Title Defects

massachusetts condominium super lienRuling Hurts Condominium Associations’ Collection Efforts

The Massachusetts Condominium Act gives condominium associations the ability to file a “super-lien” for unpaid monthly condominium fees, six months of which is given priority over a first mortgage against the unit. The super-lien has proven to be a very effective method for condominiums to collect delinquent fees because lenders will often pay off the super-priority amount so as not to affect their mortgage priority.

But what happens when a unit owner owes more than six month’s worth of condo fees? In that situation, innovative condominium attorneys have developed a practice of filing multiple lien lawsuits to create a “rolling” lien for successive 6 month periods. Unfortunately for condominium associations, the Appeals Court recently put the kibosh on this practice in the case of Drummer Boy Homes Association v. Britton (Nov. 7, 2014).

Rolling Lien Practice

In the Drummer Boy case, the unit owner withheld payment of condo fees in a dispute with the condominium trustees over parking rights and fines. (Note, this is a big “no-no” as the law provides that a disgruntled unit owner must pay fees under protest). The condominium lawyers filed three separate and successive lawsuits asserting a super-lien over 18 months worth of unpaid fees. The lawsuits were all consolidated. A district court judge ruled, however, that the association had a super-priority lien over only the first 6 months before the first lawsuit, not the 18 months’ worth claimed.

Court: Super-lien Limited To 6 Months Of Fees

On appeal, the Appeals Court likewise held that the association’s super-lien only covered the initial 6 month period, not the 18 month period claimed. The Court reasoned that the Mass. Condominium Act was modeled after the Uniform Condominium Act which clearly provided that the maximum amount of a super-priority lien was 6 months worth of fees, and that this was a fair balance between the interests of lenders and condominium associations. Of course, the condominium association is free to collect all of the outstanding fees from the unit owner and sell the unit at auction, but the first mortgage will have priority over all of the fees except for 6 months plus attorneys’ fees, so it’s essentially a Pyrrhic victory.

As the condominium attorneys over at Perkins|Ancil are saying, this ruling may be appealed to the SJC and going forward associations will likely be forced to avail themselves of the remedy of foreclosure sooner rather than later in order to fully protect their financial interests. Failing that, condominium associations will have to lobby the Legislature for a change in the super-priority lien amount over above the 6 month cap. This remains a case to watch!

 

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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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eviction-not

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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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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images-10Overview of  “Standard” Changes to the GBREB Form Purchase and Sale Agreement

Missing mortgage discharges, problematic  probates, “Ibanez” foreclosure issues and other title defects are always an unwelcome surprise to a seller, their Realtor and attorney. But they are unfortunately a common part of life in the real estate conveyancing world. The “standard” purchase and sale agreement form commonly used by Realtors and attorneys (Greater Boston Real Estate Board) provides for what happens in a transaction if a title defect is discovered and cannot be cleared quickly.

The GBREB form, paragraph 10, which is still in widespread use, provides as follows:

If the SELLER shall be unable to give title or to make conveyance, or to deliver possession of the premises, all as herein stipulated, or if at the time of the deed the premises do not conform with the provisions hereof, then any payments made under this agreement shall forthwith be refunded and all other obligations of the parties hereto shall cease, and this agreement shall be void without recourse to the parties hereto, unless the SELLER elects to use reasonable efforts to remove any defects in title, or to deliver possession as provided herein, or to make the said premises conform to the provisions hereof, as the case may be, in which event the Seller shall given written notice thereof to the Buyer at or before the time for performance hereunder, and thereupon the time for performance hereof shall be extended for a period of thirty days.

The standard provision is, unfortunately, outdated and problematic. Accordingly, experienced Realtors and attorneys are taught to modify this provision from the outset as follows:

If the SELLER shall be unable to give title or to make conveyance, or to deliver possession of the premises, all as herein stipulated, or if at the time of the deed the premises do not conform with the provisions hereof, then any payments made under this agreement shall forthwith be refunded and all other obligations of the parties hereto shall cease, and this agreement shall be void without recourse to the parties hereto, unless then the SELLER shall elect to use reasonable efforts to remove any defects in title, or to deliver possession as provided herein, or to make the said premises conform to the provisions hereof, as the case may be, in which event the Seller shall given written notice thereof to the Buyer at or before the time for performance hereunder, and thereupon the time for performance hereof shall be extended for a period of thirty days.

These standard modifications ensure that the Seller is initially responsible for clearing any title defects and gives them 30 days in which to do so. If the Seller cannot clear the title defect within 30 days, then both parties have the option of terminating the deal and all deposits must be returned.

Limiting Seller’s Financial Exposure

To limit the seller’s out of pocket expenses to clear title defects, real estate attorneys representing the seller will often insert language such as this at the end of paragraph 10:

Reasonable efforts shall be defined as the Seller’s expenditure of no more than $________, exclusive of all voluntary encumbrances which secure the payment of money which Seller shall be obligated to remove.

The dollar amount is typically anywhere between $1,000 – $4000 depending on the purchase price.

Protecting The Buyer

On the buyer side, what happens if during the 30 day extension cure period, the buyer’s rate lock expires and interest rates are floating up (like now)? Experienced buyer attorneys will often insert the following language in their  riders:

Notwithstanding anything to the contrary contained in this Agreement, if SELLER extends this Agreement to perfect title or make the Premises conform as provided in Paragraph 10, and if BUYER’S mortgage commitment or rate lock would expire prior to the expiration of said extension, then such extension shall continue, at BUYER’S option, only until the date of expiration of BUYER’S mortgage commitment or rate lock.  BUYER may elect, at its sole option, to obtain an extension of its mortgage commitment or rate lock or the Seller may elect to pay for same.

This language will ensure that the buyer doesn’t wind up floating up the interest rate river with an untimely rate lock expiration. This situation has come up rather frequently over the last several months as interest rates have increased dramatically.

This is just one, albeit a very important, part of how an experienced real estate attorney works up the purchase and sale agreement. I will do some more posts on other aspects of the P&S Agreement. Stay tuned!

