Among other holdings in a hard-fought wrongful foreclosure action, the Fifth Circuit made two observations about the FDCPA in Mahmoud v. DeMoss Owners Association. First, while language on the first page of a letter suggested that action was required in less than 30 days, the next page of that letter clearly gave the required 30-day action period in three places, and thus did not violate the FDCPA. Second, even though “a small portion of the debt may have been time-barred,” in the context of a non-judicial foreclosure controlled by state law, that matter alone would not create an FDCPA violation. A dissent had a different view of the point, and “would hold instead that, consistent with the text and spirit of the Act, demanding full repayment of a partiaally time-barred debt under the threat of forecloosure – implying that the entirety of the debt is legally enforceable – violates the FDCPA.” No. 15-20618 (July 28, 2017).
In a thorough review of several basic issues that arise in litigation about residential foreclosures, the Fifth Circuit addressed whether the citizenship of a mortgage securitization trust is determined by the citizenship of the trustee, or the citizenship of all the trust’s interest holders. While the traditional rule is that the citizenship of the trustee controls, Navarro Savings Ass’n v. Lee, 446 U.S. 458 (1980), the borrower argued that a more recent case about the citizenship of a REIT should control, Americold Relay Trust v. Conagra Foods, 136 S. Ct. 1012 (2016). Because the defendant bank was sued in its capacity as trusteee, and because the terms of the Pooling and Service Agreement assigned “real and substantial” control to the bank, the Court elected to follow Navarro. Bynane v. The Bank of New York Mellon, No. 16-20598 (August 4, 2017) (Navarro was sucessfully argued in the Supreme Court by my former law partner James Ellis, an excellent lawyer and as shown above, a star quarterback at Texas Tech in the early 1960s).
By summary judgment, Advanced Recovery Systems lost a case brought under section 8 of the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, alleging that it failed to disclose on credit reports that the plaintiff disputed two allegedly unpaid debts. Procedurally, while the summary judgment did not follow the traditional Rule 56 schedule, the Fifth Circuit found no harm because ARS had admitted to the district court that there were no remaining issues of fact. Substantively, the Court rejected a challenge to Article III standing, finding that the plaintiff’s injury was sufficiently “tangible” — “[T]he violation of a procedural right granted by statute can be sufficient in some circumstances to constitute injury in fact .. . . Among those circumstances are cases where a statutory violation creates the ‘risk of real harm’ . . . Unlike an incorrect zip code, the ‘bare procedural violation’ in [Spokeo, Inc. v. Robins, 136 S. Ct. 1540, 1549 (2016)], an inaccurate credit rating creates a substantial risk of harm.” Sayles v. Advanced Recovery Systems, Inc., No. 16-60640 (July 6, 2017).
The common situtation of a loan modification raised two general issues – (1) given the princple that “all parts of a contract should be read so that none will be rendered meaningless,” the outcome is not clear if a modification has a signature line, when companied by “contratual language [that] indicated that once the [borrowers] performed, their loan would be modified automatically and [the servicer] would be bound by the Agreement” – and (2) given that the Statute of Frauds in Texas for loan agreements generally involves oral agreements or agreements that clearly require signature by both parties, it is not clear if “the written offer itself, along with the attached Modification Agreement” would satisfy that status. Owens v. Specialized Loan Servicing LLC, No. 16-20557 (June 5, 2017).
In Ocwen Loan Servicing LLC v. Berry, a dispute about a home equity loan, the Fifth Circuit confirmed that “we now must follow the Texas Supreme Court’s holding in [Wood v. HSBC Bank USA, N.A., 505 S.W.3d 542 (Tex. 2016)] that no statute of limitations applies to a borrower’s allegations of violations of section 50(a)(6) of the Texas Constitution in a quiet title action, rather than our prior holding in [Priester v. JP Morgan Chase Bank, N.A., 708 F.3d 667 (5th Cir. 2013)].” In so doing, the Court reminded that “the issues-not-briefed-are-waived rule is a prudential construct that requires the exercise of discretion,” and addressed the applicability of Wood notwithstanding the appellant not discussing the case in its opening brief, noting that the underlying issues had been briefed, and that the Court had received supplemental briefing on the pure question of law presented about the application of Wood. No. 16-10604 (March 29, 2017).
