December 4, 2014
On January 31, 2012, F&M Services, L.C., conducted a foreclosure sale in Hampton, Virginia. F&M was the foreclosure trustee affiliate of the Richmond law firm Friedman & MacFadyen. Freedom Mortgage Corporation appointed F&M as successor trustee for the foreclosure of Hampton property owned by Ms. Gloria J. Harris. At the sale, Freedom Mortgage purchased the property. Subsequently, Freedom assigned the property to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. Ms. Harris had a VA loan on the property.
In October 2012, Friedman & MacFadyen shut down their operations. That law firm was the target of class action litigation arising out of their debt collection and foreclosure practices, including “robo-signing” and violations of federal debt collection law. This law firm was the subject of an October 25, 2012 article on RichmondBizSense.com. In 2008, Diversified Lending Group, a company owned by Bruce Friedman made an undocumented $6 Million loan to his brother Mark Friedman’s law firm. In 2010, the appointed receiver for DLG entered into an agreement with the Friedman law firm for repayment of the $6 Million. A few months later, Bruce was arrested on investment scam charges. This same foreclosure operation was conducting sales and filing foreclosure accountings for many distressed properties in Virginia.
This did not stop litigation over property after the foreclosure law firm went out of business. Ms. Harris decided to bring a lawsuit in federal court to reverse F&M’s foreclosure sale. Rather than sue the law firm or the successor trustee, she decided to bring suit against the federal government and Freedom Mortgage. Ms. Harris’s suit does not focus on the debt collection rules or “robo-signing.” She alleged that a 30-day notice sent to her by LoanCare Servicing Center, Inc. failed to include information specifically required by the loan documents. For example, the amount demanded in the notice was over-stated by one-third. She also pleads that she made an October 2010 payment that was not credited in the notice amount.
Both the government and the mortgage company brought motions to dismiss the lawsuit. District Court Judge Henry Coke Morgan, Jr. denied their motions. The Court showed appreciation of the fact that the 30-day cure notice did not comply with the specific requirements of the loan documents. Of course, on an initial motion to dismiss, the court does not entertain proof of disputed facts. Later in the litigation the Court would consider the exact amount owed at the time of the notice and Ms. Harris ability to cure the payment default if she had received an accurate and compliant cure notice.
In the continuing fallout from the mortgage crisis beginning in late 2008, the federal government frequently finds itself as a party to complex foreclosure litigation. Previously, I discussed the tax advantages Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac enjoy in recording deeds in land records. In other states, such as Nevada, the federal government finds itself as a party to lien priority disputes between banks and community associations. The collapse of foreclosure operations such as Friedman & MacFadyen may prevent them from continuing their scrutinized practices. However, the homeowners, mortgage investors and even the government may find themselves in title litigation over the sale anyway.
Many lawsuits brought by borrowers after foreclosure sales never survive the initial motions filed by the defendant lenders. Although the October 17, 2014 opinion does not mention the law firm, I wonder if F&M’s role in Ms. Harris’ foreclosure afforded her case closer attention.
If you have interest in real property that has in the title report a trustee’s deed from an now out-of-business debt collection law firm, contact a qualified attorney in order to protect your rights.
November 21, 2014
Among the controversies of the mortgage foreclosure crisis is that of “Robo-Signing.” A homeowner may receive notice that the original mortgage lender assigned their rights under the loan documents to another financial institution. When a representative of a lender signs paperwork to foreclose on a property, how does the borrower (or anyone else) know whether that company has authority from the originating lender to foreclose?
Janis O’Connor owned real estate near the Appomattox-Buckingham Virginia State Forest. On March 31, 2011, Deutsche Bank foreclosed on her property for nonpayment. After the foreclosure sale, Ms. O’Connor filed suit, alleging that the foreclosure was not valid because the bank lacked the authority of a proper successor to the mortgage company that originated her loan. O’Connor filed suit on her own, without an attorney representing her.
Can a Borrower Sue for “Wrongful Foreclosure?”
Janis O’Connor sued her lender (and others) on a number of legal theories, including “Wrongful Foreclosure.” She alleges that unknown persons forged assignments of her mortgage in a fraudulent scheme to foreclose on her home. She writes that this robo-signing was exposed on the television program, “60 Minutes.” The bank brought a Motion to Dismiss. On October 6, 2014, the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Virginia found that Virginia law does not recognize a claim called “Wrongful Foreclosure.” Judge Moon observed that the borrower must be able to allege a claim for breach of loan documents, fraud, or some other recognized legal theory. Judge Moon expressed a concern that Ms. O’Connor inadequately alleged any causal relationship between the “robo-signing” and her losses.
