January 8, 2015
In Virginia, borrowers have several options of where to bring a legal challenge to a foreclosure trustee’s sale. The shortest commute is usually the Virginia circuit court for the city or county where the property is located. Alternatively, the facts may allow suit to be brought in a federal district courthouses. Another common venue is federal bankruptcy court.
On June 18, 2014, I posted an article about a borrower, Rachel Ulrey, who managed to keep her foreclosed real estate because the lender, SunTrust Bank, failed to object to the plan in time. Ulrey’s case is a cautionary tale to lenders. Other cases show why borrowers cannot rely on lender inattention as a legal strategy. On November 12, 2014, U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Kevin Huennenkens issued an opinion illustrating why parties and their attorneys may not bring the same claim in bankruptcy court after they fail to achieve their desired result in a Virginia state court. The borrower and his attorney found their attempt to relitigate foreclosure in bankruptcy sanctioned by the judge.
Michael Pintz owned property in Sussex County, Virginia, in the name of Michael’s Enterprises of Virginia, Inc. In June 2008, he took out a $200,000 mortgage from Branch Banking & Trust. After he defaulted on payment, BB&T obtained a money judgment in Hanover Circuit Court. When BB&T sent Michael’s Enterprises a Notice of Foreclosure, he filed a request in Sussex Circuit Court to block the threatened sale. That court denied the motion. BB&T later purchased the property at a November 2013 Trustee’s Sale. In February 2014, Michael’s Enterprises filed for Chapter 11 reorganization in the U.S. Bankruptcy Court. The petition claimed the Sussex property as an asset of the corporation.
You may be wondering whether bankruptcy petitions can be used this way. When a court finds that someone filed something for an improper purpose, it may award litigation sanctions. State and federal courts in Virginia have similar rules prohibiting parties and their attorneys from advancing legal claims and defenses for improper purposes and not to vindicate the rights described in the court filing. Improper purposes include but are not limited to harassment, unnecessary delay or needless increase in the cost of litigation.
BB&T brought a Motion for Sanctions for Violation of Bankruptcy Rule 9011. The Bankruptcy Court initially deferred BB&T’s request for sanctions. Judge Huennenkens gave Michael’s Enterprises an opportunity to submit a proper bankruptcy reorganization plan before ruling on the sanctions request. The conditions imposed were not met. In October 2014, the bankruptcy court dismissed Michael’s Enterprises’ petition.
The court granted the lender’s renewed motion for sanctions. Judge Huennenkens observed that Michael’s Enterprises had had an opportunity in Virginia state court to litigate the same objectives sought in the bankruptcy petition. The court saw the new lawsuit as an attempt to attack the Virginia court’s decision and the nonjudicial foreclosure. The bankruptcy opinion doesn’t mention this, but if a party believes that a trial court made an erroneous decision, their recourse is to file a motion to reconsider and/or appeal it to the Supreme Court of Virginia. A bankruptcy court may be able to discharge or reorganize debts reduced to court judgments. However, they usually do not allow parties a do-over of unfavorable results of a state court case. Michael’s failure to present a proper reorganization plan in the face of a sanctions request made a poor impression. Judge Huennenkens found the case to be for an improper purpose and awarded BB&T $10,000 in sanctions against Michael’s Enterprises, Michael Pintz, individually, and his attorney. As of the date of this blog post, this result is currently on appeal before the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia.
A common mistaken belief about litigation sanctions is that they are proper whenever a party or attorney loses in court. However, it is common for borrowers in foreclosure contest lawsuits have their cases dismissed on the merits or procedural grounds. Usually, the cases are brought as good faith attempts to obtain relief on the facts and circumstances of the foreclosure proceedings. In Michael’s Enterprises, however, the record of the state court actions together with the absence of a reorganization plan added up to an award of attorney’s fees, not only against the property owner but also its sole shareholder and the attorney. The facts of each case are different and require investigation and research before employing a legal strategy.
Case Citation: Branch Banking & Trust Co. v. Michael’s Enterprises of Virginia, Inc., et al, No. 14-30611-KRH (Bankr. E.D. Va. Nov. 12, 2014).
July 24, 2014
Last week I focused on first-time home buyers and new opportunities for state tax-exempt estate planning. This week’s post continues on the theme of family. Spouses who own Virginia property together may enjoy special protections against the claims of their individual creditors. This special form of ownership is called “Tenancy by the Entirety.” For this to arise, the husband and wife must own in unity of (a) time, (b) title, (c) interest and (d) possession. These requirements may be inferred if the deed specifically conveys to the husband and wife by tenancy by the entirety or with an intent to create a right of survivorship.
As far as creditors are concerned, the couple jointly owns an undivided 100% interest. This ancient doctrine continues to be applied by Virginia courts in contemporary real estate controversies. This post focuses on ways creditors may succeed in spite of this manner of holding title:
- Joint Consent. Neither spouse may sever the tenancy by his sole act. Likewise, one spouse cannot convey the property unilaterally. This becomes significant if one spouse attempts to mortgage the property without the consent of the other. However, the spouses may cause the termination of the tenancy by the entirety ownership or jointly liability for a lien or judgment. For example, when the owners take out a mortgage, if properly perfected, that lien will persevere against acts of divorce and/or bankruptcy unless exceptions apply. Also, if only one spouse files for bankruptcy, the tenancy by the entirety property remains outside of the Bankruptcy Estate.
