Business Law

In re Drummond, No. CV-23-0009-CQ, ___ P. 3d ___, 2024 WL 740253 (Ariz. Feb. 23, 2024)

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The following is a case update written by Hale Andrew Antico, Chief Counsel of Antico Law Firm, analyzing In re Drummond, No. CV-23-0009-CQ, ___ P. 3d ___, 2024 WL 740253 (Ariz. Feb. 23, 2024), a recent case of interest:

SUMMARY

In In re Drummond, the United States Bankruptcy Court for the District of Arizona certified to the Arizona Supreme Court the question of whether a motor home qualifies as a mobile home for the homestead exemption under Arizona law. The Arizona Supreme Court answered that a motor home does not qualify as an exempt “mobile home.”

To read the decision, click here.

FACTS

In March 2022, Steven and Mary Drummond (“Debtors”) filed a Chapter 7 bankruptcy petition in the United States Bankruptcy Court for the District of Arizona. In their Schedule A/B, Debtors listed a “self-propelled” motor home which they use as a full-time residence. They claimed an exemption for the motor home under the relevant Arizona homestead statute, A.R.S. § 33-1101(A)(3).

Section 33-1101(A)(3) allows debtors to exempt “a mobile home in which the person resides.” The issue was whether a motor home is a “mobile home” under Arizona’s exemption scheme, which was a matter of first impression. The bankruptcy court used a process in Arizona (under its A.R.S. § 12-1861) to certify the question to the Arizona Supreme Court (“Court”) to decide and interpret the homestead statute as a matter of law.

The Arizona Supreme Court concluded that a motor home does not qualify for the Arizona homestead exemption as a mobile home.

REASONING

First, the Court looked at Arizona law to define “motor home” and found that it was a “a motor vehicle that is primarily designed as temporary living quarters and that [i]s built onto as an integral part of, or is permanently attached to, a motor vehicle chassis,” which it found in its Transportation Code. The Court noted that a “motor home” was inherently movable. 

It then looked at Arizona law to define “mobile home” and could find no definition. A look at various common dictionaries provided no clarity. The Court then looked at how “mobile home” was used in the Arizona exemption statute relative to the other three items protected. There, it determined the other items – real property, condominiums, and the land upon which a mobile home sits – are all unmovable and permanent. Further, the implication that mobile home-connected land is exempted showed the Court that there is a lasting nexus between the mobile home and the land. Otherwise, a “movable” vehicle could be placed anywhere on the eve of filing bankruptcy and exempt the underlying land on which it was parked despite having no permanent attachment to the land.

The Arizona Supreme Court ultimately concluded that a “motor home” cannot be a “mobile home” because it 1) is intended to be easily movable and, 2) is not tied to the land upon which it sits in any meaningful way.

In the dissent, the court noted that in today’s culture, people live in many non-traditional homes that are movable, including houseboats and tiny houses on wheels. These homeowners deserve the same level of protection as those who choose to live in dwellings attached to land.

The dissent further pointed out that federal courts have interpreted Arizona’s homestead exemption with regard to motor homes and found them to be mobile homes, citing Warfield v. Froemming, 663 F. Supp. 3d 1079 (D. Ariz. 2023) and In re Irwin, 293 B.R. 28 (Bankr. D. Ariz. 2003). Additionally, mobile homes in Arizona are titled by the Department of Transportation (until affixture). They are also taxed as personal property by the state (unless affixed). Further, the dissent notes that the majority’s reading of permanent plumbing, wiring, or attachment is not supported by Arizona statute. 

The dissent divined legislative intent by focusing on how the term “mobile home” was used at the time of the statute’s enactment in 1971, finding support for that of a movable motor home at the time.

The dissent concluded with a public policy argument – that it was Arizona’s purpose of a homestead exemption to not leave people homeless, and that therefore courts should construe its homestead exemption liberally.

The majority countered the dissent by distinguishing Irwin, and dismissed it as having flawed analysis and misplaced reliance on other caselaw. The majority also criticized the dissent for having an over-reliance on public policy and legislative intent where the statute was exceedingly clear that a movable “motor home” is not a more permanent “mobile home” and as such, not subject to Arizona’s homestead exemption.

AUTHOR’S COMMENTS

Arizona’s Supreme Court’s analysis 

All motor homes are mobile, but not all mobile homes have a motor. This seems to be the crux of the Arizona Supreme Court’s holding in interpreting Arizona’s homestead exemption to exclude “motor homes.” The distinction between “motor” and “mobile,” while seemingly trivial and semantic, has a profound impact on whether debtors can keep their residence, in whatever form it may be, particularly at a time when housing and real estate is very expensive.

However, as much as this result may seem unfair to debtors, it appears to be the correct one. The Arizona homestead exemption lists four types of assets exempted. The three other types besides “mobile home” are permanent and/or include real estate. If the Arizona Transportation Code defines “motor home” as movable and the homestead exemption includes assets that are not movable, the Arizona Supreme Court’s analysis is consistent and logical.

