When a mortgage or judgment gets paid off, the creditor has to release its lien. It’s not only common sense, but it’s a duty imposed by Tennessee statute (see Tenn. Code Ann. § 66-25-101).
It’s an easy process to prepare a Release of Lien and record it with the register of deeds. Also, it’s not particularly expensive. Depending on how many pages the release is, the fee can be as little as $12.00.
Not too onerous for a lender who just got paid in full, right?
Well, not so fast. Ask any of my creditor clients, and they’ll tell you that “paid in full” means “fully paid, including that release fee.” When I get a payoff request on a deed of trust or judgment lien, I generally include a line for the $12.00 release costs.
Not anymore, in light of a December 2022 Tennessee Court of Appeals opinion, Eudaley v. U.S. Bank Nat’l Ass’n, No. M202100344COAR3CV, 2022 WL 17751378 (Tenn. Ct. App. Dec. 19, 2022). In that case, the mortgage lender got paid in full, recorded the release, and sent a bill to the borrower for $12.00. In response, the borrower filed a class action lawsuit in Davidson County Circuit Court, arguing that, per Tenn. Code Ann. § 66-25-106, “[a]ll costs … for registering a formal release[ ] shall be paid by the holder of the debt secured by the … deed of trust.”
Despite the very clear statutory text, the trial court dismissed the case after finding that federal law allows such fees and preempts the state law. The Court of Appeals affirmed, but not before providing some useful guidance to other lienholders (who may not have a federal banking regulation to hide behind).
Specifically, the Court wrote that “§ 66-25-106 prohibits holders of debt from seeking reimbursement of costs associated with recording a release of a deed of trust” because “[t]he debt holder’s obligation to record a release only arises if the debt has been paid in full or satisfied, indicating that nothing further is owed to the debt holder.” In affirming the trial court’s dismissal, the opinion makes clear that the lienholder bears those costs and can’t seek reimbursement, but, nevertheless, “that prohibition is preempted by federal law when the debt holder seeking reimbursement is a national bank.”
So, what if you’re not a national bank? Tenn. Code Ann. § 66-25-106 applies, and the creditor must chalk up $12.00 as the cost of getting paid.
What about other sorts of liens, like judgment liens or mechanic’s liens? § 66-25-106 seems to apply to any lienholder, but the judgment creditor may nevertheless have an argument that the release fees are “costs of collection” or allowed court costs/discretionary costs.
Either way, this December 2022 opinion provides pretty compelling authority to support a lender’s decision to simply record the release and write off the $12.00. In a very creditor-friendly state like Tennessee, Tenn. Code Ann. § 66-25-106 is an outlier, but this case is a very good reminder that it exists.