- Divorce. Completion of a divorce transforms a tenancy by the entirety into a tenancy in common, the ordinary form of co-ownership. In equitable distribution, a Judge has considerable latitude in dividing up marital property.
- Death. Because of the right of survivorship, no transfer of title occurs to the survivor upon the death of a spouse. Upon death, the interest of the surviving spouse converts from a tenancy by the entirety to a sole ownership interest. At that time, the property then becomes subject to creditor claims.
- Fraud. If the husband and wife attempt to work a fraud on a creditor by improper use of a tenancy by the entirety conveyance, it is unlikely that the court would permit the fraud. However, if the couple sells real estate held in a tenancy by the entirety, the proceeds of that sale automatically also enjoy the same status as the real estate, unless there is an agreement to the contrary. A transfer from the husband and wife holding in tenancy by the entirety to the sole name of one of the spouses does not subject those funds to the claims of the other spouse’s creditors.
The gist of tenancy by the entirety flows intuitively from the legal understanding of marriage. It possesses a seemingly “magical” quality when it comes to protecting against many individual creditor claims. However, it can be difficult applying the doctrine to a family’s individual circumstances. If you have questions about Tenancy by the Entirety, whether as a spouse or a creditor, contact a qualified attorney.
U.S. v. Parr, File No. 3:10-cv-061 (W.D. Va. Oct. 6, 2011) (Moon, J.) (interpreting Va. law).
In Re Nagel, 298 B.R. 582 (Bankr. E.D. Va. 2003).
June 18, 2014
Can a homeowner block a foreclosure by filing for bankruptcy protection immediately after the bank-appointed trustee auctions the property? On June 2, 2014, a bankruptcy court judge ruled that Rachel Ulrey’s Roanoke property was not excluded from the bankruptcy estate because the foreclosure trustee completed the memorandum of sale prior to the court filing. The court opinion is of interest to homeowners facing foreclosure, mortgage investor or buyers at foreclosure sales. The case illustrates what can happen when a borrower is contesting foreclosure in bankruptcy court.
Rachel Sue Ulrey lives in Roanoke, Virginia. She fell behind on her payments to Suntrust Mortgage. Suntrust instituted foreclosure. Timothy Spaulding, the foreclosure trustee, conducted the sale on the steps of Roanoke Circuit Courthouse at 9:45 A.M on April 18, 2013. Suntrust submitted the only bid of $98,275.52. To memorialize the sale to Suntrust, Spaulding inscribed the details on the bidding instructions form.
About 45 minutes later, Ms. Ulrey filed for protection from creditors pursuant to Chapter 13 of the Bankruptcy Code. Unlike a Chapter 7 where the debtor’s estate is liquidated and the unsatisfied debts are discharged, in Chapter 13 the debtor has the opportunity to present a plan to reorganize and pay off existing debts according to a plan approved by the bankruptcy judge. This presents an opportunity to keep significant assets such as cars and homes.
Ulrey put Suntrust on notice of the bankruptcy case and presented a plan which the Court confirmed by an order entered July 12, 2013. Ulrey wanted to work out her arrearage with Suntrust and keep her home. Ulrey even made electronic mortgage payments in May – July 2013 to Suntrust. The bank returned these payments into Ulrey’s checking account.
Suntrust and Ulrey litigated in Bankruptcy Court over the validity of the foreclosure sale and whether the homeowner could make keeping the home part of her Chapter 13 Plan. The Court decided that because Suntrust never contested Ulrey’s bankruptcy plan, the bank is bound by that order. However, there is a catch – Ulrey must make sufficient payment to the bank to bring her plan current within 30 days. Otherwise, the Bank can proceed against the Ulrey house. Ulrey is both protected and bound by her reorganization plan. How can the Court find the foreclosure sale to be valid and then go on to enforce the bankruptcy plan treating the property as part of Ulrey’s estate? Doesn’t it have to validate one and void the other? The answer provides an expansive vision of bankruptcy jurisdiction:
Formality Requirement for a Written Memorandum of Foreclosure Sale: The Memorandum of Sale in foreclosure is comparable to a Regional Sales Contract in an ordinary deal. They both give the buyer a contractual right to later exchange the purchase price for a title deed. However, most Memoranda of Sale do not contain detailed contractual provisions. The one in Ulrey was a one page form containing the basic identifying facts of the sale and the bank’s bidding instructions. Ulrey challenged the validity of this document on the grounds that it did not contain enough terms. The sufficiency of the memorandum is legally significant. Contracts for sale of real property generally must be in writing to be enforceable. The Court suggests that Spaulding actually included more information in the Memorandum than was necessary to make it enforceable. The terms of the Memorandum of Sale are the business of the trustee and the buyer in foreclosure because they set a framework for going to closing. Whether the memorandum contains particular warranties or descriptions is not the prior owner’s issue.
