Is A Debtor’s Ability to Strip Off Second Mortgages Expanding?

By Mark E. Steiner, Esq.

Recent holdings in the Southern Bankruptcy District of Florida[1] and elsewhere demonstrate that debtors are seeking to expand their ability to strip off junior liens on real property in a Chapter 13 reorganization after having received a prior Chapter 7 discharge, and the Courts are beginning to step out of the way.

Since the enactment of the Bankruptcy Abuse Prevention and Consumer Protection Act (“BAPCPA”) in 2005, most courts have ruled that debtors in so-called “Chapter 20” cases (in which a debtor who has received a discharge in a Chapter 7 bankruptcy files a subsequent Chapter 13 petition for relief within the ensuing 4 years) cannot strip off a wholly undersecured junior lien on real property. BAPCPA was enacted in part to reform the eligibility for personal bankruptcy and prevent abuse of the bankruptcy process.

“Lien stripping” is a process authorized by the Bankruptcy Code that permits a debtor to extinguish a junior lien on real property when the equity in the property is less than the amount of the first mortgage. In brief, because there is no equity to secure the junior lien, the Code permits the Court to extinguish the lien upon the debtor receiving a discharge through the bankruptcy process, leaving the junior lien holder with only an unsecured claim. Thus, the second mortgage holder must aggressively defend an attempted lien strip, or it risks a near complete loss.

“Chapter 20” is a term for a debtor who has already availed himself of relief under Chapter 7, which allows him to liquidate his assets to satisfy his debts to the greatest extent possible, upon which he receives a discharge canceling his personal liability for his debts. The debtor then files another bankruptcy petition under Chapter 13, which allows him to reorganize and repay his remaining debts through a 3- or 5-year plan. However, under the revisions enacted in BAPCPA, if the debtor files a Chapter 13 within four years of receiving a Chapter 7 discharge, he/she is not eligible for another discharge.

Courts have not allowed Chapter 20 debtors to strip off junior liens because such a debtor is ineligible for a discharge in the Chapter 13 case. Previously, Florida Bankruptcy Courts have held that the plan confirmation requirements of the Bankruptcy Code do not allow confirmation of any plan that does not provide for secured claimants to retain their lien until the debtor receives a discharge. This requirement was applied to attempts to strip off junior liens in Chapter 20 cases because if a secured claimant must retain its lien through discharge, and the debtor was ineligible, then the secured claimant cannot be stripped and must retain its lien and survive the completion of the Chapter 13 plan.

However, recent decisions in several other circuits outside of Florida cast doubt on this precedent. These decisions hold that there is no specific requirement in the Bankruptcy Code conditioning the right to lien strip on the debtor’s eligibility for discharge. Additionally, as argued in In re Vigo in the Southern District of Florida, where a debtor’s personal liability on an undersecured junior mortgage has been discharged in a Chapter 7, eligibility for discharge in the subsequent Chapter 13 would place a redundant and unnecessary requirement on the debtor’s ability to lien strip.

Although the Courts appear more willing to entertain these novel arguments for lien stripping in Chapter 20 cases, In re Vigo is the first case in the Southern District of Florida that we are aware of where the Court has allowed such a lien strip. It is not clear whether the granting of such a motion was due to the absence of opposition from the secured creditor, or because the Court agreed with the novel argument presented, but it remains as important as ever that junior lien holders continue to assert their rights and oppose such attempts. Recent prior cases in the Southern District of Florida have held the opposite of Vigo, that ineligibility for discharge is a threshold consideration that precludes avoidance of wholly unsecured junior liens. Under this and other similar decisions, the wholly unsecured junior lien holder retains its lien until the debtor pays off the underlying debt pursuant to nonbankruptcy law, a much better result for the secured creditor.

Secured creditors’ rights are being threatened by this expansion of a debtor’s rights. The economic realities of underwater properties and wholly unsecured junior mortgages and equity lines are being exacerbated by unopposed efforts of debtors’ attorneys making novel arguments to extinguish secured debt. The vigilant secured creditor can stem this debtors’ rights boom by relying on precedent and challenging the Chapter 20 debtor’s lien stripping efforts.

[1] In re Vigo, Case No. 11-32092-EPK (Bankr. S.D.Fla. January 18, 2012)

If you would like more information on Chapter 20 bankruptcies, the lien-stripping process and your rights as a secured creditor under the Bankruptcy Code, please contact Mr. Mark E. Steiner, Esq. Mark is an associate who practices in the Real Estate Default Group of Weltman, Weinberg & Reis Co., LPA located in the Ft. Lauderdale, FL office. He can be reached at 954.740.5276 and msteiner@weltman.com.

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