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Supreme Court Outlaws Chapter 7 ‘Stripping Off’ of Second Mortgages

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The U.S. Supreme Court ruled on Monday that an underwater second mortgage cannot be extinguished, or "stripped off," as unsecured debt for a debtor in bankruptcy, according to the Supreme Court's website.

In the cases of Bank of America v. Caulket and Bank of America v. Toledo-Cardona, Florida homeowners David Caulkett and Edelmiro Toldeo-Cardona had filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy and had second mortgages with Bank of America extinguished by a bankruptcy judge following the housing crisis of 2008 based on the fact that they were completely underwater. On Monday, just more than two months after hearing arguments for the case, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the bank.

When the Supreme Court heard arguments for two cases on March 24, attorneys representing Bank of America contended that the high court should uphold a 1992 decision in the case of Dewsnup v. Timm, which barred debtors in Chapter 7 bankruptcy from "stripping off" an underwater second mortgage down to its market value, thus voiding the junior lien holder's claim against the debtor. Attorneys for the debtors argued that the Dewsnup decision was irrelevant for the two cases.

Bank of America appealed the bankruptcy judge's ruling for the two cases, but the 11th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals upheld the bankruptcy court's decision in May 2014, going against the Dewsnup ruling by saying that decision did not apply when the collateral on a junior lien (second mortgage) did not have sufficient enough value. The bank subsequently appealed the 11th Circuit Court's ruling.

The Supreme Court ruled on Monday that the second mortgages should not be treated as unsecured debt, hence upholding the Dewsnup decision. Justice Clarence Thomas, in delivering the opinion of the court, wrote that, "Section 506(d) of the Bankruptcy Code allows a debtor to void a lien on his property '[t]o the extent that [the] lien secures a claim against the debtor that is not an allowed secured claim.' 11 U. S. C. §506(d). These consolidated cases present the question whether a debtor in a Chapter 7 bankruptcy proceeding may void a junior mortgage under §506(d) when the debt owed on a senior mortgage exceeds the present value of the property. We hold that a debtor may not, and we therefore reverse the judgments of the Court of Appeals."

"The Court has spoken, and we respect its ruling," said Stephanos Bibas, an attorney for defendant David Caulkett, in an email to DS News. "But we are disappointed that the Court extended its earlier precedent in Dewsnup v Timm, even though it acknowledged that the plain words of the statute favor giving relief to homeowners such as Messrs. Caulkett and Toledo-Cardona. We hope that in the near future, the Administration's home-mortgage-modification programs will offer more relief to homeowners in this situation struggling to save their homes."

A Bank of America spokesman declined to comment on Monday's Supreme Court's ruling.

Click here to read the complete text of the Court's ruling.

About Author: Brian Honea

Brian Honea's writing and editing career spans nearly two decades across many forms of media. He served as sports editor for two suburban newspaper chains in the DFW area and has freelanced for such publications as the Yahoo! Contributor Network, Dallas Home Improvement magazine, and the Dallas Morning News. He has written four non-fiction sports books, the latest of which, The Life of Coach Chuck Curtis, was published by the TCU Press in December 2014. A lifelong Texan, Brian received his master's degree from Amberton University in Garland.
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