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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Borrower Can Sue Lender To Compel Loan Modification (But Only If It Does What It Promised To Do First)

by:  Peter J. Gallagher (@pjsgallagher)

A recent published decision from the Appellate Division — Arias v. Elite Mortgage — resolved a question of first impression in New Jersey that is important as the State continues to dig its way out of the credit crisis. The issue in Arias involved mortgage modifications under the federal Home Affordable Mortgage Program, and specifically modifications that involve Trial Period Plan (“TPP”) agreements. As the name suggests, TPP agreements require borrowers who cannot make their regular monthly payments to make agreed upon reduced monthly payments in a timely manner for a trial period. Essentially, it allows borrowers to demonstrate to lenders that if their monthly payments are reduced then they can make their monthly mortgage payments. Accordingly, if they are able to make these payments during the trial period, then the lender agrees to modify their mortgage.

In Arias, Plaintiffs defaulted on their mortgage and then pursued a loan modification with their lender, which included a TPP agreement. However, the lender eventually refused to modify plaintiffs’ mortgage. Plaintiffs argued that this amounted to a breach of the promises the lender made in the TPP agreement, or alternatively, violated the implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing contained in the TPP agreement. The trial court rejected their claims and the Appellate Division affirmed.

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It’s Not “Bad Faith” For Lenders To Stick To The Terms Of Their Agreements With Borrowers

by:  Peter J. Gallagher

Today, the Appellate Division provided another reminder that it is not “bad faith” for a lender to abide by the terms of its mortgage with a borrower. In Warner v. Sovereign Bank, borrowers fell behind on their residential mortgage and contacted their lender to request a modification. While their request was under review, the lender filed a foreclosure complaint. The lender eventually denied the borrower’s request for a modification, but the two sides entered into a forbearance agreement.  

The borrowers claimed — without evidential support according to the Appellate Division — that the lender required, as a condition of its agreeing to review their request for a modification, that borrowers not list their home for sale. Therefore, after their loan modification request was denied, the borrowers sued the lender claiming, among other things, that the lender acted in bad faith by initially not allowing them to list their home for sale and for then not providing them with a timely answer about their request for a modification. The borrowers claimed that both of these actions prevented them from selling their home, which caused them to sustain a substantial loss of their equity.

 

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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. 

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.