January 16, 2015
Foreclosure of residential real estate is traditionally based on state law and agreements between the borrower and lender in the loan documents themselves. Each state has its own rules governing whether foreclosure should occur in or out of a court proceeding. In Virginia, the vast majority of foreclosures occur in bank-appointed trustee’s sales. State and federal courts review and supervise this activity through lawsuits brought by one or more of the parties, usually borrowers seeking to set aside trustee’s sales. However, they resist efforts to transform the foreclosure process into a judicial one, ruling on various motions brought early in cases.
The mortgage crisis is a national concern involving federal policies promoting home ownership. Is there a federal regulation of nonjudicial residential foreclosure? Through supervision of the mortgage giants Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, and other administrative programs, the federal government is invested in the mortgage origination process. In some cases, a federal agency takes direct title to distressed home loans or the foreclosed real estate itself. I have written about some of those cases in the past few months. For example, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac enjoy property recording tax exemptions. Also, in states like Nevada that allow homeowners associations to foreclose, government agencies find themselves in title litigation when properties are assigned to them pursuant to the terms of federal mortgage programs. In the event of default of a loan tied to a federal program, the government may find its interests aligned more on the creditor’s side.
Foreclosure is one of many remedies available to lenders to collect on defaulted home loan debt. For over 30 years, Congress has come to the aid of consumers in debt collection matters. In 1977, Congress enacted the Fair Debt Collections Practices Act to curb abusive practices by the debt collection industry against consumers. The FDCPA also has the effect of benefiting non-abusive debt collectors harmed by violating competitors. Since its enactment, Congress and the federal courts have clarified the FDCPA’s role in regulating debt collection law firms’ activity obtaining foreclosure sales and deficiency money judgments. Since an attorney’s sale of distressed Virginia real estate in a trustee’s auction is an activity outside of the traditional perception of debt collection, the role of the FDCPA in foreclosure practice has been relatively unclear until the past few years, when a slew of foreclosure contest lawsuits have tested the utility of the statute.
The FDCPA applies to lawyers collecting on home loan debts, not just non-attorney debt collection agencies. Federal courts in Virginia have recognized that the Act also applies when lawyer debt collectors act as trustees in residential foreclosures where the notices include a demand for payment. These consumer protection laws regulate, among other things, the communications between the debt collector and the consumer. In order to conduct a foreclosure practice, the attorney must send notices to the borrower. The FDCPA may provide independent causes of action against the attorney found to have engaged in abusive practices. FDCPA issues thus pervade residential foreclosure matters. Consumers, lenders, and their attorneys must be aware of how this Act affects a contested foreclosure matter. There are many ways the FDCPA may be violated in a foreclosure matter, including the following:
False Representations. Under ordinary circumstances, it is difficult for a party to prove that they are entitled to relief because their opponent is allegedly lying, cheating or stealing. These are weighty accusations; the standard for proof is high, and the defenses are many. In 15 U.S.C. § 1692e, the FDCPA changes the rules of the game in the consumer debt collection context. The consumer doesn’t need to prove that he was actually deceived by the misleading communication. Instead, the consumer must show that false representations in a debt collection communication materially affects a consumer’ ability to make intelligent decisions with respect to the alleged debt. The courts apply a “least sophisticated consumer” standard to alleged false representations. This tends to prevent application of 20/20 hindsight in the interpretation of correspondence. The court will consider whether the correspondence is susceptible to more than one interpretation, one of which is misleading. Between the FDCPA, the Deed of Trust and state law, the debt collection law firm and attorney foreclosure trustee have multiple compliance obligations in preparing correspondence to the borrower.
Validation Notices. The FDCPA goes beyond prohibiting false representations. In 15 U.S.C. § 1692g, Congress mandates that disclosures be put into debt collection correspondence. In nonjudicial foreclosure, notices to the borrower are an essential element of the process. The initial communication must contain several messages, including, but not limited to:
[A] statement that if the consumer notifies the debt collector in writing within the thirty-day period that the debt, or any portion thereof, is disputed, the debt collector will obtain verification of the debt or a copy of a judgment against the consumer and a copy of such verification or judgment will be mailed to the consumer by the debt collector[.]
If the debtor asks for verification of the debt, the collector must cease all collections activity until the verification is made. This not only means ceasing telephone calls, letters and collections lawsuits; it also includes the nonjudicial foreclosure activity.
Since foreclosures are typically conducted by law firms that exclusively pursue debt collection activity, these provisions of the FDCPA have served as the basis for class action lawsuits. Through the FDCPA, the federal government is heavily involved in regulation of nonjudicial, residential foreclosures. Borrowers, banks and their attorneys must be cognizant of the government’s role as regulator of collection of home loans and sometimes as assignee of mortgage debt or foreclosed real estate. Ironically, consumer protection attorneys are litigating FDCPA claims in federal courts against attorneys for their debt collection work on behalf of federally subsidized mortgage giants.