United States Court of Appeals, Tenth Circuit.
February 1, 2012.
3. The BAP Appeal
The Millers appealed the bankruptcy court’s order granting relief from stay to the BAP. The BAP began its decision by noting that “[t]he details surrounding the assignment to Deutsche Bank are not part of the record on appeal.” Aplee. Supp. App. at 6 n.8. In particular, the record submitted to the BAP did not even contain a copy of the Note, much less the original.
In its decision, the BAP spent little time discussing the adequacy of proof that Deutsche Bank was in possession of the original Note, and the legal consequences thereof. Instead, the BAP relied on the Rooker-Feldman doctrine. See Rooker v. Fid. Trust Co., 263 U.S. 413 (1923); D.C. Court of Appeals v. Feldman, 460 U.S. 462 (1983). Though noting that the bankruptcy court had not expressly mentioned this doctrine, it concluded that the court had relied on the state court’s decision on the standing issue. The BAP further concluded that in light of this doctrine, which generally prohibits federal courts from entertaining suits by parties who have lost in state court and who seek review of state court decisions in federal court, “the bankruptcy court properly declined to revisit the state court’s decision that Deutsche Bank was an `interested person’ entitled to a Rule 120 order of sale.” Aplee. Supp. App. at 16. Armed with the state-court decision finding Deutsche Bank had standing to proceed with the foreclosure, the BAP reached a further conclusion that Deutsche Bank had standing to seek relief from stay.
We conclude that neither the Rooker-Feldman doctrine nor issue preclusion applies to prevent a federal court from determining whether Deutsche Bank is a “party in interest” entitled to seek relief from stay. Because the BAP incorrectly relied on Rooker-Feldman and because neither the bankruptcy court nor the BAP conducted a proper statutory standing analysis under § 362(d), we could simply stop our analysis here and remand for a further consideration of the standing issue. The parties, however, have presented arguments on the merits concerning standing, and the sufficiency of Deutsche Bank’s showing concerning standing in this case is a legal issue that can be resolved on appeal. We will therefore now proceed to discuss why Deutsche Bank has failed to demonstrate its standing as a “party in interest.”
4. Deutsche Bank’s Status as “Party in Interest”
We return to the key question: is Deutsche Bank a “creditor” of the Millers with standing to seek relief from stay? To answer this question, we turn to the Bankruptcy Code. According to the Bankruptcy Code, a “creditor” includes an “entity that has a claim against the debtor.” 11 U.S.C. § 101(10)(a). A “claim” is a “right to payment.” Id. § 101(5)(A).
Does Deutsche Bank have a “right to payment” from the Millers? In examining this question, we begin with the principle that “[w]ithin the context of a bankruptcy proceeding, state law governs the determination of property rights.” In re Mims, 438 B.R. 52, 56 (Bankr. S.D.N.Y. 2010). We must therefore turn to Colorado law, in particular that state’s version of the Uniform Commercial Code (U.C.C. or Code).
We ask first how Colorado law would classify the Note signed by the Millers. Under Colorado law, a promise or order such as the Note is payable “to order” “if it is payable (i) to the order of an identified person or (ii) to an identified person or order.” Colo. Rev. Stat. § 4-3-109(b). The Note at issue here is payable “to the order of Lender. Lender is IndyMac Bank, F.S.B., a federally chartered savings bank[.]” Aplt. App., Vol. I at 14. Thus, the Note is payable to the “order” of IndyMac Bank under § 4-3-109(b).
But “[a]n instrument payable to an identified person [such as IndyMac Bank] may become payable to bearer if it is indorsed in blank pursuant to section 4-3-205(b).” Colo. Rev. Stat. § 4-3-109(c).7 Section 4-3-205(b) provides that “[i]f an indorsement is made by the holder of an instrument and it is not a special indorsement, it is a `blank indorsement.’ When indorsed in blank, an instrument becomes payable to bearer and may be negotiated by transfer of possession alone until specifically indorsed.” (emphasis added).
Deutsche Bank presented evidence that IndyMac had indorsed the Note in blank. Is proof of this indorsement sufficient under the U.C.C. requirements to establish Deutsche Bank as the successor holder of the note? As we shall see, it is not, because Deutsche Bank must also prove it has possession of the Note.
The U.C.C. identifies the requirements for “negotiation” of a note, that is, for “transfer of possession . . . to a person who thereby becomes its holder.” Id. § 4-3-201(a). This statute provides that “if an instrument is payable to an identified person, negotiation requires transfer of possession of the instrument and its indorsement by the holder.” Id. § 4-3-201(b) (emphasis added). The Official Commentary to section 4-3-201 explains that negotiation “always requires a change in possession of the instrument because nobody can be a holder without possessing the instrument, either directly or through an agent.” (emphasis added). See also Colo. Rev. Stat. § 4-1-201(b)(20)(A) (defining “holder” of negotiable instrument as “person in possession” of it).
