Smith v. Sipi, LLC
7th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals
Docket 15-1166 Date:Jan. 20, 2016
In this case from right in our neighborhood – Joliet, Illinois – the Bankruptcy Court and 7th Circuit agree that using the market value of property instead of its artificially low disposal price in a tax sale reflects the real intent of both Bankruptcy law and Illinois law. At the same time, both Courts agree that one taking from a tax-sale buyer is entitled to bona fide purchaser protection.
The Smiths lived in a single-family home in Joliet, Illinois. In 2004 Mrs. Smith inherited the property. While living there in 2000, she and her husband failed to pay the real estate taxes, giving rise to a tax lien in favor of Will County. At a 2001 auction, SIPI purchased the tax lien and paid the delinquent taxes of $4,046.26 plus costs.Mrs. Smith did not redeem that tax obligation and SIPI recorded its Tax Deed in 2005; ultimately selling the property to Midwest for $50,000.
In 2007 the Smiths filed for Chapter 13 Bankruptcy protection and successfully sought to avoid the Tax Sale. Both the Bankruptcy Court and the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals agreed that under the terms of 11 U.S.C. 548(a)(1)(B) the property was not transferred for reasonably equivalent value. However, both Courts did find that Midwest was a “subsequent transferee in good faith” (i.e. a bona fide purchaser) entitled to retain the value of the property it had purchased.
7th Circuit Opinion
Ultimately the 7th Circuit founds that the 1994 Supreme Court decision of BFP v. Resolution Trust holding that a mortgage foreclosure sale that complies with state law is deemed to give rise to “reasonably equivalent value” as a matter of law, does not apply in Illinois. Unlike mortgage foreclosure sales and some other state tax sales, Illinois tax sales do not involve competitive bidding where the highest bid wins.
Instead, bidders bid how little money they are willing to accept in return for payment of the owner’s delinquent taxes. The lowest bid wins so bid amounts bear no relationship to the value of the real estate. In such circumstances, the Courts found, it was not enough to treat the tax sale price of a property to be its “fair value.”
In the interaction between Bankruptcy and State law, State law can only be incorporated on its own terms. For instance, while it is customary to treat the foreclosure (or tax) sale value of a property is its “market value,” if the terms of State law do not provide for a competitive auction environment – as here – then Federal Courts will forgo the presumption in favor of the actual conditions set down by the law. A good call.