United States Supreme Court, Docket: 14-116 Opinion Date: May 4, 2015

Appellant Bullard filed a Chapter 13 Bankruptcy case and proposed Plan. The Debtor’s mortgage lender objected to the treatment of its claim under the Plan and the Bankruptcy Court sustained that objection, denying confirmation of the Plan with leave to amend.

First Appeal

The Debtor appealed the denial of confirmation to the 1st Circuit Bankruptcy Appellate Panel, which concluded that denial of confirmation was not a final, appealable order under 28 U.S.C.158(a)(1). Nonetheless, the BAP heard the issue as an interlocutory appeal – the operative provision in the Bankruptcy Code requiring “with leave of the court.” Tha BAP agreed that Bullard’s proposed Plan did not accord proper treatment to the mortgage company and upheld the ruling of the Bankruptcy Court.

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The Facts

In 2004 Miller sought to build a 4-unit condominium project on her lot in Monona, Wisconsin. The process stalled while Miller bought another lot, amended the plan, and abated an unexpected asbestos problem. Then her real problems began.

Miller negotiated unsuccessfully with her neighbor, a former mayor, who trespassed onto her property at the direction of city officials and took photographs for use at a planning commission meeting to oppose her project. Citations were issued for creating a public nuisance and working without the proper permit; the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources issued a “Stop Work” Order due to the asbestos. Miller was also required to erect a fence, was told that weeds were too high, and was ordered to remove various structures.

State Courts

A Wisconsin State Court rejected 3 of the citations issued against her, stating that while “some of the efforts to enforce compliance were unreasonable” Miller had not pointed to any similarly situated person who had been treated differently. With the Court on its side, Monona refused to adjust taxes on the property to reflect the demolition of existing structures, and Officials continued to trespass by parking cars on her property. Continue reading →

Dual Tracking is the industry name for the practice of letting a foreclosure case tick on even while the homeowner seeks to modify their mortgage loan. The idea is simple: the Bank will take whichever solution comes through first – a modification or a foreclosure. The problem is that the Bank holds all the cards: the Bank’s Loss Mitigation Department decides how long it takes to review and approve an application to modify your loan, while the Foreclosure process in Court has been greatly simplified and streamlined for the benefit of the Banks. Illinois mortgage foreclosure laws, even Illinois Supreme Court Rules, now permit foreclosing banks to roll over homeowners and get to a judgment.

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If you live in Illinois you know that the Economy has been sputtering: struggling valiantly but with little to show for it. Case in point: Is your home still underwater? For most people the answer is still yes – even as markets around the country rebound. So today we address a deceptively simple question: What is a mortgage and how does it work? Why don’t mortgages relate to the value of our homes? Here are a few things to consider: a mortgage is a loan secured by real estate. While the term “mortgage” is used colloquially to refer to both the loan and the security, there are actually 2 separate legal documents at work here: a Note and a security instrument – the Mortgage lien.

Note: When money is borrowed to purchase real estate, some States title the underlying property in the name of the Lender and permit that interest to hypothetically transfer over time to the Borrower. The arrangement is a bit like lay-a-way. These States are using the “Title Theory.” But Illinois, like many other States, places the underling property in the name of the homeowner and gives the Lender a lien on the owner’s interest – these States are using the “Lien Theory.”

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Think you know about Lien Strips, the controversial practice featured in our post here? Well think again, because the law may be changing. Lucky for you we have an update ready to go.

WHAT IS A LIEN STRIP?

11 USC 1322(b) provides that wholly undersecured liens on real property may be removed or “stripped,” and the debt to which they relate treated as unsecured in a Chapter 13 Plan of Reorganization. Lien stripping has 2 distinct, and very desirable, benefits for debtors:

  1. The lien strip removes the junior lien from the property entirely; and
  1. The debtor only pays a percentage of the claim (as if it were an unsecured debt).

CAN A PARTIAL LIEN STRIP SUCCEED?

