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In re Blasingame

United States Bankruptcy Appellate Panel of the Sixth Circuit

May 3, 2018

In re: Earl Benard Blasingame; Margaret Gooch Blasingame, Debtors.
v.
Earl Benard Blasingame; Margaret Gooch Blasingame; The Blasingame Family Residence Generation Skipping Trust, Defendants-Appellees/Cross-Appellants. Church Joint Venture, L.P., Plaintiff-Appellant/Cross-Appellee,

          Argued: February 13, 2018

         On Appeal from the United States Bankruptcy Court for the Western District of Tennessee at Memphis. No. 08-28289-Jennie D. Latta, Judge.

         COUNSEL

         ARGUED:

          Bruce W. Akerly, MALONE AKERLY MARTIN, PLLC, Dallas, Texas, for Appellant/Cross-Appellee.

          Michael P. Coury, GLANKLER BROWN, PLLC, Memphis, Tennessee, for Appellees/Cross-Appellants.

         ON BRIEF:

          Bruce W. Akerly, MALONE AKERLY MARTIN, PLLC, Dallas, Texas, for Appellant/Cross-Appellee.

          Michael P. Coury, GLANKLER BROWN, PLLC, Memphis, Tennessee, for Appellees/Cross-Appellants.

          Before: HUMPHREY, OPPERMAN, and WISE, Bankruptcy Appellate Panel Judges.

          OPINION

          DANIEL S. OPPERMAN, Chief Bankruptcy Appellate Panel Judge.

         Church Joint Venture ("CJV") filed a complaint against E. Benard Blasingame, Margaret Gooch Blasingame (together the "Debtors"), and the Blasingame Family Residence Generation Skipping Trust (the "BRT")[1] seeking turnover of a property interest relating to the real property at which the Debtors reside. The Debtors assert that their interest in the property is an equitable right to reside in the property for their life that is neither property of the bankruptcy estate nor subject to turnover. CJV asserts that the Debtors' interest is a transferrable legal life estate subject to turnover to the bankruptcy estate. The bankruptcy court held that the Debtors' interest was an equitable life estate and granted summary judgment to the Debtors. For the reasons that follow, the Panel AFFIRMS.

         ISSUES ON APPEAL

         This opinion addresses two consolidated appeals. CJV's appeal lists the issue as whether the bankruptcy court erred in finding and concluding that the life estate grant in the trust instrument was an equitable life estate rather than a legal life estate. In the cross-appeal, the Debtors and the BRT raise two issues: (1) whether the bankruptcy court erred in failing to find that a warranty deed from the Debtors to the BRT transferred the property to the BRT; and (2) whether the bankruptcy court's failure to find that the warranty deed effectively transferred the property from the Debtors to the BRT resulted in the bankruptcy court giving an advisory opinion and acting without jurisdiction.[2]

         JURISDICTION AND STANDARD OF REVIEW

         The Bankruptcy Appellate Panel of the Sixth Circuit has jurisdiction to decide this appeal. The United States District Court for the Western District of Tennessee has authorized appeals to the Panel, and neither party has timely elected to have this appeal heard by the district court. 28 U.S.C. § 158(b)(6) and (c)(1). A final order of the bankruptcy court may be appealed as of right pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 158(a)(1). For purposes of appeal, an order is final if it "ends the litigation on the merits and leaves nothing for the court to do but execute the judgment." Midland Asphalt Corp. v. United States, 489 U.S. 794, 798, 109 S.Ct. 1494, 1497 (1989) (citations omitted). An order granting summary judgment is a final order. U.S. Bank Nat'l Assoc. v. Barbee (In re Barbee), 461 B.R. 711, 712-13 (B.A.P. 6th Cir. 2011); Drown v. Nat'l City Bank (In re Ingersoll), 420 B.R. 414, 414-15 (B.A.P. 6th Cir. 2009).

         A bankruptcy court's final order granting a motion for summary judgment is reviewed de novo. See Int'l Dairy Foods Ass'n v. Boggs, 622 F.3d 628, 635 (6th Cir. 2010). Likewise, the determination whether property is part of the bankruptcy estate is a question of law reviewed de novo. Spradlin v. Khouri (In re Bruner), 561 B.R. 397, 400 (B.A.P. 6th Cir. 2017) (citing Kitchen v. Boyd (In re Newpower), 233 F.3d 922, 927 (6th Cir. 2000)). "'Under a de novo standard of review, the reviewing court decides an issue independently of, and without deference to, the trial court's determination.'" Ingersoll, 420 B.R. at 415 (quoting Buckeye Check Cashing, Inc. v. Meadows (In re Meadows), 396 B.R. 485 (B.A.P. 6th Cir. 2008)). "'Summary judgment is proper if the evidence, taken in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party, shows that there are no genuine issues of material fact and that the moving party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law.'" Rogan v. Vanderbilt Mortg. & Fin., Inc. (In re Dorsey), No 13-8036, 2014 WL 888917 (B.A.P. 6th Cir. March 7, 2014) (quoting Menninger v. Accredited Home Lenders (In re Morgeson), 371 B.R. 798, 800 (B.A.P. 6th Cir. 2007)).

         FACTS

         Importantly, under their counsel's signatures, the parties filed a Joint Pretrial Statement setting forth certain agreed facts. (Joint Pretrial Statement, Adv. No. 15-00339 ECF No. 11, February 12, 2016). CJV acknowledged certain stipulations at oral argument.[3]The stipulations relevant to this appeal are:

a. Defendants Earl Benard Blasingame and Margaret Gooch Blasingame ("Debtors") are the individual debtors in the above style and referenced chapter 7 bankruptcy case ("Case").
b. The Case was filed August 15, 2008. . . .
d. On the date the Case was filed, Debtors lived in a house located at 337 South Maple, Adamsville, Tennessee (the "Residence").
e. Debtors live in the Residence pursuant to the provisions of The Blasingame Family Residence Generation Skipping ...

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