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Strawbridge v. Bank of NY Mellon:  Appeals Court Justice Peter Agnes Gives Judicial Blessing to MERS Assignment System, Rejects Other Foreclosure Challenges

The most recent foreclosure case heard by a Massachusetts appellate court should allow title underwriters and foreclosing lenders to sleep better at night. In Strawbridge v. Bank of NY Mellon, No. 16-P-1244, embedded below, Appeals Court Justice Peter Agnes upheld the MERS system of holding and assigning mortgages in Massachusetts as a “nominee.” Judge Agnes also ruled that the borrower lacked standing to raise defects in the pooling and servicing agreement by which the bank created a securitized mortgage trust, because she is not a party to that intra-lender agreement. This ruling should simultaneously benefit the housing market, while taking away a major weapon for foreclosure defense attorneys.

The case was brought by well-respected foreclosure defense attorney Glenn Russell, Esq. who represented the borrower, Sandra Strawbridge. Attorney Russell’s cases are typically on the cutting edge of foreclosure defense law, and thus, should always be read with interest.

Foreclosure Challenge

Strawbridge challenged the foreclosure on the grounds that the Bank did not comply with Massachusetts foreclosure law after the SJC’s decision in Eaton v. FNMA which held that a foreclosing lender must establish it holds both the promissory note and the mortgage. (Title companies have issued comprehensive underwriting guidelines after the Eaton ruling). Strawbridge also claimed that MERS’s assignment of her mortgage to the Bank was void because the assignment occurred after a date established in the pooling service agreement (PSA) of the securitzed trust.

Countrywide-MERS Assignment System

In 2007, Strawbridge obtained a $370,000 mortgage from Countrywide Home Loans. The mortgage designated Mortgage Electronic Systems, Inc. (MERS) as the nominee for Countrywide. In 2009, Strawbridge defaulted on her note by failing to keep up with her mortgage payments. In February, 2010, MERS assigned Strawbridge’s mortgage to Bank of New York Mellon which held the mortgage as part of a securitized trust. A MERS “Assistant Secretary and Vice President” executed the assignment, which was notarized and recorded at the appropriate registry of deeds. Later, in March, 2015, a “Second Assistant Vice President” at the Bank’s loan servicer executed an “Affidavit Regarding Note Secured by Mortgage Being Foreclosed.” That affidavit states that the Bank is the holder of the note. In addition, in April, 2015, the Bank’s loan servicer executed a “Certificate Relative to Foreclosing Mortgagee’s Right to Foreclose Pursuant to 209 C.M.R. 18.21A(2)(c),” which certified that the Bank is the “holder of the Mortgage” and “the holder of the Note or is authorized agent of the Note holder with the specific authority to enforce payment and pursue foreclosure of the Mortgage on behalf of such Note holder.” Finally, in July, 2015, the Bank sent Strawbridge a notice of foreclosure sale, informing her that a foreclosure sale would take place in August. The borrower challenged the sale in the Superior Court which ruled against her.

Appellate Rulings

On appeal, Judge Agnes ruled that “MERS’s nominee status does not preclude it from validly assigning the mortgage, or does it limit MERS’s power to exercise a right of [foreclosure] sale.” The Court also rejected the borrower’s argument that the Bank is required to provide a complete chain of assignments of the mortgage, opting instead to hold the Bank to a less onerous standard of merely producing a single assignment directly from MERS, the last holder of record. Lastly, the judge ruled that the borrower lacked standing to raise defects in the pooling and servicing agreement because she is not a party to that intra-lender agreement.

Take Aways

The impact of this decision is a reaffirmation that the MERS system of assigning mortgages remains legal and binding in Massachusetts. MERS mortgages account for the vast majority of conventional mortgage financing in Massachusetts. This ruling will also make it more difficult for distressed homeowners to challenge foreclosures, clearing the way for banks to sell REO property. I spoke to Attorney Russell about the case, and he indicated that he is considering taking an appeal up to the Supreme Judicial Court. So this may not be the last word on the matter.

Strawbridge v. Bank of NY Mellon by Richard Vetstein on Scribd

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ForeclosureLegal Standing For Mortgage Lender/Servicer Must Be Established To Start Foreclosure

Today the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court has issued what I believe to be another very important ruling involving foreclosures in the case of HSBC Bank v. Matt (embedded below). This case is the latest piece in the trilogy of recent landmark foreclosure opinions, starting with U.S. Bank v. Ibanez then Eaton v. Fannie Mae  — which has now come full circle from very limited judicial oversight of foreclosures to a much stricter legal environment for lenders.

In my opinion, the net effect of the HSBC v. Matt ruling is to make Massachusetts somewhat closer to a judicial foreclosure state than a non-judicial foreclosure state, as the ruling requires a foreclosing lender or mortgage servicer to submit actual evidence of legal standing to foreclose when they start a Servicemembers Act proceeding, a requirement that has never existed under Massachusetts law. This new requirement could prove to be potentially problematic to mortgages which are held in complex mortgage backed securitized trusts. However, a portion of the Court’s ruling — that only military members can raise a challenge — could turn out to blunt its impact. In the short-term, the Land Court will have to determine what evidence and documentation is legally sufficient for lenders to establish proper legal standing to foreclose.

