Nobelman v. American Savings Bank
508 U.S. 324 (1993)

Annotate this Case

OCTOBER TERM, 1992

Syllabus

NOBELMAN ET UX. v. AMERICAN SAVINGS BANK ET AL.

CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE FIFTH CIRCUIT

No.92-641. Argued April 19, 1993-Decided June 1, 1993

In their debt repayment plan under Chapter 13 of the Bankruptcy Code, petitioners relied on 11 U. S. C. § 506(a)-which provides, inter alia, that an allowed claim secured by a lien on the debtor's property "is a secured claim to the extent of the value of [the] property," and "is an unsecured claim" to the extent it exceeds that value-to propose that the mortgage on their principal residence in Texas be reduced from $71,335 to the residence's $23,500 fair market value. Respondents, the mortgage lender and the Chapter 13 trustee, objected to the plan, arguing that the proposed bifurcation of the lender's claim into a secured claim for $23,500 and an effectively worthless unsecured claim modified its rights as a homestead mortgagee in violation of § 1322(b)(2), which, among other things, allows a plan to "modify the rights of holders of secured claims, other than a claim secured only by a security interest in real property that is the debtor's principal residence." The Bankruptcy Court agreed with respondents and denied confirmation of the plan. The District Court and the Court of Appeals affirmed.

Held: Section 1322(b)(2) prohibits a Chapter 13 debtor from relying on § 506(a) to reduce an undersecured homestead mortgage to the fair market value of the mortgaged residence. Although petitioners were correct in looking to § 506(a) for a judicial valuation of their residence to determine the status of the lender's secured claim, that valuation does not necessarily limit the lender's "rights [as a claim] holde[r]," which are the focus of § 1322(b)(2)'s protection. In the absence of a controlling Bankruptcy Code definition, it must be presumed that Congress left the determination of property "rights" in estate assets to state law. Butner v. United States, 440 U. S. 48, 54-55. The mortgagee's "rights," therefore, are reflected in the relevant mortgage instruments, which are enforceable under Texas law. Those rights include, among others, the right to repayment of the principal in monthly installments over a fixed term at specified adjustable interest rates, and they are protected from modification by § 1322(b)(2). That section's "other than" exception cannot be read to protect only that subset of allowed "secured claims," determined by application of § 506(a), that are secured by a lien on the debtor's home. Rather, the more reasonable interpretation is to read


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"a claim secured only by a [homestead lien]" as referring to the lienholder's entire claim, including both its secured and unsecured components, since it would be impossible to reduce petitioners' outstanding mortgage principal to $23,500 without modifying the mortgagee's contractual rights as to interest rates, monthly payment amounts, or repayment terms. Pp. 327-332.

968 F.2d 483, affirmed.

THOMAS, J., delivered the opinion for a unanimous Court. STEVENS, J., filed a concurring opinion, post, p. 332.

Philip 1. Palmer, Jr., argued the cause for petitioners.

With him on the brief was Rosemary J. Zyne.

Michael J. Schroeder argued the cause for respondents and filed a brief for respondent American Savings Bank, F. A. Molly W Bartholow and Charles L. Kennon III filed a brief for respondent Standing Chapter 13 Trustee. *

JUSTICE THOMAS delivered the opinion of the Court.

This case focuses on the interplay between two provisions of the Bankruptcy Code. The question is whether § 1322(b)(2) prohibits a Chapter 13 debtor from relying on § 506(a) to reduce an undersecured homestead mortgage to

*Briefs of amici curiae urging reversal were filed for the Consumer Education and Protective Association et al. by Henry J. Sommer, Gary Klein, Daniel L. Haller, and Lawrence Young; and for Harold J. Barkley, Jr., pro se.

Briefs of amici curiae urging affirmance were filed for the State of Alaska by Charles E. Cole, Attorney General, Mary Ellen Beardsley, Assistant Attorney General, and Richard Ullstrom; for the American Bankers Association et al. by John J. Gill, Michael F. Crotty, Lynn A. Pringle, Alvin C. Harrell, Laura N. Pringle, and James R. Martin, Jr.; for the Federal Home Loan Mortgage Corp. by Dean S. Cooper and John C. Morland; for the Federal National Mortgage Association by William J. Perlstein and Sharon A. Pocock; for the Mortgage Bankers Association of America by William E. Cumberland and Roger M. Whelan; for the National Association of Realtors et al. by William M. Pfeiffer and Laurene K. Janik; and for Nationsbanc Mortgage Corporation by Michael C. Barrett, Mary A. Daffin, and G. Tommy Bastian.


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Full Text of Opinion

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