For the past several years in Oregon, foreclosures have been processed fraudulently and in violation of Oregon’s trust deed law. Banks, servicers, title companies and licensed foreclosure trustees, were all aware of the problem for years, but no one did anything about it. This was not a minor error or simple oversight – it was a patent disregard for the laws of Oregon.
Oregon’s Trust Deed Foreclosure Law. It is widely known that during the credit/housing boom, lenders frequently sold their loans between one another. When the ownership of a loan is transferred, it is necessary to execute, in recordable form, an “Assignment of Trust Deed.” ORS 86.735(1) governs what must occur before a trust deed may be foreclosed in Oregon; all such assignments must be placed on the public record. This is not a new law and it is not significantly different from the laws of many other states. Oregon’s law has been on the books for decades.
ORS 86.735(1) is not complicated or confusing. It simply means that after the original lender makes a loan and takes back a trust deed (which is immediately recorded), all subsequent assignments of that loan must be recorded before the foreclosure is formally commenced. In this manner, one can see from the public record, the “chain of title” of the loan, and thereby know with certainty, that the lender filing the foreclosure actually has the legal right to do so. It protects the consumer and assures the reliability of Oregon land titles.
The MERS Solution. In the 1990s, MERS came into existence. Its avowed purpose was to replace the time honored system of public recording for mortgage and trust deed transfers, with an electronic registry which its members would voluntarily use when a loan was transferred. This registry is for use only by MERS members, all of whom are in the lending industry. The immediate effect of MERS was that lenders stopped publicly recording their mortgage and trust deed assignments. This deprived local governments of millions of dollars in recording fees, and took the business of the sale of loans “underground.” A more detailed discussion of MERS’ business model is posted here.
Although the numbers vary, it is believed that MERS comprises approximately 60% of the national lending industry. Until recently, it had no employees. MERS was not born from any state statute or national enabling legislation. It was the brainchild of its owners, Mortgage Bankers Association, Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, Bank of America, Nationwide, HSBC, American Land Title Association, and Wells Fargo, among others.
How MERS Has Contributed To Oregon’s Mortgage Mess. In an effort to give MERS the appearance of authority, its rules clarify that it will act solely as a “Nominee” for each of its members – doing only what its member instructs, but in its own name and not the name of the member. The “Nominee” is, as some Oregon federal judges have correctly observed, nothing more than “a strawman.”
When the foreclosure crisis hit, lenders realized that they needed some way to get the trust deed into current bank’s hands to initiate the process. Since MERS’ existence was virtual, and with no real employees, whenever it came time to assign a mortgage or trust deed, a MERS “Assistant Vice President” or “Assistant Secretary” would execute the assignment on behalf of MERS in their “official” capacity. But since MERS has no such officers, it simply created mass “Corporate Resolutions”, appointing one or more low level member bank employees to “robo-sign” thousands of bogus assignments.
It is important to note that these MERS “officers” only made one assignment – i.e. from the original lender whose name appeared on the public record when the loan was first made, to the foreclosing lender. In Oregon, this means that ORS 86.735(1) requiring the recording all of the intervening assignments, was intentionally ignored. Hence, there was never a “chain of title” on the public record disclosing the intervening assignments of the loan. As a result, in Oregon, no one – including the homeowner – knows if the bank foreclosing a loan even has a legal right to do so.
And there is reason to believe many of the banks did not have the legal right to foreclose. In every Oregon foreclosure I have witnessed during the last twelve months, where the loan was securitized into a REMIC, there is substantial doubt that the foreclosing bank, acting as the “trustee” of the securitized loan pool, actually had any right to foreclose. This is due to the strict tax, accounting, and trust laws governing the REMIC securitization process.
The short explanation is that if the paperwork was actually transferred into a loan pool between, say 2005 – 2008, there would be no need for an assignment to that trustee today – the loan would have already been in the pool and the trustee already had the right to foreclose; but if the loan was not transferred into the pool back then – when it should have been, it cannot be legally assigned out to that trustee today. Although it is not always easy to locate, the Pooling and Servicing Agreement, or “PSA,” governing the REMIC will contain a “Cut-Off Date.” That date is the deadline for the sponsor of the REMIC to identify the pool’s notes and trust deeds (or mortgages) in the trust. After that time [subject to limited exceptions – which do not include the transfer of nonperforming loans into the trust – PCQ], no new loans may be added. For example, if the REMIC was created in early 2006, the Cut-Off Date is likely to also be in 2006. This would mean that a bank, acting in the capacity of a trustee for a certain REMIC today, would not have the legal right to foreclose, if that trustee only recently received the trust deed assignment. The REMIC had been closed years earlier.
