Deed of Trust vs. Mortgage

photo by Taber Andrew Bain

LendingTree quoted me in Deed of Trust vs. Mortgage: Key Differences. It reads, in part,

Foreclosure process

Each type of security instrument leads to a different type of foreclosure process. Deed of trust states typically have a non-judicial foreclosure process. “The trustee has the power under the terms of the deed of trust to actually sell the property,” said David Reiss, professor of law at Brooklyn Law School and real estate expert. “That can happen in some jurisdictions in a matter of weeks or a matter of a few months.”

A deed of trust foreclosure doesn’t involve going to court. In mortgage states, though, the lender must get a court order to foreclose on a home. This is called a judicial foreclosure. “In many jurisdictions, particularly in New York and New Jersey, [a judicial foreclosure] could take years to actually do,” Reiss said. “From a lender perspective, that’s not so great.”

Your state’s laws will determine which security instrument you use and which type of foreclosure process lenders are required to follow. Some states allow both types of foreclosures, but non-judicial foreclosures are more common than judicial foreclosures. The states that primarily use a non-judicial foreclosure process are Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Georgia, Idaho, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Mexico, North Carolina, Oregon, Rhode Island, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Virginia, Washington, West Virginia, Wyoming and the District of Columbia.

What Is a Promissory Note?

by Zoli Erdos

Realtor.com quoted me in What Is a Promissory Note? What You’re Really Promising, Revealed. It opens,

If you get a mortgage to buy a home, you will end up signing something called a promissory note. So what exactly is a promissory note?

In the most basic terms, it’s a legal document you sign containing a written “promise” to pay a lender, says Scott A. Marcus, a shareholder in Becker & Poliakoff’s Real Estate Practice Group, in Fort Lauderdale, FL.

Promissory notes are a standard part of all real estate financing contracts and include basic information such as:

Promissory notes are an important yet often misunderstood part of the loan process.

“The worst mistake someone signing a promissory note can make is to sign a note without reading and understanding all of its terms,” says Marcus.

So let’s clear up a few common misconceptions, shall we?

Promissory note vs. a mortgage: What’s the difference?

Many home buyers mistakenly think that the mortgage—another contract they sign—is their promise to pay back the loan.

Well, they’re wrong! The promissory note is your promise to do that, plain and simple. The mortgage, on the other hand, is a contract that kicks in more when things go wrong.

In a nutshell, a mortgage (also called a deed of trust) is a pledge you sign to put up your property as collateral in case you default on your loan, according to David Reiss, professor of law at Brooklyn Law School and editor of REFinBlog.com.

In other words, if you suddenly find yourself unable to repay your home loan, your lender will eventually confiscate your property and sell it as a foreclosure to help it recoup its losses from lending you all that money.

Challenging Wrongful Foreclosures

photo by Oparvez

The California Supreme Court issued an opinion a few days ago that has been getting a lot of attention, Yvanova v. New Century Mortgage Corp., S218973 (Feb. 18, 2016). The opinion opens by noting that

The collapse in 2008 of the housing bubble and its accompanying system of home loan securitization led, among other consequences, to a great national wave of loan defaults and foreclosures. One key legal issue arising out of the collapse was whether and how defaulting homeowners could challenge the validity of the chain of assignments involved in securitization of their loans. (1)

The Court concludes that

a home loan borrower has standing to claim a nonjudicial foreclosure was wrongful because an assignment by which the foreclosing party purportedly took a beneficial interest in the deed of trust was not merely voidable but void, depriving the foreclosing party of any legitimate authority to order a trustee’s sale. (30)

First, let us be clear what it is NOT saying: “We do not hold or suggest that a borrower may attempt to preempt a threatened nonjudicial foreclosure by a suit questioning the foreclosing party’s right to proceed.” (2) This is an important distinction between challenging a nonjudicial foreclosure and having standing to bring a wrongful foreclosure tort action.