Recipients of Section 8 housing assistance sued mortgage originators, complaining that the originators either denied or discouraged the recipients’ credit applications by not considering their Section 8 income, in violation of the Equal Credit Opportunity Act. The Fifth Circuit affirmed the dismissal of claims by recipients who had only inquired about, rather than actually starting, the application process, as well as claims based on Wells Fargo’s policies about the purchase of mortgages in the secondary market. It reversed as to one group of applicants, however, finding under Iqbal and the substantive law that they “plausibly alleged that AmeriPro refused to consider their Section 8 income in assessing their creditworthiness as mortgage applicants, and that they received mortgages on less favorable terms and in lesser amounts than they would have had their Section 8 income been considered.” Alexander v. AmeriPro, No. 15-20710 (Feb. 16, 2017).
CitiMortgage sought to foreclose on Maldonado’s home; in the subsequent litigatoin, it offered summary judgment evidence that he owed a balance of $533,960.80. In response, Maldonado “disputed the amounts that CitiMortgage claimed in attorneys’ fees, inspection fees, escrow, taxes, and late charges,” but did “not provide any evidence of what the correct amounts should be.” Maldonado v. CitiMortgage, No. 16-20541 (Jan. 23, 2017, unpublished).
Foster sued about a foreclosure; the state court granted a TRO (so no foreclosure occurred); and the mortgage servicer defendants removed and obtained summary judgment. Foster challenged the denial of her motion to remand, arguing that she did not improperly join the substitute trustee appointed to conduct the foreclosure sale. The Fifth Circuit affirmed: “[B]reach of a trustee’s duty does not constitute an independent tort; rather, it yields a cause of action for wrongful foreclosure. A claim of wrongful foreclosure cannot succeed, however, when no foreclosure has occurred.” Foster v. Deutsche Bank, No. 16-11045 (Feb. 8, 2017).
1. Does a lender or holder violate Article XVI, Section 50(a)(6)(Q)(vii) of the Texas Constitution, becoming liable for forfeiture of principal and interest, when the loan agreement incorporates the protections of Section 50(a)(6)(Q)(vii), but the lender or holder fails to return the cancelled note and release of lien upon full payment of the note and within 60 days after the borrower informs the lender or holder of the failure to comply?
2. If the answer to Question 1 is “no,” then, in the absence of actual damages, does a lender or holder become liable for forfeiture of principal and interest under a breach of contract theory when the loan agreement incorporates the protections of Section 50(a)(6)(Q)(vii), but the lender or holder, although filing a release of lien in the deed records, fails to return the cancelled note and release of lien upon full payment of the note and within 60 days after the borrower informs the lender or holder of the failure to comply?
The Texas Supreme Court answered both questions “no” in Garofolo v. Ocwen Loan Servicing, No. 15-0437 (Tex. May 20, 2016). Accordingly, the Fifth Circuit affirmed the dismissal of the plaintiff’s contract claim in Garofolo v. Ocwen Loan Servicing, No. 14-51156 (Oct. 3, 2016, unpublished).
“We now make explicit what we have held in unpublished, nonprecedential opinions. HUD regulations govern the relationship between the reverse-mortgage lender and HUD as insurer of the loan. HUD regulations do not give the borrower a private cause of action unless the regulations are expressly incorporated into the lender-borrower agreement.” Johnson v. World Alliance Financial, No. 15-50881 (July 18, 2016).
Among other points raised in a challenge to a foreclosure on a Texas home equity loan, the trial court observed: “the curious backdating of the [assignment] confirms the suspicion that this document was generated to obscure the chain of title inquiry rather than to illuminate it.” In reversing the judgment below, on this point the Fifth Circuit held: “At least two Texas Courts of Appeals have considered this very question, and both have held that an assignment may have a retroactive ‘effective date.'” Deutsche Bank v. Burke, No. 15-20201 (June 9, 2016, unpublished).
