Massachusetts Bankruptcy Court Confirms that Chapter 13 Debtors May “Strip Off” Second Mortgages

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Recently in In re Guerra, the Bankruptcy Court for the District of Massachusetts joined the majority of courts in finding that United States Supreme Court’s decision in Bankof Am. v. Caulkett does not affect a chapter 13 debtor’s ability to strip off a second mortgage.  In Caulkett, the Supreme Court held that a debtor in a chapter 7 bankruptcy may not void a junior mortgage lien under 11 U.S.C. § 506(d) when the debt owed on a senior mortgage lien exceeds the current value of the collateral. 

Prior to Caulkett, it was well established in the First Circuit that a chapter 13 debtor could “strip off” a wholly unsecured mortgage.  In the chapter 13 plan context, “strip off” means discharging a creditor’s junior mortgage on real property where the junior mortgage has no value because the amount of senior liens and encumbrances exceeds the value of the property. 

In Guerra, the debtors sought to strip off a second mortgage through their chapter 13 plan. Under the chapter 13 plan, the second mortgage was treated as a wholly unsecured claim subject to discharge under 11 U.S.C § 1328(a).  The second mortgage holder objected and argued that Caulkett prohibits the debtor from treating an “underwater” second mortgage as unsecured. 

The Bankruptcy Court disagreed with the junior mortgage holder and concluded that Caulkett had no effect on the interpretation of the interplay between §§ 506(a) and 1322(b)(2) of the Bankruptcy Code.  As such, the ability to strip off and discharge a wholly unsecured mortgage lien in a chapter 13 plan remains an option for debtors. 

The junior mortgage holder also argued that its lien couldn’t be stripped because (according to its appraisal) the value of the property had increased during the 15+ months since the filing of the bankruptcy case, to the point where there was now enough value to recoup at least some of the second mortgage debt.  In other words, the second mortgage claim wasn’t “wholly unsecured.”  That argument didn’t work either.  For a variety of reasons, the Bankruptcy Court ruled that for lien stripping purposes, a mortgaged property should be valued at the outset of the case.  Because there was apparently no dispute that the mortgaged property was worth less than the balance outstanding on the first mortgage when the case was filed, the Court concluded that the second mortgage claim was completely underwater as of the petition date, and that the debtors’ chapter 13 plan could therefore strip the second mortgage lien and treat that claim as unsecured.

As “strip off” is still an option for debtors, in order to protect their security interest, junior creditors should be mindful of debtor estimates of value in their petition and schedules, which could tee up a chapter 13 plan to strip junior liens.   

Bodie B. Colwell practices as an associate with Preti Flaherty's Bankruptcy, Creditors’ Rights and Business Restructuring group from the Portland office. She focuses on supporting bankruptcy, insolvency, and creditors’ rights clients.

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