Mortgages and Twombly to start 2015 — UPDATED

Two rulings for mortgage servicers offer points of general interest to start the New Year:

1.  This allegation does not satisfy Twombly, with respect to the intent requirement of the Texas fraudulent lien statute: “the transactions by the Defendants jointly and severally were designed to defraud the Plaintiff out of her property.” The Fifth Circuit found that “this allegation is, at most, a legal conclusion that [Defendant Law Firm] acted with the requisite intent; it lacks any ‘factual content’ that would ‘allow[] the court to draw the reasonable inference that the intent element was met.”  Trang v. Taylor Bean & Whitaker Mortgage Corp., No. 14-5028 (Jan. 7, 2015, unpublished).

2.  Footnote 1 of the Trang opinion reviews the apparent split in authority on whether a lien assignment falls within the scope of that statute.

3.  A borrower seeking refinancing of a mortgage loan is not a consumer under the Texas DTPA.  “[T]he refinancing that Perkins sought from BOA is “directly analogous to the [auto] refinancing services sought by the claimant in Riverside [National Bank v. Lewis, 603 S.W.2d 169 (Tex. 1980)].”  Perkins v. Bank of America, No. 14-20284 (revised March 4, 2015).

Controversy amount; controversy about

Defendants removed, averring: “The real property at issue has a current fair market value of $87,500.”  The district court denied remand.  Plaintiffs appealed, and the Fifth Circuit entertained her argument because it went to the existence of subject matter jurisdiction. Taking judicial notice of county appraisal records that valued the property at $62,392, the Court remanded for the gathering of more evidence about the amount in controversy. Statin v. Deutsche Bank, No. 14-20200 (Dec. 19, 2014, unpublished).  The Court noted the recent Supreme Court case of Dart Cherokee Basin Operating Co. v. Williams, No. 13-719 (U.S. Dec. 15, 2014), which confirmed that while “defendants to not need to attach evidence supporting the alleged amount in controversy to the notice of removal,” “once the notice of removal’s asserted amount is ‘challenged,’ the parties ‘must submit proof and the court decides, by a preponderance of the evidence, whether the amount-in-controversy requirement has been satisfied.'”

How to sign documents

300px-JohnHancocksSignature.svgCan a note be endorsed with a photocopied signature?  Yes. Whittier v. Ocwen Loan Servicing, LLC, No. 13-20639 (Dec. 3, 2014, unpublished) (citing Tex. Bus. & Com. Code § 1.201(b)(37)) (“Signed” includes using any symbol executed or adopted with present intention to adopt or accept a writing.”)

Can a “deed of trust . . . upon a homestead exempted from execution,” which “shall not be valid or binding unless signed by the spouse of the owner,” be signed in separate but identical documents?  Yes.  Avakian v. Citibank, N.A., No. 14-60175 (Dec. 9, 2014) (citing Duncan v. Moore, 7 So. 221, 221-22 (Miss. 1890)) (“There is much force in the imageargument of defendant’s counsel that the statute does not require a joint deed of husband and wife for the conveyance of the husband’s homestead . . . that the substantial thing is the written evidence of such consent; and that this may be as certainly shown by a separate instrument as by signing the deed of the husband.”)

No controversy, about the amount in controversy

molehillThe borrowers’ complaint in a wrongful foreclosure case sought: “‘an order canceling the Mortgage’ on property that is worth more than $200,000 while also stipulating that they will not recover more than $75,000.”  Accordingly: “Given our established rule that the amount in controversy in cases like this is determined by the value of the property, it is irrelevant whether the stipulation is binding. A party cannot sue over a mountain but stipulate that it is a molehill.”  Solis v. HSBC Bank USA, No. 14-40489 (Nov. 17, 2014, unpublished).

“Novel theory” in mortgage case does not work.

Among other theories, the borrowers in Shaver v. Barrett Daffin LLP alleged that a servicer “was unjustly enriched by failing to apply credit default swap payments and other payments to their loan balance.”  No. 14-20107 (Nov. 5, 2014, unpublished).  This argument — apparently addressed for the first time by the Fifth Circuit in this opinion — was rejected by the Court, which noted similar results in other jurisdictions.

How to stipulate

A mortgage servicer sued two individuals, alleging a conspiracy to defraud; the defendants argued that the servicer lacked standing because the notes in question were not properly conveyed.  The case settled during trial, and as part of the settlement “the parties stipulated to several facts, including the fact that the Trusts were the owners and holders of the Loans at issue.”  An agreed judgment followed.  BAC Home Loans Servicing, L.P. v. Groves, No. 13-20764 (Nov. 3, 2014, unpublished).