“Possession is an element designed to prevent two or more claimants from qualifying as holders who could take free of the other party’s claim of ownership.” Georg v. Metro Fixtures Contractors, Inc., 178 P.3d 1209, 1213 (Colo. 2008) (citation omitted).8 “With rare exceptions, those claiming to be holders have physical ownership of the instrument in question.” Id. (citation omitted).9 In the case of bearer paper such as the Note, physical possession is essential because it constitutes proof of ownership and a consequent right to payment.10
While Deutsche Bank has offered proof that IndyMac assigned the Note in blank, it elicited no proof that Deutsche Bank in fact obtained physical possession of the original Note from IndyMac, either voluntarily or otherwise.11 Under the U.C.C. requirements, Deutsche Bank has therefore failed to show that it is the current holder of the Note.
Colorado law does not limit enforcement of an obligation to a holder who received the instrument through negotiation. A note may also be enforced by a transferee. See Colo. Rev. Stat. § 4-3-203. “Transfer of an instrument, whether or not the transfer is a negotiation, vests in the transferee any right of the transferor to enforce the instrument.” Id. § 4-3-203(b). But transfer requires delivery: “An instrument is transferred when it is delivered by a person other than its issuer for the purpose of giving to the person receiving delivery the right to enforce the instrument.” Id. § 4-3-203(a) (emphasis added). “Delivery” with respect to an instrument “means voluntary transfer of possession” of the instrument. Id. § 4-1-201(14). Because Deutsche Bank has failed to prove transfer of possession of the original Note it has failed to establish its status as a transferee.
Deutsche Bank also argues that it has standing because under Colorado law it can initiate a public trustee foreclosure without producing the original Note. It cites Colo. Rev. Stat. § 38-38-101(1), which provides that the “holder of an evidence of debt” may initiate a foreclosure. An “evidence of debt” includes a promissory note such as the Note at issue here. Colo. Rev. Stat. § 38-38-100.3(8). Under certain circumstances, the “holder of an evidence of debt” can file a public trustee foreclosure without supplying the original note. See id. § 38-38-101(b)(I)-(III).
But this argument depends, first, on Deutsche Bank’s ability to show that it is a “holder of an evidence of debt.” Article 38 defines a “holder of an evidence of debt” as a person “in actual possession of” or “entitled to enforce an evidence of debt.” Colo. Rev. Stat. § 38-38-100.3(10) (emphasis added). Section 38-38-100.3(10) lists a number of presumptive holders of a debt presumed to be the “holder of an evidence of debt.” Each of these requires possession of the evidence of debt, which Deutsche Bank has thus far failed to demonstrate. See id. § 38-38-100.3(10)(a)-(d).
Deutsche Bank appears to argue that notwithstanding its failure to prove it has actual possession of the Note, it qualifies as a “person entitled to enforce an evidence of debt” under § 38-38-100.3(10) and thus is a “holder of an evidence of debt” because (1) it holds a copy of the Note indorsed in blank and (2) it can initiate a foreclosure without presenting the original Note to the public trustee. Deutsche Bank contends that it is a “qualified holder,” see id. § 38-38-100.3(21), that would be permitted under Colorado law to foreclose without presenting the original note, see id. § 38-38-101(B)(II). But foreclosure under this provision requires either the bank or its attorney to execute a statement “citing the paragraph of section 38-38-100.3(20) under which the holder claims to be a qualified holder and certifying or stating that the copy of the evidence of debt is true and correct” and that the bank agrees to “indemnify and defend any person liable for repayment of any portion of the original evidence of debt in the event that the original evidence of debt is presented for payment to the extent of any amount, other than the amount of a deficiency remaining under the evidence of debt after deducting the amount bid at sale, and any person who sustains a loss due to any title defect that results from reliance upon a sale at which the original evidence of debt was not presented.” Id. §§ 38-38-101(b)(II), 38-38-101(2)(a). There is no evidence that Deutsche Bank or its attorneys have executed such a certification or intend to do so. We therefore reject Deutsche Bank’s claim to standing founded on these statutes.
For the foregoing reasons, the evidence is insufficient as it currently stands to establish that Deutsche Bank is a “party in interest” entitled to seek relief from stay. The bankruptcy court therefore abused its discretion by granting Deutsche Bank relief from stay.
The Millers raise a number of other objections to the proceedings and orders in the bankruptcy court and the BAP but we need not reach any of them in light of the remand we now order. The judgment of the BAP is REVERSED and the case is REMANDED to the BAP with instructions to remand to the bankruptcy court for further proceedings in accordance with this opinion. The Millers’ motion for leave to file a supplemental appendix is DENIED.
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