Foreclosure

maura-healeyGood news to report today! Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healy has summarily dismissed a petition by the Massachusetts Alliance Against Predatory Lending (MAAPL) to repeal the Act Clearing Titles to Foreclosed Properties. The Act would automatically cure foreclosure related title defects after a one year waiting period.

In a three-page letter to Secretary of State William Galvin yesterday, Healy wrote, “I have concluded that it is not lawfully the subject of a referendum petition.” Healy’s main citation for the denial is a clause in the state constitution that says no law related to the power of the courts can be subject to a voter referendum.

As reported by Banker and Tradesman, Attorney Doug Troyer, co-chair of the Massachusetts Real Estate Bar Association’s Legislation Committee, said he thought the attorney general made the right decision. “It looked like the attorney general really took it into consideration, taking over 20 days to fully analyze all aspects in order to see if the petition could lawfully go to a referendum – and found that it couldn’t,” he said.

Opponents to the Act vow they will challenge it in court. However, they need to find a live case which may be difficult. Going forward, the Act will remain law, and after the one year waiting period, most Ibanez related title defects will be automatically cured by operation of law. Good news for the market!

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1201110897_7507Former Green Party Gov. Candidate, Grace Ross, Leads Repeal Effort

A group of anti-foreclosure activists recently filed a petition to repeal the Act to Clear Title to Foreclosed Properties, which was signed by Gov. Baker just before the new year. The leader of the repeal effort is Grace Ross, the former gubernatorial candidate and coordinator of the Massachusetts Alliance Against Predatory Lending.

The new law, which aims to protect homeowners who purchased foreclosed properties with defective titles, has already gone into effect, but activists are using a seldom-used referendum process to try to suspend the law and put it on the ballot in November 2016. However, they need over 43,000 signatures to do this. Ms. Ross struggled to get 15,000 signatures for her 2010 election bid. They also plan to sue to block the law, however, no lawsuit has been filed to date.

As reported in Massive.com, State Sen. Will Brownsberger, D-Belmont, who worked on the bill as chairman of the Legislature’s Judiciary Committee, said he thinks the law will stand. “I think it’s a sound bill,” Brownsberger said. “I think it’s a complicated area, and there are people who interpret the law differently, but I’m pretty confident that we got the basics right and the bill will be upheld.”

The goal of the bill is to protect the rights of homeowners who legally purchased a house that was once foreclosed on. “Once a house has been sold to a third party, they shouldn’t have to worry forever about whether there was some problem with the mortgage way back when,” Brownsberger said.

Brownsberger said lawmakers tried to protect the rights of foreclosed homeowners by preserving their ability to sue for damages. “It’s not in the interest of anybody to keep legal matters open and unsettled for years,” Brownsberger said. “What this is designed to do is create some finality and stability in the housing market.”

The Massachusetts Land Title Association, which represents title insurers, was the major proponent of the bill. (Disclaimer: I also testified in favor of the bill on behalf of the Boston Bar Association). Thomas Bhisitkul, president of the Real Estate Bar Association for Massachusetts, said the law will help homeowners who may be two or three owners removed from a foreclosure but who found themselves unable to sell or refinance after the Supreme Judicial Court ruling.

I would be surprised if the activists’ repeal efforts are successful, and I am confident in the constitutionality of the new law. However, this being Massachusetts, anything is possible. I will, of course, keep the readers posted as to developments.

Until the Attorney General, Secretary of State or a court says otherwise, the Act remains valid and in full force and effect. Attorneys, check with your title rep for specific guidance.

Photo Credit: Boston.com

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As with this year’s blockbuster Star Wars — The Force Awakens, my prediction for an active and entertaining 2015 in Massachusetts real estate law has come to fruition. Without further ado and with a Star Wars theme, I present you with the top 5 “episodes” for the last year in Massachusetts real estate law.

I. TRID (Truth in Lending RESPA Integrated Disclosure) Rules

Heralded as the most comprehensive change to real estate closings in the last 20 years, the new TRID rules (Truth in Lending/RESPA Integrated Disclosure) have certainly lived up to their billing. If TRID were a Star Wars character, it would be Kylo Ren of the First Order, smashing and destroying the old way of doing closings with his scarlet cross-guard lightsaber. The new rules went into effect on October 3, and the real estate industry has been, by and large, scrambling to get up to compliance speed with the new regulations. The new “Closing Disclosure” is quite convoluted with far too much information, and also necessitates a separate “seller” closing disclosure. So, the old three page HUD-1 form has turned into two forms with seven pages. That’s the government for you… There is also a 3 day waiting period for closings to be scheduled after the issuance of the new Closing Disclosure. Some lenders have been great getting the “CD” out on time. Some others, not so much. In my estimate, I would say that at least 50% of my transactions have been delayed due to TRID related issues. For 2016, I predict continued delays and compliance issues for the first two quarters of the new year, with things hopefully smoothing out for the spring market. Oh, did I already tell you that I miss the old HUD-1 Settlement Statement already!

II. SJC Rules Real Estate Agents Can Remain Independent Contractors 

The summer saw the SJC come down with its long awaited ruling on independent contractor classification in Monell, et al. v. Boston Pads, LLC. After much lobbying from the industry, the Court ruled that Massachusetts real estate and rental agents can remain classified as independent contractors under the state’s real estate licensing and independent contractor law. The ruling keeps the traditional commission-only independent contractor brokerage office model in place, with brokers allowed to classify agents as 1099 independent contractors, without facing liability for not paying them salary, overtime or providing employee benefits. However, like the plot holes in The Force Awakens, the Court left open a few important questions such as whether agents could build a case on other legal theories. In 2016, look for the Legislature to address the murkiness which remains with the law.

poe-dameron_70f5aee2III. Gov. Baker Signs Foreclosure Title Clearance Law

If Gov. Charlie Baker were a character out of the Force Awakens, he would be the hotshot Resistance pilot Poe Dameron, swooping down in his X-Wing fighter and saving the day for thousands of Massachusetts homeowners who have been unable to sell or refinance their homes due to foreclosure title defects. After a five year legislative struggle (in which I testified before the Legislature), Gov. Baker signed into law the Act Clearing Title To Foreclosed Properties. The bill will resolve potentially thousands of titles which were rendered defective and un-transferable after the SJC’s landmark ruling in U.S. Bank v. Ibanez. There is a one year waiting period, but after that we should start seeing previously unsellable homes start to come back on the market.

