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Flawed Paperwork Aggravates a Foreclosure Crisis

By GRETCHEN MORGENSON
Published: October 3, 2010
 
As some of the nation’s largest lenders have conceded that their foreclosure procedures might have been improperly handled, lawsuits have revealed myriad missteps in crucial documents.
 
Jay LaPrete/Associated Press
Jennifer Brunner, the secretary of state of Ohio, has highlighted examples of what her office considers possible notary abuse.
The flawed practices that GMAC Mortgage, JPMorgan Chase and Bank of America have recently begun investigating are so prevalent, lawyers and legal experts say, that additional lenders and loan servicers are likely to halt foreclosure proceedings and may have to reconsider past evictions.
 
Problems emerging in courts across the nation are varied but all involve documents that must be submitted before foreclosures can proceed legally. Homeowners, lawyers and analysts have been citing such problems for the last few years, but it appears to have reached such intensity recently that banks are beginning to re-examine whether all of the foreclosure papers were prepared properly.
 
In some cases, documents have been signed by employees who say they have not verified crucial information like amounts owed by borrowers. Other problems involve questionable legal notarization of documents, in which, for example, the notarizations predate the actual preparation of documents — suggesting that signatures were never actually reviewed by a notary.
 
Other problems occurred when notarizations took place so far from where the documents were signed that it was highly unlikely that the notaries witnessed the signings, as the law requires.
 
On still other important documents, a single official’s name is signed in such radically different ways that some appear to be forgeries. Additional problems have emerged when multiple banks have all argued that they have the right to foreclose on the same property, a result of a murky trail of documentation and ownership.
 
There is no doubt that the enormous increase in foreclosures in recent years has strained the resources of lenders and their legal representatives, creating challenges that any institution might find overwhelming. According to the Mortgage Bankers Association, the percentage of loans that were delinquent by 90 days or more stood at 9.5 percent in the first quarter of 2010, up from 4 percent in the same period of 2008.
 
But analysts say that the wave of defaults still does not excuse lenders’ failures to meet their legal obligations before trying to remove defaulting borrowers from their homes.
 
“It reflects the hubris that as long as the money was going through the pipeline, these companies didn’t really have to make sure the documents were in order,” said Kathleen C. Engel, dean for intellectual life at Suffolk University Law School and an expert in mortgage law. “Suddenly they have a lot at stake, and playing fast and loose is going to be more costly than it was in the past.”
 
Attorneys general in at least six states, including Massachusetts, Iowa, Florida and Illinois, are investigating improper foreclosure practices. Last week, Jennifer Brunner, the secretary of state of Ohio, referred examples of what her office considers possible notary abuse by Chase Home Mortgage to federal prosecutors for investigation.
 
The implications are not yet clear for borrowers who have been evicted from their homes as a result of improper filings. But legal experts say that courts may impose sanctions on lenders or their representatives or may force banks to pay borrowers’ legal costs in these cases.
 
Judges may dismiss the foreclosures altogether, barring lenders from refiling and awarding the home to the borrower. That would create a loss for the lender or investor holding the note underlying the property. Almost certainly, lawyers say, lawsuits on behalf of borrowers will multiply.
 
In Florida, problems with foreclosure cases are especially acute. A recent sample of foreclosure cases in the 12th Judicial Circuit of Florida showed that 20 percent of those set for summary judgment involved deficient documents, according to chief judge Lee E. Haworth.
 
“We have sent repeated notices to law firms saying, ‘You are not following the rules, and if you don’t clean up your act, we are going to impose sanctions on you,’ ” Mr. Haworth said in an interview. “They say, ‘We’ll fix it, we’ll fix it, we’ll fix it.’ But they don’t.”
 
As a result, Mr. Haworth said, on Sept. 17, Harry Rapkin, a judge overseeing foreclosures in the district, dismissed 61 foreclosure cases. The plaintiffs can refile but they need to pay new filing fees, Mr. Haworth said.
 
The byzantine mortgage securitization process that helped inflate the housing bubble allowed home loans to change hands so many times before they were eventually pooled and sold to investors that it is now extremely difficult to track exactly which lenders have claims to a home.
 
Many lenders or loan servicers that begin the foreclosure process after a borrower defaults do not produce documentation proving that they have the legal right to foreclosure, known as standing.
 
As a substitute, the banks usually present affidavits attesting to ownership of the note signed by an employee of a legal services firm acting as an agent for the lender or loan servicer. Such affidavits allow foreclosures to proceed, but because they are often dubiously prepared, many questions have arisen about their validity.
 