On May 14, 2014, I posted an article to this blog about legal challenges to the validity of foreclosures on the grounds that the lender committed technical errors in navigating the loan default through the trustee’s auction. Courts are reluctant to set aside a completed foreclosure sale. The technical breaches must have a strong connection to the relief requested by the borrower.
“Show Me the Note”
The Code of Virginia addresses situations where the lender struggles to come up with documents evidencing its authority to proceed with the foreclosure. Va. Code § 55-59.1(B) requires the lender to submit to the trustee what’s called a Lost Note Affidavit. These provisions also require the lender to notify the borrower in writing that the promissory note is lost and that it will request the trustee to proceed after 14 days. The lender must include language notifying the borrower that if she believes that some other party is the true holder of the note, she must file a lawsuit asking the local circuit court to order the foreclosing bank to post bond or make some other protection against any conflicting claims. That Court would then decide whether a bond or some other security must be posted to protect the borrower. The mere absence of the original note cannot serve as a basis to reverse a foreclosure: “If the trustee proceeds to sale, the fact that the instrument is lost or cannot be produced shall not affect the authority of the trustee to sell or the validity of the sale.” Va. Code § 55-59.1(B). These provisions require borrowers to file suit before the foreclosure takes place in order to litigate over “show me the note” issues. Ms. O’Connor did not file suit until almost two years after the foreclosure sale. From the borrower’s perspective, she hasn’t been damaged until the foreclosure is complete. From the Court’s perspective, it is sometimes easier to evaluate matters prospectively than to undo the completed transaction.
Judge Moon remarks that this statute does not actually require the lender to provide the borrower with the lost note affidavit itself. The failure to provide this item cannot serve as the legal basis to reverse a bank foreclosure. Technical breaches of the notice requirements cannot, on their own, serve as a basis to invalidate a completed foreclosure sale.
Judge Moon dismissed Ms. O’Connor’s complaint, giving her leave to amend her claims for Breach of Contract and Fraud. Ms. O’Connor has filed an Amended Complaint, and the sufficiency of the amended lawsuit has not been decided by the court as of this blog post. Regardless as to how Ms. O’Connor’s case is resolved, it provides some important reminders about foreclosure contests:
- Timing of Foreclosure Contest: If a borrower wants to challenge the validity of a foreclosure, their best interests may be served in filing suit after the foreclosure notice is submitted and before the auction occurs. This does not guarantee that the “show me the note” allegation will provide a remedy for the borrower, but it does preserve the issue.
- Value of Title Insurance: Investors who desire to purchase a property in foreclosure without obtaining title insurance run the risk of being made a party to a lawsuit like Ms. O’Connor’s which may go on for months or years.
- Duties of Foreclosure Trustees: An attorney acting in the capacity as a foreclosure trustee under the loan documents may owe duties to parties other than the bank. I discuss this issue in a related May 21, 2014 blog post. However, he doesn’t have an attorney-client relationship with non-clients.
Lenders and borrowers are not the only parties that may have a property interest challenged by title problems from a past, present or future foreclosure. The purchaser in the foreclosure sale, the spouse of the borrower or purchaser, an investor in a real estate company, or a tenant may have rights at stake in foreclosure title litigation. If your property rights are threatened by such an action, contact a qualified attorney.
November 4, 2014
Today’s blog post is the third installment in a series on the emerging trend of foreclosure of condominium association liens on private property owners. In a previous article, I discussed a new appellate court decision, Chase Plaza Condominium v. Wachovia Bank, recognizing the right of an association under the D.C. Code to sell a condo unit in foreclosure to satisfy unpaid assessments, thereby extinguishing the much larger bank mortgage. This installment examines how future, similar attempts may be viewed under the Virginia Condominium Act.
Presently, Lenders Have Priority over Association Liens in Virginia:
In 2003, the Supreme Court of Virginia heard a case involving similar facts as in the Chase Plaza case under the corresponding portion of the Virginia Condominium Act. Va. Code Sect. 55-79.84 provides that a properly recorded Condo assessment lien has priority over other encumbrances except for:
- Real Estate Tax Liens;
- Liens Recorded Before the Condominium Declaration;
- First Mortgages or First Deeds of Trusts Recorded Before the Assessment Lien.
