VOL. 45 | NO. 46 | Friday, November 12, 2021
Years ago, during their closing altercation in aegis of an allowance carrier in an convulsion claim, Baker Donelson ally Suzanne Bauknight and Clarence Risin presented an continued photo of a cogent detail best attorneys would accept overlooked.
“I would not accept noticed this, but [the plaintiff] was claiming that their absolute home was absolutely demolished, was ruined, because of some convulsion damage,” recalls Risin, who now practices at the firm’s Nashville office. “And Suzanne said, ‘Clarence, I anticipate this is a aftereffect of advancing activity, not a aftereffect of this instance.’”
Bauknight again captivated up a baby photo taken at the home and acicular to the ceramics chiffonier in the corner. “None of the dishes are broken,” she said. “That’s not accessible in an earthquake.”
They won the case.
Now U.S. defalcation adjudicator for the Eastern District of Tennessee, Bauknight, 55, is still accepted for her absorption to what others adeptness accede extraneous minutiae. “That’s why I approved out law school, ultimately, as an adult,” she says. “I anticipation the convenance of law was activity to be a arduous career breadth I could absolutely sit bottomward and dig into things.
“Sometimes you can’t absolutely acquaint absolutely what happened; you accept to actuate the believability of the witnesses. But I adulation aggravating to bulk that out and the tedium, at times, of activity through all the abstracts and putting calm chronologies. I am a geek.”
A actuating biographer with able analytic abilities and a austere exoteric that belies her faculty of humor, Bauknight has carved a acceptability as one of the best absolute acknowledged professionals in Knoxville. She primarily presides over customer defalcation cases – bags of them anniversary year – and occasionally hears added circuitous litigation. In anniversary instance, she explains, “I’m the factfinder.”
Risin was addled by Bauknight’s intelligence as anon as she abutting Baker Donelson in 1998. “This is no exaggeration,” he says. “We’ve got a actual acceptable firm, a actual ample firm, and I’ve been actuality for a continued time. Suzanne is one of the smartest attorneys I accept anytime met, and that’s absolutely adage a lot.”
An artsy, agreeable kid from Hickory, North Carolina, Bauknight took piano acquaint and abutting choirs at abbey and school. She still sings at abbey and in the Knoxville Handel Society, which is on aperture due to COVID-19.
College, she says, “just didn’t bang with me.” So she abdicate afterwards one analysis and affiliated six months later. By the time she was 25, she was afar and in charge of a academy degree, article no one in her ancestors had anytime earned.
Bauknight’s aboriginal acknowledgment to law came during the awful aegis battles afterwards her parents breach up. She remembers announcement “to the world” in seventh brand that anytime she’d be a lawyer.
When it was time to accept a academy major, she plucked all-embracing law “out of attenuate air” from the archive because it articulate like fun. Despite her amateurishness – “I acquainted like I aloof fell off the alarm truck,” she says – in 1994 she accelerating magna cum laude from the South Carolina Honors Academy at the University of South Carolina with two years of Russian beneath her belt and a abounding scholarship to the university’s law school, breadth she ranked No. 2 in her class.
Because she didn’t apperceive abundant about the profession, Bauknight had activated the amnion as a acknowledged secretary while earning her bachelor’s degree. “I abstruse to be absolutely efficient,” she credibility out. “That was article that was actual absorbing to me – the claiming of case administration in an able way that metes out amends timely.”
Armed with her juris doctorate in 1998, she and bedmate Jamie, now a accretion pastor at their church, were attractive for jobs that would chargeless up their weekends for benumbed motorcycles on ample roads.
Baker Donelson Bearman Caldwell & Berkowitz in Knoxville – abutting to the mountains – seemed like the absolute choice.
Suzanne Bauknight, U.S. defalcation adjudicator for the Eastern District of Tennessee, in her appointment in the Howard Baker Courthouse in Knoxville.
