Rova Farms – From Born to Run to Bad Faith

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

SpringsteenI am in the middle of reading “Born to Run,” Bruce Springsteen’s memoir. I am about one-third of the way through and so far, so good. I just finished reading about “the only full-scale truly scary bar brawl [of Bruce and the band’s] club lives.” It happened in Rova Farms, a “Russian social club on the outskirts of town.” (In Springsteen’s life, like in his songs, the important things always seem to happen on the outskirts of town.) The brawl started right before the band broke into “Santa Clause is Coming to Town,” and ended with the police being called and several people being taken out on stretchers.

Like nearly all New Jersey lawyers, I know Rova Farms as a thing – a “Rova Farms letter” or a “Rova Farms claim” – not a place. It was interesting to read a story about the place behind the thing. For the uninitiated, Rova Farms Resort v. Investors Ins. Co. of America, was a case involving a visitor to Rova Farms who was injured, not in a bar brawl, but from diving into a shallow portion of a lake on the resort. He sustained serious spinal cord injuries and was paralyzed. The resort’s insurance carrier refused to tender the full, $50,000 policy limit to settle the claim. The case went to trial and the jury returned a $225,000 verdict. The resort then sued its carrier for the full amount of the judgment, alleging that it acted in bad faith by not settling the claim within the policy limits.

The New Jersey Supreme Court agreed, holding that an insurer’s bad-faith failure to settle within policy limits renders it liable for the full amount of the judgment, including any portion in excess of the policy limits. As a result of this decision, defendants in New Jersey will usually send a “Rova Farms letter” to their carriers when a plaintiff offers to settle a case within policy limits. The letter puts the carrier on notice that, if it does not settle within the policy limits, the insured will look to the carrier to pay the entire judgment. Of course, the obligation to do so only arises when the carrier acts in bad faith, but, needless to say, this letter tends to change the dynamic between insured and insurer.   

Back to Bruce . . . As far as New Jersey courts are concerned, Rova Farms is far more popular than Springsteen. The case has been cited more than 3,800 times in New Jersey alone. A search of all state and federal court opinions for Bruce Springsteen yields 87 hits, and only 5 of those are from New Jersey courts. Local hero indeed.

Renting Our Way To A Housing Recovery?

by:  Peter J. Gallagher

News about a housing recovery usually focuses on home sales, but Bloomberg ran a story this week, "U.S. Can Rent Its Way To A Housing Recovery" (h/t/ Land Use Prof Blog) that suggests that this focus may be off.   The author suggests that the Obama Administration should allow a tax write-off for investors who buy empty properties and rent them out.  The author claims this would help with two of the biggest problems with the housing market – the large amount of owner-occupied houses on the markets, which pushes prices down, and the millions of homes with negative equity: “Dealing with excess inventory by shifting vacant properties into the rental market would help to stabilize prices and thereby mitigate, to some degree, the negative-equity issue — although additional action would also be warranted to attack such ‘underwater’ situations."  The ideas expressed in the article are obviously not without controversy, however, as even a cursory glance at the comments posted about the article make clear. 

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.

JPMorgan Settles With The SEC

by:  Peter J. Gallagher

The SEC announced yesterday that JPMorgan Securities LLC agreed to pay $153.6 million to settle SEC charges that the company "misled investors in a complex mortgage securities transaction just as the housing market was starting to plummet."  Pursuant to the settlement, "harmed investors will receive all of their money back.”  Just like it did with Goldman Sachs and its now infamous ABACUS 2007-1 deal, the SEC alleged that JPMorgan allowed a hedge fund manager to pick the assets that went into its (equally obscurely named) Squared CDO 2007-1 deal without disclosing that the hedge fund chose the worst assets it could find because it planned to short the offering.  You know how this story ended – investors lost their shirts, the hedge fund got rich(er).     

The settlement has been widely reported in the media, with some interesting takes on the meaning of the settlement to the overall prosecution (by the SEC, private investors, attorneys general, and the DOJ) of the banks for their role in the crisis.  Among the more interesting pieces:

"Is JPMorgan's Settlement The End Of Subprime Claims?" (Reuters) (arguing that that the settlement was a win for JPMorgan but that it does not mark the end of the pain for the bank or its competitors who all face dozens of pending investor lawsuits)

"JPMorgan Settlement Suggests More Pain Ahead For Wall Street" (WSJ – Law Blog) (predicting increased pressure by the SEC on other banks for similar settlements and including the most bizarre and disturbing quote from an email that the JPMorgan employee in charge of selling the Squared CDO 2007-1 deal wrote to his sales team: “We are soooo pregnant with this deal, we need a wheel-barrow to move around . . . Let’s schedule the Cesarean please!”)

"JPMorgan Settlement With SEC Recalls Case Against Goldman Sachs" (providing more detailed reporting on the story and less commentary than the others)

Anatomy Of The Housing Crisis

 by:  Peter J. Gallagher

With Oprah signing off this afternoon, perhaps it is time that this blog replaces her immensely popular book club.  I just finished reading "The Big Short," written by Michael Lewis (author of many notable books including "Liar's Poker" about his time as a bond trader in the 1980s).  It essentially tells the story of the handful of individuals who saw the problems in the mortgage markets — from lending to individuals who could never afford to pay back their loans through the securitization of both the mortgages and the credit default swaps insuring those mortgages — and made millions as a result.  I was worried that it would be a self-aggrandizing story about a bunch of financial geniuses who profited while the markets crumbled, but it tells a much more complicated and nuanced tale from an interesting perspective.  I would recommend it to anyone interested in the collapse of the mortgage markets and the crisis that followed.  (I am just starting on "Too Big To Fail" and would welcome any other recommendations since I can't get enough of this topic.)

If you don't have time to read this or any other book on the subject, but remain interested in the back story on the financial crisis from which we are slowly (and hopefully) emerging, I would recommend the interactive and easy to follow version found on the Marketplace website — "Anatomy Of The Housing Crisis."  It takes you through every step of the process in connection with one property in Los Angeles: from the original  owners who bought it for $445,000 and sold it for more than $1 million four years later (remember those days); to the exotic mortgage those buyers obtained in order to purchase the property; to the securitization of the loan through which the lender passed on the risk to investors; through  to the inevitable foreclosure and purchase out of foreclosure by the current owners for $765,000.