That same code section provides for the distribution of the proceeds of the association foreclosure sale, differing materially from the aforesaid lien priorities:
- Reasonable Expenses of the Sale & Attorney’s Fees;
- Lien for Unit Owner’s Assessments;
- Any Remaining Inferior Claims of Record;
- The Unit Owners Themselves.
Since the statute provides for differing priorities for liens and distribution, I’m not surprised that this issue was litigated. At the Virginia Supreme Court, Colchester Towne Condominium Council argued that these provisions permitted foreclosure of a unit for its owner’s failure to pay assessments. This Association asserted that before the bank received anything, the proceeds would first be paid for expenses, taxes or the assessments.
Wachovia Bank argued that it had a priority over the Condominium Association for both the lien and payment. In a narrow 4-3 decision, the majority agreed with the bank. Justice Lawrence Koontz found that the General Assembly intended for the first mortgage to get paid before the association assessment liens. The Court observed that purchase money mortgages are the “primary fuel that drives the development engine in a condominium complex.” Justice Koontz remarked that a contrary result (the D.C. and Nevada cases come to mind as examples) would not adequately protect the lender’s interests.
Justice Elizabeth Lacy wrote for the three justice minority, which included now-incumbent Chief Justice Cynthia Kinser and Chief Justice-elect Donald Lemons. They favored permitting the association to conduct the foreclosure sale and give the unpaid assessments priority over the mortgage. However, they would permit the lender’s lien to survive the foreclosure process, burdening the property purchased at the auction. None of the justices on the Supreme Court at that time published an opinion that would give an Association powers like those found in the Chase Plaza case.
As of the date of this article, the conventional wisdom followed by many owners of distressed condominium properties in Virginia has a legal basis on this 4-3 decision from 11 years ago. I predict that in a matter of months or years, this same issue will resurface in the General Assembly or the Supreme Court. I don’t know to what extent the national sea change will have a ripple effect in Virginia. It is not possible to predict to what extent, if any, associations may acquire greater rights against banks and homeowners. However, local governments rely on associations to pay to maintain certain common areas and services. Cities and counties continue to seek ways to avoid budget shortfalls. New land development brings the prospect of additional tax dollars. These associations have a financial crisis of their own for the reasons I spoke of in my prior post. The financial crisis is greater today than 11 years ago, and so are the challenges to private property rights.
Where Does All This Leave Property Owners and Their Advisors?
For a homeowner, keeping one’s home and paying bills is a more immediate human concern than ending the larger rescission. What do these storm clouds mean to Virginia condominium owners? A few thoughts:
- Escrow Accounts. Courts and pundits suggest bank escrow of HOA dues may be the answer. Writer Megan McArdle points out, a “vast regulatory thicket surrounds mortgage lending.” Throwing association governance and budget issues into that thicket does not seem like an attractive option to owners, who don’t always find themselves aligned with their association’s decisions. Making banks party to disputes between Associations and owners would complicate matters further.
- Banks Shy From Financing Condos. The Wall Street Journal Reports that David Stevens, president of the Mortgage Bankers Association, expects mortgage rates to rise in Nevada. The Mortgage Bankers Association also reports that sometimes HOAs won’t accept payments from them or even tell them the amount due. I expect banks to strengthen due diligence of a condominium association’s governing documents, policies and financials before agreeing to lend on a property subject to its covenants.
- Home Buyer’s Focus on Contingency. In purchasing a condominium or another type of property in an association, a buyer has a window of time to review the association disclosures and either get out of the deal or move forward. If the banks start escrowing association fines, etc., this may become a greater focus in the home-buying process.
- Cash Only Trend Prevails in Condominium Sales. In many condominiums, unit sales are conducted in all cash. The cash only option certainly cuts out the problem of the purchase money-lender. This also cuts most owner-occupants out of the house hunt, and decreases the number of owner-occupants in the association, making the place less attractive to lenders. This does not seem to be a solution.
One option that I haven’t seem discussed elsewhere is this: What if, when unit owners default on their obligations, the property is put up for foreclosure, and the lender, association (or any other investor), could submit competing bids to a trustee? The HOA would get paid, and the lender could get the collateral property. I doubt this would work under the existing statutory framework, but perhaps it would work better than an escrow.
If you own a property that is subject to the covenants of a condominium or homeowners association, and the association has threatened to enforce its lien against your property, contact a qualified real estate attorney to protect your rights. In order to protect your rights, you may need to prepare for a sea change in the balance of powers in home ownership.
If you are considering an opportunity to purchase a property at an association assessment lien foreclosure sale, retain qualified counsel to advise you regarding related risks, and carefully consider purchase of title insurance.
