This case was the subject of an amicus call by the SJC and presented what was essentially an issue of first impression in the Court, at least under modern bankruptcy law. The defendant credit union was a secured creditor that, in an earlier action, obtained a judgment against the present plaintiff and perfected a judicial lien on her real property to secure the judgment. It intended to sell the property in order to satisfy a judgment arising out her unpaid credit card debt. About a year after the credit union won its judgment and lien, the plaintiff filed for bankruptcy and her debts were discharged under Chapter 7. She then brought this action to “remove cloud on title” in order to forestall the sale of her property, arguing that the bankruptcy discharge voided the judgment on which the creditor’s pre-bankruptcy lien rested. Other than a glancing remark in a short, 1937 decision, the Court had not discussed, let alone decided, whether, in circumstances like these, a creditor retains a secured interest upon which it may foreclose.
Concerned by the failure of the parties and the trial judge to discuss controlling federal case law, NELF filed a brief in support of the credit union. In its brief, NELF identified Johnson v. Home State Bank, 501 U.S. 78 (1991), as providing the rule of decision in this case. NELF explained the reasoning of Johnson and cited numerous lower court decisions acknowledging the precedential status of Johnson. Briefly put, a discharge of debts only reaches debts for which the debtor’s personal assets in bankruptcy are liable; property interests (such as, here, liens interests) validly conveyed to another party before bankruptcy do not form part of the debtor’s later bankruptcy estate, and thus the debts secured by such interests remain unaffected by a discharge. NELF also rebutted Christakis’ attempts to exempt non-consentual liens, like the judgment lien in question here, from the rule of Johnson. NELF pointed out the Johnson itself relied on two cases involving judicial liens, noting further that Christakis conceded that she could not satisfy the sole statutory exception addressing judgment liens. Finally, NELF demonstrated that the few cases Christakis cited offer no support to her position for a variety of reasons; in particular, NELF observed that her strongest case actually rests on a serious misquotation of an earlier case on a crucial point of law.
In its May 6, 2015 decision, Christakis v. Jeanne D’Arc Credit Union, 471 Mass. 365, 2015 WL 2069689 (2015), the Court agreed with NELF and applied Johnson as the rule of decision in the case. Finding that the discharge did not reach the property interest transferred by the judgment lien, it rejected the plaintiff’s contention that the case turned on an issue of Massachusetts law, i.e., whether state courts should allow the credit union to execute on a judgment supposedly voided by the discharge. Interestingly, the Court went on to declare that other secured creditors, who had been defaulted in this case for failure to answer and were not part of the appeal, were entitled to judgment in their favor because Christakis’s complaint was legally insufficient as to them too for the reasons stated in the opinion.