Legal Rights of Homeowner Post-Foreclosure: If the foreclosure sale produced an enforceable contract between the trustee and the buyer, how does Ulrey have standing to put the property into her Chapter 13 Plan? The Court observed that post-foreclosure there were litigatible issues over the validity of the sale and Ulrey’s continued occupation of the premises. Without filing for bankruptcy, Ulrey could have tried to sue Suntrust challenging the foreclosure or opposing the eviction proceeding. These “residual” legal rights brought the dispute over the property into the jurisdiction of the bankruptcy court. The Court does not discuss whether Ulrey could have properly set forth a nonfrivolous claim contesting the foreclosure proceeding. It is one thing to have a lawsuit that could be filed and it is another to have one that could go to trial and possibly win. The Court implies that Suntrust waived that issue.
Power of Bankruptcy Court Orders Confirming Chapter 13 Plans: Although the memorandum of sale was valid, Ulrey succeeded in putting the ball back in Suntrust’s side of the court by filing a bankruptcy plan that included keeping the home. Ulrey got another opportunity to keep the home, because Suntrust failed to object to the bankruptcy plan. Ulrey succeeded not because she discovered a legal trick to successfully block a foreclosure. Rather, she got another bite at the apple because Suntrust failed to pay attention to her bankruptcy case. Ulrey’s case stands as a warning to mortgage investors to not ignore the owner’s post-sale bankruptcy filing, even when the foreclosure is conducted properly.
Hopefully for Ulrey she can come current on her bankruptcy plan and continue to make her mortgage payments. However, the Court states that Ulrey suffered a job loss and drained her bank accounts to pay living expenses. Her case illustrates the fleeting nature of successful foreclosure contests.
If Ulrey doesn’t come current, does Suntrust proceed with eviction or does the bank have to conduct a foreclosure sale again beforehand? Since the Court found the sale to be valid, perhaps re-auctioning the property would be unnecessary.
Case Citation: In Re Ulrey, 511 B.R. 401 (Bankr. W.D. Va. 2014).
January 2, 2014
Can My Landlord Evict My Business Without Going to Court First? – Part II – Complications to Landlord Self-Help
In Virginia, landlords have a right to evict commercial tenants without going to Court first. This does not make it likely or wise. Even in jurisdictions where self-help is legal, it is unusual to see landlords piling up their tenants’ business property on the curb. There are several reasons why:
1. Lease Terms: Any self-help must comply with the terms of the lease agreement. The laws of Virginia and its neighbors vary regarding a landlord’s remedies upon the tenant’s default. Many commercial leases are forms adapted from use in other jurisdictions. These forms may be a challenge to interpret under Virginia law. Even terms drafted with an eye to the law of the jurisdiction may not contemplate the exercise of the self-help remedies desired by the landlord’s agents. The terms of some lease agreements eliminate the right of self-help eviction entirely. Many other leases do not clearly define the landlord’s rights to exercise self-help. When parties negotiate the lease agreement, tenants typically request that any detailed landlord self-help eviction terms be edited out. The landlord often finds himself reserving, in a general way, its common law remedies, including self-help, without defining how they may be exercised. When the issue comes up upon default, both parties experience uncertainty regarding how a court would view the landlord’s threatened action.
2. Possibility of Property Damage: The landlord may be averse to taking possession of the property in a way that may damage the tenant’s property or involve physical confrontation with the tenant’s personnel. The landlord may desire an award or settlement for the balance of the lease. Property damage counterclaims complicate collection efforts.
3. Forcible Entry Claims: In certain situations landlords and tenants may be punished criminally under forcible entry, detainer or trespass for aggressive action taken with respect to the premises and business property in dispute.
4. Bankruptcy Stay: If the tenant is in bankruptcy, then an automatic stay likely prohibits self-help. The dispute between the landlord and the debtor-tenant over rights to possess the space is addressed in federal bankruptcy court.
5. Sublease: The landlord-tenant relationship may be complicated by a subletting arrangement. A sub-landlord and the master-landlord may disagree regarding their respective rights to possess the sub-leasehold. Disagreements between the property manager and the sub-landlord may delay action.
6. Institutional Landlords: The organizational structure of the landlord may play a role. When the same individual is the owner and property manager of the building, that person will likely exercise broader discretion than in a more institutional context.
These issues do not necessarily preclude the use of self-help. A risk-adverse landlord may view going to court to gain possession as a desirable alternative.
What should a tenant do if the landlord is threatening to take possession prior to going to court? The simplest options are to (a) avoid falling into default or (b) plan a move-out in advance if a default appears imminent. In certain situations, the circumstances of the business or relationship with the landlord may be too complex or attenuated for that. The tenant may have business operations or valuable property to protect. In any case, careful consideration of the lease terms and cogent communication with the landlord are essential. Where property and income are at stake, potential risks associated with changing locks and removing property are too great for either side to view landlord self-help as the logical first step towards resolving a dispute. In these situations, a tenant is best served by interacting with the landlord through experienced brokers and lawyers.