Editor: David Reiss
Brooklyn Law School

June 12, 2013

Ohio Bankruptcy Court Rules in Favor of Wells Fargo: Failure to Properly Record Mortgage Assignment Does Not Invalidate Mortgage

By Orly Graeber

In In re Williams, 395 B.R. 33 (Bankr. S.D. Ohio 2008), the Ohio Bankruptcy Court granted the defendant, Wells Fargo Bank, N.A.’s motion to dismiss the Plaintiff’s complaint, holding that mortgage assignments must be recorded under Ohio law, but that failure to do so does not terminate the underlying mortgage. Additionally, the Trustee could not be a bona fide purchaser and avoid the mortgage since he possessed constructive knowledge of this mortgage.

On May 2, 2005, Earl and Belinda Williams (the Debtors) executed a promissory note in the amount of $137,730 to United Wholesale Mortgage (UWM), secured by Debtors real property, and named MERS as a “nominee for UWM, its successors and assigns.” In November 2007, the Debtors filed a petition for relief under Chapter 7 of Title 11, under the US Bankruptcy Code. Plaintiff Thomas Nolan was appointed Chapter 7 Trustee. In February 2008, Mortgage Electronic Registration Systems, Inc. (MERS) filed a motion for relief from the automatic stay on the Property, and subsequently the Trustee initiated an adversarial proceeding to avoid the mortgage lien filed in the name of  MERS and alleged that under Ohio law, the assignment of the mortgage must be recorded on behalf of the holder of the note.

The plaintiff brought suit on two accounts. First, under the Trustee’s strong arm powers granted by the Bankruptcy Code § 544,  he alleged that “as a bona fide purchaser for value, he may avoid the mortgage held by Wells Fargo on account of the failure to record an assignment of the Mortgage.” The court elucidates that the Bankruptcy Code gives the Trustee power of a bona fide purchase for value if a hypothetical purchaser could have obtained that bona fide status. Under Ohio law, the assignment of a mortgage must be “recorded to protect those lien interests from avoidance by a bona fide purchaser of real property.” The parties disagree whether mortgages must be recorded under the terms of the Bankruptcy Code, and the Court ultimately determined that the Bankruptcy Code did include mortgages under the requirement to record “instruments of writing properly executed for the conveyance or unencumbrance of lands. . . . ” but that the failure to record the assignment of the mortgage did not terminate “the underlying mortgage and the lien of the underlying mortgage.” Since the Trustee had constructive knowledge of the mortgage, he could not then avoid and acquire bona fide purchaser status due to Wells Fargo’s failure to record its assignment. The Court then dismissed the first cause of action.

Second, the Trustee argued for the Disallowance of Wells Fargo’s claim on based his ability to avoid the mortgage (as argued above). The Trustee’s claim falls under § 502(b) of the Bankruptcy Code, which establishes “grounds upon which a claim that has been objected to by a party in interest may be disallowed.” The Court relied upon subsection 1 which permits disallowance of a claim that is “unenforceable against the debtor or property of the debtor.” The claim was then dismissed “without prejudice to the Trustee’s ability to object under Code § 502 and the Bankruptcy Rules of Procedure to any proof of claim filed by Wells Fargo or any other party claiming to be a creditor of the Debtors in connection with the Note on grounds not determined through this adversary proceeding.”

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