Supporting The Consumer Bankruptcy Reform Act

Petar Milošević

I, along with 73 other law profs, signed a letter of support drafted by Professor Pamela Foohey (Indiana). It reads in part,

Congress enacted our current Bankruptcy Code in 1978. Much has changed since then. Even after adjusting for population growth and inflation, Federal Reserve data show that credit card debt has tripled. In 1978, student-loan debt was such a small part of household finances that the Federal Reserve did not even separately track it. Today, student-loan debt is the largest component of household debt except for home mortgages. In 1978, asset securitization was in its infancy. Mortgages and auto loans are now routinely bundled and sold to investors, separating the servicing of the loan from the financial institutions that own the loan. Advances in technology have made it easier for debt collectors to hound consumers even for debts that are decades old. In 1978, what we now think of as the Internet was a little-known research tool for academics instead of a global information revolution that has affected how Americans interact, including with consumer lenders, attorneys, and the court system. Given all these changes, it is little surprise that a forty-year-old bankruptcy law no longer serves our needs today.

The central piece of the Consumer Bankruptcy Reform Act is to create a new chapter 10 for individual bankruptcy filers. The Act also eliminates chapter 7 as an option for individual filers and repeals chapter 13. Individuals will remain able to file under chapter 11 (those with debts over $7.5 million will be required to use that chapter), but for most people, the new chapter 10 will be a single point of entry into the bankruptcy system.

The single point will substantially improve the consumer bankruptcy system by replacing the current structure where consumer debtors must choose between a chapter 7 liquidation bankruptcy or a chapter 13 repayment plan bankruptcy. There are substantial differences around the country in the rates at which people use chapter 7 and chapter 13. In 2019, only 9.6% of the bankruptcy cases in the District of Idaho were chapter 13 cases as compared to 81.0% of the cases in the Southern District of Georgia. The gaping disparity itself is an indictment of a federal system that the Constitution directs to be “uniform.”

Monday’s Adjudication Roundup

Reiss on SCOTUS Junior Lien Decision


Bloomberg BNA quoted me in Nagging Economic and Credit Questions Dampen Bankruptcy Victory for Bankers (behind paywall). It reads, in part:

The U.S. Supreme Court delivered an important bankruptcy ruling for bankers that doesn’t, however, do anything about still-struggling homeowners (Bank of Am. N.A. v. Caulkett, 2015 BL 171240, U.S., No. 13-cv-01421, 6/1/15); (Bank of Am. N.A. v. Toledo-Cardona, 2015 BL 171240, U.S., No. 14-cv-00163, 6/1/15).

In a June 1 decision, the court said Chapter 7 debtors cannot void junior liens on their homes when first-lien debt exceeds the value of the property, as long as the senior debt is secured and allowed under the Bankruptcy Code.

The decision is a victory for Bank of America, which held both junior liens in the two related cases, and for banking groups that said a different result could have destabilized more than $40 billion in commercial loans secured by similar liens.

But Brooklyn Law School Professor David Reiss June 2 said the case highlights the need for a broad remedy for homeowners who have continued to struggle to make payments since the financial crisis.

“The bank’s position as a legal matter is a very reasonable one, but from a policy perspective we needed and still need a bigger and more systemic solution to the problems that households face,” Reiss told Bloomberg BNA.

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[S]ome said the ruling highlights economic questions on several levels.

Reiss, who coedits a financial blog, June 2 said the case shows the federal government’s inability to deal head-on with the impact of financial turmoil in 2008 and 2009.

“Not enough is being done to move households beyond the crisis, and it’s bad for households and it’s bad for the financial sector,” Reiss said. “Here we are seven or eight years later and we’re sitting here with these valueless second mortgages. We’re just slogging through the muck and we’re not coming up with any good solutions to get past it.”

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

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.”