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Bisno v. Kahn

California Court of Appeals, First District, Third Division

April 25, 2014

ROBERT H. BISNO, Plaintiff and Appellant,
v.
ROBERT J. KAHN et al., Defendants and Respondents. ROBERT H. BISNO, Plaintiff and Appellant,
v.
ROBERT J. KAHN et al., Defendants and Respondents.

[As Modified on May 23, 2014]

Alameda County Super. Ct. No. RG09455030 Hon. Ronnie B. Maclaren, Judge .

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COUNSEL

Berger Kahn. David B. Ezra: and Mark F. Marnell for Plaintiff and Appellant Robert H. Bisno.

Jackson DeMarco Tidus & Peckenpaugh Lawrence R. Resnick, Gregory P. Regier and Yael Tobi for Plaintiff and Appellant James C. Coxter.

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Law Offices of Robert Kahn, Robert J. Kahn Ferguson & Berland and William S. Berland for Defendants and Respondents.

OPINION

MCGUINESS, P.J.

These appeals present the question of whether California’s usury law applies to a judgment creditor’s agreement to forbear collecting on a judgment. In the actions below, certain judgment creditors agreed to delay executing on their judgments in exchange for the payment of forbearance fees in addition to statutory postjudgment interest of 10 percent on the unpaid balance of the judgments. The judgment debtors now claim the forbearance fees are usurious.

We conclude the forbearance fees do not violate California’s usury law. Usury liability is wholly a creature of statute. Because the usury law does not expressly prohibit a party from entering into an agreement to forbear collecting on a judgment, usury liability does not extend to judgment creditors who receive remuneration beyond the statutory 10 percent interest rate in exchange for a delay in enforcing a judgment.

Although we conclude that nothing prohibits parties from entering into an agreement to forbear collecting a judgment, we hasten to add that any forbearance fee does not become part of the judgment and is not an amount that must be paid to satisfy the judgment under the Enforcement of Judgments Law (Code Civ. Proc., § 680.010 et seq.). Rather, a forbearance agreement is a contract between the judgment creditor and the judgment debtor that is separate from the judgment to which it applies. Consequently, a forbearance agreement must be enforced in a separate contract action and is subject to standard contractual defenses such as duress and unconscionability.

Factual and Procedural Background

The Roberts Action

The plaintiffs in the actions from which these appeals are taken, Robert H. Bisno and James C. Coxeter, were defendants in an earlier fraud action entitled Roberts v. Bisno (Super. Ct. Alameda County, No. RG05247811 (the Roberts action). The plaintiffs in the Roberts action alleged that Bisno, Coxeter, and certain entity defendants committed fraud in the sale of real estate limited partnership units. Eight of the plaintiffs in the Roberts action came to be known as the “preference plaintiffs” because they were granted trial preference as a result of their age and infirmity. The preference plaintiffs proceeded to trial and secured judgments against the defendants in the

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Roberts action, including Bisno and Coxeter, totaling over $1.4 million. After the trial court awarded attorney fees and costs of over $1.8 million to the preference plaintiffs, the total amount of the judgments was increased to over $3.2 million. Each of the judgments in the Roberts action specified that interest on the amount of the judgment would accrue at a rate of 10 percent per year.

Bisno, Coxeter, and the other defendants appealed the judgments. In March 2008, Division Four of this court affirmed the judgments in the Roberts action. The defendants in the Roberts action filed an undertaking by private sureties to stay enforcement of the judgments while the appeal was pending.

The Forbearance Agreements

After the Court of Appeal affirmed the judgments in the Roberts action, Bisno entered into a series of three agreements in which he sought to delay enforcement of the judgments. In the first agreement executed in March 2008, the preference plaintiffs agreed not to enforce the judgments before August 25, 2008, in return for an agreement by the defendants not to pursue further appeals. The agreement specified that interest at a rate of 10 percent would continue to accrue on the judgments until paid. The agreement also provided for the assessment of a surcharge of $500 per day for each day the judgments were not paid after August 25, 2008. Bisno was the only defendant that signed the March 2008 agreement. One of the attorneys who represented the preference plaintiffs, Robert J. Kahn, signed the agreement on behalf of the preference plaintiffs. It is undisputed that the daily surcharge was never assessed or paid.

