Tribute to Louis Novellino,
A Big Man who Represented the Little People
October 2006

Louis A. Novellino, a member of the Board of Directors of the Consumers League of New Jersey, has died. Lou had been an attorney in New Jersey since 1981. Lou was a law clerk to U.S Bankruptcy Judge D. Joseph DeVito. Then Lou embarked on a career in private practice doing primarily bankruptcy law.

In 1987 Lou represented a homeowner, Mr. Brown, who had financial trouble, and had suffered a judgment of foreclosure. The question was whether Mr. Brown could file a chapter 13 bankruptcy, catch up on payments, and save his home from foreclosure. Unfortunately for Lou's client, in 1987 the Third Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia decided in a case called "Roach," that after judgment of foreclosure, homeowners like Ms. Roach and Mr. Brown were too "late" to file bankruptcy. The Bankruptcy Code did not actually mention any such artificial deadline. The Third Circuit held that under ancient N.J. case law, that a mortgage "merged" into a judgment of foreclosure and disappeared. There were several serious problems with this bank-friendly decision. Lou wrote a law review article, "A Serious Case of Metaphysics: When In re Brown Was Roach'd" 95 Commercial Law Journal 97. Lou proved by scholarly analysis that the Third Circuit was wrong as to New Jersey law. Rather a homeowner in N.J. held a right of redemption which persisted after judgment, and even 10 days after sheriff sale, and the N.J. Supreme Court had decided that the homeowner could redeem the property even during this period. The second problem with Roach was that the Third Circuit ignored a U.S. Supreme Court case, Wright v. Union Central Life Insurance Co., 304 U.S. 502 (1938) which decided that so long as a person possessed a right of redemption (and was still an owner of property), that person could file bankruptcy and use his federal right to make a payment plan. Thus the Roach decision erroneously allowed the state law of foreclosure to trump the federal law of bankruptcy. That is not supposed to happen: the U.S. Constitution states that federal law "shall be the supreme Law of the Land."

The Roach defeat in the second highest court in the land did not stop Lou Novellino nor the Consumers League. Lou wrote his article and the CLNJ lobbied for Congress to clarify that Bankruptcy Code should permit debtors to pay their debts. Henry Sommer, of Philadelphia, the dean of consumer bankruptcy attorneys, took up this cause with then U.S. Senator Metzembaum. CLNJ sent the Senator our analysis and Lou's article. Congress decided that Lou Novellino and the Consumers League were right, and that the Third Circuit had been wrong. In 1994 Congress changed the Bankruptcy Code to clarify that a homeowner may save his or her home from foreclosure by filing a bankruptcy payment plan before a more reasonable deadline: until the property is "sold" according to state law. Thus homeowners all over the United States got a second chance due to this 1994 law.

The faith of Lou Novellino that the truth would eventually come out led Lou to spend several months researching and writing his article. His faith was vindicated in 1994 when Congress amended the law to tell the Third Circuit their decision was wrong.

Lou was also admitted as an attorney in New York State. Lou had a second career as attorney for the New York State Division of Housing and Community Renewal. In this role, Lou enforced regulations which protected tenants against overreaching landlords. Lou had a string of victories for tenants in the N.Y. Appellate Division.

Lou was active in local issues in Middletown N.J., ranging from his condo association to numerous letters to the editor of local papers. He was also a leader in animal rights issues, and opposed the resumption of bear hunting in N.J. The touching story of how Lou adopted his Rottweiler from the animal shelter is told at:

Lou was exceptionally well educated by the Jesuits. Like "Rumpole," the fictional barrister of BBC television, Lou's conversation and legal arguments quoted philosophers and the giants of classical literature. Lou sometimes commiserated that attorneys who represent ordinary people do not receive the recognition nor compensation they deserve. Lou's struggles to achieve justice were more important than mere money. Consumers League recognizes Louis Novellino as a big man with a big heart who embodied the best of the legal profession, and indeed, the best of human nature.

-- Neil Fogarty