Tennessee Detainer Actions: Not Just for Tenants and Landlords

What if you own real property, but someone else has possession of the property, and you want them gone? You evict them. But, as you’ll see under Tennessee statutes, they don’t call it an “eviction” lawsuit; they call it a “detainer” lawsuit.

The statute in Tennessee is Tenn. Code Ann. § 29-18-104, titled “Unlawful Detainer.” That statute provides:

Unlawful detainer is where the defendant enters by contract, either as tenant or as assignee of a tenant, or as personal representative of a tenant, or as subtenant, or by collusion with a tenant, and, in either case, willfully and without force, holds over the possession from the landlord, or the assignee of the remainder or reversion.”

These detainer actions are generally brought in general sessions court, where, as I’ve noted before, you can exceed the $25,000 jurisdictional limit. Also, even though general sessions appeals are very easy on most matters, they are complicated and expensive in general sessions court.

So, if you’re a landlord, you’re probably reading that statute and thinking it’s exactly what you need, right? But, what about if you’ve purchased the property, either by a typical sale or a foreclosure? In that case, you’re not a landlord, and the defendant isn’t entering by contract (i.e. lease). Does a different statute apply?

No, said the Tennessee Court of Appeals in Federal National Mortgage Association v. Danny O. Daniels, W2015-00999-COA-R3-CV (Dec. 21, 2015).  There, the Court noted that the Deed of Trust will create “a landlord/tenant relationship … between the foreclosure sale purchaser and the mortgagor in possession of the property,” and, as a result, “constructive possession is conferred on the foreclosure sale purchaser upon the passing of title; that constructive possession provides the basis for maintaining the unlawful detainer.”

In such a case, a plaintiff must prove: (1) its constructive possession of the property (i.e. ownership of the property); and (2) its loss of possession by the other party’s act of unlawful detainer.

In short, the detainer statutes in Tennessee aren’t well crafted. Sometimes they reference landlords and tenants; sometimes they don’t. Courts have a tendency to construe statutes as written and to assume that the legislature means what it says when it uses specific words. That’s bad news for the foreclosure sale purchaser, who isn’t a landlord and who isn’t dealing with a tenant.

Here, however, it’s clear that the legislature should have proofread the statutes a few more times. Fortunately, Tennessee courts have applied the statutes in a broader sense.

 

A Creditor Doesn’t Have to Foreclose First: New Court of Appeals Case Answers This Common Question

When a loan goes into default, the lender has many options. Sometimes, they go straight to foreclosure. Other times, they’ll file a lawsuit first. Maybe the collateral isn’t worth repossessing; maybe the secured creditor wants to be the first to get to a judgment, in order to execute on other assets or take a judgment lien.

When a bank files a collection lawsuit prior to foreclosing, the borrower always yells in defense: “But you haven’t sold the collateral yet!” and argues that the lawsuit is premature or that the borrower is entitled to some sort of credit or offset to the ultimate judgment.

The defendant is wrong, and the Tennessee Court of Appeals reminded us of that in an opinion issued yesterday in Eastman Credit Union v. Hodges. This was the exact argument the defendant made: “that the judgment of the trial court should be reversed because Eastman did not repossess a motorcycle that served as collateral for one of Hodges’ loan obligations [and that] the value of this motorcycle should have been deducted from the outstanding balance of his loan.”

The Court of Appeals’ response? “His position has no merit.”

The Court held that Tennessee Code Annotated § 47-9-601 does not require a lender to foreclose on its collateral prior to obtaining a judgment. That statute provides that a secured party “[m]ay reduce a claim to judgment, foreclose, or otherwise enforce the claim, security interest, or agricultural lien by any available judicial procedure[.]”  Specifically, the Court wrote: “These rights, in addition to others provided by the section, are ‘cumulative[,]’ and the statute expressly allows them to be exercised simultaneously. The statute, however, does not require that a secured party foreclose on collateral prior to or simultaneous to seeking a judgment.”

It’s a good case to remember the next time a defendant raises these issues, and, trust me, they will.

New Tennessee Opinion on Foreclosure Deficiency Follows Creditor-Friendly Precedent

One of my greatest victories was the favorable opinion I obtained for a client in GreenBank v. Sterling Ventures, et. al. , decided on December 7, 2012.

I blogged about it here, but to recap: That case was the first consideration of a foreclosure deficiency attack under Tenn. Code Ann. §35-5- 118(c). Under that statute, a borrower can argue that a foreclosed property sold for “materially less” than fair market value and, under §35-5- 118(c), a court can deny a deficiency judgment to the foreclosing creditor.

In an opinion issued this past Friday, the Court of Appeals revisited the statute in Capital Bank v. Oscar Brock, No. E2013-01140-COA-R3-CV – Filed June 30, 2014 (see full text here).  The case followed the established precedent of Sterling Ventures and its progeny.

