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In re Aguirre

United States District Court, N.D. Illinois, Eastern Division

January 23, 2017

In re RAMON AGUIRRE, et al., Debtors,
WHEELER FINANCIAL, INC., Appellee. JPMORGAN CHASE BANK, N.A., Appellant, Bankr. No. 14-24420



         This case is a three-party tangle, a shemozzle, between husband and wife debtors who operate an Italian restaurant out of a commercial building that they own in Chicago, the bank that loaned the debtors in excess of $1 million dollars collateralized by the commercial property, and a tax purchaser who obtained a tax lien on the property. Debtors Ramon and Bertha Aguirre ("the Debtors") failed to pay their 2010 property taxes on the commercial property they owned. Prior to that, JPMorgan Chase Bank, N.A. ("Chase") loaned the Debtors approximately $1.3 million dollars and held a perfected first priority security interest in the commercial property. In 2012, Wheeler Financial, Inc. ("Wheeler") acquired a tax lien on the property. Before the redemption period on the tax lien expired, the Debtors filed a Chapter 11 bankruptcy petition and confirmed a reorganization plan. The Debtors then failed to pay the amount due to Wheeler under the plan by the designated date. After the Debtors missed the payment deadline, Wheeler moved to lift the automatic stay, and the Debtors moved to modify the plan. The bankruptcy court granted Wheeler relief from the automatic stay and denied the Debtors' modification of the plan. The Debtors and Chase now appeal the bankruptcy court's decision. For the following reasons, the bankruptcy court's decision is vacated, and this case is remanded for further proceedings consistent with this Opinion.

         I. BACKGROUND

         The Debtors own three real estate properties and operate an Italian restaurant out of one of them: the first a single family residence at 4599 Hatch Lane in Lisle, Illinois-their home ("home"); the second a three-story commercial property located at 1374 Grand Avenue in Chicago, Illinois-the Debtors' restaurant ("restaurant property"); and the third another single family residence-a rental unit located at 1307 Burlington Avenue in Lisle, Illinois that generates about $1, 100 in gross income per month ("rental unit"). In October 2009, Chase loaned Debtors in excess of $1.3 million dollars. The loan was collateralized by the Debtors' home and restaurant property. The rental unit is unencumbered.

         For reasons not explained in the record, the Debtors did not pay the 2010 real estate taxes on the restaurant property. On August 8, 2012, Wheeler obtained a Certificate of Purchase at the Clerk of Cook County's annual tax sale for $10, 839.98, and it amounts to a tax lien on the Debtors' restaurant property. The Debtors' delinquency on their real estate taxes continued and Wheeler paid $23, 945.41 to fulfill the Debtors' tax obligation for the years 2011, 2012, and a portion of 2013. The most recent payment by Wheeler was on April 2, 2014. There is no evidence in the record showing that the Debtors received actual notice from Wheeler that Wheeler had purchased and maintained the tax lien on their restaurant property.

         On June 30, 2014, the Debtors voluntarily filed for bankruptcy under Chapter 11 for the purpose of reorganizing their debts. In the schedules filed on July 1, 2014, the Debtors did not list Wheeler as a secured or unsecured creditor. Nor did the Debtors list the Clerk of Cook County as a creditor for the real estate taxes on the restaurant property. Nonetheless, the Debtors proceeded before the bankruptcy court and began formulating their Chapter 11 reorganization plan.

         Meanwhile, on December 8, 2014, Wheeler voluntarily filed an extension of the redemption period with the Clerk of Cook County, which provided the Debtors until June 8, 2015 to pay the overdue taxes, penalties and interest. Wheeler filed a petition for a tax deed in the Circuit Court of Cook County on December 10, 2014. The Debtors received notice of the state court proceeding in January 2015, but did not enter an appearance in the case. It appears that the first time the Debtors became aware of Wheeler's existence was when the Debtors received summons for the state court litigation. Wheeler never served Chase, the million dollar lender, a summons as an interested party in the state court proceeding.

