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The Supreme Judicial Court of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts has reaffirmed the old rule that property rights can be expanded by slow accretion or diminished through slow erosion when property is located on a stream or the ocean. In White v. Hartigan, 982 N.E.2d 1115 (Mass. 2013), beachfront owners claimed a right to use the beach behind their neighbors house because their deed had given them rights to the beach in 1841. The court disagreed, noting that changing boundaries had placed the plaintiffs’ beach under water and that they had no right to “moveable” boundaries ensuring access to the beach behind their neighbor’s house.
State courts have disagreed about whether MERS (Mortgage Electronic Registration Systems) has standing to foreclose on property or to assign whatever interest it has in the mortgage to the bank that holds the mortgage currently so that that bank can bring foreclosure proceedings. Some courts have held that MERS has no property interest in the mortgage but is a mere agent for the mortgage owner so it cannot bring foreclosure proceedings itself or assign the mortgage to anyone else. Bain v. Metropolitan Mortgage Group, Inc., 285 P.3d 34, 36–37 (Wash. 2012) (because MERS does not hold the note, it can neither initiate nonjudicial foreclosure proceedings not assign an interest in the note to a trustee who can do so). But others have held that MERS may initiate foreclosure proceedings in its own name and/or assign the mortgage to someone else. Gomes v. Countrywide Home Loans Inc., 121 Cal. Rptr. 3d 819, 826–827 (2011) (MERS may initiate nonjudicial foreclosure under deed of trust); Mortgage Electronic Registration Systems, Inc. v. Revoredo, 955 So. 2d 33, 34 (Fla. Dist. Ct. App. 2007) (MERS may foreclose as agent of the note holder); Residential Funding Co., LLC v. Saurman, 805 N.W.2d 183 (Mich. 2011) (MERS had sufficient “interest in the debt” to initiate nonjudicial foreclosure proceedings); Jackson v. Mortgage Electronic Registration Systems, Inc., 770 N.W.2d 487, 494–495, 501 (Minn. 2009)(applying Minn. Stat. §507.413 allowing MERS to initiate foreclosure proceedings).
In Culhane v. Aurora Loan Servs. of Neb., — F.3d —, 2013 WL 563374 (1st Cir. 2013), the First Circuit, applying Massachusetts law, has now held that MERS may assign mortgages because it does own a legal interest in the mortgage. In an opinion by Judge Selya, the court held that MERS has the “legal interest” in the mortgage because it is named as the mortgagee but that the bank that actually issued the note and has the right to enforce the mortgage to secure the loan has the “beneficial interest” in the mortgage. The court reasoned that the party that owns the note or is entitled to enforce it (not necessarily the same party) has the equitable right to the protection of the mortgage giving it a right to foreclose and that MERS is merely holding title to the mortgage for the benefit of that party. At the same time, MERS has a sufficient interest to hold the mortgage title for the benefit of the owner of the “beneficial interest” in the mortgage. It is not clear if that would mean that MERS could bring foreclosure proceedings in its own name or that means that the right to foreclose cannot be separated from rights in the note.
In Federal Home Loan Mortgage Corp. v. Schwartzwald, 2012 Ohio 5017, 2012 Ohio LEXIS 2628 (Ohio 2012), the Supreme Court of Ohio joined other courts that have refused to allow banks to foreclose if they cannot prove by written evidence at the time of foreclosure that they have a legal right to foreclose. In this case, Federal Home Loan commenced a foreclosure action before it obtained an assignment of the promissory note and mortgage securing the loan, although it attempted to “cure” that defect by obtaining the assignment later. The Supreme Court of Ohio reversed lower court rulings that had decided that the cure would allow the foreclosure to proceed; instead, it held that state law required lawful standing at the time the foreclosure action was brought. It cited cases from other states that denied standing to MERS (Mortgage Electronic Registration Systems) because it did not possess any interest in the note or the mortgage. The court dismissed the foreclosure claim without prejudice, so the lender can refile now that it has obtained a written assignment of the mortgage and lawful possession of the note. The court’s ruling suggests, however, that a bank that cannot provide proof that it “owns” the rights in mortgage and/or the note may not be able to foreclose, leaving to another day the question of whether the lender can use alternate evidence to prove its property rights and how a borrower/homeowner can clear title to the property that appears to still be encumbered by a mortgage.
