In re Failla: Let Them Eat Cake

Author: Starlett M. Massey, Partner at McCumber Daniels

For the past several years, it has been common practice for a mortgagor to “surrender” property subject to a mortgage through a bankruptcy case and later defend (or continue to defend) a foreclosure action in state court. In this manner, mortgagors have been able to enjoy significant benefits afforded by the Bankruptcy Code, such as discharge of the debt and cessation of negative reports to credit bureaus, while at the same time enjoying prolonged possession and ownership of collateral.

A recent opinion from the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals threatens to end this practice.

In the case of, In re Failla, 15-15626, 2016 WL 5750666 (11th Cir. Oct. 4, 2016), the Eleventh Circuit held debtors who surrender real property in a chapter 7 bankruptcy case may not oppose a foreclosure action in state court pertaining to that property.  In reaching this conclusion, the Failla court admonished: “In bankruptcy, as in life, a person does not get to have his cake and eat it too.”  Id. at *5.  Moreover, the Failla decision provides that a bankruptcy court has statutory authority to compel mortgagors to withdraw defenses and dismiss counterclaims asserted in state court foreclosure litigation.  Id. at *6.  This memorandum addresses the specifics of the Failla decision and the potential limitations of its reach.

foreclosure-signage

The Failla opinion resolves two important questions: (i) whether a debtor who surrenders real property in a Chapter 7 bankruptcy case may oppose a state court foreclosure action pertaining to that property; and (ii) whether a bankruptcy court has authority to order a mortgagor to cease opposing a foreclosure action.  Based on an analysis of the duties imposed on debtors pursuant to 11 U.S.C. § 521(a)(2) (“section 521(a)(2)”), the Failla court determined a debtor may not oppose a state court foreclosure action pertaining to real property surrendered in a Chapter 7 case.  Relying on the broad enforcement powers bestowed by 11 U.S.C. § 105(a), the Failla court held a bankruptcy court has authority to order a mortgagor who surrendered real property in a Chapter 7 bankruptcy case to cease opposing a foreclosure action pertaining to that property.

  • Mortgagors May Not Oppose State Court Foreclosure Actions After Declaring the Collateral Surrendered Under 11 U.S.C. § 521(a)(2).

In every individual Chapter 7 bankruptcy case, section 521(a)(2) requires that a debtor file a statement of intentions regarding what the debtor intends to do with property serving as collateral for a debt (the “Statement of Intentions”).  Through the Statement of Intentions, a debtor must provide a sworn declaration stating whether the debtor will surrender the collateral, redeem the collateral, or reaffirm the debt.  11 U.S.C. § 521(a)(2); Fed. R. Bankr. P. 1007(b)(2).  Additionally, section 521(a)(2)(B) mandates a debtor must perform the stated intention.  Thus, clearly, a debtor must effect surrender of real property serving as collateral for a mortgage if a debtor indicates on his or her Statement of Intentions that is what the debtor elects to do.  The issue resolved in Failla was to whom a debtor is required to surrender the collateral, as section 521(a)(2) states a debtor must “surrender” collateral but does not specify to whom.  The Faillas argued section 521(a)(2) merely requires a debtor to surrender collateral to the Chapter 7 bankruptcy trustee, not the creditor.  However, the Failla court determined, based upon a thorough analysis of the use of the term “surrender” in section 521(a)(2) and other sections of the Bankruptcy Code, that section 521(a)(2), “requires debtors who file a statement of intent to surrender to surrender the property to both the trustee and to the creditor.”  Id. at *2-3.

Next, the Failla court considered the meaning of the term “surrender,” as it relates to a debtor’s obligation under section 521(a)(2) and ultimately concluded:

Because “surrender” means “giving up of a right or claim,” debtors who surrender their property can no longer contest a foreclosure action. When the debtors act to preserve their rights to the property “by way of adversarial litigation,” they have not “relinquish[ed] … all of their legal rights to the property, including the rights to possess and use it.” Id., at *4 (quoting In re White, 487 F.3d 199, 206 (4th Cir. 2007).

