Possession of Note Confers Standing to Foreclose

Jupiter.Aurora.HST.UV

Dale Whitman posted this discussion of Aurora Loan Services, LLC v. Taylor, 2015 WL 3616293 (N.Y. Ct. App., June 11, 2015) on the DIRT listserv:

There is nothing even slightly surprising about this decision, except that it sweeps away a lot of confused and irrelevant language found in decisions of the Appellate Division over the years. The court held simply holds (like nearly all courts that have considered the issue in recent years) that standing to foreclose a mortgage is conferred by having possession of the promissory note. Neither possession of the mortgage itself nor any assignment of the mortgage is necessary. “[T]he note was transferred to [the servicer] before the commencement of the foreclosure action — that is what matters.” And once a note is transferred, … “the mortgage passes as an incident to the note.” Here, there was a mortgage assignment, the validity of which the borrower attacked, but the attack made no difference; “The validity of the August 2009 assignment of the mortgage is irrelevant to [the servicer’s] standing.”

The opinion in Aurora makes it clear that prior Appellate Division statements are simply incorrect and confused when they suggest that standing would be conferred by an assignment of the mortgage without delivery of the note. See, e.g., GRP Loan LLC v. Taylor 95 A.D.3d at 1174, 945 N.Y.S.2d 336; Deutsche Bank Trust Co. v. Codio, 94 A.D.3d 1040, 1041, 943 N.Y.S.2d 545 [2d Dept 2012].) For an excellent analysis of why these decisions are wrong, see Bank of New York Mellon v. Deane, 970 N.Y.S.2d 427  (N.Y. Sup. Ct. 2013).

The Aurora decision implicitly rejects such cases as Erobobo, which suppose that the failure to comply with a Pooling and Servicing Agreement would somehow prevent the servicer from foreclosing. In the present case, the loan was securitized in 2006, but the note was delivered to the servicer on May 20, 2010, only four days before filing the foreclosure action. This presented no problem at all the court. If the servicer had possession at the time of the filing of the case (as it did), it had standing. (I must concede, however, that the rejection is only implicit, since the Erobobo theory was not argued in Aurora.)

If there is a weakness in the Aurora decision, it is its failure to determine whether the note was negotiable, and (assuming it was) to analyze the application UCC Article 3’s “person entitled to enforce” language. But this is not much of a criticism, since it is very likely that under New York law, the right to enforce would be transferred by delivery of the note to the servicer even if the note were nonnegotiable.

It has taken the Court of Appeals a long time to get around to cleaning up this area of the law, but its work is exactly on target.

Whitman on Foreclosing on E-Note

Professor Dale Whitman posted a commentary on Good v. Wells Fargo Bank, 18 N.E.3d  618 (Ind. App. 2014) on the Dirt listserv. The case addresses whether a lender foreclosing a mortgage securing an electronic note must provide proof that it had “control” of the note when it filed the foreclosure action. This is an interesting new take on an old issue. Dale’s commentary reads:

By now, everyone is familiar with the requirements of UCC Article 3 with respect to enforcement of negotiable notes. Article 3 requires either proof that the party enforcing the note has possession of the original note, or as an alternative, requires submission of a lost note affidavit. With conventional paper notes, it has become common for courts in judicial foreclosure states to require, as a condition of standing to foreclose, that the note holder or its servicer have had possession of the note on the date the foreclosure complaint or petition was filed. This requirement is problematic if (as is often true) the endorsement on the note is undated. In such cases, the servicer will usually be expected to provide additional proof (commonly in the form of affidavits of employees of the holder and/or servicer) that the note had been delivered to the foreclosing party before the date of filing of the action. See, e.g., Deutsche Bank N.T. v. Beneficial New Mexico, Inc., 335 P.3d 217 (N.M. App. 2014); Boyd v. Wells Fargo Bank, N.A., 143 So.3d 1128 (Fla.App. 2014); U.S. Bank, N.A. v. Faruque, 991 N.Y.S.2d 630 (N.Y.App.Div. 2014).

Suppose, however, that the note was electronic rather than paper. Such notes are enforceable under eSign and UETA, but these statutes modify the concepts of delivery and possession. Because an electronic note can be reproduced as many times as desired, and each copy is indistinguishable from the original, eSign creates the concept of the note as a “transferrable record.” Such records must have the following characteristics:

1.  The record must be held within a system in which “a single authoritative copy of the record (the note) exists, which is unique, identifiable, and unalterable.”

