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Fidelity Financial Services, Inc. v. Fink

January 13, 1998

FIDELITY FINANCIAL SERVICES, INC., PETITIONER

v.

RICHARD V. FINK, TRUSTEE



SYLLABUS BY THE COURT

Certiorari To The United States Court Of Appeals For The Eighth Circuit

No. 96-1370.

Argued November 3, 1997

Decided January 13, 1998

Diane Beasley purchased a new car and gave petitioner, Fidelity Financial Services, Inc., a promissory note for the purchase price, secured by the car. Twenty-one days later, Fidelity mailed the application necessary to perfect its security interest under Missouri law. Beasley later filed for bankruptcy, and the trustee of her bankruptcy estate, respondent Fink, moved to set aside Fidelity's security interest on the ground that the lien was a voidable preference under 11 U. S. C. Section 547(b). Section 547(c)(3)(B) prohibits the avoidance of a security interest for a loan used to acquire property if, among other things, the security interest is "perfected on or before 20 days after the debtor receives possession of such property." Fink argued that this "enabling loan" exception was inapposite because Fidelity had not perfected its interest within the 20-day period. Fidelity responded that Missouri law treats a motor vehicle lien as having been "perfected" on the date of its creation (in this case, within the 20-day period), if the creditor files the necessary documents within 30 days after the debtor takes possession. The Bankruptcy Court set aside the lien as a voidable preference, holding that Missouri's relation-back provision could not extend Section 547(c)(3)(B)'s 20-day perfection period. The District Court affirmed on substantially the same grounds, as did the Eighth Circuit, holding a transfer to be perfected when the transferee takes the last step required by state law to perfect its security interest.

Held: A transfer of a security interest is "perfected" under Section 547(c)(3)(B) on the date that the secured party has completed the steps necessary to perfect its interest, so that a creditor may invoke the enabling loan exception only by satisfying state law perfection requirements within the 20-day period provided by the federal statute. Section 547(e)(1)(B) provides that "a transfer of … property … is perfected when a creditor on a simple contract cannot acquire a judicial lien that is superior to the interest of the transferee." This definition implies that a transfer is "perfected" only when the secured party has done all the acts required to perfect its interest, not at the moment as of which state law may retroactively deem that perfection effective. A variety of considerations support this conclusion, including Section 546, which raises a negative implication that Congress did not intend state relation-back provisions or grace periods to control a trustee's power to avoid preferences, and the fact that, under Fidelity's reading, the net effect of the 1994 amendment extending the Section 547(c)(3)(B) perfection period from 10 to 20 days would be merely to benefit a class of creditors in only ten jurisdictions. Indeed, the broader statutory history of the preference provisions persuasively suggests that Congress intended Section 547(c)(3)(B) to establish a uniform federal perfection period immune to alteration by state laws permitting relation back. Thus, the statutory text, structure, and history lead to the understanding that a creditor may invoke the enabling loan exception only by acting to perfect its security interest within 20 days after the debtor takes possession of its property. Pp. 3-10.

Justice Souter

On Writ Of Certiorari To The United States Court Of Appeals For The Eighth Circuit

Although certain transfers made before the filing of a petition in bankruptcy may be avoided as impermissibly preferential, a trustee may not so displace a security interest for a loan used to acquire the encumbered property if, among other things, the security interest is "perfected on or before 20 days after the debtor receives possession of such property." 11 U. S. C. Section 547(c)(3)(B). The question in this case is whether a creditor may invoke this "enabling loan" exception if it performs the acts necessary to perfect its security interest more than 20 days after the debtor receives the property, but within a relation-back or grace period provided by the otherwise applicable state law. We answer no and hold that a transfer of a security interest is "perfected" under Section 547(c)(3)(B) on the date that the secured party has completed the steps necessary to perfect its interest, so that a creditor may invoke the enabling loan exception only by satisfying state law perfection requirements within the 20-day period provided by the federal statute.

I.

On August 17, 1994, Diane Beasley purchased a 1994 Ford and gave petitioner, Fidelity Financial Services, Inc., a promissory note for the purchase price, secured by the new car. Twenty-one days later, on September 7, 1994, Fidelity mailed the application necessary to perfect its security interest addressed to the Missouri Department of Revenue. See Mo. Rev. Stat. Section 301.600(2) (1994). *fn1

Two months after that, Beasley sought relief under Chapter 7 of the Bankruptcy Code. After the proceeding had been converted to one under Chapter 13, respondent, Richard V. Fink, the trustee of Beasley's bankruptcy estate, moved to set aside Fidelity's security interest. He argued that the lien was a voidable preference, the enabling loan exception being inapposite because Fidelity had failed to perfect its interest within 20 days after Beasley received the car. Fidelity responded that Missouri law treats a lien on a motor vehicle as having been "perfected" on the date of its creation (in this case, within the 20-day period), if the creditor files the necessary documents within 30 days after the debtor takes possession. Mo. Rev. Stat. Section 301.600(2)(1994).

The Bankruptcy Court set aside the lien as a voidable preference, holding that Missouri's relation-back provision could not extend the twenty-day perfection period imposed by Section 547(c)(3)(B). In re Beasley, 183 B. R. 857 (Bkrtcy. Ct. WD Mo. 1995). Fidelity appealed to the United States District Court for the Western District of Missouri, which affirmed on substantially the same grounds, as did the Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit, holding a transfer to be perfected "when the transferee takes the last step required by state law to perfect its security interest." 102 F. 3d 334, 335 (1996) (Per curiam) (internal quotation marks omitted).

We granted certiorari, 520 U. S. ___ (1997), to resolve a conflict among the Circuits over the question when a transfer is "perfected" under ...


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