Friday, October 08, 2010

The Ball and Chain of Title

It has been talked about round the blogosphere for yonks now that the financial gamesmanship of mortgage securitization, almost from the beginning, was running well in advance of the legal niceties.

In the olden days when Guambat was a young lawyer, a loan was made, attached to a promissory note and secured by a piece of property in a solemn, monogamist and ever-lasting marriage. Hardly any action involving title could be finalized without producing every piece of paper signed off by every interested party, notarized and certified under penalty of perjury.

But securitization tore apart that happy home, slicing, dicing, and re-splicing all the rights, powers and interests in ways previously seen as impractical legally, if not a bit over the top in a sluttish sense.

Whereas the one heretofore monogamist mortgage once knew its related parts, now who knew who owned, controlled or beneficially or otherwise benefited from capital, income or pee stream?

And if the marriage broke up for whatever reason, what King could possibly put the Humpty Dumpty melange of interests together again?

Well, it's beginning to look like a King-hit on the entire mortgage industry. The second fallout from the screaming securitization of the financial wizards.

Will this one be as bail-outable as the first? Shall Guambat begin passing the plate?

The Foreclosure Scandal Begins to Hit Home

In foreclosure controversy, problems run deeper than flawed paperwork

Millions of U.S. mortgages have been shuttled around the global financial system - sold and resold by firms - without the documents that traditionally prove who legally owns the loans.

Now, as many of these loans have fallen into default and banks have sought to seize homes, judges around the country have increasingly ruled that lenders had no right to foreclose, because they lacked clear title.

These fundamental concerns over ownership extend beyond those that surfaced over the past two weeks amid reports of fraudulent loan documents and corporate "robo-signers."

The court decisions, should they continue to spread, could call into doubt the ownership of mortgages throughout the country, raising urgent challenges for both the real estate market and the wider financial system.

For struggling homeowners trying to avoid foreclosure, it could mean an opportunity to challenge the banks they argue have been unhelpful at best and deceptive at worst. But it also threatens to leave them in prolonged limbo, stuck in homes they still can't afford and waiting for the foreclosure process to begin anew.

For big banks, "there's a possible nightmare scenario here that no foreclosure is valid," said Nancy Bush, a banking analyst from NAB Research. If millions of foreclosures past and present were invalidated because of the way the hurried securitization process muddied the chain of ownership, banks could face lawsuits from homeowners and from investors who bought stakes in the mortgage securities - an expensive and potentially crippling proposition.

The company, known as MERS, was created more than a decade ago by the mortgage industry, including mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, GMAC, and the Mortgage Bankers Association.

MERS allowed big financial firms to trade mortgages at lightning speed while largely bypassing local property laws throughout the country that required new forms and filing fees each time a loan changed hands, lawyers say.

The idea behind it was to build a centralized registry to track loans electronically as they were traded by big financial firms. Without this system, the business of creating massive securities made of thousands of mortgages would likely have never taken off. The company's role caused few objections until millions of homes began to fall into foreclosure. In August, the Maine Supreme Court threw out a foreclosure case because "MERS did not have a stake in the proceedings and therefore had no standing to initiate the foreclosure action."

In May, a New York judge dismissed another case because the assignment of the loan by MERS to the bank HSBC was "defective," he said. The plaintiff's counsel seemed to be "operating in a parallel mortgage universe," the judge wrote.

Also in May, a California judge said MERS could not foreclose on a home, because it was merely a representative for Citibank and did not own the loan.

On the other hand, Minnesota legislators passed a law stating that MERS explicitly has the right to bring foreclosure cases. And on its Web site and in e-mails, MERS cites numerous court decisions around the country that it says demonstrate the company's right to act on behalf of lenders and to undertake foreclosures.

Kentucky lawyer Heather Boone McKeever has filed a state class-action suit and a federal civil racketeering class-action suit on behalf of homeowners facing foreclosure, alleging that MERS and financial firms that did business with it have tried to foreclose on homes without holding proper titles.

"They have no legal standing and no right to foreclose," McKeever said. "If you or I did this one time, we'd be in jail."

Flawed Foreclosure Documents Thwart Home Sales
With home sales this past summer at the lowest level in more than a decade, real estate is ill-prepared to suffer another blow. But as a scandal unfolds over mortgage lenders’ shoddy preparation of foreclosure documents, the fallout is beginning to hammer the housing market, especially in states like Florida where distressed properties are abundant.