2.  To have the equivalent of possession of such a note, if it has been transferred, a person must have “control” in the sense that the system for tracking such notes must reliably establish that the person enforcing the note is the one to whom the record was transferred.

3.  Finally, if the record has been transferred, the authoritative copy of the record itself must indicate the identity of the person who whom it was most recently transferred.

See 15 U.S.C. sec. 7021.

There are very few cases thus far involving foreclosures of mortgages securing e-notes, and little authority on exactly what the holder must prove in order to properly foreclose. In the Good case Wells Fargo was acting as servicer for Fannie Mae, the holder of an e-note that was registered in the MERS e-registry. (MERS’ role with e-notes is very different than for paper notes. In paper note transactions, MERS does not take possession of the note and has no dealings with it, but in e-note transactions, MERS operates a registry to track who has control of the note.)

Accompanying its foreclosure complaint, Wells filed an affidavit by one of its officers, stating that Wells was the servicer, that it maintained a copy of the note, and that its systems provided controls to assure that each note was maintained accurately and protected against alteration. Finally, it stated that the paper copy it submitted with the foreclosure complaint was a true and correct copy of the original e-note.

Unfortunately for Wells, the court found that this affidavit was woefully inadequate to establish Wells’ standing to foreclose the mortgage. Here is the court’s list of particulars:

1.  The affidavit stated that Wells possessed the note, but the court couldn’t tell whether it meant the electronic note or a paper copy.

2.  The affidavit did not assert that Wells had “control” of the record, either by maintaining the single authoritative copy itself in its own system, or by being identified as having control of the single authoritative copy in the MERS registry system.

3.  In fact, Wells never even mentioned the MERS registry system in its affidavit, even though it is obvious from the facts that the note was being tracked within that system.

Wells tried to repair the damage at trial; an employee of Wells testified that Wells was in control of the note, currently maintained it, and serviced the loan. But the court found that this testimony was “conclusory” (as indeed it was) and was insufficient to establish that Wells had control of the note.

Comment: The court provides an extremely useful road map for counsel representing a servicer in the judicial foreclosure of a e-note. The statute itself provides (in 15 U.S.C. 7021(f)) that the person enforcing the note must provide “reasonable proof” that it was in control of the note, and the court felt this must be detailed information and not merely a bare statement.

While the case involved a judicial foreclosure, one might well ask how the “reasonable proof” requirement would be satisfied in a nonjudicial foreclosure. In about eight states, the courts have held (with paper notes) that their nonjudicial foreclosure statutes do not require any assertion or proof of possession of the note. But it is arguable that, if the note is electronic rather than paper, eSign overrides this conclusion by virtue of its express requirement of “reasonable proof.” And since eSign is a federal statute, it is quite capable of preempting any contrary state legislation.  On the other hand, the “reasonable proof” requirement only applies “if requested by a person against which enforcement is sought.” In a nonjudicial foreclosure proceeding, how would the borrower make such a request? These are interesting, but highly speculative questions.

Is Freddie the “Government” When It’s In Conservatorship?

Professor Dale Whitman posted a commentary on Federal Home Loan Mortgage Corp. v. Kelley, 2014 WL 4232687, Michigan Court of Appeals (No. 315082, rev. op., Aug. 26, 2014)  on the Dirt listserv:

This is a residential mortgage foreclosure case. The original foreclosure by CMI (CitiMortgage, apparently Freddie Mac’s servicer) was by “advertisement” – i.e., pursuant to the Michigan nonjudicial foreclosure statute. Freddie was the successful bidder at the foreclosure sale. In a subsequent action to evict the borrowers, they raised two defenses.

Their first defense was based on the argument that, even though Freddie Mac was concededly a nongovernmental entity prior to it’s being placed into conservatorship in 2008 (see American Bankers Mortgage Corp v. Fed Home Loan Mortgage Corp, 75 F3d 1401, 1406–1409 (9th Cir. 1996)), it had become a federal agency by virtue of the conservatorship with FHFA as conservator. As such, it was required to comply with Due Process in foreclosing, and the borrowers argued that the Michigan nonjudicial foreclosure procedure did not afford due process.