Case opinions discussed: Colchester Towne Condominium Council v. Wachovia Bank, 266 Va. 46, 581 S.E.2d 201 (2003)
October 29, 2014
On October 16, 2014, I asked in a blog post, “What Rights Do Lenders and Owners Have Against Property Association Foreclosure?” In that installment, I discussed a Nevada foreclosure case that was not between the borrower and the lender. It reflected a litigation trend between the lender, homeowners association and the federal government. Today’s article continues exploration of this legal development emerging in some states. Some courts are finding that homeowners associations have the right to foreclosure on private property for failure to pay fines, dues and special assessments. Several recent court rulings found that HOA foreclosures can extinguish the lien of the bank who financed the purchase of the property. Owners, banks and federal housing agencies find this trend an alarming sea change in the home mortgage markets.
Evaluating Competing Foreclosure Rights:
Today’s blog post focuses on where all of these legal developments put lenders when an Association attempts to enforce a lien for nonpayment of fines, assessments and dues. In a mortgage, the borrower agrees to put the property up as collateral to finance the purchase. The loan documents received at closing outline the payment obligations and the rights of foreclosure. Association obligations, on the other hand, are determined by the governing body of the Association according to the Bylaws. In many states, statutes provide for Associations to record liens in land records for unpaid assessments. Some statutes also allow Associations to conduct foreclosure sales to satisfy unpaid assessments by following certain procedures. Where state law allows, the Association’s authority to foreclose isn’t based on the owner’s agreement to make the property collateral. The statutes and recorded covenants put the buyer on notice of these Association rights.
Journalist Megan McArdle discusses on BloombergView how in about 20 states, HOAs can put homes up for auction (without the permission of the lender) and sell them to satisfy little more than outstanding dues (perhaps a four figure amount) to an investor, and the bank’s mortgage lien (six or seven figures, likely) is extinguished from the real estate. Ms. McArdle remarks that this doesn’t make a huge amount of sense, and I tend to agree with her. Some adjustment must come to the regulatory landscape in order to preserve both property rights and market liquidity.
Personal Experience with Northern Virginia Condominium Ownership:
Before I got married, I owned and lived in a condominium in Northern Virginia for over nine years. I remember hearing discussions, whether at the annual meeting or in the elevators, that some owners in the building fell on hard times and had kept on paying their taxes and mortgages but had stopped paying their condo association dues. Those distressed homeowners felt confident that while the association might consider other collection activity, it would not be able to sell their unit in foreclosure, to the prejudice of both the mortgage lender and the owner. At that time, the right to occupy the unit had a unique value to them.
This made sense to me, because the mortgage lender usually has more “skin” in the game in terms of the dollars invested. Can this strategy continue to hold up in light of new national trends in HOA foreclosure? Changes have already reached the opposite shores of the Potomac in an August 28, 2014 District of Columbia Court of Appeals decision.
Bank and Association Battle in D.C. Courts Over Priority of Liens on Condo Unit:
Two months ago, the Court of Appeals published an opinion that will likely change the lending environment for D.C. condominiums. In July 2005, Brian York financed $280,000.00 to purchase a unit in the Chase Plaza Condominium in Washington, D.C.. Unfortunately, he became unable to continue making payments on his mortgage and Association dues after the mortgage crisis began in 2008. In April 2009, the Association recorded a lien of $9,415 in land records. The Association foreclosed, selling the entire home to an investor for only $10,000.00. The Association deducted its share and then forwarded the $478.00 balance to the lender. The bank and Association found themselves in Court over whether the Association had the right to wipe off the bank’s six figure mortgage lien in the five-figure sale to the investor.
The Court of Appeals found that under the D.C. condominium association foreclosure statute, the lender gets paid from the left-over proceeds, and to the extent the lien is not fully satisfied, it no longer attaches to the real estate. (It then becomes an unsecured debt against Mr. York, who went into bankruptcy).
J.P. Morgan, the successor in interest to the original lender, pointed out that such a conclusion, “will leave mortgage lenders unable to protect their interests, which in turn will cripple mortgage lending in the District of Columbia.” The Association and investor responded that the alternative leaves HOAs often unable to enforce their liens or find buyers in foreclosure sales. The Court suggested that lenders can protect their own liens by escrowing the HOA dues, like property taxes.
The decisions of Nevada, the District of Columbia and other jurisdictions do not control the Supreme Court of Virginia or the General Assembly. However, the same economic and human forces exert pressure on lending and home ownership in Virginia as they do in the District of Columbia. What is the current law in Virginia? How are owners and lenders to react to these changes here? The answer will come in the next installment in this series on Community Association Foreclosure.
