Mildred Dukes v. Suncoast Credit Union: Potential for Uniformity on Discharge of Mortgage Loan Debt in Chapter 13 Bankruptcy Cases in the Eleventh Circuit

Author: Starlett M. Massey

As a general rule, 11 U.S.C. § 1328 (“Section 1328”) states that a debtor is discharged of all debts that are either (i) provided for by the plan or (ii) disallowed.  Section 1328 establishes a few exceptions to discharge, one of which pertains to certain long-term debts that mature after the final plan payment, including a mortgage that matures after completion of a plan (“Long-term Mortgage”).  Section 1328(a)(1) excludes from discharge debts that are “provided for under section 1322(b)(5),” the Bankruptcy Code provision which allows debtors to cure any default and maintain regular payments on both unsecured and secured claims that mature after the final plan payment.  Thus, Section 1328 explicitly states Long-term Mortgages that are provided for by a Chapter 13 plan are not discharged.  Put another way, if a debtor is curing arrearages and maintaining payments on a Long-term Mortgage through a Chapter 13 plan, the exception clearly applies and the debt is not discharged.

However, Section 1328 does not explicitly address situations where a Long-term Mortgage is paid outside a Chapter 13 plan and left unaffected.  Additionally, Section 1328 does not provide an exception from discharge for a mortgage that matures prior to the final plan payment (“Short-term Mortgage”).  The general rule of discharge, thus, applies to a Short-term Mortgage: the debt is discharged if it is either provided for by the plan or disallowed.

As a result, bankruptcy courts have reached varied decisions regarding when certain mortgage loans are discharged, based on the interpretation of “provided for by the plan.”  The United States Supreme Court discussed the meaning of “provided for by the plan” as used by Section 1322(b)(5) in a different context in the case of Rake v. Wade.[1]  The Rake Court stated, “[t]he most natural reading of the phrase to ‘provid[e] for by the plan’ is to ‘make a provision for’ or ‘stipulate to’ something in a plan.”[2]

Two schools of thought have developed with regard to whether Long-term and Short-term Mortgages are discharged in Chapter 13 based on the Rake Court’s interpretation. For purposes of this discussion, they are referred to as the Broad View and the Narrow View.  The broader interpretation holds that a mere reference to a claim, even just a statement that the claim will be paid directly by the debtor outside the plan, amounts to the claim being “provided for by the plan.”  This view holds that a claim is discharged if it is merely referenced by a plan, unless one of the exceptions to discharge listed in Section 1328(a) applies (the “Broad View”).  According to the Broad View, if a Chapter 13 plan states a Short-term Mortgage will be paid outside the plan, the debt is still “provided for by the plan” and subject to discharge.[3]  Under the logic of this view, a Long-term Mortgage paid outside the plan would be considered “provided for by the plan.”  One might think, under this logic, the claim would then fall under the exception from discharge of Section 1328.  That is, if the claim is considered provided for under the plan, then it would also be considered provided for under section 1322(b)(5).  However, at least one court, has held a Long-term Mortgage that is paid outside the plan and left unaffected is not “provided for under section 1322(b)(5),” and, thus, is not excepted from discharge under Section 1328(a)(1).[4]  Under the Broad View, if a mortgage does not fall under the exception and is paid outside the plan, it would be discharged.  The curious result is that a mortgage would only be non-dischargeable if a debtor is curing arrearages.  If a debtor is current on a mortgage and merely continues to pay the regular payments, the debt would be discharged upon completion of a plan.

The other school of thought, a more narrow interpretation of “provided for by the plan,” holds that a claim that is paid directly by the debtor outside the plan is not considered “provided for by the plan,” and is, thus, not discharged (the “Narrow View”).  According to the Narrow View, if a Chapter 13 plan states a Short-term or Long-term Mortgage will be paid outside the plan, the debt is not “provided for by the plan” and will not be discharged.  With regard to a Long-term Mortgage, the exception to discharge would also not apply because the debt would not be considered “provided for under 1322(b)(5).”

Fortunately, it is likely that 11th Circuit law will soon be settled on the issue.  In the case of In re Dukes, 9:09-BK-02778-FMD, 2015 WL 3825978 (Bankr. M.D. Fla. June 18, 2015), a Middle District of Florida Bankruptcy Court adopted the Narrow View, holding that a claim paid outside of a plan is not “provided for by the plan,” and, consequently, not subject to discharge.  The debtor appealed, and the United States District Court for the Middle District of Florida affirmed the Bankruptcy Court’s decision adopting the narrow interpretation of “provided for by the plan.”  In re Dukes, 2:15-CV-420-FTM-99, 2016 WL 5390948 (M.D. Fla. Sept. 27, 2016).  The debtor again appealed, commencing the case of Mildred Dukes v. Suncoast Credit Union, 16-16513, which is currently pending in the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit.  Oral argument was held on September 19, 2017.  Thus, in short time there will be uniform 11th Circuit law on the issue of whether a claim paid outside a Chapter 13 plan is considered “provided for by the plan” if the plan states that the debtor will pay the claim outside the plan.

In the event the Eleventh Circuit adopts the Narrow View, controlling law will hold that mortgages paid outside a Chapter 13 plan are not discharged because they are not “provided for by the plan.”   In sum, the Eleventh Circuit’s adoption of the Narrow View would be akin to the reaffirmation of all Long-term Mortgages where the collateral is not surrendered and the reaffirmation of all Short-term Mortgages that are paid outside the plan.

