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BoA v. Caulkett, 13–1421 (Jun 1) Supreme Court of the United States

Background

This case came to the Supreme Court due to a Circuit split on the issue of “Lien Stripping.” In this pair of cases the Debtors both filed Chapter 7 Bankruptcy cases, owned houses encumbered with senior mortgages and “underwater” junior mortgages held by the Petitioner banks. Because the amount owed on each senior mortgage was greater than each house’s current market value, the Banks would have received nothing if they foreclosed on the junior liens (i.e. underwater).

Debtors sought to void their junior mortgage liens under the terms of Bankruptcy Code §506, which provides that “To the extent that a lien secures a claim against the debtor that is not an allowed secured claim, such lien is void.” 11 USC §506(d). In each case, the Bankruptcy Court granted the Debtor’s respective motions, and both the District Court and the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed.

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As a Bankruptcy lawyer I can’t count how many times people have asked why Courts won’t reduce their mortgage debt to match the deflated value of their home, or why they should pay anything on that second mortgage, line of credit, or HELOC, when they’re underwater. I even discussed these questions and the state of the law concerning lien strips in this post. Now, the very cases referred to in that post have made it to the U.S. Supreme Court and the stage is set for the battle of the lien strip cases.

Of course this all started with the Supreme Court’s 1992 Opinion in Dewsnup v. Timm that the Bankruptcy Code does not permit the cramdown of a partially secured mortgage. Some Courts took this to mean that lien-strips are a no-no. Others interpreted it to mean that lien-strips were permissible under the right circumstances. So in some parts of the country a completely unsecured second mortgage can be stripped, but only in a Chapter 13 reorganization; while in other parts it can be stripped in a Chapter 7 liquidation, too.

So, with Courts in disagreement, what’s a home-owner to do? Remember, in Dewsnup the Court ruled the Bankruptcy Code doesn’t permit mortgages to be written down to the value of the home – even though that practice, known as the cram down,  is acceptable as to vehicles. Ironically, one of the Court’s primary concerns in Dewsnup was to prevent windfall gains to home-owners who strip away their loans, then enjoy the profits as their homes rise in value.

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In June 2013 the US Supreme Court published an opinion arising from a dispute over the estate of Pierce Marshall – better known as the husband of Anna Nichole Smith. That case, Stern vs. Marshall, gave rise to a surprising decision; namely, that Bankruptcy Courts could not rule on the State-law aspects of a dispute even if they were before the Bankruptcy Court as part of the larger dispute. The operative distinction would henceforth come down to whether or not a dispute qualified as a “core proceeding” (i.e. whether it was the kind of question over which the Bankruptcy Court had jurisdiction).

Since the Stern decision was released in 2011, results across the country have often been inconsistent as Bankruptcy Lawyers and Judges attempt to apply this new set of distinctions and decide whether cases should be heard or referred back to the State Courts. In many cases, Bankruptcy Courts defaulted back to State Courts without much discussion.

In an update and clarification to its Stern vs. Marshall Opinion, the Supreme Court recently decided Executive Benefits vs. Ch. 7 Trustee for Bellingham Ins. Agency(Jun. 09). The opinion answered a number of questions that had arisen in the wake of Stern. In particular, the Supreme Court clarified how Bankruptcy Courts should proceed when faced with “core” claims that were now designated as “non-core” under the Stern standard. These claims fall into the so-called “statutory gap” in the Bankruptcy Code.

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These are dark times in the galaxy….

Unemployment is stubbornly high. The recovery has nearly stalled. People’s savings are low. The housing market’s so-called rebound has been uneven. Since June 2011 almost a million and a half people have sought bankruptcy protection. The number of filers keeps growing (so much for the salutary effect of BAPCPA).  Is there hope? 

A New Hope

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