When, If Ever, Is A Residential Mortgage Not “Residential” For The Purpose of Foreclosure?

     by:  Peter J. Gallagher (@pjsgallagher)

Believe it or not, this question comes up from time to time in my practice (exciting life, I know). In recent years I have prosecuted many foreclosure actions, but only commercial foreclosures. So the first question I usually ask a colleague who comes to me with a foreclosure  question is: "Is it a commercial or residential property?" When the answer starts with something like, "Well, that is actually an interesting question . . . " then I can almost guess what is coming next. Usually it is some variation of: "It is a home, but they mortgaged it to get money to start a commercial enterprise, so I want to argue that its commercial property." Unfortunately, you usually can't make that argument (at least not successfully), and the Appellate Division's recent decision in City National Bank of New Jersey v. Hodge reminded us all of that fact again.

To begin with, the differences between commercial and residential foreclosures in New Jersey are significant. Most importantly, commercial foreclosures are not subject to the Fair Foreclosure Act, including the various notice requirements that are required for residential foreclosures under the Act. Simply put, New Jersey law provides greater protections for residential owners who are about to lose their homes than they do for commercial owners who are about to lose their place of business. This means that the burdens on lenders seeking to foreclose on a residential mortgage are more demanding, if not entirely onerous.

 

Continue reading “When, If Ever, Is A Residential Mortgage Not “Residential” For The Purpose of Foreclosure?”

“Signs, Signs, Everywhere Signs:” New Jersey Supreme Court Holds That Homeowners’ Associations Cannot Ban Political Signs

by:  Peter J. Gallagher 

It is an issue we have reported on before (here), but yesterday the New Jersey Supreme Court ruled that homeowners’ associations may not entirely ban homeowners from displaying political signs.  In Mazdabrook Commons Homeowners' Association v. Khan, the New Jersey Supreme Court held that homeowners' associations are allowed to impose reasonable content-neutral rules (e.g., regulating the size, number, and location) of signs, but cannot ban them outright and cannot, even under the guise of reasonable content-neutral rules, “distinguish among different types of political signs.”  This decision is obviously important to community associations, but also has a broader impact because it reiterates the New Jersey Supreme Court’s belief that individual rights identified in the New Jersey Constitution are protected, not against abridgment by the government, but also by certain conduct from private entities. 

 Jude Wefing, sitting by assignment from the Appellate Division, was the lone dissenter.  She criticized the majority for both reaching the constitutional issue in the first place, and for its decision on that issue.  In connection with the former, Judge Wefing noted that the dispute between the parties centered primarily on fines related to the homeowners’ growing of a “rose vine” over the homeowners’ association’s objections about the size and placement of the “vine.”  (In a footnote, Judge Wefing noted that she referred to the offending plant as a “rose vine” only because the majority did so, even though “[a] rose is a shrub, not a vine,” and thus “the plant in question must have been a climbing rose.”)  As a result, the record regarding the issue with the political signs was too sparse, in Judge Wefing’s opinion, to justify reaching the broader constitutional issue. 

When it came to the substantive issue, Judge Wefing parted with her colleagues on a more fundamental level:

My colleagues rightly note our nation’s and our state’s commitment to a free and vigorous debate of public questions. I have no quarrel with that commitment; I embrace it. In my judgment, however, individuals are equally entitled to seek shelter from political debate and division. If a group of individuals wish to live in a common-interest community that precludes the posting of signs, political or otherwise, and have agreed freely to do so, and there is no showing of overreaching or coercion, I would adopt the principles enunciated in [the] dissent in the Appellate Division, that these mutually-agreed upon covenants ran with the land, were reasonable, and were enforceable.

Based on these principles, Judge Wefing concluded: “Some may question the choice to avoid political controversy; I simply recognize the right to make that choice.”

