Court Limits NY Attorney General’s Reach

New York State Attorney General                  Barbara D. Underwood

Bloomberg quoted me in Credit Suisse Wins Narrowing of $11 Billion Suit, Martin Act. It opens,

New York’s powerful anti-fraud weapon known as the Martin Act was crimped by the state’s highest court, which scaled back what was an $11 billion lawsuit against Credit Suisse Group AG over mortgage-securities practices in the run-up to the financial crisis.

The New York Court of Appeals found that many of the claims were too old, trimming the statute-of-limitations of the law to three years from six years. The Martin Act has been used by the state’s attorney general to police the securities markets since the 1920s, so the ruling may limit the prosecution of fraud in stock and bond sales and some other financial transactions.

“Anything that reduces a statute of limitations will have a big impact on enforcement,” said David Reiss, a professor at Brooklyn Law School, noting that it can take many years to develop complex financial cases. “This case reflects a significant curtailment of the New York attorney general’s ability to go after alleged financial wrongdoing.”

Prior to the legal battle against Credit Suisse, the Martin Act, one of the country’s oldest and toughest anti-fraud tools, faced relatively few tests in court. The law can be used by the state attorney general to file both civil suits and criminal charges, and requires a lower standard of proof for civil cases than other anti-fraud statutes. It can also be used to launch investigations, which can help extract settlements.

Legal Tool

Through the specter of the Martin Act, New York state has been able to collect billions of dollars in fines from investment banks, insurance companies and mutual funds over a wide variety of alleged fraud. It has also been used to charge individuals, including executives at Tyco International Ltd., accused of looting the company, and former officials at the law firm Dewey & LeBoeuf.

Amy Spitalnick, a spokeswoman for Attorney General Barbara Underwood, said she pursues cases quickly and will continue to do so.

“This decision will have no impact on our efforts to vigorously pursue financial fraud wherever it exists in New York,” Spitalnick said. “That includes continuing our case against Credit Suisse.”

In recent years, the Martin Act has been used against Barclays Plc and other banks to pursue claims they misled customers about the role of high-frequency traders in dark pools, to win a settlement from the Bank of New York Mellon Corp. over foreign-currency trading, and to start an investigation into Exxon Mobil Corp. about whether it misled investors about the impact of climate change.

The case against Zurich-based Credit Suisse came as the office started probes into allegations of wrongdoing related to the financial crisis. The lawsuit, filed by former Attorney General Eric Schneiderman in November 2012, claimed the bank ignored warning signs about the quality of loans it was packaging and selling in 2006 and 2007.

Deane Finds Us East of Eden

Last week, I discussed a NYLJ article about the “Show Me The Note” argument in New York. The article discussed a recent case, Bank of N.Y. Mellon v. Deane, 2013 Slip Op. 23244 (Sup. Ct. Kings Country July 11, 2013). Brad and I have earlier noted that “many scholars and leaders of the bar are befuddled by courts’ failure to do a comprehensive analysis under the UCC as part of their reasoning in mortgage enforcement cases . . ..”  As if to prove us wrong, Judge Battaglia has taken on the UCC in Deane even while acknowledging that “quotation of the Code, or even its citation, has virtually disappeared from the caselaw on this part of negotiable instruments law, at least where addressed in mortgage foreclosure actions.” (5) Judge Battaglia also notes how NY mortgage enforcement caselaw diverges from the contemporary UCC caselaw.

Judge Battaglia framed the issue of standing as follows:

As recently summarized by the Second Department:”In order to commence a foreclosure action, the plaintiff must have a legal or equitable interest in the subject mortgage…A plaintiff has standing where it is both the holder or assignee of the subject mortgage and the holder or assignee of the underlying note prior to commencement of the action with the filing of the complaint…Either a written assignment of the underlying note or the physical delivery of the note prior to the commencement of the foreclosure action is sufficient to transfer the obligation, and the mortgage passes with the debt as an inseparable incident.” (GRP Loan, LLC v. Taylor, 95 AD3d at 1173 [internal quotation marks and citations omitted] [emphasis added].) (2)

He continued, “the cursory treatment of the standing question in the memorandum of law evidences a misunderstanding of the general law of negotiable instruments in its equation of the status as “holder” to mere possession of the instrument. The core of the law of negotiable instruments is found in Article 3 of the Uniform Commercial Code . . ..” (3) He finds that the plaintiff has not established that it is a holder or a nonholder in possession who has the rights of a holder. He states that