If you are the beneficiary or servicer of a loan on distressed real estate subject to a lien of a community association, contact qualified legal counsel to protect your interest in the collateral.
Case opinion discussed: Chase Plaza Condominium Ass’n, Inc., et al. v. J.P. Morgan Chase Bank, 98 A.3d 166 (2014).
July 24, 2014
Last week I focused on first-time home buyers and new opportunities for state tax-exempt estate planning. This week’s post continues on the theme of family. Spouses who own Virginia property together may enjoy special protections against the claims of their individual creditors. This special form of ownership is called “Tenancy by the Entirety.” For this to arise, the husband and wife must own in unity of (a) time, (b) title, (c) interest and (d) possession. These requirements may be inferred if the deed specifically conveys to the husband and wife by tenancy by the entirety or with an intent to create a right of survivorship.
As far as creditors are concerned, the couple jointly owns an undivided 100% interest. This ancient doctrine continues to be applied by Virginia courts in contemporary real estate controversies. This post focuses on ways creditors may succeed in spite of this manner of holding title:
- Joint Consent. Neither spouse may sever the tenancy by his sole act. Likewise, one spouse cannot convey the property unilaterally. This becomes significant if one spouse attempts to mortgage the property without the consent of the other. However, the spouses may cause the termination of the tenancy by the entirety ownership or jointly liability for a lien or judgment. For example, when the owners take out a mortgage, if properly perfected, that lien will persevere against acts of divorce and/or bankruptcy unless exceptions apply. Also, if only one spouse files for bankruptcy, the tenancy by the entirety property remains outside of the Bankruptcy Estate.
- Divorce. Completion of a divorce transforms a tenancy by the entirety into a tenancy in common, the ordinary form of co-ownership. In equitable distribution, a Judge has considerable latitude in dividing up marital property.
- Death. Because of the right of survivorship, no transfer of title occurs to the survivor upon the death of a spouse. Upon death, the interest of the surviving spouse converts from a tenancy by the entirety to a sole ownership interest. At that time, the property then becomes subject to creditor claims.
- Fraud. If the husband and wife attempt to work a fraud on a creditor by improper use of a tenancy by the entirety conveyance, it is unlikely that the court would permit the fraud. However, if the couple sells real estate held in a tenancy by the entirety, the proceeds of that sale automatically also enjoy the same status as the real estate, unless there is an agreement to the contrary. A transfer from the husband and wife holding in tenancy by the entirety to the sole name of one of the spouses does not subject those funds to the claims of the other spouse’s creditors.
The gist of tenancy by the entirety flows intuitively from the legal understanding of marriage. It possesses a seemingly “magical” quality when it comes to protecting against many individual creditor claims. However, it can be difficult applying the doctrine to a family’s individual circumstances. If you have questions about Tenancy by the Entirety, whether as a spouse or a creditor, contact a qualified attorney.
U.S. v. Parr, File No. 3:10-cv-061 (W.D. Va. Oct. 6, 2011) (Moon, J.) (interpreting Va. law).
In Re Nagel, 298 B.R. 582 (Bankr. E.D. Va. 2003).
May 29, 2014
On May 20th I attended the 32nd Annual Real Estate Practice Seminar sponsored by the Virginia Law Foundation. Attorney Jim Cox gave a presentation entitled, Affecting Real Estate at Death: the Virginia Real Property Transfer on Death Act. Jim Cox presented an overview of this new estate planning tool that went into effect July 1, 2013.
Use of Transfer on Death (“TOD”) beneficiary designations for depository and retirement accounts is widespread. This 2013 Act allows owners of real estate to make TOD designations by recording a Revocable Transfer on Death Deed in the public land records.
The introduction of TOD Deeds is of interest to anyone involved in estate planning or real estate settlements. The following are 8 key aspects of this development in Virginia law:
- Not Really a “Deed.” A normal deed conveys an interest in real property to the grantee. A TOD Deed is a will substitute that becomes effective only if properly recorded and not revoked prior to death. The Act’s description of this instrument as a “deed” will likely be a source of confusion.
- Formal Requirements. A TOD Deed must meet the formal requirements of the statute in order to effect the intent of the owner. It must contain granting language (a.k.a. words of conveyance) appropriate for a TOD Deed. It is not effective unless recorded in land records prior to the death of the transferor. The statute contains an optional TOD Deed form. Due to the formal requirements, I cannot image advising someone to do one of these without a qualified attorney.
