April 26, 2017

Tenth Circuit: Bankruptcy Creditor Has Standing to Object to Potentially Fraudulent Conveyance of Real Property

The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals issued its opinion in In re Lavenhar: Lavenhar v. First American Title Insurance Co. on Thursday, December 17, 2015.

On October 28, 2010, First American Title Insurance Company (“First American”) earned a judgment and damages award in its favor in the amount of $434,913.39, plus interest, in Colorado state court against Jeffrey Lavenhar. During the pendency of this litigation, Jeffrey and his then-wife Laurie initiated dissolution proceedings, resulting in the issuance of a divorce decree in November 2010, which incorporated a separation agreement dated October 26, 2010. The separation agreement required Jeffrey pay Laurie $4,400 per month in spousal maintenance, and also contained a provision stating the property located on Antelope Ridge Trial is and always has been the sole property of the Laurie H. Lavenhar Living Trust.

In seeking to collect its damages, First American filed suit against the Lavenhars and the Laurie H. Lavenhar Living Trust, asserting the transfer of Jeffrey’s interest in the Antelope Ridge Trail property to the Laurie H. Lavenhar Living Trust was a fraudulent conveyance. In addition to that independent lawsuit, First American sought to intervene in the Lavenhars’ divorce, seeking a declaration that the Lavenhars’ divorce proceeding was a fraud upon the court designed to hinder its ability to collect on the judgment against Jeffrey. The state divorce court granted First American’s motion to intervene.

Before the resolution of the various legal proceedings instituted by First American against the Lavenhars, Jeffrey filed a Chapter 7 bankruptcy petition. In response, First American filed a motion to lift the automatic stay as to the Antelope Ridge Trail property, asserting it should be able to litigate its state-court fraudulent conveyance action. The bankruptcy court denied the motion, concluding only the Chapter 7 Trustee had standing to bring such an action. Shortly thereafter, Laurie filed in the bankruptcy court a priority unsecured claim for domestic support obligations in the amount of $347,400. First American then filed a new motion to lift the automatic stay, seeking permission to litigate its complain in intervention of the Lavenhars’ divorce proceeding, which was granted in part by the bankruptcy court such that both First American and the Chapter 7 Trustee could litigate the complaint in intervention as to the single issue that would affect the validity of Laurie’s proof of claim, but not as to any other issues resolved in the divorce decree.

The district court affirmed the bankruptcy court’s partial lifting of the automatic stay, and Laurie appealed, asserting the bankruptcy and district courts erred in concluding First American has standing to litigate the validity of the component of the divorce decree addressing domestic support obligations via its state-court complaint in intervention.

On appeal, the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals determined First American has standing to object to Laurie’s potentially fraudulent proof of claim for domestic support obligations. Next, the Tenth Circuit affirmed the order of the bankruptcy court partially lifting the automatic stay to allow the state divorce court to declare whether or not the Lavenhars’ divorce decree was obtained through fraud on the court. In so ruling, the Tenth Circuit reasoned there is no indication that the state divorce court cannot or will not comply with the limited scope of the bankruptcy court’s order lifting the stay. In rejecting Laurie’s argument that the validity of the property division is not separable from the validly of the spousal maintenance provision, both of which are contained in the separation agreement, the Tenth Circuit noted the Antelope Ride Trial property is and always has been the sole property of the Laurie H. Lavenhar Living Trust. Thus, the court reasoned it is simply not true that the issue the bankruptcy court allowed to proceed in the motion in intervention is inseparably intertwined with the property-transfer issues to be litigated by the Chapter 7 Trustee in the fraudulent conveyance action. Lastly, the court noted a ruling on First American’s behalf on the limited issue the bankruptcy court allowed to be litigated in the complaint in intervention would benefit all creditors equally, such that there exists no danger of intrusion on the exclusive prerogatives of the Chapter 7 Trustee.

Max Montag is a 2016 J.D. Candidate at the University of Denver Sturm College of Law.

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