Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Dude, Where's My Car? Most Courts Hold Purchase Money Vehicle Loans Still Secured Under BAPCPA

We previously reported in Another Take on Purchase Money Vehicle Loans on a decision from Judge Walker in the Southern District of Georgia holding that the effect of BAPCPA amendments to 11 U.S.C. 1325 is to render claims arising from purchase money loans made within 910 days of bankruptcy for vehicles acquired for the debtor's personal use to be entirely unsecured claims. In re Carver, 2006 WL 563321 (Bankr. S.D. Ga. 3/6/06). The amendment, which I refer to as 1325(a)(*) because Congress didn't see fit to give it a number, provides that "section 506 shall not apply" to 910-day claims. While some courts had held that this provision merely precluded the "strip-down" of such vehicle loans in a Chapter 13 plan into secured and unsecured claims under Section 506(a), see Strip Tease? No More Stripping Down Many Auto Loans, the Carver case instead held that if 506 did not apply, such claims must be deemed wholly unsecured (although they were still entered to special treatment).

Now a fellow judge of the Southern District of Georgia has ruled contrary to Carver, and held, like the majority of the courts that have addressed the issue, that 1325(a)(*) merely prohibits bifurcation, and effectively mandates that 910-day claims be treated as wholly secured. In re Brown, 2006 WL 775648 (Bankr. S.D. Ga. 3/27/06). In Brown, Judge Dalis addressed multiple cases which all presented the same fact pattern: the debtors had purchased vehicles for personal use within 910 days of filing bankruptcy; the lenders filed proofs of claim listing the debts as 100% secured; no objections were filed to the claims; the debtors' plans proposed to pay the claims without interest; and the lenders objected to confirmation, contending that they had to receive the present value of their claims under 11 U.S.C. 1325.

The Brown court rejected the argument (adopted by Judge Walker in Carver) that the language of 1325(a)(*) that "section 506 shall not apply" meant that the lenders' claims could not be treated as secured claims. To the contrary, Judge Dalis found that 506 is not intended to provide the definition of an allowed secured claim. Rather, other Code sections provide such definitions: Section 502 governs whether a claim is deemed "allowed" (including, such as here, where no objection is filed); and Section 101(37) establishes that a debt is "secured" by a lien (providing that the term "lien" means a charge against or interest in property "to secure payment of a debt"). Because the claims at issue were "allowed" under 502, and "secured" by recourse to underlying collateral, they were "allowed secured claims" -- which, under 1325(a)(5), must receive present value under a Chapter 13 plan.

Thus, like In re Johnson, 2006 WL 270231; In re Robinson, 2006 WL 349801; and In re Wright, 2006 WL 547824, mentioned in prior posts, Judge Dalis in Brown concludes that 910-day claims must be treated as fully secured claims entitled to present value, but are subject to modification with respect to the interest rate necessary to meet the present value requirement.

On a related note, a judge in Utah has recently held that a Chapter 13 plan must pay the full present value of a 910-day claim, even where the creditor does not object to lesser treatment. In re Montoya, 2006 WL 931562 (Bankr. D. Utah 4/10/06). In Montoya, the debtor's Chapter 13 plan proposed to bifurcate a 910-day claim a la 506(a)(1), notwithstanding the 1325(a)(*) amendment. The creditor, despite this new BAPCPA ammunition, did not file a proof of claim and did not object to the debtor's plan. Notwithstanding the lack of any objection, Judge Boulden held that the debtor's plan could not be confirmed.

Joining the majority, Judge Boulden agreed that the effect of 1325(a)(*) is to require that for purposes of 1325(a)(5), 910-day claims must be treated as fully secured. She also noted the general principle that if a plan is properly noticed and otherwise meets the requirements of 1325(a), "the Court may deem a secured creditor's silence to constitute acceptance of a plan and the plan may be confirmed." The reason for this "implied acceptance" is because Chapter 13, unlike Chapter 11, has no balloting mechanism to evidence a creditor's acceptance. Thus, the judicial doctrine of "implied acceptance" "fills the drafting gap in the Code."

Despite the principle of implied acceptance, however, Judge Boulden found that even in the absence of a creditor objection, a plan that proposed to bifurcate a 910-day claim could not be confirmed: "Creditors are entitled to rely on the few unambiguous provisions of the BAPCPA for their treatment. They should not be required to scour every Chapter 13 plan to ensure that provisions of the BAPCPA specifically inapplicable to them will not be inserted in a proposed plan in the debtor's hope that the improper secured creditor treatment will become res judicata."

She alternatively ruled that even if implied consent were applicable, the Plan could still not be confirmed because it did not satisfy 1325(a)(1)'s requirement that the plan "complies with the provisions of this chapter and with the other applicable provisions of this title." She ruled that "The offending provision presents no less a bar to confirmation than failing to pay priority claims in full, proposing a plan in bad faith, or proposing a plan that is not feasible."

This "You Snooze, You're Fine" principle is arguably inconsistent with the fact that satisfaction of the present value requirement of Section 1325(a)(5)(B) is only one of three distinct options for dealing with a secured claim in a Chapter 13 plan (subsections (A) - acceptance; (B) - present value; and (C) - surrender, are linked by a disjunctive "or"). The first option, in 1325(a)(5)(A), is that "the holder of such claim has accepted the plan." If the failure to object to a Chapter 13 plan is a deemed acceptance (and it generally is understood to be), then there seems to be no reason to even reach the present value requirement of 1325(a)(5)(B). A creditor is always free to take less than they might otherwise be entitled to under the Code, and if they acquiesce to such treatment then the Chapter 13 plan might not violate any provision of the Code.

Indeed it is possible that a secured lender might be financially motivated to accept such treatment, particularly if the alternative is that the debtor will surrender the vehicle -- which might leave the lender with no deficiency claim at all. See Purchase Money Vehicle Creditors Get No Claim Upon Surrender.

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