Judge Keith Long

Post image for A Different Type Of Tear-Down: Court Orders Million Dollar Marblehead Manse Demolished For Zoning Violation

Expensive Lesson–Build At Your Own Peril

After a 16 year long saga, wealthy Marblehead mansion owner Wayne Johnson’s battle to save his house from a court-ordered wrecking ball has come to an end. The underlying legal saga is convoluted and complicated, but the end result was swift and destructive — the million dollar mansion is now rubble.

Johnson’s battle started in 1995 when he recorded a plan dividing his land into two lots. One lot contained an existing single-family dwelling. The second lot contained a garage. The house lot complied with all zoning dimensional requirements, but the garage lot didn’t comply with lot width requirements. The Building Inspector incorrectly determined that the garage lot complied with all applicable zoning requirements.

Johnson’s neighbors appealed the Building Inspector’s decision, arguing that the new house would greatly diminish their valuable ocean views. The local zoning board allowed the issuance of a building permit. After the building permit issued, the plaintiffs filed an appeal in Land Court and asked for an injunction to prevent construction on the garage lot. The Land Court judge warned Johnson that proceeding with construction was at his peril. In a decision by another judge in May, 2000, the court ordered the building permit to be revoked. However, the court ruled that the house could remain in place while Johnson attempted to obtain appropriate zoning relief.

Johnson, however, was unable to obtain zoning relief. After several unsuccessful appeals, the Land Court ordered Johnson to remove the house by October 4, 2010. Johnson failed to comply with that order, and the neighbors attempted to hold Johnson in contempt. With the threat of contempt and possible jail looming, Johnson finally threw in the towel.

The Land Court ruling can be read here: Schey v. Johnson and is embedded below.

More Press:
Schey v. Johnson

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Ibanez Foreclosure Case Heading To Massachusetts High Court?

by Rich Vetstein on February 22, 2010

Update (3/24/10): SJC Accepts Ibanez Case
For those of you following the controversial U.S. Bank v. Ibanez case, which invalidated potentially thousands of foreclosures across the state, both sides last week asked the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court to take the case — as I originally predicted. The SJC’s acceptance of the case would cut months to years off the normal appellate process. This would be great news for everyone eagerly awaiting a final decision.

Click here for Ibanez’s petition to the SJC. Click here for my post on the first ruling and here for my post on the second ruling in the Ibanez case.

The SJC should decide whether to take the case within 30 days or so, and I predict they will take it on. However, I still think the SJC will ultimately affirm Judge Long’s ruling against foreclosing lenders, a bad decision from a title and conveyancing standpoint in my view.

Meanwhile, in the aftermath of Ibanez, some lenders are re-doing foreclosures and some are just waiting it out. Most title insurance companies are unwilling to touch an Ibanez afflicted property with a ten foot pole.

I recently assisted a buyer of a foreclosed property who was initially rejected by two title insurers. We fortunately convinced one title company to insure over an Ibanez issue, so the client could close. But I have another client who is stuck, and we’re trying to track down the original owner of the property to obtain a deed. It’s a tough situation all around.

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Ibanez Ruling Foreclosure Update: Nothing Much To Report

by Rich Vetstein on December 23, 2009

Update (2/25/10)Mass. High Court May Take Ibanez Case

I’ve been asked several times recently for an update on the status of Land Court judge Keith Long’s controversial ruling in U.S. Bank v. Ibanez, which invalidated thousands of foreclosures across Massachusetts. Click here for my prior post on the case.

Unfortunately for those affected by the decision, not much is going on. Lenders have reportedly appealed the decision. Word has it that the lenders have hired mega-firm K&L Gates to handle the appeal. (Interestingly, K&L Gates is the same firm which secured a major ruling against the Massachusetts Real Estate Bar Association over non-attorneys handling real estate closings in Massachusetts).

The record in the Land Court is currently being assembled. The Massachusetts Appellate Court database doesn’t even list the case as yet up on appeal. Accordingly, this appeal is many, many months away from being decided.