Although lawyers for troubled borrowers have contended for years that banks in many cases have not properly documented their rights to foreclose, the issue erupted in mid-September when GMAC said it was halting foreclosure proceedings in 23 states because of problems with its legal practices. The move by GMAC followed testimony by an employee who signed affidavits for the lender; he said that he executed 400 of them each day without reading them or verifying that the information in them was correct.
 
JPMorgan Chase and Bank of America followed with similar announcements.
 
But these three large lenders are not the only companies employing people who have failed to verify crucial aspects of a foreclosure case, court documents show.
 
Last May, Herman John Kennerty, a loan administration manager in the default document group of Wells Fargo Mortgage, testified to lawyers representing a troubled borrower that he typically signed 50 to 150 foreclosure documents a day. In that case, in King County Superior Court in Seattle, he also stated that he did not independently verify the information to which he was attesting.
 
Wells Fargo did not respond to requests for comment.
 
In other cases, judges are finding that banks’ claims of standing in a foreclosure case can conflict with other evidence.
 
Last Thursday, Paul F. Isaacs, a judge in Bourbon County Circuit Court in Kentucky, reversed a ruling he had made in August giving Bank of New York Mellon the right to foreclose on a couple’s home. According to court filings, Mr. Isaacs had relied on the bank’s documentation that it said showed it held the note underlying the property in a trust. But after the borrowers supplied evidence indicating that the note may in fact reside in a different trust, the judge reversed himself. The court will revisit the matter soon.
 
Bank of New York said it was reviewing the ruling and could not comment.
 
Another problematic case involves a foreclosure action taken by Deutsche Bank against a borrower in the Bronx in New York. The bank says it has the right to foreclose because the mortgage was assigned to it on Oct. 15, 2009.
 
But according to court filings made by David B. Shaev, a lawyer at Shaev & Fleischman who represents the borrower, the assignment to Deutsche Bank is riddled with problems. First, the company that Deutsche said had assigned it the mortgage, the Sand Canyon Corporation, no longer had any rights to the underlying property when the transfer was supposed to have occurred.
 
Additional questions have arisen over the signature verifying an assignment of the mortgage. Court documents show that Tywanna Thomas, assistant vice president of American Home Mortgage Servicing, assigned the mortgage from Sand Canyon to Deutsche Bank in October 2009. On assignments of mortgages in other cases, Ms. Thomas’s signatures differ so wildly that it appears that three people signed the documents using Ms. Thomas’s name.
 
Given the differences in the signatures, Mr. Shaev filed court papers last July contending that the assignment is a sham, “prepared to create an appearance of a creditor as a real party in interest/standing, when in fact it is likely that the chain of title required in these matters was not performed, lost or both.”
 
Mr. Shaev also asked the judge overseeing the case, Shelley C. Chapman, to order Ms. Thomas to appear to answer questions the lawyer has raised.
 
John Gallagher, a spokesman for Deutsche Bank, which is trustee for the securitization that holds the note in this case, said companies servicing mortgage loans engaged the law firms that oversee foreclosure proceedings. “Loan servicers are obligated to adhere to all legal requirements,” he said, “and Deutsche Bank, as trustee, has consistently informed servicers that they are required to execute these actions in a proper and timely manner.”
 
Reached by phone on Saturday, Ms. Thomas declined to comment.
 
The United States Trustee, a unit of the Justice Department, is also weighing in on dubious court documents filed by lenders. Last January, it supported a request by Silvia Nuer, a borrower in foreclosure in the Bronx, for sanctions against JPMorgan Chase.
 
In testimony, a lawyer for Chase conceded that a law firm that had previously represented the bank, the Steven J. Baum firm of Buffalo, had filed inaccurate documents as it sought to take over the property from Ms. Nuer.
 
The Chase lawyer told a judge last January that his predecessors had combed through the chain of title on the property and could not find a proper assignment. The firm found “something didn’t happen that needed to be fixed,” he explained, and then, according to court documents, it prepared inaccurate documents to fill in the gaps.
 
The Baum firm did not return calls to comment.
 
A lawyer for the United States Trustee said that the Nuer case “does not represent an isolated example of misconduct by Chase in the Southern District of New York.”
 
Chase declined to comment.
 
