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In re Graves

argued: February 28, 1994.

IN RE: SHIRLEY GRAVES, DEBTOR; FLEET CONSUMER DISCOUNT CO.
v.
SHIRLEY GRAVES; EDWARD SPARKMAN, ESQUIRE, CHAPTER 13 TRUSTEE; FLEET CONSUMER DISCOUNT COMPANY, APPELLANT



On Appeal from the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania. (D.C. Civil Action No. 92-04488).

Before: Stapleton and Scirica, Circuit Judges and Smith, District Judge*fn*

Author: Scirica

Opinion OF THE COURT

SCIRICA, Circuit Judge.

This is an appeal from a judgment of the district court sitting as an appellate court in bankruptcy. At issue is whether, under Pennsylvania law, a non-record interest holder in real property is entitled to personal service before a foreclosure sale even though notice was mailed to the record owners and was posted on the property; and whether a junior secured creditor can be a bona fide purchaser for value without notice, if at the time of sale it knew, or should have known, of the unrecorded interest.

The bankruptcy court found that Pennsylvania law requires personal service to non-record interest holders and that the purchaser's knowledge of the non-record interest prevented it from being a bona fide purchaser. In re Graves, 142 B.R. 115 (Bankr. E.D. Pa. 1992). The district court affirmed, holding that Pennsylvania's Rules of Civil Procedure required the judgment creditor to give personal notice to all interest holders and that the purchaser's knowledge of the non-record interest prevented it from being a bona fide purchaser. In re Graves, 156 B.R. 949 (E.D. Pa. 1993). We hold that, on these facts, Pennsylvania law does not require personal service, but that the purchaser was not a bona fide purchaser because of its actual knowledge of the unrecorded interest. We will affirm.

I.

FACTS and PROCEDURE

A. Background

On October 12, 1983 Thomas Bacon and his grandson, Duane Bacon,*fn1 purchased a house at 6133 Nassau Road, Philadelphia as tenants in common, each owning a one-half interest. They paid $39,000.00, after obtaining a $24,000.00 mortgage from Liberty Savings Bank. Thomas Bacon lived at 6133 Nassau Road with his wife, three of his children, and Duane until he died intestate on January 7, 1986. At the time, no one probated his estate or notified Liberty Savings Bank of his death.*fn2 Thomas Bacon's wife died in September, 1990. One son moved away before her death and Duane moved away shortly thereafter. In October, 1990, the house was occupied by two of Thomas Bacon's children, his daughter, Shirley Graves, and a son, Andrew Bacon.

B. State Proceedings

In November, 1990, Liberty Savings Bank began foreclosure proceedings against Thomas and Duane Bacon in Philadelphia Common Pleas Court.*fn3 Liberty's attempts to serve notice on Thomas and Duane Bacon personally were unsuccessful, so on March 4, 1991, after a petition by Liberty, the court permitted service by regular mail and by posting notice on the property. A return of service, signed by a deputy sheriff, recited that a copy of the complaint was posted on the house on March 16, 1991.*fn4 On May 3, 1991, after Thomas and Duane Bacon failed to answer Liberty's complaint, the Common Pleas Court entered a default judgment, and ordered that notice of the judgment be sent to Duane and Thomas Bacon at the house. Liberty then sent Thomas and Duane Bacon notice of a sheriff's sale by certified mail. It also sent notice to all junior creditors, including Fleet Consumer Discount Company.*fn5 On September 6, 1991 notice was posted at the house pursuant to the Common Pleas Court's order, as evidenced by a deputy sheriff's return of service.

At the sheriff's sale on October 7, 1991, Fleet purchased the property for $42,000.00. Fleet attempted to sell the house to Graves, but after negotiations failed, Fleet filed an eviction action on November 8, 1991. Graves was served on November 16, 1991, but did not file an answer.*fn6 The court entered default judgment on January 15, 1992.

On April 9, 1992, Graves filed a "Motion to Set Aside Sheriff's Sale and/or Set Aside Default," and an "Emergency Petition to Stay Eviction" in Common Pleas Court. The court denied the petition to stay the eviction without opinion on April 14, 1992. It then denied her motion to set aside the sheriff's sale on May 14, 1992, and filed an opinion on August 17, 1992 holding that the motion was not promptly filed and that Graves did not have a meritorious defense to the claim.*fn7

C. Bankruptcy Proceedings

On April 22, 1992 Graves filed for bankruptcy. Fleet filed a motion seeking relief from the automatic stay. At a bankruptcy court hearing on June 9, 1992, testimony was given by Graves and Heather Thompson, the Assistant President of Fleet's Upper Darby branch. There was a subsequent hearing on June 18, 1992, when the court permitted Fleet to admit certified copies of the affidavits of service.*fn8

On June 25, 1992, the bankruptcy court denied Fleet's motion for relief from the automatic stay. The court found the sheriff's sale invalid on three independent grounds: (1) as the holder of an interest in the property Graves was entitled, under Pennsylvania law, to personal service, (2) Graves' continuous possession of the property put Liberty on constructive notice that Graves had an interest in the house which Liberty should have investigated before the sale, and (3) Fleet's knowledge of Graves' interest in the house prior to the sheriff's sale precluded Fleet from being a bona fide purchaser for value without notice. Graves, 142 B.R. at 117.

Fleet appealed to the district court, which affirmed, holding that Graves was entitled to personal notice under Pennsylvania law. The district court then upheld the bankruptcy court's factual findings that Graves had no prior notice of the sheriff's sale, Liberty had knowledge of Graves' interest, and Fleet was not a bona fide purchaser. This timely appeal followed.*fn9

In an appeal from a judgment of a bankruptcy court, we review factual findings for clear error and apply plenary review to questions of law. "In that sense, our review duplicates that of the district court and we view the bankruptcy court decision unfettered by the district court's determination." In re Brown, 951 F.2d 564, 567 (3d Cir. 1991).

II.

Discussi ...


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