Garza moved into her mother’s house after her mother died intestate in 2013. In August 2013, Garza filed an application to determine heirship as to the house. In October, Wells Fargo foreclosed, having refused to speak to Garza about the note since she was not the borrower. In December, Garza was awarded a 50% share of the property. In January 2014, Wells Fargo began eviction proceedings. The Fifth Circuit agreed that Wells Fargo had not violated section 51.002(d) of the Texas Property Code (passing on the question whether it provides a private right of action), as the statute only requires notice to “a debtor in default.” Garza v. Wells Fargo Bank, No. 15-10426 (Jan. 28, 2016, unpublished).
In Villarreal v. Wells Fargo Bank, the Fifth Circuit published a straightforward Rule 12 affirmance in a mortgage servicing case, likely to make abundantly clear what law governs several recurring issues in such cases. Those principles include: (1) a plaintiff’s failure to allege her own performance bars a breach of contract claim, (2) a negligence claim about servicing should arise from a duty independent of the contract, (3) a wrongful foreclosure claim requires allegation of the allegedly grossly inadequate price, and (4) typical mortgage servicing activity is “incidental to the loan” and does not create DTPA standing. No. 15-40243 (Feb. 26, 2016). (See also the recent case of Meachum v. Bank of New York, No. 15-10237 (Jan. 11, 2016, unpublished).
In the fourth opinion in recent months about whether a mortgage servicer waived acceleration of the loan by inconsistent conduct, the Fifth Circuit again rejected such an argument in Martin v. Fannie Mae: “Wells Fargo accepted payments only after [the borrower’s] default in 2009, not after the bank had accelerated the note. . . . These differences matter because the [Deed of Trust’s] non-waiver provisions allow Wells Fargo to accept payments less than the entire obligation or to defer acceleration and foreclosure (and any other remedy) after default without waiving its rights.” In reaching this holding on these facts, the Court noted situations in which post-acceleration conduct could potentially amount to a waiver. No. 15-41104 (Feb. 22, 2016). See also Alvarado v. U.S. Bank, N.A., No. 15-51017 (June 20, 2016, unpublished).
In a wrongful foreclosure case, the borrower alleged that PNC Bank had not proved its ownership of the note. Then, “an attorney representing [defendants] showed an attorney employed by [Barrett-Bowie’s law firm] the original blue ink note signed by Barrett-Bowie. The Firm’s attorney acknowledged that the note was indorsed from the original lender to First Franklin Financial Corporation and from First Franklin Financial Corporation to PNC Bank. The Firm’s attorney retained a copy of the original note and reported what she had seen to her colleagues at the Firm.” Nevertheless, the firm filed two more pleadings repeating the standing allegations, and in response to a summary judgment motion — while not directly disputing the servicer’s proof of standing in response — asked that the court “deny [the servicer’s ]motion ‘in its entirety’ and argued that genuine issues of material fact existed ‘on elements in each of Plaintiff’s remaining causes of action.'” An award of Rule 11 sanctions against the plaintiff’s firm was affirmed in Barrett-Bowie v. Select Portfolio Servicing, Inc., No. 14-11249 (Nov. 25, 2015, unpublished).
A mortgage servicer can violate the Texas Finance Code by asserting legal rights it does not actually have. See McCaig v. Wells Fargo Bank, 788 F.3d 463 (5th Cir. 2015). But seemingly inconsistent communications by a servicer do not violate the Code:
“[Plaintiff] does not contend that any one letter is a misrepresentation in
and of itself but rather that the amounts differ, so the letters are misleading
as a whole. But the letters explicitly state that they are describing two different
types of obligations: notices of the entire outstanding obligation and notices
of the amount due to bring the loan current. Each category is internally consistent
and consistent with the other. [Plaintiff’s] amount to bring the loan current
continued to grow over time because she was not making adequate payments
and still occupied the property. The total outstanding obligation grew for the
same reason. The letters were not misrepresentations but, instead, were
accurate descriptions of two different types of obligations and were specifically
identified as such.”
