Hope for GSE Shareholders

Judge Lamberth issued an opinion in Fairholme Funds, Inc. v. FHFA (Civ. No.13-1439) (Sept. 28, 2018) that gives some hope to the private shareholders of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. These shareholders have been on the losing end of nearly every case brought against the government relating to its handling of the conservatorships of the two companies.  Readers of this blog know that I have long been a skeptic of the shareholders’ claims because of the broad powers granted the government by the Housing and Economic Recovery Act of 2008, passed during the height of the financial crisis, as well as the highly regulated environment in which the two companies operate. This highly regulated environment means that GSE profits are driven by regulatory decisions much more than those of other financial institutions. As such, Fannie and Freddie live and die by the sword of government intervention in the mortgage market.

Judge Lamberth had dismissed the plaintiffs’ claims in their entirety, but was reversed in part on appeal. In this case, he revisits the issues arising from the reversal of his earlier dismissal. Once again, Judge Lamberth dismisses a number of the plaintiffs’ claims, but he finds that that their claim that the government breached the duty of good faith survives.

The opinion gives a road map that shareholders can follow to success. The judge identifies allegations that, if true, would be a sufficient factual basis for a holding that the government breached the implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing. It is plausible that the preponderance of proof may support these allegations. Some evidence has already come to light that indicates that at least some government actors had good reason to believe that Fannie and Freddie were on the cusp of sustained profitability when the government implemented the net worth sweep. The net worth sweep had redirected the net profits of the two companies to the U.S. Treasury.

Judge Lamberth highlights some of aspects of the plaintiffs’ argument that he found compelling at the motion to dismiss phase of this litigation. First, he notes that absence of “any increased funding commitment” is atypical when senior shareholders receive “enhanced disbursement rights,” as was the case when the government implemented the net worth sweep. (21) He also states that the plaintiffs would not have expected that the GSEs would have extinguished “the possibility of dividends arbitrarily or unreasonably.” (22)

While this opinion is good news for the plaintiffs, it is still unclear what their endgame would be if they were to get a final judgment that the net worth sweep was invalid. Depending on the outcome of regulatory and legislative debates about the future of the two companies, the win may be a pyrrhic one. Time will tell. In the interim, expect more discovery battles, motions for summary judgment and even a trial in this case. So, while this opinion gives shareholders some hope of ultimate success, and perhaps some leverage in political and regulatory debates, I do not see it as a game changer in itself.

In terms of the bigger picture, there are a lot of changes on the horizon regarding the future of the housing finance system. The midterm elections; Hensarling and Corker’s departure from Congress; and the Trump Administration’s priorities are all bigger drivers of the housing finance reform train, at least for now.

Holding Servicers Accountable

image by Rizkyharis

I submitted my comment to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau regarding the 2013 RESPA Servicing Rule Assessment. It reads, substantively, as follows:

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau issued a Request for Information Regarding 2013 Real Estate Settlement Procedures Act Servicing Rule Assessment. The Bureau

is conducting an assessment of the Mortgage Servicing Rules Under the Real Estate Settlement Procedures Act (Regulation X), as amended prior to January 10, 2014, in accordance with section 1022(d) of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act. The Bureau is requesting public comment on its plans for assessing this rule as well as certain recommendations and information that may be useful in conducting the planned assessment. (82 F.R. 21952)

Before the RESPA Servicing Rule was adopted in 2013, homeowners had had to deal with unresponsive servicers who acted in ways that can only be described as arbitrary and capricious or worse.  Numerous judges have used terms such as “Kafka-esque” to describe homeowner’s dealings with servicers.  See, e.g., Sundquist v. Bank of Am., N.A., 566 B.R. 563 (Bankr. E.D. Cal. Mar. 23, 2017).  Others have found that servicers failed to act in “good faith,” even when courts were closely monitoring their actions.  See, e,g., United States Bank v. Sawyer, 95 A.3d 608  (Me. 2014). And yet others have found that servicers made multiple misrepresentations to homeowners.  See, e.g., Federal Natl. Mtge. Assn. v. Singer, 48 Misc. 3d 1211(A), 20 N.Y.S.3d 291 (N.Y. Sup. Ct. July 15, 2015).  The good news is that in those three cases, judges punished the servicers and lenders for their patterns of abuse of the homeowners. Indeed, the Sundquist judge fined Bank of America a whopping $45 million to send it a message about its horrible treatment of borrowers.

But a fairy tale ending for a handful of borrowers who are lucky enough to have a good lawyer with the resources to fully litigate one of these crazy cases is not a solution for the thousands upon thousands of borrowers who had to give up because they did not have the resources, patience, or mental fortitude to take on big lenders and servicers who were happy to drag these matters on for years and years through court proceeding after court proceeding.

