Judge Peter Agnes

Court Shoots Down Lender’s Attempt to Expand Doctrine of Equitable Subrogation

In the interesting case of Wells Fargo Bank v. Comeau (Nov. 15, 2017), Justice Peter Agnes of the Appeals Court has held that a surviving wife is not financially responsible for paying back a refinanced mortgage where the wife neither signed the promissory note nor the refinance mortgage, even though she originally held title to the home as a married couple (tenants by the entirety) and signed the original mortgage on the property. In so ruling, Judge Agnes rejected Wells Fargo’s argument to expand the doctrine of equitable subrogation to cover a situation such as this.

Parties to Deed Must Match Up With Mortgage!

Nancy and William Comeau owned their Haverhill home jointly in the traditional Massachusetts form of ownership called “tenancy by the entirety” where title passes automatically to the surviving spouse upon death of a spouse. When the couple purchased the home, they both signed a first mortgage to Haverhill Cooperative Savings Bank. It appears that Nancy was not an applicant for the loan because she did not sign the promissory note. However, the cardinal rule is that the parties to the deed must match the parties to the mortgage, otherwise there will be problems (foreshadowing what happened in this case).

When the couple went to refinance the Haverhill Savings loan with Wells Fargo, only William, the husband, signed the note and mortgage. Big mistake! Since Nancy, the wife, remained on the title as a joint owner, she should have signed the mortgage as well. After the refinancing, William unfortunately dies. His estate is probated, but Wells Fargo makes another mistake and fails to file a claim within the one year probate statute of limitations.

Lender Goes To Court

In an attempt to get Nancy to pay up on the mortgage, Wells Fargo went to Superior Court and made the creative argument that the wife should be responsible under the little known legal doctrine of equitable subrogation which gives courts equitable power to reform mortgages, to restore once-extinguished mortgages, and to adjust priorities among existing mortgages where it is fair and just to do so. Wells lost in Superior Court. On appeal, Justice Agnes agreed, ruling that this case was not appropriate for the equitable subrogation remedy, thereby leaving Wells Fargo with a total loss on its mortgage debt. Judge Agnes reasoned that the situation was entirely of Wells Fargo’s making, and that it had the opportunity to have Nancy sign the mortgage or make a claim against William’s estate, but it failed to do so.

Having handled many title insurance claims in my prior practice, we often used equitable subrogation in cases where a title examiner missed a mortgage in connection with a refinance. Those types of human error would allow for equitable subrogation, however, this case would not, as Judge Agnes correctly ruled in my opinion.

This case is a good example why closing attorneys should always have both married spouses execute the mortgage even if one spouse is not on the loan.

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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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