by Daniel Fisher 3/24/15
A case to decide whether homeowners can erase underwater second mortgages through bankruptcy quickly turned into a debate over whether the U.S. Supreme Court should overturn the precedent that raised the issue in the first place.
Oral arguments in Bank of America BAC +0.13% vs. Caulkett ostensibly focused on whether the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals should have allowed David Caulkett and a second plaintiff to dispose of their second mortgages in bankruptcy. Bankruptcy courts let them off the hook after determining there was no way the lenders could collect because the properties were worth less than even the first mortgage standing in front of them in them. Coulkett, for example, borrowed $183,ooo through a first mortgage and another $47,855 with a second but his house at the time of foreclosure was only worth $98,000.
The financial crisis left thousands of homeowners in similar straits, and advocates for financial relief argue that second-lien holders can hold a blocking position preventing borrowers from using bankruptcy to negotiate a reduction in principal balances to stay in their homes instead of losing them to foreclosure. In a business bankruptcy, for example, creditors are ranked by priority and holdouts who refuse to negotiate can be forced to accept a loss under a judicial order known as a cramdown.
The Supreme Court ordered different treatment for mortgage lenders in a 1992 decision with the improbable title of Dewsnup v. Timm. That case held that Section 506 of the Bankruptcy Code did not authorize a court to “strip down” a mortgage lien to the current value of the property, eliminating the portion of the debt the lender wouldn’t get even if it seized the land and sold it at foreclosure. The question in Bank ofAmerica v. Caulkett was whether that same reasoning applied to a second lien that was completely underwater, with no hope of collecting anything in a foreclosure sale.
Justice Antonin Scalia dissented in Dewsnup and came out swinging in today’s arguments. Since Dewsnup was a “terrible decision,” he asked Bank of America’s attorney, Danielle Spinelli of WilmerHale, why shouldn’t the court use a familiar trick and narrow that precedent down to the exact facts in that case? Spinelli said that would leave an illogical distinction between semi-underwater and fully underwater liens and it was better to expand Dewsnup to include lenders in the position of her client.
Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Anthony Kennedy both expressed concern that second-mortgage holders with no hope of collecting anything in a foreclosure could nevertheless unfairly block a negotiated settlement in bankruptcy that would benefit borrowers and first-mortgage lenders.
Bankruptcy is supposed to give debtors a fresh start, Sotomayor said, and “if you’re able to hold up that fresh start, that is the concern.”
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