Bankruptcy filings fell again in Western New York in February, to levels not seen in seven years, since right after federal bankruptcy reforms took effect.
The slow activity during February – the third-lowest tally for any month of the year since 2006 – continues a trend that has been fairly consistent for the past couple of years, with year-over-year declines almost every month.
Local attorneys have disagreed about the cause and implications, with some indicating that personal finances are improving as the economy rebounds. But others say it just shows how bad conditions are because debtors either can’t even afford to file for bankruptcy because of the legal fees involved or they have so few assets that bankruptcy can’t help them anyway.
According to new statistics from the U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the Western District of New York, the number of new cases in the Buffalo and Rochester areas fell 21 percent in February from a year earlier, to 421 in all. That includes 273 in Buffalo, down 22 percent, and 148 in Rochester, down 19 percent.
The last time either tally was so low for February was in 2006, just four months after tighter federal rules kicked in governing who could file for bankruptcy, drastically reducing the level of filings both locally and nationwide. Previously, more than 1,000 new cases were filed each month in the two-city Western New York district, which includes primary courts in Buffalo and Rochester and subcourts in Olean, Batavia and Watkins Glen.
For January and February combined, the total number of cases so far this year is down 11 percent to 851, including a 16 percent drop in Buffalo to 524 and a 2 percent dip in Rochester to 327.
Federal bankruptcy laws provide debtors with protection against creditors seeking to seize their money and other assets to repay outstanding debts. Chapter 7 allows either individuals or businesses to liquidate their assets to pay off what they can and then write off their remaining unsecured debts so they can start fresh. Chapters 11 and 13, respectively, direct businesses and consumers to reorganize their assets and debts and develop a long-term repayment plan.
The bankruptcy reforms, which were pushed most heavily by credit card companies, were designed to force more individual borrowers to file for Chapter 13 instead of Chapter 7 if they have the means to repay, so they couldn’t just walk away from the balances they had racked up on cards. But the majority of all filings continue to be under Chapter 7, indicating that borrowers are still struggling and simply don’t have the ability to make good.
For February, 286 of the filings came under Chapter 7, including 199 in Buffalo and 87 in Rochester. All but six were personal cases.
Another 135 came under Chapter 13, with 74 in Buffalo and 61 in Rochester. Only three involved businesses. There were no Chapter 11 filings in February.
Geographically, 181 of the Buffalo-area cases came from Erie County, while 38 were in Niagara County. Chautauqua County was third, with 22 filings, followed by Orleans County at 11, Cattaraugus County at nine, Allegany County with five, Wyoming County with four and Genesee County with three.
Nationwide, total bankruptcy filings fell 21 percent in February to 82,285, according to Epiq Systems. Consumer cases fell 21 percent to 78,611, while commercial filings dropped 29 percent to 3,674.