The court rejected this argument, as has every court that has considered it. The test for federal agency status is found in Lebron v. Nat’l Railroad Passenger Corp, 513 U.S. 374, 377; 115 S Ct 961; 130 L.Ed.2d 902 (1995), which involved Amtrak. Amtrak was found to be a governmental body, in part because the control of the government was permanent. The court noted, however, that FHFA’s control of Freddie, while open-ended and continuing, was not intended to be permanent. Hence, Freddie was not a governmental entity and was not required to conform to Due Process standards in foreclosing mortgages. This may seem overly simplistic, but that’s the way the court analyzed it.

There’s no surprise here. For other cases reaching the same result, see U.S. ex rel. Adams v. Wells Fargo Bank Nat. Ass’n, 2013 WL 6506732 (D. Nev. 2013) (in light of the GSEs’ lack of federal instrumentality status while in conservatorship, homeowners who failed to pay association dues to the GSEs could not be charged with violating the federal False Claims Act); Herron v. Fannie Mae, 857 F. Supp. 2d 87 (D.D.C. 2012) (Fannie Mae, while in conservatorship, is not a federal agency for purposes of a wrongful discharge claim); In re Kapla, 485 B.R. 136 (Bankr. E.D. Mich. 2012), aff’d, 2014 WL 346019 (E.D. Mich. 2014) (Fannie Mae, while in conservatorship, is not a “governmental actor” subject to Due Process Clause for purposes of foreclosure); May v. Wells Fargo Bank, N.A., 2013 WL 3207511 (S.D. Tex. 2013) (same); In re Hermiz, 2013 WL 3353928 (E.D. Mich. 2013) (same, Freddie Mac).

There’s a potential issue that the court didn’t ever reach. Assume that a purely federal agency holds a mortgage, and transfers it to its servicer (a private entity) to foreclose. Does Due Process apply? The agency is still calling the shots, but the private servicer is the party whose name is on the foreclosure. Don’t you think that’s an interesting question?

The borrowers’ second defense was that Michigan statutes require a recorded chain of mortgage assignments in order to foreclose nonjudicially. See Mich. Comp. L. 600.3204(3). In this case the mortgage had been held by ABN-AMRO, which had been merged with CMI (CitiMortgage), the foreclosing entity. No assignment of the mortgage had been recorded in connection with the merger. However, the court was not impressed with this argument either. It noted that the Michigan Supreme Court in Kim v JP Morgan Chase Bank, NA, 493 Mich 98, 115-116; 825 NW2d 329 (2012), had stated

to set aside the foreclosure sale, plaintiffs must show that they were prejudiced by defendant’s failure to comply with MCL 600.3204. To demonstrate such prejudice, they must show they would have been in a better position to preserve their interest in the property absent defendant’s noncompliance with the statute.

The court found that the borrowers were not prejudiced by the failure to record an assignment in connection with the corporate merger, and hence could not set the sale aside.

But this holding raises an interesting issue: When is failure to record a mortgage assignment ever prejudicial to the borrower? One can conceive of such a case, but it’s pretty improbable. Suppose the borrowers want to seek a loan modification, and to do so, check the public records in Michigan to find out to whom their loan has been assigned. However, no assignment is recorded, and when they check with the originating lender, they are stonewalled. Are they prejudiced?

Well, not if it’s a MERS loan, since they can quickly find out who holds the loan by querying the MERS web site. (True, the MERS records might possibly be wrong, but they’re correct in the vast majority of cases.) And then there’s the fact that federal law requires written, mailed notification to the borrowers of both any change in servicing and any sale of the loan itself. If they received these notices (which are mandatory), there’s no prejudice to them in not being able to find the same information in the county real estate records.

So one can postulate a case in which failure to record an assignment is prejudicial to the borrowers, but it’s extremely improbable. The truth is that checking the public records is a terrible way to find out who holds your loan. Moreover, Michigan requires recording of assignments only for a nonjudicial foreclosure; a person with the right to enforce the promissory note can foreclose the mortgage judicially whether there’s a chain of assignments or not.