And let us be clear as to what it is saying: if a homeowner argues that that an assignment of a deed of trust is void, that can provide the basis for a wrongful foreclosure action because it “is no mere ‘procedural nicety,’ from a contractual point of view, to insist that only those with authority to foreclose on a borrower be permitted to do so.” (22) Quoting Adam Levitin, the Court finds that

“Such a view fundamentally misunderstands the mortgage contract. The mortgage contract is not simply an agreement that the home may be sold upon a default on the loan. Instead, it is an agreement that if the homeowner defaults on the loan, the mortgagee may sell the property pursuant to the requisite legal procedure.” (23, italics changed)

Sounds like common sense to me.

 

Outrage

photo by Dmitry Kalinin

A federal judge has held that a mortgage servicer committed “the tort of outrage when it charged attorney’s fees and costs to plaintiff’s mortgage account and refused to explain the charges upon request.” (1) Lucero v. Cenlar FSB, No. C13-0602RSL (W.D. Wash. Jan. 28, 2016) (Lasnik, J.) The case has an all-too-typical story of servicer misbehavior — the repeated phone calls that went nowhere, the absence of any servicer representative with actual knowledge of why the servicer was acting the way that it was, the unjustified fees that just kept compounding into five-figure nightmares.

The Court found that under Washington law,

The elements of the tort of outrage are “(1) extreme and outrageous conduct, (2) intentional or reckless infliction of emotional distress, and (3) severe emotional distress on the part of plaintiff.” Rice v. Janovich, 109 Wn.2d 48, 61 (1987). Based on the evidence submitted at trial, plaintiff has raised a reasonable inference and the Court finds that Cenlar, annoyed that plaintiff had sued it after obtaining a loan modification and looking for leverage to force her to abandon this litigation, adopted a strained and unprincipled analysis of the to justify the imposition of unpredictable and enormous charges directly onto plaintiff’s mortgage statements as “Amounts Due.” Cenlar, having reviewed plaintiff’s financial situation less than a year before and being fully aware that plaintiff was paying late charges every month, had no reason to believe that she could cope with these charges. Cenlar reasonably should have known (and was likely counting on the fact) that these charges would cause immense emotional distress, which they did. Cenlar compounded the distress by denying plaintiff information about these charges or the justification therefore. The first notice of the charges stated that they were charged “in keeping with Washington law.” This assertion is wholly unsupported: Cenlar’s witness acknowledges that the letter was a form into which the reference to “Washington law” was inserted simply because the loan originated in Washington. No Washington case law, statute, or regulation has been identified that authorize the charges levied against plaintiff’s mortgage account. When plaintiff requested information regarding the charges, she was ignored for months. Eventually various contract provisions were identified, and Cenlar asserted that it was simply keeping track of charges it might eventually seek to recover from plaintiff. Regardless of whether Cenlar was demanding immediate payment or was simply threatening to collect them in the future, the message was clear: continue this litigation and we will take your home. Such conduct is beyond the bounds of decency and is utterly intolerable. (14-15, footnotes omitted)

Decisions like this tend to give us a warm feeling in our stomach — justice has been done! But the truth is that for every case like this, there are thousands of homeowners who were severely mistreated and had to just take it on the chin. Federal regulation of the housing finance system should get to the point where these situations are the rare, rare exception. We have a long way to go.

 

HT Steve Morberg

LawProfs in MERS Litigation

The Legal Services Center of Harvard Law School (through Max Weinstein et al.); Melanie Leslie, Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law; Joseph William Singer, Harvard Law School; Rebecca Tushnet, Georgetown University Law Center and I filed an amicus brief  (also on SSRN) in County of Montgomery Recorder v. MERSCorp Inc, et al. (3rd Cir. No. 14-4315). The brief argues,

MERS represents a major departure from and grave disruption of recording practices in counties such as Montgomery County, Pennsylvania, that have traditionally ensured the orderly transfer of real property across the country. Prior to MERS, records of real property interests were public, transparent, and provided a secure foundation upon which the American economy could grow. MERS is a privately run recording system created to reduce costs for large investment banks, the “sell-side” of the mortgage industry, which is largely inaccessible to the public. MERS is recorded as the mortgage holder in traditional county records, as a “nominee” for the holder of the mortgage note. Meanwhile, the promissory note secured by the mortgage is pooled, securitized, and transferred multiple times, but MERS does not require that its members enter these transfers into its database. MERS is a system that is “grafted” onto the traditional recording system and could not exist without it, but it usurps the function of county recorders and eviscerates the system recorders are charged with maintaining.