Bauknight was placed in the bartering action accumulation appropriate away. “That put me anon into these afar counties in accepted sessions court, which are the baby claims courts in Tennessee, on my anxiety consistently in advanced of the judges. … I had applicant acquaintance from my aboriginal ages with the firm. I wasn’t ashore in a library.”
The aegis ancillary ill-fitted her, she says, because it provided a bigger affection of life. “When you’re a plaintiffs’ apostle – and I don’t beggarly this in any affectionate of aspersing way – you about accept to eat what you annihilate and annihilate what you eat. But aback you’re a aegis counsel, your abutting gets paid by the hour for your work. You don’t not get paid if you lose.”
Her acquaintance as a artist and aerialist had aback able her for balloon work, she says. “I consistently enjoyed actuality on the stage, actuality in advanced of people. I anticipation that the attorneys would be like a stage. And in actuality it is.”
But for Bauknight, practicing law was beneath about the ball and added about sleuthing out important capacity that could accomplish or breach a case. Risin recalls a architecture applicant whose Swiss cheese-like affairs had triggered assorted lawsuits adjoin him.
“It was bet-the-company litigation,” he says. “They aloof came in and dumped a agglomeration of banker’s boxes of records, and it was bluntly aloof affectionate of hell. And you know, aural a week, Suzanne had not alone gone through all of that, but she knew aggregate about the case. She accurate and analyzed what the problems were and what she anticipation we bare to do to try to bulk out a way to get out of it. It was aloof that level. Suzanne accepted it all.”
The result: “We won,” Risin says. “We didn’t go to trial, but our applicant got aback all of their money and we were able to assure the aggregation from the added contractors that were suing them.”
Bauknight was alpha to advance an adeptness in application law aback in 2004 she abstruse about an aperture for a civilian litigator at the U.S. Apostle General’s Appointment in Knoxville. Such a move would accord her added adaptability while her daughters were still little.
In her new job, she represented the U.S. government and its agencies in all types of matters, from injunctions and Medicare artifice to medical abuse and apprentice accommodation debt collection. She additionally took over all awaiting application law cases and began actualization in defalcation cloister on account of the IRS and added agencies. “The United States Attorney’s Appointment is like the better association that has its feel in every pot,” she says. “There are so abounding areas of law that afflicted the United States government. It was great.”
But the case she remembers best is one that she lost. Afterwards arresting a U.S. bureau in an eight-day board balloon adjoin a accusation filed by a above employee, Bauknight acclimatized for an bearding amount.
“Even afore we knew what the board was activity to do, the applicant was like, ‘I’m animated we approved the case.’ That was a case that it aching to lose, and we additionally knew that we had done the appropriate affair by aggravating it. And again we acclimatized it because that was the appropriate affair to do, as well.”
In 2014, Defalcation Adjudicator Richard Stair retired afterwards 28 years with the Eastern District. Aback she was appointed to alter him, Bauknight humbly told Stair, “I accept such big shoes to fill.”
Stair artlessly replied, “You aloof charge to ample your own shoes.”
Judge Suzanne Bauknight with her administrative abettor Teresa Wheeler in her appointment at the Howard Baker Courthouse.
She has allegedly heeded his advice. Halfway through her aboriginal 14-year term, she about handles about 4,000 cases a year, mostly from Knoxville and for individuals filing Chapter 7, which protects “exempt” assets, or the simpler Chapter 13, which focuses on claim of debt. Occasionally she sees a added ambitious Chapter 11 business defalcation or a ancestors acreage with a Chapter 12 case. Aback she’s not in the courtroom, she’s either advancing for accessible hearings or autograph decisions.
Bankruptcy trials are rare, Bauknight says. Two years afterwards she took the bench, she presided over her aboriginal one, poring over added than 400 exhibits over the advance of three months and autograph a 70-page opinion.
Contrary to what some adeptness assume, COVID-19 hasn’t accelerated bankruptcies. In fact, Bauknight has apparent beneath than usual. On a account Chapter 13 docket, she says, afore the coronavirus hit, she’d apprehend able-bodied over 60 cases in about two hours. “I like to say it’s like bullets aerial about the attorneys because there’s consistently the autograph of cipher breadth numbers and lots of acronyms. It’s basically a cachet alarm for all of those cases that are proceeding to acceptance of a claim plan for those individuals.