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Richard D. Vetstein, Esq. is a Massachusetts real estate closing attorney with offices in Framingham and Needham, MA. He can be reached at rvetstein@vetsteinlawgroup.com or 508.620.5352.

 

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2691601505_c65b897bcc.jpgYou have been eagerly awaiting the closing of your new construction home, but alas, the builder has not been able to complete the landscaping, walkway and driveway by the closing and there is a two page punch-list of other incomplete work. You have already hired a moving company and packed all of your family’s stuff. Anxious thoughts race through your mind…Can we close on time? What will my lender do about the incomplete work? Should I be in panic mode?

Throw Me An Escrow Holdback Agreement!

In this situation, your closing attorney should recommend an escrow holdback agreement which, if approved by your lender, will enable the transaction to close as scheduled. The parties will sign a standard escrow holdback agreement at closing, with an agreed upon portion of the seller sale proceeds held in escrow (usually by the closing attorney) pending completion of the unfinished work. Escrow holdbacks are fairly common in Massachusetts real estate practice. They can be used to address all types of situations which would otherwise delay a closing: approval of a new septic system, unfinished construction/repair work, missing mortgage discharges and title issues, or any other obligation the seller should have completed for the closing.

Lender Approval Often Required

If you are using conventional mortgage financing, you will usually need to get your lender’s approval of the escrow holdback agreement, and it must be shown on the HUD-1 Settlement Statement. Some lenders and some loan programs will not allow an escrow holdback, so your closing may have to be pushed back. For incomplete new construction work, some lenders will require an inspection before allowing for the release of the escrowed funds, and they will typically require that 1.5 times the cost of the work be placed in escrow.

Builders Playing Hardball

Recently, I’ve seen some new construction builders refuse to agree to any escrow holdbacks in their purchase and sale agreements. This is ridiculous in my opinion, and should not be agreed to. Rarely does a new construction building complete a project without some unfinished work or punch list items. I typically counter with a language allowing an escrow holdback if the buyer’s lender insists upon it.

For these situations, “money talks”, and withholding seller funds is often the only way to ensure that the seller does what he or she has agreed to do.

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RDV-profile-picture-larger-150x150.jpgRichard D. Vetstein, Esq. is an experienced Massachusetts real estate closing attorney. If you have any questions about the Massachusetts closing process or escrow holdback agreements, please contact him at info@vetsteinlawgroup.com or 508-620-5352.

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GMAC-MortgageRejects “In For One, In for All” Theory in Title Insurance Coverage

One little mistake in drafting and recording legal documents during a refinance can result in a huge problem for a lender — such as the lender having no legal ability to enforce the mortgage! (A slight problem..) GMAC Mortgage learned this the hard way last week at the Supreme Judicial Court in GMAC Mortgage v. First American Title Insurance Company (SJC-11161), where the court found in favor of First American Title Insurance Co., in a dispute over coverage under a lender’s title insurance policy.

First-American-Title-Insurance-CompanyA Doozy of a Mistake

As title defects go, this is a doozy, because it was easily preventable, and yet wrecked so much legal havoc in its aftermath. Elizabeth Moore and her husband, Thomas Moore, lived in a home in Billerica, the title to which was in Mr. Moore’s name. In 2001, for the purpose of refinancing the property, Mr. Moore executed a note and a mortgage to GMAC’s predecessor corporation (which obtained a lender’s title insurance policy from an agent of First American). Mr. Moore also signed a deed conveying the property from himself to himself and his wife as tenants by the entirety, as his plan was for both of them to hold title jointly as husband and wife. Under the “first in time” rule, in order for the mortgage to properly attach to the property, it should have been recorded before the deed went on record. However, the closing attorney mistakenly recorded the instruments in the wrong order, so the mortgage only attached to Mr. Moore’s 1/2 interest in the Property. Mr. Moore died in 2007. After his death, record title to the property vested solely in Mrs. Moore, and GMAC was left with no ability to enforce its mortgage against her or the property.

GMAC sued Mrs. Moore to enforce its mortgage rights, and she countersued for a slew of wrongful foreclosure and consumer protection claims. GMAC and Mrs. Moore wound up settling out of court, but GMAC tried to recoup all its legal fees and losses against the lender’s title insurance policy issued by First American.

Court Rejects Complete Defense Doctrine for Title Insurance

Unlike commercial general liability policies, which courts have ruled must provide coverage to all claims in a lawsuit if merely one claim is covered — the “in for one, in for all” theory —  the SJC ruled that title insurance policies do not provide such wide-ranging coverage. Reaffirming the notion that a policy of title insurance is merely an indemnification policy and not a guaranty of perfect title, the justices ruled that First American’s duty was only to cover the aspects of Mrs. Moore’s claims affecting title, and not her wrongful foreclosure and consumer protection claims. This ruling will mostly affect the relationship between the large banks and lenders and title insurance companies, but provides a good reminder about what title insurance does and what it doesn’t cover.

Title Insurance Coverages Often Misunderstood

As a former outside claims counsel for a leading title insurance company, I have found that most insureds and claimants do not fully understand title insurance coverages. And why would they? It’s complicated stuff.

Most regular folks think that title insurance provides a full and complete guaranty and assurance that title to their home is pristine and clean. While title insurance gives an ordinary homebuyer “max coverage” available for title defects, it does not provide a 100% warranty that every conceivable problem affecting legal ownership of a home will be covered.

Subject to various exclusions and exceptions noted on the policy, a title insurance policy provides coverage for loss or damage sustained by reason of a covered risk as of the time of the closing. What are those covered risks? Some risks such as forgeries, improper legal descriptions, and recording errors are covered. Other risks such as certain encroachments, boundary line disputes, wetland issues, and zoning issues are not covered. Defects or liens arising after the issuance of a policy are likewise not covered, unless a new policy is issued. Also, the new enhanced policies provide for more expanded coverages than the older standard policies. It’s best to consult an experienced title insurance attorney for a complete explanation of what a title policy covers.