While the holding in Failla is promising news for creditors, bankruptcy courts hesitant to interfere in state court matters may opt to narrowly apply the opinion.  Specifically, section 521(a)(2) only applies to cases filed under Chapter 7 by individuals.  Consequently, the Failla opinion directly applies only to foreclosure actions where collateral was surrendered in an individual Chapter 7 case.  Also, in order for the reasoning of Failla to directly apply, the name of the foreclosing creditor arguably must match the name of the creditor to whom the collateral was surrendered in the bankruptcy case.  Furthermore, a foreclosure action may involve additional defendants who were not party to the bankruptcy case and, thus, did not relinquish their rights to oppose the action.

  • Bankruptcy Courts Have Statutory Authority to Order Mortgagors to Stop Opposing State Foreclosure Actions After Real Property is Surrendered in a Chapter 7 Case.

 “Bankruptcy courts have broad powers to remedy violations of the mandatory duties section 521(a)(2) imposes on debtors.”  Id. at * 5 (citations omitted).  11 U.S.C. § 105(a) authorizes bankruptcy courts with the power to, “issue any order, process, or judgment that is necessary or appropriate to carry out the provisions of [the Bankruptcy Code].”  The Failla court appropriately noted a bankruptcy court’s powers under § 105(a), “includes section 521(a)(2).”  Id.  Bankruptcy judges regularly enter orders pursuant to 11 U.S.C. § 105(a) which compel action by parties outside of bankruptcy cases in order to redress violations of the Bankruptcy Code and compel compliance with orders of bankruptcy courts.  Id. at *6.  Thus, a bankruptcy court would have authority under section 105(a) to enter an order compelling compliance with a debtor’s Statement of Intention.

Unfortunately, in instances where the Failla opinion does apply, it is not self-effectuating.  Creditors seeking the relief afforded by this opinion must take the additional step of filing a motion to compel in the relevant bankruptcy case.  The necessity of filing a motion to compel may arise after the Chapter 7 case has been closed, thus requiring payment of a reopening fee.  While a bankruptcy court would have authority to order payment by the debtor of the court costs and attorneys’ fees incurred due to filing the motion, the reality of actual payment by the debtor absent other costly legal action is, at best, uncertain.

In conclusion, while the Failla opinion is certainly positive new case law for creditors, the expanse of its practical impact is yet to be seen.

Per Ober: Lis Pendens Protection Is Over Upon Entry Of Final Judgment Of Foreclosure

Author: Starlett M. Massey, Partner at McCumber Daniels

On August 24, 2016, the Fourth District Court of Appeal issued a troubling opinion in Ober v. Town of Lauderdale-By-The-Sea, 4D14-4597, 2016 WL 4468134, interpreting anew the statute governing lis pendens, Florida Statute § 48.23.  The Ober opinion holds that a lis pendens expires upon the entry of the final judgment of foreclosure.  Therefore, the lis pendens no longer precludes the attachment of liens that are recorded after the entry of final judgment through the date of the foreclosure sale.  This holding upends the current understanding of lis pendens protection amongst practitioners and lenders by creating the potential for cloud on title in a variety of circumstances involving a delayed foreclosure sale.lis-pendens-imageLIS PENDENS IN GENERAL

Upon commencing a real estate foreclosure action in Florida, in conjunction with filing a complaint for foreclosure with the clerk of court, a lender records a lis pendens in the Official Records for the county in which the property is located. Lis pendens literally means “pending suit.” Med. Facilities Dev., Inc. v. Little Arch Creek Properties, Inc., 675 So. 2d 915, 917 (Fla. 1996). A notice of lis pendens protects both the lis pendens proponent and third parties. Id. The notice protects the lis pendens proponent’s interest both from extinguishment and from any impairment from intervening liens. Id. The notice also protects future purchasers or encumbrancers of the property by informing them that there is a current suit involving the property’s title. Id.

OBER V. TOWN OF LAUDERDALE-BY-THE-SEA

In Ober v. Town of Lauderdale-by-the-Sea, 2016 WL 4468134 at *1 (Fla. 4th DCA August 24, 2016), the Court addressed the question as to how long a lis pendens protects a lis pendens proponent. The court held that the duration of the action itself determines the duration of the lis pendens.  Id.  The lis pendens takes effect when a notice of action is filed.  An action terminates upon the court’s issuance of a final judgment[1]. Id.  Therefore, the lis pendens does not affect liens that are recorded after that date, regardless of whether they attach prior to the judicial foreclosure sale of the property. Id.