Rucker v. Bank of America, 15-10373 (Nov. 20, 2015).
U.S. Bank sent notices of acceleration, and began foreclosure proceedings, several times before suing for judicial foreclosure. The borrowers contended that suit was time-barred. The Fifth Circuit disagreed, finding that the bank’s second notice “unequivocally manifested an intent to abandon the previous acceleration and provided the [borrowers] with an opportunity to avoid foreclosure if they cured their arrearage. As a result, the statute of limitations period under [Tex. Civ. Prac. & Rem. Code] § 16.035(a) ceased to run at that point and a new limitations period did not begin to accrue until [they] defaulted again and U.S. Bank exercised its right to accelerate thereafter.” Boren v. U.S. Nat’l Bank Ass’n. No. 14-20718 (Oct. 26, 2015).
The case of Ferguson v. Bank of New York reminds of two basic principles in the area of mortgage servicing litigation: (1) MERS can be named as a beneficiary under a deed of trust; and (2) a borrower does not ordinarily have standing to enforce the terms of a pooling & servicing agreement. The Court sidestepped an issue of whether the Texas fraudulent lien statute could apply if a lender simply transferred a lien as opposed to creating it. No. 14-20585 (Oct. 1, 2015).
Building on momentum after winning a challenge to the MERS business model, MERS succeeded in arguing that an earlier suit against Bank of America created a res judicata bar to a later suit against MERS because MERS and the bank were in privity. Warren v. MERS, No. 14-11102 (July 2, 2015, unpublished).
Three counties sued MERS (“Mortgage Electronic Registration Systems, Inc.”) for violations of various statutes related to the recording of deeds of trust (the Texas equivalent of a mortgage). In a nutshell, MERS is listed as the “beneficiary” on a deed of trust while the note is executed in favor of the lender. “If the lender later transfers the promissory note (or its interest in the note) to another MERS member, no assignment of the deed of trust is created or recorded because . . . MERS remains the nominee for the lender’s successors and assigns.” The counties argued that this arrangement avoided significant filing fees. The Fifth Circuit affirmed judgment for MERS, finding (1) procedurally, that the Texas Legislature did not create a private right of action to enforce the relevant statute and (2) substantively, that the statute was better characterized as a “procedural directive” to clerks rather than an absolute rule. Other claims failed for similar reasons. Harris County v. MERSCORP Inc., No. 14-10392 (June 26, 2015).
Disputes between borrowers and mortgage servicers are common; jury trials in those disputes are rare. But rare events do occur, and in McCaig v. Wells Fargo Bank, 788 F.3d 463 (5th Cir. 2015), a servicer lost a judgment for roughly $400,000 after a jury trial.
The underlying relationship was defined by a settlement agreement in which “Wells Fargo has agreed to accept payments from the McCaigs and to give the McCaigs the opportunity to avoid foreclosure of the Property; as long as the McCaigs make the required payments consistent with the Forbearance Agreement and the Loan Agreement.” Unfortunately, Wells’s “‘computer software was not equipped to handle’ the settlement and forbearance agreements meaning ‘manual tracking’ was required.” This led to a number of accounting mistakes, which in turn led to unjustified threats to foreclose and other miscommunications.
In reviewing and largely affirming the judgment, the Fifth Circuit reached several conclusions of broad general interest:
- The “bona fide error” defense under the Texas Debt Collection Act allows a servicer to argue that it made a good-faith mistake; Wells did not plead that defense here, meaning that its arguments about a lack of intent were not pertinent to the elements of the Act sued upon by plaintiffs;
- The economic loss rule did not bar the TDCA claims, even though the alleged misconduct breached the parties’ contract: “[I]f a particular duty is defined both in a contract and in a statutory provision, and a party violates the duty enumerated in both sources, the economic loss rule does not apply”;
- A Casteel – type charge issue is not preserved if the objecting party submits the allegedly erroneous question with the comment “If I had to draft this over again, that’s the way I’d draft it”;
- The plaintiffs’ lay testimony was sufficient to support awards for mental anguish; and
- “[A] print-out from [plaintiffs’] attorney’s case management system showing individual tasks performed by the attorney and the date on which those tasks were performed” was sufficient evidence to support the award of attorneys fees.
