On April 2, the DOJ announced a guilty plea by a Northern California real estate investor to charges of bid rigging and fraud conspiracy at foreclosure auctions in violation of the Sherman Act. The charges are the outcome of the DOJ’s antitrust investigations into bid rigging and fraud at foreclosure auctions in Northern California, during the course of which 52 individuals have pled guilty to criminal charges. According to the DOJ, the Defendant allegedly worked with others to designate one bidder to win the selected properties at public foreclosure auctions and then held second, private auctions with the conspirators. The DOJ also charged the Defendant with conspiracy to commit mail fraud in connection with the bid rigging activities.
On May 19, NYDFS Superintendent Lawsky delivered remarks at the Mortgage Bankers Association’s National Secondary Market Conference & Expo regarding New York’s “broken judicial foreclosure process.” Noting that the state’s average of over 900 days from the date of filing to sale is more than a year longer than the national average, Lawsky stated that the “current system hurts virtually everyone involved in the foreclosure process,” including municipalities, lenders and mortgage investors, the courts and, most importantly, homeowners and their families. In a report issued the same day, NYDFS details the causes of the problems. In response, Lawsky proposed a number of legislative reforms intended to facilitate the “twin goals of protecting homeowners from foreclosure abuses and encouraging the efficient return of foreclosed properties to the market.” Lawsky emphasized that, “contrary to popular belief, these goals are not mutually exclusive. The key to achieving both is having a sound and timely judicial foreclosure process that is fair to both homeowners and the mortgage industry.” The specific reforms include proposals to modify the mandatory settlement conferences that cause much delay early in the litigation process, to improve disclosures to homeowners regarding their rights and obligations, and to expedite the foreclosure process for vacant and abandoned “zombie homes.”
On March 31, the office of Massachusetts AG Maura Healey launched a new webpage designed to help eligible homeowners clear property titles in order to refinance or sell their properties. The webpage follows a $2.7 million settlement with four national banks that allegedly foreclosed on Massachusetts property without having the legal authority to do so. Because the alleged unlawful foreclosures affected thousands of Massachusetts titles, the new webpage is intended to “[enable] consumers to file online complaints and have their title issues reviewed by the banks in a single process.”
On January 15, an Army Reserve sergeant filed a class action suit against a large national bank for allegedly violating the SCRA limitation on a lender’s ability to foreclose on an active duty service member’s property. According to the complaint, the bank violated the law by foreclosing on the plaintiff’s home and seizing personal property while the sergeant was on active duty. Wensel et al v. The Bank of New York, No 2:15-cv-00068, (W.D. Penn. Jan. 15, 2015)
On December 18, after passing unanimously in both houses of Congress, President Obama signed into law S.3008, the Foreclosure Relief and Extension for Servicemembers Act of 2014. Previously, the SCRA’s protection for servicemembers against foreclosure for one year after the end of active duty was set to expire at the end of 2014. The Act extends this protection until the end of 2015, at which point the foreclosure protection is scheduled to revert to the period of active duty plus 90 days that was in effect in 2008.
On November 25, 2014, the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan applied the state’s three-year statute of limitations for conversion in granting a motion to dismiss a servicemember’s claims of wrongful foreclosure and eviction under the SCRA. Johnson v. MERS, Inc., No. 14-CV-10921, 2014 WL 6678951 (E.D. Mich. Nov. 25, 2014). The plaintiffs argued that, because the SCRA does not explicitly provide its own limitations period within which a suit must be brought, there was no limit for SCRA-based claims; however, the court rejected this argument. Following Supreme Court precedent, the court looked to the most analogous state law and applied its limitations period to the plaintiffs’ SCRA claim. The court considered, and ultimately rejected, plaintiffs’ argument to apply Michigan’s unlimited limitations period for egregious acts under the state’s criminal law. Similarly, the court held that both the ten-year limitations period for breach of contract and the six-year catch-all limitations period did not apply. Ultimately the court concluded that Michigan’s three-year statute of limitations for civil conversion claims was the most analogous to plaintiffs’ SCRA claims. As a result, plaintiffs’ claims were dismissed as time-barred.
