Mark Your Calendars: Tennessee Bar Association to host Creditors Rights 101 Webcast on April 17, 2013

On April 17, 2013, the Tennessee Bar Association has asked me to present a webcast CLE called “Creditor Rights 101: 10 Collection Strategies Every Lawyer Should Know.”

This is part of the TennBarU series, designed to give Tennessee general practitioner attorneys an overview of issues in Tennessee creditor rights. Discussion will include:

• Pre-Lawsuit Considerations
• Statute of Limitations Issues
• Jurisdiction and Venue Selection
• Judgment Enforcement Options
• Basic Bankruptcy Issues
• Common Roadblocks to Collecting Money

And, don’t forget, your Tennessee Bar Association membership gets you 3 hours of free CLE.

My Thoughts on “What To Do When a Creditor Knocks” from the Wall Street Journal

This weekend’s Wall Street Journal ran a article on how to respond to bill collection efforts, called “When Bill Collectors Knock.”  The article mixes good advice with a little bad advice. Here’s my bounce.

Good advice:

Take the call. It is virtually impossible to resolve a problem without addressing it head on. The best way for borrowers to handle a debt they can’t pay is to talk with the lender as soon as possible. Then they should work out a plan to keep the debt current with a smaller payment or to seek a temporary delay until they can pay something.

This is good advice. I talked about the importance of communicating with creditors in an earlier post. The worst thing a debtor can do is be silent, as that invites collection.

Unrealistic advice:

Keep detailed records. Staying on top of debt can be tough. But keeping records and careful notes can pay benefits if borrowers are sued.

I agree that it helps to keep payment records and copies of old invoices, but how realistic is that, particularly with debts that are years old?

But this is better:

Know the rules. Every state puts a limit on how long a creditor is able to pursue borrowers in court.

Your best focus, however, could be records showing your past payment. In Tennessee, the statute of limitations on debt collections is six years from the date of default. If you can provide that it’s been more than 6 years since your default, you may be able to obtain a dismissal of any action.

Bad advice:

Negotiate. Because debt is bought at a discount, collectors should be willing to bargain, perhaps accepting just a fraction of what is owed. If borrowers can come up with the money, they should be able to negotiate a settlement of 50 cents to 65 cents for each dollar owed…

Earlier, the article suggests that most unpaid debt collectors are collecting debts that they paid a mere four cents on the dollar for. So, the article suggests, you should haggle for payments in the range of 50 cents on the dollar.

While this may be true for some debts, in my experience, it’s not as common as the anecdotal stories suggest. The creditors I represent don’t buy debt and so any talk of ten cents on the dollar is a waste of time. Plus, even if a creditor has paid a small amount for a debt, that doesn’t mean that they will accept a small amount to settle, especially if the creditor perceives the debt can be collected in full.

Don’t get me wrong. I always say “Money Talks,” but if you’re making a low ball offer, you have to back it up with proof that your offer is the best you can do, and that requires proof of a debtor’s finances, other debts, etc.

My take-away this this: Over-communicate; Confirm that the debt isn’t over 6 years old (in Tennessee); and Money Talks (or, at least, proof of that the money you’re offering is the most the creditor will otherwise get).

What I Don’t Like About the New Post-Judgment Interest Rate Statute in Tennessee (Everything)

I am pretty sure that somewhere in the volumes of Creditors Rights 101, I’ve written about the new statute changing the interest rate to be charged on judgments, which went into effect on July 1, 2012. I can’t find it, so here’s a quick primer.

Once upon a time, interest on judgments was simply 10% (here’s a copy of the old statute). The beauty of the old statute was three-fold. One, it was easy math to compute 10% interest. Two, it was a fixed rate and it never changed, making long-term calculations easier. Three, ten percent is a creditor “friendly” rate, so Defendants were motivated to pay off the Judgment or refinance it.

The new statute is Tenn. Code Ann. § 47-14-121.  This statute not only lowers the post-judgment statutory interest rate, but it throws simplicity out the window.

