NJ Supreme Court Keeps Its Priorities Straight: A Later-Filed Mortgage Can Have Priority Over An Earlier-Filed One

 by:  Peter J. Gallagher (@pjsgallagher) (LinkedIn)

Monopoly houses (pd)If you are like me, nothing piques your interest more than a case about the priority of liens and mortgages. I am joking of course. I am not (quite) that boring. But, there are occasionally cases that come along on seemingly dry issues that are nonetheless interesting. The New Jersey Supreme Court's decision in Rosenthal & Rosenthal, Inc. v. Benun is one of those cases. I wrote about the Appellate Division's decision in Rosenthal here, and now the Supreme Court has issued its own opinion, affirming the Appellate Division's judgment.

In Rosenthal, plaintiff was a factoring company (factoring is the sale of accounts receivable at a discount price).  It entered into two factoring agreements with several entities owned by Jack Benun and his family (the "Benun Companies"). Each of the factoring agreements was personally guaranteed by defendant, Vanessa Benun, Jack Benun's daughter, and each of her personal guarantees was secured by a mortgage on property she owned in Ocean Township.  These mortgages were recorded in 2000 and 2005 respectively. Each mortgage contained both a "dragnet clause" — a provision stating that if the borrower ever becomes liable to the lender on any other loan, the mortgage will also secure that loan — and an anti-subordination clause.

In 2007, after both of the above mortgages were recorded, Ms. Benun gave the law firm Riker Danzig a mortgage on the same property in Ocean Township that secured her personal guarantees on the two factoring agreements. The purpose of this mortgage was to secure payment of almost $1.7 million owed to Riker Danzig by Mr. Benun at that time. After the mortgage was recorded, plaintiff's counsel sent an email to Riker Danzig acknowledging the Riker Danzig mortgage. More importantly, plaintiff also continued to make disbursements to the Benun Companies under the factoring agreements after the Riker Danzig mortgage was recorded and acknowledged by plaintiff.

 

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Borrower Allowed To Sue Lender For Breaching Mortgage Modificaton Agreement

 

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In a decision that all lenders should read carefully, the Appellate Division recently reiterated that a borrower may have a private cause of action against a lender if the lender breaches the terms of a mortgage modification agreement under the Home Affordable Modification Program ("HAMP").

Earlier this year, I wrote about the Appellate Division's decision in Arias v. Elite Mortgage. (In case you forgot, click here to review the post.) In that case, the Appellate Division faced an issue of first impression involving mortgage modifications under HAMP. Specifically, the Appellate Division was faced with the question of whether a borrower could sue a lender if the lender breached the terms of a Trial Period Plan (“TPP”) agreement. As I noted in that post, a TPP is essentially the first step in obtaining a mortgage modification under HAMP. In a TPP agreement, the borrower agrees, among other things, to make reduced monthly payments in a timely manner during a relatively short period. As the name suggests, this is a trial period during which the lender can determine whether the borrower is able to make payments similar to those the borrower would be required to make under a modified mortgage. If the borrower satisfies the conditions of the TPP, including making the monthly payments, then the lender agrees to modify the mortgage. In Arias, the Appellate Division held that a lender could face a lawsuit from a borrower if it failed to hold up its end of this bargain. In that case, however, the borrower had not made the required payments in a timely manner during the trial period — i.e., the borrower failed to hold up its end of the bargain — so the lender did not have to offer the borrower a modified mortgage.

Now, the Appellate Division has returned to the same issue in Aiello v. OceanFirst Bank. In Aiello, plaintiffs entered into a TPP agreement with defendant that required them to provide certain financial documentation, submit to credit counseling if necessary, and make monthly payments of $1,386.75 during the trial period.The TPP agreement stated that it was not a loan modification and that if plaintiffs failed to comply with its terms, no modification would be offered. It also stated that the monthly payment during the trial period was an estimate of the payment that would be required under a modified mortgage, and the actual amount under a modified mortgage might be greater.