- Beneficiary Does Not Need to be Notified. Although a TOD Deed becomes public when filed, the transferor does not need to notify the recipient. The beneficiary may not learn about the designation until after the transferor’s death. At some point, the local government will change the addressee on the property tax bills.
- Freely Revocable. The transferor can revoke the TOD designation at any time prior to death. In fact, a TOD Deed cannot be made irrevocable. A revocation instrument must be recorded in land records.
- Unintended Title Problems. The Act takes pains to avoid creating title defects on the transferor’s title prior to death.
- Can be Disclaimed. The beneficiary can disclaim the transfer after the death of the transferor.
- Subject to Liens. Recording a TOD Deed does not trigger a due-on-sale clause in a mortgage. At the date of death, the beneficiary’s interest is subject to any enforceable liens on the property.
- Creditor Claims & Administration Costs. The beneficiary’s interest in the property is subject to any general claims of the transferor’s creditors or the expenses of the estate administration. Such claims may attach up to one year after the date of the transferor’s death. For this reason, the TOD beneficiary’s interest in the property or the proceeds of its sale will be uncertain until that 12 month period expires. However, taxing authorities, insurance companies, HOA’s and banks will expect payment prior to the end of those 12 months.
Each family has unique estate planning needs. The Va. Real Property TOD Act is a new gadget in the toolbox for crafting a plan that addresses individual desires and circumstances. Combining TOD Deeds with other estate planning tools such as wills and trusts requires careful integration to avoid unintended consequences. Estate planning and real estate practitioners will overcome any initial reluctance to use of TOD Deeds as they become subject to the test of time.
If you learn that you are the beneficiary of a TOD deed and are uncertain as to your rights and responsibilities with respect to the property, contact an experienced real estate attorney.
May 21, 2014
In Virginia, unlike some other states, a foreclosure is a transaction and not necessarily a court proceeding. A trustee appointed by the lender auctions the property. The proceeds of the sale must be applied to reduce the outstanding loan amount and transaction costs. A Trustee has special duties to the parties as their “fiduciary.” What are the fiduciary duties of foreclosure trustees?
At real estate closings, settlement attorneys present borrowers with a document entitled “Deed of Trust.” In this document, the borrower pledges the purchased property as collateral. The Deed of Trust provides the legal framework for the lender to pursue foreclosure in a default. It also procedurally protects the borrower’s property rights. When the lender records the Deed of Trust in the land records, a lien encumbers the property until the debt is released. The Deed of Trusts names one or more persons as Trustees for the property. It describes the borrower as the creator of the trust and the bank as the beneficiary. If the borrowers avoid falling into persistent default of their loan obligations, this trust language is largely irrelevant.
If the borrower experiences economic hardship and falls behind on their payments, however, they will begin to receive notices referencing the Deed of Trust. The bank may appoint a Substitute Trustee to handle the foreclosure. The culmination of the foreclosure process is the Foreclosure Trustee’s public auction of the property to satisfy the distressed loan. What does the foreclosure process have to do with trusts and trustees? Generally, under Virginia law, a breach of a trustee’s duties gives rise to a Breach of Fiduciary Duty legal claim. Lawyers like to pursue these claims because they may impose duties and remedies not articulated in the contract. Does this trust relationship give the homeowner greater or fewer protections against breaches by the bank’s agents during the process?
On May 16, 2014, I posted an article about the materiality of technical errors committed by the mortgage investors in the foreclosure process. That post focused on two new April 2014 court opinions providing some guidance on what remedies borrowers may have for those errors. Those new court opinions also provide fresh guidance about fiduciary duties of foreclosure trustees. Today’s blog post is about dealing with trust issues in foreclosure.
Bonnie Mayo v. Wells Fargo Bank & Samuel I. White, PC:
The Deed of Trust on Bonnie Mayo’s Williamsburg home listed Wells Fargo Bank as the “beneficiary” and the foreclosure law firm Samuel I. White, PC, as the Trustee. Mayo’s post-foreclosure sale lawsuit alleged that the White Firm breached its fiduciary duties to the borrower. For example, Mayo’s Deed of Trust required the lender to state in written default notices that she may sue to assert her defenses to foreclosure. The lender’s notices did not advise her of this, and she did not sue until after the foreclosure occurred. The Federal Judge considering her claims noted that there is conflicting legal authority on the extent to which a foreclosure Trustee can be sued for Breach of Fiduciary Duty. In his April 11, 2014 opinion, Judge Jackson observed that under Virginia law, a Foreclosure Trustee is a fiduciary for both the borrowing homeowner and the mortgage investor. While courts impose those duties on Foreclosure Trustees set forth in the Deed of Trust, they are reluctant to impose all general trust law principles.
