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Appellate ruling addresses priority rights

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In reversing summary judgment for a home loan company on its complaint for strict foreclosure, the Indiana Court of Appeals specifically adopted the reasoning set forth in a federal decision involving priority rights on liens.

In Citizens State Bank of New Castle v. Countrywide Home Loans, Inc., et al., No. 76A03-0909-CV-423, Citizens State Bank appealed summary judgment in favor of Countrywide Home Loans on its complaint for strict foreclosure and the denial of the bank's motion for summary judgment on its complaint to foreclose judgment lien against Federal National Mortgage Association.

Countrywide held a mortgage on property in which Citizens obtained a default judgment against the owners, which was properly recorded. Just a few months later, Countrywide filed to foreclose on the property and didn't name the bank as a defendant in its complaint to foreclose. Countrywide then got the title to the property at a sheriff's sale, recorded it, and then transferred it to FNMA. After learning about the bank's judgment lien against the property, Countrywide filed its complaint for strict foreclosure against the bank. Citizens State Bank filed its complaint to foreclose its judgment lien on the property against FNMA.

The issue on appeal is what rights, if any, Countrywide or FNMA has regarding Countrywide's attempt at strict foreclosure. Strict forclosure permits a party who has acquired title through or after a foreclosure sale or gotten the title through a deed in lieu of foreclosure to cut off the interests of any junior lienholders who weren't parties to the foreclosure action.

The appellate court relied on Deutsche Bank National Trust Co. v. Mark Dill Plumbing Co., 903 N.E.2d 116 (Ind. Ct. App. 2009), and Brightwell v. United States, 805 F. Supp. 1464 (S.D. Ind. 1992), to overturn the trial court's ruling. In Deutsche, the appellate court held that a lender could not by strict foreclosure simply remove the liens of junior lienholders from the lender's title to the real estate. Brightwell addressed how to determine priority rights of superior and junior lienholders in cases where the superior lienholder has acquired fee simple title by foreclosure sale and no longer holds a mortgage. It also discussed merging the mortgage with the title.

Although the Court of Appeals hasn't had occasion to do so until now, it specifically adopted the reasoning set forth in Brightwell to determine priority rights.

"In light of the purpose of the anti-merger rule, which is to protect the mortgagee's priority and give the mortgagee 'first crack' at a full recovery, there is no valid reason for that mortgage-assertion right to pass to subsequent purchasers or transferees," wrote Judge Terry Crone. "To hold otherwise would permit for double recovery of the mortgage indebtedness, a result clearly not favored in equity and not intended by the anti-merger rule."

By transferring the property to FNMA, Countrywide had first crack at a full recovery ahead of any junior lienholders and no longer had any interest in the property to protect. As such, there was no basis for its mortgage-assertion right to pass to FNMA, the judge continued.

Brightwell correctly states Indiana law regarding priority rights when a foreclosing mortgagee sells the property to a third party.

"When property is transferred for value or resold to a third party, that party cannot then assert what was formerly a superior mortgage lien position against the judgment lien. Rather, the third party takes the property subject to the valid judgment lien. This is fair and just," the judge wrote.

The appellate court remanded with instructions to enter summary judgment for Citizens on Countrywide's complaint and to enter summary judgment for the bank on its complaint to foreclose judgment lien.

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  1. From back in the day before secularism got a stranglehold on Hoosier jurists comes this great excerpt via Indiana federal court judge Allan Sharp, dedicated to those many Indiana government attorneys (with whom I have dealt) who count the law as a mere tool, an optional tool that is not to be used when political correctness compels a more acceptable result than merely following the path that the law directs: ALLEN SHARP, District Judge. I. In a scene following a visit by Henry VIII to the home of Sir Thomas More, playwriter Robert Bolt puts the following words into the mouths of his characters: Margaret: Father, that man's bad. MORE: There is no law against that. ROPER: There is! God's law! MORE: Then God can arrest him. ROPER: Sophistication upon sophistication! MORE: No, sheer simplicity. The law, Roper, the law. I know what's legal not what's right. And I'll stick to what's legal. ROPER: Then you set man's law above God's! MORE: No, far below; but let me draw your attention to a fact I'm not God. The currents and eddies of right and wrong, which you find such plain sailing, I can't navigate. I'm no voyager. But in the thickets of law, oh, there I'm a forester. I doubt if there's a man alive who could follow me there, thank God... ALICE: (Exasperated, pointing after Rich) While you talk, he's gone! MORE: And go he should, if he was the Devil himself, until he broke the law! ROPER: So now you'd give the Devil benefit of law! MORE: Yes. What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil? ROPER: I'd cut down every law in England to do that! MORE: (Roused and excited) Oh? (Advances on Roper) And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned round on you where would you hide, Roper, the laws being flat? (He leaves *1257 him) This country's planted thick with laws from coast to coast man's laws, not God's and if you cut them down and you're just the man to do it d'you really think you would stand upright in the winds that would blow then? (Quietly) Yes, I'd give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety's sake. ROPER: I have long suspected this; this is the golden calf; the law's your god. MORE: (Wearily) Oh, Roper, you're a fool, God's my god... (Rather bitterly) But I find him rather too (Very bitterly) subtle... I don't know where he is nor what he wants. ROPER: My God wants service, to the end and unremitting; nothing else! MORE: (Dryly) Are you sure that's God! He sounds like Moloch. But indeed it may be God And whoever hunts for me, Roper, God or Devil, will find me hiding in the thickets of the law! And I'll hide my daughter with me! Not hoist her up the mainmast of your seagoing principles! They put about too nimbly! (Exit More. They all look after him). Pgs. 65-67, A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS A Play in Two Acts, Robert Bolt, Random House, New York, 1960. Linley E. Pearson, Atty. Gen. of Indiana, Indianapolis, for defendants. Childs v. Duckworth, 509 F. Supp. 1254, 1256 (N.D. Ind. 1981) aff'd, 705 F.2d 915 (7th Cir. 1983)

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