File for bankrupcty when you have enough assets to pay your debts, then hide some assets . . . what could go wrong?

by:  Peter J. Gallagher (@pjsgallagher) (LinkedIn)

Law book (pd)I don't usually post about bankruptcy or criminal law issues, but the facts from a recent decision from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit, which involved both bankruptcy and criminal law issues, were too intriguing to ignore. 

In United States v. Free, defendant "made the bizarre decision to file for bankruptcy even though he had more than sufficient assets to pay his debts." Then, "having filed for bankruptcy unnecessarily, [he] hid assets worth hundred of thousands of dollars from the Bankruptcy Court." Not surprisingly, this led to criminal charges being brought against defendant and convictions for multiple counts of bankruptcy fraud. To make things even more odd, despite all of his "prevarications," defendant's creditors were paid in full from the bankruptcy estate. So, to summarize, defendant did not need to file bankruptcy but chose to do so, only to then defraud the Bankruptcy Court by hiding hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of assets, but eventually paid "100 cents on the dollar" to his creditors.

The legal issue in the case was how to properly calculate "loss" under the Sentencing Guidelines, which increase a "fraudster's" recommended sentence based on the loss he causes, or intends to cause, his or her victims. The curious part about Free was that the victims, defendant's creditors, were paid in full, therefore they had not suffered any loss in the usual sense of the word.

In Free, plaintiff filed for bankruptcy in his capacity as as the sole proprietor of an electric company he owned. He also owned a company that specialized in the sale of vintage firearms, which would become a central part of his bankruptcy case. Free claimed that he filed for bankruptcy to stay the sheriff's sale of property he was on the verge of losing through foreclosure. When he filed, he identified more than $1 million in assets — property and personal property, including firearms — and almost $700,000 in liabilities.  He originally filed under Chapter 13, but the court converted it to a Chapter 7 bankruptcy, which would liquidate his assets and distribute the proceeds to his creditors.

Continue reading “File for bankrupcty when you have enough assets to pay your debts, then hide some assets . . . what could go wrong?”

Borrower Allowed To Sue Lender For Breaching Mortgage Modificaton Agreement

 

Loan application (pd)

In a decision that all lenders should read carefully, the Appellate Division recently reiterated that a borrower may have a private cause of action against a lender if the lender breaches the terms of a mortgage modification agreement under the Home Affordable Modification Program ("HAMP").

Earlier this year, I wrote about the Appellate Division's decision in Arias v. Elite Mortgage. (In case you forgot, click here to review the post.) In that case, the Appellate Division faced an issue of first impression involving mortgage modifications under HAMP. Specifically, the Appellate Division was faced with the question of whether a borrower could sue a lender if the lender breached the terms of a Trial Period Plan (“TPP”) agreement. As I noted in that post, a TPP is essentially the first step in obtaining a mortgage modification under HAMP. In a TPP agreement, the borrower agrees, among other things, to make reduced monthly payments in a timely manner during a relatively short period. As the name suggests, this is a trial period during which the lender can determine whether the borrower is able to make payments similar to those the borrower would be required to make under a modified mortgage. If the borrower satisfies the conditions of the TPP, including making the monthly payments, then the lender agrees to modify the mortgage. In Arias, the Appellate Division held that a lender could face a lawsuit from a borrower if it failed to hold up its end of this bargain. In that case, however, the borrower had not made the required payments in a timely manner during the trial period — i.e., the borrower failed to hold up its end of the bargain — so the lender did not have to offer the borrower a modified mortgage.

Now, the Appellate Division has returned to the same issue in Aiello v. OceanFirst Bank. In Aiello, plaintiffs entered into a TPP agreement with defendant that required them to provide certain financial documentation, submit to credit counseling if necessary, and make monthly payments of $1,386.75 during the trial period.The TPP agreement stated that it was not a loan modification and that if plaintiffs failed to comply with its terms, no modification would be offered. It also stated that the monthly payment during the trial period was an estimate of the payment that would be required under a modified mortgage, and the actual amount under a modified mortgage might be greater.

Unlike Arias, plaintiffs in Aiello complied with the terms of the TPP agreement. Nonetheless, Fannie Mae initially rejected plaintiffs' application for a modified mortgage because their loan was originated prior to January 1, 2009, a fact, the Appellate Division observed, that defendant was aware of when it first entered into the TTP agreement with plaintiffs. Defendant eventually did offer plaintiffs a modification, but it included monthly payments almost $400 higher than the payments made under the TPP agreement. Plaintiffs rejected the offer and sued defendant for breaching the TPP agreement. Both sides moved for summary judgment. The trial court denied plaintiffs' motion and granted defendant's motion.

 

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Going Once . . . Going Twice . . . Sold! To The Person Who Cannot Remain Anonymous!

by:  Peter J. Gallagher (@pjsgallagher

While data breaches and cyber security are, unfortunately, regular topics on the nightly news, a New Jersey trial court recently dealt with a much more low-tech privacy issue. In Brennan v. Bergen County Prosecutor’s Office, the trial court addressed the “intriguing question” (the court’s words, not necessarily mine) of “whether the winning bidders in a public auction have a reasonable expectation of privacy in their personal information transmitted to a public agency in connection with their participation in [a public] auction.” In other words, if you are the winning bidder at a public auction, must the public entity that held the auction produce documents revealing your identity in response to an OPRA request? In Brennan, the trial court’s answer was a qualified yes.