There is no such thing as a partial lien strip. Bankruptcy Courts will only allow a lien to be stripped if it is wholly undersecured (i.e. unsecured): that is, the secured potion is zero or negative. Moreover, lien stripping is permissible only for claims secured by the Debtor’s principle residence because a lien strip modifies the “total package of rights for which the claim holder bargained.”

QUALIFYING FOR A LIEN STRIP

For a lien to be stripped, the value of the debtor’s property as of filing, minus fully-secured non-target debts, must be = or < $0. Once upon a time meeting these requirements could be challenging; but today, when many homeowners are “underwater” as to their first mortgage and have a HELOC or 2nd mortgage on top of that, the conditions necessary for a lien strip to take place are relatively straightforward and can sometimes be met without much resistance from the affected creditor.

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This post provides a brief snapshot of Mechanics Liens in Illinois. While I recommend this short post for those involved in the construction industry (Contractors, Subcontractors, Suppliers, etc.) as well as for Attorneys that represent such parties, I strongly suggest that anyone facing a potential lien claim or seeking to enforce one find an experienced practitioner. As you will see below, there are more ways to fail at enforcing a Mechanics Lien than to succeed. For still more information, see our Mechanics Lien Primer.

General Considerations

Under Illinois law a “mechanic” – usually a General Contractor, Subcontractor, Supplier, or Architect – is one that improves real property and is entitled to a lien in the property until paid. That inchoate lien may be perfected by the filing of notice and enforced through the filing of suit to foreclose. This is what we know as a Mechanics Lien.

The right to bring a Mechanics Lien is granted exclusively by statute – no such right exists at common law. With respect to improvements on private property, the Illinois Mechanics Lien Act controls; while the Liens Against Public Funds Act applies to liens on public property. Since Mechanics Liens arise only from statute, the law must be strictly construed in all respects – the most important being the absolute deadlines specified in Illinois law. Failure to adhere to the statutory deadlines is fatal to the right of the complaining party

Change Orders

When changes are made in the process of a construction project, those changes should be documented as “Change Orders.” Illinois law requires the following five (5) factors in order for a Change Order to be enforceable:

1.The extra must be outside the scope of the original contract;
2.The extra must have been ordered by the property owner;
3.The owner must agree to pay for the extra by word or deed;
4.The extra must not have been volunteered by the contractor; and
5.Extras cannot be charged to correct faulty or incomplete work.

Failure to meet these criteria will bar any claim for that extra. In short, while it is not necessary to obtain change orders in writing, it is obviously a good idea to do so and to prominently display how much the work and materials will cost, as well as the anticipated effect on the overall construction schedule.

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On February 9, 2015 the Bankruptcy Court for the Northern District of Illinois, Eastern Division ruled in the case of Brandt vs. Rohr-Alpha, a case involving fraudulent transfers and whether certain debts can be avoided in Bankruptcy.

What is a “Fraudulent Transfer?”

A pre-petition payment is avoidable as constructively fraudulent according to 548(a)(1)(B) when the Debtor:

  1. Transfers property or an interest in property;
  2. Within the 2 years preceding its bankruptcy;
  3. Got less than reasonably equivalent value; and
  4. Was insolvent or rendered insolvent as a result.

Reasonably Equivalent Value

To determine whether reasonably equivalent value was exchanged the Court must determine:

  1. Whether at time of transfer the Debtor received value; and, if so,
  2. Whether that value was equivalent to what the debtor gave up.

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Today’s post features a pair of cases in which a foreclosure defense Attorney seems to have gone too far. Foreclosure defense has become a veritable cottage industry over the past decade and it is common for Clients to expect their lawyer to do more than fight. They want to delay “by any means necessary.” But the Courts still regard the law as a genteel profession. This means that what Clients see as run of the mill zealous lawyering comes off to the Judge as unprofessional or worse. This pair of cases highlights that point.