[1] 508 U.S. 464, 473 (1993).

[2] Id.

[3] See, In re Rogers, 494 B.R. 664, 667 (Bankr. E.D.N.C. 2013).

[4] In re Cramer, 477 B.R. 736, 738 (Bankr. E.D. Wis. 2012).

 

Supreme Court of Florida lets the Fourth District Court of Appeal’s Ober Decision Stand

By: Amy L. Dilday & Starlett M. Massey

On September 6, 2017, the Supreme Court of Florida entered an opinion declining to accept jurisdiction and denying the Town of Lauderdale-By-The-Sea’s Petition for the supreme court to review the Fourth District Court of Appeal’s opinion on rehearing, which it released in Ober v. Town of Lauderdale-By-The-Sea. Because the supreme court also ordered that it would not consider a Motion for Rehearing on its declination, the Court left the Fourth District Court’s final decision to be the controlling law in Florida on whether liens on property that are recorded between the entry of the final foreclosure judgment and the date of the foreclosure sale survive after the sale. For now.

Of course, another district court of appeal could issue an opinion that conflicts with the Fourth District’s decision or the legislature could revise section 48.23, Florida Statutes (the statute governing lis pendens). But unless and until that happens, a foreclosure sale will operate to discharge not only liens on property that were recorded after the lis pendens and before the final foreclosure judgment, but also those that were recorded between the foreclosure judgment and the foreclosure sale.

Throughout the convoluted history of the Ober decision, lenders and practitioners had cause for concern as they watched the dispute unfold. On August 24, 2016, the Fourth District Court released its original Ober opinion, in which it held that a lis pendens expires on the date that a court enters the final foreclosure judgment. Under that holding, liens recorded after the final judgment remained enforceable against the property after the foreclosure sale. This judicial construction of section 48.23 was contrary to the prevalent industry understanding and practice where a lis pendens protects the property from liens recorded between the date the lis pendens was recorded through the date of the foreclosure sale—unless the lienholder intervened in the foreclosure litigation.

In Mr. Ober’s case, the foreclosure sale occurred four years after the entry of the foreclosure judgment, and the Town had recorded seven liens for code violations in those four years. Thus, as soon as Mr. Ober bought the property at the sale, the property was encumbered by the Town’s liens for an amount that exceeded the property’s value. When Ober filed a suit to quiet title, the Town countered with a claim for foreclosure. The trial court granted summary judgment in favor of the Town, and on appeal, the Fourth District’s original opinion affirmed the judgment.

Mr. Ober filed a motion for rehearing, asking the Fourth District to reconsider its original decision and to certify a question of great public importance to the supreme court. By the time the appellate court considered the motion for rehearing, several amicus (“friend of the court”) briefs had been filed, including briefs from other Florida cities (in favor of the Town’s position), briefs from several Florida Bar practice sections (some writing in favor of the Town’s position; some in favor of Ober’s position), and other industry associations (in favor of Ober’s position).

The Fourth District Court granted Mr. Ober’s motion, withdrew its original opinion, and on January 25, 2017, released an opinion in which it held that a foreclosure sale discharges all lower-priority liens against a property, whether they were recorded before or after the final foreclosure judgment. With the intent of seeking supreme court review and after the revised opinion was released, the Town asked the Fourth District Court to certify a question of great public importance—a request that the court granted. The court certified the following question:

WHETHER, PURSUANT TO SECTION 48.23(1)(D), FLORIDA STATUTES, THE FILING OF A NOTICE OF LIS PENDENS AT THE COMMENCEMENT OF A BANK’S FORECLOSURE ACTION PREVENTS A LOCAL GOVERNMENT FROM EXERCISING AUTHORITY GRANTED TO IT BY CHAPTER 162, FLORIDA STATUTES, TO ENFORCE CODE VIOLATIONS EXISTING ON THE FORECLOSED PROPERTY AFTER FINAL FORECLOSURE JUDGMENT AND BEFORE JUDICIAL SALE, WHERE THE LOCAL GOVERNMENT’S INTEREST OR LIEN ON THE PROPERTY ARISES AFTER FINAL JUDGMENT AND DID NOT EXIST WITHIN THIRTY (30) DAYS AFTER THE RECORDING OF THE NOTICE OF LIS PENDENS.

Once the Fourth District Court released its certified question, the Town filed its Notice of Intent to Seek the Jurisdiction of the Supreme Court. Both parties filed briefs on the supreme court’s jurisdiction (the Court must determine whether to accept jurisdiction before it permits the parties to file briefs on the merits of the case), and several of the amicus parties filed notices that they intended to participate in the supreme court proceedings. The supreme court’s September 6, 2017 declination to exercise its jurisdiction, to answer the certified question, or to consider the case, however, left the Fourth District Court of Appeal’s Ober decision, released on rehearing, as the controlling law on this issue.

In Florida, the holding of one of the five district courts of appeal is not controlling over any other district court. For that reason, any of the other four district courts may decide this issue as the Fourth District did in its first opinion—and create conflicting law in the state. If that were to happen, the resulting conflict would give the supreme court an additional reason to accept jurisdiction: to resolve the conflicting opinions. Or, more likely, the legislature could act in the interim to amend section 48.23 to clarify its meaning. Either of these possibilities may change the law on this issue. But unless and until they do, Ober still controls and a notice of lis pendens continues to provide the standard protections expected by lenders and practitioners.

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