This new case is notable in two respects:

  1. Courts can and will resolve §35-5- 118(c) issues at the Summary Judgment level,  where it is only a matter of applying the valuations against the foreclosure bid price. In fact, this new opinion weighs some of the evidence, in finding that the defendants valuations were were “formed
    months or even years before or after the time the Property was sold at foreclosure.” This was a major victory in the original Sterling Ventures case, since borrowers want to make these issues a “fact” question, forcing a trial and delay of judgent.
  2. Courts continue to look at percentages when determining what “materially less” means. Sterling  Ventures and the later opinions all say the courts want to avoid setting a “bright-line percentage, above or below which the statutory presumption is rebutted.” That has basis in the legistlative history of the statute, where the lawmakers used “material” based on its usage in child custody cases. Nevertheless, the courts continue to apply a percentage test; in this case, spread was 15.8% and the sale was upheld.

This Court shot down a number of other arguments, including: those based on the amounts of several post-foreclosure appraisals; based on the Bank’s ultimate sale-listing price; and an argument that the Bank committed “fraud” by bidding a lower amount when it planned  to market the property at a higher amount.

The ultimate take-away on this remains the same as in the past.

  • Get an appraisal at or near the time of the proposed sale.
  • Bid an amount that is reasonably tied to the amount of your appraisal (or other reliable/admissible valuation).
  • Summary Judgment is a proper way to proceed, provided the foreclosing creditor was cautious and acted with this statute in mind.

 

New Trial Opinion on Tennessee Post-Foreclosure Deficiency Statute Shows a Creditor-Friendly Trend in Interpreting “Materially Less”

A few months ago, I argued the first appellate case construing Tenn. Code Ann.  § 35-5-118, which is the new Tennessee post-foreclosure deficiency judgment statute. As you may recall from my blog post about the new law, the statute provides a possible defense to a deficiency action, where the debtor can show “by a preponderance of the evidence that the property sold for an amount materially less than the fair market value…”

In layman’s terms, a foreclosed borrower may be able to avoid a judgment for the remaining debt if he can show that the foreclosure buyer drastically under-bid at the foreclosure.

All across the state, this statute has resulted in two fights:

  1. What was the fair market value at the time of the foreclosure? and
  2. Was the foreclosure sale price “materially less” than the fair market value?

A big problem under the statute has been that “materially less” isn’t defined in the statute or anywhere else in Tennessee law.

In the resulting GreenBank v. Sterling Ventures  opinion, the Court of Appeals issued a bank-friendly interpretation,  offering guidance as to what “materially less”  means by saying that a sale price of 86% is not “materially less.”

I’ve heard from a number of bank lawyers since that opinion, complaining that 86% isn’t low enough. I’ve told them, just wait, the Sterling Ventures opinion didn’t set the “floor;” there is room in the statute for lower values, which will be established in future cases (in the Sterling Ventures case, the bid at issue was 88-91%, so it didn’t require the Court to define the lowest possible percentage).

This past week, my firm received another favorable  opinion from the Williamson County Chancery Court. In this Opinion (click to review), the Court recognized this issue, and rightfully upheld lower percentage bid amounts. The Court, following the lead of the Court of Appeals, cites the Holt v. Citizens Central Bank case, which recognized that a 50% recovery at foreclosure is a customary result.

While this doesn’t suggest that 50% is the magic number/floor percentage, this analysis shows a judicial tendency in interpreting the statute at a lower range than most debtors have argued.

With any new law, it takes a few decisions to “battle test” how it works. So far, the parameters of Tenn. Code Ann.  § 35-5-118 are being defined in a way that favors creditors.

Don’t Forget that Tenn. Code Ann. § 35-5-118(d) Also Has a Two Year Statute Limitations on Collection of Foreclosure Deficiency

Earlier in the month, I talked about the new Tennessee Court of Appeals decision on Tenn. Code Ann.  § 35-5-118, which provided some guidelines on analyzing the adequacy of foreclosure bid prices in Tennessee.

In the Court’s deep analysis of the potential defenses to a foreclosure deficiency lawsuit in the statute, don’t forget my advice from an even earlier post about the new two year statute of limitations.

In Tennessee, a creditor can sue for breach of contract (i.e. to recover unpaid debt) for up to 6 years from the date of the default in payment.

This Tenn. Code Ann.  § 35-5-118(d) provides that a post-foreclosure action to obtain a deficiency judgment “shall be brought not later than the earlier of:

(A) Two (2) years after the date of the trustee’s or foreclosure sale, exclusive of any period of time in which a petition for bankruptcy is pending; or
(B) The time for enforcing the indebtedness as provided for under §§ 28-1-102 and 28-2-111.
So, the creditor has to sue on the earlier of two years or within the original 6 year statute of limitations. Two years is generally going to be the earlier of those two.
For many creditors, waiting a few years after a foreclosure is a reasonable move, to see if the debtor’s fortunes turn around. But, under this statute, a creditor can’t wait too long, and no later than 2 years.
Also, a creditor should be especially careful about a forbearance agreement on the deficiency debt.  If those voluntary payments extend more than 2 years, then a debtor could argue that the creditor’s cause of action on the debt expires. Long story short, be sure to document either a tolling of the statute or do any sort of long-term payment arrangement as a new Deficiency Note (which, itself, has a new 6 year statute of limitations from default).