Judge Jackson concluded that in addition to those duties set forth or incorporated into the Deed of Trust, the only other imposed on Trustees is the duty of impartiality. For example a foreclosure sale must be set aside where a trustee failed to refrain from placing himself in a position where his personal interests conflicted with the interests of the borrower and the lender. For example, the Trustee may not purchase the auctioned property himself or assist the bank in setting its bid. The Federal Judge dismissed Ms. Mayo’s Breach of Fiduciary Duty claims against the White Law firm, since impartiality was not adequately pled in the lawsuit.
Squire v. Virginia Housing & Development Authority:
In an April 17, 2014 opinion, the Supreme Court of Virginia focused on the limited nature of a Foreclosure Trustee’s powers. In this case, the Deed of Trust required the lender to try to conduct a face-to-face meeting with the borrower between the default and the foreclosure. The lender’s Trustee foreclosed, even though the lender did not make such an effort. The Court observed that the trustee’s authority to foreclose is set forth in the Deed of Trust. The Trustee’s power to conduct the sale does not accrue until the specified conditions are met. The borrowers’ failure to make monthly payments does not constitute a waiver of their right to expect the lender’s appointee to follow the rules. The fact that the borrower is in default does not authorize the mortgage investor and the trustee to disregard the Borrower’s protections set forth in the Deed of Trust and any incorporated regulations.
This holding is consistent with Virginia’s practice of conducting foreclosures out of court. The procedures set forth in the deed of trust provide the lender with a means of selling the property without the time & expense of a judicial sale. If the procedural nature of those rights is not preserved, then foreclosure disputes will go to court more often, depriving the lenders of the convenience of non-judicial foreclosure.
Ms. King alleged that the Foreclosure Trustee breached its fiduciary duty by conducting the sale prior to a required face-to-face meeting with the borrower. The Supreme Court of Virginia found that the Breach of Fiduciary duty claim was improperly dismissed by the Norfolk judge. The Court sent the case back down for consideration of damages.
These two new court opinions show how breach of fiduciary duty claims against foreclosure trustees require legal interpretation of the deed of trust. If the lender and trustee digress from its procedures, impartiality may be easier to prove.
Discussed Case Opinions:
Credits: Trust Arch photo credit: Lars Plougmann via photopin cc Williamsburg photo credit: Corvair Owner via photopin cc (for illustrative/informational purposes only. Depicts colonial Williamsburg, not Ms. Mayo’s home)
May 16, 2014
If a bank makes a technical error in the foreclosure process, what difference does it make? This blog post explores new legal developments regarding the materiality of breaches of mortgage documents. Residential foreclosure is a dramatic remedy. A lender extended a large sum of credit. Borrowers stretch themselves to make a down payment, monthly payments, repairs, association dues, taxes, etc. If financial hardships present obstacles to borrowers making payments, usually they will do what they can to keep their home.
In order to foreclose, lenders must navigate a complex web of provisions in the loan documents and relevant law. Note holders frequently commit errors in processing a payment default through a foreclosure sale. Sometimes these breaches are flagrant, such as foreclosing on a property to which that lender does not hold a lien. Usually they are less significant in the prejudice to the borrower’s rights. For example, written notices may not follow contract provisions or regulations verbatim, or a notice went out a day late or by regular mail instead of certified mail. Regardless of their significance, these rules were either willingly adopted by the parties or represent public policies reduced to law.
When homeowners challenge foreclosures in Court, lenders frequently argue in defense that the errors committed by the bank in the foreclosure process are not material. One could express this argument in another way by quoting the title lyric to British band The Smiths’ 1984 song, “What difference does it make?” The lenders typically highlight that the borrowers fell behind on their payments, did not come current, and do not have a present ability to come current on their loans. Borrowers face an uphill battle convincing judges to set aside or block foreclosure trustee sales or award money damages for non-material breaches. However, last month, two new court opinions illustrate a trend towards allowing remedies to homeowners for technical breaches. A relatively small award of money damages may not give homeowners their house back, but it may provide some consolation to the borrower and provide an incentive to mortgage investors, servicers and foreclosure trustees to strengthen their compliance programs.