The defendants then moved to vacate under FRCP 60(b), arguing that the plaintiff lacked standing.  The district court denied the motion and the Fifth Circuit affirmed.  It first noted that “the court will generally enforce valid appeal waivers, [but] a party cannot waive Article III standing by agreement . . .”  Further noting that “parties may stipulate to facts but not legal conclusions,” the Court held: “That is exactly what happened here.  [Defendants] conceded facts that establish [plainitiff’s] status; thus, the district court appropriately reached the resulting legal conclusion that [plaintiff] has standing.”

Home Equity Questions Return Home to Fifth Circuit

Earlier this year, the Texas Supreme Court answered certified questions from the Fifth Circuit about the treatment of home equity loans under the Texas Constitution; that opinion summarizes: “To avoid foreclosure, homeowners and lenders often try to restructure underwater home mortgage loans that are in default by capitalizing past-due amounts as principal, lowering the interest rate, and reducing monthly payments, thereby easing the burden on the homeowners. But home equity loans are subject to the requirements of Article XVI, Section 50 of the Texas Constitution. The United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit has asked whether those requirements apply to such loan restructuring. We answer that as long as the original note is not satisfied and replaced, and there is no additional extension of credit, as we define it, the restructuring is valid and need not meet the constitutional requirements for a new loan.”  Sims v. Carrington Mortgage Services, LLC, No. 13-0638 (Tex. 2014).  Following that Court’s recent denial of rehearing, the Fifth Circuit has now formally accepted the answer and ruled accordingly.

Mortgage Servicing Basics

A borrower lost a summary judgment in a mortgage dispute in Langlois v. Wells Fargo Bank, N.A., No. 13-10914 (Sept. 8, 2014, unpublished).  In addition to a basic summary of problems that such cases can have, the opinion illustrates one in particular.  The stronger an alleged oral modification becomes, the weaker a corresponding fraud claim becomes, because “When oral promises are directly contradicted by express, unambiguous terms of a written agreement, the law says that reliance on those oral promises is not justified.”  (quoting Taft v. Sherman, 301 S.W.3d 452, 458 (Tex. App.–Amarillo 2009, no pet.)  The same phenomenon strengthens a Statute of Frauds defense as well.

Servicer’s records not good enough for MSJ

In loan-level litigation between borrowers and mortgage servicers, the servicer usually has the significant advantage of better record-keeping.  In Tielke v. Bank of America, however, the Fifth Circuit reversed a summary judgment for a servicer.  No. 13-20425 (Sept. 4, 2014, unpublished).  The Court observed, as to the servicer’s loan history statement, that “we are unable to decipher this document with any certainty.”  The main problem was whether the borrowers had truly fallen into default or the servicer was inaccurately carrying forward matters that should have been erased by their bankruptcy; compounded by confusion over the servicer’s handling of an escrow account for insurance.  In a conclusion that should encourage careful record-keeping by all parties, the Court found: “There are simply too many unanswered questions”

More mortgage reminders

Chavez v. Wells Fargo Bank, N.A., No. 13-11325 (Aug. 13, 2014, unpublished) reminds of 2 black-letter principles in mortgage servicing litigation:

1.  A claim under section 392.304(a)(19) of the Texas Finance Code requires proof of a misleading affirmative statement.  “Chavez does not allege that Wells Fargo ever affirmatively represented that he qualified for the modification program.  Here, even assuming that Wells Fargo told Chavez ‘not to worry’ about whether he qualified, this is not an affirmative statement.”

2.  As to negligent misrepresentation, “Chavez argues that Wells Fargo made negligent misrepresentations that it would not foreclose on Chavez during the loan modification process and that it he should not make payments during the process.  However, ‘representations regarding future loan modifications and foreclosure constitute promises of future action rather than representations of existing fact.”  .

Trifecta for Mortgage Servicers

1.  No “split-the-note” claims — we mean it.  Echoing recent opinions about efforts to revisit Priester v. JP Morgan Chase, 708 F.3d 667 (5th Cir. 2013), in Paulette v. Lozoya the Fifth Circuit declined to distinguish, rehear, or certify the holding of Martins v. BAC Home Loans Servicing, LP, 722 F.3d 249 (5th Cir. 2013).  No. 14-50111 (Aug. 6, 2014, unpublished).