The RESPA Servicing Rule goes a long way to help all of those other homeowners who find themselves caught up in trials imposed by their servicers that it would take a Franz Kafka to adequately describe.  The Rule has addressed intentional and unintentional abuses in the use of force-placed insurance and other servicer actions.

The RESPA Servicing Rule Assessment should evaluate whether the Rule is sufficiently evaluating servicers’ compliance with the Rule and implementing remediation plans for those which fail to comply with the vast majority of loans in their portfolios.  Servicers should not be evaluated just on substantive outcomes but also on their processes.  Are avoidable foreclosures avoided?  Are homeowners treated with basic good faith when it comes to interactions with servicers relating to defaults, loss mitigation and transfers of servicing rights?  The Assessment should evaluate whether the Rule adequately measures such things.  One measure the Bureau could look at would be court cases involving servicers and homeowners.  While perhaps difficult to do, the Bureau should attempt to measure the Rule’s impact on court filings alleging servicer abuses.

The occasional win in court won’t save the vast majority of homeowners from abusive lending practices.  The RESPA Servicing Rule, properly applied and evaluated, could.

 

Understanding The Ability To Repay Rule

photo by http://401kcalculator.org

The Spring 2017 edition of the Consumer Financial Bureau’s Supervisory Highlights contains “Observations and approach to compliance with the Ability to Repay (ATR) rule requirements. The ability to repay rule is intended to keep lenders from making and borrowers from taking on unsustainable mortgages, mortgages with payments that borrowers cannot reliably make.  By way of background,

Prior to the mortgage crisis, some creditors offered consumers mortgages without considering the consumer’s ability to repay the loan, at times engaging in the loose underwriting practice of failing to verify the consumer’s debts or income. The Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act (Dodd-Frank Act) amended the Truth in Lending Act (TILA) to provide that no creditor may make a residential mortgage loan unless the creditor makes a reasonable and good faith determination based on verified and documented information that, at the time the loan is consummated, the consumer has a reasonable ability to repay the loan according to its terms, as well as all applicable taxes, insurance (including mortgage guarantee insurance), and assessments. The Dodd-Frank Act also amended TILA by creating a presumption of compliance with these ability-to-repay (ATR) requirements for creditors originating a specific category of loans called “qualified mortgage” (QM) loans. (3-4, footnotes omitted)

Fundamentally, the Bureau seeks to determine “whether a creditor’s ATR determination is reasonable and in good faith by reviewing relevant lending policies and procedures and a sample of loan files and assessing the facts and circumstances of each extension of credit in the sample.” (4)

The ability to repay analysis does not focus solely on income, it also looks at assets that are available to repay the mortgage:

a creditor may base its determination of ability to repay on current or reasonably expected income from employment or other sources, assets other than the dwelling (and any attached real property) that secures the covered transaction, or both. The income and/or assets relied upon must be verified. In situations where a creditor makes an ATR determination that relies on assets and not income, CFPB examiners would evaluate whether the creditor reasonably and in good faith determined that the consumer’s verified assets suffice to establish the consumer’s ability to repay the loan according to its terms, in light of the creditor’s consideration of other required ATR factors, including: the consumer’s mortgage payment(s) on the covered transaction, monthly payments on any simultaneous loan that the creditor knows or has reason to know will be made, monthly mortgage-related obligations, other monthly debt obligations, alimony and child support, monthly DTI ratio or residual income, and credit history. In considering these factors, a creditor relying on assets and not income could, for example, assume income is zero and properly determine that no income is necessary to make a reasonable determination of the consumer’s ability to repay the loan in light of the consumer’s verified assets. (6-7)

That being said, the Bureau reiterates that “a down payment cannot be treated as an asset for purposes of considering the consumer’s income or assets under the ATR rule.” (7)

The ability to repay rule protects lenders and borrowers from themselves. While some argue that this is paternalistic, we do not need to go much farther back than the early 2000s to find an era where so-called “equity-based” lending pushed many people on fixed incomes into default and foreclosure.

Mnuchin, When No One Is Watching

Alexander Hamilton

My latest column for The Hill is Hamilton Acted in Good Faith. Will Steven Mnuchin Do The Same? It reads:

UCLA’s legendary basketball coach John Wooden famously said, “The true test of a man’s character is what he does when no one is watching.”

Steven Mnuchin, another leading citizen of Los Angeles, is now in the spotlight as President-elect Donald Trump’s nominee to lead the U.S. Department of the Treasury.

Running the Treasury Department requires financial know-how, which this former Goldman Sachs banker has in spades. But it also requires character, as a large part of the Treasury secretary’s job is to embody the good faith that the American people want the rest of the world to have in us.

In Alexander Hamilton’s Report Relative to a Provision for the Support of Public Credit, written just after he became the first U.S. Treasury secretary, he notes that the government must maintain public credit “by good faith, by a punctual performance of contracts. States, like individuals, who observe their engagements, are respected and trusted, while the reverse is the fate of those, who pursue an opposite conduct.”

