440 U.S. 48 (1979), 77-1410, Butner v. United States

Docket Nº:No. 77-1410
Citation:440 U.S. 48, 99 S.Ct. 914, 59 L.Ed.2d 136
Party Name:Butner v. United States
Case Date:February 21, 1979
Court:United States Supreme Court
 
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440 U.S. 48 (1979)

99 S.Ct. 914, 59 L.Ed.2d 136

Butner

v.

United States

No. 77-1410

United States Supreme Court

Feb. 21, 1979

Argued November 27, 1978

CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE FOURTH CIRCUIT

Syllabus

In Chapter XI arrangement proceedings under the Bankruptcy Act, petitioner acquired a second mortgage on certain North Carolina real estate to secure a $360,000 indebtedness but received no express security interest in the rents earned by the property. The bankruptcy judge thereafter appointed an agent to collect the rents and apply them to the payment of taxes, insurance, interest, and principal payments due on the first and second mortgages. The mortgagor was later adjudicated a bankrupt, at which time the first and second mortgages were in default, and the trustee was ordered to collect and retain all rents. The bankrupt's properties were ultimately sold to petitioner for $174,000, that price being paid by reduction of the estate's indebtedness to petitioner from $360,000 to $186,000. At the sale date, the trustee had accumulated almost $163,000 in rents which petitioner unsuccessfully sought to have applied to the balance of the second mortgage indebtedness, the bankruptcy judge ruling that the $186,000 balance due petitioner should be treated as a general unsecured claim. The District Court reversed. Though recognizing that, under North Carolina law, a mortgagor is deemed the owner of the land subject to the mortgage, and, during his possession, is entitled to rents and profits, even after default, the court viewed the agent's appointment during the arrangement proceedings as tantamount to the appointment of a receiver, which satisfied the state law requirement of a change of possession, giving the mortgagee an interest in the rents which no further action after the bankruptcy adjudication was required to preserve. The Court of Appeals reversed, reinstating the disposition of the bankruptcy judge. The appellate court held that the bankruptcy adjudication had terminated the state court receivership status arising out of the appointment of the agent [99 S.Ct. 915] to collect rents, and that, because petitioner had made no request during the bankruptcy for a sequestration of rents or for the appointment of a receiver, petitioner had not taken the kind of action North Carolina law required to give a mortgagee a security interest in the rents collected after the bankruptcy adjudication.

Held: Apart from certain special provisions, the Bankruptcy Act generally leaves the determination of property rights in the assets of a bankrupt's estate to

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state law. The law of the State where the property is located accordingly governs a mortgagee's right to rents during bankruptcy, and a federal bankruptcy court should take whatever steps are necessary to ensure that a mortgagee is afforded in federal ankruptcy court the same protection he would have under state law had no bankruptcy ensued. Though the general plinciple of the applicability of state law to determine property rights in a bankrupt's assets was applied by both the District Court and the Court of Appeals (and those courts properly did not follow the minority federal quity rule under which a mortgagee is accorded a secured interest in rent even if state law would not recognize any such interest until after foreclosure), those courts disagreed about the requirements of North Carolina law. Hwever, that state law issue, as such, will not be reviewed by this Court. Pp. 51-58.

566 F.2d 1207, affirmed.

STEVENS, J., delivered the opnion for a unanimous Court.

STEVENS, J., lead opinion

MR. JUSTICE STEVENS delivered the opinion of the Court.

A dispute between a bankruptcy trustee and a second mortgagee over the right to the rents collected during the period between the mortgagor's bankruptcy and the foreclosure sale of the mortgaged property gave rise to the question we granted certiorari to decide. 436 U.S. 955. That question is whether the right to such rents is determined by a federal rule of equity or by the law of the State where the property is located.

On May 14, 1973, Golden Enterprises, Inc. (Golden), filed a petition for an arrangement under Chapter XI of the Bankruptcy

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Act. 11 U.S.C. §§ 701-799. In those proceedings, the bankruptcy judge approved a plan consolidating various liens on North Carolina real estate owned by Golden. As a result, petitioner acquired a second mortgage securing an indebtedness of $360,000.1 Petitioner did not, however, receive any express security interest in the rents earned by the property.