.2.  Plead fraudulent lien claims correctly — we mean it.  In Reece v. U.S. Bank, N.A., the Fifth Circuit reiterated, and this time published, a holding from a previous unpublished opinion — that a claim based on the Texas fraudulent lien statute requires “inten[t] to cause the plaintiff physical injury, financial injury, or mental anguish.” No.14-10176 (Aug. 5, 2014).  [Cf. rejection of such a claim for other reasons in Kramer v. JP Morgan Chase Bank, No. 13-50920 (June 25, 2014, unpublished)].

3.  Priester is here to stay.  And, at the district court level, sanctions were recently imposed for failure to acknowledge the Fifth Circuit’s holding in Priester.  Some years ago, this blog’s author co-wrote an article, with Professor Wendy Couture of the University of Idaho Law School, about how courts warning litigants about continuing to press arguments perceived as weak — a topic definitely raised by these recent cases. Loud Rules34 Pepperdine L. Rev. 715 (2007).

Mortgage Servicing Reminders

Recent Fifth Circuit cases have curtailed many arguments employed by plaintiffs in litigation with mortgage servicers, and the most recent opinions in the area tend to simply refer back to those cases.  Here are a handful that make useful reminders or address variations of the older arguments:

1.  While potentially viable as legal theories, unsupported allegations of “forgery” and a “false lien” do not survive Rule 12.  And, because a party in breach of a contract may not itself sue for breach, a failure to allege that the plaintiff has performed or tendered performance does not survive Rule 12 either.  Ybarra v. Wells Fargo Bank, No. 13-50881 (July 21, 2014, unpublished).

2.  The restructuring of a Texas home equity loan is a modification, not a refinancing, and thus does not implicate the substantial protections for home equity borrowers provided by the Texas Constitution.  Green v. Wells Fargo Bank No. 14-10254 (July 11, 2014, unpublished) (applying Sims v. Carrington Mortgage Services, LLC, ___ S.W.3d ___, No. 13-0638 (Tex. May 16, 2014)).

3.   Under Texas law, a co-owner who is not a borrower is not entitled to notice of default; a claim of unfair debt collection fails when “there is no evidence that [the servicer] phoned outside of regular business hours or that [its] debt collection efforts included any threats of violence against the [borrowers]”; and an an alleged misrepresentation about future activity by a debt collector is not actionable absent intent not to perform at the time of speaking. Robinson v. Wells Fargo Bank, No. 13-11236 (July 28, 2014, unpublished).

Limitations for home equity loan claims in Texas — a wrinkle

The Fifth Circuit held in Priester v. JP Morgan Chase Bank, 708 F.3d 667 (5th Cir. 2013), that the Texas “residual” 4-year statute of limitations applied to claims based on the home equity loan provisions of the state Constitution, running from the time the loan closed.  Various requests to reconsider, certify, or otherwise retreat from that holding have been uniformly rejected.  Kramer v. JP Morgan Chase Bank presented a fresh attack on Priester, arguing that the discovery rule applied to a claim based on the Texas statute against the filing of false liens, and citing Vanderbilt Mortgage v. Flores, 692 F.3d 358 (5th Cir. 2012).  No. 13-50920 (June 25, 2014, unpublished).  The Court sidestepped this argument by finding the issue moot because plaintiff did not seek damages based on this statute before the district court.

How much federal question allows removal

In the recent case of French v. EMC Mortgage Corp., No. 13-50417 (April 29, 2014, unpublished), these allegations were deemed to “reference[] the FDCPA by way of asserting a cause of action under this federal statute,” and thus allowing removal:

“V.  ILLEGAL MORTGAGE SERVICING AND DEBT COLLECTION PRACTICES.

. . .

Specifically in collection calls and notices, monthly statements, payoff statements, foreclosure notices, and otherwise, EMC routinely makes misrepresentations to borrowers about their loans, including: [6 topics]

. . .

Plaintiffs submit that Defendant EMC’s conduct in this matter is in direct violation of the Texas Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, the Federal Fair Debt Collection Practices Act and the above referenced stipulated injunction.”

This case rested on Howery v. Allstate Ins. Co., 243 F.3d 912 (5th Cir. 2001), in which the following allegations did not create federal question jurisdiction, because “[f]rom its context, it appears that Howery’s mention of federal law merely served to describe types of conduct that violated the DTPA, not to allege a separate cause of action under the FCRA”:

The acts, omissions, and other wrongful conduct of Allstate complained of in this petition constituted unconscionable conduct or unconscionable course of conduct, and false, misleading, or deceptive acts or practices. As such, Allstate violated the Texas Deceptive Trade Practices Act, Sections 17.46, et seq., and the Texas Insurance Code, including articles 21.21, 21.21-1, 21.55, and the rules and regulations promulgated thereunder, specifically including 28 TAC Section 21.3, et seq. and 21.203.