In Eaton v. Fed. Nat’l Mortgage Ass’n (Fannie Mae), 2012 Mass. LEXIS 488 (Mass. June 22, 2012), the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts held that a foreclosing party must be in physical possession of both the note and the mortgage (or be acting on behalf of someone who does) when bringing a foreclosure proceeding. However, the ruling applies only prospectively to foreclosures that occur in the future, with the exception that the plaintiff in Eaton that convinced the Court to clarify this rule can take the benefit of it. The refusal to apply the rule retroactively was based on the belief that the law may have been unclear beforehand and that it was the case that many people acted without regard for this principle in the past.
A dispute has arisen between South Essex Register of Deeds John O’Brien and the Massachusetts Real Estate Bar Association (REBA) over O’Brien’s refusal to allow seemingly “robo-signed” mortgage documents to be recorded in the Registry of Deeds. REBA contends that state law allows the recording of any document “purporting” to be signed by an authorized signatory to a mortgage or a mortgage assignment. Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 183, § 54B. But Register O’Brien points to 1,300 documents received that were signed “Linda Green” but which exhibit different handwriting styles and different titles, and some were filed after 2010 when it was believed that Green stopped working for a mortgage company. O’Brien takes the position that he will not record documents signed by “known robo-signers” and he will also forward suspicious documents to the Attorney General’s office for investigation of mortgage fraud. Scott Pitman & MIchael Pill, To record or not to record robo-signed documents? 40 Mass. Lawyers Weekly 9 (Sept. 26, 2011).
Idaho, Indiana, Mississippi and Montana have all passed statutes prohibiting enforcement of any transfer fee covenants entered into after the dates the legislation goes into effect. See 2011 Idaho Sess. Laws 107; 2011 Ind. Acts 136; 2010 Miss. Gen. Laws 348; 2011 Mont. Laws 259. Transfer fee covenants are promises inserted in deeds to pay a fee to the original seller of the property any time it is sold in the future. Such fees were abolished in New York State in 1852 in the case of DePeyster v. Michael, 6 N.Y. 467 (1852) as a vestige of feudalism.
In an extension of its earlier ruling in U.S. Bank Nat’l Ass’n v. Ibanez, 941 N.E.2d 40 (Mass. 2011) that a foreclosure is invalid unless the party seeking foreclosure proves that it owns the mortgage (has the right to foreclose) at the time of the foreclosure, the Supreme Judicial Court of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts ruled in the case of Bank of New York v. KV Bailey, 2011 WL 3307553 (Mass. 2011), that a homeowner could challenge an eviction from his home even though it was foreclosed in a private sale to determine whether the mortgagor/lender had the power to foreclose. Because Massachusetts uses private foreclosure rather than court-supervised foreclosure, the ruling extends court supervision of foreclosure to homeowners by effectively requiring foreclosing parties to have proof of the right to foreclose before the foreclosure sale. It does so by denying power to evict an occupying homeowner without proof of the right to possession of the premises. Because the law generally protects a peaceable possessor of land unless the one seeking possession can show a better title denial of the right to evict has the effect of regulating the prior foreclosure process, which, in turn, will require that the market for transfers of mortgages comply with the requisite formalities of the statute of frauds.
In the case of Bevilacqua v. Rodriguez, 2010 WL 3351481 (Mass. Land Ct. 2010), the court held that parties cannot cure an invalid foreclosure by a quiet title action.The bank that brought the foreclosure action had no proof at the time of the foreclosure that it owned the mortgage (the right to foreclose) because it had no written assignment from the prior mortgagee. For that reason, the foreclosure was invalid under the rule adopted by the Supreme Judicial Court of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts in U.S. Bank National Ass’n v. Ibañez, 458 Mass. 637 (2011). Ibañez held that foreclosures are invalid if the mortgagee bringing the foreclosure action cannot (at the time the foreclosure action) produce a written document proving that it was assigned the benefit of the mortgage from the prior mortgage holder. Thus when the bank sought a declaratory judgment that the foreclosure was valid, the court rejected its claim. That meant that a subsequent purchase of the property by a third party did not convey good title to the third party. Bevilacqua restates the Ibañez rule but goes further and holds that the third party cannot bring a quiet title action to seek a judgment that it has title to the property. Because it has a quitclaim deed from a seller who has no valid title, it cannot legitimately argue a basis for a quiet title action, leaving title with the party who held it prior to the invalid foreclosure.