Loan Mod Racketeering?

James Cagney in "Public Enemy"

James Cagney and Mae Clarke in “Public Enemy”

Bloomberg BNA Banking quoted me in BofA Must Face RICO Claims on Loan Modifications (behind paywall). It opens,

Bank of America must face claims that it and another company violated federal anti-racketeering laws by denying loan modifications to eligible borrowers, a federal appeals court said Aug. 15 ( George v. Urban Settlement Svcs., 10th Cir., No. 14-cv-01427, 8/15/16 ).

The ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit reinstates purported class claims by Richard George and other borrowers that Bank of America and Urban Settlement Services (“Urban”), a settlement company, feigned compliance with guidelines under the Home Affordable Modification program (HAMP) while modifying as few loans as possible.

A district court dismissed the claims, saying the plaintiffs failed to sufficiently allege the existence of an association-in-fact enterprise under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO), but the Tenth Circuit reversed, saying they made a “facially plausible” claim.

The ruling sends the case back to the district court to consider that and other allegations.

Case Moves Forward

The decision is the latest in connection with HAMP, a 2009 Treasury Department effort aimed at stabilizing the housing market that was closely related to disbursement of government funds to banks under the Troubled Asset Relief Program. Bank of America received $45 billion in TARP funds.

The plaintiffs are represented by Steve Berman, Ari Y. Brown, Kevin K. Green, and Tyler S. Weaver in the Seattle and San Diego offices of Hagens Berman Sobol Shapiro.

“We are more than pleased the court has ruled our complaint has sufficiently alleged that Bank of America’s massive HAMP mortgage-modification program was in fact a RICO enterprise,” Berman, the firm’s managing partner, said in an Aug. 15 statement. “For years, we have tirelessly fought this major Wall Street kingpin to right the wrongs it committed against hundreds of thousands of homeowners and taxpayers who footed the $45 billion government bailout BoA took in, only to have it used to propagate a scheme to squeeze every dollar from BoA customers and wrongfully foreclose thousands of homes in the process.”

Bank of America spokesman Rick Simon said the bank denies the claims, which he said paint a false picture of the bank’s practices and its employees.

“In fact, Bank of America has been an industry leader in HAMP and other beneficial mortgage modifications,” Simon told Bloomberg BNA in an Aug. 15 e-mail. “We are reviewing the Circuit court’s decision and considering our options.”

The lawsuit, which involved loans originally held by Countrywide Home Loans, said Bank of America and Urban were part of a fraudulent scheme to keep borrowers from acquiring permanent HAMP loan modifications, allegedly because defaulted loans were more profitable.

They said Urban functioned as a “black hole” for HAMP-related documents submitted by borrowers, ensuring that trial modifications would not be made permanent.

Tenth Circuit Reverses

In its September 2014 ruling, the district court said the plaintiffs failed to allege, as required by RICO, that Bank of America was distinct from the alleged racketeering enterprise.

The Tenth Circuit reversed in a decision by Judge Nancy Moritz, who wrote for a three-judge panel. The plaintiffs, she said, “don’t contend that either a parent corporation or its subsidiary corporation is the enterprise. Rather, they assert that BOA and Urban—two separate legal entities— joined together, along with several other entities, to form and conduct the affairs of the BOA-Urban association-in-fact enterprise.”

According to the plaintiffs, she said, Bank of America and Urban “performed distinct roles within the enterprise while acting in concert with other entities to further the enterprise’s common goal of wrongfully denying HAMP applications.”

That is enough to “plausibly allege” that Bank of America meets the “enterprise” requirement, she said.

Crisis Cases Continue

Brooklyn Law School Professor David Reiss said the decision shows that financial crisis-era litigation is not over. “This case is an example of litigation that arises from the supposed fixes for the crisis—fixes that were often implemented poorly, as can be seen from a variety of cases and regulatory actions,” Reiss told Bloomberg BNA in an Aug. 15 e-mail.

The lawsuit alleged in part that documents submitted by borrowers were intentionally “scattered” across various computer databases and systems, allegedly with the goal of creating the appearance that borrowers had not completed the paperwork required to convert their trial plans into permanent modifications.

Reiss called it significant that the court accepted, for purposes of a motion to dismiss, the plaintiffs’ theory that the alleged “black hole” treatment of documents could rise to the level of a RICO violation.

“While courts have held against defendants in individual cases with similar facts, the possibility that they could hold against lenders and servicers in a class action raises the stakes quite a bit for defendants,” Reiss said.

Millennials Coming Home

 

07-08_prod_look_homeward_angel

I was interviewed on Voice of America’s American Café in a story, Millennials Coming Home. The story touches on many of the themes that I blogged about last week. VoA sets up the show as follows:

A new study says that more American young people are moving back home after college than ever before. VOA’s American Cafe host David Byrd talks with three experts about this trend – how did it start, where is it going, and what does it mean?

You can listen to the edited podcast here and the complete interview with me here.

 

Mommy, I’m Home!

cartoon by Mell Lazarus

The Pew Research Center has released For First Time in Modern Era, Living with Parents Edges out Other Living Arrangements for 18- to 34-Year-Olds (link for complete report on right side of page). This report adds to the growing literature on changes in household formation (see here, for instance) that have taken hold in large part since the financial crisis. There are lots of reasons to think that the way we live now is different from how we lived one generation, two generations, three generations ago.

