In a decision which could affect how title examiners and title insurance companies underwrite title to foreclosed properties, the Supreme Judicial Court has ruled that a lender’s defective notice of default is grounds to void and nullify a foreclosure sale — even after the property was purchased at auction by a third party without knowledge of the problem. The decision is Pinti v. Emigrant Mortgage Co. Inc. (SJC-July 17, 2015).
The defective aspect of the default notice was relatively minor. The notice was required to say that the borrower had the right to bring “a court action” to challenge the default or foreclosure. The actual notice instead referenced a “lawsuit for foreclosure and sale.” The problem is that in Massachusetts there is really no such thing as a lawsuit for foreclosure, because we are a non-judicial foreclosure state. In order to challenge a foreclosure, a borrower must bring an injunction proceeding in Superior Court. Over this minor discrepancy, the Court throw out a 3 year old foreclosure, leaving the subsequent buyer with defective title.
“This ruling is yet another reason why it’s absolutely critical to obtain owner’s title insurance for any home purchase–especially a foreclosure property.”
This ruling had a disastrous impact on the foreclosing lender and the buyer of the property at foreclosure (and his title insurance company, presumably). The borrower, who was represented by Greater Boston Legal Services, stopped paying her mortgage six years ago in 2009, and the lender foreclosed in 2012. A third party purchased the property (with the borrower in occupancy) shortly thereafter, then commenced eviction proceedings. It appears that the borrower has been able to live in the premises for the entirety of the litigation, presumably mortgage payment free. After this ruling, the lender will need to re-start foreclosure proceedings from square one.
Change In Title Exam Practices?
In a typical title examination involving a previously foreclosed property, the examiner and attorney will only look at the foreclosure notices and “green cards” — the certified mail foreclosure notices. In light of this ruling, the examiner may be required to look back even further to the default notices sent by the lender (which are not recorded with the registry of deeds) and ensure compliance with the mortgage and loan documents. Attorneys should consult their title companies for guidance on this ruling. (The ruling’s effect is prospective only; a title insurance company that I work with has already stated that they will not be changing their underwriting standards after Pinti).
Effect On Foreclosures
The SJC’s reasoning for requiring strict compliance with the default notice provisions in the mortgage was based on the fact that Massachusetts uses a non-judicial foreclosure process. That is, lenders do not need a judge’s approval to start foreclosure (with the except that they need Land Court approval that the borrower is not in the armed services). Accordingly, even the most hyper-technical defect in a default notice by the lender could render a foreclosure void.
Following a long series of pro-borrower rulings starting with the historic U.S. v. Ibanez decision, the SJC’s decision in this case is yet another cautionary tale to lenders that they must dot their “i’s” and cross their “t’s” before conducting a valid foreclosure sale.