All in all, the statutory requirement to record a chain of assignments is pretty meaningless to everybody involved – a fact that the Michigan courts recognize implicitly by their requirement that the borrower show prejudice in order to set a foreclosure sale aside on this ground.

Whitman on Servicer Lies

Professor Dale Whitman posted a commentary on Quintana v. Bank of America, No. CV 11–2301–PHX, 2014 WL 690906 (D.Ariz. Feb. 24, 2014) (not reported in F.Supp.2d) on the Dirt listserv:

Synopsis: A borrowers who is “jerked around” by a mortgage servicer may have claims in fraud or on other theories.

Karoly Quintana’s home mortgage loan was serviced by Bank of America, When she began having difficulty making her payments in 2009, she was told by B of A that she would have to miss three payments to be considered for a loan modification, and that the servicer would forbear foreclosure while it did so. She missed the payments and applied for a modification, but (she alleged) B of A did not consider it, and instead accelerated her loan and commenced foreclosure.

Quintana filed a suit in federal court to stop the foreclosure. In March 2012 the suit was dismissed voluntarily on the assurance that B of A would again consider a loan modification, but again it did not do so. (Oddly, B of A’s counsel conceded these facts.)

The court held that the allegations of both the 2009 and 2012 conduct of B of A stated claims of fraud, sufficient to withstand a motion to dismiss. The statements that she would be considered for a modification were false, she relied upon them, and was damaged. Her damages were the expenditure of additional attorney’s fees, and the court found this sufficient, even though in general attorneys’ fees are not recoverable in a fraud action.

The court also held that the plaintiff’s count for breach of the implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing survived a motion to dismiss. While the loan documents did not require the servicer to consider the mortgage modification or to forbear foreclosure, when it promised to do so and then did not, it breached the implied covenant. The promise was only oral, and B of A asserted it was inadmissible under the Statute of Frauds, but the court found that Quintana’s detrimental reliance (in missing the payments) provided a basis for promissory estoppel, overcoming the Statute of Frauds defense.

However, the court dismissed Quintana’s claim under the Arizona Consumer Fraud Act (on the ground that it was barred by the 1-year statute of limitations). There’s a convoluted argument about whether B of A can be liable under the FDCPA, but the court ultimately refused to dismiss that claim.

Comment: Borrowers have often tried to claim that they should have received loan modifications, but have not in fact received them. In general, of course, there’s no legal right to a modification. But this court holds that a false promise to consider a modification is enough to make out a claim of fraud.

Laches Upends Priority of Mortgagee in Utah

Professor Wilson Freyermuth posted this summary of the Utah Supreme Court’s opinion, Insight Assets, Inc. v. Farias, ___ P.3d ___, 2013 WL 3990783 (August 6, 2013), to the DIRT listserv:

Synposis:   Although vendor purchase money mortgagee may generally have a superior claim to priority over a third-party purchase money mortgagee under the Restatement, vendor purchase money mortgagee was barred from asserting that priority by the doctrine of laches.

Facts:  In 2004, the Phalens sold land in Ogden, Utah to the Boecks for $88,000.  The Boecks financed the purchase with a $70,300 institutional mortgage loan from First Franklin Financial Corp. (First Franklin) and $17,600 in seller purchase money mortgage financing from the Phalens.  At closing, the Boecks executed deeds of trust to First Franklin and the Phelans.  After closing, the title company recorded the two deeds of trust together, but with First Franklin’s deed of trust being recorded first.  First Franklin later assigned its mortgage to Wells Fargo.

After closing, the Boecks defaulted to both Bank and to Sellers.  In June 2005, Wells Fargo foreclosed on the property and acquired the property by a trustee’s deed.  The Phelans did not attempt to foreclose on the property.  Wells Fargo sold the property, which ultimately passed by intervening conveyances to Farias.

In 2009, the Phelans assigned their interest under their deed of trust to Insight Assets (“Insight”), who executed a substitution of trustee, recorded a notice of default, and instituted foreclosure proceedings.  Farias sought summary judgment, claiming that he had held free and clear title as a bona fide purchaser.  The district court entered judgment for Farias, and Insight appealed.

