Culhane v. Aurora Loan Servicing

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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Judge William G. Young

I just wanted to pass along a neat story from a colleague evidencing the growing trend of judges turning to law blogs in their research of opinions. Federal Judge William Young spoke yesterday at a real estate bar association meeting about his recent and somewhat controversial opinion in Culhane v. Aurora Loan Servicers which considered the very complex maze that is Mortgage Electronic Registration System (MERS). I covered the case in this blog post.

Judge Young discussed the process by which he and his law clerks “learned the law,” and said it included tuning into “the blogs,” mentioning this blog by name. (My colleagues at Rackemann Sawyer’s Land Use Monitor should also be included). Judge Young also apparently read my post dissecting his ruling, stating that “he calls them the way he sees them,” and “everyone is entitled to their opinion.” I’m flattered that Judge Young would even consider reading this blog, and for lack of a better phrase, I think it’s pretty cool!

With blogs providing timely legal analysis so much faster than the traditional law reviews published by law schools, it’s not surprising that judges such as Judge Young are turning to them as a resource. Kevin O’Keefe of legal blog publisher LexBlog has been tracking such instances for awhile now, and it’s widespread throughout the country, with judges even citing law blogs in written opinions. Lawyers should take note of this when preparing their cases.

I’m happy to be a resource for Massachusetts real estate law. If I can contribute in the slightest way to the administration of justice and the development of our jurisprudence, I am very grateful.

~Rich

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Mass. AG Martha Coakley Credit: Reuters

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness…” — Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities

AG Martha Coakley Files Major Civil Action Against Big Banks

First, the big news. Attorney General Martha Coakley has filed a huge consumer protection lawsuit over wrongful foreclosures against the top 5 U.S. lenders, Bank of America Corp., J.P. Morgan Chase & Co., Wells Fargo & Co., Citigroup Inc. and Ally Financial. Coakley also names Mortgage Electronic Registration System, or MERS, the electronic mortgage registration system which proliferated during the securitization boom of the last decade. The lawsuit said it sought “to hold multiple banks accountable for their rampant violations of Massachusetts law and associated unfair and deceptive conduct amidst the foreclosure crisis that has gripped Massachusetts and the nation since 2007.” Specifically, Coakley blames the banks for not complying with the U.S. Bank v. Ibanez decision in foreclosing mortgages without evidence of legal ownership of the underlying debt, improper statutory foreclosure notices and illegal “robo-signing.”

I’m sure Coakley will be able to extract a sizable settlement from the banks, but the question remains, what about the foreclosure mess and toxic titles left in its wake? I hope Coakley seriously considers setting up a toxic title monetary fund to assist homeowners who lack title insurance with clearing their titles due to bungled foreclosures in their chain of title.

Here is a link to the AG’s Complaint.

Culhane v. Aurora Loan Servicers: Federal Judge William Young Grapples With Legality Of MERS System

While AG Coakley was putting the finishing touches on her lawsuit, across the way at the Moakley Courthouse at Fan Pier, U.S. District Judge William G. Young and his cadre of law clerks were attempting to work their way through the legal maze which is the MERS (Mortgage Electronic Registration System) system. The case is Culhane v. Aurora Loan Services of Nebraska. We’ve written about MERS quite a bit here on the blog.

I can say with confidence that Judge Young is one of the smartest jurists on the federal bench and in the Commonwealth. I know this first-hand because I clerked for him in law school.

It took him 59 pages to sort though the myriad of legal issues implicated by the complex MERS system, and he had some very choice (and funny) remarks about the system:

“MERS is the Wikipedia of Land Registration Systems.” . . . “A MERS certifying officer is more akin to an Admiral in the Georgia navy or a Kentucky Colonel with benefits than he is to any genuine financial officer.”

Judge William G. Young

But ultimately, Judge Young concluded that MERS did not run afoul of Massachusetts law, by the “thinnest of venires.” So there you have it. MERS is kosher in Massachusetts, at least according to Judge Young.

However, Judge Young’s ruling came with some important caveats. First, he held that MERS does not have the power to foreclose in its own name. This is no longer an issue as MERS new policy is not to foreclosure in its name. But what about prior foreclosures in MERS’ name? Are those still considered valid?

Second, in accordance with Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 183, sec. 54B, he ruled that assignments from MERS’ vice presidents to loan servicers or holders are valid despite the signer’s lack of personal knowledge or proof of actual authority. This is a direct contradiction with AG Coakley’s claim that the MERS assignments are invalid.

Lastly, the most important aspect of Judge Young’s ruling was his agreement that foreclosing lenders must hold both the loan (promissory note) and the mortgage together in unity, to foreclose, following the controversial Superior Court opinion in Eaton v. FNMA which is now on appeal with the Supreme Judicial Court. However, Judge Young added an important distinction to this rule, saying that that loan servicers could foreclose in their names where the loan is held in a pooled securitized trust, provided they otherwise comply with Massachusetts foreclosure law. This is a very important distinction as a fair amount of foreclosures are brought in the name of the loan servicer. I’m not so sure Judge Young got this one right as a loan servicer rarely if ever holds the note as assignee, as Professor Adam Levitin notes, but the ruling certainly assists the industry.

So all eyes are back on the SJC awaiting its ruling in the Eaton case which could have even far more impact than the Ibanez decision. Of course, these two events underscore that foreclosures are still a mess crying out for legislative help (which hasn’t come at all), and the crucial importance of title insurance, which all buyers should elect at their closings.

I’ve done a quick video analysis and embedded Judge Young’s opinion below.

Culhane v. Aurora Loan Services

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