Another New York Judge Approves Service Of Process Through Facebook

 by:  Peter J. Gallagher (@pjsgallagher)

On Monday, the Daily News reported on a "landmark" ruling by a Manhattan judge allowing a woman to serve her "elusive husband" with divorce papers via Facebook. The judge order that the divorce papers must be sent to the husband over Facebook "once a week for three consecutive weeks or until acknowledged." According to the article, the husband kept in touch with his wife by phone and through Facebook, but that he had no fixed address and refused to make himself available to be served. After all other conventional methods of service failed — he vacated his last known address in 2011, he had no job, the post office had no forwarding address for him, there was no billing address linked to his prepaid cell phone, and the DMV had no record of him — the judge allowed service through Facebook.

While interesting, this is not actually a landmark decision. Less than one year ago, a Staten Island judge permitted service via Facebook in a similar case. (Obviously, since this took place in my ancestral home, it went unnoticed — the latest proof that Staten Island truly is the "forgotten borough.") In that case, also involving a domestic dispute, a man was allowed to serve his ex-wife with "legal notice that he [did not] want to pay any more child support" via Facebook after more conventional methods of service failed.  The man's ex-wife had moved from her last known address and did not provide any forwarding information to the post office. However, she maintained "an active social media account with Facebook," therefore the judge allowed her to be served through that Facebook account.

In addition, several federal courts have also addressed this issue. For example, in one case, the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York held that service via Facebook might not, on its own, comport with due process, but it was acceptable as a supplemental method in conjunction with other, more conventional, methods of service. In a different case, a different judge in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York refused to authorize service via Facebook where the plaintiff could not demonstrate that the Facebook profile that the plaintiff proposed to use for service was in fact maintained by the defendant or that the email address listed on the Facebook profile was accessed by the defendant. Although these cases are among the few to have considered the issue, they appear to describe the approach courts are likely to take when faced with a request to permit service via Facebook — if all other methods are exhausted, or service via Facebook is one of several methods to be employed, and if there is some showing that the individual to be served actually maintains and accesses the Facebook account, then service via Facebook would probably be acceptable.

When Can Foreclosing Lenders Be Accused Of Acting In Bad Faith?

 by:    Peter J. Gallagher

In a recent decision, the Chancery Division denied a lender’s motion to strike a borrower’s contesting answer in a foreclosure lawsuit, holding that the borrower had adequately pled a claim that the lender acted in bad faith.  While this decision is unique based on the facts of the underlying dispute, it does, by contrast, serve as a reminder that lenders generally cannot be held to have acted in bad faith when they simply attempt to enforce the terms of loan documents as written. 

In Wells Fargo Bank, N.A. v. Schultz, plaintiff obtained a mortgage from World Savings Bank (which later changed its name to Wachovia Mortgage, FSM, which was later acquired by and merged into Wells Fargo) under a “Pick-a-Payment” mortgage program.  Several years later, this program became the subject of a class action lawsuit, the settlement of which provided that Wells Fargo both pay class members, including defendant Schultz, a small sum and also make loan modifications available to them.  It is the second of these requirements that ended up getting Wells Fargo in trouble.  Defendant presented evidence to the court that led Judge Doyne to conclude that she was “getting the run around” from Wells Fargo, including by being told that she failed to submit documents that she certified that she had submitted, and when Wells Fargo eventually confirmed that she had submitted the documents, telling her that the modification program was no longer available.  Judge Doyne observed that defendant may not have a right to be approved for a specific modification, but that once Wells Fargo made one available to her, it was obligated to “act in good faith as to the provision of the modification.”  To be clear, Judge Doyne did not rule that Wells Fargo had acted with bad faith; instead, he simply ruled that defendant had pled enough in connection with her claims related to the modification that her answer could not be stricken. 

While this case presents a situation where a lender is alleged to have acted in bad faith after agreeing to entertain an application for a loan modification, the law in New Jersey is well settled that a lender cannot generally be deemed to have acted in bad faith when it seeks to enforce the terms of a note or mortgage as written.  Stated differently, lenders cannot be barred from enforcing loan and mortgage documents merely because they seek to enforce their express contractual rights.  Indeed, “a creditor's duty to act in good faith does not extend to foregoing its right to accelerate upon default or otherwise compromising its contractual rights in order to aid its debtor.” Glenfed Financial Corp. v. Penick Corp.   For instance, in Creeger Brick & Building Supply, Inc. v. Mid-State Bank & Trust Co., — a decision cited by the Appellate Division with approval in Glenfed — a Pennsylvania appeals court held:

. . . a lending institution does not violate a separate duty of good faith by adhering to its agreement with the borrower or by enforcing its legal and contractual rights as a creditor. The duty of good faith imposed upon contracting parties does not compel a lender to surrender rights which it has been given by statute or by the terms of its contract. Similarly, it cannot be said that a lender has violated a duty of good faith merely because it has negotiated terms of a loan which are favorable to itself. As such, a lender generally is not liable for harm caused to a borrower by refusing to advance additional funds, release collateral, or assist in obtaining additional loans from third persons. A lending institution also is not required to delay attempts to recover from a guarantor after the principal debtor has defaulted.

In other words, if the defendant in Schultz was accusing Wells Fargo of bad faith simply because the lender was seeking to enforce its rights under the plain language of the relevant note and mortgage, the result would likely have been different.