In an opinion handed down on July 17, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit ruled that the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act (SCRA) does not apply to a mortgage loan obligation incurred during a borrower’s military service, even if the obligation was incurred during an earlier, distinct period of military service. At issue was the SCRA’s requirement that lenders obtain a court order before foreclosing on or selling property owned by a current or recent servicemember if the mortgage obligation “originated before the period of the servicemember’s military service.”

The case concerned a borrower who had financed the purchase of a house while serving in the Navy. After his discharge from the Navy, he defaulted on his mortgage loan. The borrower then enlisted in the Army, and shortly thereafter, the bank sold the borrower’s house—without prior court approval—at a foreclosure sale. The borrower signed a move-out agreement and addendum that affirmatively waived “any rights and protections provided by [SCRA] with respect to” the deed and foreclosure sale.

More than five years after the foreclosure sale, the borrower filed a lawsuit against the bank, alleging that the foreclosure sale was invalid under SCRA. The district court granted summary judgment for the bank, ruling that “[b]ecause it is undisputed that [the borrower’s] mortgage originated while he was in the military, that obligation does not qualify under [SCRA].” Specifically, the district court reasoned that the SCRA is “designed to ensure that servicemembers do not suffer financial or other disadvantages as a result of entering the service . . . by shielding servicemembers whose income changes as a result of their being called to active duty, and who therefore can no longer keep up with obligations negotiated on the basis of prior levels of income.” “Such a change in income and lifestyle,” the district court explained, “was not a factor in [the borrower’s] case, as the mortgage at issue here originated while he was already in the service.”

The Fourth Circuit adopted the district court’s reasoning in a 2-1 decision. In dissent, Judge King contended that the majority’s ruling was contrary to the SCRA’s plain, unambiguous language. Judge King further reasoned that, even if the SCRA’s language was ambiguous, the borrower would still prevail because the SCRA must be liberally construed to protect servicemembers.

Of note, because of its ruling, the district court did not address the bank’s alternative argument that the borrower had waived his rights under the SCRA by executing the addendum to his move-out agreement.