Massachusetts foreclosure defense attorney

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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Foreclosure2.jpgAbate v. Fremont Investment & Loan:  High Court Rules That “Try Title” Procedure Only Available After Foreclosure Auction Completed

After Deutsche Bank foreclosed his Newton home, Thomas Abate brought a lawsuit in the Land Court challenging the foreclosure under the “try title” procedure under General Laws chapter 240, sections 1-5. Seeking to invalidate the foreclosure, Mr. Abate utilized the popular defense of attacking the assignment of his mortgage from MERS (Mortgage Electronic Registration System) to Deutsche Bank. After several months of legal wrangling in the Land Court, Judge Robert Foster dismissed Abate’s challenges to the MERS assignment, and dismissed his try title claim. Abate then appealed to the SJC.

Prior to the SJC’s ruling, there was confusion in the foreclosure setting regarding the proper method to determine whether the property owner had legal standing to bring a try title case and whether the owner must bring the case before or after the foreclosure. Putting the proverbial nail in this particular foreclosure defense coffin, the SJC held that a borrower can only use the try title procedure after a foreclosure has been concluded, not before. The Court also ruled that lenders can seek to test borrowers’ legal theories and dismiss these claims very early in the proceeding on a motion to dismiss. The net result is a blow to foreclosure challengers — borrowers must wait until after a foreclosure is completed to bring a lawsuit; and it will be easier for lenders to dismiss claims challenging mortgage assignments and the foreclosures based on such assignments.

I asked preeminant foreclosure defense Attorney Glenn Russell for his thoughts on the ruling, and he said this:

Well from a homeowner’s perspective I have to say that I was hoping for a different outcome, however it’s not all bad. Bottom line, borrowers cannot use try title unless the auction happened, or they can make argument that there never was a legally valid mortgage, or one is trying to enforce a void mortgage, or one that has been discharged. The key thing is that a homeowner cannot bring a try title claim (standing under the “first step” of the try title action), unless the mortgage is foreclosed.

So after several key rulings in favor of foreclosure victims in the earlier part of the decade such as the seminal U.S. Bank v. Ibanez case, the SJC has issued several pro-lender decisions of recent vintage. Is this a sign of foreclosure fatigue or are the justices merely following the law? Maybe a bit of both…

With the economy improving as well, the net effect is likely to be less foreclosures and less legal challenges to them — which will only continue to boost an improving housing market.

A link to the Abate v. Fremont Investment & Loan (SJC-11638) opinion can be found here.

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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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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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Final Say Will Come Soon At SJC In Eaton v. FNMA

In Adamson v. MERS (embedded below), Superior Court Judge Raymond Brassard became the second Massachusetts trial judge to endorse the so-called “produce the note” defense in a foreclosure defense case. The question of whether a foreclosing lender must hold both the promissory note and the mortgage at the same time is now before the Supreme Judicial Court in the eagerly awaited case of Eaton v. Fannie Mae.

In Adamson, Mortgage Electronic Registration System (MERS) claimed to be the holder of the mortgage at the behest of Deutsche Bank. America’s Servicing acted as the servicer. This was a classic sub-prime mortgage with $440,000 in principal at 8.5% interest, with a balloon payment of $370,000 at the end of 30 years. (No wonder the borrower couldn’t keep up with the payments).

The kicker in this case was when America’s Servicing sent the borrower a denial letter for a loan modification stating that it would not foreclose in the next 30 days under the federal HAMP program to give the borrower a chance to explore other modification option. It foreclosed the next day. Ouch.

Unification Theory

Relying on the Judge McIntyre’s earlier decision in the Eaton case, Judge Brassard was persuaded that Massachusetts still holds on to the unification theory where a foreclosing lender must hold both the note and the mortgage at the time of foreclosure. Judge Brassard expressed concern that separating the mortgage from the note could lead to double liability for the borrower (first, a foreclosure, then an attempt to collect the note).

In a ruling which will make foreclosure defense attorneys salivate, Judge Brassard found merit to the borrower’s claim that the lender and the servicer violated the Massachusetts Consumer Protection Act, Chapter 93A, for foreclosing the day after the denial letter was issued, in violation of the 30 day safe harbor period.

Impact & What’s Next?

With two Superior Court judges endorsing this theory and several bankruptcy court judges rejecting it, all eyes are now on the Supreme Judicial Court’s decision in the Eaton v. Fannie Mae case which will be the final say in the matter. If the SJC accepts the unification theory, it will be a bigger bombshell than the U.S. Bank v. Ibanez case last year.

Until the SJC decides the Eaton case, this ruling will continue to slow down the pace of foreclosures in Massachusetts. This will, in turn, keep the inventory of REO properties high, causing further drag on the troubled housing market.

Thank you to the blogging attorneys at the Massachusetts Land Use Monitor for bringing this case to my attention.

Adamson v. MERS Decision

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