This is fraudulent. Yet it was so widespread, that foreclosures routinely adopted this “single assignment” model, and it became an assembly line business for MERS and its member banks. The assignment documents were typically prepared in advance by foreclosure mill attorneys and foreclosure trustee companies, uploaded into cyberspace to a servicer or foreclosure processing company, and signed, en masse, by robo-signers. Then the assignments were shipped over to notaries, who never actually witnessed the MERS “officer” sign an document. Once completed, the original assignment document was sent via overnight mail to the foreclosure trustee to record and begin the foreclosure. In many instances, the foreclosure trustee, (a) acting as a MERS “officer” would sign the assignment document transferring ownership of the loan to a lender, then (b) he or she would sign another document appointing their company as the Successor Trustee, then (c) that same person would also sign the Notice of Default, which commenced the foreclosure. No conflict of interest there…. It is this “need for speed” that epitomizes the MERS business model.
The result has been predictable – today there is evidence of fraudulent foreclosure paperwork on a massive scale. Forgeries are rampant. Notarization laws are flaunted. Until recently, the banks and MERS have gotten away with this scheme. The lending, servicing and title industries have simply taken a “don’t ask, don’t tell” approach to foreclosures in Oregon and elsewhere.
However, in 2010, Oregon and several other states said “enough.” In Oregon for example, there were at least three federal district court and bankruptcy court cases that struck down foreclosures due to the use of the MERS strawman model, and also based upon the flagrant violation of ORS 86.735(1). The most notable of these cases is the February 7, 2011 published opinion of Hon. Frank R. Alley III, Chief Bankruptcy Judge in Donald McCoy III v. BNC Mortgage, et al. Judge Alley held, in part, that: “…the powers accorded to MERS by the Lender [whose name appears in the Trust Deed] – with the Borrower’s consent – cannot exceed the powers of the beneficiary. The beneficiary’s right to require a non-judicial sale is limited by ORS 86.735. A non-judicial sale may take place only if any assignment by [the Lender whose name appears in the Trust Deed] has been recorded.” [Parentheticals mine. PCQ]
Judge Alley concluded that a failure to follow the successive recording requirement of ORS 86.735(1) meant that the foreclosure was void. It is important to note that in McCoy, as in most rulings against MERS lenders, the courts have not held that the banks may not prosecute their foreclosures – merely that before doing so, they must record all intervening assignments, so there is no question as to the foreclosing bank’s standing.
MERS is now engaged, through surrogates and one or more lobbyists, to introduce a bill in the Oregon legislature. It is a bold effort to legislatively overturn Judge Alley’s ruling, as well as similar adverse rulings by Oregon federal court judges, King, Hogan, and Perris.
MERS, its member banks, and the foreclosure industry, including its foreclosure mill attorneys, have never had justification for ignoring Oregon’s foreclosure law. Nor have they offered any justification. Instead, they have threatened that if ORS 86.735(1) and other homeowner protections in our foreclosure statutes are not amended to give MERS the right to continue acting as a strawman, and to avoid recording all successive assignments, the Oregon housing and foreclosure crisis will continue longer than necessary. Metaphorically speaking, having been caught with their hand in the cookie jar, MERS now asks the Oregon Legislature to legalize cookie theft.
Oregon Consumers Need To Be Protected. MERS’ proposed legislative solution does nothing to protect homeowners. Rather, it is aimed at legalizing patently fraudulent conduct, in the name of “helping” Oregon homeowners get through the foreclosure crisis faster. Thanks, but no thanks. The title and lending industry are concerned that if a law is not immediately passed giving MERS its way, foreclosures will come to a halt and commerce will suffer. The banks have even threatened to file judicial foreclosures against homeowners, to somehow avoid the recording of assignments law. This is a complete ruse. Here’s why:
Lenders cannot avoid their paperwork problems in Oregon by going into court. As we have seen in Oregon’s federal court cases, the banks are still unwilling to produce the necessary documents to prove they have standing to foreclose. If a bank does not have the legal documentation minimally necessary to establish its right to foreclose non-judicially, why would it go into court and shine a bright light on its own fraudulent paperwork? The outcome will be the same – as we have seen in judicial foreclosure states such as Florida, where they now require the banks’ attorneys to certify to the truthfulness of their pleadings and paperwork.
Lenders will not go into court for fear of further alienating an already alienated public. [Note the recent MERS Announcement to it’s members, tightening is rules due to concern over its “…reputation, legal and compliance risk….” – PCQ]
The banks know that with the high court filing fees and lawyers, it will be much more costly for them to foreclose judicially in court. While they do not seem concerned about their high executive bonuses, when it comes to the cost of foreclosures, they’ll pinch a penny ’til it screams.
In any event, there is little reason to fear judicial foreclosures clogging court dockets. With proper documentation, the process can be relatively fast (3+ months), since the cases could be disposed of on summary judgment. If judicial foreclosure cases became too numerous, the local courts can create expedited protocols and assign certain judges to speed them through – as done in other states. Lastly, many foreclosures are already being filed judicially, especially on commercial properties. To date, there has been no hue and cry that it is overwhelming the court systems.
