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Indiana Court Finds That Large Crane And Saw For Stone Fabricating Business Were Not "Fixtures"

Lesson. In title and priority disputes surrounding alleged “fixtures,” the parties’ intention is the controlling factor.

Case cite. 11438 Highway 50 v. Luttrell, 81 N.E.3d 261 (Ind. Ct. App. 2017).

Legal issue. Whether certain pieces of equipment were fixtures subject to a lender’s mortgage.

Vital facts. This case dealt with a crane and a saw owned by a limestone sawing business. The business operated out of a building the partners constructed on the back edge of some real estate owned by a separate corporation. A lender held a mortgage on the real estate and also had on file a UCC financing statement claiming an interest in, among other things, equipment and fixtures of the corporation (but not the sawing business).

Procedural history. The lawsuit started when one of the two partners in the limestone sawing business sued the other partner for, among other things, possession of the crane and the saw. Later, the lender (mortgagee) intervened in the action, foreclosed on the real estate and asserted a first-priority security interest in the crane and the saw. The trial court awarded the equipment to the plaintiff (the partner), and the lender/mortgagee appealed.

Key rules. Indiana case law generally provides that “a fixture is a former chattel or piece of personal property that has become a part of real estate by reason of attachment thereto.”

Indiana’s three-part test for whether something “has become so identified with real property as to become a fixture” is “(1) actual or constructive annexation of the article to the realty, (2) adaptation to the use or purpose of that part of the realty with which it is connected and (3) the intention of the party making the annexation to make the article a permanent accession to the freehold.”

The intention factor is controlling and “may be determined by the nature of the article, relation and situation of the parties making the annexation, and the structure, use, and mode of annexation.” If there is doubt regarding intent, “the property should be regarded as personal.”

Holding. The Indiana Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court’s determination “that the crane and the saw should be regarded as the personal property of [the limestone sawing business] rather than a fixture subject to the lender’s mortgage lien.”

Policy/rationale. The equipment in Luttrell was annexed to the real estate and assembled in a building meant to accommodate it. However, the saw (14’x7’) could be disassembled in two days and transferred to a new place via semi-truck. The crane weighed 50 tons, but also could be moved if needed. The sawing business purchased the equipment, and the partners intended for it to remain their personal property after installation. Also, the sawing business and the borrower’s/mortgagor’s business were independent from one another, and the original plan of the partners was to save up money to buy the building.

Seemingly most fixture-related disputes are between creditors who are fighting over the debtor’s property. Here, the dispute was between a creditor and a third-party owner (not a borrower). The fact that the mortgagor/borrower did not own the equipment, and thus could not have pledged it as collateral, probably carried the day.

Related post. What Is A Fixture?
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I represent creditors, as well as mortgage loan servicers, entangled in lien priority and title disputes. If you need assistance with a similar matter, please call me at 317-639-6151 or email me at john.waller@woodenlawyers.com. Also, don’t forget that you can follow me on Twitter @JohnDWaller or on LinkedIn, or you can subscribe to posts via RSS or email as noted on my home page.


District Court Denies Fraudulent Transfer and Alter Ego Claims

Fraudulent transfer and alter ego cases seem to almost always be factually dense and, therefore, difficult to summarize in a blog post.  Since I've written about the essential elements of Uniform Fraudulent Transfer Act and alter ego claims in the past, I've decided simply to post the Court's opinion in Wine & Canvas v. Weisser, 2017 WL 2905026 (S.D. Ind. 2017) here

United States District Judge Pratt authored a thorough, twenty-page opinion dealing with plaintiff's motion for turnover of trademarks and for funds received as royalties in connection with the pending proceedings supplemental.  The two bases of the motion were (1) fruadulent transfer under Indiana Code 32-18-2-14 and 15 and (2) alter ego.  The opinion spells out why the Court denied the plaintiff's motion on both theories.  The Court found that the plaintiff did not show that the subject transfer was fraudulent or voidable.  Further, the Court concluded that company 2 was not the alter ego of company 1. 

For more on the law and the Court's reasoning, please review the opinion, which is a good illustration of how a court will walk through all of the relevant factors toward a decision denying relief.      