IV. SJC Continues To Scrutinize Foreclosure Compliance

In a major foreclosure decision, the Supreme Judicial Court ruled in Pinti v. Emigrant Mortgage Co. Inc. that a lender’s defective notice of default is grounds to void and nullify a foreclosure sale. This is so even after the property was purchased at auction by a third party without knowledge of the defect. This ruling has resulted in two leading title insurance companies, First American and Fidelity/Chicago, deciding to restrict underwriting title to foreclosed properties

V. Just Cause Eviction Proposal

The upcoming year will see a looming “Resistance” battle between liberal tenant activists and small property owners over a Just Cause Eviction proposal submitted to the Boston City Council. As I’ve written here, the proposal is just a clever re-branding of rent control which was outlawed a decade ago and has been proven not to work by leading economists and city planners. The Just Cause Eviction petition would prohibit a landlord from evicting any tenant except for certain serious “just cause” grounds, making it very difficult and expensive to evict tenants at will or those whose leases have expired. Small property owners claim — and I agree — that the procedural impediments to the Just Cause Eviction proposal are shockingly socialist in nature. Everyone agrees that Boston has a problem creating affordable housing, however, rent control disguised as a just cause eviction proposal is not the answer. It’s not fair to make small property owners to bear the burden of creating affordable housing across the city. That’s the job of the government. Rent control has never been a successful solution to the housing problem. To be continued in Episode VIII…

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I hope everyone has a very happy, healthy and prosperous New Year! –Rich

Photo credit: Lucasfilm, Inc.

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Charlie BakerNew Law Will Resolve Thousands of Foreclosure Title Defects In Wake of U.S. Bank v. Ibanez Ruling

After a five year legislative struggle (in which I testified before the Joint Judiciary Committee), I’m very pleased to report that Governor Baker has signed into law the Act Clearing Title To Foreclosed Properties (Senate Bill 2015), embedded below. The bill will resolve potentially thousands of land titles which were rendered defective and un-transferable after the SJC’s landmark ruling in U.S. Bank v. Ibanez. The Ibanez ruling invalidated thousands of foreclosures across the Commonwealth due to lenders’ paperwork errors.

The problem addressed by the legislation is that scores of innocent buyers purchased these foreclosed properties, fixing them up, renting them out, etc., but they were unaware of the title defects — only to discover them once they went to refinance and sell. Title insurance companies have been bogged down trying to solve these defects, and in the meantime, many of these innocent folks are left with homes which cannot be sold or refinanced. The same bill passed the Legislature last year, but former Gov. Patrick, bowing to housing activists, vetoed it with a poison pill. After several amendments addressing housing activists’ concerns, a new bill was again passed, and just signed into law by Gov. Baker on November 25, 2015.

The bill, which is effective on Dec. 31, gives foreclosed owners a three (3) year statute of limitations to file a challenge to a foreclosure, after which the foreclosure is deemed to have been conducted legally. For foreclosures which have already been concluded, the new law has a one year waiting period, so that a defective foreclosure would be considered non-defective on Dec. 31, 2016. The bill does retain a homeowner’s right to seek compensatory and punitive damages for a wrongful foreclosure, provided it is within the statute of limitations. The bill also requires the Attorney General’s Office to spearhead more robust foreclosure prevention solutions with the HomeCorps Program and housing activists groups.

The passage of the bill is fantastic news for both owners and potential buyers/investors of foreclosure properties. There is a  shadow inventory of defective title properties which will be able to go on the market.

The bill was sponsored by Millbury Democrat Michael Moore whose office (especially Julie DelSobral) worked tirelessly for the passage of the Act.

MA Act Clearing Title to Foreclosed Properties by Richard Vetstein

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Policy Changes Make It Harder To Insure Foreclosed/REO Properties

In the aftermath of the Supreme Judicial Court’s July 17th ruling in Pinti v. Emigrant Mortgage Company, which voided a foreclosure over a defective notice of default, two leading title insurance companies — First American Title and Fidelity/Chicago — have announced that they will be significantly changing the manner in which they underwrite foreclosed properties. These new policies will make it much harder to insure foreclosed properties, and may dramatically affect the sale and marketability of foreclosed/REO/bank owned properties.

The most drastic change comes from First American, which has the largest market share in Massachusetts. Under FATICO’s new policy (embedded below), lenders must obtain a judicial decree that the foreclosure was conducted in compliance with the Pinti ruling. (This applies only to foreclosures conducted after July 17, 2015). Because Massachusetts is a non-judicial foreclosure state (i.e, lenders do not need a judge’s approval to foreclose except for confirmation that the borrower is not in the active military), getting court approval for a foreclosure will require either a Superior Court or Housing Court action and will be expensive, lengthy and burdensome for lenders.

Fidelity/Chicago’s new policy requires closing attorneys to “verify that any preforeclosure default notices were sent by the foreclosing Mortgagee on or before July 17 [and] verify that the attorney for the foreclosing Mortgagee has included a statement to that effect in a recorded Affidavit that is part of the foreclosure documentation.” Closing attorneys must also “determine that the mortgagors, or any parties claiming under them, are no longer in possession of the premises or otherwise asserting any rights.”

