On February 7, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit held that the attempted collection of past due foreclosure-related fees from a borrower in active duty military service is a violation of section 533 of the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act (SCRA). Brewster v. Sun Trust Mortg., Inc., No. 12-56560, WL No. (9th Cir. Feb. 7, 2014). The district court dismissed an active duty servicemember’s suit against the current and former servicer of his mortgage loan after the current servicer failed to remove fees associated with a foreclosure initiated, but then withdrawn, by the prior servicer. SCRA section 533 bars the “sale, foreclosure, or seizure of property” for the breach of certain obligations relating to a mortgage made before a servicemember’s military service, unless such action is pursuant to a court order or a valid SCRA waiver, and also establishes criminal penalties for a person who knowingly makes, causes to be made, or attempts to make such a prohibited sale, foreclosure, or seizure of property. On appeal, the Ninth Circuit concluded that the failure to remove the fees incidental to the previous foreclosure’s Notice of Default was a continuation of the previous “foreclosure proceeding,” and, therefore, a violation of section 533. The court did not consider whether the Notice of Default had been initially filed in violation of section 533. The court’s reasoning hinged on its reading of what the word “foreclosure” encompassed and based its interpretation on (i) a state-law statutory definition of foreclosure that the court determined included the attempted collection of foreclosure fees as part of the foreclosure proceeding, and (ii) the U.S. Supreme Court’s unambiguous requirement that courts broadly construe the statutory language of the SCRA. The court declined to determine whether SCRA allows punitive damages, as the DOJ had urged it to do in an amicus brief. The court reversed the district court’s dismissal of the borrower’s suit and remanded for further proceedings.
New Mexico Supreme Court Analyzes State’s Foreclosure Standing Requirements, Ability To Repay Standard
On February 13, the New Mexico Supreme Court held that a borrower’s ability to repay a home mortgage loan is one of the “borrower’s circumstances” that lenders and courts must consider in determining compliance with the New Mexico Home Loan Protection Act (HLPA). Bank of New York v. Romero, No. 33,224, 2014 WL 576151 (N.M. S. Ct. February 13, 2014). In this case, after two borrowers became delinquent on a cash-out refinance mortgage loan, a bank initiated a foreclosure action in state court. The trial court and appellate court rejected the borrowers’ arguments that the bank failed to establish that it was the holder of the note and that the loan violated the “anti-flipping provision” of the HLPA, which prohibits creditors from knowingly and intentionally making a refinance loan when the new loan does not have reasonable, tangible net benefit to the borrower considering all of the circumstances—i.e. “flipping” a home loan. The Supreme Court reviewed the state’s stringent standing requirements and held that possession of the note alone is insufficient to establish standing and that the bank failed to provide other evidence sufficient to demonstrate transfer of the note. Although its decision on standing mooted the issue of the alleged HLPA violation, the court decided to address the issue given some party may eventually establish standing to foreclose. The court, in what might be considered dicta, stated that although the “anti-flipping provision” of the HLPA did not specifically include ability to repay as a factor to be considered in assessing the “borrower’s circumstances,” it could find “no conceivable reason why the Legislature in 2003 would consciously exclude consideration of a borrower’s ability to repay the loan as a factor of the borrower’s circumstances.” As such, the court stated that the HLPA’s “reasonable, tangible net benefit” requirement must include as a factor “the ability of a homeowner to have a reasonable chance of repaying a mortgage loan,” and that here the lender failed to do so when it claimed to rely solely on the borrowers’ assertions about their income and failed to review tax returns or other documents to confirm those assertions. Finally, the court also stated that (i) the National Bank Act does not expressly preempt the HLPA; (ii) the bank failed to prove that conforming to the dictates of the HLPA prevents or significantly interferes with its operations; and (iii) the HLPA does not create a discriminatory effect. The Supreme Court reversed the lower courts’ decisions and remanded to the district court with instructions to vacate its foreclosure judgment and to dismiss the bank’s foreclosure action for lack of standing.
