Since 2007, nearly 4.2 million people in the United States have lost their homes to foreclosure. By early 2014, that number is expected to climb to 6 million. Historically, the legal process of foreclosure, one that requires a homeowner to return his or her house to a lender after defaulting on a mortgage, has tilted in favor of the banks and lenders — who are well-versed in the law and practice of foreclosure.
Over the past few years, a growing number of homeowners in the foreclosure process have begun to fight back, by stalling foreclosure proceedings or stopping them altogether. The legal strategy employed by these homeowners is known as foreclosure defense.
The simplest way to avoid foreclosure is by modifying the mortgage. In a mortgage modification, the homeowner convinces the lender to renegotiate the terms of the mortgage in order to make the payments more affordable.
A mortgage modification can include:
- A reduction or change in the loan’s interest rate.
- A reduction in the loan’s principal.
- A reduction or elimination of late fees and penalties for non-payment.
- A reduction in your monthly payment.
- Forbearance, to temporarily stop making payments, or extend the time for making payments.
The goal of the foreclosure defense strategy is to prove that the bank does not have a right to foreclose. The chances of success rest on an attorney’s ability to challenge how the mortgage industry operates. The strategy aims to take advantage of flaws in the system, and presumes illegal or unethical behavior on the part of lenders.
Foreclosure defense is a new concept that continues to grow alongside the rising tide of foreclosure cases. While some courts accept foreclosure defense arguments, others find them specious and hand down decisions more beneficial to banks than to homeowners.
A growing number of victories by homeowners in state and federal courts have altered the foreclosure landscape dramatically, giving optimism to tens of thousands of other homeowners in similar situations. And because many of America’s large banks have acknowledged unorthodox, unaccepted or even illegal practices in the areas of mortgages, loan modifications and foreclosures, they inadvertently have given homeowners additional ammunition with which to fight.
Foreclosure Defense Varies by State
A major strategy of foreclosure defense is to make a bank substantiate clear chains of title for a mortgage and a promissory note. If any link in either chain is questionable, it can nullify a lender’s ability to make a valid claim on a property.
The foreclosure process varies somewhat from state to state, depending on whether your state uses mortgages or deeds of trust for the purchase of real property. A mortgage or deed of trust outlines a transfer of an interest in a property; it is not, in itself, a promise to pay a debt. Instead, it contains language that gives the lender the right to take the property if the borrower breaches the terms of the promissory note.
If you signed a mortgage, it generally means you live in a state that conducts judicial foreclosures, meaning that a lender has to sue in court in order to get a judgment to foreclose. If you signed a deed of trust, you live in a state that conducts non-judicial foreclosures, which means that a lender does not have to go to court to initiate a foreclosure action.
In a judicial state, homeowners have the advantage because they can require that the lender produce proof and perfection of claim, at the initial court hearing. In a non-judicial state, the lender does not have to prove anything because the state’s civil code gives it the right to foreclose after a notice of default has been sent. So in non-judicial states, a homeowner must file a civil action against the lender to compel it to provide proof of claim.
Regardless of whether you signed a mortgage or a deed of trust, you also signed a promissory note — a promise to pay back a specified amount over a set period of time. The note goes directly to the lender and is held on its books as an asset for the amount of the promised repayment. The mortgage or deed of trust is a public record and, by law, must be recorded in a county or town office. Each time a promissory note is assigned, i.e. sold to another party, the note itself must be endorsed with the name of the note’s new owner. Each time a deed of trust or mortgage is assigned to another entity, that transaction must be recorded in the town or county records office.
Foreclosure Defense and Chain of Title
Here is where foreclosure defense can begin to chip away at a bank’s claim on your property. In order for a mortgage, deed of trust or promissory note to be valid, it must have what is known as “perfection” of the chain of title. In other words, there must be a clear, unambiguous record of ownership from the time you signed your papers at closing, to the present moment. Any lapse in the chain of title causes a “defect” in the instrument, making it invalid.
In reality, lapses occur frequently. As mortgages and deeds began to routinely be bought and sold, the sheer magnitude of those transfers made it difficult, costly and time-consuming for institutions to record every transaction in a county records office. But in order to have some method of record-keeping, the banks created the Mortgage Electronic Registration System (MERS), a privately held company that tracks the servicing rights and ownership of the nation’s mortgages. The MERS holds more than 66 million American mortgages in its database.
When a foreclosure is imminent, MERS appoints a party to foreclose, based on its records of who owns the mortgage or deed of trust. But some courts have rejected the notion that MERS has the legal authority to assign title to a particular party in the first place. A court can decide MERS has no “standing,” meaning that the court does not recognize its right to initiate foreclosure since MERS does not have any financial interest in either the property or the promissory note.