Surprise! You Don’t Have To Pay As Much As You Thought On That Mortgage

by:  Peter J. Gallagher

Last week, Bank of America agreed to a multi-billion dollar settlement with upset investors who had purchased securities comprised of subprime mortgages originated by Countrywide Financial (which Bank of America acquired in 2008) and serviced by Bank of America ("Bank Of America Settles Claims Stemming From Mortgage Crisis").  Among other things, the investors claim that that Countrywide "created securities from mortgages originated with little, if any, proof of assets or income," and that Bank of America then "failed to heed pleas for help from homeowners teetering on the brink of foreclosure."  While the settlement still needs to be approved by a judge, and has already run into some opposition ("Investors Challenge Bank Of America Settlement" and "Bank Of America's Proposed Mortgage Debt Settlement Criticized"), it was generally seen as the first major concession by a bank in connection with its role in the mortgage meltdown

On the heels of this settlement comes news that Bank of America (along with JPMorgan and a few other lenders) is also taking a more proactive approach with homeowners who are not even in default.  As the New York Times reports in its article, "Big Banks Easing Terms On Loans Deemed As Risks," the banks are "quietly modifying loans for tens of thousands of borrowers who have not asked for help but whom the banks deem to be at special risk."  The article tells the story of Rula Diosmas, a Florida (of course) woman who had $150,000 shaved off of the mortgage of her Miami condominium by JPMorgan even though she did not request a modification and was not in default.  The bank explained its reasoning as follows:

Banks are proactively overhauling loans for borrowers like Ms. Giosmas who have so-called pay option adjustable rate mortgages, which were popular in the wild late stages of the housing boom but which banks now view as potentially troublesome.

. . .

Option ARM loans like Ms. Giosmas’s gave borrowers the option of skipping the principal payment and some of the interest payment for an introductory period of several years. The unpaid balances would be added to the body of the loan.

. . .

“By proactively contacting pay option ARM customers and discussing other products with better options for long-term, affordable payments, we hope to prevent customers from reaching a point where they struggle to make their payments,” Mr. Frahm [a spokesman for Bank of America] said.

The banks' efforts have not come without some critism, however, including the claim that the banks are behaving in "contradictory and often maddening ways" — showing concern for those who might get in trouble while at the same time being punished by regulators for doing a poor job modifying mortgages that are already in default.

Chickens Continue Coming Home To Roost For Lenders And Mortgage Companies Involved In Foreclosure Crisis

by:  Peter J. Gallagher and Steven P. Gouin

Our regular followers know that many of our pieces focus on the foreclosure industry, and with good reason, as over 2 million American homes are currently in foreclosure.  Add to this troubling statistic the recent allegations of shoddy paperwork at many of the nation's largest mortgage companies and the law firms representing them, and you have the makings of a compelling story of a giant foreclosure-induced catastrophe.  While homeowners have been feeling the pain from this crisis for years now, the catastrophe struck close to home recently for many of the banks and mortgage companies at the heart of the foreclosure crisis. 

In an article entitled “Confidential Federal Audits Accuse Five Biggest Mortgage Firms Of Defrauding Taxpayers,” the Huffington Post is reporting that a recent federal audit conducted by the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) revealed that five of the nation's largest foreclosure firms, including industry giants like CitiBank and Bank of America, are guilty of fraud under the Federal False Claims Act.  Specifically, the audit concluded that the banks “filed for federal reimbursement on foreclosed homes that sold for less than the outstanding loan balance using defective and faulty documents.”  According to the article, federal prosecutors are debating whether to use the audits as the basis for criminal and civil sanctions against the mortgage companies. 

At the same time, the New York Times is reporting that New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman has requested information and documents from three major banks – Goldman Sachs, Bank of America, and Morgan Stanley – about their mortgage-backed securities operations (“NY State Investigates Banks’ Role In Financial Crisis”).  This suggests that Mr. Schneiderman may be launching an investigation into the banks' practices, which many believe led to billions in mortgage losses.  One of the most interesting aspects of the article is the suggestion that, by requesting this information from the banks, Mr. Schneiderman is “operating independently of peers from other states who are negotiating a broad settlement with large banks over foreclosure practices.”  The article notes that Mr. Schneiderman has been unwilling to join this proposed settlement because the banks are demanding that it include a clause whereby regulators agree not to conduct additional investigations into the banks’ activities during the mortgage crisis.