Enforcement Action Against Rating Agency Allowed To Proceed

        by: Peter J. Gallagher (@pjsgallagher)

In an interesting decision issued today, Judge Katz (Essex County) denied a motion to dismiss filed by the ratings agency Standard & Poor's ("S&P") in an enforcement action brought against S&P by the New Jersey Attorney General. In Hoffman v. McGraw-Hill Financial, Inc., the Attorney General alleged that S&P violated the Consumer Fraud Act ("CFA") by misrepresenting to New Jersey consumers that S&P's analysis and rating of structured finance securities was independent and objective. The opinion contains decisions on both procedural personal jurisdiction issues and substantive CFA issues that all litigators should find interesting.

[Lawsuits against ratings agencies are nothing new. Several years ago, I wrote an article about these lawsuits and, at the time, the relative success the rating agencies had defending against them. (If you did not save your copy of the article, click here for another copy.) Historically, the rating agencies argued that their ratings were proetced under the First Amendment, but at least one court rejected this argument in the context of a motion to dismiss in a lawsuit that eventually settled.]

 

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Another Lesson From A New Jersey Court On The UCC And Standing To Foreclose

by: Peter J. Gallagher (@pjsgallagher)

The running battle between lenders and borrowers over standing to foreclose continues in the Garden State. A recent decision from the Appellate Division — Bank of New York v. Ukpe — is the latest in an ever-growing body of case law addressing this issue from seemingly every conceivable angle. 

The facts in Ukpe will be familiar to anyone who has followed the wave of residential foreclosures in recent years. Defendants applied for a mortgage from Countrywide Home Loans, Inc. (“CHL”). They claimed that they told the broker that they could not afford a monthly payment over $1,000 and were assured by the broker that the monthly payment would not exceed this amount. However, at the closing, they learned that the monthly payment would be almost $1,500 per month. They alleged that the broker told them not to worry because they could refinance the loan a few months after closing. Nonetheless, two years later, after several unsuccessful attempts to refinance the loan, Defendants defaulted. 

Defendants’ note was made "payable to lender," and the mortgage, after it was recorded, was held by Mortgage Electric Recording System ("MERS") as nominee for the lender. Shortly after being recorded, the mortgage was securitized along with other mortgages. As part of this process, several entities entered into a "Pooling and Servicing Agreement" ("PSA"). Under the PSA, CHL was identified as a "seller," CWABS, Inc. was identified as the "depositor" and "master servicer," and the Bank of New York ("BNY") was identified as the "trustee." Under the PSA, the CHL and the other “sellers” transferred the mortgages to CWABS, Inc., which then transferred them to BNY, which held the mortgages for the benefit of the investors in the newly-created security. The PSA also required the original mortgage notes to be endorsed in blank and delivered to BNY.

After Defendants defaulted, BNY filed a foreclosure complaint. In response, Defendants claimed, among other things, that BNY lacked standing to foreclose because it was not a holder in due course. The trial court rejected this claim and the Appellate Division affirmed. In doing so, the Appellate Division provided a crash course in what it means to be a holder in due course.

 

 

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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)

How Do You Say Scapegoat In French? “Fabulous Fab” Still The Only Target Of SEC Investigation Into Goldman Sach’s Mortgage Trading Operations

by:  Peter J. Gallagher

Several years after the start of the financial crisis, and the mortgage meltdown that caused it, only one individual, Fabrice Toure – a/k/a “Fabulous Fab,” his self-imposed moniker — has been sued by the SEC for selling the mortgage backed securities that created, or at the very least exacerbated, the crisis.  According to a recent piece in the New York Times,"SEC Case Stands Out Because It Stands Alone," Toure was an obscure trader for Goldman Sachs who was thrust into the national spotlight in 2010 when the SEC sued him for his role in creating and marketing Abacus, one of the many mortgage backed securities created by Goldman during the irrational exuberance of the early to mid 2000s.  (Abacus is interesting in its own right because it is one of the securities that was devised with the help of John Paulson, the hedge fund manager who famously made billions shorting mortgage backed securities like Abacus.)  As the article notes, the question many have raised is why Toure and why only Toure?

According to at least one former co-worker, Toure was a “junior” and “insignificant” member of a larger team at Goldman responsible for developing mortgage backed securities.  In their response to the SEC, Toure’s lawyers emphasized this point, identifying all of the other members of the team, and arguing that “singling Mr. Toure out for criticism regarding the content of this clearly collaborative effort is unreasonable.” For its part, the SEC has not explained why it focused on just one member of one team at one bank, and further on just one deal created by that bank.  However, as the article notes, recent increased interest from other regulators, including New York’s attorney general, indicates that this may not be the case for long, and the banks may soon be called upon to answer for their role in the crisis. 

 Finally, as interesting as Toure’s story is, equally interesting is the story behind how many of the documents that tell the story – including Toure’s non-public response to the SEC lawsuit – came to light.  The Times received them from an artist and filmmaker named Nancy Cohen who found the materials on a laptop given to her by a friend in 2006.  The friend told her that he found the laptop in a garbage can downtown.  Apparently, emails to Tourre continued “streaming into the device.”  While Cohen ignored them for years, she began paying attention when she learned about the SEC’s lawsuit, and subsequently gave the documents to the Times.