Saturday, August 1, 2015

Banksters Dodge 'Ticking Time Bomb' Of Crappy Massachusetts Real Estate Titles; State High Court Says Lenders Failing To Strictly Comply w/ Conditions Precedent To Exercise Of Power Of Sale Will Result In Void (As Opposed To Voidable) Foreclosure Sales, But Refuses To Apply Ruling To Past Sales

From a comment on the website of Massachusetts law firm Johnson & Borenstein, LLC:

  • Mortgagees beware – the Supreme Judicial Court has ruled that a foreclosing entity must strictly comply with the provisions of the mortgage which delineate the notice of default to homeowners. This case extends the rule, set out in United States Bank Nat'l Ass'n v. Ibanez, 458 Mass. 637 (2011), that strict compliance with the power of sale provisions and the statutory notice requirements is necessary to result in a valid foreclosure.

    Lesley Phillips and Linda Pinti (“Pinti”) brought suit in Superior Court seeking to prevent their eviction as a result of Harold Wilion’s summary process action against them. Wilion purchased the property at a foreclosure sale, conducted by Emigrant Mortgage Company, Inc. by exercise of the power of sale contained in the Pinti mortgage. Pinti sought a declaratory judgment that the foreclosure sale was void because Emigrant failed to comply with paragraph 22 of the mortgage, which concerns the mortgagee's provision of notice to the mortgagor of default and the right to cure, and also the remedies available to the mortgagee upon the mortgagor's failure to cure the default, including the power of sale.


    The Superior Court granted summary judgment in favor of Wilion, concluding that there was no requirement that Emigrant strictly comply with paragraph 22 of the mortgage, because the provision has no direct relationship to the power of sale, and dismissed Pinti’s complaint. Pinti appealed, and the SJC opted to take the case for itself.

    A majority of the Court interpreted a long line of mortgage foreclosure cases to stand for the proposition that a mortgagee “must strictly comply not only with the terms of the actual power of sale in the mortgage, but also with any conditions precedent to the exercise of the power that the mortgage might contain.”

    Relying upon an old case, Foster, Hall & Adams Co. v. Sayles, 213 Mass. 319 (1913), the SJC determined that “the sending of the prescribed notice of default is essentially a prerequisite to use of the mortgage's power of sale,” and that “the ‘terms of the mortgage’ with which strict compliance is required -- both as a matter of common law under this court's decisions and under § 21 -- include not only the provisions in paragraph 22 relating to the foreclosure sale itself, but also the provisions requiring and prescribing the preforeclosure notice of default.”

    The concern, the SJC said, is that the notice sent by Emigrant did not inform the homeowners that they must initiate a lawsuit to challenge the foreclosure – the notice seems to say that the homeowners will have an opportunity to raise any valid defenses in a later foreclosure action. Because Massachusetts is a nonjudicial foreclosure State, that “later” action never arrives, thereby depriving a homeowner of the opportunity to contest the foreclosure. The Court also noted that it is “hardly unfair or burdensome” to require a mortgagee to comply with the terms of its own mortgage document.

    The Court distinguished its decision in U.S. Bank Nat'l Ass'n v. Schumacher, 467 Mass. 421 (2014), on the grounds that G.L. c. 244, § 35A, the statute at issue in Schumacher, is not related to the exercise of the power of sale, but concerns the provision of a sufficient period of time to permit a homeowner to cure a default. Therefore, the Court decided, the defective notice sent to Phillips and Pinti rendered the foreclosure sale void.(1)

    Lest mortgagees become unduly concerned about pending or past foreclosures being invalidated on the grounds of a notice failure, the SJC stated that this decision is prospective only.(2)
For more, see New Requirements For Foreclosing Mortgagees Courtesy Of The Supreme Judicial Court.

For the court ruling, see Pinti v. Emigrant Mortgage Co., No. SJC-11742 (Mass. July 17, 2015).

Thanks to Deontos for the heads-up on the court ruling.

(1) The court's discussion on finding the foreclosure sale void, as opposed to merely voidable, follows:
  • Given our conclusion, the question presents itself whether Emigrant's failure to comply strictly with the default notice provisions of paragraph 22 renders the title obtained by Wilion as a result of the subsequent foreclosure sale voidable rather than void.[23] See Chace v. Morse, 189 Mass. 559, 561-562 (1905), and cases cited. As the court observed in Chace, this is not always an easy question to answer:

    "The distinction between the two classes of cases [void and voidable] has not been very clearly defined, and the decisions in the different jurisdictions do not entirely agree. It has repeatedly been said that in order to make a valid sale under a power in a mortgage, the terms of the power must be strictly complied with. Roarty v. Mitchell, 7 Gray, 243 [(1856)]; Smith v. Provin, 4 Allen, 516 [(1862]). . . . Where the sale is to foreclose a mortgage for a breach of the condition, there is no authority to sell unless there is a breach, and an attempted sale would be without effect upon the right of redemption. So, where a certain notice is prescribed, a sale without any notice, or upon a notice, lacking the essential requirements of the written power, would be void as a proceeding for foreclosure. Moore v. Dick, 187 Mass. 207 [(1905)]. But if everything is done upon which jurisdiction and authority to make a sale depend, irregularities in the manner of doing it, or in the subsequent proceedings, which may affect injuriously the rights of the mortgagor, do not necessarily render the sale a nullity. The sale will be invalid so far as to enable the mortgagor, or perhaps the purchaser, to avoid it, and still be effectual if all the parties interested desire to have it stand."