The question is whether the other title insurance companies will follow suit. As of this writing, Stewart, CATIC, Old Republic and Westcor have not adopted a new foreclosure underwriting policy. I will monitor if that changes.

Act Clearing Title To Foreclosed Properties

These underwriting changes only underscore the importance of the Legislature passing the Act Clearing Title to Foreclosed Properties, Senate Bill 1981. The bill would protect arm’s length third party purchasers for value, and those claiming under them, who purchase at the foreclosure sale or in a subsequent REO transaction. It is the result of years of negotiation, and represents an honest effort to balance the interests of third party purchasers with mortgagors who legitimately believe they have been wrongfully foreclosed upon. Lenders who have conducted defective foreclosures would remain liable to the mortgagors. This is the same bill that was passed by both branches of the legislature at the end of the legislative session last fall, but was sent back with poison pill amendments by Governor Patrick and died. The bill should be voted on by the Senate soon after Labor Day. If passed, it will be considered by the House shortly afterward.

First American Mass. Foreclosure Policy

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Foreclosure2.jpgRuling Enables Foreclosed Owner to Live in Premises For Over 6 Years, Leaving New Owner with Defective Title

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.

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gill08900Court Halts Eviction For Distressed Homeowner, Validity of Foreclosure In Question (Wells Fargo v. Cook, Mass. Appeals Court May 19, 2015)

In response to the foreclosure crisis, HUD enacted regulations requiring lenders to provide distressed borrowers with a meaningful opportunity to settle their FHA-insured mortgages and obtain a loan modification during a face-to-face interview. In an effort to accommodate the hundreds of Wells Fargo clients facing foreclosure in Massachusetts, the San Francisco based lender held a mass “homeowner’s workshop” at Gillette Stadium in August 2008.

Three months behind on their Mattapan mortgage, Nancy Cook and her daughter showed up to the stadium with a little over $10,000 in cash, in anticipation of signing a repayment plan. After waiting in a long line, Cook received a ticket and sat down with a bank representative. Despite HUD guidelines requiring that loan representative have actual authority to settle accounts and enter repayment plans, the Wells Fargo representative said that he was unable to accept any payments at the event. The counseling session lasted only 15 minutes, but the reprepresentative promised that Ms. Cook would receive a loan modification package in the mail.

Ms. Cook did receive a Special Forbearance Agreement in the mail, which she accepted, and made the first three payments under the agreement. When she went to make the fourth payment, Wells Fargo rejected it, claiming that Cook owed it $2000 more than the scheduled payment. Wells Fargo then issued a default notice, accelerated Cook’s debt, and foreclosed her home.

Several years after completing the foreclosure sale, Wells Fargo brought an eviction case against Cook and her daughter, who at this time were represented by lawyers from Harvard University Legal Aid. (The reason for the long delay is unclear). Boston Housing Court judge Marylou Muirhead ruled against Cook, clearing the way for her eviction.

On appeal, Appeals Court Justice Scott Kafker halted Cook’s eviction, ruling that the Housing Court judge should reconsider whether the Gillette Stadium mass counseling event complied with HUD guidelines. Justice Kafker noted that a reoccurring theme of the HUD rules is to provide personalized consideration for each homeowner. That apparently was not done, said the justice, or at least there is a dispute as to whether the mass Gillette Stadium event could satisfy that guideline.

Of particularly interest to the real estate conveyancing community, the Court held that if the lower court ultimately rules that the counseling session was insufficient, the lender could be found in noncompliance with the mortgage terms and foreclosure power of sale, and its foreclosure could be deemed defective and invalid. A court holding to this effect could potentially invalidate completed foreclosures of FHA insured mortgages over whether the lenders complied with the face-to-face meeting requirements of the HUD guidelines. Ensuring a lender’s compliance with HUD rules is not typically part of a title examiner’s scope of examination. Lenders would need to provide an affidavit certifying that all pre-foreclosure counseling requirements were complied with. Accordingly, this is yet another reason why obtaining an owner’s title insurance policy is a prudent choice for all buyers of foreclosed properties.

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Foreclosure2.jpgAbate v. Fremont Investment & Loan:  High Court Rules That “Try Title” Procedure Only Available After Foreclosure Auction Completed

After Deutsche Bank foreclosed his Newton home, Thomas Abate brought a lawsuit in the Land Court challenging the foreclosure under the “try title” procedure under General Laws chapter 240, sections 1-5. Seeking to invalidate the foreclosure, Mr. Abate utilized the popular defense of attacking the assignment of his mortgage from MERS (Mortgage Electronic Registration System) to Deutsche Bank. After several months of legal wrangling in the Land Court, Judge Robert Foster dismissed Abate’s challenges to the MERS assignment, and dismissed his try title claim. Abate then appealed to the SJC.

Prior to the SJC’s ruling, there was confusion in the foreclosure setting regarding the proper method to determine whether the property owner had legal standing to bring a try title case and whether the owner must bring the case before or after the foreclosure. Putting the proverbial nail in this particular foreclosure defense coffin, the SJC held that a borrower can only use the try title procedure after a foreclosure has been concluded, not before. The Court also ruled that lenders can seek to test borrowers’ legal theories and dismiss these claims very early in the proceeding on a motion to dismiss. The net result is a blow to foreclosure challengers — borrowers must wait until after a foreclosure is completed to bring a lawsuit; and it will be easier for lenders to dismiss claims challenging mortgage assignments and the foreclosures based on such assignments.

