Today’s post follows-up on a theme from my February 15th post with respect to evictions following a sheriff’s sale. That post dealt with eviction of tenants. Today’s post, regarding United States of America v. Cotton, 2012 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 341 (N.D. Ind. 2012) (rtclick/save target as for .pdf), deals with mortgagors/owners.
Backdrop. Borrower owned real estate subject to a bank’s mortgage and a junior mortgage held by the United States Department of Agriculture (“USDA”). Due to a failure to make payments, the bank filed a foreclosure action against the borrower and obtained a summary judgment that authorized a sheriff’s sale. At the sale, third-party bidders purchased the real estate. The USDA thereafter asserted its redemption rights under federal law (28 U.S.C. § 2410(c)). In exchange for a deed, the USDA paid the purchasers an amount equal to what the purchaser’s paid at the sheriff’s sale, plus interest. After recording the deed, the USDA sent the borrower a notice to vacate the premises within thirty days. The borrower refused to comply.
Procedural maneuvering. To obtain possession of the real estate, the USDA, in a lawsuit separate from the state court foreclosure, filed a motion for judgment on the pleadings pursuant to F.R.C.P. 12(c). The Court in Cotton noted that the USDA had to establish “that [bank’s] lien on the [subject real estate] stood in first priority, ahead of the USDA’s; that it timely exercised its redemption right in the [subject real estate]; and that it followed the proper procedures under Indiana law to perfect legal title in the [real estate].” The Court concluded that the USDA had met its burden.
Right to possession. The USDA’s right of redemption vested upon the sale of the real estate at the sheriff’s sale. The USDA timely redeemed the real estate and properly recorded the subject deed. This served to perfect the USDA’s legal title in the real estate. In Indiana, property law grants to property owners the absolute and unconditional right “to exclude from their domain those entering without permission.” The Court stated that: “as the owner of an undivided fee simple interest in the [real estate], the United States is entitled to permit, or exclude, whomever it desires from the property; including [the borrower].”
Borrower’s contentions. The borrower did not contest the action upon the legal formalities of the acquisition by the USDA, but rather upon notions of equity. The borrower asserted that the USDA did not have “clean hands,” an equitable doctrine I discussed in a December, 2012 post. Generally, “one who seeks relief in a court of equity must be free of wrongdoing in the matter before the court.”
First, the borrower argued that the USDA had an obligation to intervene on his behalf and to provide him with legal representation and advice in the state court foreclosure proceedings. The Court noted that, while the USDA might have an obligation under federal law to assist minority and impoverished individuals in efforts to obtain affordable housing, such obligation does not extend to the requirement to provide free legal services to those persons.
Second, the borrower asserted that “because the USDA previously defended against allegations of race discrimination in a class action lawsuit, this alleged misconduct should either be imputed or presumed into the context of the instant case.” The cases upon which the borrower relied involved alleged racial discrimination in applying for mortgage loans. In Cotton, the borrower received a mortgage from the USDA without any complications. The borrower invited the Court “to entertain a presumption that because the USDA discriminated against similarly situated persons in the past, it necessarily follows that he too was a victim of discrimination. Because the evidence in the pleadings [did] not substantiate this allegation, the Court [was] not inclined to leap to such a conclusion.”
The Court in Cotton held that the actions of the USDA did not make it inequitable for the Court to order the requested relief. The Court granted the USDA’s motion for judgment on the pleadings and found that the borrower was in wrongful possession of the subject real estate. The Court ordered him to vacate the premises accordingly. One point Cotton illustrates is that, in Indiana, a sheriff’s sale terminates the borrower’s (former owner’s) rights to the mortgaged real estate.