On October 22, the Ninth District Court of Appeals reversed a summary judgment decision allowing a trust unit of a bank to foreclose on a home. In this case, the loan servicers were unable to prove who held the promissory note when the trust unit requested a foreclosure order from the trial court. Employees at both servicers failed to attach records relied upon in their respective affidavits, but rather provided copies of the promissory note, mortgage, and the assignment of the mortgage. The Court held that the copies “do not establish when or if the Bank came into possession of the Note or that the Bank was in possession of the Note at the time of the filing of the complaint.” Deutsche Bank Natl. Trust Co. v. Dvorak, 2014-Ohio-4652 29, Ohio. Ct. App., 27120 (Oct.22, 2014)
Recently, the New York Appellate Division held an affidavit supporting an Oklahoma bank’s motion to foreclose a New York mortgage conformed to New York statutory requirements. An affidavit acknowledged out of state must be accompanied by a certificate of conformity under N.Y. Civil Practice Law and Rules §2309(c), providing that an oath taken outside New York is treated as if taken in New York if accompanied by a certificate required to entitle a deed to be recorded in New York. Oaths acknowledged outside New York by non-New York notaries require a certificate of conformity in substantially the form set out in Real Property Law §309-b. Here, an affidavit of the holder’s senior foreclosure litigation specialist established the mortgage, the default and assignment of the mortgage. It was accompanied by a “Uniform, All Purpose Certificate of Acknowledgment” which substantially conformed to Real Property Law §309-b. The borrowers did not oppose the motion to foreclose; the holder was therefore entitled to judgment. Midfirst Bank v. Agho, 991 N.Y.S.2d 623 (Aug. 13, 2014).
On October 21, a federal judge dismissed the claims brought by the State AG that the GSEs violated state law by putting limits on the sale of pre- and post-foreclosure homes. Commonwealth v. Fed. Hous. Fin. Agency, No. 14-12878-RGS, 2014 BL 295733 (D. Mass. Oct. 21, 2014). In this case, the State argued that the GSEs violated a state law by refusing to sell homes in foreclosure to nonprofit organizations who intended to restructure the loan and sell or rent the property back to the original homeowner at a lower price. The 2012 state law forbids banks and lenders from refusing to consider offers from legitimate buyback programs solely because the property will be resold to the former homeowner. The judge dismissed the lawsuit agreeing with the FHFA, conservator of the GSEs, that the Housing and Economic Recovery Act of 2008 (HERA) allows the FHFA to enforce restrictions under its conservatorship mandate authorized by Congress. Further, the judge noted that “Congress, by enacting HERA’s Anti-Injunction Clause, expressly removed such conservatorship decisions from the courts’ oversight.” The State is expected to appeal the decision.
Nevada Supreme Court Holds Foreclosure Of A Homeowners Association’s Assessment Lien Extinguishes A First Mortgage
On September 18, the Nevada Supreme Court decided that a homeowners association may foreclose its assessment lien non-judicially and that the foreclosure extinguishes a first mortgage. SFR Investments Pool v. US Bank (130 Nev. Adv. Opinion 75, September 18, 2014). The lender argued that, because the “superlien” law gives an HOA lien priority over a first mortgage to the extent of nine months of unpaid dues, only nine months of unpaid dues should have priority over a first mortgage, not the entire assessment lien. The Nevada Supreme Court acknowledged competing views of “payment priority” and “lien priority” proponents, but ultimately sided with the lien priority camp because of the language of the superlien statute and general principles of lien priority. The Court suggested that lenders may prevent losses associated with HOA superliens by paying off the liens or by establishing escrow accounts for HOA assessments to avoid using its own funds. The Nevada decision is consistent with an August 28 decision on the same issue by the D.C. Court of Appeals in Chase Plaza Condominium Association v. JP Morgan Chase Bank, No. 13-CV-623 & 13-CV-674 (D.C. Cir. 2014).
On September 16, the NYDFS announced that they have issued subpoenas to nine “hard money” lenders, groups that originate short-term, high interest loans secured by a borrower’s home or other real estate, as part of a probe into whether such lenders are intentionally structuring loans with the expectation of foreclosing on the property. NYDFS noted that “[w]hile many hard money lenders may be engaged in legitimate financial activities, certain unscrupulous companies appear to be taking advantage of borrowers in tough financial straits by making loans that are designed to fail.” The NYDFS’s investigation is focused on whether the nine lenders are intentionally structuring hard money loans with onerous terms, such as high interest rates, numerous upfront fees, and enormous balloon payments, so that borrowers are driven into to default.
