Breaking News (10/18/11): The Court has issued its opinion, affirming the Land Court’s dismissal. For a full analysis, click here.
The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court has taken up an appeal about whether a home buyer can rightfully own a property if the bank that sold it to him didn’t have the right to foreclose on the original owner, after the U.S. Bank v. Ibanez landmark ruling a few weeks ago. This case may determine the rights of potentially thousands of innocent purchasers who bought property at foreclosure sales that have been rendered invalid after the Ibanez ruling.
The case is Bevilacqua v. Rodriguez, and can be read here. In Bevilacqua, Land Court Judge Keith Long (ironically the same judge who originally decided the Ibanez case) ruled that the buyer of property out of an invalid foreclosure has no right to bring a “quiet title” action to establish his ownership rights because he never had good title in the first place. “I have great sympathy for Mr. Bevilacqua’s situation — he was not the one who conducted the invalid foreclosure, and presumably purchased from the foreclosing entity in reliance on receiving good title — but if that was the case his proper grievance and proper remedy is against that wrongfully foreclosing entity on which he relied,” Long wrote. The net effect of the ruling is that the innocent buyer’s only remedy is to sue the foreclosing lender for damages–not a great option–or force the lender to fix the deficiencies with the original foreclosure–if that’s possible at all.
Estimating how many purchasers have been affected by Ibanez defects is difficult. There have been over 40,000 foreclosures in Massachusetts in the last 5 years, and over 12,000 last year alone, up 32% from the year before. A Boston Globe columnist recently performed a rudimentary analysis of foreclosed properties in Chelsea, and found that about 33% may have been afflicted with Ibanez-type deficiencies.
Many people who purchased homes at foreclosure sales may not even know their titles are problematic–until they try to refinance or sell. So this problem will likely take years to ultimately resolve, unless the legislature comes up with some type of solution. And these problems may go back a very long way–5 or even 10 years in the past.
Bloomberg News has a great write up about the case here. I was quoted in the Bloomberg piece about the significance of the problem:
The third-party issue has become a major one for title insurers in the state, said Richard D. Vetstein, a real-estate lawyer in Framingham, Massachusetts.
“What’s going to happen to all these people?” Vetstein said. “The people who don’t have title insurance are really in big trouble.”
The court may have left the issue of third-party buyers unaddressed in Ibanez anticipating a ruling in the Bevilacqua case, said Thomas Adams, a partner at New York law firm Paykin Krieg & Adams LLP.
“That’s a big issue to leave outstanding,” said Adams, a former analyst at bond insurer Ambac Financial Group Inc. “If Judge Long’s decision holds, then that’s a big deal.”
If you purchased property out of a foreclosure sale within the last 10 years, you should have a title examination performed to assess whether you have defective title. Needless to say, if you are considering buying property out of foreclosure (or not), these cases are the very reason why you must obtain an owner’s title insurance policy! Contact us for more information.