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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High Priority: Sometimes A Later-Filed Mortgage Can Have Priority Over An Earlier-Filed One

by:  Peter J. Gallagher (@pjsgallagher)

Another day, another post about mortgage priority. Last week, I posted about how refinancing a first mortgage impacts its priority — click here if you don't remember — and now comes an even more interesting, and more unique, case about mortgage priorities. 

In Rosenthal & Rosenthal, Inc. v. Benun, 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 for the purpose of the Appellate Division;s decision, 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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“Get Your Priorities Straight!” Refinanced First Mortgage Maintains Priority Over Junior Liens

by:  Peter J. Gallagher (@pjsgallagher)

New Jersey is a "race-notice" jurisdiction when it comes to mortgage priority. What this means, in its simplest terms, is that if Party A obtains a mortgage on a piece of property before Party B does, but Party B records its mortgage first (i.e., it wins the "race" to the clerk's office), then Party B's mortgage has priority unless Party B had "actual knowledge" of Party A's previously-acquired interest. But what happens when a first mortgage is refinanced? The original mortgage is technically paid off and replaced with the refinanced mortgage. Does this "newly-recorded," refinanced mortgage maintain the first priority status of the original mortgage or does it go to the back of the line? The answer to this question — as discussed in a recent decision from the Law Division, Wells Fargo Bank, NA v. Kim — is that the refinanced mortgage generally takes the original mortgage's first priority position.

In Kim, defendant borrowed $328,000 from Washington Mutual Bank, FA ("WaMu") to buy a home and secured repayment of this loan with a purchase money mortgage on the home. Later, defendant obtained a home equity loan from Plaintiff, Wells Fargo Bank, N.A. ("Wells Fargo") that was also secured by a mortgage on defendant's home. Defendant then refinanced her original, purchase money mortgage with WaMu. Defendant used the entire amount of the refinance loan, which was secured by a mortgage on defendant's home, to pay off the original purchase money mortgage (i.e., she did not borrow and more money through the refinance) and the purchase money mortgage was discharged of record. WaMu did not obtain a subordination of the Wells Fargo mortgage in connection with the refinance.

Approximately three years after the refinancing, defendant defaulted on the Wells Fargo home equity loan, and Wells Fargo moved to foreclose. Defendant did not file a contesting answer and the court entered default against her. However, U.S. Bank Trust, N.A. ("U.S. Bank"), the successor to WaMu's interest in the refinance loan and mortgage, filed a contesting answer claiming that its mortgage stood in first priority position ahead of  Wells Fargo's mortgage.

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It is Still Not a Breach Of The Duty Of Good Faith And Fair Dealing For Lenders To Enforce The Terms Of Their Loan Documents

         by:  Peter J. Gallagher (@pjsgallagher)

It seems like I read cases like this every few weeks: A borrower defaults on a loan, tries to work something out with the bank, but the bank for some reason decides not to work out a deal and instead decides to enforce the terms of the underlying loan documents (usually through foreclosure or some other means). The borrower then sues, alleging that the lender acted in bad faith by thinking about working out a deal, and maybe even taking some steps to do so, but eventually deciding not to. Although I have obviously summarized these cases in broad terms and the devil is often in the details, the result is almost always the same – the borrower loses.

The reason for this is simple. The law in New Jersey is well settled that a lender will not 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.

Try as borrowers might, New Jersey courts have repeatedly and consistently rejected efforts to hold lenders liable for violating the duty of good faith and fair dealing when those lenders have simply attempted to enforce the terms of their loan agreements.

 

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Appellate Division to Foreclosing Lenders: “Do Less” Because If You Do More You Might Make Yourself Liable For Damages

 by:  Peter J. Gallagher (@pjsgallagher)

 

There is a scene in the movie "Forgetting Sarah Marshall" where the main character goes to a surf instructor to teach him how to surf. The lesson is not that helpful because, among other things, the instructor gives the main character advice that is impossible to follow, like: "Don't do anything. Don't try to surf. Don't do it. The less you do the more you do." And, then later: "try less" and "do less."

I was reminded of this decision when I read the Appellate Division's recent opinion in McRoy v. Eskander. In that case, the Appellate Division held that a lender was not a mortgagee in possession and therefore could not be liable for injuries sustained by someone who slipped and fell on the sidewalk in front of the property. The reason the lender could not be deemed a mortgagee in possession was because it had done almost nothing to maintain the property in the 18 months after it obtained a final judgment of foreclosure.

In McRoy, plaintiff slipped and fell on snow and ice in front of a four-unit apartment building that was owned by Defendant Eskander. At the time of plaintiff's fall, however, the building had been vacant for approximately 18 months. Eskander had defaulted on his loan with Bank of America ("BofA"), which led BofA to foreclose on its mortgage on the property. BofA obtained final judgment of foreclosure but had not proceeded to a sheriff's sale at the time of plaintiff's fall. Once final judgment of foreclosure was entered, Eskander stopped maintaining the property. Except for performing yard work once, BofA did not maintain the property either. It did periodically inspect the property to ensure it was vacant and, to protect its collateral, it paid the real estate taxes and a water bill.

 

 

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