I asked preeminant foreclosure defense Attorney Glenn Russell for his thoughts on the ruling, and he said this:

Well from a homeowner’s perspective I have to say that I was hoping for a different outcome, however it’s not all bad. Bottom line, borrowers cannot use try title unless the auction happened, or they can make argument that there never was a legally valid mortgage, or one is trying to enforce a void mortgage, or one that has been discharged. The key thing is that a homeowner cannot bring a try title claim (standing under the “first step” of the try title action), unless the mortgage is foreclosed.

So after several key rulings in favor of foreclosure victims in the earlier part of the decade such as the seminal U.S. Bank v. Ibanez case, the SJC has issued several pro-lender decisions of recent vintage. Is this a sign of foreclosure fatigue or are the justices merely following the law? Maybe a bit of both…

With the economy improving as well, the net effect is likely to be less foreclosures and less legal challenges to them — which will only continue to boost an improving housing market.

A link to the Abate v. Fremont Investment & Loan (SJC-11638) opinion can be found here.

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Massachusetts-Short-Sales.jpgShort Sale Sellers In 2014 Would Get Key Tax Break

A bill that would extend a key tax break to tens of thousands of short sale sellers who sold their homes in 2014 for less than they owed on their mortgages passed the U.S. House on Wednesday and is headed to the Senate for consideration.

A one-year extension of the Mortgage Debt Forgiveness Act, which expired Dec. 31, 2013, was included in the Tax Increase Prevention Act of 2014 and passed the House on Wednesday on a 378-46 vote. Short sale advocates and real estate groups have been lobbying hard all year to help homeowners sold their home through a short sale avoid a devastating tax bill which they likely could not afford.

Traditionally, if a lender allows a homeowner to sell a property for less than the amount owed on the mortgage, the homeowner has to report that forgiven debt as taxable income to the Internal Revenue Service. The Mortgage Debt Forgiveness Act of 2007, which had been extended multiple times, allowed taxpayers to exclude that forgiven debt from their annual income calculations.

The tax break lapsed in 2013, forcing homeowners to either gamble that it would be revived and proceed with a short sale or remain in homes that they either couldn’t afford or couldn’t sell because the mortgages were underwater.

If the bill does not pass, all is not lost. According to some experts, there are other ways under the IRS Code for insolvency to exclude a short sale tax forgiveness from income. Consult a qualified tax attorney or CPA for guidance.

An analysis earlier this year by the Urban Institute concluded that uncertainty over whether the tax break would be renewed could affect up to 2 million seriously underwater borrowers, including some who would eventually fall into foreclosure.

I’ll be keeping tabs on this important issue.

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Distressed Homeowners Take Another Hit

In another court ruling against embattled homeowners facing foreclosure, the Massachusetts Appeals Court has ruled that a defective 150 day cure notice is not a valid defense to a foreclosure sale. The case is Haskins v. Deutsche Bank (click for link to case). The ruling will make it more difficult for distressed homeowners to challenge foreclosure and could accelerate the pace of pending foreclosures.

150 Day Cure Notice

The 2010 Foreclosure Prevention Act requires that foreclosing lenders provide a borrower with a 150 day right to cure prior to starting a foreclosure proceeding. The notice must identify the current “holder” of the mortgage. Before this ruling, some trial courts had ruled that a bank’s failure to strictly comply with those requirements was sufficient grounds to halt a foreclosure sale.

In the Haskins case, the borrower challenged his foreclosure on technical grounds because the cure notice incorrectly identified the holder of the mortgage as IndyMac Mortgage Services. IndyMac was the mortgage servicer and mortgage was legally held in a securitized trust operated by Deutsche Bank.

Justice Mark Green, a former Land Court judge and former banking general counsel, recognized that today the vast majority of residential mortgages are serviced by large mortgage servicers while owned and held in securitized trusts. Rejecting the borrower’s form-over-substance argument, Justice Green ruled that as long as the borrower receives an accurate cure notice with the correct loan balance information and payment address so the borrower can pay up and cure, an erroneous identification of the actual mortgage holder should not affect the validity of the pending foreclosure.

Massachusetts foreclosure defense attorney Adam Sherwin, who represented the borrower, put up a valiant fight in this case. However, with this ruling and several recent decisions before it, foreclosure defense attorneys have suffered several setbacks in the courts, making it more difficult for distressed homeowners to challenge and stop foreclosures.

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mass ibanez titleSenate Bill 1987 Would Have Cleared Title For Innocent Homeowners

Acceding to the demands of fair housing community activists, Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick has rejected Senate Bill 1987, An Act Clearing Titles to Foreclosed Properties. The bill would have cleared title of homes affected by defective foreclosures with a one year waiting period from enactment of the bill while giving homeowners three years to challenge wrongful foreclosures. The Governor filed an amendment to the bill, raising the statute of limitations for homeowners to challenge foreclosures from 3 years in the current bill to 10 years. The Senate and House are unlikely to agree on such an absurdly long statute of limitations, so Patrick’s action should effectively kill the bill.

This is truly devastating news for the thousands of innocent homeowners who are stuck with bad title due to botched foreclosures.

The bill had cleared the Senate and House with near unanimous support. The bill also received favorable press in the Worcester Telegram and Boston GlobeThe bill preserves the right to challenge foreclosures and sue the banks, while helping innocent homeowners stuck with bad title. Despite this, organizations such as the Massachusetts Alliance Against Predatory Lending and activist Grace Ross were successful in getting Governor Patrick on their side.