In late August 2008, counsel for Bisno contacted Kahn, the attorney for the preference plaintiffs, and sought a further agreement to defer enforcing the judgments in order to preserve a $60 million real estate sale that was in escrow and that would be threatened by collection efforts. Bisno’s counsel made a series of increasing offers to Kahn and, when he received no counteroffers other than that his client should pay the judgments down by half, he reiterated that Bisno was willing to pay the preference plaintiffs in exchange for their agreement to delay executing on the judgments as long as the amount was not unreasonable. These discussions led the parties to execute a forbearance agreement in August 2008.

The August 2008 forbearance agreement was signed by Bisno and Kahn, as attorney for the preference plaintiffs. The agreement provided that Bisno would pay a forbearance fee of $250, 000 “to the preference plaintiffs via their counsel.” In return, the preference plaintiffs agreed to delay executing on the judgments in the Roberts action for another 30 days. The agreement specified

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that the $250, 000 forbearance fee had no effect on the amount of the judgments or the preference plaintiffs’ right to statutory interest at a rate of 10 percent. The agreement further clarified that the forbearance fee would not be credited against the principal or interest due on the judgments.

At the end of the 30-day forbearance period, Bisno’s counsel sought a further extension from Kahn. This request led to the execution in September 2008 of another forbearance agreement by Bisno and Kahn. The September 2008 forbearance agreement provided that Bisno would pay $275, 000 “to the preference plaintiffs via their counsel” in exchange for a further 30-day delay in executing on the judgments. Like the August 2008 forbearance agreement, the September 2008 forbearance agreement specified that the $275, 000 forbearance fee would not be credited against the principal or interest due on the judgments.

Bisno paid forbearance fees totaling $525, 000 pursuant to the forbearance agreements executed in August and September 2008. Bisno’s codefendant in the Roberts action, Coxeter, did not pay any of the forbearance fees and was not a party to the forbearance agreements.

After the additional 30-day forbearance period provided for in the September 2008 forbearance agreement expired and the judgments remained unsatisified, the preference plaintiffs sought to enforce the judgments against the sureties. The court entered a judgment against the sureties on December 11, 2008, including principal and interest, in the amount of $4, 179, 048.10. In late December 2008, Bisno paid $3, 944, 000 toward the judgments in the Roberts action. Because the forbearance fees had not been credited against the principal or interest due on the judgments, the remaining unpaid balance on the Roberts action judgments was approximately $300, 000. In order to avoid execution on his assets, Coxeter, Bisno’s codefendant in the Roberts action, made a payment of $306, 978.14 toward the judgments in June 2009. Coxeter made an additional payment of $35, 000 in October 2009 in order to obtain a full satisfaction of the judgments. On October 30, 2009, the preference plaintiffs filed documents acknowledging full satisfaction of their judgments.

The Coxeter and Bisno Actions

In December 2008, Coxeter filed an action against the preference plaintiffs and Kahn alleging that they had violated California’s usury law by collecting $525, 000 from Bisno and failing to credit that amount against the principal and interest due on the judgments in the Roberts action. In an amended complaint filed in July 2010, Coxeter asserted a single cause of action for money had and received. In both his original and amended complaint, Coxeter admitted that it was Bisno who agreed to pay the purportedly

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usurious $525, 000 forbearance fees, and he also admitted that Bisno actually paid the fees. Nevertheless, Coxeter alleged that the forbearance fees should have been applied against the balance due on the judgments, and he claimed that he would not have owed anything to the preference plaintiffs if the forbearance fees had been properly credited. Consequently, he sought the return of the money he had paid to satisfy the judgments in the Roberts action.

In May 2009, Bisno filed his own complaint against the preference plaintiffs and Kahn alleging a violation of the usury law. Bisno alleged that the $525, 000 he paid in forbearance fees was usurious. He sought to recover ...


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