    Id. See Bevilacqua v. Rodriguez, 460 Mass. 762, 778 (2011) ("Generally, the key question in this regard is whether the transaction is void, in which case it is a nullity such that title never left possession of the original owner, or merely voidable, in which case a bona fide purchaser may take good title").

    As the quoted passage from Chace, supra, suggests, a bona fide purchaser's "title is not to be affected by mere irregularities in executing a power of sale contained in a mortgage, of which irregularities he has no knowledge, actual or constructive." Rogers, 169 Mass. at 183-184. As applied to this case, therefore, the question of void versus voidable may be reframed to ask whether the failure of Emigrant, as the mortgagee, to send the plaintiffs a notice of default providing the actual information required by the terms of the mortgage concerning the plaintiffs' right "to bring a court action" in order to raise any defense to the foreclosure sale is a "mere irregularity" that does not affect the validity of the property's title.

    As previously discussed, in a nonjudicial foreclosure jurisdiction like Massachusetts, misstating this information in a way to suggest that a mortgagor with a defense does not need to initiate a lawsuit but may wait to respond to a foreclosure lawsuit filed by the mortgagee can have disastrous consequences for the mortgagor: if the mortgagor has a valid defense to the foreclosure sale going forward, but is not made aware that he or she must initiate an action in court against the mortgagee to raise that defense, the sale may well proceed and result in title passing to a bona fide purchaser without knowledge of the issue — at which point, and depending on the nature of the defense, the mortgagor's right to redeem his or her home may well be lost. See Bevilacqua, 460 Mass. at 777-778.[24] Emigrant's failure to provide the required and correct information on this point in the notice of default cannot fairly be described as a "mere irregularit[y] in executing a power of sale contained in a mortgage." Rogers, supra. Contrast Chace, 189 Mass. at 562. The failure renders the subsequent foreclosure sale to Wilion void.

    The position taken by the dissent is that strict compliance by Emigrant with the notice of default provisions in paragraph 22 was required, but that Emigrant's failure to do so did not render the foreclosure sale void. See post at ___. In the dissent's view, the result in this case is essentially controlled by our decision in Schumacher. See post at ___. The dissent reasons that § 35A, the subject of Schumacher, and the notice of default provisions in paragraph 22 are birds of a feather in terms of purpose and operation; that for the same reasons Schumacher concludes § 35A was not a statute relating to the foreclosure by sale, so paragraph 22 is not a term of the mortgage concerned with foreclosure by sale; and, consequently, as was the case in Schumacher, Emigrant's defective notice of default rendered the foreclosure sale only voidable, not void.

    We disagree. The dissent fails to take into account the distinction — reflected in our cases and in the language of § 21 — between the "terms of the mortgage" instrument relating to foreclosure by exercise of the power of sale, and "statutes" relating to foreclosure by the power of sale. But this distinction is a critical one. As discussed previously, that § 35A is not one of the statutes relating to foreclosure by the power of sale to which § 21 refers does not answer whether the provisions of paragraph 22 qualify as "terms of the mortgage" relating and integrally connected to the power of sale under § 21. And as to that question, this court's decisions about mortgage terms indicate that by structure and content, the notice of default required to be given under paragraph 22 is integrally connected, and operates as a prerequisite, to the proper exercise of the mortgage instrument's power of sale. Emigrant's strict compliance with the notice of default required by paragraph 22 was necessary in order for the foreclosure sale to be valid; Emigrant's failure to strictly comply rendered the sale void.

(2) Prospective vs. Retroactive effect

On this very significant point, the Massachusetts high court's desire here was to dodge, at all costs, the disaster with real estate titles that would have arisen throughout the state (the "ticking time bombs" of void - as opposed to voidable - titles) had the court applied this ruling retroactively. Some may remember that the court took this same dodge several years ago in Eaton v. Federal Nat'l Mtge. Ass'n, 462 Mass. 569 (2012).

In this regard, this case represents a significant win for the banksters in that the court decided to give this ruling prospective (ie. "going forward") effect only (although it does apply the ruling to the parties to this litigation as well), thereby rendering the ruling inapplicable to any past foreclosures (and, thus, obliterating any "ticking time bomb" problem that would have occurred with the flood of past foreclosure sales that would have been voided had the court decided to give this ruling retroactive effect).

The court addressed this point at the end of its majority opinion:
  • We turn to the question whether our decision in this case should be given prospective effect only, because the failure of a mortgagee to provide the mortgagor with the notice of default required by the mortgage is not a matter of record and, therefore, where there is a foreclosure sale in a title chain, ascertaining whether clear record title exists may not be possible.

    We confronted the same issue in Eaton, 462 Mass. at 586-587. As Eaton also indicates, in the property law context, we have been more willing to apply our decisions prospectively than in other contexts. See id. at 588.

    We conclude that in this case, because of the possible [me here - "disasterous"] impact that our decision may have on the validity of titles, it is appropriate to give our decision prospective effect only: it will apply to mortgage foreclosure sales of properties that are the subject of a mortgage containing paragraph 22 or its equivalent and for which the notice of default required by paragraph 22 is sent after the date of this opinion.

    As in Eaton, however, and for the reasons stated there, we will apply our ruling to the parties in the present case. See id. at 589, and cases cited.[25]
The court also noted, in footnote 25 of the majority opinion, that it expressly declined to decide whether it will apply their ruling to cases currently pending on appeal:
By giving this ruling prospective, as opposed to retroactive, effect only, the court appears to reaffirm the notion held by some that, no matter how badly the banksters screw up, they can usually count on the government (ie. the court system is part of the judicial branch of government) to somehow pull their collective asses out of the fire.

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