The MERS system was modeled after the Depository Trust Company (DTC), an institution created to hold corporate and municipal securities, but, unlike the DTC, MERS has no statutory basis, nor is it regulated by the SEC. MERS’s lack of statutory grounding and oversight means that it has neither legal authority nor public accountability. By allowing its members to transfer mortgages from MERS to themselves without any evidence of ownership, MERS dispensed with the traditional requirement that purported assignees prove their relationship to the mortgagee of record with a complete chain of mortgage assignments, in order to foreclose. MERS thereby eliminated the rules that protected the rights of mortgage holders and homeowners. Surveys, government audits, reporting by public media, and court cases from across the country have revealed that MERS’s records are inaccurate, incomplete, and unreliable. Moreover, because MERS does not allow public access to its records, the full extent of its system’s destruction of chains of title and the clarity of entitlements to real property is not yet known.

Electronic and paper recording systems alike can contain errors and inconsistencies. Electronic systems have the potential to increase the accessibility and accuracy of public records, but MERS has not done this. Rather, by making recording of mortgage assignments voluntary, and cloaking its system in secrecy, it has introduced unprecedented and perhaps irreparable levels of opacity, inaccuracy, and incompleteness, wreaking havoc on the local title recording systems that have existed in America since colonial times. (2-3)

Arizona’s “Unholy” Foreclosure Mess

Professor Dale Whitman posted a commentary about Steinberger v. McVey ex rel. County of Maricopa, 2014 WL 333575 (Ariz. Court of Appeals, Jan. 30, 2014) on the Dirt listserv:

A defaulting borrower may defend against foreclosure on ground that the chain of assignments of the deed of trust is defective, and also on a variety of other theories.

The residential mortgage loan in this case was originally made in 2005 to Steinberger’s 87-year-old father, who died two years later, leaving her the property. By 2008, she was having difficulty making the payments, and asked IndyMac FSB to consider a loan modification. She was advised that she must first default, and she did so. There followed a period of more than two years during which she was “jerked around” by IndyMac, with successive promises to consider a loan modification, the setting of (and then vacating of) foreclosure dates, and assertions by IndyMac that she had not properly submitted all of the paperwork required for a modification.

In November 2010 she filed an action seeking a declaratory judgment that IndyMac had no authority to foreclose on the house, and upon filing a $7,000 bond, she obtained a TRO against foreclosure. The following summarizes the theories on which she obtained a favorable result.

1. Lack of a proper chain of title to the deed of trust. The Court of Appeals seems to have assumed that no foreclosure would be permissible without the foreclosing party having a chain of assignments from the originator of the loan. If one accepts this assumption, IndyMac was in trouble. The first assignment, made in 2009, was from MERS, acting as nominee of IndyMac Bank, to IndyMac Federal FSB, but it was made before IndyMac Federal FSB even existed!

A second assignment was made in 2010 by IndyMac Federal FSB to DBNTC, the trustee of a securitized trust. But Steinberger alleged that by this date, IndyMac Federal FSB no longer existed, so this assignment was void as well. She also made the familiar allegation that this assignment was too late to comply with the 90-day transfer period required by the trust’s Pooling and Servicing Agreement, but the court did not pursue this theory.

The court’s opinion is significant for its treatment of Hogan v. Wash. Mut. Sav. Bank, the 2012 case in which the Arizona Supreme Court held that “Arizona’s non-judicial foreclosure statutes do not require the beneficiary [of a deed of trust] to prove its authority.² The Court of Appeals, in Steinberger, read this statement to mean that the beneficiary need not prove its authority unless the borrower alleges a lack of authority in her complaint. There was no such allegation in Hogan, but there was in Steinberger. Hence, the Court of Appeals concluded that Steinberger could contest IndyMac’s right to foreclose. And it felt that Steinberger’s allegations about the defects in the chain of title to the deed of trust, if proven, could constitute a successful attack on IndyMac’s authority to foreclose.