Here’s the relevant text:

…the interest rate on judgments per annum in all courts, including decrees, shall:

(1) For any judgment entered between July 1 and December 31, be equal to two percent (2%) less than the formula rate per annum published by the commissioner of financial institutions, as required by § 47-14-105, for June of the same year; or
(2) For any judgment entered between January 1 and June 30, be equal to two percent (2%) less than the formula rate per annum published by the commissioner of financial institutions, as required by § 47-14-105, for December of the prior year.
Do you see what I mean about the lack of simplicity?Looking at that, can you tell me what the interest rate is?
The legislature must have known that they were going to completely confuse people, because the statute contains a sub-part at Tenn. Code Ann. § 47-14-121 (b) designed to make the math easier:

(b) To assist parties and the courts in determining and applying the interest rate on judgments set forth in subsection (a) for the six-month period in which a judgment is entered, before or at the beginning of each six-month period the administrative office of the courts:

(1) Shall calculate the interest rate on judgments that shall apply for the new six-month period pursuant to subsection (a);
(2) Shall publish that rate on the administrative office of the courts’ website; and
(3) Shall maintain and publish on that website the judgment interest rates for each prior six-month period going back to the rate in effect for the six-month period beginning July 1, 2012.

 

So, rather than requiring parties to do their own math, the administrative office of the courts will do the math for you and will post the the current (and historical) statutory interest rates to its website. That page of the website can be found here. As of today, the rate is 5.25%.

There’s an “opt-out” in the statute, if the “judgment where a judgment is based on a statute, note, contract, or other writing that fixes a rate of interest within the limits provided in § 47-14-103 for particular categories of creditors, lenders or transactions, the judgment shall bear interest at the rate so fixed.” Tenn. Code Ann. § 47-14-121 (c).
Here are my concerns:
  • The math got a lot more difficult. Instead of the nice, round 10%, we’re now using a variable rate of 5.25% (as of today).
  • There appears to be an obligation to research and modify the rate every six months. Payoffs just got a lot more difficult.
  • By lowering the rate to a very Defendant friendly 5.25%, the legislature removed some incentive to pay off judgments. Frankly, I wonder if you can get a rate better than 5.25% from your bank. I’d rather pay off VISA at 24% than a judgment creditor.
  • Creditors with oppressively high contract rates will now be motivated to stick with those high rates (24%), rather than cut the Defendant a break and let it default to the statutory rate.
My strategy in response will be to always plead my contract rate of interest in my Complaint and ask that the contract (or default) rate be awarded in my Judgment. Invariably, that rate is going to be higher than 5.25%, and that rate will not require modifications every six months.
A final note, keep in mind that the legislature did not modify Tenn. Code Ann. § 47-14-123, which sets the pre-judgment rate of interest at 10%.

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).

Is Naming Your Kid “Junior” Going to Cause Them Trouble? Cross-Generational Financial Woes May Result

Big news here at Creditor Rights headquarters: My wife and I are expecting a baby! We don’t know the gender yet, but we’re reading Baby Name Books cover to cover, looking for that perfect mix of tradition, syllables, and what sounds good.

One thing we’re not considering, however, is a Generational Title, i.e. “Junior.” The baby name experts say it’s a mix of good and bad.

From my perspective as a collections lawyer, I think it can be bad, because I’ve seen one generation’s financial and legal troubles wreak havoc on the other generation. This goes in both directions, with sons causing fathers trouble, and vice versa.

Just this past year, I’ve seen liens on a son’s land ostensibly attaching to the father’s land; wage garnishments on the father’s wages based on the son’s unpaid debt. Bankruptcies showing up on the wrong person’s name, etc.

Much of this stems from our online world, which often indexes information about us based on Name and Location (see Facebook). Two people with the same name who live (at some point) at the same address are going to confuse google, banks, property records, and everybody else.

