Banker and Tradesman is reporting that Bristol, Plymouth and Norfolk County Registrars of Deeds plan to file a class action suit against Mortgage Electronic Registration System (MERS), aiming to recoup land recording fees they believe they are owed. B&T reporter Colleen Sullivan reports that:
The counties are being represented by Bernstein Liebhard LLP, a New York firm specializing in class actions which has already brought a similar suit on behalf of all the counties of Ohio. John Mitchell, a Bristol County commissioner, said the board considered pursuing a claim last year, but decided to hold off until the national mortgage settlement between the banks and the states’ attorneys general was resolved. But as it became clear that the vast bulk of the funds in that settlement would go towards foreclosures and loan modifications, he said the county decided to pursue the matter. Bristol County officials estimate the county may have lost out on millions of dollars in fees over the past decade because of the alleged use of MERS as a kind of private registry among large banks. A rough calculation prepared by county officials last year came up with a figure of between $3.1 million and $6.5 million lost, using a conservative estimate of one or two additional non-recorded assignments per MERS- registered property.
“Over the last month, we were approached by [Bernstein Liebhard] and other firms….they already had Norfolk and Plymouth, and we thought it made sense to get as many counties together,” Mitchell told Banker & Tradesman. Mitchell said he wasn’t sure if the remaining Massachusetts counties with county-level governance would join the suit. The relatively small size of counties like Nantucket and Dukes would mean far smaller sums at stake.
County-level governance was abolished in Massachusetts in eight of the state’s 14 counties around the turn of the century. Only Barnstable, Bristol, Norfolk, Plymouth, and Dukes retain county boards; Nantucket has a combined city-county government. The remaining boards retain the right to bring independent actions in court.
“We’re familiar with their claims, and there’s no merit to them,” said Janis Smith, spokeswoman for MERS. Smith said that by registering under the MERS name, banks fulfill the purpose of having a registry, that is, alerting the public of any existing leins on a property. “MERS does not eliminate or replace county records, and the recording fees are paid,” she said. “The MERS business model is legal in all 50 states and has been affirmed by Massachusetts courts.”
“I commend the counties,” said John O’Brien, the registrar of deeds in Essex County, who has been an active critic of MERS for the past two years. O’Brien was the first public official in Massachusetts to calculate how much the MERS system may have cost the state in allegedly lost recording fees, coming up with a figure of $22 million for his county alone. “If I had the authority, I would have filed this suit two years ago.”
The other registries fall under Secretary of State William Galvin’s jurisdiction. O’Brien said he plans to petition the legislature to recover his ability to bring suit on behalf of Essex County as one of its elected officials.
The Registrars are reportedly incensed that the MERS private recording system has deprived them of millions of recording fees. We will keep tabs on this important case.