It’s important to realize what the Court of Appeals did not do. It did not disagree with Hogan’s holding that the beneficiary need not show possession of the promissory note in order to foreclose. Several commentators (including me) have criticized Hogan for this holding, but the Steinberger opinion leaves it intact. Indeed, in Steinberger, the borrower raised no issue as to whether IndyMac had the note, and seems to have conceded that it did. The discussion focuses on the legitimacy of the chain of title to the deed of trust, not on possession of the note.

Is the court correct that a valid chain of title to the deed of trust is necessary to foreclose under Arizona law? As a general proposition, one would think not. Arizona not only has adopted the common law rule that the mortgage follows the note, but even has a statute saying so: Ariz. Rev. Stat.§ 33 817:  “The transfer of any contract or contracts secured by a trust deed shall operate as a transfer of the security for such contract or contracts.” So if the note is transferred, no separate assignment of the deed of trust would be needed at all. And a recent unreported Court of Appeals case, Varbel v. Bank of America Nat. Ass’n, 2013 WL 817290 (Ariz. App. 2013), quotes the Bankruptcy Court as reaching the same conclusion: In re Weisband, 427 B.R. 13, 22 (Bankr. D. Ariz. 2010) (“Arizona’s deed of trust statute does not require a beneficiary of a deed of trust to produce the underlying note (or its chain of assignment) in order to conduct a Trustee’s Sale.”).

By the way, that’s the rule with respect to mortgages in virtually every state. A chain of assignments, recorded or not, is completely unnecessary to proof of the right to foreclose. The power to foreclose comes from having the right to enforce the note, not from having a chain of assignments of the mortgage or deed of trust.

However, since Hogan has told us that no showing of holding the note is necessary in order to foreclose, what is necessary? It defies common sense to suppose that a party can foreclose a deed of trust in Arizona without at least alleging some connection to the original loan documents. If that allegation is not that one holds the note, perhaps it must be the allegation that one has a chain of assignments of the deed of trust. If this is true, then the opinion in Steinberger, written on the assumption that the assignments must be valid ones, makes sense.

The ultimate problem here is the weakness of the foreclosure statute itself. Ariz. Stat. 33-807 provides, “The beneficiary or trustee shall constitute the proper and complete party plaintiff in any action to foreclose a deed of trust.” Fine, but when the loan has been sold on the secondary market, who is the “beneficiary?” The statute simply doesn’t say. The normal answer would be the party to whom the right to enforce the note has been transferred, but Hogan seems to have deprived us of that answer. An alternative answer (though one that forces us to disregard the theory that the mortgage follows the note) is to say that the “beneficiary” is now the party to whom the deed of trust has been assigned. But the Arizona courts don’t seem to be willing to come out and say that forthrightly, either. Instead, as in the Steinberger opinion, it’s an unstated assumption.

As Wilson Freyermuth put it, after graciously reading an earlier version of this comment, “The Steinberger court couldn’t accept the fact that a lender could literally foreclose with no connection to the loan documents — so if Hogan says the note is irrelevant, well then it has to be the deed of trust (which would presumably then require proof of a chain of assignments).  It’s totally backwards — right through the looking glass.  And totally inconsistent with Ariz. Stat. 33-817.”

To say that this is an unsatisfactory situation is an understatement; it’s an unholy mess. The statute was written with no recognition that any such thing as the secondary mortgage market exists, and the Arizona courts have utterly failed to reinterpret the statute in a way that makes sense. It’s sad, indeed.

There are a number of other theories in the Steinberger opinion on which the borrower prevailed. Some of these are quite striking, and should give a good deal of comfort to foreclosure defense counsel. In quick summary form, they are:

2. The tort of negligent performance of an undertaking (the “Good Samaritan” tort). This applies, apparently, to IndyMac’s incompetent and vacillating administration of its loan modification program.

