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%).

New CLE Speaking Engagement: The Essentials of Foreclosure Defense, September 22, 2011

My law partner, Tucker Herndon, and I have been invited by LawReviewCLE to speak at their upcoming seminar The Essentials of Foreclosure Defense. This seminar will be on September 22, 2011, in Nashville at the DoubleTree Hilton.

While we generally represent foreclosing creditors in the foreclosure process, the seminar organizers recognized that “bank lawyers” are probably some of the most knowledgeable about avenues to attack, stop, or stay a foreclosure. They’re right: after probably 500 foreclosures over the past 4 years, we’ve seen it all.

As a result, we’ll be speaking about trends in foreclosure litigation, including lawsuits to stay or enjoin foreclosures, as well as well consensual agreements to avoid foreclosures, like loan modifications, short sales, and deeds in lieu of foreclosure.

Finally, we’ll review the powers of Bankruptcy Courts to stop a foreclosure and, in some cases, attack a creditor’s lien rights.

This should be a lively seminar on an obviously topical area of law. We hope you’ll consider signing up. There will be a Q & A session at the end, and, if you ever wanted to ask a bank lawyer about foreclosures, this is your chance.

Home Sales Drop in June, While Existing Home Inventory Rises

The National Association of Realtors released a report today that home sales dropped in June 2010, mainly as a result of the expiration of the home buyer tax credits. The silver lining, they say, is that June 2010 was still better than June 2009.

What’s really scary is that existing home inventory continued to rise in June. Apparently, in the rush to get homes built and sold prior to the end of the tax credit, builders were left with far more houses than buyers.

The tax credit isn’t coming back, so July probably will not be much better. My prediction? The next report you’ll be seeing is that foreclosures are up in August and September.