Foreclosure industry lawyers use every trick in the bag to block the revelation of important documents.**This is the second part of a three-part series. Read part 1 here.
Logic suggests that in foreclosure, the homeowner should be able to know who owns his loan. In the rare circumstance where the homeowner wants to pay off the loan rather than lose his or her house, he needs to know who is entitled to receive that payment so that the wrong party is not paid and so that he is protected against any other party ever claiming a right to payment. Where a homeowner cannot actually pay off his loan, he still has a real interest in knowing who claims ownership of it because only that party can respond to requests to work out a rational loan modification.
Logic does not control the foreclosure industry's practices.
Variation Number 1: MERS hides the ball
In the first variation of this tactic, homeowners must face a massive concealment scheme set up in 1995 by the foreclosure industry in the form of Mortgage Electronic Registration Systems, Inc. ("MERS"). Before MERS came along, every mortgage was recorded in a registry of deeds for the county where a mortgaged home is located. When that mortgage was assigned, it was recorded in the registry. Thus, if a homeowner ever had any doubt as to who owned his mortgage, he had only to check his nearby registry to find that information. MERS unilaterally changed the rules of the game (with no permission sought from state legislatures). Under the new regime, while an original mortgage is still filed in the local registry of deeds, subsequent assignments of that mortgage are not recorded there. Instead, information about them is simply entered into the MERS electronic recording system. Any homeowner can check the records of his local registry of deeds, but no homeowner is permitted to access MERS. Thus, it took away a sure way to identify the owners of mortgage loans.
After an outcry against MERS over its concealment of the identity of mortgage owners in its inaccessible system, it claims to have met those complaints by setting up a web site where homeowners can look up this information. The problem is, the website will not reveal the name of the owner of any mortgage unless the owner voluntarily allows MERS to disclose that information. My experience with look-ups on the website is that it repeatedly reports that the owner of the mortgage has not voluntarily agreed to disclose its identity.
Even when a mortgage owner does allow its identity to be disclosed, there is a high likelihood that the information will be inaccurate. I am working on a case right now involving a Deutsche Bank trust created in 2006. Deutsche Bank claims that it has owned my client's loan since 2006, but until July of 2009 the loan originator, not Deutsche Bank, was shown on the MERS system as the owner.
Use of the MERS website to look up mortgage ownership information is basically a waste of time for homeowners and their lawyers. I am working on another case right now where there were major errors at the inception of the loan that give our client the right to rescind it under the Truth in Lending Act. We know that the lender is out of business and that some other entity owns the loan, but we do not know who that is. The MERS website does not disclose the identity of the owner of this loan. Under TILA, the rescission letter must be sent to the owner, so we have to file a request with the servicer for that information. Experience tells us that the servicer may or may not respond and that if it does, the response may or may not be accurate. In any event, a lot of lawyer time will be wasted in seeking out information as to the identity of the owner of the loan, information that should be (and in pre-MERS days was) immediately available.
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Variation Number 2: Fannie and Freddie hide the ball
Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac are also major players in the concealment game. In their agreements with the major loan servicers, they require that the servicers foreclose in their own names. In judicial foreclosure states, such as Maine, where I work, we see this repeatedly even though Maine law permits only the real owners of to be the foreclosing parties. To further this subterfuge, Fannie and Freddie will actually endorse and deliver mortgage notes to the servicers to hold temporarily while the servicers foreclose under the guise of being the true owners. The same problem arises here as with the MERS concealment game -- if we, as lawyers representing homeowners, do not know who the true owner is, we do not have the ability to properly represent our clients as we try to resolve that loan.
I have been unable to determine any legal benefit of this subterfuge to Fannie and Freddie. Rather, I suspect that this game relates to political issues. Fannie and Freddie do not want to let the country, our political leadership, and the regulatory agencies see just how tremendous their roles are in the current waive of foreclosures. I suspect that they fear the public and political backlash that might develop if the true scope of their roles in the foreclosure process were revealed.
The problems created by the concealment game are real. I ran into this problem a couple of months ago in a foreclosure action brought by GMAC Mortgage, LLC. Maine law requires the foreclosing plaintiff to file a certification showing that it owns the loan and including proof of that ownership in the form of note endorsements and mortgage assignments. In this case, there was a "Certification of Mortgagee" signed by none other that GMAC's notorious "limited signing officer" Jeffrey Stephan. He certified directly that GMAC Mortgage owned the loan in issue. I attended a mediation session with my client on this case, devoting about five hours of legal time to the effort, while my client took a day off from his hourly pay job to attend. It turned out that Fannie Mae owns this loan. Thus, my client and I went into the mediation without knowing that only Fannie Mae HAMP loan modification programs would be up for negotiation. Because of GMAC's participation in the concealment game, my time and that of my client were wasted, as was the time of the court appointed mediator.
The practical effect of all of this obfuscation is that the foreclosure defense process becomes unduly expensive for homeowners paying for representation, and the very limited resources of legal services and volunteer lawyers are wasted on searches for basic loan ownership information that should never have been hidden in the first place. By playing this game on such a massive scale, the foreclosure industry depletes the resources that the opposition might use in productive tasks, such as pursing loan modifications.
Variation Number 3: obstructing homeowners' discovery efforts
As foreclosure defense lawyers, we know hide the ball variations 1 and 2 well, so we try to compensate by pursing appropriate pre-trial discovery to dig out the true identity of the owners of the loans. Without fail, every single request for the production of documents that we file is met by massive and frivolous objections by counsel representing foreclosure plaintiffs. Even a simple demand for producing the original note and all endorsements is met by an objection that the request is "overly broad" and "unduly burdensome," even though the original note must be produced at trial if the plaintiff is to prevail.
When we ask for information as to the existence of endorsements to the note, we are met with an objection stating that the information is "irrelevant." The servicers and their lawyers know that judges hate pre-trial discovery disputes and are not likely to impose sanctions for their abusive conduct. Servicers seem willing to take the few sanctions orders that we do obtain knowing that, it the vast majority of cases, their obstructive tactics will go unpunished.
When we demand that the servicers produce the pooling and servicing agreements that evidence their claimed right to act on behalf of the loan owners, they refuse to do so, claiming that the agreements are confidential trade secrets. They make this claim even though copies of these agreements appear on the SEC Edgar website as public records. When confronted with this reality, they fall back on their claims that the documents are irrelevant or that it is unduly burdensome to produce them.
This kind of conduct should be sufficient for a court to simply dismiss the foreclosure outright, but our rules and case law do not allow for such dismissals until the violations become even more egregious. Foreclosure industry lawyers know and take advantage of that fact.
Thomas Cox is a retired bank lawyer in Portland, Maine who serves as the Volunteer Program Coordinator for the Maine Attorney’s Saving Homes (MASH) program. He represents homeowners in foreclosure and assists and consults with other volunteer lawyers in providing pro bono legal services to these Maine homeowners.