3. Negligence per se, in IndyMac’s recording of defective assignments of the deed of trust in violation of the Arizona statute criminalizing the recording of a false or forged legal instrument.

4. Breach of contract, in IndyMac’s failure to follow the procedures set out in the deed of trust in pursuing its foreclosure.

5. Procedural unconscionability, in IndyMac’s making the original loan to her elderly father without explaining its unusual and onerous terms, particularly in light of his failing mental health.

6. Substantive unconscionability, based on the terms of the loan itself. It was an ARM with an initial interest rate of 1%, but which could be (and apparently was) adjusted upward in each succeeding month. This resulted in an initial period of negative amortization, and once the amortization cap was reached, a large and rapid increase in monthly payments. At the same time, some of Steinberger’s other theories were rejected, including an argument that, because IndyMac had intentionally destroyed the note, it had cancelled the debt. The court concluded that, in the absence of proof of intent to cancel the debt, it remained collectible.

 

 

U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Texas Rules in Favor of MERS in Foreclosure Proceeding, Upholding its Power of Sale Over the Plaintiff’s Property

In Richardson v. Citimortgage, No. 6:10cv119, 2010 WL 4818556, at 1-6 (E.D. Tex. November 22, 2010) the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Texas, Tyler Division, granted the Defendants’, Citimortgage and MERS, motion for summary judgment against the Plaintiff, Richardson, in a foreclosure proceeding. The Court reiterated MERS’s power of sale and its role as an “electronic registration system and clearinghouse that tracks beneficial ownerships in mortgage loans.”

Plaintiff purchased his home from Southside Bank with a Note. As the Lender, Southside Bank could transfer the Note and it, or any transferee, could collect payments as the Note Holder. In the agreement, Plaintiff acknowledged that Citimortgage, the loan servicer, could also receive payments. A Deed of Trust secured the Note by a lien payable to the Lender.

Under a provision in the deed, Southside Bank secured repayment of the Loan and Plaintiff irrevocably granted and conveyed the power of sale over the property. The Deed of Trust also explained MERS’s role as its beneficiary, acting as nominee for the Lender and Lender’s and MERS’s successors and assigns. MERS “[held] only legal title to the interests granted by the Borrower but, if necessary to comply with law or custom, [had] the right to exercise any and all of the interests [of the Lender and its successors and assigns], including the right to foreclose and sell the property.”

Plaintiff signed the Deed of Trust but eventually stopped making mortgage payments to CitiMortgage and filed for bankruptcy protection. As a result, “MERS assigned the beneficial interest in the Deed of Trust to Citimortgage.” Citimortgage posted the property for foreclosure after receiving authorization from the United States Bankruptcy Court. Plaintiff brought suit, seeking declaratory and injunctive relief and challenging Citimortgage’s authority to foreclose on the property.

In granting Citimortgage and MERS’s motion for summary judgment, the court explained that Citimortgage could enforce the loan agreements, including the power of foreclosure, after it received the Note from Southside Bank. Furthermore, under the doctrine of judicial estoppel, Plaintiff could not challenge Citimortgage’s right to enforce the Note after he “represented that it was [his] intention to surrender [the] property to Citimortgage,” in bankruptcy court. Citimortgage subsequently acquired a “valid, undisputed lien on the property for the remaining balance of the Note.”

Plaintiff also challenged MERS’s role with “respect to the enforcement of the Note and Deed of Trust.” In response, the court explained that “[u]nder Texas law, where a deed of trust expressly provides for MERS to have the power of sale, as here, MERS has the power of sale,” and that the Plaintiff’s argument lacked merit.

The court described MERS as a “[book entry system] designed to track transfers and avoid recording and other transfer fees that are otherwise associated with,” property sales. It concluded that MERS’s role in the instant foreclosure “was consistent with the Note and the Deed of Trust,” and that Citimortgage had the right to sell the Plaintiff’s property and schedule another foreclosure.