Sixth Circuit Holds PTFA Preempts Less Restrictive State Law, May Be Used To Establish State Law Causes Of Action
On February 7, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit held that while the Protecting Tenants at Foreclosure Act (PTFA) provides no private cause of action, plaintiffs may use violations of the PTFA to establish elements of a state law cause of action. Mik v. Fed. Home Loan Mortgage Corp., No. 12-6051, 2014 WL 486214 (6th Cir. Feb. 7, 2014). Tenants filed suit alleging they were unlawfully evicted from their rental home after their landlord defaulted on her mortgage and the property was sold at a foreclosure sale. The trial court held that the tenants only asserted claims under the PTFA, which does not grant a private right of action, and dismissed the complaint. On appeal, the Sixth Circuit affirmed that the PTFA does not provide a private cause of action, and that, under the Supremacy Clause, the PTFA preempts state law that is less restrictive of tenants. However, it held that, because tenants have no opportunity to raise PTFA as a defense in cases where successors in interest do not initiate judicial proceedings, they must be permitted to use available state law causes of action, such as wrongful eviction, to enforce the PTFA’s protections. To hold otherwise, the court explained, would render the PTFA’s protections virtually meaningless because “a foreclosure sale purchaser could ignore its protections with impunity, bypass judicial process and evict any tenant without notice or court process.” The court held that, here, the tenants’ allegations that the successor failed to meet certain requirements of the PTFA were sufficient to support a claim for the tort violation of wrongful eviction. The court did not find that the tenants similarly sufficiently alleged due process violations and outrageous infliction of emotional distress under Kentucky law. The court reversed in part and affirmed in part, and remanded for further proceedings.
On January 30, Nevada’s Clark County District Court ordered the State AG to pay attorneys’ fees in connection with a mortgage servicing vendor’s attempts to obtain discovery in the state’s case alleging the company facilitated fraudulent residential foreclosures, including through so-called “robosigning” tactics. Nevada v. Lender Processing Svcs., Inc., No. A-11-653289-B, (Nev. Dist. Ct. Jan. 30, 2014). The company asserted that the AG abused the discovery process by repeatedly failing to produce materials sufficient to support its claims under the Nevada Deceptive Trade Practices Act. The court rejected the AG’s defense, among others, that the alleged discovery deficiencies simply reflect disagreements between the parties over the evidence necessary to support a claim under state law. Although not a direct issue in this case, the company’s brief repeatedly calls out the AG’s use of outside counsel and notes a challenge to the AG’s use of an outside firm on a contingency fee basis, which is pending before the state supreme court.
On January 23, the California Court of Appeal, Sixth District, held that under the federal Protecting Tenants Against Foreclosure Act (PTFA) a lease survives foreclosure through the end of the lease term, except under limited circumstances, and allows tenants to bring state law claims for violation of the federal law. Nativi v. Deutsche Bank Nat’l Trust Co., No. H037715, 2014 WL 255587 (Cal. Ct. App. Jan. 23, 2014). Two tenants sued to challenge their eviction by a bank that through a nonjudicial foreclosure sale purchased the property the tenants were renting. The trial court held that the eviction was not improper because the foreclosure sale extinguished the lease under California law and, therefore, the bank, as immediate successor in interest did not step into the shoes of the landlord. The trial court held that the PTFA only required the bank to give a 90-day notice to vacate the premises; the PTFA did not require the bank to assist the tenants in recovering possession of the leased premises. On appeal, the tenants challenged the trial court’s interpretation of the PTFA. The appeals court held that the PTFA causes a bona fide lease for a term to survive foreclosure through the end of the lease term, and grants only limited authority of the immediate successor in interest to terminate the lease, with proper notice, upon sale to a purchaser who intends to occupy the unit as a primary residence. The court explained that while the PTFA impliedly overrides state laws that provide less protection, it expressly allows states to retain the authority to enact greater protections. The court added that California law protects bona fide tenancies for a term that continue by operation of the PTFA, and explained that although the PTFA does not itself provide a private right of action, it can be enforced through litigation under state law claims. After finding that there were triable issues of fact, the court reversed the trial court’s order granting summary judgment to the bank and reinstated the tenants’ claims.
On January 10, HUD issued Mortgagee Letter 14-01, which notifies mortgagees that within 30 days they must begin using a new brochure for sending notice to delinquent FHA borrowers. HUD regulations require mortgagees to send the notice to FHA borrowers in default between the 32nd and 60th day of delinquency. Notice includes a cover letter and a brochure with foreclosure-related advice for borrowers. The new brochure, “Saving Your Home: Tips to Avoid Foreclosure,” replaces the “How to Avoid Foreclosure” brochure, HUD-PA-426, and includes information on revised loss mitigation tools available to FHA-insured borrowers. The mortgagee letter also reviews the requirements for the cover letter that must accompany the brochure, and provides a link for mortgagees to order the brochure.
On December 26, Illinois Governor Pat Quinn signed SB 1045, which extends through 2015 an existing state foreclosure protection. Under state law, a borrower facing foreclosure can seek to block a judicial foreclosure sale based on a pending federal HAMP modification. The state protection was set to expire at the close of 2013, but was extended to match the federal extension of HAMP through December 31, 2015.