(Chase Plaza Condominium Association, Inv. V. JP Morgan Chase Bank, No 13-CV-623 & 13-CV-674, decided August 28, 2014). In a case of first impression, the District of Columbia Court of Appeals held that a condominium association’s foreclosure of a lien for unpaid assessments extinguished the first mortgage on the unit. The District of Columbia’s condominium “super-priority lien” law (created in 1991) grants super-priority to condominium association liens for up to six months of unpaid assessments. The super-priority lien law does not specify what happens when the condominium association forecloses and the proceeds of the sale are insufficient to pay the first deed of trust. The Court of Appeals looked to general foreclosure law for guidance, finding that foreclosure of a lien with superior priority extinguishes liens with lower priority. Here, the $280,000 purchase money first mortgage was made in 2005, the owner’s assessments became delinquent in 2008, the association foreclosed its $9415 assessment lien in 2010, and the bidder at the foreclosure sale paid $10,000 for the property. The mortgagee sued to have the foreclosure set aside. The Court reasoned that the drafters of the super-priority lien law “understood that foreclosure of a super-priority lien could extinguish a first mortgage … but expected that mortgage lenders would take the necessary steps to prevent that result, either by requiring payment of assessments into an escrow account or by paying assessments themselves to prevent foreclosure,” and rejected the lender’s argument that permitting foreclosure of condominium assessment liens to extinguish first mortgages would be unreasonable as a matter of policy.
On August 26, Illinois amended its Code of Civil Procedure by adding Section 15-1603.5 to address situations where a foreclosure sale occurred, but a junior lienholder was not named in the foreclosure complaint. Specifically, the law permits a holder of a certificate of sale who discovers an omitted subordinate interest to file a strict foreclosure complaint naming the person who has the omitted subordinate interest as the defendant. Unless the defendant objects, the court must enter a judgment extinguishing the omitted subordinate interest. If the defendant objects, the court must hold a hearing and order either (i) that the defendant has not agreed to pay the redemption amount, in which case the court must enter judgment; or (ii) that the defendant has agreed to pay the redemption amount. The law also sets forth the items that must and must not be included in the redemption amount, and provides that the defendant has 30 days after the entry of the order to pay the redemption amount. Although the person who has an omitted subordinate interest does not have a right to file a strict foreclosure action, the person does maintain the right to claim surplus proceeds from the foreclosure sale.
On August 6, the Minnesota Supreme Court held in a foreclosure-related case that the plausibility standard announced in Twombly and Iqbal does not apply to civil pleadings in Minnesota state court. Walsh v. U.S. Bank, N.A., No. A13-0742, 2014 WL 3844201 (Minn. Aug. 6, 2014). A borrower sued her mortgage lender to vacate the foreclosure sale of her home, claiming the lender failed to properly serve notice of the non-judicial foreclosure proceeding. The bank moved to dismiss the suit based on the plausibility standard established by the U.S. Supreme Court in Twombly, which requires plaintiffs to plead “enough facts to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.” The Minnesota Supreme court held that the state’s traditional pleading standard is controlling, and not the federal standard established in Twombly. The court explained that under the state standard, “a claim is sufficient against a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim if it is possible on any evidence which might be produced, consistent with the pleader’s theory, to grant the relief demanded.” The court identified five reasons the state rule applies: (i) the relevant state rule does not clearly require more factual specificity; (ii) the state’s rules of civil procedure express a strong preference for short statements of facts in complaints; (iii) the sample complaints attached to the rules show that short, general statements are sufficient; (iv) the rules allow parties to move for a more definite statement if a pleading is overly vague; and (v) there are other means to control the costs of discovery.
On July 23, the CFPB, the FTC, and 15 state authorities coordinated to take action against foreclosure relief companies and associated individuals alleged to have employed deceptive marketing tactics to obtain business from distressed borrowers. The CFPB filed three suits, the FTC filed six, and the state authorities collectively initiated 32 actions. For example, the CFPB claims the defendants (i) collected fees before obtaining a loan modification; (ii) inflated success rates and likelihood of obtaining a modification; (iii) led borrowers to believe they would receive legal representation; and (iv) made false promises about loan modifications to consumers. The CFPB and FTC allege that the defendants violated Regulation O, formerly known as the Mortgage Assistance Relief Services (MARS) Rule, and that some of the defendants also violated the Dodd-Frank Act’s UDAAP provisions and Section 5 of the FTC Act, respectively. The state authorities are pursuing similar claims under state law. For example, New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman announced that he served a notice of intent to bring litigation against two companies and an individual for operating a fraudulent mortgage rescue and loan modification scheme that induced consumers into paying large upfront fees but failed to help homeowners avoid foreclosure.