Content of Written Notices Required by Mortgage Documents:
On June 13, 2010, Wells Fargo Bank sent Bonnie Mayo a letter telling her he was in default on her mortgage on her Williamsburg residence. The letter indicated that if she failed to cure within 30 days, Wells Fargo would proceed with foreclosure. The letter informed her that, “[i]f foreclosure is initiated, you have the right to argue that you did keep your promises and agreements under the Mortgage Note and Mortgage, and to present any other defenses you may have.” However, the Mortgage required the lender to state in the written notice the borrower’s “right to reinstate after acceleration and right to bring a court action to assert the non-existence of a default or any other defense of Borrower to acceleration and sale.” Ms. Mayo’s notice did not include this language. She did not bring a lawsuit until after the date of the foreclosure sale.
In her post-foreclosure lawsuit, Mayo alleged (among other claims) that this breach entitled her to rescind the foreclosure and receive money damages. Wells Fargo moved to dismiss this claim on the grounds that the difference between the contractually required language and the actual letter was immaterial. In an April 11, 2014 opinion, Judge Raymond Jackson observed that just because a breach is non-material does not mean it is not a breach at all. He reached a conclusion contrary to a relatively recent opinion of another judge in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia.
Virginia courts recognize claims to set aside foreclosure sales for “weighty” reasons but not “mere technical” grounds. Judge Jackson suggested that the bar may be higher for a homeowner to set aside a foreclosure sale after it occurs than to block it from happening in the first place. The Court declined to dismiss this claim on the sufficiency of the notices. Judge Jackson found that the materiality of this breach was a factual dispute requiring additional facts and argument to resolve.
A foreclosure is less susceptible to legally challenge after a subsequent purchaser goes to closing. Thus, the bank’s omission of language informing the borrower of her right to sue prior to the foreclosure carried a heightened potential for prejudice. Whether Ms. Mayo had a likelihood of prevailing in an earlier-filed lawsuit is a different story.
Failure to Conduct a Face-to-Face Meeting Prior to Foreclosure:
In 2002, Kim Squire King financed the purchase of a home in Norfolk, Virginia, with a Virginia Housing Development Authority mortgage. Her loan documents incorporated U.S. Department of Housing & Urban Development regulations requiring a lender to make reasonable efforts to arrange a face-to-face interview with the borrower between default and foreclosure. Loss of employment caused King to go into default on her VHDA loan in March 2010. VHDA never offered King a face-to-face meeting. VHDA instituted foreclosure wherein the trustee sold King’s property to a third-party.
King filed a lawsuit seeking money damages and an order rescinding the foreclosure sale. The judge in Norfolk agreed with defense arguments that the error was not grounds to set aside the completed foreclosure or award compensatory damages. The court dismissed the lawsuit. Squire appealed to the Supreme Court of Virginia. The Justices upheld the dismissal of her request to set aside the completed foreclosure sale. The lawsuit failed to allege facts sufficient to show that the sale was fraudulent or grossly inadequate.The Supreme Court distinguished King’s situation from legal precedents where the borrower filed suit prior to the foreclosure. Surprisingly, the Court found that the trial judge erred in dismissing King’s claim for money damages arising out of the failure to arrange the face to face meeting. The Justices remanded the case to proceed on the damages issue.
When mortgage servicers and foreclosure trustees commit technical errors, what difference does it make? These new legal decisions show increasingly nuanced analysis of these particular issues. The materiality of the lender’s breach depends on a number of factors, including:
- The borrower’s apparent ability to reinstate the loan. If it is unlikely that the homeowner will get back on track, denying the bank foreclosure makes less sense.
- Did the borrower file suit before or after the foreclosure sale? A lawsuit can delay a foreclosure until the borrowers enforce their rights under the loan documents and incorporated regulations. However, unless the borrowers have a strategy to work-out the distressed loan or otherwise favorably dispose of the property, a pre-foreclosure lawsuit may only delay.
- The relationship between the technical error and the relief requested by the borrower. For example, if the loan documents require a notice to go out by certified mail and it only goes out by first class mail, but the borrower received it anyway, then there isn’t any prejudice.
- Money damages suffered by the borrower that arose out of the technical breach. Borrowers seek to keep their homes and to pay according to their abilities. The U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia and the Supreme Court of Virginia show an increasing willingness to hold lenders monetarily responsible for prejudicial lender breaches in the foreclosure process. A legal claim that partially offsets the lender’s judgment for the balance of the loan post-foreclosure may provide some consolation but may not avoid bankruptcy.
Discussed Case Opinions: