Editor: David Reiss
Brooklyn Law School

December 10, 2013

Imposing Order on Recording Chaos

By David Reiss

Dale Whitman has posted A Proposal for a National Mortgage Registry: MERS Done Right. This is great timing because he will be touching on some of the issues raised in this article in tomorrow’s webinar. His proposal for a national mortgage registry also shares things in common with elements of Adam Levitin‘s recent proposal.

Whitman’s abstract reads:

In this Article, Professor Whitman analyzes the existing legal regime for transfers of notes and mortgages on the secondary market, and concludes that it is highly inconvenient and dysfunctional, with the result that large numbers of market participants simply did not observe its rules during the huge market run-up of the early and mid-2000s. He also considers Mortgage Electronic Registration System (MERS), which was designed to alleviate the inconveniences of repeatedly recording mortgage assignments, but concludes that it was conceptually flawed and has proven to be an inadequate response to the problem. For these reasons the legal system was ill-prepared for the avalanche of foreclosures that followed the collapse of the mortgage market in 2007, and continues to be beset by litigation and uncertainty. This Article then provides a conceptual outline for an alternative National Mortgage Registry, which would supplant the present legal system and would provide convenience, transparency, and efficiency for all market participants. He concludes with a draft of a statute that could be enacted by Congress to create such a registry.

The article concludes:

A national mortgage loan Registry structured along the lines outlined here would resolve all of the major legal problems that beset the secondary mortgage market today. To be specific, the following problems would be put to rest.

1. The lack of clarity in the distinction between negotiable and nonnegotiable notes that exists today would become irrelevant for purposes of loan transfer. Negotiable and nonnegotiable notes would be treated exactly alike and would be transferred in the same manner.

2. The need to physically deliver original notes in order to transfer the right of enforcement – an extremely burdensome and inconvenient requirement for negotiable notes in today’s market – would be eliminated. Transfers would take place electronically with assurance that they would be recognized by local law in all jurisdictions.

3. The necessity of recording mortgage assignments in local recording offices would be eliminated. MERS was designed to remove the need for such assignments (except at the point when foreclosure was necessary), but the national Registry would accomplish this without the artificiality and con-fusion engendered by MERS’ “nominee” status.

4. Borrowers would be protected against competing claims by purported mortgage holders because the Registry’s records of loan holdings would be conclusive. Whether in cases of loan modification, payoff and discharge, approval of a short sale, or foreclosure, a borrower would know with certainty whether a purported holder’s claim to the loan was authentic, and whether its purported servicer was authorized to act.

5. All foreclosures, both judicial and non-judicial, could be conducted with assurance that the correct party was foreclosing. The Registry’s certificate could be recorded under state law and become a part of the chain of title of property passing through foreclosure, thus permitting future title examiners to verify that the foreclosure was conducted by the person authorized to do so. Concerns of title insurers about the validity of titles coming through foreclosure, currently a major worry, would be largely eliminated.

6. The current confusion and litigation about separation of notes from their mortgages, and about what proof is needed to foreclose a mortgage, would be brought to an end. The Registry’s certificate would provide all of the documentary evidence necessary to foreclose.

7. The holder in due course doctrine, with its potential for unfair harm to borrowers, would probably disappear in the context of mortgage loans as secondary market participants abandoned the practice of physical delivery of mortgage notes.

The system for transferring mortgage loans with which we are saddled today is a shambles. The result has been enormous uncertainty and likely huge financial loss for investors, servicers, and title insurers. It is time for Congress to act to create a sensible, simple, and efficient alternative. (68-69)

Many (including Brad Borden and I) have argued that the current recording system is horribly flawed. It is unclear whether there is sufficient political will to engage in a structural reform at this time. If there is not, expect to see another foreclosure mess once the current one has played itself out.

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