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Continuing their downward trend, bankruptcy filings in Western New York plunged in September, hitting the fifth-lowest monthly tally since at least 2003 and possibly the lowest “normalized” level, according to new court data.

A total of 389 new cases were filed in U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the Western District of New York last month, a 35.5 percent drop from 603 cases a year earlier. That includes 255 in Buffalo, down by 39.4 percent from 421, and 134 in Rochester, down by 26.4 percent from 182.

The last time filings were so few were the last two months of 2005 and the first two months of 2006, immediately after new federal bankruptcy rules took effect that made it much harder and more expensive for debtors to write off their debts.

That law, which took effect in October 2005, had been passed months earlier, so debtors and bankruptcy attorneys knew that it was coming and flooded the courts with filings in the prior months to get in under the old rules. As a result, the level of filings in previous months – which had already exceeded 1,000 per month for several years – soared in September 2005, to 2,471. It then leaped in October to a record 7,138, before plunging to just 109 the following month and 181 in December 2005.

Bankruptcy filings have been falling in Western New York almost every month since mid-2010. Attorneys and others cited a combination of factors, including many debtors simply not being able to afford the filing and attorney fees, and not having enough assets to protect from creditors to make it worthwhile.

That’s a reflection of the continued lackluster economic recovery, an increased number of people whose only income comes from government benefits that are exempt from seizure and new laws that protect more of a debtor’s initial money for basic living expenses. As a result, people who might otherwise seek protection aren’t bothering to do so.

The downward trend has continued all year. So far, new filings are down by 13.1 percent in the two-city regional district, to 4,796. That includes 3,142 in Buffalo, down by 12.4 percent, and 1,654 in Rochester, down by 14.5 percent.

Under federal law, Chapter 7 bankruptcy filings provide for individuals or businesses to liquidate their assets to pay off what they can and then write off remaining debts, but only if they meet the toughened standards adopted in 2005. Chapters 11 and 13 call for businesses and individuals, respectively, to reorganize their debts and follow a long-term repayment plan.

For September, there were 278 filings under Chapter 7 in the district, including 195 in Buffalo and 83 in Rochester. All but eight – four in each city – were individuals. So far this year, there have been 3,527 cases under Chapter 7, with 2,374 in Buffalo and 1,153 in Rochester.

There were 108 cases under Chapter 13, including 59 in Buffalo and 49 in Rochester. Only one case in Rochester was a business. So far this year, 1,231 debtors have filed under Chapter 13, with 744 in Buffalo and 487 in Rochester.

And there were three Chapter 11 filings, one in Buffalo and two in Rochester. For the year so far, there have been 36 cases, with 22 in Buffalo and 14 in Rochester.

The Buffalo caseload had 149 filings from Erie County in September and 44 in Niagara County.

They were followed by 29 in Chautauqua County, 10 in Genesee, nine each in Cattaraugus and Orleans, three in Allegany and two in Wyoming.

email: jepstein@buffnews.com