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In Re: Paul T. Holler and Philomena Holler

August 14, 2012

IN RE: PAUL T. HOLLER AND PHILOMENA HOLLER, DEBTORS.


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Schiller, J.

BANKRUPTCY APPEAL

MEMORANDUM

NOVA Bank appeals a bankruptcy court decision granting the motions of Debtors Paul T. Holler and Philomena Holler, husband and wife, to avoid judicial liens on their home. For the following reasons, the Court affirms the decision of the Bankruptcy Court.

I. BACKGROUND

On October 30, 2007, NOVA loaned $45,000 to B&P Carpet Installers, Inc., of which Philomena Holler was the sole shareholder. (Stipulation Submitted in Connection with Debtors' Motions to Avoid Judicial Liens [Stipulation] ¶ 1; Appellee's Br. at 1.) At the same time, Philomena Holler and Paul Holler each executed a separate commercial guaranty for the loan. (Stipulation ¶¶ 2-3.) Also on that date, NOVA loaned the Hollers $99,000, secured by a mortgage on their home in Allentown, Pennsylvania, which they own as tenants by the entirety. (Id. ¶¶ 4, 11; Stipulation Ex. D [Mortgage].) On December 7, 2007, NOVA made a second loan in the amount of $40,000 to B&P. (Stipulation¶1.) Once again, the Hollers each executed a separate commercial guaranty for the loan. (Id. ¶¶ 5-6.) The language of the guaranty agreements makes clear that the documents could be signed by multiple parties. (See Stipulation Exs. B, C, E, and F [Commercial Guars.] at 3.)

B&P eventually defaulted on both loans. (Stipulation ¶ 7.) At slightly different times on August 3, 2010, four judgments were entered by confession in the Lehigh County Court of Common Pleas: (1) a judgment in the amount of $40,098.44 against Philomena Holler relating to the balance owed on the B&P loan executed on October 30, 2007; (2) a judgment in the amount of $40,098.44 against Paul Holler relating to the balance owed on the B&P loan executed on October 30, 2007; (3) a judgment in the amount of $41,076.31 against Philomena Holler relating to the balance owed on the B&P loan executed on December 7, 2007; and (4) a judgment in the amount of $41,076.31 against Paul Holler relating to the balance owed on the B&P loan executed on December 7, 2007 (collectively, the "Judgments"). (Id. ¶¶ 8-10; Stipulation Exs. G, H, I, and J [Judgments].)

The Hollers filed a joint Chapter 7 petition on August 4, 2011 and claimed an exemption in their home. Both then filed separate motions to avoid the liens of the Judgments on their home. One of the motions addressed the two Judgments against Paul Holler, and the other addressed the two Judgments against Philomena Holler. The Hollers' motions were granted as uncontested on August 29, 2011, but after NOVA filed late responses, the parties agreed that the Bankruptcy Court should reconsider the motions on the merits. By order dated December 13, 2011, the Bankruptcy Court denied NOVA's motion for reconsideration and ratified, restated, and re-entered its previous order avoiding the judicial liens. See In re Holler, 463 B.R. 733 (Bankr. Ct. E.D. Pa. 2011).NOVA appealed the decision to this Court.

II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

District courts have jurisdiction over appeals from final bankruptcy court orders. 28 U.S.C. § 158(a). A district court reviewing a bankruptcy court's decision has plenary review over the bankruptcy court's legal conclusions. See Am. Flint Glass Workers Union v. Anchor Resolution Corp., 197 F.3d 76, 80 (3d Cir. 1999); Computer Personalities Sys. v. Aspect Computer, 320 B.R. 812, 816 (E.D. Pa. 2005). "Findings of fact . . . shall not be set aside unless clearly erroneous, and due regard shall be given to the opportunity of the bankruptcy court to judge the credibility of the witnesses." Fed. R. Bankr. P. 8013; see also In re Nelson Co., 959 F.2d 1260, 1263 (3d Cir. 1992). "A factual finding is clearly erroneous when 'the reviewing court on the entire evidence is left with the definite and firm conviction that a mistake has been committed.'" In re CellNet Data Sys., Inc., 327 F.3d 242, 244 (3d Cir. 2003) (quoting United States v. U.S. Gypsum Co., 333 U.S. 364, 395 (1948)). Matters left to the discretion of the bankruptcy court judge are reviewed for abuse of that discretion. In re Martin's Aquarium, Inc., 98 F. App'x 911, 913 (3d Cir. 2004). An abuse of discretion exists if the "court's decision rests upon a clearly erroneous finding of fact, an errant conclusion of law, or an improper application of law to fact." In re SGL Carbon Corp., 200 F.3d 154, 159 (3d Cir. 1999) (internal quotation marks omitted).