I’ve written several blog posts on title insurance which can be found by clicking here.

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RDV-profile-picture-larger-150x150.jpgRichard D. Vetstein, Esq. is an experienced Massachusetts title insurance claims and coverages attorney who was previously outside claims counsel to a leading title insurance company. You can reach him at info@vetsteinlawgroup.com or 508-620-5352.

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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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2011-20121I always look forward to recapping the year that was, and bringing out the crystal ball to predict the year ahead. This year, like years prior, was an active year for Massachusetts real estate law, with several important court rulings, legislative developments, and emerging legal trends. The year 2013 is expected to be just as busy.

Eaton v. Fannie Mae and Fannie Mae v. Hendricks Foreclosure Rulings

Another year, another pair of huge foreclosure rulings by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court. On June 22, 2012, in Eaton v. Federal Nat’l Mortgage Ass’n, the SJC held that lenders must establish they hold both the promissory note and the mortgage in order to lawfully foreclose. This posed major problem for the vast majority of conventional mortgages which lenders securitized and sold off on the secondary mortgage market, thereby splitting the note and mortgage among various securitized trusts and mortgage servicers. Responding to pleas from the real estate bar, the SJC declined to apply its ruling retroactively, thereby averting the Apocalyptic scenario where thousands of foreclosure titles would have been called into question. My prior post on the Eaton ruling can be read here.

The FNMA v. Hendricks case had the potential to change Massachusetts foreclosure practice, but the SJC rejected the challenge. The court upheld the validity of the long-standing Massachusetts statutory form foreclosure affidavit which provided that the foreclosing lender has complied with the foreclosure laws,rejecting the borrower’s claim that the affidavit was essentially robo-signed.

New Medical Marijuana Law Has Landlords, Municipalities Smoking Mad

Burned up Massachusetts landlords and anti-pot local pols are still fuming with concern over the state’s newly passed but hazy medicinal marijuana law. The law — rolling out Jan. 1 — mandates the opening of at least 35 medicinal marijuana dispensaries, and grants users the right to grow a two-month supply of marijuana at home if they cannot get to a dispensary because they are too sick or too broke. The new law also potentially opens landlords up to federal prosecution for violating the federal controlled substances laws. Many towns and cities are contemplating banning dispensaries or passing zoning by-laws regulating their locations. My prior post on the new marijuana law can be read here.

539wApartment Rental Occupancy Limits

In 2013, the SJC will consider the Worcester College Hill case which will significantly impact landlords renting apartments to students and in other multi-family situations. The question is whether renting to 4 or more unrelated persons in one apartment unit requires a special “lodging house” license which would, in most cases, make it cost-prohibitive to rent to more than 3 unrelated persons. (Lodging houses require a built-in fire sprinkler system, for example). The SJC will hear oral arguments in the case on January 7, 2013.

Foreclosure Prevention Act Passed

On August 3, 2012, Governor Deval Patrick signed the Foreclosure Prevention Act. The new law requires that lenders offer loan modifications on certain mortgage loans before foreclosing. Unfortunately, the law did not fix the problem with existing title defects resulting from the U.S. Bank v. Ibanez case in 2010. (Sen. Moore’s office plans to re-introduce Senate Bill 830 in 2013). My prior post on the new law can be read here.

SJC To Consider Realtor’s Liability for Erroneous MLS Info

Sometime in 2013, the SJC will issue a very important opinion in the controversial DeWolfe v. Hingham Centre Ltd. disclosure case where a Realtor was held liable for failing to verify the zoning of a listing on the Multiple Listing Service. The Court will also consider whether the exculpatory clause found in the Greater Boston Real Estate Board’s standard form purchase and sale agreement legally prohibits a buyer’s misrepresentation claim against the real estate agent. The Massachusetts Association of Realtors and the Greater Boston Real Estate Board have filed friend of the court briefs urging the SJC to limit Realtors’ disclosure obligations in the case. My prior post on the case can be read here.

Good Faith Estimate, TIL, and HUD-1 Settlement Statement To Change Dramatically

In the second major overhaul of closing disclosures in three years, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau will be rolling out in 2013 a new “Lending Estimate” and “Closing Estimate” which will replace the current Good Faith Estimate, Truth in Lending Disclosure, and HUD-1 Settlement Statement. The changes are part of the Dodd-Frank Act, and has the lending and title insurance industries scrambling to figure out who should be ultimately responsible for the accuracy of closing fees and other logistics in delivering these new disclosures. My prior posts on the topic can be read here.

mw_1011_FISCAL_CLIFF_620x350Fiscal Cliff Anxiety Syndrome

The Year In Review would not be complete without mention of the dreaded Fiscal Cliff. As of this writing, President Obama and the House (which even rejected its own Speaker Boehner’s last proposal) have been unable to work out a deal to resolve the more than $500 billion in tax increases and across-the-board spending cuts scheduled to take effect after Jan. 1, 2013. If there is no deal, and the country goes over the fiscal cliff, the consensus is that it will have quite a negative effect on the economy and the real estate market in particular.

Upcoming Event! On January 8, 2013, we are sponsoring a breakfast seminar with veteran real estate journalist Scott Van Voorhis, who will offer his predictions on 2013. Please email me to sign up. The Facebook Event invitation is here. The venue is Avita in Needham, 880 Greendale Ave., Needham, MA.

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Richard D. Vetstein is an experienced Massachusetts real estate attorney who hopes the White House and Congress can get their acts together and pass a compromise bill to avoid the Fiscal Cliff.

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With the economy and housing market on the upswing, builders are finally building again. I’ve seen a definite uptick in new construction purchases. Buying a new construction home, however, is very different and much more involved compared to buying a previously owned property. In this post, I want to cover the various aspects of purchasing a new construction home, from selecting a builder, financing, legal, through construction and to the closing. As the Beatles song goes, I also have a little help from my Realtor friends in this post who have graciously offered some of their expert guidance. Follow our advice, and hopefully you will avoid becoming Tom Hanks and Shelley Long in the hilarious movie, The Money Pit!