You might not care about confusing your collection creditors (some people relish in this chaos), but, when one generation’s finances go bad, you’ll care about the impact on your ability to get a loan and sell your house, without having to explain the embarrassing details of your dad’s money troubles.

Don’t get me wrong: it’s a great tradition and a wonderful shared bond between generations. But, when one generation has legal or financial troubles, it’s not just a name that is shared–it’s also the dirty laundry of money mistakes.

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 Tennessee Court of Appeals Case: To Set Aside a Default Judgment, Movant Must Comply with Rule 60.02 and Show a Meritorious Defense

When a Defendant doesn’t file an Answer to a Complaint in the required 30 days (and never files even a late Answer), the Plaintiff can ask for a Judgment “by default,” i.e. as a result only of the Defendant’s failure to respond.

This happens a lot in Chancery Court collections cases. Conventional wisdom says that, if the Defendant doesn’t have the money to pay the debt, then he probably doesn’t have the money to pay a lawyer to fight the lawsuit.

About once or twice a year, after complete silence from a defendant (and after I get a judgment), I’ll receive a “Motion to Set Aside a Default Judgment,” asking the Court to undo the Judgment and allow him to litigate the matter.

I’ve seen all kinds of excuses. One Debtor had a heart condition and didn’t want to deal with the stress. Another says his lawyer forgot to tell him about the Motion. Or the postman didn’t deliver it. Or all of the above.

A rule of thumb is that Tennessee courts dislike defaults, and the courts would rather matters be decided on the merits. That’s what all the Motions to Set Aside always say.

Last week, the Tennessee Court of Appeals issued a new opinion in Monroe v. Monroe (a divorce case) that contains a good, precise statement of the standards for setting a default judgment aside.

The Court confirmed that default judgments aren’t favored and a Court will err on the side of the moving party, but the moving party must show that relief is appropriate under Tenn. R. Civ. P. 60.02 and that it has a “meritorious defense” to the lawsuit.

Rule 60.02 requires a showing of mistake, inadvertence, surprise, or excusable neglect. That’s not enough, however: the moving party must also show some sort of defense to the action.

The second prong is designed to prevent a party setting aside a judgment, only to suffer an inevitable summary judgment a month later because they didn’t have any defenses.

I’d add that a Motion under Rule 60.02 must be made within a  “reasonable time” and, generally, no later than a year after the Judgment.

As a creditor’s lawyer, I hate these. Leave my judgments alone.

2012 Tennessee Legislature is Considering an Absolute Homestead that Would Eliminate a Creditor’s Ability to Collect Against Residential Real Property

Recording a judgment in the county’s Register of Deed’s Office creates a lien on any real property owned in that county by the Debtor pursuant to Tenn. Code Ann. § 25-5-101.

A judgment lien is the single most effective tool in the collection process. Plus, it’s cheap: for less than $20, a creditor can get a lien on any property owned (or owned in the future) by the Debtor, and that property cannot be sold, refinanced, or transferred without dealing with the creditor.

As a creditor rights lawyer, you can guess my concern over two Bills being considered by the Tennessee Legislature in 2012, House Bill 2887 by Glen Casada and HB 2930 by Mike Bell.

These Bills seek increase the “homestead” exemption in Tennessee. “Exemptions” allow a debtor to protect certain property from the reach of creditors. Exemptions are designed so that a judgment creditor can’t take everything, so household goods, retirement accounts, and other necessities can be exempted.

H.B. 2887 proposes an absolute exemption that would exempt a debtor’s residence from any execution or judicial sale. Essentially, no matter how much equity a debtor has in his or her house, that equity would be completely untouchable by creditors.  A debtor could live in a $1,000,000 lien-free house without paying a penny to creditors. This legislation would completely abolish the concept of a judgment lien.

Currently, Tenn. Code Ann. § 26-2-301 allows a single individual to exempt $5,000 of equity, a married couple $7,500, and a married couple with minor children living in the house up to $50,000.