In Brennan, the Bergen County Prosecutor’s Office seized baseball memorabilia from an individual who it alleged had illegally sold prescription drugs. The memorabilia was later sold at an auction administered by a third-party that the prosecutor’s office hired to handle the auction. Plaintiff filed an OPRA request seeking, among other things, documents that would reveal the identities of the winning bidders at the auction – registration forms and bid documents that revealed names and phone numbers of the winning bidders. The prosecutor’s office refused to provide this information, claiming that the winning bidders reasonably expected that their identities would not be made public. Plaintiff sued to compel the production of the documents.

Continue reading “Going Once . . . Going Twice . . . Sold! To The Person Who Cannot Remain Anonymous!”

“Signs, Signs, Everywhere Signs:” New Jersey Supreme Court Holds That Homeowners’ Associations Cannot Ban Political Signs

by:  Peter J. Gallagher 

It is an issue we have reported on before (here), but yesterday the New Jersey Supreme Court ruled that homeowners’ associations may not entirely ban homeowners from displaying political signs.  In Mazdabrook Commons Homeowners' Association v. Khan, the New Jersey Supreme Court held that homeowners' associations are allowed to impose reasonable content-neutral rules (e.g., regulating the size, number, and location) of signs, but cannot ban them outright and cannot, even under the guise of reasonable content-neutral rules, “distinguish among different types of political signs.”  This decision is obviously important to community associations, but also has a broader impact because it reiterates the New Jersey Supreme Court’s belief that individual rights identified in the New Jersey Constitution are protected, not against abridgment by the government, but also by certain conduct from private entities. 

 Jude Wefing, sitting by assignment from the Appellate Division, was the lone dissenter.  She criticized the majority for both reaching the constitutional issue in the first place, and for its decision on that issue.  In connection with the former, Judge Wefing noted that the dispute between the parties centered primarily on fines related to the homeowners’ growing of a “rose vine” over the homeowners’ association’s objections about the size and placement of the “vine.”  (In a footnote, Judge Wefing noted that she referred to the offending plant as a “rose vine” only because the majority did so, even though “[a] rose is a shrub, not a vine,” and thus “the plant in question must have been a climbing rose.”)  As a result, the record regarding the issue with the political signs was too sparse, in Judge Wefing’s opinion, to justify reaching the broader constitutional issue. 

When it came to the substantive issue, Judge Wefing parted with her colleagues on a more fundamental level:

My colleagues rightly note our nation’s and our state’s commitment to a free and vigorous debate of public questions. I have no quarrel with that commitment; I embrace it. In my judgment, however, individuals are equally entitled to seek shelter from political debate and division. If a group of individuals wish to live in a common-interest community that precludes the posting of signs, political or otherwise, and have agreed freely to do so, and there is no showing of overreaching or coercion, I would adopt the principles enunciated in [the] dissent in the Appellate Division, that these mutually-agreed upon covenants ran with the land, were reasonable, and were enforceable.

Based on these principles, Judge Wefing concluded: “Some may question the choice to avoid political controversy; I simply recognize the right to make that choice.”

You Got A Better Idea?!? Government Opens Suggestion Box For Ideas On How To Rent Out Foreclosed Properties

by:  Peter J. Gallagher

  The New York Times is reporting that the government is soliciting ideas for turning its glut of vacant, foreclosed houses into rental units that could be managed by private parties or sold in bulk  ("U.S. Seeks Ideas On Renting Out Foreclosed Property").  The goal of the program would be to "stabilize neighborhoods where large supplies of empty, foreclosed properties have hurt property values" and "clear the nation’s balance sheet of real estate holdings that, because they have been difficult to sell individually, have hung over the housing market and stunted sales of existing homes and new construction."  The request for ideas comes from the Federal Housing Finance Agency, the Department of Housing and Urban Development, and the Treasury Department, and you can click here to submit your ideas.

As the article notes, the percentage of homes owned by the government that are currently in foreclosure is somewhat staggering:

Of the 248,000 homes owned by Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac and the F.H.A. at the end of June, 70,000 were listed for sale, said Corinne Russell, a housing finance agency spokeswoman. The remainder were not yet on the market or the agencies had already received an offer from a prospective buyer.

But it is possible that hundreds of thousands of more homes that are now in the foreclosure process could come into the possession of the federal government in the next few years, housing experts say.

The government is now looking for a few good men ideas for how to deal with this crisis.  Among those already proposed are "rent-to-own programs, in which previous homeowners or current renters could lease properties as a path to ownership, and ways in which the properties can be used to support affordable housing."

If you have any thoughts, be sure to let us know when you let the government know.

And Gordon Gekko Wept…New Book Blames Financial Crisis On “Reckless” Greed

by:  Peter J. Gallagher

In the movie Wall Street, Gordon Gekko famously claimed that "greed is good."  A new book out by Pulitzer Prize winning New York Times reporter Gretchen Morgenson begs to differ.   In her book, "Reckless Endangerment: How Outsized Ambition, Greed and Corruption Led to Economic Armageddon," Morgenson lays the blame for the financial crisis squarely at the feet of Fannie Mae, and particularly its CEO James Johnson, who built the quasi-governmental entity into "the largest and most powerful financial institution in the world."  While government regulators sat idly by, Fannie Mae allegedly "fudged accounting rules, generated big salaries and bonuses for its executives, used lobby and campaign contributions to bully regulators, and encouraged the risky financial practices that led to the crisis."  To read more about the book, including an excerpt, check out "How 'Reckless" Greed Contributed To Financial Crisis" on NPR's website.