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Yet Again, the Tenth Circuit Rejects a Bankruptcy Trustee’s Attempt to Avoid a Mortgage Under a “Splitting-the-Note” Theory

By: Alana Friedberg

St. John’s Law Student

American Bankruptcy Institute Law Review Staff

Recently, in Royal v. First Interstate Bank (In re Trierweiler), the Tenth Circuit held that a mortgage granted in favor of the private electronic database Mortgage Electronic Registration Systems, Inc. (“MERS”), which records transfers of notes and mortgages, was enforceable as to a bankruptcy trustee even though the promissory note was held by a third-party. In Trierweiler, the debtors took out a loan from and granted a mortgage to First Interstate Bank (“First Interstate”) in order to purchase real property. The mortgage identified First Interstate as the “lender,” and MERS as both the “mortgagee” and the “nominee for the lender and lender’s successors and assigns.” Sometime thereafter, First Interstate assigned the note to Fannie Mae, but remained as the servicer for the loan. The debtors subsequently defaulted on the loan and filed for bankruptcy under chapter 7 of the Bankruptcy Code. The chapter 7 trustee then sought to avoid the mortgage, using his “strong arm” powers under section 544(a). In particular, the chapter 7 trustee claimed that MERS “was powerless to foreclose on the property” because it did not hold the note and instead was merely the mortgagee. The trustee also claimed that while Fannie Mae held the note, it “had no ability to enforce the mortgage because it was not listed as the mortgagee in the land records . . . .” Therefore, the trustee asserted that this “combination rendered the mortgage unenforceable and void as to [him].” The bankruptcy court, however, rejected the trustee’s arguments and ruled that the mortgage was a properly recorded and enforceable security interest that could not be avoided in bankruptcy.[13] On appeal, the Bankruptcy Appellate Panel of the Tenth Circuit and the United States Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit both affirmed.

Same-Sex Couple Deemed “Spouses” for Purposes of the Bankruptcy Code

By: Michael Rich

St John’s Law Student

American Bankruptcy Institute Law Review Staff

Recently, in In Re Matson, the court held that a same-sex couple who filed for bankruptcy as joint debtors were “spouses” for the purpose of the Bankruptcy Code even though the petition was filed in a state that did not recognize their same-sex marriage. In Matson, the debtors were legally married in Iowa but resided in Wisconsin, which does not recognize same-sex marriages. Upon the filing of the case, a creditor moved to dismiss the bankruptcy case or, in the alternative, to bifurcate the case. The creditor argued that a joint bankruptcy case could only be commenced “by an individual that may be a debtor under such chapters and such individual’s spouse.” Further, the creditor claimed that “the definition of marriage and the regulation of marriage . . . has been treated as being within the authority and realm of the separate States.” Thus, the creditor argued that since Wisconsin did not permit or recognize same sex marriages, the debtors should not be deemed “spouses” for the purpose of a joint bankruptcy petition. In the response, the debtors relied on the Supreme Court’s holding that the federal Defense of Marriage Act, which defined marriage as a union between one man and one women, was unconstitutional because it “violate[d] basic due process and equal protection principles applicable to the Federal Government.” In particular, the debtors argued that following Windsor, the definition of marriage could no longer be restricted to “a union between one man and one woman.” Therefore, the debtors claimed that Wisconsin did not have the authority to deny a lawfully wedded couple any federal benefits, which would include same-sex couples right to file as spouses in a joint bankruptcy case. Ultimately, the Matson court denied the creditor’s motion to dismiss or, in the alternative, bifurcate the case because the court found that it was required to give full faith and credit to the Iowa marriage.

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