OneWest’s actions during Mnuchin’s tenure as chief executive officer raise questions about whether Mnuchin has demonstrated the character necessary to be a worthy successor to Hamilton.

A recently disclosed memo by lawyers at California’s Office of the Attorney General documents a pattern of bad faith toward homeowners with OneWest mortgages. The memo documents evidence of widespread wrongdoing that helped the bank and hurt the homeowners. The evidence includes the backdating of notarized and recorded documents in 99.6 percent of the examined mortgage files and unlawful credit bids and substitutions of trustees in 16.0 percent of those files.

These are not merely technical violations. They shortened the time that homeowners had to get their mortgages back in good standing and they violated a number of procedural protections for homeowners facing non-judicial foreclosures.

Non-judicial foreclosures give lenders the ability to bypass the courts so long as they strictly abide by the procedural protections set forth by statute. Non-judicial foreclosures can only maintain their legitimacy if lenders respect those procedural protections. This is because there is no judge to make sure that the procedural protections are being adhered to. Without them, a homeowner can be no more than a sheep being led to the financial slaughterhouse of an improper foreclosure.

Some bankers have argued that focusing on violations of mortgage terms is overly legalistic, and beside the point given the widespread defaults during the financial crisis. It isn’t. The violations documented in the memo benefited the bank and harmed homeowners by allowing foreclosures to occur faster than they would if the formalities were followed.

They also allowed the bank to avoid paying various taxes relating to the sale of foreclosed properties. Some of the violations documented in the memo can result in felony convictions, which shows just how seriously California views the procedural requirements relating to non-judicial foreclosures. Ultimately, California’s then-Attorney General (and now U.S. Senator) Kamala Harris, chose not to file this complex lawsuit, but the memo’s findings are disturbing nonetheless.

As Hamilton knew, acting in good faith, performing agreements as they are written and keeping promises lead to respect and trust, “while the reverse is the fate of those, who pursue an opposite conduct.” The American people deserve a leader at Treasury with those traits, one who cherishes the rule of law as the basis of a both a healthy market economy and a well-functioning democratic government.

Other nations expect that we meet this standard, too. If they see us as just another bully on the world stage, we will lose our ability to lead by example. Members of the Senate Finance Committee should ask Mnuchin whether his actions at OneWest met the standard set forth by Hamilton.

We won’t be in the rooms where important decisions happen, so we need to have confidence in how Mnuchin will act when he thinks that no one is watching.

This Is What Bad Faith Looks Like

Silas Barnaby

A New York judge ruled in Federal National Mortgage Assoc. v. Singer, 2015 NY Slip Op. 51038(U) (July 15, 2015 Sup. Ct., New York County) (Moulton, J.) (unpublished opinion), that two lenders will forfeit more $100,000 in interest payments on two mortgages because they did not act in good faith in negotiating a mortgage modification, as required by New York law. There is a lot of choice language in the opinion, but it is useful to read the judge’s summary of what the borrowers went through in trying to get the modification.

The judge disagreed with the lenders’ “positive assessment of the negotiations” as it was “belied” by the facts:

Fannie Mae delayed filing of Action No. 1 (filed on June 14, 2011) 17 and 1/2 months after the date of default. Counsel then delayed filing the RJI [Request for Judicial Intervention] for another three months after the answer was filed. The first settlement conference, scheduled on March 14, 2012, had to be rescheduled to May 2, 2012 due to Fannie Mae’s non-appearance, a one and one-half month delay. It took Fannie Mae and its counsel another five and 1/2 months to provide an explanation for why the two mortgages could not be merged or consolidated, and only after wasting time at two conferences in June and July attended by attorneys without knowledge of the case or settlement authority and only after my court attorney probed for answers. Thereafter, the Singers submitted the requested documentation for a loan modification of the 400-Mtge., despite confusing and conflicting requests by the Rosicki firm, by August 3, 2012. When that application became “stale,” the court directed the Singers to update the information and, finally, after another two-month delay, Seterus offered the Singers a trial modification plan on or about October 11, 2012. When the Singers received the permanent loan modification papers from Seterus in January 2013, they objected to the payment of $63,632.21 in accrued interest and the $5,605.23 accrued interest. It took many months for Seterus to admit its mistake on the escrow deficiency, and only after much prodding by the court for status updates. Seterus did not offer the Singers a new loan modification agreement until the very end of October 2013 — a whopping nine-month delay. Finally, it took Fannie Mae’s counsel another five months to reject the Singers’ January 1, 2014 counteroffer to pay $18,000 of the accrued interest.

