SJC Looks At Roles Of Mortgage Servicers and MERS In Eaton v. FNMA Arguments

by Rich Vetstein on October 3, 2011 · 12 comments

in Fannie Mae, Foreclosure, Massachusetts Real Estate Law, Mortgage Crisis, Mortgages

Update (6/22/12): SJC Issues Final Opinion (click to read)

I just finished watching the oral arguments in the SJC case of Eaton v. Federal National Mortgage Ass’n, The webcast should be up soon on the SJC Website. You can read the briefs in the case here.

As outlined in my prior post on the case, the Court is considering the very important question of whether a foreclosing lender must possess both the promissory note and the mortgage in order to foreclose. If the SJC rules against lenders, it will be another national headline story — potentially bigger than U.S. Bank v. Ibanez.

Quick Recap: Ultimately, the SJC will have to decide how old common law decided in the late 1800′s now applies to mortgages in the 21st century with securitization, servicers and MERS. Does the law need to be modernized? I think it’s time. Unlike the U.S. Bank v. Ibanez case, this one is much harder to handicap. So I’m not even going to try!

For those unfamiliar with the facts of the case, I’ll state them again.

Borrower Able To Stop Foreclosure

As with many sub-prime mortgage borrowers, Henrietta Eaton had defaulted on her mortgage to Green Tree Mortgage. This was a MERS mortgage (Mortgage Electronic Registration System) originally granted to BankUnited then assigned to Green Tree. Green Tree foreclosed in 1999 and assigned its winning bid to Fannie Mae who attempted to evict Eaton in January 2010.

Eaton was able to obtain an injunction from the Superior Court halting the eviction on the grounds that Green Tree did not possess the promissory note underlying the mortgage when the foreclosure occurred. This has been coined the “produce the note” defense and has been gaining steam across across the country. This is the first Massachusetts appellate case that I’m aware of to consider the defense and surrounding legal issues.

The Superior Court judge, Francis McIntyre, wrote a 10 page opinion, explaining that Massachusetts has long recognized that although the promissory note and the mortgage can travel different paths after the borrower signs them, both instruments must be “reunited” to foreclose. “The mortgage note has a parasitic quality, in that its vitality depends on the promissory note,” the judge ruled. As is becoming increasingly prevalent, neither Green Tree nor Fannie Mae could located the original signed promissory note; they were only able to produce a copy endorsed in blank without an amendment, or allonge, indicating when it was endorsed or who held it at the time of the foreclosure. Without the note properly endorsed and assigned to Green Tree, the foreclosure was a nullity, the judge held.

Pointed Questions During Oral Argument

The oral argument was pretty interesting with the majority of the justices’ questions centered around questions of the mortgage servicer’s authority to foreclose or enter into a loan modification, Fannie Mae’s role and the role of MERS. Here’s my running diary of the argument.

Fannie Mae Arguments

  • Attorney Richard Briansky, who did a solid job, represented the Fannie Mae side, and started first. Judge Gants asked whether there was any evidence that Ms. Eaton, the borrower, failed to pay insurance or real estate taxes to justify foreclosure  on other grounds? There was no evidence; purely breach of note, replied Briansky.
  • The justices raised a question of the authority of the signer of the mortgage assignment. The signer was a “Monica” who worked for Green Tree Servicing and had signatory authority for MERS. Of course, this is the robo-signing question which is being raised across the county. (Read our post on the high percentage of robo-signed documents found at the Essex Registry of Deeds here). The justices asked was she employee or MERS or Green Tree?  Dual roles. However, they agreed that this issue is not properly raised in this case.
  • Justice Cordy asked whether Green Tree, the servicer, was in a position to extinguish the debt? The answer was no. The loan proceeds are held in trust for note holder.
  • Justice Botsford was worried about the possibility of double liability where the note holder sues Eaton on note. Never been an issue, says Briansky.
  • Justice Lenk asked who determines whether or not to foreclose? Attorney Briansky said Green Tree, because it has been collecting payments and acts as servicer. Now the justices started exploring the contractual relationship between servicer and note holder. The discussed turned to the servicer’s authority for loan mods, etc.
  • Justice Botsford had questions over who could make important decisions under mortgage.
  • Justice Duffly asked about the status of MERS as nominee. It’s a “tripartite relationship,” explained Briansky. The justices seemed very skeptical of the MERS relationship.
  • Justice Ireland, citing the friend of the court brief, asked Briansky point blank whether Massachusetts law required unity of the note and mortgage holder at foreclosure. Briansky countered with argument that times have changed and current complex mortgage securitization requires a modernization of the law.
  • Justice Duffly pointed out that the proliferation of servicers and MERS has created a unique situation and is bad for consumers. She thinks that there is a disincentive for servicers to modify loans; that they make more money for foreclosure. An interesting point.
  • Justice Lenk asked a very good question: What would preclude Fannie Mae from holding the mortgage? I can tell you that as a matter of policy, Fannie Mae prefers not to hold mortgages themselves, instead letting the servicers do the “dirty work” of defaults and foreclosures.

That concluded the Fannie Mae side.

Eaton Arguments

Now for the Eaton side, Sam Levine, a Harvard Law student, argued under a SJC Rule permitting third year law students to argue in court. What a thrill it must have been for a law student who hasn’t even passed the Bar, to be arguing a major case in front of the SJC. However, his inexperienced showed at times, as he often slipped into prepared remarks when the justices where looking for an answer far more specific. But all in all, the kid did OK for not even being a real lawyer yet.

  • The justices ask about all the lower court and bankruptcy court decisions holding that you don’t need pure unity of note holder and mortgage holder to foreclose. Levine stood his ground on the older cases holding that this isn’t the law. The justices will have to grapple with whether the law needs to be modernized.
  • Justice Gants asked what’s wrong with an agent acting as servicer? Levine said for servicing it’s fine, but for foreclosure, the principal must foreclose.
  • There was an extended discussion over the standard MERS mortgage form as to MERS’ authority to invoke power of sale and foreclose. The justices appeared confused as to who has the right to invoke the power of sale and foreclose. Does MERS or does the lender, or both? And who is MERS’ successors and assigns?
  • Justice Cordy asked hasn’t borrower agreed in the mortgage that MERS can foreclose? Didn’t she waive any common law right that the note holder and mortgage holder be united for foreclosure. Good question.
  • Justice Lenk asked that if Fannie Mae had foreclosed, everything would have been fine. That’s ultimately true.
  • Justices Cordy and Spina were definitely getting frustrated with the simple fact that Eaton simply didn’t pay mortgage. Look for them to vote to reverse the lower court opinion in this case.

What’s Next?

The SJC will release a final opinion within 120 days or so. A lot of the questioning centered on side issues not squarely relevant in the case. The question in the case is simply whether a foreclosing lender must hold both the note and mortgage at foreclosure. Clearly, the justices have been reading the press reports about the foreclosure crisis and are trying to be responsive to it. But they have to decide cases based on the facts before them. Again, I’m not going to try to handicap this one, but I have a feeling it will be a close decision with concurring and dissenting opinions. If the SJC rules against lenders, it will be another national headline story, rest assured.

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Richard D. Vetstein, Esq. is an experienced real estate litigation attorney who’s handled numerous foreclosure defense and title defect cases in Land Court and Superior Court. Please contact him if you are dealing with a Massachusetts foreclosure and title dispute.

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