The other proposed legislation, HB 2930 by Mike Bell, seeks to simply increase the homestead exemption amount to $50,000 across the board.

From a creditor’s perspective, the proposed legislation is both too broad and unfair.  I understand the importance of protecting peoples’ homes, but, at the same time, the law should operate fairly as to creditors and debtors.

Frankly, I think it’s unfair that the law would shield $50,000 of equity from the reach of creditors.  Think about it from a creditor’s perspective: if you loaned somebody $200,000 and weren’t getting paid any of it, wouldn’t you be mad to see them keep $50,000 of equity?

Joe Paterno’s Estate Planning Sure Sounds like a Fraudulent Conveyance

Amid all of the Penn State mess, the discussion is shifting from potential criminal liability to civil liability, as victims are talking to lawyers about filing civil lawsuits to recover monetary damages.

Recently, the New York Times reported that Penn State coach Joe Paterno transferred full ownership of his house to his wife, Sue, for $1.00 (and for “love and affection”) in July 2011 (4 months before the scandal was publicly reported). The local taxing authorities place the value of the house at nearly $594,484.40.  Lawyers for Paterno say that the transfer was simply an estate planning tool.

If you had read my post about fraudulent transfers, however, you might wonder if the transfer was made with an eye toward getting valuable assets out of Paterno’s name and into the name of somebody who would not be named in litigation (i.e. where someone with a judgment against Mr. Paterno couldn’t reach it).

Lawyers often urge clients to make similar transfers, especially when faced with lawsuits. “What’s the harm,” they might say, because, maybe, the creditors will not notice it or four years will pass. If discovered, the “fix” might be to simply convey the property back, right?

Not always. Here’s the downside: a crafty collections lawyer won’t just ask to set aside the transfer; instead, the creditor would ask that it be awarded a monetary judgment against the transferee of the property, a judgment in the amount of the value fraudulently given.

So, in the Paterno case, that plaintiff would ask for a money judgment against Mrs. Paterno for $594,483.40, which is the value of the property, minus the $1.00 Mrs. Paterno paid.  Mrs. Paterno has never been named as a potential civil defendant in any of the potential lawsuits, but this $1 transfer certainly opens that discussion.

The lesson here is to be careful about being the recipient of somebody else’s estate (or asset protection) planning. They might drag you down with them.

Mechanic’s Lien Statutes are to be Liberally Construed: New Tennessee Court of Appeals Opinion Allows Valid Lien Claim in the Face of “Non-Prejudicial” Defects

Once upon a time, a mechanic’s and materialmen’s lien lawsuit was akin to walking a tight-rope. In order to have a valid lien claim, you had to comply with each and every deadline, notice, and other requirement of the statute. Just one mistake rendered the lien claim ineffective.

The Tennessee lien statutes (Tenn. Code Ann. § 66-11-101 et. seq.) were revised in 2007. A notable change was that, under Tenn. Code Ann. § 66-11-148, the statutes were to be “liberally construed” in the lien claimant’s favor and that “[s]ubstantial compliance” with the lien laws is “sufficient for the validity” of lien claims.

The recent case of Tri Am Construction, Inc. v. J & V Development, Inc. (Aug. 30, 2011) is the first case to discuss this new statute on liberal construction. In that case, the claimant: failed to file its Complaint under oath; didn’t add claims against the Deed of Trust trustee; didn’t have an attachment issued; and used a defective notary acknowledgment.  All of these would have been fatal errors under the old statutes.

Under the new statute, however, the Court overlooked all of these defects, finding that the errors were “nonprejudicial” and fell within the scope of the liberal construction of the statutes.

I ask the obvious question: If a court is to overlook these defects, exactly what defects would be considered “prejudicial” and would prevent a valid lien claim?

I don’t know. Here, the exceptions appear to eliminate the rule. Surely, a court would dismiss a late-filed lien claim. Right?