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Hawkins v. Community Bank of Raymore

August 5, 2014

VALERIE J. HAWKINS, INDIVIDUALLY; JANICE A. PATTERSON, INDIVIDUALLY PLAINTIFFS - APPELLANTS
v.
COMMUNITY BANK OF RAYMORE DEFENDANT - APPELLEE



Appeal from United States District Court for the Western District of Missouri - Kansas City

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Gruender, Circuit Judge.

Submitted: April 17, 2014

Before SMITH, COLLOTON, and GRUENDER, Circuit Judges.

Valerie Hawkins ("Hawkins") and Janice Patterson ("Patterson") appeal the district court's*fn1 grant of summary judgment in favor of Community Bank of Raymore ("Community") on their claim under the Equal Credit Opportunity Act ("ECOA"), 15 U.S.C. § 1691 et seq., and the district court's order striking their demand for a jury trial. For the reasons described below, we affirm.

I. Background

Hawkins is married to Gary Hawkins, and Patterson is married to Chris Patterson. PHC Development, LLC ("PHC"), is a Missouri limited liability company with two members: Gary Hawkins and Chris Patterson, the latter in his capacity as trustee of the Chris L. Patterson and Janice A. Patterson Trust. Neither Hawkins nor Patterson have any legal interest in PHC. Between 2005 and 2008, Community made four loans-totaling more than $2,000,000-to PHC to fund the development of a residential subdivision. Each loan was modified several times. In connection with each loan and each modification, Hawkins, Patterson, and their husbands executed personal guaranties in favor of Community to secure the loans. Patterson also executed a deed of trust in connection with one of the modifications. In April 2012, PHC failed to make payments due under the loan agreements. Community declared the loans to be in default, accelerated the loans, and demanded payment both from PHC and from Hawkins and Patterson as guarantors.

Soon thereafter, Hawkins and Patterson filed this action against Community, seeking damages and an order declaring that their guaranties were void and unenforceable. They alleged that Community had required them to execute the guaranties securing PHC's loans solely because they are married to their respective husbands. They claimed that this requirement constituted discrimination against them on the basis of their marital status, in violation of the ECOA. Community, in turn, filed several state-law counterclaims, including claims for breach of the guaranties. As an affirmative defense to the breach-of-guaranty claims, Hawkins and Patterson argued that the guaranties were unenforceable as violative of the ECOA.

Community moved for summary judgment on Hawkins and Patterson's ECOA claim and on its breach-of-guaranty counterclaims. The district court concluded that Hawkins and Patterson were not "applicants" within the meaning of the ECOA and thus that Community had not violated the ECOA by requiring them to execute the guaranties. Accordingly, the district court granted summary judgment in favor of Community on Hawkins and Patterson's ECOA claim and on their ECOA-based affirmative defense to Community's breach-of-guaranty counterclaims. The district court then dismissed Community's state-law counterclaims without prejudice, declining to exercise continuing supplemental jurisdiction pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1367(c)(3). Hawkins and Patterson timely appealed the grant of summary judgment in favor of Community and the district court's order striking their demand for a jury trial.

II. Discussion

We review the district court's grant of summary judgment de novo, viewing the record in the light most favorable to the nonmoving parties and giving them the benefit of all reasonable inferences. Barnhardt v. Open Harvest Co-op., 742 F.3d 365, 369 (8th Cir. 2014). Summary judgment is proper only if "there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(a).

The ECOA makes it "unlawful for any creditor to discriminate against any applicant, with respect to any aspect of a credit transaction . . . on the basis of . . . marital status." 15 U.S.C. § 1691(a). The statute defines "applicant" as "any person who applies to a creditor directly for an extension, renewal, or continuation of credit, or applies to a creditor indirectly by use of an existing credit plan for an amount exceeding a previously established credit limit." 15 U.S.C. § 1691a(b). Interpreting this statutory definition, the Federal Reserve Bank promulgated 12 C.F.R. § 202.2(e), which provides that "the term [applicant] includes guarantors."*fn2 Relying on § 202.2(e), Hawkins and Patterson argue that they qualify as applicants within the meaning of the ECOA because they guaranteed PHC's debt to Community. They do not argue that they qualify as applicants on any other basis.