To allow an assignee to sue without possession of the note, therefore, would be inconsistent with Revised Article 3, and put New York out-of-step with the 49 states that have adopted the revision, including, in particular, a conception of “transfer” as “deliver[y] by a person other than its issuer for the purpose of giving to the person receiving delivery the right to enforce the instrument” (see Revised UCC §3-203 [1].) That misstep, however, if such it is, has apparently already been taken. (7)

Doing its best to reconcile the the mortgage enforcement and UCC caselaw, Judge Battaglia concludes that

in the usual case, a plaintiff has “standing” to prosecute a mortgage foreclosure action where, at the time the action is commenced: (1) the plaintiff is the holder of the note (see NYUCC §1-201 [20]); or (2) the plaintiff has possession of the note by delivery (see NYUCC §1-201[14]), from a person entitled to enforce it, for the purpose of giving the plaintiff the right to enforce it; or (3) the plaintiff has been assigned the note, by a person entitled to enforce it, for the purpose of giving the plaintiff the right to collect the debt evidenced by the note, and the plaintiff tenders the note at the time of any judgment. (8)

New York’s law in this area is not satisfying and it looks to me like courts need to make a concerted effort to synthesize UCC law with foreclosure law.  Otherwise, mortgage litigants are left to wander like Cain in the land of Nod, east of Eden, not knowing what law governs their disputes.

NJF and UCC and Contract Law, Oh My!

Parsing how a court should approach a particular deed of trust foreclosure case can put you to sleep faster than crossing the poppy fields next to the yellow brick road.  Does the Non-Judicial Foreclosure (NJF) statute govern? Does the state’s Uniform Commercial Code (UCC) govern? Does the contract terms of the deed of trust itself govern? Or, more likely, do all three govern? And, if so, how do they interact with each other?

Brad Borden and I have recently noted that while

“show me the note” does come up in federal cases, federal courts defer to the applicable state law in reaching their results.  [T]he courts’ holdings tend to flow from a careful reading of the relevant state foreclosure statute, so a particular state’s law can have a big effect on the outcome.  We would note that many scholars and leaders of the bar are befuddled by courts’ failure to do a comprehensive analysis under the UCC as part of their reasoning in mortgage enforcement cases, but judges make the law, not scholars and members of the bar.  See Report of The Permanent Editorial Board for The Uniform Commercial Code Application of The Uniform Commercial Code to Selected Issues Relating to Mortgage Notes at 1 (Nov. 14, 2011).

Zadrozny v. Bank of New York Mellon, No. 11-16597 (June 28, 2013), a recent 9th Circuit case demonstrates the problem of an incomplete analysis in an Arizona non-judicial foreclosure case.  The Court notes that

The PEB [Permanent Editorial Board] Report [] clarifies:

the UCC does not resolve all issues in this field. Most particularly, the enforcement of real estate mortgages by foreclosure is primarily the province of a state’s real property law (although determinations made pursuant to the UCC are typically relevant under that law).

Given the PEB Report’s recognition that state law is typically controlling on foreclosure issues, the Zadroznys are unable to allege a cause of action premised on the PEB Report . . ..(14-15, citation omitted)

This is confusing in a few ways.  First, the UCC is state law, adopted with variants by all of the states’ legislatures.  What the PEB is calling for is for courts to apply state UCC law as appropriate.

Second, state foreclosure law does not “control” foreclosure issues in some inchoate and expansive way. It governs it to the extent that it governs it and not one bit more. So if state UCC law governs one facet of a foreclosure case, it is not trumped by the states’ foreclosure law. Or if the terms of the deed of trust were to govern, it would not be trumped by the foreclosure law either (so long as it did not violate it).

Finally, it is just plain weird to say that the Zadroznys would have a “cause of action premised on the PEB report.” How would that work?!?  The PEB report is merely an interpretation of general UCC principles. The Court should be asking how the Arizona UCC applies to this case.

I am not saying that the Court reached the wrong result under Arizona law in this regard, but the Court’s incomplete analysis offers no clarity to litigants, no more than the Wizard of Oz offered real solutions to his supplicants’ pleas. But judges decide the cases, not me and not you . . ..