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Foreclosing Party, As Owner, May Evict Tenants In Breach

Secured lenders repossessing real estate collateral at a sheriff’s sale normally keep tenants in place to maintain income.  There are instances, however, when a plaintiff lender, or a third-party sheriff’s sale purchaser, may desire to evict a tenant.  Ellis v. M&I Bank, 960 N.E.2d 187 (Ind. Ct. App. 2011) sheds light on a new owner’s rights, following a sheriff’s sale, vis-à-vis tenants. 

Unusual circumstance.  In Ellis, a developer leased the subject real estate to tenants (husband and wife), but then defaulted on its line of credit.  As a result, the developer’s lender foreclosed and ultimately acquired the real estate at a sheriff’s sale.  The court’s decree of foreclosure was against the developer and the husband only, not the wife/co-tenant.  When the lender pursued a writ of assistance to evict the tenants, the wife asserted that her interest in the real estate had not been extinguished in the mortgage foreclosure case.  She was right.   

To terminate, name tenants.  The Court in Ellis noted that, in Indiana, the purchaser at a sheriff’s sale “steps into the shoes of the original holder of the real estate and takes such owner’s interest subject to all existing liens and claims against it.”  Because the lender did not make the wife a party to the foreclosure case, the sheriff’s sale could not be enforced against her.  This is because, in Indiana, “where a mortgagee knows or should know that a person has an interest in property upon which the mortgagee seeks to foreclose, but does not join that person as a party to the foreclosure action, and the interested person is unaware of the foreclosure action, the foreclosure does not abolish the person’s interest.”  See my 10/07/11 and 07/09/10 posts for more on this area of the law.  Because the wife was not named or served in the foreclosure action, the trial court found that her interest was not extinguished by the foreclosure judgment and that the lender’s interest in the real estate remained subject to her leasehold interest. 

How did the lender obtain possession of the real estate from the wife?

Option 1 – strict foreclosure.  One option available to the lender was to terminate the interest of the wife through a strict foreclosure action.  I have written about this remedy, including Indiana’s 2012 legislation, extensively.  Please click on the category Strict Foreclosure to your left for more.  The lender in Ellis did not pursue this option. 

Option 2 - eviction.  The lender elected, as the then-owner of the real estate, to pursue eviction based upon the subject lease agreement.  The eviction action was separate and distinct from the foreclosure action.  The evidence in Ellis was clear that the tenants had breached the lease and that the lender had the corresponding right to terminate.  The trial court entered an order of possession for the lender based on the lease, and the Court of Appeals affirmed. 

Plaintiff lenders, after the entry of the foreclosure decree and sheriff’s sale, usually can evict parties in possession of the subject real estate through the mechanism of a writ of assistance, about which I have written in the past, assuming the mortgage lien is senior to the possessory interest.  That remedy generally is effective only when the targets of the writ of assistance were made parties to the underlying action.  The rub in Ellis was that one of the parties in possession of the real estate (the wife) was not named in the case.  Rather than embarking on what may have been a relatively costly, complicated and lengthy strict foreclosure action, the lender in Ellis chose a simpler approach by filing a straightforward landlord/tenant eviction action based upon the terms of the subject lease.  This turned out to be a good solution to the problem caused by failing to name the wife.