The report opens,

Broad demographic shifts in marital status, educational attainment and employment have transformed the way young adults in the U.S. are living, and a new Pew Research Center analysis of census data highlights the implications of these changes for the most basic element of their lives – where they call home. In 2014, for the first time in more than 130 years, adults ages 18 to 34 were slightly more likely to be living in their parents’ home than they were to be living with a spouse or partner in their own household.

This turn of events is fueled primarily by the dramatic drop in the share of young Americans who are choosing to settle down romantically before age 35. Dating back to 1880, the most common living arrangement among young adults has been living with a romantic partner, whether a spouse or a significant other. This type of arrangement peaked around 1960, when 62% of the nation’s 18- to 34-year-olds were living with a spouse or partner in their own household, and only one-in-five were living with their parents. (4, footnotes omitted)

The report found that education, race and ethnicity was linked to young adult living arrangements. Less educated young adults were more likely to live with a parent as were black and Hispanic young adults. Some of the other key findings include,

  • The growing tendency of young adults to live with parents predates the Great Recession. In 1960, 20% of 18- to 34-year-olds lived with mom and/or dad. In 2007, before the recession, 28% lived in their parental home.
  • In 2014, 40% of 18- to 34-year-olds who had not completed high school lived with parent(s), the highest rate observed since the 1940 Census when information on educational attainment was first collected.
  • Young adults in states in the South Atlantic, West South Central and Pacific United States have recently experienced the highest rates on record of living with parent(s).
  • With few exceptions, since 1880 young men across all races and ethnicities have been more likely than young women to live in the home of their parent(s).
  • The changing demographic characteristics of young adults—age, racial and ethnic diversity, rising college enrollment—explain little of the increase in living with parent(s) (8-9)

It seems like unemployment and underemployment; student debt; and postponement or retreat from the institution of marriage all play a role in delaying young adult household formation.

My own idiosyncratic takeaway from the report is that, boy, the way we live now sure is different from how earlier generations lived (look at the graph on page 4 to see what I mean). Moreover, there is no reason to think that one way is more “natural” or better than the other. That being said, it sure is worth figuring out what we are doing now in order to craft policies to properly respond to it.

HOA Crybabies

by Brandon Baunach

Realtor.com quoted me in Neighbor Files Noise Complaint With HOA for Crying Baby. It opens,

People file noise complaints against neighbors for all kinds of reasons, from dogs that won’t stop barking to partiers who won’t stop blasting Britney Spears. (Britney? Really?) Yet recently intrabuilding warfare—and a resulting official noise complaint—was lodged against a far more dubious target: a baby. A crying baby, to be exact.

The conflict escalated when condo owners Jessica and Karl Ronnevik in Greensboro, CT, learned just how much impact their 1-year-old son’s bawling was having on their next-door neighbor, via the following passive-aggressive (emphasis on aggressive) note.

“Please consider buying a parenting book or consult with a child care expert,” the missive read, according to local news channel Fox 8. “Your baby should not be crying that loudly and for that long. Try more calming techniques, music, turn on a vacuum, rocking chair, go for a walk … anything!”

File that under “helpful, not.” A parenting book! Some really out-of-the-box thinking there, neighbor! If only more parents knew about those, there would surely be no crying babies, ever. The note goes on to say, “If you don’t make changes immediately, you risk being fined by [the homeowners’] association.”

And apparently, the HOA isn’t keen on crying babies, either: A previous noise complaint by this neighbor, in December, spurred the HOA to send the Ronneviks a warning to shut their kid up—or pay a penalty.

The frazzled parents told Fox they’re doing their best to keep their son, Peter, quiet, but come on—kids cry. They contend that their son squalls no more than any other 1-year-old. The couple is also expecting a second child soon. So they caved and decided to move.

“I don’t feel comfortable living here, knowing that our neighbor is so intolerant,” Jessica Ronnevik told Fox. “It makes me feel like we have been bullied in our own home.”

So Fox asked this neighbor for further comment (he’d left his name on the note but preferred to not be identified in the press).

“I stand by the note and its contents,” his statement read. “Any excessively loud noise that interferes with the rights of neighbors is subject to possible fines, as indicated in section 4 of the HOA Rules & Regulations.”

Which got us wondering: Is this ruffled neighbor right? The experts we spoke to say no.

“The Fair Housing Act generally prohibits discrimination on the basis of familial status by housing providers,” says David Reiss, research director at the Center for Urban Business Entrepreneurship at Brooklyn Law School. This is also true for common interest communities such as those under the mandates of HOAs. “So, if a CIC discriminated against a family with children by unreasonably requiring that infants only cry softly or not at all, it could run afoul of the FHA.”

In other words, the Ronneviks could have had a decent case to stay put and let Peter cry to his heart’s content.

“Households that believe they have been discriminated against can file a complaint with state and federal regulators or consult with an attorney,” Reiss continues. “The CIC could face lawsuits which could lead to judgments where they pay damages.”