Title Defect Renders Collateral Useless; Bank Unable to Cover Losses from Loan Default

A recent Nebraska Supreme Court decision illustrates why individuals should always seek advice of counsel before entering into a financial agreement. In Foundation One v. Svoboda, the Nebraska Supreme Court affirmed a lower court’s ruling that a Bank could not recover vehicles pledged as collateral to secure a loan because a gap in title indicated the Borrower did not own the vehicles. 303 Neb. 624, ___ N.W.2d ___ (2019).

Foundation One loaned $200,000 to Jason Svoboda upon Svoboda pledging two Mack trucks as collateral to secure the loan. In order to maintain the priority of its claim to the vehicles the Bank paid $85,141.40 to remove several preexisting liens on the truck titles. When the Svoboda defaulted on the loan, the Bank repossessed both trucks, eventually selling one for $95,000. Before the Bank could sell the second truck, however, the legal owner intervened in the case.

The trial to determine the legal owner of the trucks brought some startling facts to light. Prior to obtaining the loan, and unbeknownst to the Bank, Svoboda had engaged in a scheme to fraudulently transfer title from the legal owner, Lehr, Inc., back to Svoboda, to use the trucks as collateral for his loan. This scheme left a gap in the trucks’ chain of title. Lehr, Inc. presented evidence at trial showing that the trucks were, at all relevant times, the legal property of Lehr, Inc., and not Svoboda.

The jury verdict ordered the Bank to return the truck remaining in its possession, and to pay an additional $95,000 to Lehr (the amount the Bank received for the sale of the other truck). The jury verdict left the Bank with the full $200,000 amount of the loan, less any payments made before the Borrower’s default. Reviewing the case on appeal, the Nebraska Supreme Court commented that the Bank is required to show a clear chain of title from any previous owners of the trucks to the Borrower, and from the Borrower to the Bank. Id. at 633, ___ N.W.2d at ___. Ultimately, the Bank could not claim an interest in either truck because “the evidence, on its face, . . . showed a break in the chain of ownership between Lehr and [the Borrower] and did not show clear title in [the Bank].” Id.

If the Bank had conducted a more thorough investigation regarding the vehicles offered by Svoboda, it would have avoided the loss in question.