On November 25, Freddie Mac issued Bulletin 2013-24 and Fannie Mae issued Servicing Guide Announcement SVC-2013-23, which revised numerous short sale and deed-in-lieu of foreclosure (DIL) requirements. The enterprises updated, among other things, eligibility requirements for exceptions to borrower documentation for short sales and DILs by (i) permitting a borrower whose mortgage debt has been discharged in a Chapter 7 bankruptcy to be eligible for an exception to documentation, regardless of FICO score; and (ii) removing mortgages that were originated as investment properties from eligibility for an exception to documentation. The enterprises also required servicers to: (i) submit a short sale or DIL recommendation for approval when the borrower’s cash reserves exceed $50,000; and (ii) delay, or ensure that foreclosure counsel delays, the next legal action in the foreclosure process when such servicers receive a first complete borrower response package (BRP) more than 37 days prior to a scheduled foreclosure sale date, and the evaluation results in an offer to proceed with a short sale or DIL. Finally, the enterprises revised the timeframes within which servicers are required to conduct an expedited review of a completed BRP and updated requirements relating to borrower appeals.
Governor Yellen Addresses Bank Director Removal Over Foreclosure Practices; Lawmakers Press Regulators On Independent Foreclosure Review Details
On November 18, Federal Reserve Chair nominee Janet Yellen responded to a recent inquiry by Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) seeking more details about the Federal Reserve Board’s process for determining whether bank officers or directors should be removed because they directly or indirectly participated in the alleged violations that have resulted in various mortgage servicer settlements. Governor Yellen stated that the Federal Reserve Board “has not, to date, taken any actions removing or prohibiting insiders of the mortgage servicing organizations that were subject to the 2011 and 2012 mortgage servicing enforcement actions for their conduct in connection with servicing or foreclosure activities”, but “[the Federal Reserve Board is], however, continuing to investigate whether such removal or prohibition actions are appropriate.” In addition, on November 15, Senator Warren, joined by Representatives Elijah Cummings (D-MD) and Maxine Waters (D-CA), again pressed the Federal Reserve Board and the OCC to release a public report on the Independent Foreclosure Review process. This latest request follows other similar requests made earlier this year.
On October 28, HUD issued two mortgagee letters related to the servicing of certain FHA-insured loans. Mortgagee Letter 2013-38 provides a list of the first legal actions necessary to initiate a foreclosure and the reasonable diligence timeframes for completing foreclosure and acquisition of title in each state. The letter also outlines acceptable delays in those timeframes due to mediation or bankruptcy, or when a separate legal action is necessary to acquire possession of the title. In addition, the letter provides a new schedule of allowable attorney fees by state for services performed in connection with a mortgage default. The updated reasonable diligence timeframes apply to all cases in which the first legal action to initiate foreclosure occurs on or after November 1, 2013. The updated attorney fees are effective for all cases in which certain actions occur on or after November 1, 2013. Mortgagee Letter 2013-39 updates the timelines servicers must follow for collection communications, advises servicers regarding early engagement in loss mitigation, outlines staffing requirements to support timely borrower communications, and provides guidance on the timing, content, and method of delivery for collection letters and other borrower communications. This letter also advises servicers to pay special attention to borrowers at risk of early payment default and re-default, and provides specialized collection techniques for such borrowers. Finally, this letter details the FHA’s expectations for escalating borrower inquiries and complaints that allege (i) improper analysis of borrower information or denials of loss mitigation options, (ii) foreclosures initiated or continued in violation of HUD’s policy, or (iii) any other violations of HUD collections and loss mitigation policies. This guidance is effective for all mortgages in default as of January 1, 2014.
On October 30, Fannie Mae issued Servicing Guide Announcement SVC-2013-22, which describes various servicing policy updates. First, effective on or after February 1, 2014 for condominium insurance policy renewals, Fannie Mae is prohibiting the use of master or blanket insurance policies that cover multiple unaffiliated projects. Second, effective immediately for mortgage loan modifications, Fannie Mae is requiring that principal forbearance is payable upon the earliest of the maturity of the mortgage loan modification, sale or transfer of the property, refinance of the loan, or payoff of the interest-bearing unpaid principal. Third, effective January 1, 2014 for property inspection reimbursements, the Announcement updates the maximum amounts Fannie Mae will reimburse servicers for property inspections, outlines servicer responsibilities related to reimbursement requests, and clarifies the escalated case resolution process. Finally, the Announcement reminds servicers of their obligation to comply with both the Selling Guide and Servicing Guide, and informs servicers that requirements for maintaining eligibility and related fees were recently updated in the Selling Guide.
