Adversary proceedings can be used to dispute, remove, or contest liens. The validity of a lien can be disputed by a trustee or a Chapter 11 debtor in possession under several of the various “avoidance” sections of chapter 5 of the Bankruptcy Code. For example:
- Section 547: Trustee or debtor in possession can avoid a lien as a voidable preference.
- Section 548: A lien can be disputed as a “fraudulent conveyance.”
- Section 544(b): A trustee can use a creditor’s avoidance rights (a creditor holding an unsecured allowable claim) under state or federal law.
- Section 544(a): A consensual or statutory lien can be disputed as being invalid against a judicial lien creditor, execution creditor, or bona fide purchaser of real property from the debtor. Tax liens can be attacked using adversary proceedings, pursuant to In Re Dunmore, 262 B.R. 85, 87 (Bankr. N.D. Cal. 2001).
- Section 545: A trustee or debtor in possession can avoid statutory liens on the property of the debtor in certain situations.
- Section 549: A trustee or debtor in possession can avoid the transfer of most unauthorized post-petition transfers of property of the estate.
There are some situations in which the validity of a lien can be contested indirectly. For example, a secured creditor filing a proof of claim may claim a security interest. The trustee or debtor in possession can object to the claim under F.R. Bankr. P. 3007. If the creditor cannot verify its secured status, the claim may be disallowed as a secured claim.
Sometimes valuation of the collateral in question is an important issue. This issue can come up in adversary proceedings that attempt to strip away the second or third mortgage that is claimed to be wholly unsecured. In Re Mansaray-Ruffin, 530 F.3d 230 (3d Cir. 2008).
Here, the real issue is to what “extent” the secured creditor is secured. If there is no equity in the property to which a lien can attach, then the lien is said to be unsecured.
For example, suppose a house has a fair market value of $150,000. The first mortgage secured against the property is in the amount of $165,000. There is no equity left in the property for any second mortgage to attach to, since the mortgage is larger than the fair market value. Under Section 506(a) of the Code, secured claims are to be valued and allowed as secured to the extent of the value of the collateral, and unsecured for the excess over such value.
This provision is implemented by F.R. Bankr. 3012. Under Rule 3012, the court can determine the value of a claim secured by a lien on property on motion of any party in interest. If a debtor attempts to “strip off” or “strip down” a lien based on valuation, the majority view is that no adversary proceeding is required. Harmon v. U.S., 101 F.3d 574 (8th Cir. 1996); In Re King, 290 B.R. 641, 647 (Bankr. C.D. Ill. 2003); In Re Marsh, 475 B.R. 892, 896 (N.D. Ill. 2012). Local rules and procedures here will provide the best guidance on whether a lien can be removed by motion or by adversary proceeding.
Despite the case law supporting the idea that unsecured mortgages can be removed by motion, in practice most courts prefer that this by done by adversary proceeding, due to the nature of the rights of the creditor that are being affected.In the 8th Circuit, there is case law holding that a debtor can strip off a junior lien of a wholly unsecured claim on a debtor’s principal residence by confirmation of a Chapter 13 plan. In Re Fisette, 455 B.R. 177 (8th Cir. BAP 2011).
If a trustee is in doubt as to the priority of a lien in estate property, an adversary may be appropriate. For example, if the trustee is authorized to sell estate property under Section 363(b) of the Code “free and clear” of other interests, then an adversary might need to be used.A trustee could use Rule 7022 to do this, which permits him to interplead any competing claimants and obtain a determination of the rights of all the various claimants. An adversary proceeding can also be used under Rule 7001 to determine “other interests in property.”
Adversary proceedings have a wide range of uses. They can be used by a Chapter 11 debtor in possession, a debtor in a Chapter 7 or Chapter 13 case, by a trustee, or by a creditor. Besides providing a way to object to the discharge of certain debts, they are commonly used to determine property rights, valuations of secured collateral, extent of security interests, and determinations of ownership priority in collateral.