, the Lake Mary lawyer. "But that was not the case in 2008 and 2009. This year, the decrease we're seeing might be holiday-related, but I suspect it is more than that."

Still, it will take more than a one-month slowdown in filings to convince some experts that a new trend has taken hold, said George Janas, president of Winter Park-based Consumer Debt Counselors Inc.

Janas, whose nonprofit operation is among those certified by federal courts to provide the pre-bankruptcy counseling required by the 2005 reforms, said the organization provided fewer counseling sessions in November, probably as a result of the slowdown in filings.

"But we don't see any encouraging employment numbers yet, and no end to the underemployment we have seen for so long," he said. "You still have a lot of people with job losses, underwater on their homes, with medical problems and life-altering changes. That's going to be a problem for some time to come."

Patton, the former president of the local bankruptcy-lawyers' group, said November's slowdown was probably temporary.

"Nobody wants to think about this kind of thing [filing bankruptcy] during the holidays," she said. "A lot of people may have delayed filing after the big banks suspended their foreclosure actions last month. There are also a lot of people waiting until they can get their 2010 tax credit.

"After that, I think bankruptcies are going to bust out all over again next year."





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