Tennessee Court of Appeals Issues First Opinion Examining Text of Tennessee Deficiency Statute

Remember two years ago, when I wrote about the new Tennessee deficiency judgment statute? That statute, Tenn. Code Ann.  § 35-5-118, was designed to provide a defense to post-foreclosure deficiency lawsuits where the creditor failed to bid the actual “fair market value” of property at foreclosure. At the time, I said:

For most lenders, this new law should not have any practical impact. While you might imagine there would be various horror stories of lenders bidding $10,000 to buy a half-million property, in reality, most lenders were already calculating their foreclosure bids by starting at what the fair market value of the property is, and then subtracting sale expenses and carrying costs. The most prudent lenders have a standard procedure in place for all foreclosures, and many go the expense to order pre-foreclosure appraisals.

The reason I’m quoting myself so much is because the Tennessee Court of Appeals decided last week that my interpretation is correct. I take credit for this opinion, because I argued this case before the Court.

The case is GreenBank v. Sterling Ventures, et. al. , decided on December 7, 2012, (full text here). If you represent banks and creditors, particularly in foreclosures and collections, you must read this case and consider how your clients’ foreclosure bidding strategies compare with the Court’s decision.

This opinion is significant because it’s the first decision critically examining the text of Tenn. Code Ann. §35-5- 118 and deciding what “materially less” means.  While that term sounds official, the phrase “materially less” has never been used in any other Tennessee statute or court opinion. Ever. As a result, a court deciding whether a foreclosure sale price is “materially less” than fair market value is faced with a completely blank slate.

At the trial court level, the Chancery Court had found, at summary judgment and as a matter of law, that a foreclosure sale price ranging between 88% and 91% of the Defendants’ highest alleged value was not “materially less.”  On appeal, the Court agreed, explaining that the legislative history and goals of the new statute clearly indicated that a foreclosure bid price at 89% of the highest property value was not “materially less.”  (The Court actually went a step further, based on a prior decision, and found that 86% would suffice.)

The matter was appropriate for decision at the summary judgment stage, because, even accepting the Defendants’ facts as true, the foreclosure sale price was still 89% of the Defendants’ highest values and, thus, was not “materially less” than fair market value under Tenn. Code Ann. §35-5- 118(c).

Here are my two take-aways from this decision:

  1. A foreclosure bid of 86% is going to withstand this defense, so tell your bank clients to bid at least 86% of the highest alleged value (whether that be your appraisal, the defendant’s appraisal, or the tax card value).
  2. Under the right facts, a creditor can prevail over a §35-5-118(c) defense at the summary judgment stage.  The first time I saw this statute, my greatest concern wasn’t that my client would win or lose on this argument, but, instead, that this statute created a factual issue that would cause delay and require a trial (and, thus, I couldn’t prevail on a motion for summary judgment). This case shows that you can win such a motion.

This opinion is creditor-friendly, but not overly so. Keep in mind, a bank conducting a foreclosure must still bid at least 86% of a property’s highest value. Taking into account costs of the foreclosure, the costs of “owning” property, and other administrative costs associated with foreclosure, I question whether we’ll see a later opinion on different facts that affirms a lower percentage (65%-75%).

Your Next Landlord Could be A Hedgefund: Are Rental Properties Making a Comeback as a Good Investment?

I’ve said for years that the contractors and investors who got burned by the economic downturn will eventually hit rock bottom, dust themselves off, and end up making as much money on the backside of the recession as they lost on the front end. This is because the same market inefficiencies that were exploited in the past are being replaced by equally exploitable new ones.

The builders who once built speculative homes on inflated market appraisals are going to be the contractors who do the work for the investors who buy the properties from the banks at 40 cents on the dollar.

The Las Vegas Sun did a story last week on how hedge funds are buying Las Vegas real properties at bargain rates, making minimal investments/improvements, and renting the properties for an 8% to 12% annual return.  Then, once the economy rebounds, the investors could expect appreciation to add more value to the investment.

As far as investments go, being a landlord is fairly labor-intensive. And, if the past 4 years has shown us anything, it’s hardly a fool-proof move.

Potential landlords would be smart to read this excellent article in the Wall Street Journal, Do You Really Want to be Landlord? The article has both horror stories and advice, as well as a forecast that rents are likely to increase over the next few years.

I got out of the landlord business two years ago, when my tenant couldn’t unclog her drains and called me every other day.  The 30 minute drive, coupled with time spent waiting on plumbers, gave me all the time to reconsider the pros and cons.