A Tale Of Two Opinions: Mass. AG Sues Major Banks and MERS Over Foreclosure Mess While Federal Judge Upholds MERS System

by Rich Vetstein on December 1, 2011 · 7 comments

in Foreclosure, Massachusetts Real Estate Law, Mortgage Crisis, Mortgages, Title Defects

Mass. AG Martha Coakley Credit: Reuters

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness…” — Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities

AG Martha Coakley Files Major Civil Action Against Big Banks

First, the big news. Attorney General Martha Coakley has filed a huge consumer protection lawsuit over wrongful foreclosures against the top 5 U.S. lenders, Bank of America Corp., J.P. Morgan Chase & Co., Wells Fargo & Co., Citigroup Inc. and Ally Financial. Coakley also names Mortgage Electronic Registration System, or MERS, the electronic mortgage registration system which proliferated during the securitization boom of the last decade. The lawsuit said it sought “to hold multiple banks accountable for their rampant violations of Massachusetts law and associated unfair and deceptive conduct amidst the foreclosure crisis that has gripped Massachusetts and the nation since 2007.” Specifically, Coakley blames the banks for not complying with the U.S. Bank v. Ibanez decision in foreclosing mortgages without evidence of legal ownership of the underlying debt, improper statutory foreclosure notices and illegal “robo-signing.”

I’m sure Coakley will be able to extract a sizable settlement from the banks, but the question remains, what about the foreclosure mess and toxic titles left in its wake? I hope Coakley seriously considers setting up a toxic title monetary fund to assist homeowners who lack title insurance with clearing their titles due to bungled foreclosures in their chain of title.

Here is a link to the AG’s Complaint.

Culhane v. Aurora Loan Servicers: Federal Judge William Young Grapples With Legality Of MERS System

While AG Coakley was putting the finishing touches on her lawsuit, across the way at the Moakley Courthouse at Fan Pier, U.S. District Judge William G. Young and his cadre of law clerks were attempting to work their way through the legal maze which is the MERS (Mortgage Electronic Registration System) system. The case is Culhane v. Aurora Loan Services of Nebraska. We’ve written about MERS quite a bit here on the blog.

I can say with confidence that Judge Young is one of the smartest jurists on the federal bench and in the Commonwealth. I know this first-hand because I clerked for him in law school.

It took him 59 pages to sort though the myriad of legal issues implicated by the complex MERS system, and he had some very choice (and funny) remarks about the system:

“MERS is the Wikipedia of Land Registration Systems.” . . . “A MERS certifying officer is more akin to an Admiral in the Georgia navy or a Kentucky Colonel with benefits than he is to any genuine financial officer.”

Judge William G. Young

But ultimately, Judge Young concluded that MERS did not run afoul of Massachusetts law, by the “thinnest of venires.” So there you have it. MERS is kosher in Massachusetts, at least according to Judge Young.

However, Judge Young’s ruling came with some important caveats. First, he held that MERS does not have the power to foreclose in its own name. This is no longer an issue as MERS new policy is not to foreclosure in its name. But what about prior foreclosures in MERS’ name? Are those still considered valid?

Second, in accordance with Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 183, sec. 54B, he ruled that assignments from MERS’ vice presidents to loan servicers or holders are valid despite the signer’s lack of personal knowledge or proof of actual authority. This is a direct contradiction with AG Coakley’s claim that the MERS assignments are invalid.

Lastly, the most important aspect of Judge Young’s ruling was his agreement that foreclosing lenders must hold both the loan (promissory note) and the mortgage together in unity, to foreclose, following the controversial Superior Court opinion in Eaton v. FNMA which is now on appeal with the Supreme Judicial Court. However, Judge Young added an important distinction to this rule, saying that that loan servicers could foreclose in their names where the loan is held in a pooled securitized trust, provided they otherwise comply with Massachusetts foreclosure law. This is a very important distinction as a fair amount of foreclosures are brought in the name of the loan servicer. I’m not so sure Judge Young got this one right as a loan servicer rarely if ever holds the note as assignee, as Professor Adam Levitin notes, but the ruling certainly assists the industry.

So all eyes are back on the SJC awaiting its ruling in the Eaton case which could have even far more impact than the Ibanez decision. Of course, these two events underscore that foreclosures are still a mess crying out for legislative help (which hasn’t come at all), and the crucial importance of title insurance, which all buyers should elect at their closings.

I’ve done a quick video analysis and embedded Judge Young’s opinion below.

Culhane v. Aurora Loan Services

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