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What are the legal rights of lenders and homeowners in foreclosure?

After I published the recent story on the case against servicing agent MERS in the Kansas Supreme court, I noticed a lot of chatter about some mortgage servicing line items in Wells Fargo’s earnings report. So I wanted to quote a few blurbs from the Kansas Appeals Court and Supreme Court decisions as background for another post on future mortgage service revenue streams in banking.

The Appeals Court case had a narrow focus as to whether MERS was a ‘necessary party’ in this particular foreclosure case. The finding was that MERS was not. The Kansas Supreme court agreed that MERS was not “contingently necessary.” They went further in concluding that the fact that MERS neither possessed the promissory note or had authority to assign it may mean it cannot file suit.

However, because this is not a comprehensive judgment as to MERS’ role as nominee, clarification is needed. Given the number of foreclosures in the US, I expect this case is going to the Supreme Court.

Here are the facts.

Landmark National Bank v. Boyd A. Kessler summary

My summary of the case is as follows:

A homeowner based in Kansas came into economic difficulty, causing him to fall behind on his mortgage and file for bankruptcy on 13 April 2006. While he could have exempted his house in discharging his personal liabilities in bankruptcy, the homeowner opted instead to surrender the house.

Three months after he filed, on 27 Jul 2006, the bank with his primary mortgage decided to foreclose. It did not inform MERS (the central repository which tracks changes in mortgage ownership and servicing rights). Nor did it inform the bank holding the secondary mortgage.

On 6 September 2006, the district court then entered a default judgment and ordered a sale on 29 September 2006. Notice of the sale went out into newspapers and a couple picked up this foreclosed property on the cheap on 14 November 2006. So far, so good.

Except that very day, a full seven after the bankruptcy filing, the secondary bank filed a petition to set aside the district court opinion, arguing that MERS was a “contingently necessary party.” It wanted the money it was owed. And on 16 January 2007, MERS joined the bank in filing.  By 1 February 2007, the district court denied the petition to vacate the original default judgment.

The case was appealed to both the Kansas Appeals and Kansas Supreme Courts

Here are some of the issues:

  • Is MERS as a mortgage servicing registry a “contingently necessary party” in this particular or any bankruptcy involving a property in its database?
  • In what instances can MERS act as a nominee for the mortgagees in court to enforce a foreclosure?
  • If MERS can act as a nominee, does MERS have to produce the original mortgage promissory note in order to foreclose?
  • If MERS can act as a nominee, can a homeowner sue MERS or the mortgage servicing agent for the original lenders’ alleged predatory lending?
  • Is the mortgage servicing agent a nominee or agent of the mortgagee or even a principal? If so, what are the obligations of the servicing agent to help affect a mortgage loan modification?

All of these questions arise because of the convoluted process we have for mortgages as a result of the mortgage-backed security market.  These questions have only become acute because the rise in foreclosures has made them a serious issue.

Excerpts from the Kansas Appeals Court decision

  • A party is not contingently necessary in a mortgage-foreclosure lawsuit when that party is called the mortgagee in a mortgage but is not the lender, has no right to the repayment of the underlying debt, and has no role in handling mortgage payments.
  • In a mortgage-foreclosure lawsuit, a district court does not abuse its discretion when it denies a motion to intervene that is filed by an unrecorded mortgage holder or its agent after the mortgage has been foreclosed and the property has been sold
  • What is MERS’s interest? MERS claims that it holds the title to the second mortgage, not the real estate. So it does, but only as a nominee. In terms of the roles that we’ve discussed in the mortgage business, MERS holds the mortgage but without rights to the debt. The district court found that MERS was merely an agent for the principal player, Millennia. While MERS objects to its characterization as an agent, it’s a fair one.
  • MERS had no right to the underlying debt repayment secured by the mortgage; MERS did not even act as the servicing agent to receive the payments and remit them to the lender. MERS’s right to act to enforce the mortgage was strictly limited: if "necessary to comply with law or custom," MERS could foreclose the mortgage or enter a release of the mortgage. MERS certainly could not act at odds to its principal, the lender. Its role fits the classic definition of an agent: one "’authorized by another to act for him, or intrusted with another’s business.’" In re Tax Appeal of Scholastic Book Clubs, Inc., 260 Kan. 528, 534, 920 P.2d 947 (1996) (quoting Black’s Law Dictionary 85 [4th ed. 1968]).
  • Kansas law does require through K.S.A. 58-2309a that a mortgage holder promptly release a mortgage when the debt has been paid; MERS could be required as a matter of law to file a mortgage release after a borrower proved that the debt had been paid. Other than that, however, it is hard to conceive of another act that MERS—instead of the lender—would be required to take by law or custom.
  • We do not attempt in this opinion to comprehensively determine all of the rights or duties of MERS as a nominee mortgagee. As the mortgage suggests may be done when "necessary to comply with law or custom," courts elsewhere have found that MERS may in some cases bring foreclosure suits in its own name.