The Governor’s statement accompanying his action on the bill states as follows:

Massachusetts is emerging from a period of far too many foreclosures, on far too many families, and in far too many communities facing significant economic challenges. It is no secret that, too often, the foreclosure was not properly effectuated.  The entity purporting to foreclose did not have the legal authority to do so.  The effect of these impermissible foreclosures has been lasting.  Families were improperly removed from their homes.  Buyers who later purchased the property — or, at least, believed they had done so — are now faced with title questions.  Many of these buyers were investors, but many are now homeowners themselves. I commend the Legislature’s effort to address these problems.  But I believe the proposed three year period is insufficient.  A family improperly removed from its home deserves greater protection, and a meaningful opportunity to claim the right to the land that it still holds.  The right need not be indefinite, but it should extend for longer than three years.  Certainty of title is a good thing — it helps the real estate market function more smoothly, which ultimately can help us all.  But this certainty should not come at the expense of wrongly displaced homeowners or, at least, not until we have put this period further behind us.

As a long time supporter of this bill, I am truly disheartened at this result. I thought the bill did a great job in balancing the rights of innocent home buyers who are stuck with unsellable properties through no fault of their own with the rights of folks who are fighting foreclosures. A three year statute of limitation — which is the same length for malpractice and personal injury claims — is a reasonable amount of time to mount a challenge to a foreclosure, especially when debtors have many months prior notice before a foreclosure sale. The people who would have benefited from this bill are everyday people who bought properties out of foreclosure, put money into them and improved them. I have personally assisted several of these families. Everyone agrees that the banks are largely at fault for the mess left behind with the foreclosure crisis but why put the rights of those who don’t pay their mortgages above those who do? I will never understand this rationale. Perhaps that’s why I could never be in politics!

So where do we go from here? I honestly don’t know. Fortunately, the Land Court recently issued a ruling which may help clear some of these toxic titles. Maybe the legislation will get another chance at the next session or when Patrick leaves office at the end of the year.

 

 

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mass ibanez titleIt appears we may be nearing the end of the misery resulting from the infamous U.S. Bank v. Ibanez foreclosure decision, which has caused hundreds if not thousands of title defects across the Commonwealth. A recent Land Court ruling combined with significant movement on curative legislation may clear the vast majority of these defective titles.

By way of background, titles of properties afflicted with Ibanez title defects came out of faulty foreclosures, and in worst cases, cannot be sold or refinanced. Many homeowners have been waiting for 5 years or longer for some kind of resolution so they can sell or refinance their homes. 

Daukas v. Dadoun Land Court Ruling

This past week on July 23, 2014, Land Court Justice Keith Long (ironically the same judge who wrote the original Ibanez ruling) held that an Ibanez title can be cleared through the foreclosure by entry procedure as long as three years have passed since the faulty foreclosure. Typically in Massachusetts lenders use both the power of sale/auction method and entry method of foreclosure. Unlike the power of sale/auction method, however, a foreclosure by entry takes three years to ripen into good title. Judge Long ruled that even where the power of sale/auction method was defective due to non-compliance with the Ibanez decision, the foreclosure by entry method would not be affected by this non-compliance provided that the lender was the “holder” of the mortgage at the time of the entry and three years have passed since the entry.

So what does that mean in plain English? It means that titles with Ibanez defects may be insurable and marketable provided that (1) the foreclosing lender conducted and recorded a proper foreclosure by entry, (2) the entry was conducted by a lender who was the proper holder of the foreclosed mortgage, and (3) three (3) years have passed since the foreclosure entry. If you have been dealing with an Ibanez defective title, it’s best to contact an experienced title attorney and/or your title insurance company (if you have one) to see if you qualify. Feel free to contact me at rvetstein@vetsteinlawgroup.com.

Thank you to Attorney Jeffrey Loeb of Rich May PC for alerting me to the Land Court case.

Senate Bill 1987

Senate Bill 1987, sponsored by Shrewsbury State Senator Michael Moore and the Massachusetts Land Title Association, would render clear and marketable to any title affected by a defective foreclosure after 3 years have passed from the foreclosure. The bill, which has been passed by the Senate and is now before the House, is very close to being passed by both branches of the legislature, hopefully during this summer legislative session.

This is great news for the real estate market. I don’t have firm numbers, but there are probably hundreds, if not thousands, of these unsellable properties just sitting on the sidelines, and now they can get back onto the market. This is exactly what the inventory starved market needs.

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Distressed Homeowners Lose Key Defense, While Foreclosure Purchasers Gain More Title Security

Last week, the Supreme Judicial Court decided yet another important foreclosure case, U.S. Bank v. Schumacher (embedded below). The issue considered in Schumacher was whether a foreclosing lender’s defective 90 day notice to cure was a defense in a subsequent post-foreclosure eviction (summary process action) by the borrower. The SJC said no it was not a valid defense, as it should have been raised much earlier in the legal process in a separate action in the Superior Court.

Schumacher considered a 2007 law requiring that foreclosing lenders provide a borrower with a 90 day right to cure prior to starting a foreclosure proceeding. Before Schumacher, some trial courts had ruled that a bank’s failure to strictly comply with those requirements was fatal to a foreclosure sale. In such cases, even a post-foreclosure buyer of the property would have potentially defective title. From a title perspective this result was especially problematic since a bank’s compliance or non-compliance with §35A would not appear in the property’s title at the registry of deeds.

By holding that a defective cure notice is no defense to a post-foreclosure eviction, the SJC has made it more difficult for distressed homeowners to challenge the legality of foreclosures in eviction cases. On the flip side, the ruling will help buyers of foreclosed property as it makes their titles less susceptible to challenge by the previous owners.

U.S. Bank v. Schumacher (Mass. SJC 2014) by Richard Vetstein

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mass ibanez titleShould Result In Much-Needed Inventory Boost To Housing Market

Good news to report for property owners saddled with toxic titles resulting from the seminal U.S. Bank v. Ibanez foreclosure ruling. Massachusetts lawmakers are poised to pass into law a new bill aimed at legislatively clearing up all of these defective titles.

