Bank Settlements and the Arc of Justice

Ron Cogswell

MLK Memorial in DC

Martin Luther King, Jr. said that the “arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” A recent report by SNL Financial (available here, but requires a lot of sign-up info) offers us a chance to evaluate that claim in the context of the financial crisis.

SNL reports that the six largest bank holding companies have paid over $132 billion to settle credit crisis and mortgage-related lawsuits brought by governments, investors and other financial institutions.

In the context of the litigation over the Fannie and Freddie conservatorships, I had considered whether it is efficient to respond to financial crises by allowing the government to do what it needs to do during the crisis and then “use litigation to make an accounting to all of the stakeholders once the situation has stabilized.” (121)

Given that the biggest bank settlements are now in the rear view window, we can now say that the accounting for the financial crisis comes in at around $132 billion give or take. Does that number do justice for the wrongs of the boom times?  I don’t think I have my own answer to that question yet, but it is certainly worth considering.

On the one hand, we should acknowledge that it is a humongous number, a number so big that that no one would have considered it a likely one at the beginning of the financial crisis. This crisis made nine and ten digit settlement numbers a routine event.

On the other hand, wrongdoing (along with good old-fashioned boom mentality) during the financial crisis almost sent the global economy into a depression.  It also wreaked havoc on so many individuals, directly and indirectly.

I look forward to seeing metrics that can make sense of this (ratio of settlement amounts to annual profits of Wall Street firms; ratio to bonus pools; ratio to home equity lost), but I will say that I am struck by the lack of individual accountability that has come out of all of this litigation.

Individuals who made six, seven and eight figure paychecks from this wrongdoing were able to move on relatively unscathed.  We should think about how to avoid that result the next time around. Otherwise the arc of justice will bend in the wrong direction.

 

What Is To Be Done with Mortgage Servicers?

The Office of the Comptroller of the Currency has found that EverBank; HSBC Bank USA, N.A.; JPMorgan Chase Bank, N.A.; Santander Bank, National Association; U.S. Bank National Association; and Wells Fargo Bank, N.A. have not met all of the requirements of consent orders they had entered into because of deficiencies in how they dealt with foreclosure servicing. The details of these deficiencies are pretty bad.

The OCC recently issued amended consent orders with these banks. The amended orders restrict certain business activities that they conduct. The restrictions include limitations on:

  • acquisition of residential mortgage servicing or residential mortgage servicing rights (does not apply to servicing associated with new originations or refinancings by the banks or contracts for new originations by the banks);
  • new contracts for the bank to perform residential mortgage servicing for other parties;
  • outsourcing or sub-servicing of new residential mortgage servicing activities to other parties;
  • off-shoring new residential mortgage servicing activities; and
  • new appointments of senior officers responsible for residential mortgage servicing or residential mortgage servicing risk management and compliance.

HSBC had the most deficiencies of the six:  it did not make 45 of the 98 changes it had agreed to over the last few years. I was particularly interested in the portion of the consent orders that relate to MERS. The HSBC consent order states:

(1) The Bank shall implement its Revised Action Plan and ensure appropriate controls and oversight of the Bank’s activities with respect to the Mortgage Electronic Registration System (“MERS”) and compliance with MERSCORPS’s membership rules, terms, and conditions (“MERS Requirements”), include, at a minimum:

(a) processes to ensure that all mortgage assignments and endorsements with respect to mortgage loans serviced or owned by the Bank out of MERS’ name are executed only by a certifying officer authorized by MERS and approved by the Bank;

(b) processes to ensure that all other actions that may be taken by MERS certifying officers (with respect to mortgage loans serviced or owned by the Bank) are executed by a certifying officer authorized by MERS and approved by the Bank;

(c) processes to ensure that the Bank maintains up-to-date corporate resolutions from MERS for all Bank employees and third-parties who are certifying officers authorized by MERS, and up-to-date lists of MERS certifying officers;

(d) processes to ensure compliance with all MERS Requirements and with the requirements of the MERS Corporate Resolution Management System (“CRMS”);

(e) processes to ensure the accuracy and reliability of data reported to MERSCORP and MERS, including monthly system-to-system reconciliations for all MERS mandatory reporting fields, and daily capture of all rejects/warnings reports associated with registrations, transfers, and status updates on open-item aging reports. Unresolved items must be maintained on open-item aging reports and tracked until resolution. The Bank shall determine and report whether the foreclosures for loans serviced by the Bank that are currently pending in MERS’ name are accurate and how many are listed in error, and describe how and by when the data on the MERSCORP system will be corrected; and

(f) an appropriate MERS quality assurance workplan, which clearly describes all tests, test frequency, sampling methods, responsible parties, and the expected process for open- item follow-up, and includes an annual independent test of the control structure of the system-to- system reconciliation process, the reject/warning error correction process, and adherence to the Bank’s MERS Plan.

(2) The Bank shall include MERS and MERSCORP in its third-party vendor management process, which shall include a detailed analysis of potential vulnerabilities, including information security, business continuity, and vendor viability assessments.