Case #1: In re Wendy A. Nora

Facts

Nora was known for using tactics to prolong her Clients’ cases. Here she had removed a matter to Federal Court based on what she called “recently uncovered research” to the effect that Freddy Mac was the true party in interest. The case was already 4 years old. But the District Court rejected her argument and remanded back to State Court, awarding PNC its Attorney’s fees and costs.

Nora moved for reconsideration. The Court did not change its position and called her pleading “frivolous” because she made “no good faith argument for changing existing law and offered no meritorious arguments for reconsidering the decision to award fees.” The Court went on to say that Nora “repeatedly used procedural feints to delay the foreclosure” and noted that she’d been suspended from practice in Minnesota for that very reason.

Back in State Court Nora continued her tactics: accusing the Judge and the Court Reporter of manipulating transcripts even as she asserted that the District Judge had pursued a campaign of libel and Opposing Counsel engaged in “civil fraud” and “racketeering.” Nora also made repeatedly references to rejected arguments from prior motions and stated that if she were given an evidentiary hearing she would be vindicated.

Findings

In her defense, Nora characterized her comments as mere rudeness. The Court disagreed, stating that her repeated and factually baseless accusations of criminal conduct were “unacceptable.” It then found that:

  • Nora’s actions were meant solely to delay her Clients’ foreclosure; and that
  • Her outbursts  were “unbecoming a member of the bar” in violation of Rule 38 of the Rules of Federal Appellate Procedure.

Holding

The Court Imposed sanctions of $2,500 on Nora and ordered she be suspended from practicing before it. The holding was forwarded to the Office of Lawyer Regulation of the Wisconsin Supreme Court, where a disciplinary case is underway.

Case #2: Nora v. HSBC Bank USA, N.A.

Facts

HSBC initiated a Wisconsin foreclosure against the Rinaldis, who counterclaimed alleging that certain paperwork had been fraudulently altered and that HSBC lacked standing to enforce the mortgage. The Rinaldis lost at summary judgment and did not appeal. HSBC later agreed to modify its mortgage and the Court vacated the Judgment of Foreclosure. The Rinaldis filed a new suit reasserting their counterclaims. Before the Court could rule on HSBC’s motion to dismiss, the Rinaldis filed Bankruptcy. HSBC filed a Proof of Claim in the Bankruptcy, but the Rinaldis objected and filed Adversary claims alleging fraud, abuse of process, tortious interference, breach of contract, and violations of RICO and the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act.

Holding

The Bankruptcy Court recommended denial of the Adversary action and the District Court agreed.The Court also warned the Rinaldis that if they filed additional frivolous claims they would be sanctions due to the “vexatious and time and resource-consuming” nature of their “nigh-unintelligible” filings.

Did that deter the Rinadldis? Perish the thought. Following several additional filings of the same type the Rinaldis voluntarily dismissed their Bankruptcy but their Attorney, Nora, filed additional motions. Consequently the Court ordered a sanction of $1,000 against Nora, which the 7th  Circuit upheld on appeal.

The Upshot

Lawyers are asked to be advocates, but how zealous is too zealous? While cases such as the ones above could answer that question, it is not clear that they do. Was Nora too zealous in this case or just too rude? Should she not have stepped into a Courtroom to begin with? Should she have done more diligence or tossed out her Client because they were asking for too much? Sadly, the simple fact is that even if an Attorney is prepared to draw the line, they can bet there is another lawyer around the corner that won’t.

No wonder Shakespeare wrote “The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.”

Your Turn

Want to share your thoughts on this post? Need to discuss your own situation? Call us in confidence at 630-378-2200 or reach us via e-mail at mhedayat[at]mha-law.com.

In Kmart v. Footstar and Liberty Mutual the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals was presented with 2 primary issues:

  • Is an indemnification clause triggered when an employee acts outside the scope of his duties?
  • Does an insurance company have a duty to defend the lawsuit arising from such an incident?