Selecting and Working with a Builder

Choosing the right builder is obviously critical. You can search for builder licenses and state disciplinary history at the Mass.gov site here. (Search under Construction Supervisor). If the builder is not a licensed Construction Supervisor, they may be licensed as a Home Improvement Contractor (HIC) which can be searched at the Office of Consumer Affairs website here. If they hold neither license type, that’s a red flag. Also, look up the builder’s name in the Mass. Land Records site, and check whether they have any mechanic’s liens filed against them. That is another red flag indicating they may be undercapitalized and don’t pay their subcontractors.

Get a list of the last 5 homes the builder has constructed, and try to talk to those homeowners. Don’t rely on the builder’s list of references as no intelligent builder would give out a bad reference.

Hire A Buyer’s Agent

Besides conducting a town-wide survey, one of the smartest things you can do is hire an independent buyer’s real estate agent, preferably one with lots of experience in new construction. While buyers today can do a lot of their own due diligence and research on prospective builders, an experienced Realtor knows all the local builders in town and knows who builds castles and who builds shanty-shacks. A buyer’s agent will also provide a much-needed buffer between the builder’s sales agents and listing agent, many of whom unfortunately engage in high-pressure sales tactics and fast-talking. As buyer agent, Marilyn Messenger advises,

“Many buyers don’t realize that if they visit a new construction site without a buyer agent, they run the risk of having to work directly with the builder’s agent whose job is to work in the best interest of the builder. A buyer’s agent will watch out for the buyer’s interests.”

Amenities, Allowances & Upgrades

The builder should provide you with a detailed specification sheet with a standard panel of features and options for flooring, appliances, paint, trims, HVAC, and lighting, etc. These will be built into the purchase price. Most builders also have allowances for things like additional recessed lighting, upgraded stainless steel appliances, decking, and fancy hardwood floors. As Cambridge area Realtor Lara Gordon notes, the buyers’ ability to select design elements is one of the major advantages of new construction.

It’s imperative that all allowances be spelled out in writing and attached to the purchase contract documents, which I will discuss later. Change orders are common during the construction process, and these too should be memorialized in writing. They will be added to the purchase price or paid in advance.

Contract Documents

New construction purchases in Massachusetts follow the same basic legal process as already-owned homes. The parties first execute an Offer to Purchase which spells out the very basics of the transaction: down payment and purchase price, closing date, and financing contingency. A lot of builders ask for more than the standard 5% deposit, but I would push back on that in this market.

After the offer is signed, the parties will sign the Purchase and Sale Agreement. As a buyer, the detailed specifications, amenities and agreed upon allowances must be incorporated into the contract, along with the floor and elevation plans, if any.

The proposed purchase and sale agreement will likely track the so-called “standard form,” but the builder will typically add a detailed rider, which is completely different than the usual seller rider seen in existing home contracts. The builder rider will have provisions dealing with how change orders are handled, that the builder is not responsible for cracking due to climatic changes, and may attempt to hold the buyer’s feet to the fire with respect to getting his financing in place. A lot of builders will try to limit the availability of holdbacks at closing. I would push back on this important item of leverage for buyers. Some of the large national builders such as Pulte will even claim that their contracts are “non-negotiable.” This is nonsense. Everything is negotiable these days.

Hiring an experienced real estate attorney will tip the balance back to the buyer, and the attorney should have a comprehensive buyer rider in place to protect you in case there are title issues or you suddenly lose your financing. Because there are often delays with new construction, one of the most important rider provisions for buyers is a clause which will give buyer’s protection in case they lose their rate lock due to a delay.

Mortgage Financing

Most new construction buyers in Massachusetts will take out a conventional mortgage loan, with the builder responsible for financing the actual construction through his own construction loan. Some builders, especially national ones, will have their own mortgage lending for their projects, but they often don’t offer the best rates and terms. Sometimes, buyers will finance the construction through a construction loan under which the borrower pays interest only through the construction process, and is then converted to a conventional mortgage once the home is completed. I would counsel buyers to avoid taking on the financial responsibility of a construction loan. As with all lending, shop around and compare apples to apples.

Inspections & Warranties

For new construction, home inspections must necessarily be delayed from the usual timeframe (7-10 days after accepted offer) where the home is not yet completed, and buyers should absolutely reserve their right to perform the usual comprehensive home inspection prior to closing. (If the home is already done, get in there with the home inspector). During the construction phase, builders don’t want buyers on the construction site, for obvious liability (and annoyance) reasons, so resist the urge to buy your own hard-hat and hang out with the construction guys. Metrowest area agent Heidi Zizza of mdm Realty retells a funny story about a Natick woman who literally broke a window trying to gain entry into her under-construction home.

Contrary to popular belief, Massachusetts law does not require a 1-year builder’s written warranty for new construction, however, most builders will provide one, albeit littered with exceptions to coverage. Fairly recent Massachusetts case law does impose a 3 year “implied warranty of habitability” for certain undiscovered construction defects. Again, selecting a reputable builder in the first place is “the ounce of prevention worth the pound of cure.”

Punch-Lists and Closing

There will inevitably be unfinished items right up to the closing. I’ve rarely seen a new construction transaction without a punch-list at closing. Some unfinished items will be serious enough to warrant an escrow holdback at closing (remember, I had said push back on this during P&S negotiations). Some lenders, however, will not allow a holdback, so the parties will have to negotiate and be creative at closing to ensure that all unfinished work is completed within a reasonable time after closing. If the home is part of a larger project/subdivision, this is usually not an issue. However, for “one-off” single site projects, getting the builder to come back and finish punch-list items after closing can be like pulling teeth. Again, having a real estate lawyer on your side and in control of the funds will give you leverage here.

Once papers are passed, the closing attorney will lastly ensure that there are no outstanding subcontractor liens on the property, which is one of most common hiccup at closings. For this reason and many others, it is imperative that buyers obtain their own owner’s title insurance policy, to ensure that title is clear, marketable and free of undiscovered defects and liens.

