Debtors’ Lien-Stripping Attempt Likely Would Have Succeeded in New Hampshire

Thursday, July 14, 2016

A North Carolina bankruptcy court recently denied a Debtors’ attempt to “strip off” a junior lien on their primary residence by rejecting the argument that the property should be valued near the time of plan confirmation.  In re Cooper, No. 11-02804-8 (Bankr. E.D. N.C. Jun. 8, 2016). § 506(a) provides that for purposes of determining the secured status of a creditor “value should be determined in light of the purpose of the valuation and of the proposed distribution or use of such property…or use or on a plan affecting such creditor’s interest.”   

The question before the Court was whether the home should be assigned a value as of the petition date or a date closer to plan confirmation for purposes of § 506(a).  In 2011, Debtors filed a Chapter 13 petition reporting two liens on their home a first lien of $90,000 and a second lien of $160,000.  If the Court used the value as of the petition date there would be enough equity to protect the second lien through plan confirmation.  If the Court used the value as of the confirmation date (less than $90,000), then the Debtors would succeed in stripping the second and wholly unsecured lien.  The North Carolina court invoked the majority rule which applies the petition date for valuing collateral, and therefore ruled that the second mortgage lien could not be “stripped” and remained in place, at least to the extent of the property’s value as of the petition date.

A Massachusetts bankruptcy court would have reached the same result.  In re Landry, 479 B.R. 1 (D. Mass. 2011).  But in New Hampshire bankruptcy court, the outcome would have been more favorable for the debtors, and the lien would have been stripped.  In 2013, Chief Judge Harwood adopted the “flexible approach” and ordered a valuation date for residential property near confirmation in the context of an individual Chapter 11.  In re Cahill, 503 B.R. 535 (Bankr. D. N.H. 2013).  Judge Harwood explained using the petition date for valuation fails to take into account the language in § 506(a) that value should be determined in conjunction with the purposes of the plan and the attendant valuation. 

Had the Debtors resided in New Hampshire they most likely would have succeeded in stripping the second lien.  At some point, the First Circuit Court of Appeals and/or the Bankruptcy Appellate Court will have to determine which approach should be the prevailing rule.  We think Judge Harwood has it right.     

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