Judgment Creditor and Debtor’s Lawyers Duke It Out Over Equity in Home – ND IL

A law firm’s failure to look closer at its client’s suspiciously timed transfer of residential property to a land trust recently backfired in a pitched priority battle between competing creditors.
Earlier this month (June 2018), the Northern District of Illinois reversed an earlier priority ruling for the law firm (see Radiance v. Accurate Steel, 2018 WL 1394036) for not exhausting its inquiry notice obligations. (The Court’s order is found at ECF No. 82; Case No. 13 C 7481.)

The case centers around a dispute over real estate between the plaintiff – a judgment creditor of the debtor (who defaulted on some promissory notes) – and the aforementioned law firm, who defended the debtor in post-judgment enforcement proceedings.

The Relevant Chronology

August 2013 – Defendant debtor transferred the Property to an irrevocable trust;

March 2014 – Plaintiff’s predecessor recorded its money judgment against defendant;

June 2014 – The law firm agrees to represent defendant if she mortgaged her residence property (the Property) as an advanced payment retainer (retainer funds that immediately become property of the attorney)(see https://www.iardc.org/DowlingFAQs.html).

June 2015 – The law firm records a mortgage against the Property;

March 2018 – The court voids the 2013 transfer of the Property into a land trust as a fraudulent transfer.

The effect of this last order was the Property reverted back to the debtor and was no longer protected by the trust from the debtor’s creditors. The Court later ruled that the law firm lacked actual or constructive notice that the creditor’s prior judgment lien could wipe out the later mortgage. As a result, the Court found the law firm met the criteria for a bona fide purchaser – someone who gives value for something without notice of a competing claimant’s right to the same property.

Reversing itself on plaintiff’s motion to reconsider, the Court first noted that recording a judgment gives the creditor a lien on all real estate owned in a given county by a debtor. 735 ILCS 5/12-101. Illinois follows the venerable “first-in-time, first-in-right” rule which confers priority status on the party who first records its lien.  An exception to the first-in-time priority rule is where a competing claimant is a bona fide purchaser (BFP). A BFP is someone who provides value for something without notice of a prior lien on it.

Here, the law firm unquestionably provided value – legal services – and lacked notice of the bank’s judgment lien since at the time the firm recorded its mortgage, the title to the real estate was held in trust. Where a creditor records a judgment against property held in a land trust, the judgment is not a lien on the real estate. Instead, it only liens the debtor’s beneficial interest in the trust. (See here  and here.) These factors led the Court originally to find that the Firm met the BFP test under the law.

Granting the creditor plaintiff’s motion to reconsider, the Court found the law firm was apprised of enough facts to put it on inquiry notice that the mortgage was vulnerable to being trumped by the plaintiff’s judgment lien. A species of constructive notice, a party is on inquiry notice “when facts or circumstances are present that create doubt, raise suspicions, or engender uncertainty about the true state of title to real estate, the transferee can’t turn a blind eye….but is required to investigate further.” In re Thorpe, 546 B.R. 172, 185 (Bankr. C.D. Ill. 2016)(citing Illinois state court case authorities). A property mortgagee has a responsibility not only to check for prior liens and encumbrances in the chain-of-title, but also to consider “circumstances reasonably engendering suspicions as to title.” Id.

In its reconsideration order, the Court cited the Creditor recording its judgment lien 15 months before the law firm recorded its mortgage, the copious evidence of the debtor’s financial problems and transfer of the Property just as debtor’s creditors were closing in as likely badges of a fraud. The Court found the debtor’s Property transfer after she defaulted on numerous business loans she guaranteed should have put the law firm on notice that the Property was fair game for creditors like plaintiff. In short, the Court found that the law firm was apprised of facts – namely, debtor’s financial problems, aggressive creditors, and valueless transfer of the Property into a land trust – that obligated the law firm to dig deeper into the circumstances surrounding the transfer.

Afterwords:

Radiance and the various briefing that culminated in the Court’s reconsideration order provide an interesting discussion of creditor priority rules, law firm retainer agreements, trust law fundamentals and fraudulent transfer basics, all in a complex fact pattern.

The case reaffirms the proposition that where property is held in trust, a prior judgment lien against a beneficiary will not trump the later recorded judgment against the trust property.

However, where real estate is arguably fraudulently transferred – either intentionally or constructively (no value is received, transferor incurs debts beyond her ability to pay, e.g.) – a creditor of that transferee, like the Law Firm here, should at least think twice before transacting business with a debtor and  further into whether a given property transfer is legitimate.

 

 

‘Bankruptcy Planning,’ Alone, Doesn’t Equal Fraudulent Intent to Evade Creditors – IL ND

A Northern District of Illinois bankruptcy judge recently rejected a creditor’s attempt to nix a debtor’s discharge for fraud.  The creditor alleged the debtor tried to escape his creditors by shedding assets before his bankruptcy filing and by not disclosing estate assets in his papers.  Finding for the debtor after a bench trial, the Court in Monty Titling Trust I v. Granrath, 15 AP 00826 illustrates the heavy burden a creditor must meet to successfully challenge a debtor’s discharge based on fraud.

The Court specifically examines the contours of the fraudulent conduct exception to discharge under Code Section 727(a)(2) and Code Section 727(a)(4)’s discharge exception for false statements under oath.