Excerpts from the Kansas Supreme Court decision

  • K.S.A. 60-219(a) defines which parties are to be joined in an action as necessary for just adjudication:

    "A person is contingently necessary if (1) complete relief cannot be accorded in his absence among those already parties, or (2) he claims an interest relating to the property or transaction which is the subject of the action and he is so situated that the disposition of the action in his absence may (i) as a practical matter substantially impair or impede his ability to protect that interest or (ii) leave any of the persons already parties subject to a substantial risk of incurring double, multiple, or otherwise inconsistent obligations by reason of his claimed interest."

  • The relationship that MERS has to Sovereign is more akin to that of a straw man than to a party possessing all the rights given a buyer. A mortgagee and a lender have intertwined rights that defy a clear separation of interests, especially when such a purported separation relies on ambiguous contractual language. The law generally understands that a mortgagee is not distinct from a lender: a mortgagee is "[o]ne to whom property is mortgaged: the mortgage creditor, or lender." Black’s Law Dictionary 1034 (8th ed. 2004). By statute, assignment of the mortgage carries with it the assignment of the debt. K.S.A. 58-2323. Although MERS asserts that, under some situations, the mortgage document purports to give it the same rights as the lender, the document consistently refers only to rights of the lender, including rights to receive notice of litigation, to collect payments, and to enforce the debt obligation. The document consistently limits MERS to acting "solely" as the nominee of the lender.
  • The Missouri court found that, because MERS was not the original holder of the promissory note and because the record contained no evidence that the original holder of the note authorized MERS to transfer the note, the language of the assignment purporting to transfer the promissory note was ineffective. "MERS never held the promissory note, thus its assignment of the deed of trust to Ocwen separate from the note had no force."
  • "MERS does not take applications, underwrite loans, make decisions on whether to extend credit, collect mortgage payments, hold escrows for taxes and insurance, or provide any loan servicing functions whatsoever. MERS merely tracks the ownership of the lien and is paid for its services through membership fees charged to its members. MERS does not receive compensation from consumers." 270 Neb. at 534.

My reading of these statements is that MERS is a nominee and not much more. This should limit its ability to act on behalf of a mortgagee in foreclosure.  How much and in what ways due process is at stake has yet to be decided in the courts, the reason I expect this case to receive a look from the Supreme Court.

Sources

Landmark National Bank v. Boyd A. Kessler, Kan 2009, No. 98,489 – Kansas Courts Documents

See my post “Why mortgages aren’t modified and what a ruling stopping foreclosures means” for the Appeals Court decision.

About 

Edward Harrison is the founder of Credit Writedowns and a former career diplomat, investment banker and technology executive with over twenty years of business experience. He is also a regular economic and financial commentator on BBC World News, CNBC Television, Business News Network, CBC, Fox Television and RT Television. He speaks six languages and reads another five, skills he uses to provide a more global perspective. Edward holds an MBA in Finance from Columbia University and a BA in Economics from Dartmouth College. Edward also writes a premium financial newsletter. Sign up here for a free trial.