Sunday, October 25, 2009

More Judges Taking on Foreclosures Without Document Trails

Posted on Naked Capitalism:

As most people know (and many by first hand experience) mortgages often pass through a lot of hands, and the securitization industry has played plenty fast and loose in making sure the transfers are handled properly. The system by which these sales are executed is coming under increasing scrutiny. From Pam Martens:

The problems grew out of the steps required to structure a mortgage securitization. In order to meet the test of an arm’s length transaction, pass muster with regulators, conform to accounting rules and to qualify as an actual sale of the securities in order to be removed from the bank’s balance sheet, the mortgages get transferred a number of times before being sold to investors. Typically, the original lender (or a sponsor who has purchased the mortgages in the secondary market) will transfer the mortgages to a limited purpose entity called a depositor. The depositor will then transfer the mortgages to a trust…

Because of the expense, time and paperwork it would take to record each of the assignments of the thousands of mortgages in each securitization, Wall Street firms decided to just issue blank mortgage assignments all along the channel of transfers, skipping the actual physical recording of the mortgage at the county registry of deeds.

Yves here. I know I have said this before, but I am gobsmacked every time I read this stuff. When I was briefly in the securities business (early 1980s), even a teeny weeny error in a securities offering was completely unacceptable, a career limiting event for lawyers and bankers involved. And even though due diligence wasn’t what it should have been, there were certain steps that were absolutely necessary to avoid liability (having the deal counsel read the issuer’s board minutes and having someone from the lead manager visit the major facilities of a first-time issuer, for instance).

The finesse in mortgage securitizations was a company called MERS. Fore those not familiar with their procedures, Marten gives a good overview:

on August 28, 2009, Judge Eric S. Rosen of the Kansas Supreme Court took an intensive look at a “straw man” some Wall Street firms had set up to handle the dirty work of foreclosure and serve as the “nominee” as the mortgages flipped between the various entities. Called MERS (Mortgage Electronic Registration Systems, Inc.) it’s a bankruptcy-remote subsidiary of MERSCORP, which in turn is owned by units of Citigroup, JPMorgan Chase, Bank of America, the Mortgage Bankers Association and assorted mortgage and title companies…

In recent years, MERS has become less of an electronic registration system and more of a serial defendant in courts across the land…

MERS doesn’t have a big roster of employees or lawyers running around the country foreclosing and defending itself in lawsuits. It simply deputizes employees of the banks and mortgage companies that use it as a nominee. It calls these deputies a “certifying officer.” Here’s how they explain this on their web site: “A certifying officer is an officer of the Member [mortgage company or bank] who is appointed a MERS officer by the Corporate Secretary of MERS by the issuance of a MERS Corporate Resolution. The Resolution authorizes the certifying officer to execute documents as a MERS officer.”

Kansas Supreme Court Judge Rosen wasn’t buying MERS’ story… Judge Rosen wrote:

“The relationship that MERS has to Sovereign [Bank] is more akin to that of a straw man than to a party possessing all the rights given a buyer… What meaning is this court to attach to MERS’s designation as nominee for Millennia [Mortgage Corp.]? The parties appear to have defined the word in much the same way that the blind men of Indian legend described an elephant — their description depended on which part they were touching at any given time. Counsel for Sovereign stated to the trial court that MERS holds the mortgage ‘in street name, if you will, and our client the bank and other banks transfer these mortgages and rely on MERS to provide them with notice of foreclosures and what not.’ ” (Landmark National Bank v. Boyd A. Kesler)

Yves here. So you see what happened? The securitization industry decided to impose the convenience of “street name” holdings of securities to mortgages, simply ignoring hundreds of years of precedent and a thicket of local laws (no joke here, the US precedent on the primacy of title documents goes back to at least 1818 in the US. No deed is like “no tickie, no laundry.”) Back to Marten:

Lawyers for homeowners see a darker agenda to MERS. Timothy McCandless, a California lawyer, wrote on his blog as follows:

“…all across the country, MERS now brings foreclosure proceedings in its own name — even though it is not the financial party in interest. This is problematic because MERS is not prepared for or equipped to provide responses to consumers’ discovery requests with respect to predatory lending claims and defenses. In effect, the securitization conduit attempts to use a faceless and seemingly innocent proxy with no knowledge of predatory origination or servicing behavior to do the dirty work of seizing the consumer’s home. While up against the wall of foreclosure, consumers that try to assert predatory lending defenses are often forced to join the party — usually an investment trust — that actually will benefit from the foreclosure. As a simple matter of logistics this can be difficult, since the investment trust is even more faceless and seemingly innocent than MERS itself. The investment trust has no customer service personnel and has probably not even retained counsel. Inquiries to the trustee — if it can be identified — are typically referred to the servicer, who will then direct counsel back to MERS. This pattern of non-response gives the securitization conduit significant leverage in forcing consumers out of their homes. The prospect of waging a protracted discovery battle with all of these well funded parties in hopes of uncovering evidence of predatory lending can be too daunting even for those victims who know such evidence exists. So imposing is this opaque corporate wall, that in a ‘vast’ number of foreclosures, MERS actually succeeds in foreclosing without producing the original note — the legal sine qua non of foreclosure — much less documentation that could support predatory lending defenses.”

