witness closings

Breaking: SJC Rules In Favor Of Real Estate Attorneys

Billion Dollar Mass. Closing Industry At Stake

Today, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court heard arguments in the closely watched case of The Real Estate Bar Association of Massachusetts, Inc. (REBA) v. National Real Estate Information Services, Inc. (NREIS). This case pits Massachusetts real estate closing attorneys versus out of state non-attorney settlement service providers which are attempting to perform “witness or notary” closings here in Massachusetts. At stake is the billion dollar Massachusetts real estate closing industry.

Unauthorized Practice of Law?

I wrote previously about the case in this post. Massachusetts’ long standing practice is for licensed attorneys to oversee and conduct the residential real estate closing process. NREIS’s business model is to outsource the vast majority of those functions to back office workers who aren’t trained attorneys. REBA argues that this practice violates Massachusetts common law and consumer protection statutes requiring that attorneys perform the most vital functions of a real estate closing transaction, such as certifying and analyzing title, preparing the deed, handling the transfer of good funds, where necessary, and conducting the closing.

The case was originally brought in federal court, where NREIS won and obtained a $1Million attorney fee award. But the federal appeals court overturned that ruling, and asked the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court to answer the question of whether and to what extent a residential real estate transaction and closing is the “practice of law” required to be performed only by a licensed attorney.

Questions From the Bench & Analysis

  • A favorable decision also upholds the notion that attorneys are vital to the conveyancing system, protect consumers, and cannot simply be outsourced to a non-trained drone. We’ve seen disastrous results when untrained folks try to perform legal tasks with the foreclosure robo-signing scandal. And the SJC may be sensitive to this having just heard the Ibanez foreclosure case.
  • Several of the justices weren’t buying NREIS’s argument that its non-attorney back office processors never make legal judgments, but instead simply “flag issues.” Justice Cowen raised several examples of situations requiring an attorney’s trained eye, such as analyzing a title examination, analyzing title defects, and ensuring that loan documents, the deed and mortgage are in the correct form.
  • Justice Cowen said that NREIS couldn’t delegate everything to a paralegal. At some point an attorney had to make the final call. And I think that is where the Court will end up on this case–hopefully!
  • Justice Gants and Spina both showed their studying of the conveyancing process in asking whether NREIS needed to have attorneys certify title (they do under state statute) and analyze a title rundown (yes, again).
  • Don’t bet against the SJC ruling against real estate attorneys in this case. After all, the justices are attorneys themselves. And they are humans. Whether they admit it or not, they are naturally inclined to favor their brethren of the bar.

Why This Case Is Important To Mass. Consumers

The purchase of a home is usually the most important investment most families will ever make. Home buyers and sellers, as well as lenders, rely on the training, professionalism, and integrity of attorneys to ensure that their property rights are protected. The reason that only lawyers can give legal advice is to protect the public. It gives the buyer and lender someone to hold accountable if there are mistakes. These multiple levels of protection permit buyers, sellers and lenders to confidently and reliably close loans worth hundreds of thousands of dollars every day. Non-attorney closings only hurt the consumer. In recent years, the real estate closing process has become as more complicated than ever. In “witness only” or “notary” closings, the non-attorneys who conduct the closings do nothing more than witness the execution of the closing documents, and cannot provide any legal guidance. What happens if an issue arises at closing requiring legal analysis? The closing attorney has the training to resolve it. The non-attorney closer will just sit there and can do nothing. Lastly, due to increased competition, there is no difference in cost between non-attorney closing companies and real estate attorneys.

In addition to the parties’ briefs, the SJC has received nearly 20 friend of the court briefs, virtually all of which support REBA’s position that NREIS is engaged in the unauthorized practice of law. SJC briefs can be found here. The webcast is found at the Suffolk Law School website.

The SJC should issue a final ruling in several months.