Today the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court has issued what I believe to be another very important ruling involving foreclosures in the case of HSBC Bank v. Matt (embedded below). This case is the latest piece in the trilogy of recent landmark foreclosure opinions, starting with U.S. Bank v. Ibanez then Eaton v. Fannie Mae — which has now come full circle from very limited judicial oversight of foreclosures to a much stricter legal environment for lenders.
In my opinion, the net effect of the HSBC v. Matt ruling is to make Massachusetts somewhat closer to a judicial foreclosure state than a non-judicial foreclosure state, as the ruling requires a foreclosing lender or mortgage servicer to submit actual evidence of legal standing to foreclose when they start a Servicemembers Act proceeding, a requirement that has never existed under Massachusetts law. This new requirement could prove to be potentially problematic to mortgages which are held in complex mortgage backed securitized trusts. However, a portion of the Court’s ruling — that only military members can raise a challenge — could turn out to blunt its impact. In the short-term, the Land Court will have to determine what evidence and documentation is legally sufficient for lenders to establish proper legal standing to foreclose.
Servicemembers (f/k/a Soldiers & Sailors) Civil Relief Act
The case involves the Servicemember’s Act proceeding which protects active military members from foreclosure. In Massachusetts, after a lender issues default notices, it will commence a Soldiers and Sailors Civil Relief Act in the Land Court to ensure that the borrower is not on active military duty and to cut off any rights to challenge the foreclosure based on military status. Although a Soldiers and Sailors Act proceeding is not mandatory in order to legally foreclosure, the customary practice in Massachusetts is for lenders to go through the proceeding in order to ensure clear title to the foreclosed property. A Soldiers and Sailors Act proceeding has historically been perfunctory, but in recent years with the mortgage meltdown, borrowers have increasingly tried to challenge foreclosure in the Soldiers and Sailors Act proceeding.
Jodi Matt, represented by noted foreclosure defense attorney, Glenn Russell, Esq. (who also brought the Ibanez case), challenged HSBC Bank’s ability to foreclose in the Soldier’s and Sailors proceeding, arguing that HSBC could not establish that it held the right to foreclose as the trustee of the securitized trust which purported to hold Matt’s mortgage. The Land Court rejected Matt’s challenge on the grounds that Ms. Matt was not in military service. The SJC took the case on direct appellate review.
SJC Changes The Foreclosure Landscape Yet Again
Although it recognized that Ms. Matt was not in the military service — and ruled that borrowers not in the military cannot bring challenges under the Soldiers & Sailors Act — the SJC reached the question whether HSBC Bank had legal standing to start the foreclosure process in the Soldiers & Sailors Act proceeding. Following its prior landmark rulings in Ibanez and Eaton, the Court held that HSBC Bank lacked standing under the Act because it merely claimed to have the contractual option to become the holder of the mortgage. The SJC said that wasn’t good enough, and going forward a foreclosing lender must provide actual evidence to the Land Court that it is the actual holder of the mortgage or a duly authorized agent on behalf of the mortgagee.
When this decision is read together with the Court’s opinion in Eaton, which held that foreclosing lenders must hold both the promissory note and the mortgage, and in the context of securitized mortgages, the Matt ruling starts looking like a very BIG decision. Because of the extremely complex manner in which securitized mortgage trusts were organized by Wall Street (outside the scope of this post), there is an inherent problem in ascertaining which entity within the trust framework actually holds the mortgage and the underlying indebtedness, and therefore, the power to foreclose. As a result of this ruling, foreclosing lenders and mortgage services may have a much more difficult time in foreclosing.
What type and the quality of evidence that lenders need to submit will be left to the Land Court justices, as gate-keepers, to decide in future cases. That is a huge unknown question. The Land Court is presently overwhelmed with pending foreclosure petitions, quiet title actions and other matters given recent court budget cuts. Rest assured, this may play a factor in how they handle foreclosures post-Matt.
I will continue to monitor this ever-changing area of the law.