On appeal to the Utah Supreme Court, Insight argued that as a matter of law, the Phelans’ seller deed of trust was entitled to priority over First Franklin’s deed of trust under Restatement (Third) of Property — Mortgages § 7.2(c) (“A purchase money mortgage given to a vendor of real estate, in the absence of a contrary intent of the parties to it and subject to the operation of the recording acts, has priority over a purchase money mortgage on that real estate given to a person who is not its vendor.”).  By contrast, Farias made three arguments:  (1) that First Franklin did not know of the Phelans’ seller purchase money mortgage and thus the Restatement rule should not apply; (2) that even if First Franklin did know of the seller purchase money mortgage, that knowledge was irrelevant because Farias was a bona fide purchaser who took free and clear of the mortgage; and (3) that Insight’s claims was otherwise barred by the doctrine of laches.

Analysis:  The Supreme Court of Utah rejected Farias’s bona fide purchase argument, noting (correctly and obviously) that the recording act cannot protect Farias against a prior properly-recorded mortgage.  The Court also noted that while the Restatement rule generally gives a vendor purchase money mortgage priority over a third-party purchase money mortgage, that rule was subject to a caveat — “where only one of the parties has notice of the other,” the recording acts should govern and award priority to the party lacking notice.

Insight argued that its vendor purchase money mortgage should still prevail, because (a) First Franklin had actual knowledge of the Phelans’ seller purchase money mortgage and (b) the title company’s knowledge of the Phelans’ seller purchase money mortgage was imputed to First Franklin.  The court did not reach this argument, however, concluding that Insight’s priority claim was barred under the equitable doctrine of laches. Although Insight did file its notice of default within the applicable six-year statute of limitations, the court stated that this did not preclude the possible application of laches.  The court concluded that application of laches was appropriate due to the Phelans’ lack of diligence and Farias’s resulting injury.  The court noted that during the five years between the Boecks’ default and the Phelans’ assignment to Insight, the Phelans “took no action to clarify or assert their rights to the property.” The court held that this was inaction unreasonable because the Restatement rule involves a “multi-factor balancing test under which priority is determined by ‘the circumstances of the given case, the equities, and the effect of the recording act.’” Thus, in the court’s view, the Phelans “could not have rationally assumed that their interest had priority” without having brought an action to establish that priority.  By failing to bring such a claim during the Wells Fargo foreclosure proceedings, the Phelans “risked forfeiting their security interest entirely.”

The court also concluded that Farias would be injured if Insight’s untimely claim was allowed to proceed, noting that Farias had negotiated the price for his home without considering the $17,600 debt owed to Insight and that when Farias purchased the home years after the Phelans’ default, “it was reasonable for him to infer from [their] inaction that their security interest had been extinguished” by the Wells Fargo foreclosure.  The court also noted that the passage of time had harmed Farias by making it difficult to gather evidence in his defense, as First Franklin was now out of business (making it difficult for Farias to locate records or former employees who might have information relevant to the question of First Franklin’s knowledge).

Comment:  This is the second 2013 periodic development involving a case where the title company recorded a third-party purchase money mortgage prior to a vendor purchase money mortgage.  In the earlier case, Insight LLC v. Gunter, the Idaho Supreme Court rejected the Restatement rule and held that the third-party mortgage had priority under the recording act.  As noted in the critique of Gunter, http://dirt.umkc.edu/February%202013/InsightLLCvGunter.pdf, that decision wrongly opened the door for purchase money lenders to structure closings in a fashion likely to disadvantage the unsuspecting purchase money seller, particularly where the purchase money lender knew of the purchase money seller and could have easily required a subordination agreement as a condition of making the purchase money loan.  Gratifyingly, the Utah court rejected the reasoning of Gunter, noting that the Restatement rule is the appropriate starting principle for vendor vs. third party lender purchase money priority disputes.

The Utah court’s judgment regarding the application of laches is harder to evaluate without the ability to review the factual record in greater detail.  On the one hand, the court is correct to note that because the Restatement rule is subject to the application of the recording act if the third party mortgagee lacks notice of the vendor mortgagee (or vice-versa), then the Phelans couldn’t be certain of their priority over First Franklin without a court decree.  On the other hand, Farias’s actions also seem similarly unreasonable.  Because the Phelans’ mortgage was recorded (and could have been entitled to priority over the First Franklin mortgage), Farias also couldn’t have been certain he was getting clear title without a court decree.  It’s not obvious where the equities lie here.