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:
- 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).
- 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%).