Allstate’s destruction of [Howery’s] file … constituted a further violation of the Texas Deceptive Trade Practices Act, for which plaintiff sues for recovery. Allstate also engaged in conduct in violation of the Federal Trade Commission rules, regulations, and statutes by obtaining Plaintiff’s credit report in a prohibited manner, a further violation of the Texas Deceptive Trade Practices Act….

While these holdings are consistent, the line between them is only a few words in a lengthy pleading.  They underscore the importance of detail in considering whether removal is appropriate.

Loan mod negotiation is not debt collection

The plaintiffs in Singha v. BAC Home Loans Servicing LP alleged a number of foreclosure-related claims, most of which were resolved by recent Fifth Circuit precedent.  Among them was a claim for unfair debt collection based on the common situation of failed negotiations about a loan modification.  As to that issue, the Court observed: “We do not announce a rule that modification discussions may never be debt collection activities. We do conclude, though, that the [Plaintiffs’] particular factual allegations here – allegations of what occurred during the course of what they describe as more than fifty phone calls and other contacts during a protracted loan modification process – are not communications in connection with collection of a debt.” (emphasis in original).  No. 13-40061 (April 17, 2014, unpublished).

Certification v. the “rule of orderliness” . . .

The plaintiffs in Moran v. Ocwen Loan Servicing LLC ran afoul of the holding in Priester v. JP Morgan Chase, 708 F.3d 667 (5th Cir. 2013), that “liens that are contrary to the requirements of § 50(a) [of the Texas Constitution] are voidable rather than void from the start.”  No. 13-20242 (March 24, 2014, unpublished).  They sought certification to the Texas Supreme Court to correct what they contended was an erroneous holding in Priester.  The Fifth Circuit gave two valuable general reminders in this area. First: “It is a well-settled Fifth Circuit rule of orderliness that one panel of our court may not overturn another panel’s decision, absent an intervening change in the law, such as by a  statutory amendment, or the Supreme Court, or our en banc court.”  Second, “While the Texas Constitution allows this court to certify questions to the Texas Supreme Court, certification is not a proper avenue to change our binding precedent.”

Mortgage Servicing, a Handy Guide

While a host of opinions have addressed basic problems with common plaintiffs’ theories in mortgage servicing cases, the recent case of Williams v. Wells Fargo is a useful guide to a wide range of them in a single opinion, including the statute of frauds and its exceptions, waiver, and basic TDCPA and RESPA violations.  The Court also reminded that a good contract pleading should identify the specific ways in which a contract has been breached, and found waiver when the grounds were not sufficiently detailed until the appellate level.

Ring in the New Year with mortgage servicing

Waltner v. Aurora Loan Services LLC welcomes the New Year with three bread-and-butter issues in business litigation.  No. 12-50929 (Dec. 31, 2013, unpublished).  First, a party’s failure to answer on time does not require the “drastic remedy” of a default judgment, especially when a plaintiff shows no prejudice from the failure to timely answer.  The granting of a default judgment is a discretionary ruling by the district court.  Second, damages for lost use of property are not reliance damages that can be recovered with a promissory estoppel claim.  Rather, they are consequential losses — a form of expectation damages.  Finally, while Fed. R. Civ. P. 26(g)(2) says that a court “must strike” unsigned discovery responses “unless a signature is promptly supplied” after the error is identified, the district court has discretion in determining what is “prompt” and in what weight to give the lack of prejudice to the opposing party.

Quasi-estoppel and checks

Among other issues in Farkas v. GMAC Mortgage LLC, a borrower disputed whether he had received proper notice of the servicer’s identity, arguing that only the current mortgagee could send effective notice.  No. 12-20668 (Dec. 2, 2013, unpublished).  The Fifth Circuit affirmed a judgment against him on the grounds of quasi-estoppel, noting: “The duration and regularity of these continued payments to mortgage servicers who had not been identified by current mortgagees constitute acquiescence to the validity of notice of transfer from one mortgage servicer to the next.  The equitable relief afforded by quasi-estoppel assures that a party’s position on a given issue is more than a matter of mere convenience but is instead a stance to which it is bound.”