“The servicers have it in their control to get the right documents and do this properly, but it is so much cheaper to run it through a foreclosure mill,” said Linda M. Tirelli, a lawyer in White Plains who represents Ms. Nuer in the case against Chase. “This is not about getting a free house for my client. It’s about a level playing field. If I submitted false documents like this to the court, I’d have my license handed to me.”
 
Link to Article
http://www.nytimes.com/2010/10/04/business/04mortgage.html

Attorney Harry Borders sent this article from the Federal Trade Commission

 

Forensic Mortgage Loan Audit Scams:

A New Twist on Foreclosure Rescue Fraud

Fraudulent foreclosure “rescue” professionals use half-truths and outright lies to sell services that promise relief to homeowners in distress. According to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), the nation’s consumer protection agency, the latest foreclosure rescue scam to exploit financially strapped homeowners pitches forensic mortgage loan audits.

In exchange for an upfront fee of several hundred dollars, so-called forensic loan auditors, mortgage loan auditors, or foreclosure prevention auditors backed by forensic attorneys offer to review your mortgage loan documents to determine whether your lender complied with state and federal mortgage lending laws. The “auditors” say you can use the audit report to avoid foreclosure, accelerate the loan modification process, reduce your loan principal, or even cancel your loan.

Nothing could be further from the truth. According to the FTC and its law enforcement partners:

  • there is no evidence that forensic loan audits will help you get a loan modification or any other foreclosure relief, even if they’re conducted by a licensed, legitimate and trained auditor, mortgage professional or lawyer.
  • some federal laws allow you to sue your lender based on errors in your loan documents. But even if you sue and win, your lender is not required to modify your loan simply to make your payments more affordable.
  • if you cancel your loan, you will have to return the borrowed money, which may result in you losing your home.

If you are in default on your mortgage or facing foreclosure, you may be targeted by a foreclosure rescue scam. The FTC wants you to know how to recognize the telltale signs and report them. If you are faced with foreclosure, the FTC says legitimate options are available to help you save your home.

Spotting a Scam

If you’re looking for foreclosure prevention help, avoid any business that:

  • guarantees to stop the foreclosure process – no matter what your circumstances are
  • instructs you not to contact your lender, lawyer or credit or housing counselor
  • collects a fee before providing any services accepts payment only by cashier’s check or wire transfer
  • encourages you to lease your home so you can buy it back over time
  • recommends that you make your mortgage payments directly to it, rather than your lender
  • urges you to transfer your property deed or title to it
  • offers to buy your house for cash at a fixed price that is inappropriate for the housing market
  • pressures you to sign papers you haven’t had a chance to read thoroughly or that you don’t understand.
Finding Legitimate Help

Housing experts say that when you’re behind on your mortgage payments, maintaining communication with your lender is the most important thing you can do. Contact your lender or servicer immediately if you’re having trouble paying your mortgage or you have received a foreclosure notice. You may be able to negotiate a new repayment schedule. 

Gold Member Roger Taylor emailed me this article this morning. Thanks Roger!

 

Foreclosures Slow as Document Flaws Emerge

By DAVID STREITFELD
Published: September 30, 2010
 
 
The foreclosure machinery that has forced millions of Americans out of their homes is beginning to seize up as some lenders and their lawyers are accused of cutting corners in their pursuit of rapid home repossessions.
 
Matthew Staver/Bloomberg News
GMAC and JPMorgan Chase have acknowledged legal missteps, and have suspended new foreclosure actions in 23 states.
 
Evictions are expected to slow sharply, housing analysts said, as state and national law enforcement officials shine a light on questionable foreclosure methods revealed by two of the country’s biggest home lenders in the last two weeks.
 
Even lenders with no known problems are expected to approach defaulting homeowners more cautiously and look more aggressively for resolutions short of outright eviction.
 
Despite the turmoil, some economists said the breakdown could ultimately lay the groundwork for a real estate recovery.
 
Stricken neighborhoods across the country, for example, could benefit. One big factor undermining home sales is fear of a large number of foreclosed homes coming to the market. If the foreclosures are delayed or never happen, housing prices might find a floor.
 
“Maybe this is like shock therapy,” said the economist Karl E. Case. “Maybe this will actually get the lenders to the table and encourage them to work out deals that are to the benefit of everybody.”
 
While such a happy ending is possible, the near term is more likely to produce paralysis and confusion.
 
As more defaulting homeowners become aware of the lenders’ problems, they are expected to hire lawyers and challenge the proceedings against them. And if completed foreclosures were not properly done, families who bought the troubled homes could be vulnerable to claims by the former owners.
 
