Attorney Richard D. Vetstein is here on a Monday to explain the news about the SJC ruling on Easton versus FNMA.
The Massachusetts real estate community has been waiting 8 long months for a decision from the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) in the much anticipated Eaton v. Federal National Mortgage Association case. Link The decision came down Friday, and now that the dust has settled, I don’t think there is any question that lenders and the title community have been given a judicial Maalox.
Unity endorsed, a foreclosing lender must “hold” both note & mortgage
The first issue considered by the court was the fundamental question of “unity” urged by the Eaton side: whether a foreclosing mortgagee must hold both the promissory note (underlying indebtedness) and the mortgage in order to foreclose. After reviewing Massachusetts common law going back to the 1800′s, the Court answered yes there must be unity, reasoning that a “naked” mortgagee (a holder of a mortgage without any rights to the underlying indebtedness) cannot foreclose because they don’t hold (or more accurately, cannot prove they hold) the underlying indebtedness. If the Court stopped there, lenders and MERS would have been in big trouble. But the Court significantly limited the effect of this decision.
Disaster averted: ruling given prospective effect
Swayed by the arguments from the Massachusetts Real Estate Bar Association that retroactive application of a new rule would wreak havoc with existing real estate titles in Massachusetts, the SJC took the rare step of applying its ruling prospectively only. As Professor Adam Levitin (who drafted an amicus brief) noted on his Credit Slips blog, this “means that past foreclosures cannot be reopened because of this case, so the financial services industry just dodged billions in liability for wrongful foreclosures and evictions, and the title insurance industry did as well.” So going forward, lenders must establish unity of both note and mortgage, but past foreclosures are immune from challenge.
MERS system given blessing? Ms. Eaton’s mortgage was a MERS (Mortgage Electronic Registration System) mortgage. MERS is a private system created by the largest national lenders and title companies to track assignments and ownership of loans as they are bought and sold in the secondary mortgage market. MERS has come under fire from distressed homeowners and registrars of deeds (especially our own Essex County Registrar John O’Brien) for robo-signing and bungled foreclosures. Although the Court did not specifically rule on the validity of the MERS system, the decision cited several new MERS policies and said that lenders who follow these new policies will likely be in compliance with the court’s holding. So MERS will continue doing business in Massachusetts for the foreseeable future.
Make way for the “Eaton” affidavit
The most important aspects of the Eaton ruling, in my opinion, are what came after the two “headline” rulings above. First, the Court made the explicit point that lenders do not have to physically possess both note and mortgage to be deemed a “holder” able to foreclose. This is huge given the pandemic paperwork deficiencies common with securitized mortgage trusts. Second, the court also stated in a very important footnote that it will “permit one who, although not the note holder himself, acts as the authorized agent of the note holder, to stand “in the shoes” of the “mortgagee” as the term is used in these [foreclosure statute] provisions.” This footnote opens the door wide open for servicers and MERS to establish that they are authorized to foreclose, and acting on behalf of, the securitized trusts who hold legal title to the mortgages. Lastly, the court approved the use of a statutory affidavit filed at the county registry of deeds in which the note holder or mortgage servicer confirms that it either holds the promissory note or is acting on behalf of the note-holder. We will surely be seeing these “Eaton” affidavits being prepared and recorded in connection with foreclosures.
As a real estate and title attorney, what I appreciate about this decision is that the SJC took into account the disastrous effect a retroactive rule would have on past titles (now held by innocent third party purchasers) and came up with new ground rules for foreclosing lenders to follow going forward. It’s like the court said “what’s done is done, now let’s move forward doing it the ‘right’ way.” We will definitely see foreclosures, which were caught in this quagmire, move forward. On the closing side, when I am reviewing a title with a past foreclosure, my client and I can sleep better knowing that the risk of a defective title just got a reduced substantially. This is good for the housing market and it makes more properties marketable. However, this is not the end of foreclosure litigation in Massachusetts. As with most landmark cases pronouncing a new rule of law, subsequent litigation to clarify what the court meant is likely to follow in this case.
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