459 U.S. 70 (1982), 81-184, United States v. Security Industrial Bank

Docket Nº:No. 81-184
Citation:459 U.S. 70, 103 S.Ct. 407, 74 L.Ed.2d 235
Party Name:United States v. Security Industrial Bank
Case Date:November 30, 1982
Court:United States Supreme Court
 
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459 U.S. 70 (1982)

103 S.Ct. 407, 74 L.Ed.2d 235

United States

v.

Security Industrial Bank

No. 81-184

United States Supreme Court

Nov. 30, 1982

Argued October 6, 1982

APPEAL FROM THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR

THE TENTH CIRCUIT

Syllabus

A provision of the Bankruptcy Reform Act of 1978, 11 U.S.C. § 522(f)(2) (1976 ed., Supp. V), permits individual debtors in bankruptcy proceedings to avoid nonpossessory, nonpurchase-money liens on certain property, including household furnishings and appliances. Appellees loaned individual debtors money and obtained and perfected such liens on the debtors' household furnishings and appliances before the 1978 Act was enacted. Subsequently, these debtors instituted separate bankruptcy proceedings under the 1978 Act. Sections 522(b) and (d) exempt household items from the property included within debtors' estates. The debtors claimed these exemptions, relying on § 522(f)(2) to avoid the liens. The Bankruptcy Courts refused to apply § 522(f)(2) retroactively to abrogate the liens. The Court of Appeals, in consolidated appeals, affirmed, holding that, although the 1978 Act was intended to apply retrospectively, and thus was designed to invalidate liens acquired before the enactment date, such an application violates the Takings Clause of the Fifth Amendment.

Held: Section 522(f)(2) was not intended to be applied retrospectively to destroy preenactment property rights. Pp. 74-82.

(a) Where there is substantial doubt whether retroactive destruction of appellees' liens would comport with the Fifth Amendment, the cardinal principle that this Court will first determine whether a construction of a statute is fairly possible by which the constitutional question may be avoided warrants a consideration of whether, as a matter of statutory construction, § 522(f)(2) must necessarily be applied retroactively. Pp. 74-78.

(b) No bankruptcy law shall be construed to eliminate property rights that existed before the law was enacted in the absence of an explicit command from Congress. In light of this principle, in the absence of a clear expression of Congress' intent to apply § 522(f)(2) to property rights established before the enactment date, the statute will not be construed in a manner that could call upon this Court to resolve difficult and sensitive

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questions arising out of the guarantees of the Takings Clause. Pp. 81-82.

642 F.2d 1193, affirmed.

REHNQUIST, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which BURGER, C.J., and WHITE, POWELL, STEVENS, and O'CONNOR, JJ., joined. BLACKMUN, J., filed an opinion concurring in the judgment, in which BRENNAN and MARSHALL, JJ., joined, post, p. 82.

REHNQUIST, J., lead opinion

[103 S.Ct. 409] JUSTICE REHNQUIST delivered the opinion of the Court.

This case concerns the effect of 11 U.S.C. § 522(f)(2) (1976 ed., Supp. V), which permits individual debtors in bankruptcy proceedings to avoid liens on certain property. The Court of Appeals consolidated seven appeals from the Bankruptcy Courts for the Districts of Kansas and Colorado. In each case, the debtor was an individual who instituted bankruptcy proceedings after the Bankruptcy Reform Act of 1978, Pub.L. 95-598, 92 Stat. 2549 (1978 Act), became effective on October 1, 1979. In each case, one of the appellees had loaned the debtor money and obtained and perfected a lien on the debtor's household furnishings and appliances before the 1978 Act was enacted on November 6, 1978. None of these liens was possessory, and none secured purchase-money obligations.

Included within the personal property subject to the appellees' liens were household items that are exempt from the property included within the debtors' estates by virtue of

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subsections (b) and (d) of § 522.1 The debtors claimed these exemptions in their respective bankruptcy proceedings, relying on § 522(f)(2) to avoid the liens. That section provides:

Notwithstanding any waiver of exemptions, the debtor may avoid the fixing of a lien on an interest of the debtor in property to the extent such lien impairs an exemption to which the debtor would have been entitled under subsection (b) of this section, if such lien is --

* * * *

(2) a nonpossessory, nonpurchase-money security interest in any --

(A) household furnishings, household goods, wearing apparel, appliances, books, animals, crops, musical instruments,

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or jewelry that are held primarily for the personal, family, or household use of the debtor or a dependent of the debtor;

(B) implements, professional books, or tools, of the trade of the debtor or the trade of a dependent of the debtor; or

(C) professionally prescribed health aids for the debtor or a dependent of the debtor.