A dissent took issue with the economic loss holding, and would find all of the plaintiffs’ claims barred; “[t]he majority’s reading of these [TDCA] provisions specifically equates mere contract breach with statutory violations[.]”
Garofolo paid off her home equity note, but did not then receive the cancelled promissory note and a release of lien from the servicer, as required by the Texas Constitution, and the terms of the note. She sued for forfeiture of principal and all interest paid under the Constitution; the servicer admitted not having sent the papers, but contended that having the provision in the note was sufficient to comply with the Constitutional requirement. The Fifth Circuit certified this issue to the Texas Supreme Court: “Garofolo’s construction appears to give rise to a drastic remedy, but Ocwen’s construction appears to render the requirement a virtual nullity except in the (hopefully rare) circumstance where a lender unscrupulously attempts to enforce a paid note resulting in recoverable damages.” Garofolo v. Ocwen Loan Servicing, LLC, No. 14-51156 (June 9, 2015).
Estes sued JP Morgan Chase, alleging violations of the Texas Constitution with respect to a home equity loan. The Fifth Circuit affirmed dismissal on a basic ground: “Estes’s complaint fails to allege any connection between himself and JPMC except that Estes ‘notified [JPMC] that the original promissory note had not been returned,’ and that ‘[m]ore than 60 days have passed since plaintiff notified [JMPC] of its failure to cancel and return the promissory note.’ Considering the allegations in Estes’s complaint, and taking those allegations as true, Estes has not alleged that JPMC possessed the Note at the relevant time. He also has not alleged that he made payments to JPMC, nor has he alleged any other facts from which the Court could reasonably infer that the Note was made payable to “bearer” or to JPMC, as the definition of “holder” set forth in Tex. Bus. & Com. Code § 1.201 requires.” Estes v. JP Morgan Chase Bank, N.A., No. 14-51103 (May 20, 2015, unpublished).
Defendants claimed that a foreclosure sale produced an unfair windfall for Fannie Mae on a substantial commercial property. They alleged that Fannie Mae had a practice of making unfairly low bids on Gulf Coast properties. The Fifth Circuit observed: “As the district court held, evidence regarding Fannie Mae’s other foreclosure practices throughout the Gulf Coast region would not impact whether the subject property was sold for the amount at which it would have changed hands between a willing buyer and seller having knowledge of the relevant facts. At most, such evidence might have suggested that Fannie Mae’s conduct throughout the region affected the fair market value of the subject property. So long as the property was sold for fair market value, however, evidence of the various market forces influencing that value is not relevant to this case.” Fannie Mae v. Lynch, No. 14-60864 (June 2, 2015, unpublished).
In Barzelis v. Flagstar Bank, F.S.B., No. 14-10782 (Apr. 22, 2015), the Fifth Circuit addressed the preemption of state-law mortgage claims under “HOLA,” the Home Owners’ Loan Act of 1933, a statute governing federal savings associations. The Court held:
1. Notice and cure. “It may be the case, for example, that a state law regulating interest-rate adjustments to protect borrowers is preempted by HOLA. But that does not prevent a bank and a borrower from voluntarily agreeing to substantially the same protections in their contract . . . .”
2. Misrepresentation. “[W]here a negligent-misrepresentation claim is predicated not on affirmative misstatements but instead on the adequacy of disclosures or credit notices, it has a specific regulatory effect on lending operations and is preempted.”
3. Debt collection. Consumer protection laws “‘that establish the basic norms that undergird commercial transactions’ do not have more than an incidental effect on lending and thus escape preemption.”