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Bellinger v. Buckley

United States District Court, D. Maryland

August 29, 2017

JOSEPH J. BELLINGER, Appellant,
v.
JOYCE E. BUCKLEY, Appellee.

          MEMORANDUM

          JAMES K. BREDAR, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         This is an appeal from the United States Bankruptcy Court for the District of Maryland. The appeal has been briefed (ECF Nos. 5 & 6), and no oral argument is necessary, Local Rule 105.6 (D. Md. 2016). For the reasons stated below, the decision of the bankruptcy court is affirmed.

         I. Procedural History

         On June 10, 2016, Appellee Joyce Buckley filed a Chapter 7 voluntary petition (the "Petition") in the Bankruptcy Court for the District of Maryland. In re Buckley, No. 16-17946 (Bankr. D. Md.), ECF No. 1. Immediately before filing the Petition, Appellee held an interest in real property located at 3611 Coronado Road, Windsor Mill, Maryland, 21244 (the "Property"), with her husband as tenants by the entireties. In the Petition, Appellee claimed as exempt her entire interest in the Property as to nonjoint creditors only, pursuant to 11 U.S.C. § 522(b)(3)(B), which allows a debtor to exempt from her bankruptcy 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 . . . to the extent that such interest . . . is exempt from process under applicable nonbankruptcy law." 11 U.S.C. § 522(b)(3)(B). By July 26, 2016, the deadline set by the trustee for filing claims, six unsecured, nonpriority claims, totaling $30, 876.88, had been filed solely against Appellee (i.e., there were no joint creditors).

         Less than one month after Appellee filed the Petition, her husband died. Appellant Joseph Bellinger, the trustee in the bankruptcy proceeding, subsequently filed an objection to Appellee‘s exemption, arguing that the death of Appellee‘s spouse had extinguished the tenancy by the entireties, as well as the corresponding exemption, and that sole ownership of the property had reverted to the bankruptcy estate. No. 16-17946 ECF No. 17. On September 6, 2016, Appellee filed a response. Id. ECF No. 20. Following a hearing, the bankruptcy court rejected the trustee‘s objection and entered an Order and Memorandum Overruling Trustee‘s Objection to the Debtor‘s Claim of Exemption. Id. ECF Nos. 26 & 27. On January 10, 2017, the trustee filed the instant appeal.

         The Court preliminarily notes that the bankruptcy court‘s order addressed only Appellee‘s entitlement to an exemption following the death of her spouse. That said, the inescapable consequence of its conclusion that Appellee‘s exemption survived the death of her spouse is that her interest in the Property did not reenter the bankruptcy estate. In other words, Appellee‘s entitlement to the exemption is relevant only because of its impact on the ultimate issue in dispute between the parties: whether Appellee‘s interest in the Property is part of the bankruptcy estate. Indeed, Appellant argued as much in his objection to the exemption, the bankruptcy court addressed this issue in its memorandum accompanying the order, and Appellant appeals from both the order and the memorandum, (ECF No. 1). Moreover, both parties have fully briefed the issue of the bankruptcy estate‘s entitlement to Appellee‘s interest in the Property. Thus, the Court reaches this ultimate issue to affirm the decision, despite finding that the bankruptcy court erred in concluding that the exemption survived the death of Appellee‘s spouse.

         II. Standard of Review

         In an appeal from the bankruptcy court, this Court reviews factual findings for clear error and conclusions of law de novo. Gold v. First Tenn. Bank Nat'l Ass'n (In re Taneja), 743 F.3d 423, 429 (4th Cir. 2014). The bankruptcy court‘s order and memorandum overruling the trustee‘s objection rested solely on legal conclusions, therefore, this Court will review the decision de novo. "Moreover, the decision of a bankruptcy court 'must be affirmed if the result is correct‘ even if the lower court relied upon 'a wrong ground or gave a wrong reason.‘" Okoro v. Wells Fargo Bank, N.A., 567 B.R. 267, 271 (D. Md. 2017) (quoting SEC v. Chenery Corp., 318 U.S. 80, 88 (1943)). Thus, this Court may "affirm the bankruptcy court on any ground supported by the record." LeCann v. Cobham (In re Cobham), 551 B.R. 181, 189 (E.D. N.C. ), aff'd, 669 F. App‘x 171 (4th Cir. 2016), reh'g denied (Nov. 29, 2016).

         III. Question Presented

         The sole issue on appeal is whether the bankruptcy court erred in concluding that Appellee‘s interest in the Property did not reenter her bankruptcy estate following the death of her husband.[1]

         IV. Analysis

         The bankruptcy court held that Appellee‘s claimed exemption pursuant to 11 U.S.C. § 522(b)(3)(B) survived the postpetition death of her spouse, and therefore her interest in the Property is not part of her bankruptcy estate. Appellant contends that this holding is at odds with controlling Fourth Circuit precedent. More specifically, Appellant argues that when a tenancy by the entirety interest in property is extinguished postpetition (e.g., due to divorce or the death of one spouse), a § 522(b)(3)(B) exemption based on that interest also is extinguished. The Court agrees with this initial proposition. To the extent that the bankruptcy court‘s decision relied on a contrary holding, it was erroneous. The Court‘s analysis does not end here, however.

         Under controlling Fourth Circuit precedent, Appellee acquired a new "interest" in property-as that term is used in 11 U.S.C. § 541(a)-when her tenancy by the entirety was extinguished. Cordova v. Mayer (In re Cordova), 73 F.3d 38, 42-43 (4th Cir. 1996). That postpetition interest must be captured by the bankruptcy estate pursuant to some statutory mechanism. Appellant suggests that Appellee‘s interest in the Property reentered the bankruptcy estate postpetition, either by operation of Maryland law or via § 541(a)(1) of the Bankruptcy Code. Both of these contentions are meritless. While state law determines the "particular features" of a debtor‘s interest in property, federal law "defines the property interests included in the bankruptcy estate." Fairfield v. United States (In re Ballard), 65 F.3d 367, 371 (4th Cir. 1995). In other words, state law determines the existence (including the nature and scope) of a debtor‘s interest in property, but no more. In re Greer, 242 B.R. 389, 394 (Bankr.N.D.Ohio 1999) (citing Butner v. United States, 440 U.S. 48, 54-55 (1979)). Here, it is undisputed that Appellee held a fee simple interest as a tenant by the entirety in the Property under Maryland law, but the Court must look to federal law to determine whether that interest is part of her bankruptcy estate. It is here that Appellant‘s second argument fails: § 541(a)(1) applies only to a debtor‘s interest in property "as of the commencement of the case." 11 U.S.C. § 541(a)(1). An interest in property acquired postpetition, on the other hand, is generally not part of the bankruptcy estate in a Chapter 7 case. Moreover, none of the narrow exceptions to this general rule apply here. Thus, Appellee‘s interest in the Property, which she acquired after the commencement of her case, is not part of her bankruptcy estate. Accordingly, the decision of the bankruptcy court is affirmed.

         A. Appellee's Entireties Interest Was Exempted From ...


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