Challenges to Foreclosure Docs Reach a Fever Pitch

20 Jun

American Banker | Wednesday, June 16, 2010

By Kate Berry

Correction: An earlier version of this story misidentified the court
where Judge J. Michael Traynor presides. It is a Florida state court,
not a federal one. An editing error was to blame.

The backlash is intensifying against banks and mortgage servicers that
try to foreclose on homes without all their ducks in a row.

Because the notes were often sold and resold during the boom years, many
financial companies lost track of the documents. Now, legal officials
are accusing companies of forging the documents needed to reclaim the
properties.

On Monday, the Florida Attorney General’s Office said it was
investigating the use of “bogus assignment” documents by Lender
Processing Services Inc. and its former parent, Fidelity National
Financial Inc. And last week a state judge in Florida ordered a hearing
to determine whether M&T Bank Corp. should be charged with fraud after
it changed the assignment of a mortgage note for one borrower three
separate times.

“Mortgage assignments are being created out of whole cloth just for the
purposes of showing a transfer from one entity to another,” said James
Kowalski Jr., an attorney in Jacksonville, Fla., who represents the
borrower in the M&T case.

“Banks got away from very basic banking rules because they securitized
millions of loans and moved them so quickly,” Kowalski said.

In many cases, Kowalski said, it has become impossible to establish when
a mortgage was sold, and to whom, so the servicers are trying to
recreate the paperwork, right down to the stamps that financial
companies use to verify when a note has changed hands.

Some mortgage processors are “simply ordering stamps from stamp makers,”
he said, and are “using those as proof of mortgage assignments after the
fact.”

Such alleged practices are now generating ire from the bench.

In the foreclosure case filed by M&T in February 2009, the bank
initially claimed it lost the underlying mortgage note, and then later
claimed the mortgage was owned by First National Bank of Nevada, which
the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. shut down in 2008, before the
foreclosure had been started.

M&T then claimed Wells Fargo & Co. owned the note, “contradicting all of
its previous claims,” according to Circuit Court Judge J. Michael
Traynor, who ordered the evidentiary hearing last week into whether M&T
perpetrated a fraud on the court.

“The court has been misled by the plaintiff from the beginning,” Judge
Traynor said in his order, which also dismissed M&T’s foreclosure action
with prejudice.

The Marshall Watson law firm in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., which represents
M&T in the case, declined to comment and the bank said it could not
comment.

In a notice on its website, the Florida attorney general said it is
examining whether Docx, an Alpharetta, Ga., unit of Lender Processing
Services, forged documents so foreclosures could be processed more
quickly.

“These documents are used in court cases as ‘real’ documents of
assignment and presented to the court as so, when it actually appears
that they are fabricated in order to meet the demands of the institution
that does not, in fact, have the necessary documentation to foreclose
according to law,” the notice said.

Docx is the largest lien release processor in the United States working
on behalf of banks and mortgage lenders.

Peter T. Sadowski, an executive vice president and general counsel at
Fidelity National in Fort Lauderdale, said that more than a year ago his
company began requiring that its clients provide all paperwork before
the company would process title claims.

Michelle Kersch, a spokeswoman for Lender Processing Services, said the
reference on the Florida attorney general’s website to “bogus
assignments” referred to documents in which Docx used phrases like
“bogus assignee” as placeholders when attorneys did not provide specific
pieces of information.

“Unfortunately, on occasion, incomplete documents were inadvertently
recorded before the missing information was obtained,” Kersch said. “LPS
regrets these errors and the use of this particular placeholder
phrasing.”

The company, which was spun off from Fidelity National two years ago, is
cooperating with the attorney general and conducting its own internal
investigation.

Lender Processing Services disclosed in its annual report in February
that federal prosecutors were reviewing the business processes of Docx.
The company said it was cooperating with that investigation.

“This is systemic,” said April Charney, a senior staff attorney at
Jacksonville Area Legal Aid and a member of the Florida Supreme Court’s
foreclosure task force.

“Banks can’t show ownership for many of these securitized loans,”
Charney continued. “I call them empty-sack trusts, because in the rush
to securitize, the originating lender failed to check the paper trial
and now they can’t collect.”

In Florida, Georgia, Maryland and other states where the foreclosure
process must be handled through the courts, hundreds of borrowers have
challenged lenders’ rights to take their homes. Some judges have
invalidated mortgages, giving properties back to borrowers while lenders
appeal.

In February, the Florida state Supreme Court set a new standard
stipulating that before foreclosing, a lender had to verify it had all
the proper documents. Lenders that cannot produce such papers can be
fined for perjury, the court said.

Kowalski said the bigger problem is that mortgage servicers are working
“in a vacuum,” handing out foreclosure assignments to third-party firms
such as LPS and Fidelity.

“There’s no meeting to get everybody together and make sure they have
their ducks in a row to comply with these very basic rules that banks
set up many years ago,” Kowalski said. “The disconnect occurs not just
between units within the banks, but among the servicers, their bank
clients and the lawyers.”

He said the banking industry is “being misserved,” because mortgage
servicers and the lawyers they hire to represent them in foreclosure
proceedings are not prepared.

“We’re tarring banks that might obviously do a decent job, and the banks
are complicit because they hired the servicers,” Kowalski said.

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