The Facts

Footstar operated the footwear department at various Kmart locations. Footstar employees could only work in shoe department unless they had written permission from Kmart. The agreement between the two stores provided that Footstar was to “reimburse, indemnify, defend and hold [Kmart] harmless” in the event of an accident. Footstar also bought insurance from Liberty Mutual.

In 2005 a Kmart customer asked for assistance retrieving a stroller. Both a Kmart and Footstar employee attempted to secure the stroller, which fell out of the box and hit the customer in the face. The accident took place well outside the Footstar department. The customer sued Kmart in negligence. Kmart in turn sued Footstar and Liberty Mutual, alleging that they owed a duty to defend and indemnify it.

The Opinion

First, the 7th Circuit ruled that Footstar and Liberty Mutual did not have a duty to indemnify Kmart: for such a duty to arise the injury would have to arise “pursuant to” or “under” the agreement between the stores. But that agreement in this case prohibited Footstar employees from taking action outside the footwear department. The Court also noted that the duty to indemnify arises only where the insured’s activity and resulting damages fall within the policy’s coverage terms. Since the Footstar employee here was acting in an extra-contractual manner, there was no indemnification requirement.

Second, the Court noted that under Illinois and New Jersey law Footstar and Liberty Mutual were liable for defense costs incurred following notice of the lawsuit because an insurer may be required to defend its insured even when there will ultimately be no obligation to indemnify. In other words, an insurer has a duty to defend unless the complaint in issue simply did not involve its insured.

In summary, the Court concluded that the actions of the Footstar employee were “potentially covered” and arose out of his performance under the agreement between the stores.

The Upshot

This case reminds us that even in this day and age contract drafting is a nuanced but critical part of what lawyers do. Here, the Agreement and the Policy were both deemed ambiguous by the Court, which left them open to competing interpretations. Had they been better written, the issue may not have come up at all.

 

 

For Debtors, Chapter 7 Liquidation is the ultimate relief, while Chapter 13 and 11 Reorganization offers an opportunity to reduce their Debtor’s payments in light of their income. In either type of case however, the Creditor is not entitled to anything until it has filed is Proof of Claim.

What Is a Proof of Claim?

The Proof of Claim or “PoC” is the means by which Creditors state:

  • How much they are owed by this Debtor;
  • Why they are owed that much to begin with; and
  • Whether debt is secured by property of the Estate.

Different types of cases contain strict deadlines for filing a PoC, and each PoC should be accompanied by supporting documentation such as a calculation of sums due, a copy of a Judgment Order, etc.

Will The Claim Be Paid?

Once filed, the Creditor’s PoC represents what could be paid to it, presuming:

  • The Debtor has sufficient assets to liquidate in order to pay the Creditor’s Claim; or
  • The Debtor’s Reorganization provides for full payment of creditors – a “100% Plan.

But in the overwhelming number of cases the reality is:

  • The Debtor has few if any assets to liquidate, resulting in a “No Asset” finding; or
  • The Debtor’s Plan of Reorganization involves paying only a small fraction of debts.

What If The PoC Is Wrong?

If a Debtor believes that a Creditor filed a materially false or inflated Claim, that Debtor may file an Objection to Proof of Claim. The Objection will require the Creditor to support, clarify, or defend its Claim. Creditors that fail to do so may lose their Claim altogether. As in the case of the PoC, there is a strict time limit in which to file Objections. Failure to do so is fatal to the Objection and permits the Creditor to pursue whatever amount it seeks.

The Upshot

For Creditors whose Debtors file Bankruptcy, the key to collecting is diligence and proactive planning. For Debtors whose Creditors continue to pursue them even past a Bankruptcy filing, it is critical to know what a Creditor can legitimately seek, what it cannot, once a Bankruptcy has been filed.

Your Turn

Want to share your thoughts on this post? Need to discuss your own situation? Call us in confidence at 630-378-2200 or reach us via e-mail at mhedayat[at]mha-law.com.