Servicemembers (f/k/a Soldiers & Sailors) Civil Relief Act

The case involves the Servicemember’s Act proceeding which protects active military members from foreclosure. In Massachusetts, after a lender issues default notices, it will commence a Soldiers and Sailors Civil Relief Act in the Land Court to ensure that the borrower is not on active military duty and to cut off any rights to challenge the foreclosure based on military status. Although a Soldiers and Sailors Act proceeding is not mandatory in order to legally foreclosure, the customary practice in Massachusetts is for lenders to go through the proceeding in order to ensure clear title to the foreclosed property. A Soldiers and Sailors Act proceeding has historically been perfunctory, but in recent years with the mortgage meltdown, borrowers have increasingly tried to challenge foreclosure in the Soldiers and Sailors Act proceeding.

Jodi Matt, represented by noted foreclosure defense attorney, Glenn Russell, Esq. (who also brought the Ibanez case), challenged HSBC Bank’s ability to foreclose in the Soldier’s and Sailors proceeding, arguing that HSBC could not establish that it held the right to foreclose as the trustee of the securitized trust which purported to hold Matt’s mortgage. The Land Court rejected Matt’s challenge on the grounds that Ms. Matt was not in military service. The SJC took the case on direct appellate review.

SJC Changes The Foreclosure Landscape Yet Again

Although it recognized that Ms. Matt was not in the military service — and ruled that borrowers not in the military cannot bring challenges under the Soldiers & Sailors Act  —  the SJC reached the question whether HSBC Bank had legal standing to start the foreclosure process in the Soldiers & Sailors Act proceeding. Following its prior landmark rulings in Ibanez and Eaton, the Court held that HSBC Bank lacked standing under the Act because it merely claimed to have the contractual option to become the holder of the mortgage. The SJC said that wasn’t good enough, and going forward a foreclosing lender must provide actual evidence to the Land Court that it is the actual holder of the mortgage or a duly authorized agent on behalf of the mortgagee.

When this decision is read together with the Court’s opinion in Eaton, which held that foreclosing lenders must hold both the promissory note and the mortgage, and in the context of securitized mortgages, the Matt ruling starts looking like a very BIG decision. Because of the extremely complex manner in which securitized mortgage trusts were organized by Wall Street (outside the scope of this post), there is an inherent problem in ascertaining which entity within the trust framework actually holds the mortgage and the underlying indebtedness, and therefore, the power to foreclose. As a result of this ruling, foreclosing lenders and mortgage services may have a much more difficult time in foreclosing.

What type and the quality of evidence that lenders need to submit will be left to the Land Court justices, as gate-keepers, to decide in future cases. That is a huge unknown question. The Land Court is presently overwhelmed with pending foreclosure petitions, quiet title actions and other matters given recent court budget cuts. Rest assured, this may play a factor in how they handle foreclosures post-Matt.

I will continue to monitor this ever-changing area of the law.

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Updated (1/14/13): SJC Rules Against Lender, Holds That Ownership of Mortgage Must Be Established

Court May Decide Lenders’ Standing In All Foreclosure Cases Involving Securitized Mortgages

With all the hoopla yesterday surrounding Attorney General Martha Coakley’s monumental lawsuit against the big banks over foreclosure practices, the Supreme Judicial Court on November 29, 2011 quietly agreed to hear an appeal over whether a lender holding a securitized mortgage has standing to even begin a foreclosure action in the Land Court under the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act–one of the first steps in the Massachusetts foreclosure process.

The case is HSBC Bank v. Jodi Matt. The docket can be downloaded here.

The SJC will ostensibly decide whether lenders holding mortgages held in a securitized pool, with questions whether they in fact were validly assigned those mortgages, can start foreclosures in Massachusetts.

First Steps: The Servicemembers Civil Relief Act

The Servicemembers Civil Relief Act is one of the first steps in the foreclosure process. Lenders must file a complaint in the Land Court under the Act to ensure the borrower is not in active military service. Once the Land Court determines the borrower’s status in the military, then the lender can proceed to advertise and hold a public foreclosure auction. Historically, the Servicemembers action was rather perfunctory, but today borrowers have begun to challenge lenders’ right to start foreclosures in these initial Land Court proceedings.

Lower Court Opinion

In the lower court, Land Court Judge Keith Long (the judge in both the landmark U.S. Bank v. Ibanez and Bevilacqua cases), ruled that HSBC Bank had standing to start the foreclosure process under the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act, despite serious questions as to whether HSBC validly held the mortgage. The original mortgage was held by New Century, which was in bankruptcy when it purported to assign the mortgage to HSBC. There was no evidence the assignment was authorized by the bankruptcy trustee and whether the signatory had any office or authority to transfer New Century’s bankrupt assets to other parties. Despite these questions, Judge Long ruled that HSBC, through a securitized pooling and servicing agreement, had the contractual right to become the holder of the mortgage, thereby conferring enough standing to start the foreclosure process.

SJC Takes Appeal Sua Sponte

The SJC, in a rare move, took the appeal on its own initiative (sua sponte in legalese) from the Appeals Court. It has not yet released an argument schedule. We’ll be following the case here, so stay tuned.

Notably, foreclosure defense attorney Glenn Russell, Esq., the attorney who prevailed before the SJC in the Ibanez case, is representing the home owner in this case.

The Land Court’s ruling is embedded below.

HSBC Bank v. Jodi Matt

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