Also, watch for the lenders to ask the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court to take the case on direct appeal. While this will delay the appeal some in the short term, the SJC is the final stop on the appellate railway, and its decision is the final word on the matter. Given the pro-consumer decisions recently issued by the high court and its current makeup of somewhat liberal justices, my money is still on an unfavorable decision for lenders in this case.

In the meantime, I’m hearing that lenders are simply re-doing their foreclosures with the correct loan paperwork (i.e., the mortgage assignments) brought up to date. For buyers who had an agreement to purchase a foreclosed home, this most likely means you will have to wait in line again and re-bid on the second foreclosure.

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Breaking News (1.7.11): Mass. Supreme Court Upholds Ibanez Ruling, Thousands of Foreclosures Affected

Click Here For Our Entire Series Of Post On the Ibanez Case

Update (2/25/10)Mass. High Court May Take Ibanez Case

Today, Massachusetts Land Court Judge Keith Long reaffirmed his controversial ruling made back in March 2009 that invalidated foreclosure proceedings involving two Springfield homes because the lenders did not hold clear titles to the properties at the time of sale. A copy of the decision can be found here.

As I outlined in my prior post on this case, the problem the Land Court dealt with in this case is what happens when modern securitized mortgage lending practices meets outdated foreclosure laws. When mortgages are packaged to Wall Street investors, the ownership of a mortgage loan may be divided and freely transferred numerous times on the lenders’ books. But the mortgage loan documentation actually on file at the Registry of Deeds often lags far behind.

Here is a diagram of the securitized mortgage process (click to enlarge):

The Ruling

Judge Long ruled that foreclosures were invalid when the lender failed to bring  the ownership documentation (known as an assignment) up-to-date until after the foreclosure sale had already taken place. An assignment is a legal document confirming that a mortgage loan has been transferred from one lender to another. Assignments must be recorded with a registry of deeds so anyone researching a property’s title can track the loan’s origin and ownership. Oftentimes, as in the Ibanez case, lenders will sell bundles of loan and record backdated assignments with an effective date before the first foreclosure notice. Judge Long effectively prohibited this practice.

Despite the lender’s attempt to convince him otherwise, Judge Long came out (again) in favor of consumers:

The issues in this case are not merely problems with paperwork or a matter of dotting i’s and crossing t’s. Instead, they lie at the heart of the protections given to homeowners and borrowers by the Massachusetts legislature. To accept the plaintiffs’ arguments is to allow them to take someone’s home without any demonstrable right to do so, based upon the assumption that they ultimately will be able to show that they have that right and the further assumption that potential bidders will be undeterred by the lack of a demonstrable legal foundation for the sale and will nonetheless bid full value in the expectation that that foundation will ultimately be produced, even if it takes a year or more. The law recognizes the troubling nature of these assumptions, the harm caused if those assumptions prove erroneous, and commands otherwise.

Judge Long also had some choice words for lenders:

[T]he problem the [lenders] face (the present title defect) is entirely of their own making as a result of their failure to comply with the statute and the directives in their own securitization documents… What the plaintiffs truly seek is a change in the foreclosure sale statute (G.L. c. 244, § 14), which can only come from the legislature.

What Now?

That’s a good question and one not readily answerable. To be sure, the current state of flux and confusion surrounding foreclosure titles affected by an Ibanez issue will remain intact until an appellate court considers the case or some action by the Legislature (which may be unlikely). Given the importance of the decision, I predict that the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court will take the unusual step of taking the case directly from the Land Court.

As for what happens in the year or so the case may be in appellate limbo, I asked an in house counsel for a leading title insurance company, and his response was essentially that it’s going to take a fair amount of time and research to figure this one out. If there’s an existing title insurance policy on the property, some but not all of the title companies may be willing to insure over the problem. If there’s no title policy in place, affected parties are going to have to ride this one out for awhile.

Once title insurance companies offer some further guidance, I will post it here.

My Two Cents

While I see both sides of the argument, the decision is troubling to me because Judge Long gave short shrift to the fundamental legal principle that the mortgage follows the note. A valid mortgage is security for some type of underlying obligation, whether it’s a loan or the promise to do something in the future. There’s no question that the millions (or billions) of dollars in loans secured by all these mortgages were validly transferred from one bank/lender to securitized lenders. The money was lent and it didn’t just evaporate into the ether. If the lenders can ultimately demonstrate ownership of the underlying loan which follows the mortgage and produce a valid assignment (albeit late), why isn’t this enough? The borrowers owe the money, and now after this ruling they are immunized from foreclosure by what many folks in the real estate industry view as elevating form over substance.

