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Court Invalidates Mortgages In Favor Of Creditor In Judgment Lien Foreclosure Action

Lesson. If you are trying to collect a judgment and suspect the judgment debtor granted a bogus mortgage to neutralize the judgment lien, then study the description of the purported debt in the mortgage and investigate the debt’s nature. You may be able to invalidate the mortgage lien.

Case cite. Drake Investments v. Ballatan, 138 N.E.3d 964 (Ind. Ct. App. 2019) (unpublished, memorandum decision)

Legal issue. Whether the subject mortgages were invalid, rendering priority in title to the judgment lien.

Vital facts. Judgment creditor Ballatan obtained a 125k judgment against Huntley on 9/28/07. While the underlying action was pending but before the entry of judgment, Huntley granted mortgages to her son on four parcels of real estate. The one-page mortgages indicate that Huntley agreed to pay her son an aggregate amount of 830k secured by the real estate. The son testified that Huntley granted the mortgages “in exchange for [son] taking care of [mom’s] living expenses….” Three years later, the son paid Huntley 30k for title to all the real estate. Then, the son transferred ownership of the four parcels to Drake Investments. The son was the president of Drake.

Procedural history. Ballatan filed suit to foreclose his judgment lien against the real estate formerly owned by Huntley, the judgment debtor. Drake asserted that the mortgages had priority over the judgment lien. The trial court granted summary judgment in favor of Ballatan and against Drake, which appealed.

Key rules.

Indiana Code 32-29-1-5 defines the proper form for mortgages in Indiana.

Indiana common law provides that mortgages must secure a debt that must be described in the document:

The debt need not be described with literal accuracy but it ‘must be correct so far as it goes, and full enough to direct attention to the sources of correct information in regard to it, and be such as not to mislead or deceive, as to the nature or amount of it, by the language used.’ It is necessary for the parties to the mortgage to correctly describe the debt ‘so as to preclude the parties from substituting debts other than those described for the mere purpose of defrauding creditors.’ As our federal sister court has observed, ‘most Indiana cases have examined the description of the debt as a whole to decide whether it puts a potential purchaser on in essence inquiry notice of an encumbrance, and whether it is specific enough to prevent the substitution of another debt.’

Holding. The Indiana Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court and held that the mortgages were invalid.

Policy/rationale. The Court’s opinion has a lengthy and thorough discussion of what constitutes a valid mortgage in Indiana, in particular the requirement for the description of the underlying debt. In Drake, the mortgages referred to promissory notes for the purported debts, but Drake never produced the notes. In fact, the only evidence was that the mortgages secured payment of future living expenses for Huntley. In other words, Huntley did not owe her son money upon execution of the mortgages. The mortgages also failed to include a date for repayment as required by statute. “One cannot tell from looking at the [mortgages] when [son’s] purported mortgage interest … was scheduled to expire.” Thus, the descriptions of the debts were inaccurate. Further, the Court concluded that the inaccuracies were “sufficiently material” to mislead or deceive as to the nature and amount of the debt. The mortgages made no connection between, or mention of, the debt and the living expenses. “The descriptions of the debts are so vague that they do not preclude [Huntley] and [son] from substituting other debts for the debts described.”

Related posts.

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

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