United States District Court, N.D. New York
CHRISTINE A. OWAD, Appellant,
ANDREW ZWEBEN, Appellee.
DECISION AND ORDER
Lawrence E. Kahn U.S. District Judge.
case, pro se debtor Christine Owad appeals the decision of
United States Bankruptcy Judge Robert E. Littlefield, Jr.,
denying her motion to avoid a judicial lien on her property.
Dkt. No. 1 (“Record”) at 11; see also
Dkt. Nos. 6 (“Appellant's Brief”), 11
(“Appellee's Brief”), 12 (“Reply
Brief”). Andrew Zweben, an attorney and the
court-appointed receiver of the property, opposed Owad's
motion and now opposes her appeal. Appellee's Br. at 1.
In the bankruptcy court, Owad asserted that the lien was
improper due to a homestead exemption on the property, R. at
24, but Judge Littlefield found that Owad did not actually
own the land and thus was ineligible for an exemption,
id. at 30. For the following reasons, the decision
of the bankruptcy court is affirmed.
appeal concerns a plot of land in the Town of Prattsville and
the identity of its current owner. Appellant's Br. at
4-7. Based on the record, it appears that in 2004, Owad first
took title to a 66-acre parcel of land granted to her in the
will of Jaroslaw Owad, who died in 2003. Dkt. No. 2-4
(“Designation Part 4”) at 62; see also
Dkt. No. 2-3 (“Designation Part 3”) at 151-52
(reflecting the original 1966 conveyance of the land to
Jaroslaw and his wife Ronana). In 2005, Owad transferred the
land to Jaroslawa Budzek of Dayton, Ohio, Designation pt. 4,
at 66, who then transferred the land back to Owad in 2006,
id. at 70. In all of these transfers, the
description of the land was identical to the one in the
original conveyance to Owad (and to Jaroslaw and Ronana Owad
before her). Id. at 62, 66, 70; Designation pt. 3,
2011, Owad executed a deed purporting to sell a portion of
this land to herself. Designation pt. 4, at 75-76.
Significantly, this 2.7 acre portion of land contained the
house and other structures built on the property, and Owad
claims this division was also supported by a survey map filed
with the County Clerk. Id. at 75-78; Appellant's
Br. at 6-7. The deed notes that this land was “a
portion of the premises conveyed to Jaroslaw and Romana
Owad” in 1966 (and thus subsequently transferred to
Owad in 2004). Designation pt. 4, at 76.
2012, Owad executed yet another deed, this time to the
benefit of an entity called Grants Center, Inc. Id.
at 85. According to Zweben, however, the transfer to Grants
Center-an entity created and managed by Owad herself-was
merely an attempt to thwart his sale of the property in
satisfaction of a judicial lien. Appellee's Br. at 1-2;
see also Designation pt. 3, at 103-05 (listing the
officers and directors of Grants Center). Importantly, the
deed transferring the property to Grants Center defines the
property being transferred using the exact same description
as the 2004 deed to Owad (as well as the original 1966
conveyance). Designation pt. 4, at 85.
bankruptcy court, Owad moved to avoid the judicial lien on
her property on the basis of a homestead exemption. R. at 11,
24. The primary issue there was whether the 2011 deed from
Owad to herself, along with the survey map, sufficed to
subdivide the property into two different parcels: one
transferred to Grants Center, and the other (including the
dwellings) still owned by Owad. Id. at 24-30. Zweben
(and eventually the court) maintained that because Owad
failed to follow the town's subdivision regulations, the
2011 deed was a nullity. Id. at 26-28. Owad, on the
other hand, asserted that the subdivision could not run afoul
of these regulations because they were enacted in 1999, while
the survey of the property was conducted in 1994.
Id. at 26-27. The bankruptcy court denied Owad's
motion, finding both that the 2011 deed “ha[d] no legal
effect” because of the subdivision issue, and also that
the smaller portion of the property “was subsumed
by” the transfer to Grants Center. Id. at 30.
notice of appeal was docketed on March 11, 2016. R. at 11.
This Court has appellate jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. §
158(a)(1) because Owad appeals from a final order. See
John T. Mather Mem. Hosp. of Port Jefferson, Inc. v.
Pearl, 723 F.2d 193, 194 n.1 (2d Cir. 1983) (per curiam)
(“We believe that a decision granting or denying a
[homestead] exemption is final for this purpose.”);
see also Fed.R.Bankr.P. 8002(a)(1) (establishing the
time to file a notice of appeal).
her briefing is somewhat unclear-which is understandable
given her status as a pro se litigant-Owad's arguments
seem to be that the 2011 self-transfer was sufficient to
subdivide the land and that the town's subdivision
regulations were not in force until 1999. Appellant's Br.
at 6-7. Regrettably, Zweben-an attorney-submitted an almost
equally unintelligible brief, citing just one unrelated case
from the Bankruptcy Court for the Southern District of
Georgia and spending considerable time emphasizing
Owad's allegedly untrustworthy nature (instead of
coherently describing the factual and legal issues in this
case). Appellee's Br. Furthermore, Judge Littlefield did
not file a written decision (save for a one-page order
drafted by Zweben, R. at 10, 30), and did not make explicit
findings of law or fact on the record, R. at 24-32.
Nevertheless, the Court has reviewed the record and the
parties' briefing, and can decide Owad's appeal on
STANDARD OF REVIEW
appeal, a district court reviews a bankruptcy court's
factual findings for clear error and its legal conclusions de
novo. County of Clinton v. Warehouse at Van Buren St.,
Inc., No. 12-CV-1636, 2013 WL 2145656, at *1 (N.D.N.Y.
May 15, 2013) (citing R2 Invs., LDC v. Charter
Commc'ns, Inc., 691 F.3d 476, 483 (2d Cir. 2012)).
“A finding is ‘clearly erroneous' when
although there is evidence to support it, the reviewing court
on the entire evidence is left with the definite and firm
conviction that a mistake has been committed.”
United States v. U.S. Gypsum Co., 333 U.S. 364, 395
the bankruptcy code, a debtor may avoid a judicial lien that
impairs an exemption (such as the homestead exemption at
issue here). 11 U.S.C. § 522(f). But this application of
the homestead exemption, among other things, requires the
debtor to have an ownership interest in the property.
Id.; accord N.Y. C.P.L.R. 5206(a); 11
U.S.C. § 522(d)(1); In re Varrone, No.
11-CV-2199, 2012 WL 1079005, at *4 (E.D.N.Y. Mar. 30, 2012);
see also § 522(g)(1)(A) (barring exemption of
property recovered by the trustee if the recovery came after
a voluntary transfer of the property by the ...