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Financial Services Law Insights and Observations

4th Circuit overrules own precedent, holds undersecured homestead mortgage claims can be bifurcated

Courts Appellate Fourth Circuit Mortgages Bankruptcy

Courts

Recently, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit overruled its own precedent, holding that the plain language of the Bankruptcy Code authorizes modification of undersecured homestead mortgage claims—not just the payment schedule for such claims—including through bifurcation and cram down. According to the opinion, a creditor initiated a foreclosure action against a mortgage debtor alleging that the debtor failed to repay approximately $136,000 due under the mortgage. The debtor filed Chapter 13 bankruptcy and valued the mortgaged property at $40,000 in his petition. The debtor proposed a bankruptcy plan that would bifurcate the creditor’s claim into a secured component commensurate with the value of the mortgaged property, and an unsecured component for the remainder. The bankruptcy court rejected the debtor’s proposal on the grounds that the 4th Circuit’s 1997 holding in Witt v. United Cos. Lending Corp (In re Wiit) barred any modification or bifurcation of the creditor’s claim, and thus entitled her to a secured claim in the full amount due under the mortgage, plus interest. The district court and a 4th Circuit panel affirmed.

Following an en banc rehearing, the 4th Circuit reversed, overruling its decision in Witt. The en banc appellate court concluded that the plain text of Section 1322(c)(2) authorizes modification of covered homestead mortgage payments and claims, and allows for the bifurcation of undersecured homestead mortgages into secured and unsecured components. The appellate court noted that its initial interpretation in Witt had been “universally” criticized by courts and commentators, including for running “contrary to accepted canons of statutory construction.” Therefore, the appellate court reversed the district court’s judgment relying on Witt and remanded the case.

In dissent, three circuit judges stated that the majority went too far in its interpretation of Section 1322, and that Section 1322(c)(2) allows debtors to repay their mortgages over the full duration of their plan. The dissent’s view was that the majority’s decision essentially overturns the Supreme Court’s holding in Nobelman v. American Savings Bank without “any clear desire by Congress to do so.” Moreover, the dissent argued that, while it agreed that “Congress meant for [Section] 1322(c)(2) to create an exception to Nobelman’s prohibition against modifying the timing of loan repayments,” Congress did not intend to “eviscerate Nobelman altogether.”

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