What Now? Bevilacqua v. Rodriguez Leaves Toxic Foreclosure Titles Unclear
by Rich Vetstein
No Easy Fix For Defective Foreclosure Titles After U.S. Bank v. Ibanez Ruling
The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court issued its opinion today in the much anticipated Bevilacqua v. Rodriguez case considering property owners’ rights when they are saddled with defective titles stemming from improper foreclosures in the aftermath of the landmark U.S. Bank v. Ibanez ruling last January. (Text of case is embedded below). Where Ibanez consider the validity of foreclosures plagued by late-recorded or missing mortgage assignments, Bevilacqua is the next step, considering what happens when lenders sell defective foreclosure titles to third party purchasers. Previously, I discussed the oral argument in the case here and detailed background of the case here.
The final ruling is mix of bad and good news, with the bad outweighing the good as fixing defective Massachusetts foreclosure titles just got a lot harder and more expensive. But, contrary to some sensationalist headlines, the sky is not falling down as the majority of foreclosures performed in the last several years were legal and conveyed good title. Bevilacqua affects those small percentage of foreclosures where mortgage assignments were not recorded in a timely fashion and were otherwise conducted unlawfully. Bevilacqua does not address the robo-signing controversy.
The Bad News
First the bad news. The Court held that owners cannot bring a court action to clear their titles under the “try title” procedure in the Massachusetts Land Court. This is the headline that the major news outlets have been running with, but it was not a surprise to anyone who has been following the case. Sorry Daily Kos, but the court did not take away a property from a foreclosure sale buyer. The buyer never owned it in the first place. If you don’t own a piece of property (say the Brooklyn Bridge), you cannot come into court and ask a judge to proclaim you the owner of that property, even if the true owner doesn’t show up to defend himself. It’s Property Law 101.
The Good News
Next the good news. The court left open whether owners could attempt to put their chains of title back together (like Humpty-Dumpty) and conduct new foreclosure sales to clear their titles. Unfortunately, the SJC did not provide the real estate community with any further guidance as to how best to resolve these complicated title defects.
In the larger scheme, however, we are now seeing full scale real estate nuclear fallout from the banking crisis. As Barry Ritzholz eloquently states, “a deadly combination of MERS, robo-signing, and illegal shortcuts have created a horrific situation. A bedrock of our society — the ability for the owner of a piece of real estate to confidently convey that property, along with all associated property rights — is now in danger.” This problem is not unique to Massachusetts, and in fact, in harder hit states could be significantly worse. So the bigger question remains where do we go from here and what are banking regulators and attorneys general going to do about it?
Background: Developer Buys Defective Foreclosure Title
Frank Bevilacqua purchased property in Haverhill out of foreclosure from U.S. Bank. Apparently, Bevilacqua invested several hundred thousand dollars into the property, converting it into condominiums. The prior foreclosure, however, was bungled by U.S. Bank and rendered void under the Ibanez case. Mr. Bevilacqua (or presumably his title insurance attorney) brought an action to “try title” in the Land Court to clear up his title, arguing that he is the rightful owner of the property, despite the faulty foreclosure, inasmuch as the prior owner, Rodriguez, was nowhere to be found.
Land Court Judge Keith Long (ironically the same judge who originally decided the Ibanez case) closed the door on Mr. Bevilacqua, dismissing his case, but with compassion for his plight.
“I have great sympathy for Mr. Bevilacqua’s situation — he was not the one who conducted the invalid foreclosure, and presumably purchased from the foreclosing entity in reliance on receiving good title — but if that was the case his proper grievance and proper remedy is against that wrongfully foreclosing entity on which he relied,” Long wrote.
Given the case’s importance, the SJC took the unusual step of hearing it on direct review.
No Standing To “Try Title” Action In Land Court
The SJC agreed with Judge Long that Bevilacqua did not own the property, and therefore, lacked any standing to pursue a “try title” action in the Land Court. The faulty foreclosure was void, thereby voiding the foreclosure deed to Bevilacqua. The Court endorsed Judge Long’s “Brooklyn Bridge” analogy, which posits that if someone records a deed to the Brooklyn Bridge, then brings a lawsuit to uphold such ownership and the “owner” of the bridge doesn’t appear, title to the bridge is not conveyed magically. The claimant in a try title or quiet title case, the court ruled, must have some plausible ownership interest in the property, and Bevilacqua lacked any at this point in time.
The court also held, for many of the same reasons, that Bevilacqua lacked standing as a “bona fide good faith purchaser for value.” The record title left no question that U.S. Bank had conducted an invalid foreclosure sale, the court reasoned.
Door Left Open? Re-Foreclosure In Owner’s Name?
A remedy left open, however, was whether owners could attempt to put their chains of title back together and conduct new foreclosure sales in their name to clear their titles. The legal reasoning behind this remedy is rather complex, but essentially it says that Bevilacqua would be granted the right to foreclosure by virtue of holding an “equitable assignment” of the mortgage foreclosed upon by U.S. Bank. There are some logistical issues with the current owner conducting a new foreclosure sale and it’s expensive, but it could work. That is, of course, if the SJC rules in the upcoming Eaton v. FNMA case that foreclosing parties do not need to hold both the promissory note and the mortgage when they foreclose. An adverse ruling in the Eaton case could throw a monkey wrench into the re-foreclosure remedy.
In Bevilacqua’s case, he did not conduct the new foreclosure sale, so it was premature for the court to rule on that issue. Look for Bevilacqua to conduct the new foreclosure and come back to court again. The SJC left that option open.
Other Remedies & What’s Next?
The other remedy to fix an Ibanez defect, which is always available, is to track down the old owner and obtain a quitclaim deed from him. This eliminates the need for a second foreclosure sale and is often the “cleanest” way to resolve Ibanez titles.
Another option is waiting out the 3 year entry period. Foreclosure can be completed by sale or by entry which is the act of the foreclosure attorney or lender representative physically entering onto the property. Foreclosures by entry are deemed valid after 3 years have expired from the certificate of entry which should be filed with the foreclosure. It’s best to check with a real estate attorney to see if this option is available.
The last resort is to demand that the foreclosing lender re-do its foreclosure sale. The problem is that a new foreclosure could open the door for a competing bid to the property and other logistical issues, not to mention recalcitrant foreclosing lenders and their foreclosure mill attorneys.
Title insurance companies who have insured Ibanez afflicted titles have been steadily resolving these titles since the original Ibanez decision in 2009. I’m not sure how many defective foreclosure titles remain out there right now. There certainly could be a fair amount lurking in titles unknown to those purchasers who bought REO properties from lenders such as U.S. Bank, Deutsche Bank, etc. If you bought such a property, I recommend you have an attorney check the back title and find your owner’s title insurance policy. Those without title insurance, of course, have and will continue to bear the brunt of this mess.
- Buyer Can’t Sue After Bad Foreclosure, Bloomberg News
- SJC Affirms Dismissal of Bevilacqua Case, Boston Globe
- Mass. Attorney General Coakley Press Release
- Massachusetts Land Use Monitor
Richard D. Vetstein, Esq. is an experienced real estate litigation attorney who’s handled numerous foreclosure title defect matters & cases in Land Court and Superior Court. Please contact him if you are dealing with a Massachusetts foreclosure title dispute.
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