Apparently alarmed about such a possibility, one of the major title insurance companies, Old Republic National Title, has sent a bulletin to agents saying that “until further notice” it would not insure title to properties foreclosed upon by GMAC Mortgage, the country’s fourth-largest home lender and one of the two big lenders at the center of the current controversy.
 
GMAC declined to comment, and Old Republic representatives did not return calls.
 
GMAC has acknowledged legal missteps in processing mortgages, and JPMorgan Chase has acknowledged the possibility of missteps, and both have suspended all foreclosures in the 23 states where they need a court’s approval. That’s 56,000 in the case of Chase alone; GMAC declined to provide a number.
 
Attorneys general in half a dozen states are demanding action or opening investigations. The Treasury Department said Thursday it was asking regulators to look into “these troubling developments.”
 
“We’re seeing a fundamental breakdown in the system, because no one cared that much about getting things right,” said Representative Alan Grayson, a Democrat of Florida, who unsuccessfully asked the Florida Supreme Court to halt all foreclosures in that state.
 
Wall Street was examining the impact the disclosures could have on the lenders. Moody’s Investors Service has placed the servicer ratings of GMAC and Chase on review for possible downgrade.
 
The federal government has been the majority owner of GMAC since supplying $17 billion to prevent the lender’s failure during the financial crisis.
 
Other lenders said Thursday that their foreclosure filings, including the crucial affidavits, had been properly done.
 
A Citigroup spokesman said the lender required “annual training for our foreclosure employees on the proper execution of affidavits, including having personal knowledge of the information in the affidavit.”
 
A Wells Fargo spokeswoman said “the affidavits we sign are accurate.” A spokesman for Bank of America, Rick Simon, said, “We do not have anything to tell you at this time.”
 
GMAC and Chase are in trouble because, overwhelmed with foreclosures, they tried to process them as quickly and cheaply as possible, defense lawyers say. The companies say they are reviewing their procedures to take care of any violations.
 
The missteps stemmed from the affidavits the lenders file as they seek a quick or summary judgment in thousands of foreclosure cases. The affidavits state certain facts about the case, including the amount owed, which the signer indicates he has personal knowledge of. Without the affidavit, the lender would have to prove the facts at trial.
 
In depositions taken by lawyers for homeowners, executives at GMAC and Chase said they or their teams signed 10,000 or more affidavits and related documents a month. That did not give them time to review the cases.
 
Defense lawyers say the disclosures are symptomatic of the carelessness, if not outright fraud, that lenders have been exhibiting for years in their rush to file cases. Many necessary documents have disappeared, with defense lawyers saying the lenders often do not even have standing to foreclose.
 
In a number of pending cases in Florida, defense lawyers there said, GMAC has already withdrawn affidavits. The lawyers said they would try to have the cases thrown out for possible fraud, although they acknowledged that might be difficult.
 
GMAC said it would refile the affidavits. Chase said it had not withdrawn any affidavits.
 
“The way the plaintiffs’ lawyers have handled this has corrupted our legal system,” said Thomas Cox, a Maine lawyer whose deposition of a GMAC executive in June helped prompt the current disclosures. “They tried to manufacture foreclosures the way you’d manufacture cars, on an assembly line. It can’t be done that way.”
 
Mr. Cox is representing pro bono a rural woman who is in foreclosure on a $82,000 mortgage. The plaintiff in the case is Fannie Mae, the mortgage holding company that failed during the financial crisis and is now under government conservatorship. GMAC serviced the loan for Fannie Mae.
 
This week, the judge in the case set aside his summary judgment in favor of Fannie when he read Mr. Cox’s deposition of a GMAC executive, Jeffrey Stephan, who said he never reviewed the file he had signed. The case will now go to trial.
 
“I don’t think they are going to give up easily,” said Mr. Cox.
 
As the foreclosure crisis has deepened, the length of time borrowers spend waiting for the end has lengthened.
 
In January 2009 the time between the owner’s first missed payment and eviction was 319 days, according to LPS Applied Analytics. By August it was 478 days.
 
Since spring, the data firm says, the lenders have been trying to clear their backlog. They have stepped up the rate at which they put defaulting owners into the formal foreclosure process. In August, they started 283,000 foreclosures, up from 220,000 in April.
 
Now, as the lenders are pressed to examine more closely their filings, those foreclosure starts are likely to fall, prolonging the owner’s time in limbo. Many borrowers use this period, when they are living in their home but not paying for it, to try and get their financial house back in order.
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