Tag Archives: Chapter 20

March 15, 2016

Secured Creditors Beware: Ninth Circuit Holds a Chapter 13 Debtor may Avoid Liens Even if not Entitled to a Discharge

Congress enacted § 1328(f) of the Bankruptcy Code when its passed BAPCPA. This section prohibits the granting of a chapter 13 discharge if the debtor received a chapter 7 discharge within four years prior to the commencement of his chapter 13 case. The Ninth Circuit in In the Matter of Blendheim, 803 F.3d 477 (9th Cir. 2015) held a chapter 20 debtor may in his chapter 13 case avoid a lien under § 506(d) even if § 1328(f) precludes him from receiving a discharge.

The creditor in Blendheim was HSBC Bank, which held a deed of trust lien on the debtors’ home. The debtors filed a chapter 7 case and received a discharge. Soon thereafter, they filed a chapter 13 case, mainly to restructure debts relating to their primary residence. HSBC timely filed a secured proof of claim based on its deed of trust against the debtors’ residence. The debtors objected to the claim, substantively objecting on the grounds that the note which formed the basis for the claim bore a forged signature. For some unknown reason, HSBC never responded to the debtors’ objection, and the bankruptcy court entered an order disallowing HSBC’s secured claim. In fact, after receiving notice that its secured claim had been disallowed, HSBC withdrew its proof of claim and requested the court to no longer send it electronic notifications in the case.

Thereafter, the debtors filed an adversary proceeding against HSBC seeking to void HSBC’s lien under § 506(d) which provides “to the extent that a lien secures a claim against the debtor that is not an allowed secured claim, such lien is void.” The debtors contended they were entitled to avoid the lien because the plain language of the statute says a lien securing a debt which is not an allowed secured claim is void. HSBC defended, asserting the debtors were not entitled to avoid the bank’s lien because the debtors were precluded from receiving a discharge by § 1328(f), which provides that a debtor may not receive chapter 13 discharge if he has received a chapter 7 discharge within four years prior to the commencement of his chapter 13 case.

The Ninth Circuit agreed the debtors could avoid HSBC’s liens even though they could not receive a chapter 13 discharge. First, the court concluded the plain language of § 506(d) entitled the debtors to avoid HSBC’s lien. Because this section provides that a lien is void if it secured a debt which is not an allowed secured claim, the court concluded that Congress’ intent was manifest, and held the purpose of § 506(d) was to nullify a creditor’s legal rights in a debtor’s property if the creditor’s claim is disallowed. The court stated its belief that the Supreme Court’s decision in Dewsnup v. Timm, 502 U.S. 410 (1992) confirmed its interpretation. In Dewsnup, the debtors argued that the creditor’s claim was not an allowed secured claim because it was undersecured, and therefore they could avoid it under § 506(d). The Supreme Court rejected this argument, holding “§ 506(d) did not void the lien on his property because the creditor’s claim has been fully ‘allowed.’”

HSBC argued that such a conclusion would be inconsistent with decisions from the Eighth,[1] Fourth[2] and Seventh[3] Circuits, all of which held that avoiding liens for claims which were disallowed because they were untimely filed violated the long-standing principle that valid liens pass through bankruptcy unaffected. Viewing these decisions as holding that filing an untimely claim is akin to not filing a claim at all, the court determined the reasoning of these cases to be inapplicable since HSBC’s claim was disallowed on the merits. The court also noted that the Eleventh[4] and Fourth[5] Circuits have held that a chapter 13 debtor who cannot receive a discharge because of § 1328(f) may still void liens under § 506(d).

Finally, the court rejected HSBC’s argument that allowing avoidance of its lien in these circumstances would effectively grant the debtors on a de facto basis, the discharge to which they were not entitled. The court stated this argument ignored the difference between in personam and in rem liability. By enacting § 1328(f), Congress affected only the debtor’s in personam liability: “We take Congress at its word when it said in § 1328(f) that Chapter 20 debtors are ineligible for a discharge, and only a discharge.” The court further noted there is no language in the Bankruptcy Code which prevents Chapter 20 debtors from receiving the other benefits chapter 13 has to offer, and had Congress intended to prevent these debtors from avoiding liens, it would have included specific language when it enacted BAPCPA.

 

[1] In re Shelton, 735 F.3d 747 (8th Cir. 2013)

[2] In re Hamlett, 322 F.3d 342 (4th Cir. 2003)

[3] In re Tarnow, 749 F.2d 464 (7th Cir. 1984)

[4] In re Scantling, 754 F.3d 1323 (11th Cir. 2014)

[5] In re Davis, 716 F.3d 331 (4th Cir. 2013)

January 12, 2016

Ninth Circuit BAP Holds That a Wholly Unsecured Junior Lien, Discharged in Chapter 7, is not Included in Calculating Chapter 13 Eligibility Under Sec. 109(e)

Section 109(e) of the Bankruptcy Code limits eligibility for chapter 13 relief to those individual debtors whose noncontingent, liquidated unsecured debts do not exceed statutory limits. In calculating eligibility to file chapter 13, should a court consider debts which have been discharged in a prior chapter 7 case and which are “out of the money” because, while secured by a trust deed against the debtor’s residence, the value of the debtor’s residence is insufficient to cover the debt relating to the first trust deed? The Ninth Circuit Bankruptcy Appellate Panel answered this question in the negative, holding in Free v. Malaier (In re Free), 2015 WL 9252592 (9th Cir. BAP 2015) that such debts are not to be included in determining eligibility for chapter 13 relief.