Three major mortgage lenders — Bank of America, GMAC Mortgage and JPMorgan Chase — have said they are suspending foreclosures in the 23 states where they first need a judge’s approval. They are also waving off Fannie Mae from selling any of the foreclosed homes whose loans they sold to Fannie.

The companies say they are reviewing their operations after disclosures that employees signed documents without determining the accuracy of the material, as is required by law.

Those reviews are throwing into limbo hundreds of thousands of foreclosures and pending home sales, analysts estimate, though the lenders and Fannie Mae have been mostly silent about precise numbers and other specifics.

More broadly, the revelations about the sloppy paperwork are emboldening homeowners and law enforcement officials in many states to question whether lenders rightfully hold the notes underlying foreclosed properties — further chilling the housing market.

Ohio Attorney General Sues GMAC Over Improper Affidavits; Maximum Damages Exceed $10 Billion
So much for the idea that the affidavit problem is a mere technicality and a mere operational hassle for the banks. They had clearly viewed complying with their own agreements as an option, not a requirement, with the savings for cutting corners only somewhat offset by the costs of getting caught from time to time.

Some jurisdictions aren’t buying the banks’ “crime pays” logic. These abuses challenge the basic principles of the rule of law.

Admittedly, the affidavit problem is a secondary front in the overall bank “my dog ate your mortgage” mess. But the fact that a supposedly minor problem may not prove to be so minor illustrates that all these battles will be hard fought and thus more costly than the banks’ breezy assurances would lead one to believe.

The ultimate objective is to break the excuses that the banks have been using to avoid doing serious principal writedowns. If one state is able to get a mass settlement, whether in the course of private action or state attorney general suits and investigations, it will be a precedent that other banks will find difficult to ignore.

Ohio Attorney General Sues GMAC, Seeks $25,000 Per False Affidavit
Richard Cordray, the Attorney General for the state of Ohio has filed a lawsuit in Lucas County (Toledo) Common Pleas Court against GMAC Mortgage and their parent company Ally Financial, in a suit which names Jeffrey Stephan, the infamous “robo-signer” who signed off on up to 10,000 foreclosures a month across the country with affidavits, without verifying the information in the foreclosure documents. The lawsuit alleges fraud on the part of GMAC, along with violations of the Ohio Consumer Sales Practices Act, in filing false affidavits to mislead the courts in what they describe as “hundreds” of Ohio foreclosure cases. And, the Attorney General is treating every single false affidavit filed in an Ohio court as a separate violation, with a fine of up to $25,000, plus additional restitution for the homeowner of an unspecified amount.

“It is now becoming clear that fraud, deception, and an utter disregard for accuracy are in part to blame for our national foreclosure disaster,” Cordray said in prepared remarks. “What we are seeing and hearing strikes at the very foundation of the rule of law in our court system… Clearly any fraud or deception that has contributed to this state of affairs must be stopped, and those responsible must be held accountable.”

When challenged by one reporter about the fact that the borrowers were in fact delinquent and that merits some action on the part of the lender, Cordray struck back. “What each side merits is that proper legal processes be carefully followed… If we would file a case with an affidavit we know to be false, that is seen as a very serious matter by the court. I don’t see why this should be taken any more lightly.”

Is HR3808 The Equivalent Of TARP 2 And Obama's "Get Out Of Bail" Gift Card For The High Frequency Signing Scandal?
Now that the High Frequency Signing (HFS, not to be confused with HFT) scandal is mainstream, and virtually every single foreclosure in the US in the past several years is under question, with the impact on mortgage servicers (who just happen to be the TBTF banks) could be just as dire as the fallout from the credit crunch, it appears that the get out of jail card for the banking syndicate has once again materialized, this time in the form of bill HR3808: Interstate Recognition of Notarizations Act of 2009, sponsored by Republican representative Robert Aderholt.

In summary, the bill requires all federal and state courts to recognize notarizations made in other states. That's the theoretical definition: the practical one - the legislation, if enacted, could protect bank and mortgage processors from liability for false or improperly prepared documents.