Rooker Renaissance Renews

Alphonse lost his home to foreclosure.  He then sued in federal court, alleging unfair trade practices.  Alphonse v. Arch Bay Holdings LLC, No. 13-30154 (Dec. 11, 2013, unpublished).  The district court dismissed based on the Rooker/Feldman doctrine, but by the time the Fifth Circuit took up the case, all parties conceded that ruling was incorrect because of Truong v. Bank of America, 717 F.3d 377, 381-83 (5th Cir. 2013).  The appellees urged affirmance based on res judicata from the foreclosure proceeding, but the Fifth Circuit remanded for further factual development.  The party to the foreclosure proceeding was a “Series 2010B” that owned the mortgage; the parties to the federal case were that entity’s parent and its mortgage servicer; and the Court was not convinced that the pleadings — standing alone — established the right relationships to find preclusion.  The Court also remanded for further consideration of whether Delaware law about 2010B entities applied to third party claims, noting a potential exception the “internal affairs” doctrine in choice-of-law analysis.

No fact issue on knowledge

Borrowers alleged that their lender knowingly accepted an inaccurate fair market value of their home, for purposes of a home equity loan, in violation of the Texas Constitution.  Gonzalez v. U.S. Bank, N.A., No. 13-10342 (Nov. 29, 2013, unpublished).  The lender won summary judgment and the Fifth Circuit affirmed.  The borrowers first pointed to a tax appraisal, which the Court rejected because “under Texas law, tax valuations are legally insufficient evidence of fair-market value.”  Second, the borrowers pointed to one of their affidavits, which the Court also rejected as “conclusory and unsubstantial” and insufficient to prove notice to the lender.  The Court briefly reviewed other summary judgment cases involving similar “self-serving” affidavits.

 

Privity, Res Judicata, and MERS

A zealous borrower filed successive lawsuits against U.S. Bank, its attorneys, and MERS arising from a foreclosure.  Maxwell v. U.S. Bank, N.A.,13-20113 (Oct. 30, 2013, unpublished).  While MERS was not a party to the first two cases, it asserted res judicata, based on their dismissal, arguing that it was in privity with the defendants.  The Fifth Circuit cited Taylor v. Sturgell, 553 U.S. 880 (2008), which described how res judicata reaches “a variety of pre-existing substantive legal relationships between the person to be bound and a party to the judgment,” including “preceeding and succeeding owners of property, bailee and bailor, and assignee and assignor” as well as other relationships described as “privity.”  Here, the mortgage documents identified MERS as “nominee for” U.S. Bank, which satisfied Taylor.

Acceptable Affidavits

In an unpublished opinion that happened to come out the same day as the slightly-revised “robosigning” opinion of Reinagel v. Deutsche Bank, the Fifth Circuit briefly reviewed the requirements for a summary judgment affidavit in a note case.  RBC Real Estate Finance, Inc. v. Partners Land Development, Ltd., No. 12-20692 (Oct. 30, 2013, unpublished).  As to foundation, the affidavit purported to be based on personal knowledge, and said that “[a]s an account manager at RBC[, the witness] is responsible for monitoring and collecting the . . . Notes.” “Therefore, [he] is competent to testify on the amounts due . . . .”  As to sufficiency, the Court quoted Texas intermediate appellate case law: “A lender need not file detailed proof reflecting the calculations reflecting the balance due on a note; an affidavit by a bank employee which sets forth the total balance due on a note is sufficient to sustain an award of summary judgment.”

Void TRO does not allow wrongful foreclosure action

In one of the many unpublished cases dismissing “split-the-note” cases after Martins v. BAC Home Loans Servicing, LP, 722 F.3d 249 (5th Cir. 2013), the Fifth Circuit addressed a foreclosure sale that had taken place while a TRO purported to stop it.  Hall v. BAC Home Loans Servicing, No. 12-41023 (Oct. 7, 2013, unpublished).  Because the TRO did not state why it was granted without notice, the Court concluded that it “did not meet the requirements of Texas Rule of Civil Procedure 680,” making it “void under Texas law” and “a mere nullity.”  Accordingly, it could not support a wrongful foreclosure claim.

Unjust Enrichment 101

A borrower claimed that a mortgage servicer was unjustly enriched when it obtained an expensive “force-placed” insurance policy on the property.  Baxter v. PNC Bank, No. 12-51181 (Sept. 26, 2013, unpublished).  The Fifth Circuit reminded that a remedy based on restitution or unjust enrichment is not ordinarily available when an express contract deals with the same subject matter.  Here, the deed not only allowed the purchase of force-placed insurance, but warned that the ” “cost of the [forced-placed] insurance might significantly exceed the cost of insurance that [Baxter] could have obtained.”