Vehicle Trade-In and Lease

The court found that the debtor’s conduct in trading in his old vehicle and leasing two new ones in his wife’s name in the weeks leading up to the bankruptcy filing was permissible bankruptcy planning (and not fraud).  Since bankruptcy aims to provide a fresh start to a debtor, a challenge to a discharge is construed strictly against the creditor opposing the discharge.  Under the Code, a court should grant a debtor’s discharge unless the debtor “with intent to hinder, delay or defraud a creditor” transfers, hides or destroys estate property.

Under the Code, a court should grant a debtor’s discharge unless the debtor “with intent to hinder, delay or defraud a creditor” transfers, hides or destroys property of the debtor within one year of its bankruptcy filing. 11 U.S.C. s. 727(a)(2)(A).  Another basis for the court to deny a discharge is Code Section 727(a)(4) which prevents a discharge where a debtor knowingly and fraudulently makes a false oath or account.

To defeat a discharge under Code Section 727(a)(2), a creditor must show (1) debtor transferred property belonging to the estate, (2) within one year of the filing of the petition, and (3) did so with the intent to hinder, delay or defraud a creditor of the estate.  A debtor’s intent is a question of fact and when deciding if a debtor had the requisite intent to defraud a creditor, the court should consider the debtor’s whole pattern of conduct.

To win on a discharge denial under Code Section 727(a)(4)’s false statement rule, the creditor must show (1) the debtor made a false statement under oath, (2) that debtor knew the statement was false, (3) the statement was made with fraudulent intent, and (4) the statement materially related to the bankruptcy case.

Rejecting the creditor’s arguments, the Court found that the debtor and his wife testified in a forthright manner and were credible witnesses.  The court also credited the debtor’s contributing his 401(k) funds in efforts to save his business as further evidence of his good faith conduct.  Looking to Seventh Circuit precedent for support, the Court found that “bankruptcy planning does not alone” satisfy Section 727’s requirement of intent.  As a result, the creditor failed to meet its burden of showing fraudulent conduct by a preponderance of the evidence.

Opening Bank Account Pre-Petition

The Court also rejected the creditor’s assertion that the debtor engaged in fraudulent conduct by opening a bank account in his wife’s name and then transferring his paychecks to that account in violation of a state court citation to discover assets.  

The court noted that the total amount of the challenged transfers was less than $2,000 (since the most that can be attached is 15% gross wages under Illinois’ wage deduction statute) and the debtor’s scheduled assets exceeded $4 million.  Such a disparity between the amount transferred and the estate assets coupled with the debtor’s plausible explanation for why he opened a new bank account in his wife’s name led the Court to find there was no fraudulent intent.

Lastly, the court found that the debtor’s omission of the bank account from his bankruptcy schedules didn’t rise to the level of fraudulent intent.  Where a debtor fails to include a possible asset (here, a bank account) in his bankruptcy papers, the creditor must show the debtor acted with specific intent to harm the bankruptcy estate.  Here, the debtor testified that his purpose in opening the bank account was at the suggestion of his bankruptcy lawyer and not done to thwart creditors.  The court found these bankruptcy planning efforts did not equal fraud.

Afterwords:

1/ Bankruptcy planning does not equate to fraudulent intent to avoid creditors.

2/ Where the amount of debtor’s challenged transfers is dwarfed by scheduled assets and liabilities, the Court is more likely to find that a debtor did not have a devious intent in pre-bankruptcy efforts to insulate debtor assets.

 

The Third-Party Citation: How Long Does It Last?

Shipley v. Hoke, 2014 IL App (4th) 130810 provides an exhaustive discussion of Illinois’ post-judgment enforcement rules in the context of a judgment creditor trying to reach debtor assets held by third parties.

It’s key points concerning a citation’s life span include:

– Code Section 2-1402 allows a judgment creditor to prosecute supplementary proceedings for the purposes of examining a judgment debtor and to compel the application of non-exempt assets or income discovered toward the payment of a judgment;

– Section 2-1402(f)(1) contains a “restraining provision” that prohibits any person served with a citation from allowing a transfer of property belonging to a judgment debtor that may be applied to the outstanding judgment amount;

– If someone violates the restraining provision, the Court can punish the violator by holding him in contempt or entering a money judgment against him in the amount of the property he transferred; 

– A third-party citation must be served in the same manner a (“first party”) citation is served (e.g. either by personal service or certified mail);

– Supreme Court Rule 277(f) provides that a citation proceeding automatically terminates six months from the date of the respondent’s first personal appearance unless the court grants an extension of the citation;

– This six-month rule is an affirmative defense that must be raised by a citation respondent or else it’s waived;

-Rule 277(f)’s purpose is to prevent a creditor from harassing a judgment debtor or a third party subject to a citation proceeding and is designed to provide an incentive for creditor’s to diligently work to discover debtor assets;

– While a court can retain jurisdiction over a turnover order entered before but not complied with until after the expiration of the six-months, the court does not maintain jurisdiction to enforce any restraining provision violations past that six-month mark.

– Rule 277 does permit a creditor to request an extension of the six-month limitation period indefinitely to fit the needs of a given case.

(¶¶ 78-81, 92-93).

Take-away: While I often serve bank respondents with third-party citations by certified mail (since banks usually aren’t motivated to evade service),  a judgment creditor should serve any non-bank respondent by personal service; either via county sheriff or a special process server.

In addition, the creditor should keep track of when a judgment debtor first appears in response to a citation.  If it looks like the creditor’s post-judgment case isn’t going to be finished at the six-month mark, he should move to extend the citation for as long as necessary to complete his examination of the debtor and any third-party(ies).