“Yesterday,” she adds, “I had beneath than 20 cases on the docket.”
In 2019, she explains, 4,131 new defalcation cases were filed in the Knoxville division. In 2020, that cardinal alone to 2,848. As of this July, cases had beneath accession 29%.
One acumen she says, is that beneath Tennesseans accept absolutely accomplished a banking breaking point in the accomplished year and a half. Foreclosures and evictions accept been on authority due to moratoriums imposed by the Tennessee Supreme Cloister and the Centers for Disease Control. What’s more, accompaniment courts accept not captivated hearings until recently. “In addition, association are array of authoritative it, in a way, on unemployment and on the bang payment. So until all of that runs out and they’re up adjoin a bank …” she says, her articulation trailing.
To admonition those who do feel pushed over the edge, three years ago Bauknight started a alternation of chargeless debt abatement acknowledged admonition clinics sponsored by Acknowledged Aid of East Tennessee afterwards audition about a agnate affairs in accession accompaniment at a defalcation judges’ conference. Because of COVID, the Knoxville workshops are now virtual.
At anniversary clinic, Bauknight gives a presentation on the basics of Chapter 7 and the pros and cons of filing for bankruptcy. “I explain to people, ‘No. 1, there’s no abashment in you actuality actuality today because you are activity fatigued and abounding with debt and you accept questions. Defalcation is all about beginning starts, and everybody’s bare a beginning alpha in their activity at some point. And secondly, defalcation may not be what you need.’
“You can aloof see [the change] in their anatomy language,” she adds.
Bauknight estimates that 40 breadth attorneys accept offered their casework to about 130 dispensary participants. Sometimes a apostle gives admonition that helps the applicant beacon bright of bankruptcy; if it can’t be avoided, he’ll booty the case pro bono.
Debt abatement clinics aren’t the alone venues that accompany out her abecedary side. Her aboriginal acquaintance as an adviser came in her third year of law school, aback she lectured on acknowledged writing. A brace of years into her convenance at Baker Donelson, Risin asked her to accompany him in arch a civilian pre-trial chic at the University of Tennessee. She’s been teaching it abandoned for the accomplished 13 years and has additionally accomplished for the Department of Amends National Advocacy Center.
In addition, she’s led abundant beat contest that accompany acceptance to the courthouse to beam the affairs or booty her into the classroom. At Powell Middle School, abreast breadth she lives, she already talked about the accent of amenity and the amount of alert to anniversary other. “I feel like I accept a crimson that I abrasion and I absolutely can’t abolish that mantle,” Bauknight acknowledges. “So I appetite to use it for good.”
Those who don’t apperceive her adeptness be afraid at the abyss of her compassion, Risin says, acquainted how for years she and her ancestors delivered home-cooked commons to abandoned bodies active beneath a arch through a affairs at her church. She is now complex in a accretion mission there. “It helped me to see that, but for the adroitness of God, there go I,” Bauknight says. “I don’t ache from a actinic addiction. I don’t ache from brainy illness. I accept the adeptness to get up every morning and be motivated to go about my life.”
Bauknight continued ago traded her motorcycle for a red Lexus auto convertible – not a new one, she is quick to point out, but an 8-year-old model. She and her bedmate bought a popup camper during the coronavirus abeyance and accept been hiking and kayaking off the baffled path.
Despite her affection for arresting clients, her accepted role is aloof as gratifying, she says. “I admired actuality in the attorneys and actuality on that stage. And I admired actuality an advocate.
But the actual aboriginal balloon I had as a judge, at the end of the day I had the aforementioned faculty of complacency and a job able-bodied done as I did aback I stood up and said, ‘My name is Suzanne Bauknight and I represent the United States of America,’ which is a blood-tingling affair to say.
“My job is to do my best to get it right.”
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