         On February 2, 2015, the Debtors filed a Second Amended Plan of Reorganization (the "Plan"). That Plan lists three classes of creditors: Class One includes only Chase, Class Two includes only Wheeler, and Class Three includes all of the unsecured creditors. In short, Class One allows the Debtors to retain ownership of their home and their restaurant property so long as they pay Chase $8, 000 per month for up to thirty-six months. The Plan contemplates a lump sum payment in excess of $1 million to Chase on or before the end of the thirty-six months, and $4, 000 per month thereafter until the balance owed to Chase is paid in full. The Plan is explicit that Chase retains its pre-petition liens until paid in full. The entirety of Wheeler's Class Two claim in the Plan reads as follows:

Debtors owe over $40, 000 to Wheeler-Dealer, Ltd., d/b/a Wheeler Financial, Inc., as a real estate tax purchaser, Cook County Clerk and/or DuPage County Treasurer/DuPage County Clerk, for past due real estate taxes, interest and penalties. The real estate commonly known as 1307 Burlington, Lisle, Illinois, has been placed for sale with a Real Estate Agent and shall remain for sale until sold. Upon sale of the property, the net proceeds of from the sale (defined as payment of broker's commission, real estate tax, prorations, usual and customary title charges, usual and customary closing costs, and a reasonable attorneys' fee, not to exceed $3, 000) will be used to pay the pre-petition real estate taxes currently owing for 4500 Hatch Lane, Lisle, Illinois 60532 and 1374 West Grand Avenue, Chicago, Illinois, including but not limited to all amounts now owed to Wheeler-Dealer, Ltd., d/b/a Wheeler Financial, Inc./Cook County Clerk and the DuPage County Treasurer (both Cook and DuPage County) for these two parcels through 2013. Additionally, the balance of the net proceeds up to $50, 000 shall be paid to JPMorgan as additional consideration to agree to this Plan of Reorganization. This paragraph applies to the prepetition real estate taxes on the real estate commonly known as 4599 Hatch Lane, Lisle, Illinois and 1374 West Grand Avenue, Chicago, Illinois only. This claim is impaired.

         Second Amended Plan of Reorganization at 10 (hereinafter cited as "The Plan"), App. 1 to Brief of Appellant JPMorgan Chase at 11, Dkt. No. 28-1 at 11. The terms of Class Three promise to pay the unsecured creditors 100 percent of the amount due, which totals $17, 385.79. The Plan explicitly states that "the Confirmed Plan shall become a binding agreement between the Debtors and his creditors, superseding all pre-petition obligations of the Debtors to his Creditors." The Plan at 11. The bankruptcy court confirmed the Plan on April 15, 2015.

         Wheeler claims that it did not receive actual notice of the Debtors' bankruptcy filing until March 1, 2015, when it received a Certificate of Service of Class 2 Ballots. Because of its late notice of the bankruptcy filing, Wheeler never filed a proof of claim. However, Wheeler participated in the formation of the Plan by negotiating an additional provision for its Class Two claim into the Plan. The additional provision states that:

Debtors are to sell the property and/or payoff the entire balance owed to Wheeler-Dealer, Ltd. within six months of confirmation. [A]ll other terms as to Class 2 shall remain the same.

         Order Amending the Plan at 1, App. 2 to Brief of Appellant JPMorgan Chase at 11, Dkt. No. 28- 1 at 17. The additional provision was also confirmed by the bankruptcy court on April 15, 2015.

         Six months came and went after the bankruptcy court's confirmation of the Plan without the Debtors making a single payment to Wheeler. On November 19, 2015, Wheeler filed a motion for relief from stay so that it could once again proceed on its petition for a tax deed still pending in state court. On December 7, 2015, the Debtors filed a motion to modify the Plan to extend the payment date to Wheeler another six months, but it also provided a guaranty that if the Debtors could not pay the debt owed to Wheeler, Chase would. Whatever amount paid by Chase to Wheeler would correspondingly ...

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