And since MERS has essentially bypassed the county record-keeping system, the perfection of chain of title cannot be independently verified. This is where a foreclosure defense can gain traction, by questioning the perfection of the chain of title and challenging MERS’ legal authority to assign title.
Promissory Notes are Key to Foreclosure Defense
Some courts may also challenge MERS’ ability to transfer the promissory note, since it likely has been sold to a different entity, or in most cases, securitized (pooled with other loans) and sold to an unknown number of entities. In the U.S. Supreme Court case Carpenter v. Longan, it was ruled that where a promissory note goes, a deed of trust must follow. In other words, the deed and the note cannot be separated.
If your note has been securitized, it now belongs to someone other than the holder of your mortgage. This is known as bifurcation — the deed of trust points to one party, while the promissory note points to another. Thus, a foreclosure defense claims that since the relationship between the deed and the note has become defective, it renders the deed of trust unenforceable.
Your promissory note must also have a clear chain of title, according to the nation’s Uniform Commercial Code (UCC), the body of regulations that governs these types of financial instruments. But over and over again, borrowers have been able to demonstrate that subsequent assignments of promissory notes have gone unendorsed.
In fact, it has been standard practice for banks to leave the assignment blank when loans are sold and/or securitized and, customarily, the courts have allowed blank assignment to be an acceptable form of proof of ownership. However, when the Massachusetts Supreme Court in U.S. Bank v. Ibenez ruled that blank assignment is not sufficient to claim perfection, it provided another way in which a foreclosure can be challenged.
In their most egregious attempts to remedy these glaring omissions, some banks have actually tried to reverse-engineer chains of title, using fraudulent means such as:
- Robo-signing of documents.
- False notary signatures.
- Submission of questionable, inaccurate or patently counterfeit affidavits.
Exposure of these dishonest methods halted many foreclosures in their tracks and helped increase governmental scrutiny of banks’ foreclosure procedures.
Other Foreclosure Defense Strategies
- Another option for a homeowner who wishes to expose a lender’s insufficient perfection of title is to file for bankruptcy. In a Chapter 7 filing, you can declare your home an “unsecured asset” and wait for the lender to object. This puts the burden of proof on the lender to show a valid chain of assignment. In a Chapter 13 bankruptcy, you can file an Adversary Proceeding, wherein you sue your lender to compel it to produce valid proof of claim. The Bankruptcy Code requires that your lender provide evidence of “perfected title.”
- Another foreclosure defense argument explores the notion of whether the bank is a real party of interest. If it’s not, it doesn’t have the right to foreclose. For example, if your loan has been securitized, your original lender has already been paid. At that point, the debt was written off and the debt should be considered settled. In order to prove that your original lender has profited from the securitization of your mortgage, it is advised that you obtain a securitization audit. The audit is completed by a third-party researcher who tracks down your loan, and then provides you with a court-admissible document showing that your loan has been securitized.
- A foreclosure defense can also argue that once a loan has been securitized, or converted to stock, it is no longer a loan and cannot be converted back into a loan. That means that your promissory note no longer exists, as such. And if that is true, then your mortgage or deed of trust is no longer securing anything. Instead of the bank insisting that you have breached the contract specified in the promissory note, foreclosure defense argues that the bank has actually destroyed that agreement itself. And if the agreement doesn’t exist, how can it be enforced? A corollary to this argument states that your loan is no longer enforceable because it is now owned by many shareholders and a promissory note is only enforceable in its whole entirety. How can thousands of people foreclose on your house?
While the foreclosure defense strategy is legal in nature, and can be handled differently by different courts, it should not be ignored when preparing a case.
The tactic of attacking a lender’s shoddy or illegal practices has proven to be the most successful strategy of foreclosure defense, since most courts are loathe to accept unlawful or unethical behavior, even from banks. If a homeowner can present clear instances of lost or missed paperwork, demonstrate that notes were misplaced or improperly endorsed, or prove that documents were forged, robo-signed, or reversed-engineered, the more likely a court will rule in his or her favor.
If you are considering a foreclosure defense, it is imperative that you retain the services of professional legal counsel. Regardless of how educated you are about the process, this is an area of law that requires a well-thought-out, competent presentation in a state or federal court.
A successful foreclosure defense may prohibit or delay the foreclosure process or it simply may induce a lending institution to negotiate a loan modification that allows you to stay in your home — which, of course, was the goal in the first place.