Tag Archives: Bankruptcy

Bankruptcy 101

There’s no crying in bankruptcy.

Santee, CA–Here’s a tale that starkly illustrates the avoiding power in bankruptcy.

Will and Jill Deuel were owners of a unit in the Lakeview Carlton Hills condominiums.

The Lakeview Carlton Hills condominiums

The Deuels purchased the condo in October 1999, giving a purchase money deed of trust for $106,700 to North American Mortgage Company.  At the same time the couple borrowed an additional $3,300, giving a second deed of trust.

In June 2001, the Deuels refinanced giving a deed of trust for #122,400 to American Mortgage Express Financial.

In September 2002, the Deuels refinanced again giving a deed of trust for $136,000 to Chase Manhattan Bank.  Problem was, the Chase deed of trust did not get recorded in the San Diego County recorders office.  At the time, all that got recorded was a release of the $122,400 deed of trust that was paid off by the Chase loan.

So, as a matter of record, it appeared the Deuels owned the condo “free and clear.”

In 2004, Jill Deuel filed chapter 7 bankruptcy.  Her schedules filed in bankruptcy court showed the $136,000 debt to Chase as “secured,” but realizing their deed of trust was unrecorded Chase filed a complaint in the bankruptcy for an order confirming the debt as a security interest in the condo, effective retroactively to September 4, 2002.

Jacob Weinberger United States Courthouse, San Diego, CA

The bankruptcy court ruled in favor of Chase, but the federal court of appeals disagreed and held the deed of trust “avoided” as a security interest in Jill’s condo.

The court based its decision on section 544(a)(3) of the Bankruptcy Code.  Section 544(a)(3) allows a trustee in bankruptcy (or a debtor-in-possession) to avoid an interest in debtor real property that has not been perfected as of the commencement of bankruptcy.

The purpose of section 544(a)(3) is to treat all of a debtor’s unsecured creditors equally, and prevent someone bound for bankruptcy from giving preferred (i.e., secured) status to a favored creditor.  It also discourages the prospective debtor who might try to protect assets by slipping a deed to a relative or friend.

Section 544(a)(3) achieves its purpose by giving the trustee status of a bona fide purchaser of debtor real property as of commencement of bankruptcy.  In this case, the court reasoned a BFP would not have constructive notice of the unrecorded Chase deed of trust and, thus, would acquire the property free of the obligation to Chase.

Chase tried to argue that its deed of trust was as good as perfected, since Jill listed the debt as “secured” in her bankruptcy schedules, but the court disagreed saying “if schedules could defeat the trustee’s status as a bona fide purchaser…, a debtor could use simultaneous filing of (the) petition and the schedules to favor one creditor over others.”

Chase also argued it should at least have a security interest in the property to the extent of the loan it paid off (the $122,400 deed of trust), but again the court disagreed citing the overriding purpose of section 544 to treat creditors equally.

Moral:  This is a classic example of section 544(a)(3) in operation.  This section is sometimes called the “avoiding power,” or “strong arm” power.

Seems harsh when you consider the Chase loan was, in a sense, purchase money; but there’s no crying in bankruptcy.

The result here benefits Jill’s unsecured creditors, including Chase, and also benefits Jill to the extent her home is exempt from claims in bankruptcy.  The decision doesn’t affect Will’s interest, whatever that might be.

The case is In re Deuel (Chase Manhattan Bank v. Taxel), 594 F.3d 1073 (9th Cir. 2010).

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Typo

A short course on constructive notice, and the bona fide purchaser.

TOPEKA, Ks–When they gave a mortgage against their home Jorge and Toni Colon could not have imagined what was to follow.

The trouble began with a typo. The Colons owned Lot 79 in the Arrowhead Heights Subdivision, but a typist made it “Lot 29” in the mortgage that got recorded.

The house on Lot 79

No one noticed the typo until the Colons filed Chapter 13 bankruptcy, and the bankruptcy court appointed a trustee for the debtors’ estate. Seeing opportunity, the trustee filed pleadings to avoid the mortgage as an interest in the debtors’ real property. If successful the trustee’s action would make the mortgage lender an unsecured creditor, perhaps getting cents on the dollar instead of full repayment.

The trustee’s action was based on section 544(a)(3) of the Bankruptcy Code. This statute gives a trustee (or a debtor-in-possession) legal status of a bona fide purchaser of the debtor’s real property as of commencement of bankruptcy. The purpose is to prevent a debtor from giving favored creditors preferential treatment just prior to bankruptcy.

So section 544(a)(3) offers a trustee protected status of a hypothetical bona fide purchaser, allowing the trustee to avoid a security interest in the debtor’s property (such as a mortgage) that has not been perfected (i.e., recorded) as of the bankruptcy filing date.  A bona fide purchaser, as we know, is one who pays value for property without notice of claims of others to the same property. The bona fide purchaser acquires property free of such competing claims, and has legal protections against them.

But what is legal “notice?” There are two types: Actual notice (what one knows) and constructive notice (as disclosed by public records).

In this case, the trustee argued a hypothetical bona fide purchaser would not have notice of the defective mortgage because it would not be found by a search of land records in the office of the county recorder for Shawnee County, Kansas.

The bankruptcy court agreed with the trustee, and ordered the mortgage avoided for the benefit of the debtors’ estate (controlled by the trustee). The mortgage lender could not foreclose, and would have to get in line as an unsecured creditor.

The court explained the county recorder maintains two indices for land records, a grantor-grantee index (an alphabetical listing by names of parties) and a geographical index (a listing by property legal description). The court said a purchaser (or a title searcher) might rely on the geographical index, solely, and in searching Lot 79 would not find the mortgage against Lot 29. It made no difference, in the court’s opinion, that the mortgage shows a correct property address and assessor’s parcel number.

The mortgage lender appealed and a federal court of appeals reversed the bankruptcy court decision.

The appeals court focused on the Kansas recording statutes, which state that each recorded document imparts notice of its contents, and that each county must maintain a grantor-grantee index. The geographical index is optional.

The court reasoned that the Kansas statutes charge a purchaser with constructive notice of an owner’s entire “chain of title,” to be found by searching names in the county grantor-grantee index. In this case, there were at least four documents in the chain of title linking the Colons with the correct lot number, and by comparing the documents a person with “common sense” should know the disputed mortgage was intended to encumber the Colon home.

So the mortgage lender won, and the mortgage is enforceable.

Moral: Forget the bankruptcy stuff, this is an important case for understanding constructive notice (and when you’re stuck with it). These notions of constructive notice, and rights of a bona fide purchaser, are at the heart of our system of property rights.

Most state recording statutes are similar to those in Kansas, and this well-written decision offers clarity for courts elsewhere. It should have nation-wide implications.

Today most searchers and title companies rely on geographical databases when handling real estate transactions. The geographical search is simply faster and less costly than a grantor-grantee search. But it’s also true the geographical search is prone to error and may miss the document with a bad legal description. Property owners and lenders look to title insurance to cover the risk.  See, for example, the next post, “Typo 2.”

The case is reported as In re Colon, 563 F.3d 1171 (10th Cir. 2009).

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