Unlike Arias, plaintiffs in Aiello complied with the terms of the TPP agreement. Nonetheless, Fannie Mae initially rejected plaintiffs' application for a modified mortgage because their loan was originated prior to January 1, 2009, a fact, the Appellate Division observed, that defendant was aware of when it first entered into the TTP agreement with plaintiffs. Defendant eventually did offer plaintiffs a modification, but it included monthly payments almost $400 higher than the payments made under the TPP agreement. Plaintiffs rejected the offer and sued defendant for breaching the TPP agreement. Both sides moved for summary judgment. The trial court denied plaintiffs' motion and granted defendant's motion.

 

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Transfer Can Be Fraudulent Even If It Occurs Before Loan, Default, And Lawsuit Over Default On Loan

Fraud (PD)A recent Appellate Division decision should serve as a warning to anyone thinking about transferring assets and rendering themselves judgment proof before entering into a business deal. If the deal goes bad, the transfer might be deemed fraudulent and creditors might be able to look to the fraudulently transferred assets to satisfy their judgments. 

In Anastasi v. Barmbatsis, defendants, husband and wife, held all of the shares in a single-purpose entity that owned and operated a Stewart's Root Beer in Franklin Park, New Jersey. Shortly before procuring a loan to open a new Stewart's location with a partner, husband transferred his interest in the entity to wife, along with nearly all of his interest in another entity that the two owned. Husband then entered into a deal with plaintiff — verbal, but "apparently sealed with a handshake" — to borrow $50,000 to use to open the new restaurant. Defendants used this money, along with other funds, to open the restaurant.

Husband agreed to repay the loan in five to seven months. This was subsequently extended but husband failed to repay the loan even with the extension. Plaintiff sued and obtained a default judgment against husband for $50,000. In post-judgment discovery, plaintiff learned about the pre-loan transfers from husband to wife. Thereafter, he sued both husband and wife alleging, among other things, that the transfers violated New Jersey's Uniform Fraudulent Transfers Act (the "UFTA"). The trial court ruled in plaintiff's favor. It held that wife was not personally responsible for paying back the loan, but plaintiff could satisfy his judgment with the interests in the two entities that husband had transferred to wife.

 

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Borrowers Cannot Vacate Final Judgment Of Foreclosure Because They “Read Something Wrong”

Foreclosure (PD)
This might have seemed obvious, but the Appellate Division nonetheless recently confirmed that a borrower's claim that it "read something wrong" could not establish "excusable neglect" sufficient to vacate a final judgment of foreclosure.

In New Jersey Housing and Mortgage Finance Agency v. Wolinski, borrowers defaulted on their mortgage and their lender filed a foreclosure complaint. The first complaint named borrowers and "John Doe and Jane Doe 1-10 (Names Being Fictitious) Tenants/Occupants." This complaint was voluntarily dismissed against all parties, real and fictitious. The second complaint, filed approximately six months later, also named borrowers and "John Doe and Jane Doe 1-10 (Names Being Fictitious) Tenants/Occupants." This complaint was also voluntary dismissed, but only as to the fictitious defendants.

Borrowers never answered the complaint and the lender filed a request to enter default, and then obtained final judgment by default. The lender scheduled a sheriff's sale but the borrowers filed for bankruptcy protection. The lender moved to lift the bankruptcy stay. After this motion was granted, the borrowers moved to vacate final judgment. They argued: (1) that they misread the dismissal of the second foreclosure complaint to be, like the dismissal of the first one, a dismissal of all defendants, not just the fictitious ones; and (2) that the trial court abused its discretion when it allegedly miscalculated the amount due in the final judgment. The Appellate Division rejected both of these arguments.

 

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Update: Third Circuit Grants Government’s Request For En Banc Review In Double Eagle Dispute

Double eagle(2)

I have written before about Roy Langbord v. U.S. Dept. of Treasury, a lawsuit over ten old, rare, and valuable "Double Eagle" coins.  Very long story, short — plaintiffs gave the coins to the government for authentication, the Government claimed they were stolen and refused to return them, plaintiffs sued to get them back. A divided panel ruled in favor of plaintiffs and ordered the coins returned. The Government sought en banc review of this decision and, on July 28, 2015, this request was granted. As a result, the panel's decision has been vacated and this already fascinating case continues to roll on. Stay tuned.