Buying new construction is often a long, drawn out, and stressful process for new buyers. Do your research. Be patient. And hire the best professionals on your side. Good luck!

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Richard D. Vetstein, Esq. is an experienced Massachusetts real estate attorney who often handles Massachusetts new construction home purchases. If you need assistance with a new construction purchase or sale, please contact him at 508-620-5352 or at rvetstein@vetsteinlawgroup.com.

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Two Year Effort To Overhaul Foreclosure Practices

On August 3, 2012, Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick signed into law what’s been called the new Foreclosure Prevention Law. The text of the law can be found at House Bill No. 4323. The new law makes significant changes to existing foreclosure practices, and also attempts to clean up the recent turmoil surrounding defective foreclosure titles after the U.S. Bank v. Ibanez and Eaton v. FNMA rulings, an issue for which I’ve been advocating for years. It goes into effect on Nov. 1, 2012. A quick summary is as follows with details below:

  • New requirement that mortgage assignments be recorded
  • New mandatory requirement to offer loan modifications and mediation to qualified borrowers
  • New Eaton foreclosure affidavit confirming ownership of note/mortgage loan
  • Protection for third party buyers of foreclosed properties

Mortgage Assignments Must be Recorded

Going forward, a foreclosure may not proceed unless the entire chain of mortgage assignments from the original mortgagee to the foreclosing entity is recorded. This is a statutory codification of the recommendation of the SJC in U.S. Bank v. Ibanez case, and should provide some well-needed clarity for titles. Under the new law, no foreclosure notice will be valid unless “(i) at the time such notice is mailed, an assignment, or chain of assignments, evidencing the assignment of the mortgage to the foreclosing mortgagee has been duly recorded in the registry of deeds . . . and (ii) the recording information for all recorded assignments is referenced in the notice of sale required in this section.”

Unfortunately, the new law does not address defective foreclosure titles created before the Ibanez decision, as we were hoping. Accordingly, folks who are still waiting for legislative help to cure their defective foreclosure titles may be left without a remedy.

Mandatory Loan Modification Efforts

In a provision pushed hard by housing advocates, the new law will require mortgage lenders to attempt to offer loan modifications instead of foreclosing. The qualification standards are rather complex and beyond the scope of this post. In sum, if the net present value of a modified mortgage exceeds the anticipated net recovery at foreclosure, the lender has to offer the borrower a modification.

Importantly, the new law provides immunity in favor of bona fide purchasers of foreclosed properties from claims by disgruntled borrowers that the lenders did not follow the loan modification rules.

New Eaton Affidavit

The new law also incorporates the SJC’s recent holding in Eaton v. Fannie Mae, where the SJC held that a foreclosing lender must be both the assignee of the mortgage and be either note holder or acting on behalf of the note holder. New Section 35C prohibits a creditor from publishing a foreclosure notice if the creditor “knows or should know that the mortgagee is neither the holder of the mortgage note nor the authorized agent of the note holder.” It also requires the creditor to record an affidavit swearing to its compliance with the new section. The affidavit will shield third-party buyers from title claims, but will not shield creditors from potential liability to the borrowers. Eaton suggested the use of affidavits, but now the statute requires it. Creditors cannot pass the cost of any corrective documentation upon borrowers or third parties.

Impact?

As with any major reform legislation, there will be a learning curve for foreclosing lenders and foreclosure attorneys to get documentation and systems in place to comply with the new requirements. We could potentially see additional litigation coming out of this new law brought by borrowers who feel they were not given a “fair shake” at a loan modification. From a real estate title perspective, the new law is a step in the right direction, but I was very disappointed that nothing was done to help folks who are still saddled with Ibanez title defects. This was the perfect opportunity to address that issue, and I’m afraid it won’t come up again.

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Richard D. Vetstein, Esq. is an experienced Massachusetts real estate attorney with an expertise in foreclosure related issues. You can contact him at info@vetsteinlawgroup.com.

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Score One For Lenders and Mortgage Servicers In Long-Awaited Eaton v. Fannie Mae Case

The Massachusetts real estate community has been waiting 8 long months for a decision from the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) in the much anticipated Eaton v. Federal National Mortgage Association (link) case. The decision came down June 22, and now that the dust has settled, I don’t think there is any question that lenders and the title community have been given a judicial Maalox. ((Some smart foreclosure defense folks disagree with me, but I’m confident in my analysis.))

The SJC held that lenders must establish they hold both the promissory note (indebtedness) and mortgage (a major problem for securitized or MERS mortgages where the note and mortgage are split between securitized trust and servicer). However, responding to pleas from the real estate bar, the Court declined to apply the new rule retroactively, thereby averting the Apocalyptic scenario where thousands of foreclosure titles would have been called into question. This would have been disastrous for folks who purchased distressed and foreclosed properties.

Even better, the Court outlined new procedures, including filing a statutory affidavit, to ensure that foreclosures are fair to borrowers going forward. The ruling gave lenders and the foreclosure industry a huge pass for past errors, and will clear the way for foreclosures to accelerate and run their course in Massachusetts and possibly other states if this case is followed. Let’s break it down.

Background: Borrower Used “Produce the Note” Defense To Stop Foreclosure

As with many sub-prime mortgage borrowers, Henrietta Eaton had defaulted on her mortgage to Green Tree Mortgage. This was a MERS mortgage (Mortgage Electronic Registration System) originally granted to BankUnited then assigned to Green Tree.

Ms. Eaton was able to obtain an injunction from the lower Superior Court halting her eviction on the grounds that Green Tree did not possess the promissory note underlying the mortgage when the foreclosure occurred. This is the “produce the note” defense and has been gaining steam across the country. Superior Court Judge Francis McIntyre bought into that argument, and stopped the foreclosure. Given the importance of the case, the Supreme Judicial Court granted direct appellate review.