III. DISCUSSION

The Hollers seek to avoid the liens of the Judgments on their homepursuant to 11 U.S.C. §§ 522(b)(3)(B) and 522(f)(1). Under the Bankruptcy Code, a debtor's estate generally includes "all legal or equitable interests of the debtor in property as of the commencement of the case," including an individual debtor's interest in property held as a tenant by the entirety. 11 U.S.C. §541(a)(1); Napotnik v. Equibank & Parkvale Sav. Ass'n, 679 F.2d 316, 318 (3d Cir. 1982). However, Section 522(b)(3)(B)provides that a debtor may exempt from the estate "any interest in property in which the debtor had, immediately before the commencement of the case, an interest as a tenant by the entirety or joint tenant to the extent that such interest as a tenant by the entirety or joint tenant is exempt from process under applicable non-bankruptcy law." 11 U.S.C. §522(b)(3)(B).

The United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit has interpreted this to mean that property held by spouses as tenants by the entirety is eligible for exemption if it is immune from process under state law. Napotnik, 679 F.2d at 318-19. Section 522(f)(1)(A) permits a debtor to avoid a judicial lien on property if it impairs an exemption to which the debtor is entitled. Thus, the question before the Court is whether the Hollers' home is immune from process under Pennsylvania law.

Pennsylvania courts have long recognized that a creditor of one spouse cannot obtain by judgment an enforceable lien on entireties property held by both spouses. Napotnik, 679 F.2d at 319 (citing Amadon v. Amadon, 59 A.2d 135 (Pa. 1948)); Beihl v. Martin, 84 A. 953, 954(Pa. 1912)."At most, a creditor of either spouse may obtain a presently unenforceable lien upon that spouse's expectancy of survivorship-a lien that becomes enforceable only when the other spouse dies." Napotnik, 679 F.2d at 319. On the other hand, entireties property "may be reached by creditors to satisfy the joint debts of husband and wife." Id.; see also In re O'Lexa, 476 F.3d 177, 179 (3d Cir. 2007). Accordingly, if the Judgments at issue here constitute joint debts, the Hollers' home is not immune from process, and they are not entitled to avoidance of the judicial liens.

This Court agrees with the Bankruptcy Court that the Judgments do not constitute joint debts. In A. Hupfel's Sons v. Getty, 299 F. 939 (3d Cir. 1924), the Third Circuit held that spouses' individual obligations to the same creditor did not constitute a joint debt under Pennsylvania law. The husband, a saloon owner, took out loans from Hupfel's to lease property and purchase beer. Id. at 940-41. He defaulted on the loans. Id. at 941. The wife then agreed to assume payment of her husband's debt in exchange for a loan from Hupfel's to purchase a liquor license for the saloon. Id. She also defaulted, and Hupfel's obtained separate judgments against the husband and wife. Id. The court rejected Hupfel's argument that the husband and wife, by entering into separate obligations for the same indebtedness, had a joint debt. Id. "The tenants were without doubt mutually interested in the transactions which resulted in the two judgments. But mutuality of interest in separate transactions out of which have grown separate obligations based upon different considerations does not amount to joint action within our understanding of the law. . . ." Id. While the facts of this case differ in some respects, A. Hupfel's Sons is controlling. Philomena Holler and Paul Holler signed separate commercial guaranty agreements that made them each liable as individuals for the full amount of the loans to B&P. Nothing in the documents evinces an intent to act jointly as spouses or as tenants by the entireties. NOVA could have required the Hollers to execute a single guaranty agreement, but it did not. As in A. Hupfel's Sons, the Hollers did not perform "a joint act ...


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