Yves again. Again, I know this has been rumbling around in the news for months, but it is hard for me to believe this has gone on as long as it has. I have heard (from my attorney first hand on situations she has been involved in, not urban legend) of a corporate lawsuit being thrown out of court because the contract between the parties had the name of the entities wrong….by a comma! Now real estate law is a different area, but title is one of its fundamental principles. Selling securities in a trust when the trust does not have clear title to assets in the trust is fraud. If judges keep nixing foreclosures based on the servicer (acting on behalf of the trust) not being able to demonstrate ownership, we could see a very interesting knock-on, of investor litigation against the trusts. But it’s too early to tell.

But it isn’t surprising that judges are plenty unsympathetic, and in cases, outraged. The law is all about sanctity of process, both the underlying law and court proceedings. Cases typically revolve around disputes of fact or grey areas of the law. This isn’t grey (whether a party has standing to file a suit is fundamental) and the law in this area is well established. Basically, the securitization industry tried creating rules outside any established legal framework and judges are having none of it.

Morgenson offers an interesting new sighting, involving a Federal judge in the Southern District of New York. This is significant because the Federal bench is generally pretty high caliber, and the Southern District of NY is particularly well respected. Moreover the ruling can’t be dismissed as a judge favoring the locals over the big bad out of town servicer:

…..on Oct. 9 in federal bankruptcy court in the Southern District of New York. Ruling that a lender, PHH Mortgage, hadn’t proved its claim to a delinquent borrower’s home in White Plains, Judge Robert D. Drain wiped out a $461,263 mortgage debt on the property. That’s right: the mortgage debt disappeared, via a court order.

Yves here. Translation: the judge was pissed. He could have dismissed the case without prejudice, meaning PHH could get its ducks in a row and try again, but he sent a much stronger message. Back to the story:

….the case is an alert to lenders that dubious proof-of-ownership tactics may no longer be accepted practice. They may even be viewed as a fraud on the court…..

Yves here. Lawyers can correct me, but I believe “fraud on the court” would mean that lawyers that bringing that sort of action could be sanctioned. Back to Morgenson:

According to court documents, the borrower bought the house in 2001 with a mortgage from Wells Fargo; four and a half years later she refinanced with Mortgage World Bankers Inc.

She fell behind in her payments, and David B. Shaev, a consumer bankruptcy lawyer in Manhattan, filed a Chapter 13 bankruptcy plan…

Mr. Shaev said that when he filed the case, he had simply hoped to persuade PHH to modify his client’s loan. But after months of what he described as foot-dragging by PHH and its lawyers, he asked for proof of PHH’s standing in the case…..

Mr. Shaev received a letter stating that PHH was the servicer of the loan but that the holder of the note was U.S. Bank, as trustee of a securitization pool. But U.S. Bank was not a party to the action.

Mr. Shaev then asked for proof that U.S. Bank was indeed the holder of the note. All that was provided, however, was an affidavit from Tracy Johnson, a vice president at PHH Mortgage, saying that PHH was the servicer and U.S. Bank the holder.

Among the filings supplied to support Ms. Johnson’s assertion was a copy of the assignment of the mortgage. But this, too, was signed by Ms. Johnson, only this time she was identified as an assistant vice president of MERS, the Mortgage Electronic Registration System. This bank-owned registry eliminates the need to record changes in property ownership in local land records.

Another problem was that the document showed the note was assigned on March 26, 2009, well after the bankruptcy had been filed….

According to a transcript of the Sept. 29 hearing, Mr. DiCaro [representing PHH] said: “In the secondary market, there are many cases where assignment of mortgages, assignment of notes, don’t happen at the time they should. It was standard operating procedure for many years.”

Judge Drain rejected that argument, concluding that what had been presented to the court just did not add up. “I think that I have a more than 50 percent doubt that if the debtor paid this claim, it would be paying the wrong person,” he said. “That’s the problem. And that’s because the claimant has not shown an assignment of a mortgage.”….

Late last week, PHH appealed the judge’s ruling. But Mr. DiCaro and PHH are in something of a bind. Either they will return to court with a clear claim on the property — including all the transfers and sales that are necessary in the securitization process — or they won’t be able to produce that documentation. If they do produce it, they will then have to explain why they didn’t produce it before.

Yves again. And given that they presented that little assignment with a date after the bankruptcy was filed….that would seem to say that any cleaned up paper trail was fraudulent.

Of course, presumably everyone in foreclosure land will get smarter and at least post date their documents more carefully. But maybe not.

And we have an even more interesting set of possibilities. Say servicers and MERS fail to clean up their act, and more judges start throwing out foreclosures. Kansas Supreme Court Judge Rosen didn’t just say he didn’t see an acceptable paper trail; elements of his ruling were a much more fundamental attack on MERS. If more judges start challenging MERS’s legitimacy, that could strike at the heart of foreclosures in securitizations. In other words, a few more of these rulings may accomplish what the folks in DC have been unwilling and unable to do: force banks to negotiate. The problem, of course, is the impact will be very inconsistent. Some jurisdictions and judges will no doubt be more sympathetic to this line of argument than others.

Stay tuned, this looks certain to get even more interesting.

Gretchen Morgenson of the New York Times reports on the latest instance of judges taking issue with the rather haphazard procedures of lenders and servicers in handling mortgage assignments.

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