Give a Guarantor Some Credit!

Before extending commercials loans, lenders will regularly require an owner or principal of a borrowing entity to personally guaranty payment of the entity’s loan obligations. It is well-settled under Wisconsin law that a personal guaranty contract is separate and distinct from the borrower’s loan contract with its lender. For this reason, lenders are entitled to enforce a personal guaranty as either a stand-alone obligation or in conjunction with an enforcement action against its borrower on the loan debt.

Often, lenders will elect to enforce the obligations of a borrower and guarantor in a single court action. Such an action may also seek to foreclose collateral pledged to secure the borrower’s indebtedness such as mortgaged real property. This was exactly how Horizon Bank proceeded to collect a personally guaranteed loan obligation.

Horizon Bank loaned $5 million to its customer, Marshalls Point, secured by a mortgage upon real property in Sister Bay, Wisconsin. Musikantow, a member of Marshalls Point, executed a personal guaranty of payment of the $5 million loan. Upon Marshalls Point’s loan default, Horizon Bank commenced a foreclosure action of the real property and, in the same action, brought a claim for a money judgment against Musikantow per the terms of his guaranty.

The parties to the lawsuit stipulated to the entry of both a judgment of foreclosure of the Sister Bay property as well as a $4 million judgment against Musikantow as the guarantor of the loan. The stipulation provided that the Sister Bay property be sold at a sheriff’s sale and that proceeds realized by Horizon from the sale be credited to reduce the money judgment against Musikantow.

Horizon Bank purchased the Sister Bay property with a sheriff’s sale credit bid of $2.25 million. Horizon then moved the circuit court for confirmation of its credit bid as being fair value for the property per the requirements of section 846.165 of the Wisconsin Statutes. In its confirmation motion to the court, Horizon also indicated that it would not seek a deficiency judgment against its borrower, Marshalls Point, but requested an order applying the amount of its credit bid to offset the $4 million judgment against Musikantow on his guaranty.

Musikantow and Marshalls Point did not oppose confirmation of Horizon Bank’s $2.25 million credit bid as being “fair value” for the Sister Bay property, but objected to Horizon Bank’s request to apply only this credit bid amount toward Musikantow’s guarantor judgment. Musikantow argued that “fair value” is not the same as “fair market value.” Accordingly, he argued he should be entitled to a credit against his guaranty obligation in an amount greater than the $2.25 million credit bid since, in Musikantow’s opinion, the Sister Bay property was worth far more.

The circuit court entered an order confirming the sheriff’s sale, but left the calculation of Musikantow’s credit for another day. Horizon Bank appealed the circuit court’s order and argued that Musikantow’s guaranty obligation should be credited to the extent of the amount of proceeds received by the bank from the sheriff’s sale. The court of appeals agreed with Horizon Bank and reversed the circuit court, remanding the case to Door County with a direction to amend the money judgment against Musikantow by applying a credit of $2.25 million.

The court of appeals was ultimately reversed. The Supreme Court of Wisconsin determined that the stipulation executed among Horizon Bank and Musikantow was ambiguous as to the credit to be provided against Musikantow’s judgment obligations.  Moreover, the court held that, under Wisconsin law, the credit to be provided toward a guarantor’s obligation is not a function of the “fair value” required to confirm a foreclosure sale under section 846.165 of the Wisconsin Statutes. Accordingly, the Supreme Court remanded the case to the circuit court to determine the fair market value of the Sister Bay property so that such amount may be credited toward Musikantow’s guarantor judgment.

As a result of the Supreme Court’s decision in Musikantow, lenders have some interesting decisions to make when determining how best to enforce a loan obligation, particularly when the payment of such a loan obligation is guaranteed by a liquid and collectible guarantor. Why should a lender commence an action to liquidate collateral pledged by its borrower when there exists a guarantor having the ability to satisfy the loan obligation?

Proceeding against a wealthy guarantor would seem less risky than a lender credit bidding and taking title to property through a sheriff’s sale, while having to afford a credit to its guarantor for the full market value of the property (an amount which is subject to litigation and uncertain until ordered by a court). Especially troubling is the fact that it is not uncommon for lenders to fall short in obtaining net proceeds equivalent to the amount credit bid when property obtained at sheriff’s sale is ultimately sold by the lender to a third-party. This dilemma faced by lenders does not seem to be in the best interest of some guarantors who may now be the prime collection target of a loan obligation, as opposed to pledged collateral. Moreover, it would seem that personal guarantees of payment may no longer be afforded the value traditionally provided by lenders in underwriting a commercial loan following Musikantow. This has the potential of driving up the costs of lending which may ultimately be passed on to borrowers.

As a practical effect of Musikantow, it is imperative that lenders have a level of certainty and evidence of the fair market value of pledged collateral before choosing to proceed down the dual path of foreclosing collateral and enforcing a personal guaranty. A failure to undertake such an analysis may effectively result in an unexpected credit to a guarantor whom a lender expected to look to for recovery.

For more information on this topic or assistance in the enforcement of a commercial loan obligation, contact John Schreiber at 414-276-5000 or John.Schreiber@wilaw.com.