The lenders’ complaints that foreclosures are slowing Oregon’s housing recovery are not necessarily verified by the stats. Oregon’s Regional Multiple Listing Service (“RMLS™”) shows that January 2009 housing inventory (i.e. dividing active listings by closed sales) was 19.2 months; January 2010 was 12.6 months; January 2011 was 11.3 months. February 2009 was 16.6 months, February 2010 was 12.9 months; and February 2011 was 10.9 months. March 2010 showed housing inventory at 7.8 months (down from 12.0 months in 2009), and there is no reason we cannot expect even better numbers when this month is over.
These numbers suggest that housing inventory is gradually being reduced year over year. Although it is true that housing prices continue to decline, that is more likely the result of lenders fire-selling their own REO inventory, than anything else. I say this because of many anecdotal reports of lenders refusing short sales at prices higher than they ultimately sold following foreclosure. Perhaps lender logic is different than human logic….
In an online article in Mortgage News Daily [a lender resource site – just look at their advertising – PCQ], it was reported:
The cost of a foreclosure, it turns out, is pretty staggering and we wonder why lenders and the investors they represent aren’t jumping at a solution, any solution, that would allow them to avoid going to foreclosure whenever possible.***According the Joint Economic Committee of Congress, the average foreclosure costs were $77,935 while preventing a foreclosure runs $3,300.
Overall, foreclosure is a lose-lose proposition for all concerned – except perhaps the companies servicing and foreclosing the loans [Point of Interest: Bank of America owns BAC Servicing and ReconTrust, and is making millions from the business of servicing and foreclosing the loans it made to its own borrowers. A sterling example of vertical integration in a down market… PCQ]
The only good solution is a non-foreclosure solution. Lenders already have ultimate control over the outcome for every loan in default. In those cases where modifications are viable, they should do so on an expedited basis. [Point of Interest: Go to the following CoreLogic site here , where in 2010 they touted their new analytics program that is designed to enhance lender decision making on modifications, short sales, and deeds-in-lieu. One has to believe that if such programs exist and banks stopped losing borrowers’ paperwork, they could actually have a decision back fairly quickly – rather than the 14-month horror stories we hear about. – PCQ]
Although it is doubtful that the industry can and will – anytime soon – create a fast and fair process to reduce principal balances, that is certainly a fair solution. It is fair to the homeowner in need, and actually fair to the bank, since the cost of foreclosure, including taxes, insurance, commissions, and other carrying costs, are significantly more than the short term pain of a write down. [If the banks need a little accounting sleight-of-hand from the FASB, there’s no reason they couldn’t put some pressure on, as they did with the mark-to-market rules. -PCQ]
Another, more likely and quicker solution, is to establish a fast-track short sale process. This should not be complicated if the banks stopped “losing paperwork” and focused on turning short sales into 45-60 day closings, consistent with the timing for equity sales. It has been lender delays that have stigmatized short sales, so only hungry investors, and buyers with the patience of Job, participate. This can change if banks begin expediting their short sale processing.
With both the modification and short sale alternatives, lenders do not receive the property back into their already bloated REO departments; and there is the added advantage that the banks do not have to risk a judicial slapdown, when using their fraudulently prepared Assignments of Trust Deed. In short, it is a “win-win” solution for lender and borrower.
Conclusion. The MERS business model was based upon the concept that “It is better to seek forgiveness than permission.” The problems they created were done with their eyes wide open in a brazen act of “might makes right” hubris. After having created these problems, they are now seeking to legislatively overturn the rulings of several of Oregon’s highly regarded federal judges. These decisions have affirmed the rule of law. To do otherwise – that is to sanctify MERS’ illegal conduct by eviscerating statues designed to protect homeowners, would be a travesty.
MERS, the banks, and the title industry own this problem, and they should own the solution. Whatever the outcome, it must be fair, and should not be borne on the backs of Oregon’s already struggling homeowners.
- Hundreds of Oregon foreclosure sales stopped after judges’ rulings by Brent Hunsberger, The Oregonian (oregonrealestateroundtable.com)
- Freddie Mac Bars Foreclosure Actions in the Name of MERS, by Carrie Bay, DSNEWS.com (oregonrealestateroundtable.com)
- MERS Tells Banks To Stop Foreclosing in Their Names (axsmithlaw.wordpress.com)
- MERS tells members not to foreclose in its name (ftalphaville.ft.com)
- MERS Tells Servicers to Stop Foreclosing in Their Name (news.firedoglake.com)
- Short Sale Optimism (markaalto.wordpress.com)
- Oh My, Oh MERS! NY Bankruptcy Judge Rules That Mortgage Electronic Registration Systems (MERS) Lacks Right To Assign Mortgages (ritholtz.com)
- Another Way Banks Make Everyone Pay: The MERS Mortgage Mess (dailyfinance.com)
- Interagency Review of Foreclosure Policies and Practices (timothymccandless.wordpress.com)
- Backgrounder: A Closer Look at MERS, the Industry’s Controversial Mortgage Clearinghouse (propublica.org)