After a real estate foreclosure in Missouri, lenders often sue the borrower and any guarantors, seeking a “deficiency judgment,” which is the difference between the price paid at the foreclosure sale and the amount owed, which includes the costs of the foreclosure sale. Often there is no bidder at the buyer at the foreclosure sale, so whatever amount the lender bids is accepted without challenge.
Next, the lender sues the borrower (and any guarantors) for the difference between the lender’s bid and the amount owed. The borrower always wishes that the lender’s bid had been high enough to equal the amount owed, so that the amount of the deficiency would be eliminated. But the lender has no incentive to bid higher than the minimum amount needed to recover the property. A Missouri court, under existing judicial decisions, cannot use its equitable power to adjust the amount of the deficiency unless the borrower proves the existence of fraud, unfair dealing or mistake in the conduct of foreclosure sale. There is no clear standard for determining the existence of “unfair dealing”; sales have been upheld when as little as 10% of fair market value has been offered.
In a recent case from the Eastern District of the Missouri Court of Appeals, First Bank v Fischer & Frichtel, Inc., the borrower acknowledged that the court had no power to adjust the amount of the deficiency, but asked the Court of Appeals to transfer this case to the Missouri Supreme Court, for consideration of adopting a different rule of law, such as the rule that allows court would be able to determine the foreclosed property’s fair market value, without the necessity of proof of fraud, unfair dealing or mistake in the sale proceedings. This alternate rule is applied in several other states.
Following Missouri Supreme Court Rule 83.02, the Court of Appeals ordered that this case be transferred to the Missouri Supreme Court “because of the general interest or importance of a question involved in the case or for the purposes of reexamining existing law.”
This question is important for several reasons, in my opinion:
- There is no clear guidance in the law to assist foreclosing lenders in setting the amount that they will bid; this situation is an invitation for bids to be low, unless there are other bidders.
- Because of the unprecedented number of properties being foreclosed, and the inability to quickly resell foreclosed property, there are relatively few bidders, whose bids would ordinarily establish the fair market value.
- Lenders, facing the prospect of incurring expenses indefinitely for holding the foreclosed property (taxes, mowing, security, insurance, prevention of freezing pipes, etc.), bid low, and hope to collect on a deficiency judgment, maybe not now but at some future time when the borrower recovers financially. If courts have no power to determine whether a bid (from a lender or a third party) is in some sense fair, lenders have a clear incentive to bid less than the property is worth.
But does the absence of bidders mean that many foreclosed properties have no value? Perhaps not individually, but marginally. Most investors have all the property they need; nobody needs another vacant rent house or strip center. Investors and other potential buyers are content to let the foreclosing lenders hold the foreclosed properties until the market is ready to absorb them.
Why should the Missouri Supreme Court, rather than the legislature, address this issue? Rules of law in a representative democracy should be made by those elected to be lawmakers. The Missouri General Assembly has not addressed this issue, though the inequities of the present foreclosure statutes have been long apparent. Perhaps the General Assembly will take a look at a solution. The court or the legislature needs to hear from representatives of lenders, appraisers, consumer advocates, title insurers, and lawyers to create procedures that provide more fairness.