Jan 12, 2011

Massachusetts Court Refuses to Give Clear Title in Foreclosures

In earlier blogs I've mentioned some of the ways that homeowners can resist foreclosures. For at least a year some state and federal courts have favorably entertained homeowner arguments regarding shoddy paperwork, robo-signings, and the inability of those bringing the foreclosure action to "show me the note."

As I've noted these decisions I've cautioned that it's too early to know whether these decisions will be widely followed by other courts or whether these cases will be upheld--or tossed out--on appeal. This can be a problem when you are paying an attorney megabucks to advance your argument. Few of us want to sacrifice thousands of dollars to a lost cause.

Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court Refuses to Give Clear Title to Improperly Foreclosed Homes

Suddenly things have changed a whole lot--for the better from the homeowners' perspective. Late last week the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court--the highest court in that state--unanimously decided that the foreclosures in the cases before it were improper because the all important notice of foreclosure was recorded and published before the banks bringing the foreclosures actually owned the mortgages by way of legal assignments from the original issuers of the mortgage.

In the Massachusetts cases, foreclosures had already occurred and the homeowners had moved out after the bank bought the property at the foreclosure auction. When the banks initiated the foreclosures, they had no proof of the chain of title showing that they now were the mortgage owners.  For example, in one of the cases the original mortgage traveled through six different institutions including the initial issuer and the foreclosing bank.

After the banks decided to clean up their act--and after the foreclosures--they recorded what they alleged was proof of ownership with the local land records office. They then filed actions requesting that a judge issue a "quiet title" order--an order stating that the banks had proven clear title to the properties. Much to the surprise of the banks, the court refused to award them clear title, given that the foreclosure was legally deficient. The fact that the banks tried to correct the record after the foreclosures could not retroactively legitimize the foreclosures themselves or the titles to the property taken by the bank as a result.

The banks appealed this decision to the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, which affirmed the lower court and also ruled that the title held by the banks in the improperly foreclosed property was not clear title--that is, the banks had no legal claim on the property.

This Case Will Likely Affect Foreclosures Nationwide

The potential implications of this decision are staggering. It means, in essence, that an unknown number of homes that have been improperly foreclosed on by the nation's mortgage lenders have title problems that may be difficult or impossible to clear up. This can only result in a brand new real estate crash of gargantuan proportions.

How important is the Massachusetts case? The way law works in the United States, once a major state's highest court decides a new point of law, that decision quickly travels to other states where lawyers use it to achieve the same or similar result. Homeowners who are called on to invest in litigating their foreclosure will be much more willing to part with their money knowing that they have a Massachusetts Supreme Court arrow in their quiver. While every state's foreclosure laws are at least somewhat unique, the basic premise of the Massachusetts case will likely be upheld by most courts that consider it--that is, a bank can't legally foreclose on a mortgage if it can't prove it owns it, and a bank can't go back in time and undo an illegal foreclosure  by obtaining a judicial declaration of clear title.

But in many cases litigation may not be necessary. Banks throughout the country are now on notice that the houses they still own as a result of foreclosure might well be worthless in that they won't be able to prove ownership at the time the foreclosure was initiated and therefore won't be able to pass clear title to prospective purchasers. And future foreclosures may be impossible given the chaotic state of mortgage-related records caused by the mortgage securitization process and sloppy bank practices. The only value banks may be able to glean from their huge stock of houses--whether before or after foreclosure--is whatever they can negotiate with the current owners.

Banks also will likely face class actions brought by thousands or hundreds of thousands of former homeowners who have been illegally foreclosed on. Investors are also likely to sue the banks for illegally jeopardizing their investments, and while banks may be forced to cut fire sale deals with homeowners, investors are unlikely to settle for anything less than they think they are owed. Undecided at present is what will happen to illegally foreclosed homes that have been subsequently purchased by buyers who had no reason to doubt the validity of their title. Will the invalid foreclosure apply to their title or will a doctrine known as "bona fide purchaser for value" invest the buyer with clear title? One thing for sure, the title to these properties is not as secure as was once thought, and the value of these properties may plummet even further because of a possible shaky title.

In closing, I offer a brief quote by concurring Justice Cordy:

"I concur fully in the opinion of the court, and write separately only to underscore that what is surprising about these cases is not the statement of principles articulated by the court regarding title law and the law of foreclosure in Massachusetts, but rather the utter carelessness with which the plaintiff banks documented the titles to their assets. There is no dispute that the mortgagors of the properties in question had defaulted on their obligations, and that the mortgaged properties were subject to foreclosure. Before commencing such an action, however, the holder of an assigned mortgage needs to take care to ensure that this legal paperwork is in order. Although there was no apparent actual unfairness here to the mortgagors, that is not the point. Foreclosure is a powerful act with significant consequences, and Massachusetts law has always required that it proceed strictly in accord with the statutes that govern it....."