On October 18, Freddie Mac issued Bulletin 2013-22, which updates servicing requirements related to foreclosures and management of abandoned properties. The Bulletin states that servicers may, without obtaining prior written approval, instruct foreclosure counsel to conduct a foreclosure in Freddie Mac’s name when applicable law precludes the servicer from conducting the foreclosure in its own name, and establishes other requirements for servicers that do so. The Bulletin also updates requirements regarding vesting the title after foreclosure, stating that for conventional mortgages servicers must ensure that the title to the property is vested in Freddie Mac’s name (if the property is not purchased by a third party), unless it is in Freddie Mac’s best interest to have the title vested in the servicer’s name after the foreclosure sale, and then have the title to the property transferred to Freddie Mac via quitclaim deed. With regard to preservation of abandoned properties, the Bulletin, for example, (i) informs servicers of new expense codes and limits, (ii) introduces new pricing requirements for property preservation expense items that identify the per unit cost that Freddie Mac finds reasonable, and (iii) removes the requirement that servicers obtain pre-approval for reimbursement of certain vacant property registration fees. The Bulletin also announces certain other changes related to foreclosures and abandoned properties.
On October 17, Fannie Mae issued Servicing Guide Announcement SVC-2013-21, which revises servicers’ responsibilities in finalizing standard deed-in-lieu of foreclosures (DILs). Servicers now must (i) complete a final interior property inspection no more than two business days following the receipt of the executed deed and all related documents, (ii) not complete final acceptance of the executed DIL until after they have received the results of the final property inspection, (iii) submit the case into HomeSaver Solutions Network (HSSN), regardless of the transition option chosen, to complete final acceptance of the DIL, and (iv) submit the REOgram within 24 hours of the date the servicer completes final acceptance of the executed DIL. The announcement also excludes from the three-month transition option program eligibility criteria the following requirements: (i) that at least three payments have been made since origination or since the last modification, (ii) that the loan is not 12 or more months delinquent when referred to Fannie Mae for transition option consideration, and (iii) that the borrower is not involved in an active bankruptcy proceeding. Finally, the announcement informs servicers that they are no longer required to ensure that a borrower will assign and transfer any rents to Fannie Mae and will collect rental income.
On October 17, the Massachusetts Division of Banks released final regulations intended to parallel and supplement new mortgage servicing requirements promulgated by the CFPB and included in National Mortgage Servicing Settlement. The new regulations generally (i) prohibit third-party mortgage servicers from initiating a foreclosure when an application for a loan modification is in process, (ii) require that third-party mortgage servicers ensure that a creditor has the right to foreclose and that any foreclosure-related documents are properly prepared and executed based on personal knowledge, and (iii) mandate that third-party servicers provide a single point of contact for a borrower, follow detailed loan modification procedures, communicate with borrowers in a timely manner, and establish policies and procedures that ensure effective monitoring and oversight of certain third party providers (e.g., law firms, foreclosure firms, etc.). The new regulations also, among other things, (i) amend the definition of “debt collector” to include active debt buyers, (ii) clarify the definition of net worth for debt collectors, (iii) expand the limitations on contact with a consumer by a debt collector to include cellular telephone and text messaging, and (iv) add significant events of a debt collector and third party loan servicer that must be reported. The new requirements are effective immediately.
Pennsylvania Supreme Court Holds State Foreclosure Notice Requirements Do Not Impose Jurisdictional Prerequisites on Foreclosure Actions
On September 25, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court held that Pennsylvania state courts have jurisdiction over foreclosure actions where the foreclosing party may have failed to fully comply with the Pennsylvania Emergency Mortgage Act (Act 91) in providing notice of foreclosure. Beneficial Consumer Discount Co. v. Vukman, No. 29-WAP-2012, 2013 WL 5354330 (Pa. Sept. 25, 2013). A state trial court and intermediate appellate court set aside a judgment in a foreclosure action and subsequent sheriff’s sale, holding that the foreclosing party’s failure to comply with the Act 91’s foreclosure notice requirement stripped the state courts’ of subject matter jurisdiction. The Supreme Court disagreed and held that the pre-foreclosure requirements do not implicate the jurisdiction of the court—the borrower’s failure to pay the mortgage provided sufficient cause to pursue foreclosure. The court remanded the case to the trial court without addressing the foreclosing party’s arguments that its notice was sufficient because it was drafted by the state housing authority.