Monday, October 22, 2007

Court Protects Homestead Proceeds But Leaves Open Question on Tardy Objections

Texas has one of the most generous homestead exemptions in the country. However, a quirk in the law allows an exemption in homestead proceeds to be lost due to the passage of time. San Antonio Bankruptcy Judge Leif Clark recently found a creative solution to the problem created by an obstreperous creditor seeking to outlast the debtor and preclude reinvestment of the proceeds from sale of a homestead. In re Bading, No. 06-52750 (Bankr. W.D. Tex. 9/22/07). However, the opinion raises the question of why Judge Clark had to work so hard when Supreme Court precedent provided a simpler alternative.

The Vanishing Exemption and Absolute Protection of Exempted Property

Most exemption statutes are limited by the type and value of the property to be claimed as exempt, but are not limited as to time. Thus, exempt property will keep its status so long as it retains its exempt character. However, a sale or other transformation of the exempt property will usually cause it to lose its exempt character. The Texas homestead exemption extends not only to a homestead owned and occupied by the debtor, but to the proceeds from sale of a homestead as well. Tex. Prop. Code §41.001(c). The proceeds exemption is one which is limited by time. It lasts for the lesser of six months or until the debtor acquires another homestead. The purpose of the proceeds exemption is to give the debtor a limited period of time in which to acquire a new homestead. As a result, the statute creates a vanishing exemption. Homestead proceeds which were fully protected five months and 29 days after sale of the home become cash subject to claims of creditors after six months and one day.

This vanishing exemption creates a potential conflict between state and federal law in the bankruptcy context. According to 11 U.S.C. §522(c), “property exempted under this section is not liable during or after the case for any debt of the debtor that arose, or that is determined under section 502 of this title as if such debt had arisen, before the commencement of the case” (with certain exceptions). Thus, the Bankruptcy Code gives exempted property absolute protection from pre-petition claims.

This absolute protection is implemented in two ways. First, the Bankruptcy Code and the Federal Rules of Bankruptcy Procedure provide a limited time in which to object to exempt property. 11 U.S.C. §522(l); Fed.R.Bankr.P. 4003(b). If the property is claimed as exempt and the exemption is not timely challenged, the property remains exempt regardless of whether it would have been subject to a valid objection. Taylor v. Freeland & Kronz, 503 U.S. 638 (1992). Second, the property’s exempt status is determined as of the petition date using the “snapshot” approach. Matter of Zibman, 268 F.3d 298 (5th Cir. 2001).

A Fading Snapshot

While the Zibman decision recognized the “snapshot” approach, it also noted that like a bad Polaroid, the picture could fade. According to the Fifth Circuit:

“(T)he law and facts existing on the date of filing the bankruptcy petition determine the existence of available exemptions but . . . it is the entire state law applicable on the filing date that is determinative. Courts cannot apply a juridical airbrush to excise offending images necessarily picture in the petition-date snapshot.”

Zibman at 304.

Thus, Zibman teaches that where conditions exist on the petition date which would limit the exemption, the snapshot approach does not eliminate those limitations. However, it seems important to the Fifth Circuit’s analysis that the condition must exist as of the petition date. In the Zibman case, the debtors had sold their homestead approximately two months prior to bankruptcy. Thus, the snapshot on the petition date revealed an exemption which had just four months remaining in the absence of reinvestment. Since the debtors had moved to another state, reinvestment was not a possibility.

In the Zibman case, the Trustee obtained an order extending the time to object to exemptions until after the six month reinvestment period expired. When the debtor failed to purchase a new homestead, the trustee objected and was sustained by the Fifth Circuit. Thus, although the exemption was still valid on the petition date, it was a limited exemption and was defeated by the timely filed objection.

Although the Trustee benefitted from an extension of time in Zibman, the court noted that the debtor could benefit from one as well. In a footnote, the Court noted that although the debtors could have requested tolling of the six month period, they failed to do so.

Bading Determines Calculation of Six Month Period

In Judge Clark’s Bading decision, the court examined how to calculate the six month period in the face of creditor obstruction. The debtor owned two contiguous lots which made up her homestead. Prior to bankruptcy, Gulfside Supply, Inc. recorded an abstract of judgment against the debtor. Under Texas law, an abstract of judgment creates a lien against all real estate owned by the debtor in the county, but does not attach to a homestead. Since the debtor only owned a homestead, the abstract of judgment should have been a nullity. However, as noted by the Bankruptcy Court, “title companies are notorious cowards.” When the creditor refused to release the lien, the debtor was put to a Hobson’s choice to either pay off the invalid lien or risk losing the ability to sell the property.

In this case, the debtor found a middle ground. It reached an agreement with the creditor to release its lien from one of the two tracts. The sale of the first lot closed on December 4, 2006 and the debtor received proceeds of approximately $142,000. The debtor did not reinvest these proceeds out of fear that acquiring a new homestead would void the exemption on the second tract.

Instead, the debtor then filed bankruptcy on December 29, 2006 and filed a motion to avoid lien on the second tract. The motion to avoid lien was granted. However, at this point, the debtor was faced with a timing dilemma. The creditor, which had not objected to the debtor’s exemptions, contended that it was not required to file an objection until after the property lost its exempt character and that the six month clock had begun to run on the sale of the first tract. Under the creditor’s position, there was only one month in which to complete the sale of the second tract and invest the proceeds from both tracts in a new homestead. To avoid this problem, the debtor, relying on the Zibman dicta, filed a motion to toll the reinvestment period.