This case turns, then, on whether we should apply § 202.2(e)'s definition of applicant, which would permit Hawkins and Patterson to pursue an ECOA claim as applicants solely because they executed guarantees to secure PHC's loans. If they do not qualify as applicants, then Community did not violate the ECOA by requiring them to execute the guaranties. See 15 U.S.C. § 1691(a) (proscribing only discrimination against applicants). To determine whether we should defer to the Federal Reserve's interpretation of the ECOA's definition of applicant, we apply the two-step framework established by Chevron U.S.A., Inc. v. Natural Resources Defense Council, 467 U.S. 837 (1984). Under the Chevron framework, "we ask first whether the intent of Congress is clear as to the precise question at issue. If, by employing traditional tools of statutory construction, we determine that Congress' intent is clear, that is the end of the matter." North Dakota v. E.P.A., 730 F.3d 750, 763 (8th Cir. 2013) (alteration omitted) (quoting Baptist Health v. Thompson, 458 F.3d 768, 773 (8th Cir. 2006)). Only if we conclude that "the statute is silent or ambiguous with respect to the specific issue" presented will we then proceed to the second step of the Chevron framework, which requires us to consider whether "the agency's reading fills a gap or defines a term in a reasonable way in light of the Legislature's design." Id. (quoting Baptist Health, 458 F.3d at 773).

Applying the first step of the Chevron framework, we conclude that the text of the ECOA clearly provides that a person does not qualify as an applicant under the statute solely by virtue of executing a guaranty to secure the debt of another. To qualify as an applicant under the ECOA, a person must "appl[y] to a creditor directly for . . . credit, or . . . indirectly by use of an existing credit plan for an amount exceeding a previously established credit limit." 15 U.S.C. § 1691a(b). To "apply" means "to make an appeal or request esp[ecially] formally and often in writing and usu[ally] for something of benefit to oneself." Webster's Third New International Dictionary 105 (2002). Thus, the plain language of the ECOA unmistakably provides that a person is an applicant only if she requests credit. But a person does not, by executing a guaranty, request credit. "A 'guaranty' . . . [is] a promise to answer for another person's debt, default, or failure to perform. More specifically, a guaranty is an undertaking by a guarantor to answer for payment of some debt, or performance of some contract, of another person in the event of default." 38 Am. Jur. 2d Guaranty § 1 (2014). A guaranty is collateral and secondary to the underlying loan transaction between the lender and the borrower. While a guarantor no doubt desires for a lender to extend credit to a borrower, it does not follow from the execution of a guaranty that a guarantor has requested credit or otherwise been involved in applying for credit. Thus, a guarantor does not request credit and therefore cannot qualify as an applicant under the unambiguous text of the ECOA.*fn3

The Sixth Circuit recently reached the contrary conclusion, finding it to be ambiguous whether a guarantor qualifies as an applicant under the ECOA. RL BB Acquisition, LLC v. Bridgemill Commons Dev. Grp., 754 F.3d 380, 2014 WL 2609616 (6th Cir. 2014).*fn4 The court acknowledged that "[a] guarantor does not traditionally approach a creditor herself for credit. Rather, . . . a guarantor is a third party to the larger application process." Id. at *4. With this much we agree, and for us, this ends the inquiry because it demonstrates that a guarantor unambiguously does not request credit. "Where Congress has manifested its intention, we may not manufacture ambiguity in order to defeat that intent." Bifulco v. United States, 447 U.S. 381, 387 (1980). Nevertheless, the court went on to assert that "a guarantor does formally approach a creditor in the sense that the guarantor offers up her own personal liability to the creditor if the borrower defaults." RL BB Acquisition, 2014 WL 2609616, at *4. We find it to be unambiguous that assuming a secondary, contingent liability does not amount to a request for credit. A guarantor engages in different conduct, receives different benefits, and exposes herself to different legal consequences than does a credit ...


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