“For many years, real estate attorneys in Massachusetts have understood that the assignment of a mortgage can be recorded at any time and be effective,” Christopher S. Pitt, chairman of the Title Standards Committee of the Real Estate Bar Association tells Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly.

Now that doesn’t mean lenders don’t need to get their act together. They do. The net effect of this decision will be that lenders must get loan documentation up to date and recorded promptly. Indeed, the Ibanez loan changed ownership at least four times prior to foreclosure — without any of this appearing on the public record.  Two of those entities (Lehman Brothers and its subsidiary) are currently in bankruptcy and a third (Option One) has ceased operations. This is a huge wake up call to the securitized lending industry.

But the question remains, what about all the foreclosures that have already been conducted? And the new homeowners who own these properties and are now saddled with unresolvable title defects? What about these “innocent victims” and the neighborhoods blighted by foreclosed properties which cannot be sold? I guess we can all blame Wall Street once again…

The Consumer Advocate’s Point of View

Attorney Meyer Potashman of Greater Boston Legal Services which filed a brief in the Ibanez case offers this analysis:

This case has the potential to do a lot of damage (or rather reveal the damage that foreclosing lenders did over the past few years), but I think Judge Long was completely right about the law.  Both the statute and all of the securitization documents were clear, and these foreclosures violated both of them. These banks had sophisticated lawyers who knew real estate law when they planned to securitize these loans, but they never bothered to consult their own agreements when the time came to actually securitize, or foreclose, on the loans.  As a result, mortgages were never properly transferred, and the foreclosing lenders never had the right to foreclose.

As with any controversial legal decision, there’s always compelling arguments for both points of view.

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Breaking News (1.7.11). Mass. High Court Affirms Ibanez Ruling

Boston Globe reporter Jenifer McKim today is reporting that Massachusetts Land Court Judge Keith Long’s much anticipated ruling in the Ibanez v. U.S. Bank case, which invalidated thousands of foreclosures across the state, could come as early as today.HomeForeclosure-main_Full

Previously, in late March of this year Judge Long issued one of the most controversial rulings in recent years which has called into question hundreds if not thousands of foreclosure titles because lenders failed to show proof they held titles to the properties through valid assignments. Click here for my prior post on the case. A copy of the case can be found here.

The Globe reports that the decision is “imminent” and could come as early as today. The Globe also has interesting commentary from a number of affected sources:

Among those watching the case are Boston city officials, who say they hope Long will clarify title issues for homes that have already gone into foreclosure. In the meantime, the judge’s actions have stymied the city’s effort to buy as many as 20 bank-owned properties, hurting much-needed redevelopment efforts in neighborhoods plagued by foreclosure, officials said.

“There are thousands and thousands of titles that have gone through foreclosures with these late filed’’ ownership records, said Lawrence Scofield, an attorney with Ablitt Law Offices in Woburn, who represented plaintiffs in three consolidated Springfield cases ruled on by Long. “Judge Long is saying you don’t really own it. That is the real, overwhelming, economic effect.’’

Locally, the Massachusetts decision has pitted advocates trying to revive neighborhoods against others trying to help homeowners stave off foreclosures. Gary Klein, a consumer law attorney who filed a friend of the court brief in the case, said the real estate system placed “expedience and convenience’’ before the law. Providing home buyers with a “full set of procedural protections,’’ he said, is more important than comforting lenders who ignored the law.

Indeed, since March, the number of foreclosure deeds has slowed, according to Warren Group, a Boston company that provides real estate data. “There are probably at least a thousand families who are getting at least some period of temporary delay while lenders go back and get a proper paper trail,’’ said Klein, an attorney with the Boston-based law firm Roddy, Klein and Ryan. “Slowing foreclosures down allows people to get loan modifications and other relief.’’

Once the decision is released I will post it here with my analysis and commentary.

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