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.

 

 

Prior Charging Order Trumps Later Divorce Court Order Involving Restaurant LLC Payouts

The Third District Appellate Court answers some important questions concerning the priority of competing creditors’ rights in the assets of a common debtor and the nature of appellate jurisdiction in FirstMerit Bank v. McEnery, 2014 IL App (3d) 130231-U.

There, a creditor obtained a $1.8M judgment against a defendant who had interests in several restaurant LLC ventures (the “LLCs”).  The creditor then moved for and received a charging order against all current and future distributions flowing from the LLCs until the judgment was satisfied.  The effect of the charging order was to place a lien or “hold” on the defendant’s distributions.  (See http://paulporvaznik.com/charging-orders-judgment-debtor-llc-member/5961).

A couple years later, defendant’s wife obtained an order in a divorce case that gave her a 50% interest in the LLCs.  About a year after that (divorce case) order, the trial court (presiding over the underlying suit) granted the plaintiff’s “turn over” motion (motion to require defendant to turn over future LLC distributions to the plaintiff/judgment-creditor.

The disputed issue: what took precedence?  The charging order against the LLCs or the later divorce court ruling giving defendant’s wife a 50% interest in the LLCs?  The trial court found that the prior charging order took priority over the defendant’s wife’s interest in the LLCs.  Defendant’s wife appealed.

Held: Affirmed.  Plaintiff’s charging order take priority over defendant’s wife’s interests in the LLCs

Reasons:

The Court first held that the trial court’s turn over order didn’t conflict with the divorce court order giving the wife a 50% share of the LLCs since that later order wasn’t “final” and appealable.

Illinois Supreme Court Rule 301 provides that every final judgment is appealable as of right;

An order is final where it either terminates the litigation between the parties on the merits or disposes of the rights of the parties – either the entire controversy, or a separate branch of the litigation;

– A notice of appeal must be filed within 30 days after the entry of a final order or within 30 days after entry of the order disposing of the last pending post-judgment motion;

– Where multiple parties and claims are involved, a party seeking an appeal must request a Rule 304(a) finding (that there is no reason to delay enforcement of or appeal from an order) from the trial judge;

– An order entered in a citation proceeding under Code Section 2-1402 is final when the citation petitioner is in a position to collect against the judgment debtor or third party or the petitioner has been foreclosed from doing so

(¶¶ 30-33)

Here, the divorce court order granting the defendant’s wife a 50% share in the LLCs – while entered before the turn over order – wasn’t final because it didn’t terminate the divorce case.  There was no order of marital dissolution and the divorce case continued for further status.  As a result, the divorce court’s 50% share order was subordinate to the trial court’s charging order and later turn over order.

Take-away:

This case rewards aggressive creditor enforcement steps.  By charging (liening) the debtor’s LLC interests, the creditor was in a position to take “first dibs” on the LLC distributions to the debtor, even though a court order later gave the debtor’s spouse a 50% share in the LLCs. 

The case also cements the proposition that a charging order impresses a lien on a debtor’s LLC distributions and that this charging lien will take primacy over any later judgment or lien filing related to the same LLC distributions.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mechanics Lien Trumps Prior Mortgage in ‘Lien Strip’ Bankruptcy Dispute Involving Residential Property

Priority disputes happen a lot in mechanics’ lien litigation.  Typically, a mortgage lender claims that its first-filed mortgage trumps a later-filed mechanics lien.  The “trumps” part is activated if and when the property is sold and there aren’t enough proceeds to pay both the lender and contractor.  If the lender’s mortgage has priority, it gets first dibs on the sale proceeds, leaving the contractor with little or nothing.

Section 16 of the Mechanics’ Lien Act (770 ILCS 60/16) governs the lien priority issue.  This section provides that (i) prior lien claimants have lien priority up to the value of the land at the time of making of the construction contract; and (ii) mechanics’ lien claimants have a paramount lien to the value of all improvements made to the property after the construction contract is signed.

In re Thigpen, 2014 WL 1246116 examines the mortgage lender-versus-contractor priority question through the lens of a bankruptcy adversary case where the debtors attempt to strip away a mechanics’ lien recorded against their homeresidence.

The debtors filed for Chapter 13 bankruptcy protection and later filed an adversary proceeding to extinguish the lien a contractor recorded against the home. 

The debtors claimed that since there was a prior mortgage on the home and the home’s value had dropped to a sum less than the lien amount, the lien should be removed.

In bankruptcy parlance, this is called “lien stripping” and applies where a mechanics lien lacks collateral; usually because of plummeting property values. 

The contractor argued that its lien took priority to the value of the improvements/enhancements and moved for summary judgment.

Held: Contractor’s summary judgment motion granted.

Q: Why?

A: Applying Section 16 of the Act, the Court held that where proceeds of a property sale are insufficient to pay competing lienholders, a mechanics’ lien claimant takes priority over a lender up to the value the contractor added to the property.

The Court wrote: “the Illinois Supreme Court has expressly recognized that Section 16 of the Act confers first priority, not something less, on mechanic’s lien holders, and that they trump pre-existing mortgages to the extent of the value of the improvements.”  (*2).

While the court found that the contractor’s lien trumped the prior mortgage, the Court did not decide the specific monetary amount of the improvements relative to the home’s value. 

The holding is still significant because now the contractor has a secured claim (as opposed to an unsecured one) against the debtors’ estate which must be paid over the life of the Chapter 13 plan. 

If the debtors default, the contractor can liquidate the collateral –  by forcing a sale of the home – and get paid via the proceeds.  An unsecured creditor, by contrast, has no assets securing its claim.  It must hope that the debtors have unattached assets (e.g. paycheck, bank accounts, accounts receivable) with which to pay the debt.  (Good luck with that!)

Take-away: A big win for the contractor.  Instead of having an unsecured claim (with no collateral tied to the claim), its mechanics’ lien claim is secured.  This means the contractor’s lien attaches to the debtors’ house. 

If the debtor defaults under the plan, the contractor can foreclose its lien and force a sale of the home and take priority to the sale proceeds up to the amount of the improvements (here, about $200,000).  

The case’s unanswered question is how does the contractor prove the dollar amount of his improvements?  The contractor will likely have to produce expert witness testimony or documents to establish the dollar value of the contractor’s time, labor and materials  furnished to the debtors’ home.