Guarantor Loses Procedural Battle Over Whether He Can Be Sued In Both the United States and Brazil

Lesson. When negotiating guaranties, or litigating rights under them, know that courts will slice and dice the language within the guaranty in order to determine the parties’ intent and reach an appropriate outcome. Every word can be important.

Case cite. 1st Source Bank v. Neto, 861 F.3d 607 (7th Cir. 2017).

Legal issue. Whether language in a guaranty allowed for parallel litigation in the United States (Indiana) and Brazil.

Vital facts. 1st Source was an Indiana federal court collection action by a lender against a guarantor arising out of a $6 million loan to purchase an airplane. Defendant, who resided in Brazil, personally guaranteed the loan. The Seventh Circuit’s opinion interpreted the guaranty’s so-called choice-of-law and venue provision, which stated:

This guarantee shall be governed by and construed in accordance with the laws of the state of Indiana .… In relation to any dispute arising out of or in connection with this guarantee the guarantor [i.e., the defendant guarantor] hereby irrevocably and unconditionally agrees that all legal proceedings in connection with this guarantee shall be brought in the United States District Court for the District of Indiana located in South Bend, Indiana, or in the judicial district court of St. Joseph County, Indiana, and the guarantor waives all rights to a trial by jury provided however that the lender [i.e., the plaintiff lender] shall have the option, in its sole and exclusive discretion, in addition to the two courts mentioned above, to institute legal proceedings against the guarantor for repossession of the aircraft in any jurisdiction where the aircraft may be located from time to time, or against the guarantor for recovery of moneys due to the lender from the guarantor, in any jurisdiction where the guarantor maintains, temporarily or permanently, any asset. The parties hereby consent and agree to be subject to the jurisdiction of all of the aforesaid courts and, to the greatest extent permitted by applicable law, the parties hereby waive any right to seek to avoid the jurisdiction of the above courts on the basis of the doctrine of forum non conveniens.

The guarantor defaulted under the guaranty, and the lender sued to collect in both Indiana federal court (where the lender was located) and in a court in Brazil (where the airplane and other of the guarantor’s assets were located).

Procedural history. The guarantor, in the Indiana case, sought “antisuit injunctive relief” to prevent the lender from suing him in Brazil. The trial court denied the guarantor’s motion, and the guarantor appealed to the Seventh Circuit, which issued the opinion that is the subject of today’s post.

Key rules. Generally, in Indiana, “courts interpret a contract so as to ascertain the intent of the parties.” When courts find a contract to be clear, they will require the parties to perform “consistently with the bargain they made, unless some equitable reason justifies non-enforcement.”

International forum-selection clauses are prima facie valid. The resisting party can only call into question the agreement’s validity if enforcement is unreasonable under the circumstances, which exception has been held to apply to three circumstances: (1) if the clause was the result of fraud, undue influence or overweening bargaining power, (2) if the selected forum “is so gravely difficult and inconvenient that the complaining party will for all practical purposes be deprived of its day in court” or (3) if enforcement would contravene strong public policy of the forum in which the suit is brought, declared by statute or judicial decision.”

Holding. The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the District Court’s decision.

Policy/rationale. The guarantor had five contentions in support of his position, all of which the Court rejected. First, the clause did not limit venue to Indiana. Second, the clause did not limit the suit to either Brazil or Indiana. Third, the guarantor’s “judicial estoppel” argument had no merit. Fourth, the clause did not violate public policy. Finally, the Court found that the Brazil suit was not “vexatious or duplicative” of the Indiana action. In the final analysis, the Court carefully studied the words in the operative guaranty provision, and the Court’s interpretation of those words carried the day. For more detail on the Court’s analysis, or to better understand how a court might interpret your guaranty provision, please review the Court’s opinion (link above).

Related posts.

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I represent both lenders and guarantors in commerical loan enforcement actions. If you need assistance with a similar matter, please call me at 317-639-6151 or email me at john.waller@woodenlaweyrs.com. Also, don’t forget that you can follow me on Twitter @JohnDWaller or on LinkedIn, or you can subscribe to posts via RSS or email as noted on my home page.