FHFA Files Amicus Brief and SJC Asks For More Guidance

This case garnered substantial local and national attention from the lending, title and real estate community on one side, and housing advocates on the other side. Notably, the Obama Administration’s Federal Housing Finance Agency filed a rare friend-of-the-court brief in a state court proceeding, arguing for a ruling in favor of lenders. Spirited oral arguments were held back in October which I briefed here.

In January, when a decision was expected, the Court surprisingly asked the parties for additional briefing on whether a decision requiring unity of the promissory note and mortgage would cloud real estate titles. This was the apocalyptic scenario that the real estate bar and title community urged the Court to avoid. (The Court listened, as I’ll explained below).

 The Opinion: Unity Endorsed, A Foreclosing Lender Must “Hold” Both Note & Mortgage

The first issue considered by the court was the fundamental question of “unity” urged by the Eaton side: whether a foreclosing mortgagee must hold both the promissory note (underlying indebtedness) and the mortgage in order to foreclose. After reviewing Massachusetts common law going back to the 1800’s, the Court answered yes there must be unity, reasoning that a “naked” mortgagee (a holder of a mortgage without any rights to the underlying indebtedness) cannot foreclose because, essentially, there is nothing to foreclose. If the Court stopped there, lenders and MERS would have been in big trouble. But, as outlined below, the Court significantly limited the effect of this decision.

Disaster Averted: Ruling Given Prospective Effect

Swayed by the arguments from the Massachusetts Real Estate Bar Association that retroactive application of a new rule would wreak havoc with existing real estate titles in Massachusetts, the SJC took the rare step of applying its ruling prospectively only. As Professor Adam Levitin (who drafted an amicus brief) noted on his blog, this “means that past foreclosures cannot be reopened because of this case, so the financial services industry just dodged billions in liability for wrongful foreclosures and evictions, and the title insurance industry did as well.” So going forward, lenders must establish unity of both note and mortgage, but past foreclosures are immune from challenge.

MERS System Given Blessing?

Ms. Eaton’s mortgage was a MERS (Mortgage Electronic Registration System) mortgage. MERS is a private system created by the largest national lenders and title companies to track assignments and ownership of loans as they are bought and sold in the secondary mortgage market. MERS has come under fire from distressed homeowners and registrars of deeds (especially our own Essex County Registrar John O’Brien) for robo-signing and bungled foreclosures. Although the Court did not specifically rule on the validity of the MERS system, the decision cited several new MERS policies and said that lenders who follow these new policies will likely be in compliance with the court’s holding. So MERS will continue doing business in Massachusetts for the foreseeable future.

Make Way For the “Eaton” Affidavit

The most important aspects of the Eaton ruling, in my opinion, are what came after the two “headline” rulings above. First, the Court made the explicit point that lenders do not have to physically possess both note and mortgage to be deemed a “holder” able to foreclose. This is huge given the pandemic paperwork deficiencies common with securitized mortgage trusts.

Second, the court also stated in a very important footnote that it will “permit one who, although not the note holder himself, acts as the authorized agent of the note holder, to stand “in the shoes” of the “mortgagee” as the term is used in these [foreclosure statute] provisions.” This footnote opens the door wide open for servicers and MERS to establish that they are authorized to foreclose, and acting on behalf of, the securitized trusts who hold legal title to the mortgages.

Lastly, the court approved the use of a statutory affidavit filed at the county registry of deeds in which the note holder or mortgage servicer confirms that it either holds the promissory note or is acting on behalf of the note-holder. We will surely be seeing these “Eaton” affidavits being prepared and recorded in connection with foreclosures.

For guidance as to how title insurance companies are going to insure foreclosure titles after Eaton, please see this helpful bulletin by Chicago and Commonwealth Land Title Companies. 

Potential Bad News For U.S. Bank v. Ibanez Defect Victims

The Court’s ruling may be bad news for those property owners stuck with defective title issue stemming from a botched foreclosure under the seminal U.S. Bank v. Ibanez case. Last year, the Court, in Bevilacqua v. Rodriguez, suggested that owners could attempt to put their chains of title back together and conduct new foreclosure sales in their name to clear their titles. The legal reasoning behind this remedy is rather complex, but essentially it says that the current owner would be granted the right to foreclosure by virtue of holding an “equitable assignment” of the mortgage foreclosed upon. The Eaton v. Fannie Mae ruling, however, may have killed that remedy because the current owner now needs to hold both the promissory note and the mortgage. Ibanez titles remain toxic, and I am hearing that title insurers who are on the hook for them are not even willing to try to fix them until a legislative fix.

What’s Next?

As a real estate and title attorney, what I appreciate about this decision is that the SJC took into account the disastrous effect a retroactive rule would have on past titles (now held by innocent third party purchasers) and came up with new ground rules for foreclosing lenders to follow going forward. It’s like the court said “what’s done is done, now let’s move forward doing it the ‘right’ way.” We will definitely see foreclosures that were in a holding pattern resume again. On the closing side, when I am reviewing a title with a past foreclosure, my client and I can sleep better knowing that the risk of a defective title just got a reduced substantially. This is good for the housing market and it makes more properties marketable.

However, this is not the end of foreclosure litigation in Massachusetts. As with most landmark cases pronouncing a new rule of law, subsequent litigation to clarify what the court meant is likely to follow in this case. Some remaining unanswered questions include:

  • Is the produce the note defense truly dead for previously completed foreclosures–even where promissory notes are lost and not produced?
  • If challenged, what further documentation, if any, will suffice to establish agency for MERS and mortgage servicers of mortgages held in securitized trusts.
  • Will borrowers be able to challenge new “Eaton” affidavits which appear to be fraudulent or robo-signed?

All things considered, I will agree with Prof. Levitin who opined: “In the immediate term, I’d score the case as a major victory for the financial services industry, which avoided liability for its failure to comply with state law foreclosure requirements. Going forward, however, things are more complicated.”

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Richard D. Vetstein, Esq. is an experienced Massachusetts real estate attorney. He can be reached by email at info@vetsteinlawgroup.com or 508-620-5352.