By way of background, properties afflicted with Ibanez title defects, in worst cases, cannot be sold or refinanced. And homeowners without title insurance have been compelled to spend thousands in legal fees to clear their titles, while some have not been able to clear their titles at all.

The new legislation, Senate Bill 1987, would render clear and marketable any title affected by a defective foreclosure after 3 years have passed from the foreclosure. Most of these toxic titles were created prior to 2009, so the vast majority of them will be cleared up.

The bill does preserve any existing litigation over the validity of foreclosures. The legislation does not apply if there is an existing legal challenge to the validity of the foreclosure sale in which case record notice must be provided at the registry of deeds. The bill also does not shield liability of foreclosure lenders and attorneys for bad faith and consumer protection violations over faulty foreclosures.

The bill has recently been passed by the Senate and now moves on to the House. Word is that it should pass through the House and on to the Governor’s Desk.

Shrewsbury State Senator Michael Moore and the Massachusetts Land Title Association have sponsored this effort for several years now. I have been supporting this effort as well.

This is great news for the real estate market. I don’t have firm numbers, but there are probably hundreds, if not thousands, of these unsellable properties just sitting on the sidelines, and now they can get back onto the market. This is exactly what the inventory starved market needs.

(Hat tip to Colleen Sullivan over at Banker and Tradesman for passing along this important information).

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Massachusetts-Short-Sales.jpgCongress Fails To Extend Mortgage Forgiveness Debt Relief Act for 2014

The ringing of the New Year may not be a welcome sound to distressed homeowners who were not able to complete short sales by the close of 2013. Unfortunately, Congress failed to extend the December 31, 2013 expiration of the Mortgage Forgiveness Debt Relief Act, the federal law which makes short sale debt forgiveness non-taxable.

If there’s no extension, the short sale market will be decimated. I just closed a $600,000 short sale yesterday, just under the deadline. But if that same deal closed tomorrow, it would have resulted in an over $30,000 tax bill for a distressed homeowner who could in no way afford to pay that.

Last year, Congress rushed to extend the law during negotiations about the fiscal cliff but only through the end of 2013. Lawmakers and housing advocates argue that the rule hurts those who are already financially strapped. Since 2009, more than 220,000 homeowners have sold their houses for less than they were worth through a short sale with help from a government program. There are more than 6 million homes still underwater across the country, according to a third-quarter report from research company CoreLogic.

At the federal level, there are three bills — two in the House and one in the Senate — that call for the law’s extension. One of the House bills enjoys strong bipartisan support, with 29 Democrats and 23 Republicans on board. The Senate bill — which would extend relief through 2015 — is sponsored by Senators Debbie Stabenow, Democrat of Michigan, and Dean Heller, Republican of Nevada. Stabenow sponsored the extension last year.

To her credit, Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley has been lobbying hard for the extension of the debt relief provision.

Don’t be surprised if short sales slow down considerably and go into a holding pattern while folks wait to see if Congress will extend the law. Let’s hope Congress acts on this important matter.

If you have any questions about short sales, please contact me at rvetstein@vetsteinlawgroup.com.

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Foreclosure2-300x225.jpgHousing Courts Will Likely Face Increased Caseload

Giving an early Christmas present to distressed homeowners, the Supreme Judicial Court today ruled that a foreclosed upon homeowner may challenge a bank’s title and foreclosure sale irregularities through counterclaims in a post-foreclosure eviction in the Housing Court — rather than being forced to file a separate equity lawsuit in the Superior Court. The case is Bank of America v. Rosa, SJC-11330 (Dec. 18, 2013).

The high court also held that the Housing Court has jurisdiction to hear other counterclaims against foreclosing lenders, including fair housing, consumer protection (Chapter 93A), and HAMP related claims.

The likely impact of this ruling will be that the already busy Housing Court will now be “Ground Zero” for foreclosure related litigation. Foreclosed property owners will have more weapons to delay and prevent being evicted after foreclosures.

Overall, while the ruling seeks to protect the rights of foreclosed property owners, it has the potential to delay the housing recovery in Massachusetts. The longer folks who don’t pay their mortgages are allowed to live rent free in their foreclosed houses, the more the housing market suffers. There are plenty of creditworthy buyers and investors willing and able to buy up and rehab these foreclosed properties. Letting them sit and blight neighborhoods doesn’t help anyone in the long run. Just my opinion…

The ruling is embedded below. (Click for link).

Bank of America v. Rosa

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6a00d8341c630a53ef0120a90377db970b-800wiOne of the perks of writing this blog is that I get called by business reporters from around the country who think I know a thing or two about real estate law. While that proposition is certainly debatable, this week I was contacted by a very nice reporter from the Wall Street Journal who was doing a story about luxury homeowners falling into foreclosure. Here is a link to the article (in which I was quoted).

Naturally, I related this situation back to one of my mother’s favorite reality TV series: The Real Housewives of Orange County. The “Wives” of Orange County have been particularly affected by the real estate collapse. Apparently, Tamra, Alexis and Lynne’s enhanced beauty and vapid personalities were not enough to avoid foreclosure, eviction and short sales of their multi-million dollar mansions. But for “normal” millionaires like you and me, lenders may be more willing to work with high income borrowers, according to the Journal.

WSJ reporter, Annamaria Andriotis, found some data supporting her theory that due to the unique economics involved with the luxury home market (i.e., less buyers, more expensive to maintain), lenders are less likely to foreclose upon properties over $1 Million.

Lenders can be more willing to craft a new payment plan to make high-dollar homes more affordable. Paperwork and procedures are also often delayed, keeping homeowners in some states in their homes for two or more years after they’ve stopped making mortgage payments. And in some cases, lenders are offering homeowners tens of thousands of dollars in cash in exchange for their agreeing to a short sale, in which a home is sold for less than the borrower owes on the mortgage.