The appellees asserted that application of § 522(f)(2) to liens acquired before the enactment date would violate the Fifth Amendment. The United States intervened in each case to defend the constitutionality of the federal statute,2 but the Bankruptcy Courts in each case refused to apply § 522(f)(2) to abrogate liens acquired before the enactment date.3

[103 S.Ct. 410] The Court of Appeals consolidated the cases and affirmed the judgments of the Bankruptcy Courts. 642 F.2d 1193 (CA10 1981). It held that the 1978 Act was intended to apply retrospectively, and thus was designed to invalidate liens acquired before the enactment date. It also held, however, that such an application violates the Fifth Amendment. The court stated that § 522(f)(2) effects a "complete taking of the secured creditors' property interests," and is thus invalid under Louisville Joint Stock Land Bank v. Radford, 295

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U.S. 555 (1935).4 The United States appealed, and we noted probable jurisdiction. 454 U.S. 1122 (1981).

The appellees, of course, defend the judgment of the Court of Appeals.5 The Government argues at some length that retrospective application of § 522(f)(2) to these liens would not violate the Fifth Amendment. It contends that the enactment is a "rational" exercise of Congress' bankruptcy power, that, for "bankruptcy purposes," property interests are all but indistinguishable from contractual interests, and that these particular interests were "insubstantial," and therefore their destruction does not amount to a "taking" of property requiring compensation. We do not decide the constitutional question reached by the Court of Appeals. We address it only to determine whether the attack on the retrospective application of the statute raises substantial enough constitutional doubts to warrant the employment of the canon of statutory construction referred to infra at 78-81.

It may be readily agreed that § 522(f)(2) is a rational exercise of Congress' authority under Art. I, § 8, cl. 4, and that this authority has been regularly construed to authorize the retrospective impairment of contractual obligations. Hanover

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National Bank v. Moyses, 186 U.S. 181, 188 (1902). Such agreement does not, however, obviate the additional difficulty that arises when that power is sought to be used to defeat traditional property interests. The bankruptcy power is subject to the Fifth Amendment's prohibition against taking private property without compensation. Louisville Joint Stock Land Bank v. Radford, supra. Thus, however "rational" the exercise of the bankruptcy power may be, that inquiry is quite separate from the question whether the enactment takes property within the prohibition of the Fifth Amendment.

The Government apparently contends (Brief for United States 30-32) that, because cases such as Arnett v. Kennedy, 416 U.S. 134 (1974), [103 S.Ct. 411] and Goldberg v. Kelly, 397 U.S. 254 (1970), defined "property" for purposes of the Due Process Clause sufficiently broadly to include rights which at common law would have been deemed contractual, traditional property rights are entitled to no greater protection under the Takings Clause than traditional contract rights. It argues that "bankruptcy principles do not support a sharp distinction between the rights of secured and unsecured creditors." Brief for United States 31. However "bankruptcy principles" may speak to this question, our cases recognize, as did the common law, that the contractual right of a secured creditor to obtain repayment of his debt may be quite different in legal contemplation from the property right of the same creditor in the collateral. Compare Hanover National Bank v. Moyses, supra, with Louisville Joint Stock Land Bank v. Radford, supra, and Kaiser Aetna v. United States, 444 U.S. 164 (1979).

Since the governmental action here would result in a complete destruction of the property right of the secured party, the case fits but awkwardly into the analytic framework employed in Penn Central Transportation Co. v. New York City, 438 U.S. 104 (1978), and PruneYard Shopping Center v. Robins, 447 U.S. 74 (1980), where governmental action

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affected some, but not all, of the "bundle of rights" which constitute the "property" in question. The Government argues that the interest of a secured party such as was involved here is "insubstantial," apparently in part because...

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