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Bar Assn. Lawsuit Targets Kentucky Based Settlement Service Company Employing Local Contract Attorneys

As first reported today by Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly, the bar association for Massachusetts real estate attorneys (REBA) has filed a lawsuit against National Loan Closers, Inc., a Kentucky closing services company, and a Holyoke attorney for allegedly conducting illegal “witness-only” real estate closings. REBA was behind last year’s landmark Supreme Judicial Court ruling in REBA v. National Real Estate Information Services, which held that Massachusetts attorneys are legally required to oversee all residential real estate closings in Massachusetts.

REBA’s suit against National Loan Closers is notable because NLC is alleged to have side-swiped the REBA v. NREIS court ruling by contracting with local attorneys to attend real estate closings. According to the suit, NLC’s model is for these contract attorneys to act similarly to the robo-signers who sign foreclosure documents, as they are simply there to witness and notarize documents and are contractually prohibited from giving legal advice to the parties at closing. Thus, this model runs afoul of the REBA ruling’s mandate that attorneys “substantially participate” in the closing process by reviewing the title and ensuring that title passes legally.

REBA argues, and I agree, that such closings put home buyers and mortgage lenders at risk, erode the public’s confidence in the state’s recording and registration system, and deprive the Massachusetts Interest on Lawyer Trust Accounts program — IOLTA — of thousands of dollars of revenue.

No home buyer wants to close on the single biggest purchase of their life with a contract attorney who knows nothing about the transaction and cannot answer the most basic of legal questions. In the standard model, a supervisory Massachusetts attorney will examine the title and certify under state law that the title is good, clear and marketable, and often that same attorney (or a junior associate with full familiarity with the file and title) will be the closing attorney.

The complaint filed in The Real Estate Bar Association for Massachusetts, Inc. v. National Loan Closers Inc., et al. can be found by clicking here.

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Utility, Gas Pipeline, Access, Drainage & Prescriptive Easements, and More!

When you are considering purchasing a home in Massachusetts, the property may have the benefit or burden of an easement. Most easements and restrictions are quite “harmless” and standard, however, some can have a major impact on future expansion possibilities and the right to use portions of the property. In this post, I’m going to go through the most common types of easements and how they can affect the value and use of your property.

What Is An Easement?

In plain English, an easement is a right that another person or company has to use your property. They don’t own your property, but the easement gives them the legal right to use your property as specified in the easement instrument. The property that enjoys the benefit of the easement is sometimes referred to as the “dominant estate,” and the property over, under, or through which the easement runs is sometimes referred to as the “servient estate.” Easements are usually recorded in the registry of deeds, but sometimes they can arise from “implication” or “by necessity.” I’ll explain those later.

Utility Easements

The most common types of easements in Massachusetts are utility easements for such things as overhead and underground power lines, cable lines, gas lines, and water mains. These easements allow the utility companies to use portions of residential property to provide their respective utility services. Sometimes, the easements will show up on a plot plan or survey, and some will be found recorded in the title, usually when the lot was first laid out. The majority of these easements do not materially affect the use and expansion of your property, however, the one type of easement to take note of are high pressure gas line easements.  For obvious safety reasons, these easements usually carry with them strict restrictions on what can be built on or near them. Here is a good article on gas pipeline easements, albeit from Pennsylvania, but the law is generally the same here.

Driveway or Access Easements

Another common type of easements that are found in Massachusetts are access easements for driveways and the like. Properties with shared driveways will often have easements enabling such sharing– or they should! These easements should also provide for common maintenance and upkeep responsibilities and expense. Other types of access easements include walking and bike paths and beach access – very common down the Cape and on the Islands.

Drainage Easements

Another common type of easements are drainage easements which are typical for newer subdivisions. Drainage easements allow for one lot to drain its storm water onto another or into a detention pond.

Prescriptive Easements

If you have heard of adverse possession, then you know what a prescriptive easement is all about. An easement by prescription is an easement acquired through adverse possession – which is the hostile adverse use of someone else’s property for 20 or more continuous years. Prescriptive easements arise where people have acted as though an easement has existed but there is no instrument of easement recorded at the registry of deeds. For example, a prescriptive easement can arise if a neighbor’s family has used a walking path on the neighbor’s property for over 20 years. twenty years. I’ve written extensively on adverse possession in this post.

Easements by Implication and by Necessity

An easement by implication is found in the law when there is no recorded easement, but where the circumstances show an easement was intended to exist. It usually exists where there is common ownership of a lot, the seller conveys a portion of the land under current ownership, and both parties intended to create an easement at the time of conveyance. If someone claims an easement by implication which negatively affects one’s property, the owner’s title insurance policy, if any, will typically cover that situation. Easements by necessity occur when a property is sold in a land-locked configuration without any legal access. An easement is therefore created “by necessity” to prevent the land-locking. An adverse easement by necessity would also be covered by an owner’s title insurance policy.

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Richard D. Vetstein, Esq. is an experienced Massachusetts real estate attorney. They can be reached by email at info@vetsteinlawgroup.com or 508-620-5352.

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When you are considering purchasing a home in Massachusetts, the property may have the benefit or burden of an easement. Most easements and restrictions are quite “harmless” and standard, however, some can have a major impact on future expansion possibilities and the right to use portions of the property. In this post, I’m going to go through the most common types of easements and how they can affect property.

What Is An Easement?

In plain English, an easement is a right that another person or company has to use your property. They don’t own your property, but the easement gives them the legal right to use your property as specified in the easement instrument. The property that enjoys the benefit of the easement is sometimes referred to as the “dominant estate,” and the property over, under, or through which the easement runs is sometimes referred to as the “servient estate.” Easements are usually recorded in the registry of deeds, but sometimes they can arise from “implication” or “by necessity.” I’ll explain those later.