Repossession rates show the difference. Last year, roughly 85% of homes worth up to $1 million that received default notices were eventually repossessed, according to RealtyTrac, which tracks real-estate data. For homes worth more than $1 million, about 28%, or around 1,400 homes, were repossessed.

I have to assume that Massachusetts is not unique in this respect. Realtor John McGeough of McGeough & LaMacchia says he’s seen an increased in short sale activity for million-plus dollar homes in towns like Weston, Wellesley, Brookline, Newton, Gloucester, North Andover, South Natick, Sudbury, Concord, Sherborn, and Needham. McGeough reports that JP Morgan Chase paid one of his distressed clients $30,000 to do a short sale. Talk about cash for keys!

I don’t think there is any class warfare or real discrimination going on here. It’s simply dollars and sense. It’s more expensive for banks to foreclose and hold onto a million dollar property as opposed to working out a better deal with the borrower.

And by the way, I cannot stand those Housewives!

WSJ Foreclosure Forestalled Article 3.8.13 by

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11119985-homeowners-stop-foreclosureWe introduce this subject with a riddle: What entity is not a bank but claims to hold title to approximately half of all the mortgaged homes in the country? The answer is MERS. –Circuit Judge Bruce Seyla in Culhane v. Aurora Loan Servicing of Nebraska,

For the second time in a week, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit has issued a major foreclosure opinion, this one in Culhane v. Aurora Loan Servicing of Nebraska, No. 12-1285 (click to download opinion and embedded below). Writing for a distinguished panel which included retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice David Souter, Circuit Judge Bruce Seyla held that the MERS system passes legal muster, but — overruling numerous lower court decisions to the contrary — gave borrowers the right to challenge mortgage assignments in the wrongful foreclosure setting. In my opinion, the net effect of this decision will put to rest the ubiquitous challenges to the MERS regime in Massachusetts, yet could result in a slight uptick in foreclosure challenges by blessing borrowers with much sought after legal standing to challenge faulty mortgage assignments.

This opinion is a must read. Judge Seyla is well known for his linguistic talents. Make sure you get out your dictionaries — Judge Seyla likes big words.

MERS — Mortgage Electronic Registration System, Inc.

For those who have not read our prior posts on MERS, it is an electronic registry of mortgages created by lenders in the 1990′s in order to facilitate the securitization and sale of mortgage back securities on Wall Street. Basically, when mortgages are bought and sold by various investors and lenders, MERS documents the transfers in its electronic database. However, historically the MERS-assisted transfers were not recorded through mortgage assignments in the state registries of deeds, a practice subject to much criticism. As for who “owns” the actual mortgage — another issue subject to much criticism and litigation — MERS claims that it acts solely as a “nominee” for the actual lender and holds only bare legal title to the mortgage as the mortgage holder of record.

When a loan go into default status and into foreclosure, MERS would, as in the Culhane case, facilitate the execution of a mortgage assignment to the current loan servicer, Aurora Servicing in this case. In another much criticized practice, one person wearing “two hats” would often execute these mortgage assignments. For the Culhane loan, an Aurora employee who was also a MERS “certifying officer” executed the assignment transferring the mortgage from MERS to Aurora. Ms. Culhane challenged this practice in her lawsuit seeking to void the foreclosure conducted by Aurora.

Borrower Has Legal Standing To Challenge Mortgage Assignments In Certain Cases

In a question of first impression in the First Circuit, the court considered whether borrowers have standing to challenge a MERS-initiated mortgage assignment even though a borrower is not a party to it. Overruling a significant number of cases around the country, the panel held that borrowers do have legal standing to challenge assignments  as “invalid, ineffective, or void (if, say, the assignor had nothing to assign or had no authority to make an assignment to a particular assignee).” Judge Seyla adopted some common-sense reasoning, noting that under Massachusetts’ non-judicial foreclosure system, borrowers would be effectively left without a remedy to challenge a faulty foreclosure without giving them standing to contest a defective mortgage assignment.

MERS System Is Legal And Borrower Ultimately Loses

Ms. Culhane’s victory as this point unfortunately became Pyrrhic. Although the court held that borrowers could challenge mortgage assignments going forward, it did Ms. Culhane no good because she could not muster an adequate challenge to the MERS-Aurora mortgage assignment in her case. The court rejected Culhane’s argument that MERS did not legally hold the mortgage so it could not assign it, reasoning that nothing in Massachusetts mortgage law prohibited splitting the note and mortgage as the MERS system does. The court also found no legal problem with the same person signing on behalf of both MERS and Aurora.

Not The Last Word…

Culhane, however, may not be the last word on MERS and foreclosures in Massachusetts, as the Supreme Judicial Court always has the last and final say on these matters. Coincidentally, this week the SJC announced that it was soliciting friend-of-the-court briefs in Galiastro v. MERS, on whether MERS “has standing to pursue a foreclosure in its own right as a named ‘mortgagee’ with ability to act limited solely as a ‘nominee’ and without any ownership interest or rights in the promissory note associated with the mortgage; whether the prospective mandate of Eaton v. Federal National Mortgage Association, 462 Mass. 569 (2012), applies to cases that were pending on appeal at the time that case was decided.” The Galiastro case is scheduled for argument in April 2013.

As always, I’ll be on top of the latest developments in this ever-fluid area of law. Now, it’s time to eat those bagels and lox I’ve been waiting for.

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RDV-profile-picture-larger-150x150.jpgRichard D. Vetstein, Esq. is a Massachusetts real estate attorney who writes frequently about new foreclosure issues concerning the real estate industry. He can be reached at info@vetsteinlawgroup.com.

