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Mortgage Lien Second In Line, Because Small Claims Court Judgment Never Fully Satisfied

Lesson. Look for a filed satisfaction of judgment to conclusively determine whether a judgment lien has been extinguished. A small claims court judgment, properly indexed and unreleased, will have senior priority over a subsequently-recorded mortgage.

Case cite. Herron v. First Financial Bank, 91 N.E.3d 994 (Ind. Ct. App. 2017)

Legal issue. The issue in Herron was whether a judgment lien was effective as of May 14, 2013, when a small claims court entered its judgment, or as of November 17, 2015, following an appeal of the small claims court’s ruling during proceedings supplemental. If the judgment lien was effective as of the earlier date, then it would have senior priority over the competing mortgage lien. If the judgment lien was not effective until the later date, then the mortgage lien would have first priority.

Vital facts. Herron, a contractor, repaired a church’s roof in March 2011. In 2013, the Lawrence Township small claims court (Marion County) entered judgment for Herron against the church. The Township recorded the judgment in its Judgment Book on May 14, 2013. There was no appeal. Proceedings supplemental ensued and resulted in payments that satisfied the principal amount of the judgment and filing fees. However, on November 14, 2014, the court awarded additional damages to Herron for attorney’s fees and collection costs. Several months later, the small claims court, apparently sua sponte (on its own), rescinded the November 2014 order. Herron appealed that ruling to the Marion Superior Court, and on November 17, 2015, the superior court (a) reversed the small claims court’s rescission of its 2014 damages ruling and (b) entered a $10,000 award for Herron. Meanwhile, in November 2014, First Financial Bank (FFB) entered into a mortgage loan with the church and recorded its mortgage on February 23, 2015 – after the May 2013 Herron small claims judgment but before the November 2015 superior court judgment.

Procedural history. Herron filed an action to foreclose his judgment lien and named FFB as a defendant. FFB contended that its mortgage was senior to Herron’s lien. Both FFB and Herron filed summary judgment motions claiming that their respective liens had senior priority. The trial court determined that FFB’s mortgage had priority and granted FFB’s motion for summary judgment. Herron appealed.

Key rules. Indiana Code 34-55-9-2 provides that a money judgment becomes a lien on the defendant’s real property when the judgment is entered and indexed in the judgment docket in the county where the property is located. Indiana Code 32-21-4-1 states that a mortgage takes priority according to the time that it was filed in the recorder’s office of the county where the property is located. Generally, in Indiana, “priority in time gives a lien priority in right.” 

Holding. The Indiana Court of Appeals reversed the trial court and held that Herron’s judgment lien was first in time and thus senior to FFB’s mortgage.

Policy/rationale. FFB based its argument on the fact that the file of the small claims court contained a November 7, 2014 receipt that showed the 2013 judgment balance to be zero, which suggested that there was no judgment lien as of that date. FFB further asserted that the November 14, 2014 award for fees during proceedings supplemental constituted a new judgment that was later rescinded. According to FFB, therefore, on November 17, 2015, when the superior court overturned the rescission and awarded damages, a second judgment lien was created, nine months after FFB perfected its mortgage lien.

The Indiana Court Appeals rejected each of FFB’s points. Although the record from the small claims court proceedings was not crystal clear, there was nothing “determinative” showing that the original judgment for Herron had been paid in full or was otherwise satisfied or released. Also, through proceedings supplemental, Herron had an ongoing claim for attorney fees and interest that related back to the original judgment. The Court also found that the small claims court’s rescission of its prior fee award did not go into effect because the superior court ultimately overturned the rescission on appeal. In the end, the Court concluded that Herron had a single judgment lien, created May 14, 2013, which had not been satisfied. As such, Herron’s judgment lien preceded FFB’s February 23, 2015 mortgage lien and had first priority.

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I represent judgment creditors and lenders, as well as their mortgage loan servicers, entangled in lien priority and title claim 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.