These should all be easy enough for a financial institution to achieve as they relate to basic corporate practices (e.g., properly certifying officers); basic data management practices (e.g., system-to-system reconciliations); and basic third-party vendor practices (e.g., analyzing potential vulnerabilities of vendors).

It is hard to imagine why these well-funded and well-staffed enterprises are having such a hard time fixing their servicing operations. We often talk about governments as being too poorly run to handle reform of complex operations, but it appears that large banks face the same kinds of problems.

I am not sure what the takeaway is in terms of reform, but it does seem that homeowners need protection from companies that can’t reform themselves while they are under stringent consent orders with their primary regulator for years and years.

Monday’s Adjudication Roundup

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

United States Bankruptcy Court Bound by Precedent to Recognize Bank’s Standing in Foreclosure Action, but Opines on MERS’s Flawed Assignment Process and Status as Agent

In In re Agard, 444 BR 231, 235 (Bankr. E.D.N.Y. 2011) vacated in part sub nom. Agard v. Select Portfolio Servicing, Inc., BR 8-10-77338 REG (E.D.N.Y. 2012), the United States Bankruptcy Court for the Eastern District of New York held that U.S. Bank, the assignee bank in this case, had standing to foreclose because the state court had already determined that the assignment of the mortgage by MERS to U.S. Bank was a valid assignment. The court stated the issue as follows: “[homeowner] argues that the only interest U.S. Bank holds in the underlying mortgage was received by way of an assignment from. . . MERS, as a ‘nominee’ for the original lender. [Homeowner]’s argument raises a fundamental question as to whether MERS had the legal authority to assign a valid and enforceable interest in the subject mortgage.”

In holding for U.S. Bank, the court stated the homeowner’s argument had to be rejected because of the application of the Rooker-Feldman doctrine. The court stated, “[t]he Rooker-Feldman doctrine is derived from two Supreme Court cases, Rooker v. Fidelity Trust Co., 263 U.S. 413 (1923), and D.C. Court of Appeals v. Feldman, 460 U.S. 462 (1983), which together stand for the proposition that lower federal courts lack subject matter jurisdiction to sit in direct appellate review of state court judgments.” Also, the court found that res judicata precludes the homeowner from prevailing here: “The state court already has determined that U.S. Bank is a secured creditor with standing to foreclose and this Court cannot alter that determination in order to deny U.S. Bank standing to seek relief from the automatic stay.”

However, the court in this case found it necessary to expound upon whether it believed that U.S. Bank had standing to foreclose, despite the state court’s binding opinion.  “[T]he Court believes that it is appropriate to set forth its analysis on the issue of whether [U.S. Bank], absent the Judgment of Foreclosure, would have standing to bring the instant motion.” The court began its analysis by stating, “in order to have standing to seek relief from stay, [U.S. Bank]. . . must show that [it] holds both the Mortgage and the Note. . . [U.S. Bank] can prove that [it] is the holder of the Note by providing the Court with proof of a written assignment of the Note, or by demonstrating that [it] has physical possession of the Note endorsed over to it. . . the Assignment of Mortgage is not sufficient to establish an effective assignment of the Note.” Therefore, U.S. Bank would have to show that MERS both assigned the note and that it had authority to assign the note. Regarding MERS’s authority to assign the note, the court held, “[w]hat remains undisputed is that MERS did not have any rights with respect to the Note and other than as described above, MERS played no role in the transfer of the Note… [U.S. Bank]’s failure to show that [it] holds the Note should be fatal to the Movant’s standing.”

Furthermore, the court took issue with MERS’s status as agent of the original mortgagee. The court stated, “the record of this case is insufficient to prove that an agency relationship exists under the laws of the state of New York between MERS and its members. According to MERS, the principal/agent relationship among itself and its members is created by the MERS rules of membership and terms and conditions, as well as the Mortgage itself. However, none of the documents expressly creates an agency relationship or even mentions the word “agency.” MERS would have this Court cobble together the documents and draw inferences from the words contained in those documents.” The court went even further in its criticism, saying, “Aside from the inappropriate reliance upon the statutory definition of ‘mortgagee,’ MERS’s position that it can be both the mortgagee and an agent of the mortgagee is absurd, at best. . . . even if MERS had assigned the Mortgage acting on behalf of the entity which held the Note at the time of the assignment, this Court finds that MERS did not have authority, as ‘nominee’ or agent, to assign the Mortgage absent a showing that it was given specific written directions by its principal. This Court finds that MERS’s theory that it can act as a ‘common agent’ for undisclosed principals is not support by the law. The relationship between MERS and its lenders and its distortion of its alleged ‘nominee’ status was appropriately described by the Supreme Court of Kansas as follows: ‘The parties appear to have defined the word [nominee] in much the same way that the blind men of Indian legend described an elephant – their description depended on which part they were touching at any given time.’ ”

Absent the state court precedent that the court was bound to follow, the court likely would have emphatically refused to recognize MERS’s authority to assign the note as well as the mortgage, and in turn would have prevented U.S. Bank from proceeding with the foreclosure. Thus, in future cases before the court with similar facts that are not bound by state law precedent, MERS and any assignee bank will not have standing to foreclose.