Of course, all of this is subject to the two-year requirement of 11 U.S.C.522(b)(3). This statute starts with an analysis that limits usage of a state’s exemptions to the “…place in which the debtor’s domicile has been located for the 730 days immediately preceding the date of the filing of the petition…” Because the motor homes are at issue, which are inherently movable and often do travel from state-to-state, it may be more than a trivial matter to try to determine which state’s exemptions apply. Let’s look at a different one. 

California Homestead and Motor Homes

You may ask yourself, “why is an association of California lawyers writing about Arizona court rulings on Arizona state law?” And the answer is: because it lets us dive into a discussion of whether the issue would be decided differently here in the Golden State.

Here, we’d start with California Code of Civil Procedure (CCP) § 704.710, which defines what a “dwelling” is for the purpose of the California homestead exemption. The CCP says a dwelling “may include but is not limited to the following” and lists seven (7) subsections, each with a different type of asset. The list includes traditional residences such as “house” and “condominium.” It also lists “movable” home types such as “a boat or other waterborne vessel.” Further, § 704.710 includes protections for a “mobilehome” but continues “together with the outbuildings and the land on which they are situated.”  And again, note the statute’s language of “is not limited to” is broader than the enumerated list. 

So, unlike Arizona, California specifically protects movable vessels like boats. Also unlike Arizona, our homestead exemption specifically protects a “mobilehome” and with land and outbuildings situated.  This could imply that a mobile home in California must be permanent and not movable. However, the specific language used by the California legislature is not “affixed,” but only “situated.” And a movable home can be situated anywhere.

Or, to quote the Talking Heads again:

“Home is where I want to be
But I guess I’m already there.”

That’s all well and good, but let’s takes a look at how courts interpret what a “dwelling” is under California law.

First, we start with the observation that a protected “dwelling” in California is not the equivalent of a “house.” Olson v. Buttram, No. C071549, 2014 WL 1316240 (Cal. Ct. App. Apr. 2, 2014), unpub. There, the debtors lived in a motor home located on the property and not in the house on the same property. The appellate court examined whether one or both debtors lived on the property, whether the motor home was a principal dwelling, and a few other factors. However, in response to the accusation that a debtor lived in the motor home and not the house, the court found the distinction moot: “The trial court correctly concluded that a dwelling for purposes of finding a homestead may include a motor home located on the subject property.”

In the quest for other clues, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals stated, “…an automobile, unlike a home, is movable, the automobile exemption nonetheless reflects a concern for preserving a need for basic transportation.” In re Arrol, 170 F.3d 934 (9th Cir. 1999). While this may seem relevant, the focus of the Ninth Circuit in Arrol was the extra-territory applicability of the California homestead exemption to a home in another state. The Ninth Circuit here did not consider or address whether the car or motor vehicle could be a home. 

California Health and Safety Code § 18010 defines a “recreational vehicle” as a “… motor home, travel trailer, truck camper, or camping trailer, with or without motive power, designed for human habitation for recreational, emergency, or other occupancy…It is either self-propelled, truck-mounted, or permanently towable on the highways without a permit.” (emphasis added). In other words, an R.V. is a motor home in California, and whether it’s self-propelled or not, is fit for habitation. California seems to be defining an R.V. or motor home as something which can be a residence for occupancy. A cynic would counter that no, by definition, a motor home is recreational and therefore can’t be a home. At some point, a California court will clarify the statute. 

A parenthetical observation: Governor Newsom recently signed into law two bills (AB1033 and AB976) which allow “accessory dwelling units” (or ADUs) to be sold separately from a main residence as condos. This reflects a trend to expand what a “dwelling” is under California law in an effort to address the current California homeless crisis. This also encourages partitioning of outhouses from a main residence and potentially limiting the California homestead exemption from applying to ADUs, but that’s a different article.

In sum, it appears there is no binding precedent in California on the issue of whether a “motor home” is a “mobile home” subject to the California homestead exemption. Given that one California appellate court includes analysis that signals a motor home can be exempted by the homestead, the rule would seem to lean in that direction. Also, our state allows exempting a boat or other movable water vessels, so one would think that could extend to vehicles that move on land. And again, a dwelling is “not limited to” the list of items listed. When you add California’s definition of an RV to be a motor home that can have a motor and be fit for habitation, it may seem the state wants to include motor homes as a residence. Finally, California has a generous wildcard exemption, so this may never even come up here. Then again, there are some expensive motor homes and RVs out there.

The “motor home” versus “mobile home” debate is very unsettled here in California. As always when one considers filing a Chapter 7 bankruptcy for a home with a borderline exemption, one should be extremely careful, or they may be burning down the house.

Even if it’s self-propelled, movable, and on wheels. 

These materials were written by Hale Andrew Antico, Chief Counsel of Antico Law Firm, with editorial contributions from ILC member Maggie E. Schroedter of Robberson Schroedter LLP (maggie@theRSfirm.com). 

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