In Ober, a bank recorded a lis pendens against certain property located in Lauderdale-by-the-Sea (the “Town”) on November 26, 2007.  Id. On September 22, 2008, the court entered a final judgment of foreclosure in favor of the bank.  Id. Beginning on July 13, 2009 and continuing through October 27, 2011, the Town recorded seven liens for code violations. Id. The liens stemmed from violations occurring after the court entered its final judgment on September 22, 2008.  Id. On September 27, 2012, Ober purchased the property at foreclosure sale for $37,900.00.  Id. Ober then filed suit to quiet title, attempting to strike the liens from his property. Id. The Town counterclaimed to foreclose on the liens.  Id. Both parties moved for summary judgment and the court granted the Town’s motion for summary judgment and held that the lis pendens only barred liens existing or accruing prior to the date of the final judgment. Id.  The court granted the Town a final judgment of foreclosure against Ober in the amount of $345,092.59.  The current value of the property is approximately $310,000.00.

Ober appealed. Id. In the appeal, the Town again argued that the lis pendens applied only to liens existing or accruing prior to the date of the final judgment. Id. Ober argued that the lis pendens continued through the date of the judicial sale, which in this case was over four years later. Id. The court ultimately held that the lis pendens only prevents the accrual of liens recorded after the court’s issuance of a final judgment, regardless of when the clerk holds the foreclosure sale.  Id.

This opinion is a new interpretation of an existing statute and will control throughout Florida until other opinions are issued.  Trial courts in all jurisdictions in the state will be bound by this case until their own controlling District Court of Appeal weighs in on the matter.

EFFECT OF OBER

This holding is concerning, as it will create substantial problems for lenders when a foreclosure sale is put on hold after the court enters a final judgment of foreclosure.  A foreclosure sale might be delayed for a number of reasons, with, perhaps, the most common causes being a mortgagor’s filing of a bankruptcy case post-judgment and a lender’s voluntary cancellation or postponement of a sale pending loss mitigation negotiations.

During the period of time after the entry of the final judgment, but before the foreclosure sale is held, the mortgagor remains the titled owner of the property. Thus, once the lis pendens protection expires, liens against the mortgagor can attach to the property without the lender’s knowledge.  Third-party purchasers at a foreclosure sale purchase the property “as is” and are responsible for conducting their own research as to the property being sold, including whether any potential liens or other defects in title exist. Thus, lenders may escape the liability and cost associated with intervening liens if they are not the successful bidder at the foreclosure sale.  The real problems arise for lenders where the lender is the winning bidder at a foreclosure sale and a lien or liens have attached to the property between final judgment and the sale. Worst case scenario, as in Ober, a lender could purchase the property at the foreclosure sale only to have its interest extinguished by lien foreclosure. Alternatively, a lender could purchase the property at foreclosure sale and be forced to pay or settle a lien(s) in order to convey clear title to a third-party purchaser.

RECOMMENDATIONS TO LENDERS

Foreclosing lenders should consider changes to their current practices in order to reduce the risk of intervening liens by minimizing delays between the entry of final judgment and sale.  For example, lenders may consider limiting or discontinuing loss mitigation once the court has entered its final judgment.  Lenders may also decline to offer consent judgments with extended sale dates, which might previously have been offered to allow the borrower to undertake loss mitigation efforts.  Where a lender is working with a borrower who is seeking a refinance of the debt, the lender should require an updated title report to and require that the borrower be responsible for eliminating any intervening liens in order to ensure that the new mortgage lien will have the agreed upon priority.  Lenders should additionally consider obtaining updated title reports prior to a delayed foreclosure sale in order to determine the existence of any intervening liens because such liens may alter the lender’s maximum bid at the foreclosure sale.

[1] When no appeal is taken, an action terminates when the time for appeal expires. S. Title Research Co. v. King, 186 So. 2d 539, 544-45 (Fla. 4th DCA 1966).  That time is thirty days after rendition of the order. Fla. R. App. P. 9.110(b).  The Ober court declined to determine whether a lis pendens expires at the time of entry of the final judgment or whether it expires thirty days after the entry of the final judgment because none of the liens in that case were recorded during that time period.

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