Bank foreclosure cover seen in bill at Obama's desk
The timing raised eyebrows, coming during a rising furor over improper affidavits and other filings in foreclosure actions by large mortgage processors such as GMAC, JPMorgan and Bank of America.

"It is troubling to me and curious that it passed so quietly," Thomas Cox, a Maine lawyer representing homeowners contesting foreclosures, told Reuters in an interview.

A deposition made public by Cox was what first called attention to improper affidavits by GMAC. Since then, GMAC, JPMorgan and others have halted foreclosure actions in many states after acknowledging that they had filed large numbers of affidavits in which their employees falsely attested that they had personally reviewed records cited to justify the foreclosures.

Cox said the new obligation for courts to recognize notarizations of documents filed by big, out-of-state companies, would make it more difficult and costly to challenge the validity of the documents.

The law, the "Interstate Recognition of Notarizations Act," requires all federal and state courts to recognize notarizations made in other states.

The law specifically includes "electronic" notarizations stamped en masse by computers. Currently, only about a dozen states allow electronic notarizations, according to the National Notary Association.

After languishing for months in the Senate Judiciary Committee, the bill passed the Senate with lightning speed and with hardly any public awareness of the bill's existence on September 27, the day before the Senate recessed for midterm election campaign.

The bill's approval involved invocation of a special procedure. Democratic Senator Robert Casey, shepherding last-minute legislation on behalf of the Senate leadership, had the bill taken away from the Senate Judiciary committee, which hadn't acted on it.

The full Senate then immediately passed the bill without debate, by unanimous consent.

Boiler Rooms and Foreclosure Mills: A Brief History of America's Mortgage Industry
Just about every corner of America's mortgage industry has been blemished by significant levels of fraud over the past decade.

On the front end of the process, for example, many mortgage pros used "boiler-room" salesmanship to peddle loans to borrowers who didn't understand what they were getting and couldn't afford their loans in the long run. To make these deals go through, some workers forged borrowers' signatures on key disclosure documents, pressured real estate appraisers to inflate home values, and created fake W-2 tax forms that exaggerated loan applicants' earnings.

At Ameriquest Mortgage, one of the companies I focus on in my new book about the subprime mortgage debacle, The Monster, this sort of cut-and-paste document production was so common employees joked that the work was being done in "The Lab" or the "Art Department."

Little was done to stop the bad practices when they were happening. Former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan would later explain to CBS' 60 Minutes: "While I was aware a lot of these practices were going on, I had no notion of how significant they had become until very late. I didn't really get it until very late in 2005 and 2006." The Fed took no action even when it became aware of the problems, he said, because "it's very difficult for banking regulators to deal with that."

Congress and other powers in Washington failed to get the facts and act the first time around -- when lenders were engaged in a frenzy of predatory lending. The foreclosure scandal is a second chance for lawmakers and bureaucrats to prove that they can ferret out the truth and take action.

In the Last Four Months, Three Homeowners Have Sued Bank of America for Mistakenly Foreclosing on Their Homes
Some 2.8 million homeowners faced the threat of foreclosure last year, but it wasn't supposed to happen to Charlie and Maria Cordoso. In 2005, the New Bedford, Mass. couple paid in full -- in cash -- for a house in Springville, Fla., and rented it out with plans eventually to use the home as a retirement getaway.

They said they were shocked to learn earlier this month that Bank of America had locked them out and removed their clothing and furniture from the property.

"It's a national issue," said Joseph deMello, one of lawyers representing the Cordosos.

Bank of America actually had planned to foreclose on a property about 10 houses away but mistakenly went after the Cordosos' home instead, deMello said.

Foreclosure experts like Rick Sharga, of California-based foreclosure tracking firm RealtyTrac, say cases like these are symptomatic of a broken system strained by the housing boom and bust.

Banks have been "unable to efficiently handle the volume of distressed assets that are coming through," Sharga said. "We also are seeing the results of what had been less-than-rigorous paperwork and documentation management over the last decade or so as loans became commodities that were packaged, sold, repackaged and resold."

Sharga said that while human error contributed to errant foreclosures in the past, they're happening with greater frequency now as banks find themselves overwhelmed with delinquent mortgages.

Updating the US foreclosure scandal

Bombshell of Foreclosure Fraud – Full Deposition of TAMMIE LOU KAPUSTA Law Office of David J Stern

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