Accordingly, the court holds that Fannie Mae and/or its counsel have acted in bad faith and have unreasonably delayed a resolution of this foreclosure action. As a result, interest should be tolled on the note and mortgage in the amount over and above 2% annually, for the period from September 30, 2011 (one month after Singers’ filing of their answer in Action No. 1) through the date of this Decision and Order. (10-11, footnotes omitted)

It is hard to really get how crazy the modification process can be in the abstract, so sitting with facts like these is a useful exercise. And this seems like the right result on these facts.

I have blogged before about the Kafkaesque struggles that borrowers face. Some deny that lenders behave this badly in general but the cases and the large scale settlements “belie” this too. What will it take to give borrowers a consistent and reasonable experience with mortgage modifications?

Unfair Loan Mod Negotiations

The Ninth Circuit issued an Opinion in Compton v. Countrywide Financial Corp. et al., (11-cv-00198 Aug. 4, 2014).  The District Court had dismissed Compton’s unfair or deceptive act or practice [UDAP] claim because she had failed to allege that the lender had “exceeded its role as a lender and owed an independent duty of care to” the borrower. (14) The Court of Appeals concluded, however, that the homeowner/plaintiff had

sufficiently alleged that BAC engaged in an “unfair or deceptive act or practice” for the purpose of withstanding a motion to dismiss. As previously noted, Compton does not base her UDAP claim on allegations that BAC failed to determine whether she would be financially capable of repaying the loan. Rather, the gist of Compton’s complaint is that BAC misled her into believing that BAC would modify her loan and would not commence foreclosure proceedings while her loan modification request remained under review. As a result of these misrepresentations, Compton engaged in prolonged negotiations, incurred transaction costs in providing and notarizing documents, and endured lengthy delays. The complaint’s description of BAC’s misleading behave or sufficiently alleges a “representation, omission, or practice” that is likely to deceive a reasonable consumer.(15)

This seems to be an important clarification about what a reasonable consumer, or at least a reasonable consumer in Hawaii, should be able to expect from a lender with which she does business.

While the Court reviews a fair amount of precedent that stands for the proposition that a lender does not owe much of a duty to a borrower, Compton seems to stand for the proposition that lenders must act consistently, at least in broad outline, with how we generally expect parties to behave in consumer transactions: telling the truth, negotiating in good faith, minimizing unnecessary transaction costs; and minimizing unnecessary delays.

In reviewing many cases with allegations such as these, it seems to me that judges are genuinely shocked by lender behavior in loan modification negotiations. It remains to be seen whether such cases will change UDAP jurisprudence in any significant way once we have worked through all of the foreclosure crisis cases.

Borrowers Have “Been Through Hell”

The Maine Supreme Judicial Court issued an opinion, U.S. Bank, N.A. v. David Sawyer et al., 2014 ME 81 (June 24, 2014), that makes you question the sanity of the servicing industry and the efficacy of the rule of law. If you are a reader of this blog, you know this story.

This particular version of the story is taken from the unrebutted testimony of the homeowners, David and Debra Sawyer. They received a loan modification, which was later raised to a level above the predelinquency level; the servicers (which changed from time to time) then demanded various documents which were provided numerous times over the course of four court-ordered mediations; the servicers made numerous promises about modifications that they did not keep; the dysfunction goes on and on.

The trial court ultimately dismissed the foreclosure proceeding with prejudice. Like other jurisdictions, Maine requires that parties to a foreclosure “make a good faith effort to mediate all issues.” (6, quoting 14 M.R.S. section 6321-A(12) (2013); M.R. Civ. P. 93(j)).  Given this factual record, the Supreme Judicial Court found that the trial court “did not abuse its discretion in imposing” that sanction. (6-7) The sanction is obviously severe and creates a windfall for the borrowers. But the Supreme Judicial Court noted that U.S. Bank’s “repeated failures to cooperate and participate meaningfully in the mediation process” meant that the borrowers accrued “significant additional fees, interest, costs, and a reduction in the net value of the borrower’s [sic] equity in the property.” (8)

The Supreme Judicial Court concludes that if “banks and servicers intend to do business in Maine and use our courts to foreclose on delinquent borrowers, they must respect and follow our rules and procedures . . .” (9) So, a state supreme court metes out justice in an individual case and sends a warning that failure to abide by the law exposes “a litigant to significant sanctions, including the prospect of dismissal with prejudice.” (9)

But I am left with a bad taste in my mouth — can the rule of law exist where such behavior by private parties is so prevalent? How can servicers with names like J.P. Morgan Chase and U.S. Bank be this incompetent? What are the incentives within those firms that result in such behavior? Have the recent settlements and regulatory enforcement actions done enough to make such cases anomalies instead of all-too-frequent occurrences? U.S. Bank conceded in court that these borrowers have “been through hell.” (9, n. 5) The question is, have we reached the other side?

 

HT April Charney