On April 18, 1974, the bankruptcy judge granted Golden's motion to appoint an agent to collect the rents and to apply them as directed by the court. The order of appointment provided that the money should be applied to tax obligations, payments on the first mortgage, fire insurance premiums, and interest and principal on the second mortgage. There is no dispute about the collections or payments made pursuant to that order.

The arrangement plan was never confirmed. On February 14, 1975, Golden was adjudicated a bankrupt, and the trustee in bankruptcy was appointed. At that time, both the first and second mortgages were in default. The trustee was ordered to collect and retain all rents "to the end that the same may be applied under this or different or further orders of [the bankruptcy] [c]ourt." App. 342a-343a.

After various alternatives were considered, and after the District Court refused [99 S.Ct. 916] to confirm a first sale, the properties were ultimately sold to petitioner on November 12, 1975, for $174,000. That price was paid by reducing the estate's indebtedness to petitioner from $360,000 to $186,000.

As of the date of sale, a fund of $162,971.32 had been accumulated by the trustee pursuant to the February 14 court order that he collect and retain all rents. On December 1,

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1975, petitioner filed a motion claiming a security interest in this fund and seeking to have it applied to the balance of the second mortgage indebtedness. The bankruptcy judge denied the motion, holding that the $186,000 balance due to petitioner should be treated as a general unsecured claim.

The District Court reversed. It recognized that, under North Carolina law, a mortgagor is deemed the owner of the land subject to the mortgage, and is entitled to rents and profits, even after default, so long as he retains possession. But the court viewed the appointment of an agent to collect rents during the arrangement proceedings as tantamount to the appointment of a receiver. This appointment, the court concluded, satisfied the state law requirement of a change of possession giving the mortgagee an interest in the rents; no further action after the adjudication in bankruptcy was required to secure or preserve this interest.

The Court of Appeals reversed and reinstated the disposition of the bankruptcy judge. Golden Enterprises, Inc. v. United States, 566 F.2d 1207. The court acknowledged that the agent appointed to collect rents before the bankruptcy was equivalent to a state court receivership, but held that the adjudication terminated that relationship. Because petitioner had made no request during the bnkruptcy for a sequestration of rents or for the appointment of a receiver, petitioner had not, in the court's view, taken the kind of action North Carolina law required to give the mortgagee a security interest in the rents collected after the bankruptcy adjudication. One judge dissented, adopting the position of the District Court. Id. at 1211.

I

We did not grant certiorari to decide whether the Court of Appeals correctly applied North Carolina law. Our concern is with the proper interpretation of the federal statutes governing the administration of bankrupt estates. Specifically, it is our purpose to resolve a conflict between the Third and

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Seventh Circuits on the one hand, and the Second, Fourth, Sixth, Eighth, and Ninth Circuits on the other, concerning the proper approach to a dispute of this kind.

The courts in the latter group regard the question whether a security interest in property extends to rents and profits derived from the property as one that should be resolved by reference to state law.2 In a few States, sometimes referred to as "title States," the mortgagee is automatically entitled to possession of the property, and to a secured interest in the rents.3 In most [99 S.Ct. 917] States, the mortgagee's right to rents is

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dependent upon his taking actual or constructive possession of the property by means of a foreclosure, the appointment of a receiver for his benefit, or some similar legal'proceeding.4 Because the applicable law varies from State to State, the results in federal bankruptcy proceedings will also vary under the approach taken by most of the Circuits.

The Third and Seventh Circuits have adopted a federal rule of equity that affords the mortgagee a secured interest in the rents even if state law would not recognize any such interest until after foreclosure.5 Those courts reason that, since the bankruptcy court has the power to deprive the mortgagee of his state law remedy, equity requires that the right to rents not be dependent on state court action that may be precluded by federal law.6 Under this approach, no affinative steps

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are required by the mortgagee --...

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