Utility Easements

The most common types of easements in Massachusetts are utility easements for such things as overhead and underground power lines, cable lines, gas lines, and water mains. These easements allow the utility companies to use portions of residential property to provide their respective utility services. Sometimes, the easements will show up on a plot plan or survey, and some will be found recorded in the title, usually when the lot was first laid out. The majority of these easements do not materially affect the use and expansion of your property, however, the one type of easement to take note of are high pressure gas line easements.  For obvious safety reasons, these easements usually carry with them strict restrictions on what can be built on or near them.

Driveway or Access Easements

Another common type of easements that are found in Massachusetts are access easements for driveways and the like. Properties with shared driveways will often have easements enabling such sharing– or they should! These easements should also provide for common maintenance and upkeep responsibilities and expense. Other types of access easements include walking and bike paths and beach access – very common down the Cape and on the Islands.

Drainage Easements

Another common type of easements are drainage easements which are typical for newer subdivisions. Drainage easements allow for one lot to drain its storm water onto another or into a detention pond.

Prescriptive Easements

If you have heard of adverse possession, then you know what a prescriptive easement is all about. An easement by prescription is an easement acquired through adverse possession – which is the hostile adverse use of someone else’s property for 20 or more continuous years. Prescriptive easements arise where people have acted as though an easement has existed but there is no instrument of easement recorded at the registry of deeds. For example, a prescriptive easement can arise if a neighbor’s family has used a walking path on the neighbor’s property for over 20 years. twenty years. I’ve written extensively on adverse possession in this post.

Easements by Implication and by Necessity

An easement by implication is found in the law when there is no recorded easement, but where the circumstances show an easement was intended to exist. It usually exists where there is common ownership of a lot, the seller conveys a portion of the land under current ownership, and both parties intended to create an easement at the time of conveyance. If someone claims an easement by implication which negatively affects one’s property, the owner’s title insurance policy, if any, will typically cover that situation. Easements by necessity occur when a property is sold in a land-locked configuration without any legal access. An easement is therefore created “by necessity” to prevent the land-locking. An adverse easement by necessity would also be covered by an owner’s title insurance policy.

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Richard D. Vetstein, Esq. is an experienced Massachusetts real estate attorney. They can be reached by email at info@vetsteinlawgroup.com or 508-620-5352.

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Case Underscores Importance of Safeguarding Loan Documents And Getting Subordinations

JPMorgan Chase & Co. v. Casarano, Mass. Appeals Court (Feb. 28, 2012) (click to read)

In a decision which could impact foreclosure cases involving missing or lost loan documents, the Appeals Court held that a mortgage is unenforceable and must be discharged where the underlying promissory note securing the mortgage could not be found.

Seller Second Mortgage Financing

This case involved an unconventional second mortgage for approximately $15,000 taken back from a private seller. The homeowner subsequently refinanced the first mortgage several times, but the refinancing lenders’ attorneys never obtained a subordination from the second lien-holder. That was a mistake. The first mortgage wound up in Wells Fargo’s hands which realized that due to the lack of recorded subordination, the second mortgage was senior to its first mortgage.

Alas, a title claim arose and the title insurance company had to step in and file an “equitable subrogation” action. In this type of legal action, a first mortgage holder asks the court to rearrange the priorities of mortgages due to mistake, inadvertence or to prevent injustice.

Where’s The Note?

The second mortgage holder had lost the promissory note which secured its mortgage, and notably, could not locate a copy of it. The mortgage itself referenced the amount of the loan and the interest rate but was silent on everything else, including the payment term, maturity date, and whether it was under seal. The second mortgage holder argued that enough of the terms of the missing note could be “imported” from the mortgage, but the Appeals Court disagreed, reasoning that there wasn’t enough specificity on key terms to enforce the mortgage.

Lesson One: Safeguard Original Loan Docs

This decision underscores the importance of safeguarding original promissory notes and other debt instruments, or at a minimum keeping photocopies so that if enforcement is required, the material terms of the original can be proved to the satisfaction of the court. With all the paperwork irregularities endemic with securitized mortgages these days, missing or lost promissory notes and loan documents have become more prevalent. This decision is potentially problematic for those foreclosures where the original promissory note is lost. The standard Fannie Mae form mortgage does not spell out the loan terms with specificity, instead, it references the promissory note. Indeed, the Fannie Mae mortgage does not even reference the interest rate. Based on this decision, a mortgage without sufficient evidence of a promissory note could be rendered unenforceable and un-forecloseable.

As an aside, a lender who lacks an original promissory note could rely upon Uniform Commercial Code Section 3-309, which provides:

(a) A person not in possession of an instrument is entitled to enforce the instrument if (i) the person was in possession of the instrument and entitled to enforce it when loss of possession occurred, (ii) the loss of possession was not the result of a transfer by the person or a lawful seizure, and (iii) the person cannot reasonably obtain possession of the instrument because the instrument was destroyed, its whereabouts cannot be determined, or it is in the wrongful possession of an unknown person or a person that cannot be found or is not amenable to service of process. (b) A person seeking enforcement of an instrument under subsection (a) must prove the terms of the instrument and the person’s right to enforce the instrument. If that proof is made, section 3-308 applies to the case as if the person seeking enforcement had produced the instrument. The court may not enter judgment in favor of the person seeking enforcement unless it finds that the person required to pay the instrument is adequately protected against loss that might occur by reason of a claim by another person to enforce the instrument. Adequate protection may be provided by any reasonable means.

Lesson Two: Get Subordinations For Junior Liens

This decision also underscores the importance of getting a subordination agreement for second mortgages and other junior lien-holders when closing refinances. A subordination agreement is a contract whereby a junior lien-holder agrees to remain in junior position to a first mortgage or other senior lien-holder during a refinancing transaction. Otherwise, the first in time rule of recording would elevate a junior lien-holder to first, priority position after a refinance. If a subordination was obtained and recorded here, this case would not have occurred.

Disclaimer:  I drafted the original complaint in this case while working at my previous law firm. I had long since left when the case was decided at the Appeals Court.

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Richard D. Vetstein, Esq. is a Massachusetts real estate and title defect attorney. He can be reached by email at info@vetsteinlawgroup.com or 508-620-5352.

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