Culhane v. Aurora Loan Servicing (1st Cir. Feb. 15. 2013) by

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Massachusetts foreclosure defenseFederal Appeals Court Reinstates Borrower’s Wrongful Foreclosure Claim 

Noted Massachusetts foreclosure defense attorney Glenn Russell is on a roll of a lifetime, yesterday winning a rare victory on behalf of a borrower at the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit in Boston. The case is Juarez v. Select Portfolio Servicing, Inc. (11-2431) (click for opinion). It is, I believe, the first federal appellate ruling in favor of a wrongful foreclosure claimant in the First Circuit which covers the New England area, and one of the first rulings to delve into the problem of back-dated mortgage assignments.

Alleged Backdated Mortgage Assignment Proves Fatal

Melissa Juárez purchased a home in Dorchester, Massachusetts on August 5, 2005, financing it with reputed sub-prime lender New Century Mortgage. The mortgage was packaged and bundled into a real estate mortgage investment conduit (“REMIC”), a special type of trust that receives favorable tax treatment, ultimately being held by U.S. Bank, as trustee. Juárez could not afford the payments on the mortgage and defaulted. Foreclosure proceedings began in the summer of 2008, culminating in the sale of her home at an auction in October 22,2008. She claims, however, that lender did not hold the note and the mortgage at the time they began the foreclosure proceedings against her, and that the foreclosure was therefore illegal under Massachusetts mortgage law.

The problem in the case centered around the mortgage assignment into U.S. Bank, as trustee — the same problem the same bank faced in the landmark U.S. Bank v. Ibanez case. The “Corporate Assignment of Mortgage,” appears to have been back-dated. It was dated October 16, 2008 and recorded in the corresponding registry of deeds on October 29, 2008, after the foreclosure had been completed. However, at the top of the document, it stated: “Date of Assignment: June 13, 2007,” in an obvious attempt to date it back prior to the foreclosure.

First Circuit Reinstates Borrower’s Wrongful Foreclosure Claims

After federal judge Denise Casper dismissed Juarez’s claims entirely on a motion to dismiss, the First Circuit reinstated the majority of Juarez’s claims. U.S. Bank claimed that the back-dated mortgage assignment was merely a confirmatory assignment in compliance with the Ibanez ruling, but the appeals court concluded otherwise:

Nothing in the document indicates that it is confirmatory of an assignment executed in 2007. Nowhere does the document even mention the phrase “confirmatory assignment.” Neither does it establish that it confirms a previous assignment or, for that matter, even make any reference to a previous assignment in its body.

Lacking a valid mortgage assignment in place as of the foreclosure, U.S. Bank lacked the authority to foreclose, the court ruled, following the Ibanez decision. Ms. Juarez and Glenn Russell will now get the opportunity to litigate their claims in the lower court.

Will Lenders Ever Learn Their Lesson?

The take-away from this case is that courts are finally beginning to scrutinize the problematic mortgage assignments in wrongful foreclosure cases. This ruling may also affect how title examiners and title insurance companies analyze the risk of back titles with potential back-dated mortgage assignments. If a lender records a true confirmatory assignment, it must do much better than simply state an effective date.

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RDV-profile-picture-larger-150x150.jpgRichard D. Vetstein, Esq. is a Massachusetts real estate attorney who writes frequently about new foreclosure issues concerning the real estate industry. He can be reached at info@vetsteinlawgroup.com.

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stop20foreclosure1Court Uses Novel Equitable Assignment of Mortgage Theory 

In what could be the first test case of a new theory to clear up defective foreclosure titles — and much welcome news for property owners stuck with toxic titles — Massachusetts Land Court Judge Gordon Piper has ruled that the theory of equitable assignment of an improperly foreclosed mortgage can be used to clear title of an improperly foreclosed property.

The case is Cavanaugh v. GMAC Mortgage LLC, et al., 11 MISC 447901 (embedded below) and was recently appealed by noted foreclosure attorney, Glenn Russell, Esq., who represented the prevailing homeowners in the landmark U.S. Bank v. Ibanez case. The case will now go up to the Massachusetts Appeals Court, or, given its importance, perhaps taken up by the Supreme Judicial Court on direct appellate review.

In this case, GMAC Mortgage foreclosed a mortgage given by Maureen Cavanaugh of Fairhaven, then granted a foreclosure deed to Fannie Mae. The foreclosure, however, was defective because notice of the foreclosure sale was not published in the local newspaper as required by Massachusetts foreclosure law. Fannie Mae later sold the property to Timothy Lowney.

Ms. Cavanaugh sued the lenders and Mr. Lowney in a Land Court “quiet title” action to re-claim her property back. This is essentially the same situation as presented in the Bevilacqua vs. Rodriguez case where a property owner was stuck with a defective foreclosure title. The Court in Bevilacqua suggested an alternative theory to solve the defective title by using the conveyance of the foreclosure deed as an equitable assignment of the original mortgage, so the new property owner could foreclose and obtain clear title in the process.

Judge Piper used this equitable assignment theory in the Cavanaugh case, ruling that Lowney, the new buyer, holds the GMAC Mortgage through equitable assignment, and may now foreclose upon Ms. Cavanaugh, thereby clearing the way to get clean title. Equally important, Judge Piper ordered GMAC and Fannie Mae to assign the underlying promissory note from Ms. Cavanaugh to Lowney so that he holds both the note and the mortgage as required by after the important Eaton v. Fannie Mae case several months ago.

This is an important and much-needed judicial development for assisting homeowners who have been unable to refinance or sell their properties due to “Ibanez” and other foreclosure related title defects. This case also illustrates the importance of obtaining an owner’s policy of title insurance which appears to have provided coverage to Mr. Lowney in this matter.

Cavanaugh v. GMAC Mortgage — Massachusetts Land Court by

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