Ohio v. Kovacs
469 U.S. 274 (1985)

Annotate this Case

U.S. Supreme Court

Ohio v. Kovacs, 469 U.S. 274 (1985)

Ohio v. Kovacs

No. 83-1020

Argued October 10, 1984

Decided January 9, 1985

469 U.S. 274

Syllabus

Petitioner State of Ohio obtained an injunction in state court ordering respondent and other defendants to clean up a hazardous waste disposal site. When the injunction was not complied with, the State obtained the appointment in state court of a receiver, who was directed to take possession of the defendants' property and other assets and to implement the injunction. The receiver took possession of the site but had not completed his tasks when respondent filed a personal bankruptcy petition. Seeking to require part of respondent's post-bankruptcy income to be applied to the receiver's unfinished tasks, the State filed a motion in state court to discover respondent's income and assets. At respondent's request, the Bankruptcy Court stayed these proceedings. The State then filed a complaint in the Bankruptcy Court seeking a declaration that respondent's obligation under the state injunction was not dischargeable in bankruptcy because it was not a "debt" or "liability on a claim" within the meaning of the Bankruptcy Code. For bankruptcy purposes, a debt is a liability on a claim. Section 101(4)(B) of the Bankruptcy Code in pertinent part defines a claim as the

"right to an equitable remedy for breach of performance if such breach gives rise to a right of payment, whether or not such right to an equitable remedy is reduced to judgment, fixed, contingent, matured, unmatured, disputed, undisputed, secured, or unsecured."

The Bankruptcy Court ruled against the State, as did the District Court. The Court of Appeals affirmed, holding that the State essentially sought from respondent only a monetary payment, and that such a required payment was a liability on a claim that was dischargeable under the Bankruptcy Code.

Held:

1. The fact that the Army Corps of Engineers, using funds recovered from those concerns that generated the wastes in question, has removed the wastes from the site does not render the case moot. The State still has a stake in the outcome of the case based on its claim that the removal of the wastes did not satisfy all of respondent's obligation to clean up the site since the ground remains permeated with toxic materials that must be removed to avoid further pollution. Pp. 469 U. S. 277-278.

2. Respondent's obligation under the injunction is a "debt" or "liability on a claim" subject to discharge under the Bankruptcy Code. Contrary

Page 469 U. S. 275

to the State's contention, there is no indication in the language of 101(4)(B) that the right to performance cannot be a claim unless it arises from a contractual arrangement. Moreover, it is apparent that Congress desired a broad definition of a "claim" and knew how to limit the application of a provision to contracts when it desired to do so. Where it is clear that what the receiver wanted from respondent after bankruptcy was the money to defray cleanup costs, the Court of Appeals did not err in concluding that the cleanup order had been converted into an obligation to pay money, an obligation that was dischargeable in bankruptcy. Pp. 469 U. S. 278-283.

717 F.2d 984, affirmed.

WHITE, .J., delivered the opinion for a unanimous Court. O'CONNOR, J., filed a concurring opinion, post, p. 469 U. S. 285.

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