Debtors’ Manufactured Home Was Personal Property Under Iowa Law

Posted by NCBRC - March 8, 2019

The Eighth Circuit found no clear error in the bankruptcy court’s finding that, under Iowa common law, the chapter 13 debtors’ manufactured home was personal property and therefore the debt it secured was not subject to section 1322(b)’s anti-modification provision. The Paddock, LLC v. Bennett, No. 18-2098 (Feb. 28, 2019).

Benjamin and Teresia Bennett purchased a manufactured home from Paddock, and placed it on a lot owned by Paddock under a 990-year lease. In their chapter 13 bankruptcy, the Bennetts proposed to bifurcate the debt secured by the manufactured home into secured and unsecured portions under section 506(a)(1). Paddock objected arguing that the home was real property and the interest was subject to the anti-modification provision of section 1322(b). The bankruptcy court found that, under Iowa law, the home was personal property and confirmed the plan. In re Bennett, 2017 WL 1417221 (Bankr. N.D. Iowa Apr. 20, 2017). The Bankruptcy Appellate Panel affirmed. In re Bennett, 584 B.R. 15 (B.A.P. 8th Cir. 2018).

On appeal, the Eighth Circuit Court found that the bankruptcy court correctly applied Iowa law which provides that a fixture may be deemed real property when: “(1) it is actually annexed to the realty, or to something appurtenant thereto; (2) it is put to the same use as the realty with which it is connected; and (3) the party making the annexation intends to make a permanent accession to the freehold.” Applying these considerations, the court looked at the evidence to determine whether the bankruptcy court committed clear error in its findings of fact.

At the confirmation hearing, the parties introduced contradictory evidence as to the physical permanence of the home’s placement on the lot. Although Paddock produced testimony that the home was placed on a permanent, embedded cement foundation, the bankruptcy court credited the Bennetts’ contrary testimony that the home was placed on piers and blocks that were not deeply embedded. In fact, the Bennetts testified that one of the pier pads repeatedly sank into the ground requiring them to raise the pad to level the home. The bankruptcy court was also persuaded that the home was not a permanent accession to the freehold by the fact that the Bennetts leased the land where it was located and, even though the lease described the home as a permanent structure, it included provisions for moving it. The circuit court found no clear error in the bankruptcy court’s resolution of the factual disputes and affirmed the decisions below.

In dissent, Judge Beam argued that the bankruptcy court erred in disregarding the “uncontroverted” evidence that the home was placed on an embedded cement foundation and could not be moved without the use of a professional home mover. This conclusion was supported, according to the dissent, by Iowa law which requires that manufactured homes be placed on cement foundations. The dissent further disagreed with the bankruptcy court’s reliance on the fact that the land where the home was placed was subject to a lease. The dissent argued that the 990-year lease was, in fact, a transfer in fee simple “subject to a condition subsequent.”

Bennett 8th Cir Feb 2019

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