When Is Possession Not Really Possession? (And By “Possession” I Mean In The “Mortgagee In Possession” Sense Of The Word)

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

Lenders are often faced with a dilemma when dealing with property that is in foreclosure and has been abandoned by the borrower. A lender must, under New Jersey law, maintain the property "to such standard or specification as may be required by state law or municipal ordinance." Also, the lender has an obvious interest in protecting the value of its collateral. But the lender does not want to take "possession" of the property and be deemed a "mortgagee in possession," because that would impose upon the lender the duty of a "provident owner," which includes the duty to manage and preserve the property, and which subjects the lender to liability for damages to the property and damages arising out of torts that occur on the property. Unfortunately, the point at which a lender takes "possession" of property is not entirely clear. I have written about this before, and the Appellate Division's recent opinion in Woodlands Community Association, Inc. v. Mitchell provides some additional guidance, which should be helpful to lenders.

In Woodlands, defendant was the assignee of a note and mortgage related to a unit in plaintiff's condominium development. The unit owner defaulted on the loan and vacated the unit. At the time, the unit owner was not only delinquent on his loan payments, but also owed "substantial sums" to the association for "unpaid monthly fees and other condominium assessments." After the unit owner vacated the unit, defendant changed the locks and winterized the property. (As the Appellate Division noted, "[w]interizing entails draining the  pipes, turning off the water and setting the thermostat for heat to protect the pipes.") After the unite owner vacated the unit, plaintiff sued him to recover the delinquent fees. It later amended its complaint to include the lender, "alleging that [[the lender] was responsible for the association fees as it was in possession of the property."

Both parties moved for summary judgment. The trial court granted plaintiff's motion, holding that defendant was a mortgagee in possession and therefore was liable for the maintenance fees. On the key of issue of what it meant to be in "possession" of the unit, the trial court held as follows: "[D]efendant held the keys, and no one else [could] gain possession of the property without [defendant's] consent. This constitutes exclusive control, which indicates the status of mortgagee in possession." Defendant appealed. 

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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

 

Loan application (pd)

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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Condo Association Not Immune From Liability For Slip-And-Fall On Its Private Sidewalk

Shovel (PD)The latest chapter in the "can I be sued if someone slips and falls on the sidewalk in front of my house after it snows" saga has been written. In Qian v. Toll Brothers Inc., the New Jersey Supreme Court held that a condominium association was responsible for clearing snow and ice from the private sidewalks that it controlled, and therefore could be liable for injuries caused by its failure to do so. 

The general law on this issue is well-settled. Historically, no property owners had a duty to maintain the sidewalks on property that abutted public streets, but this changed in the early 1980’s, when the New Jersey Supreme Court imposed such a duty on commercial property owners, but not residential property owners. Therefore, commercial property owners are required to remove snow and/or ice from the sidewalks abutting their property, but residential property owners are not.

In practice, however, the law has proven easier to state than apply. What about situations involving property that is both residential and commercial (click here for more on that)? Or, situations where the injured party is a tenant who is injured on the landlord's property (click here for more on that)? Or, situations where the property is in foreclosure (click here for more on that)? Or, the issue in Qian, situations where the property is a condominium or common-interest community?

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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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