In Free the debtors owned a home which they valued in their chapter 7 schedules at $425,000. The home secured three debts totaling over $900,000, with the first lien holder owed more than the value of the home. The debtors received a chapter 7 discharge and shortly thereafter commenced a chapter 13 case in which they sought to strip off the two subordinate liens. The chapter 13 trustee filed a motion to dismiss the case, arguing that these two wholly unsecured subordinate liens should be included in determining eligibility, and doing so rendered the debtors ineligible for chapter 13 relief. While noting that there was no Ninth Circuit controlling case directly on point, the bankruptcy court relied on several opinions in the Ninth Circuit in chapter 12 cases to conclude the subordinate liens should be included in the calculation and finding the debtors were not eligible for chapter 13 relief.

The BAP reversed, concluding that the discharged debts reflected by the wholly unsecured subordinate liens, should not be considered in determining chapter 13 eligibility. The court began its analysis with the definitions of “debt” and “claim” in section 101 of the Code. Because “claim” is defined as a right to payment and “debt” is defined as liability on a claim, the court held “there is no ‘unsecured debt’ unless the creditor has a ‘right to payment’ on an unsecured basis.” The court next concluded that the result of the debtors’ chapter 7 discharge resulted in their having no personal liability to pay the debts relating to the subordinate liens.

Because the bankruptcy court based its ruling in part on the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Johnson v. Home State Bank, 501 U.S. 78 (1991), the BAP addressed its perceived distinctions between the facts in Johnson and the facts in the present case.   In Johnson, the debtor obtained a chapter 7 discharge of a judgment in a foreclosure action and then filed a chapter 13 case with the intent to pay the in rem judgment through his chapter 13 plan. In addressing the question of whether an in rem claim for which personal liability has been discharged can properly be included in a chapter 13 plan, the Supreme Court held that such a claim can be treated in a chapter 13 plan because the claim was enforceable against the debtor’s property even though it was not enforceable against the debtor himself.

The BAP also distinguished the decision of the Ninth Circuit in Quintana v. Commissioner, 915 F.2d 513 (9th Cir. 1990) and the Ninth Circuit BAP in Davis v. Bank of America (In re Davis), 2012 WL 3205431 (9th Cir. BAP 2012), both of which involved chapter 12 proceedings. In Quintana, a judgment creditor agreed to waive any deficiency judgment following the sale of the debtor’s real property securing the judgment. Because the real property had not yet been sold, making a determination of the relative amounts of the secured and unsecured debts uncertain, the Ninth Circuit held it appropriate to include the full amount of the judgment debt in determining the debtor’s eligibility for chapter 12 relief. The BAP also noted the differences between § 109(e), which segregates secured and unsecured debts in determining eligibility, and § 101(18), which determines who is a family farmer by looking to the individual’s aggregate debts. The BAP distinguished its prior decision in Davis on similar grounds.

The BAP then distinguished the Ninth Circuit’s decision in Scovis v. Henrichsen (In re Scovis), 249 F.3d 975 (9th Cir. 2001) and the Ninth Circuit BAP’s decision in Smith v. Rojas (In re Smith), 435 B.R. 637 (9th Cir. BAP 2010) both of which held that the unsecured portion of partially secured debts are to be included in determining chapter 13 eligibility on the grounds that both Scovis and Smith dealt with cases where the chapter 13 proceeding was not preceded by a chapter 7 discharge of the debtor’s personal liability on the debt in question.

Finally, the BAP addressed the U.S. Supreme Courts’ decisions in Dewsnup v. Timm, 502 U.S. 410 (1992) and Bank of America v. Caulkett, 135 S. Ct. 1995 (2015) in connection with lien stripping efforts by chapter 13 debtors. The Court in Dewsnup held that a chapter 7 debtor cannot strip down a partially unsecured lien under § 506(d) to the value of the collateral. Subsequently in Caulkett the Court extended its holding in Dewsnup to situations involving wholly unsecured junior liens. The BAP noted that, following Dewsnup and Caulkett, litigants have argued that debtors who first file a chapter 7 case and obtain a personal discharge and then file a chapter 13 case seeking to strip the remaining in rem claim are acting in bad faith. The BAP refused to reach this issue as it had not been brought forward in the appeal but did state that this argument must be raised by filing a motion to dismiss the chapter 13 case as a bad faith filing and not in the context of whether the debtor is eligible under § 109(e) to file a chapter 13 case.