After a hearing, the Bankruptcy Court came to three important conclusions:

1) The fact that Gulfside failed to file a timely objection to exemption was irrelevant. The court stated:

“Gulfside responds that a creditor should not be required to file a ‘conditional objection’ based on what might happen after the close of the time allowed for objection to exemptions, on pain of those exemptions being allowed as a matter of law under section 522(l). The court agrees with Gulfside on this issue. Were the rule otherwise, then trustees and creditors alike would have a duty to object in every proceeds case, just to make sure they preserved their rights. That strikes the court as an unnecessary formality, and one that is difficult to square with the rationale employed by the Fifth Circuit in Zibman to reach its result.”

Bading, slip op., p. 6, n. 5.

2) The six month clock did not begin to run until the second tract was sold.

The six month clock is triggered by sale of “a” homestead, not part of the homestead. Here, the debtor had a single purchaser for both parts of the homestead. The closing of the sale of the complete homestead was delayed by the creditor’s unjustified refusal to release its lien. As a result, there was not a sale of “a” homestead until the second closing, so that the six month clock did not begin to run until that date.

3) If the single sale theory did not work, the court found that equitable tolling would apply.

The court noted that both Texas law and the Zibman opinion held open the possibility that the six month period to reinvest could be tolled. Tolling is an equitable principle. Where, as here, the creditor delayed the debtor’s ability to sell through its refusal to release an invalid lien, there were sufficient grounds to toll the six month reinvestment period.

Thus, the net result was that the debtor was able to sell her homestead free of the offending judgment lien and the creditor’s stall tactics failed to achieve their desired result.

Invoking Avril Lavigne

Judge Clark’s reasoning is elegant and avoided an obvious injustice. However, it raises an obvious question: “Why do you have to make things so complicated?”* Judge Clark would never have had to reach the issues of unitary homestead sales or equitable tolling if he had simply followed Taylor v. Freeland & Kronz and ruled that failure to timely object to the claimed exemption ended the inquiry.

Judge Clark justified his failure to deem the objection waived on two grounds:

1) Practicality; and
2) Fealty to the Fifth Circuit’s reasoning in Zibman.

The practical argument questions the reasonableness of requiring conditional objections in cases involving homestead proceeds. The most reasonable response to this argument is: So what? Cases involving exemptions of homestead proceeds are relatively rare. In order to have a case involving proceeds, the sale must have taken place pre-petition. The deadline to object to exemptions occurs 30 days after the conclusion of the first meeting of creditors. Fed.R.Bankr.P. 4003(b). While the creditors’ meeting must be commenced 20-40 days after the filing of the petition, Fed.R.Bankr.P. 2003(a), there is no rule as to when the meeting must be concluded. As a result, the trustee may simply continue the meeting to a date after the conclusion of the six month reinvestment period. If that isn’t satisfactory, a creditor could move to extend the time to object or could file a conditional objection. All of these solutions are easy to accomplish. Since proceeds cases are unusual, it is reasonable to require trustees and creditors to take these nominal steps to preserve their rights rather than to argue that Supreme Court precedent should be disregarded.

The rationale of the Zibman opinion offers offers little support to the tardy creditor. In that case, the trustee obtained an order extending the time to object to exemptions. The trustee filed his objection within that time period. As a result, Zibman should not be construed as authorizing out of time objections. Indeed, the Zibman rationale simply recognizes that the debtor’s right to exempt proceeds may depend on events happening after the petition date. This is not an invitation to ignore the rules requiring timely objections to exemptions.

Finally, allowing untimely objections to exemptions based on events occurring after the petition date would lead to absurd results. Under Taylor v. Freeland & Kronz, which is an intellectual cousin to Republic Supply Co. v. Shoaf, 815 F.2d 1046 (5th Cir. 1987), failure to file a timely objection to exemption allows the debtor to retain the claimed property regardless of whether the debtor had a colorable claim of exemptions in the first place. If Zibman is read as allowing untimely objections, it means that a conditional claim to exemption of homestead proceeds would receive less protection than a debtor’s attempt to exempt a stack of gold bullion or a herd of Ethiopian hog-nosed goats** as his homestead. The legal system would be seriously out of joint if it accorded greater rights to the frivolous than the conditionally correct. The entire concept of statutes of limitation assumes that creditors must be diligent to protect their rights. If a creditor is unable to focus its attention on a claim which will be resolved in less than six months, the court should not create a judicial do-over for it.

*--This is the refrain from a recent song by semi-punk songstress Avril Lavigne.
**--A rare form of livestock found only in Bastrop County. Apologies to Joe Martinec and Eric Borsheim. For the full story of the Ethiopian hog-nosed goats, write to me at ssather@bnpclaw.com.

4 comments:

Daniel Cotts said...

I have a question: what if proceeds from a homestead are invested in something OTHER than a new homestead before the 6-months has run?

Anonymous said...

I understand that an abstract of judgment will have no effect on a homestead and the proceeds of that homestead sale.

My question is 1. This does not prevent me from filling the abstract of judgment anyway on the debtors homestead knowing the protection he or she has as a homesteader?

2. If it does not then my reason for doing it anyway is to prevent clear title to be given to a future buyer of this homestead. The title company will do their search and find my abstract of judgement on this real estate. The buyer will then not complete the transaction until he or she gets clear title. So if the seller wants to give clear title to the seller he or she will have to pay my judgment in order to achieve clear title to the seller.
Is my thinking correct?

Steve Sather said...

The answer is yes, you can file the abstract, but if you try to use it to leverage payment upon sale of the homestead, you are opening yourself up for major damages. Under Texas law, an abstract of judgment attaches to any property in the county, but will not attach to a homestead. Since you are not filing the abstract against a specific piece of property, you are not directly clouding the title. However, if the title company requests a partial release and you refuse to provide one, leading to loss of the sale, you will be liable for damages. Remember the motto: "Don't Mess With Texas Homesteads."

Anonymous said...

I have a question... If the title company requests a partial release, what is the time frame in which they are required to respond? How much time is the debtor required to give to the debtee?