MEGAN WACHSPRESS, JESSIE AGATSTEIN & CHRISTIAN MOTT published an article that takes dead aim at the “free house” controversy. In the Yale Law Review they come to the conclusion that (1) the house isn’t free to any homeowner even if they escape the mortgage and (2) the projected social cost of market values are wrong. But probably the most stinging criticism of the judicial system is that judges are abandoning the rule of law for ad hoc rulings whose only purpose is to avoid a result the judge doesn’t like.
Unfortunately, the article does not fully address the issue of why the banks are failing to prove what is ordinarily a slam dunk case. The authors seem to assume that the debt is legitimate and that it is mainly a paperwork problem. I would add my usual comment: if the banks simply had continued with the standard procedures they would not have had any paperwork problems no matter how many times the loan was sold. The greater evil that is not addressed in case decisions and law review articles is that this was all part of fraudulent scheme and THAT is why the banks had to resort to more fraud (in documentation).
We should remember that banks basically drafted the statutes and are the source of all paperwork on consumer loans, especially mortgage loans. For hundreds of years they knew how to do it, knew how to keep it and rarely misplaced anything. It strains belief to think that suddenly the banks forgot what took hundreds of years to develop. The more insidious reason is what is feared to be the nuclear option — that the mortgages, notes and loan contracts were all an illusion, even if the money was real.
In the end, for reasons other than those expressed on these pages, the authors come to the same conclusion that I did — the “free house” is going to the banks every time a foreclosure is granted.
Here are some quotes from their article that I think are self-explanatory.
When addressing faulty foreclosures, courts are afraid to bar future attempts to foreclose—that is, afraid of giving borrowers “free houses.” While courts rarely explain the reasoning behind this aversion, it seems to arise from a reflexive belief that such an outcome would be unjust. Courts are therefore quick to sidestep well-established principles of res judicata in favor of ad hoc measures meant to protect banks against the specter of “free houses.” [e.s.]
This Comment argues that this approach is misguided; courts should issue final judgments in favor of homeowners in cases where banks fail to prove the elements required for foreclosure. Furthermore, these judgments should have res judicata effect—thus giving homeowners “free houses.” This approach has several benefits: it is consistent with longstanding res judicata principles in other forms of civil litigation, it provides a necessary market-correcting incentive to promote greater responsibility among foreclosure litigators, and it alleviates the tremendous costs of successive foreclosure proceedings.
In a foreclosure suit, the bank must generally prove the following: (1) the homeowner has signed both the note (the underlying loan) and the mortgage assigning the house as collateral for that note; (2) the bank owns the note and mortgage; (3) the homeowner still owes a debt to the bank; (4) the homeowner is behind on that debt; and (5) the bank has accelerated that remaining debt in accordance with the terms of the note itself. When a bank fails to prove these elements, a judge is legally required to rule in favor of the homeowner.
Recently, courts have been inundated with suits where homeowners question the bank’s ability to prove the second element. Litigation over “proof- of-ownership” issues in foreclosures is a growing nationwide problem; sampling suggests a ten-fold increase between the periods immediately preceding and following the 2007 collapse of the housing market.
To demonstrate ownership without expending more resources than pooling and servicing agreements allotted, bank employees signed hundreds of thousands of affidavits asserting that they had seen and could attest to the contents of original documents demonstrating ownership of the underlying mortgage. Although such affidavits were a legally acceptable means of demonstrating such ownership, a significant number of them were actually fraudulent.
…ethical transgressions have affected hundreds of thousands of foreclosures.
Judge Schack, a trial judge sitting in the New York Supreme Court for Kings County, has repeatedly sanctioned law firms for bringing improper foreclosure suits when he has independently discovered the inadequacy of the plaintiffs’ evidence as to defendants’ indebtedness or plaintiffs’ ownership of the note. See, e.g., Argent Mortg. Co. v. Maitland, 958 N.Y.S.2d 306 (Sup. Ct. 2010); Wells Fargo Bank v. Hunte, 910 N.Y.S.2d 409 (Sup. Ct. 2010); NetBank v. Vaughn, 841 N.Y.S.2d 827 (Sup. Ct. 2007).
By focusing on the immediate consequence of a ruling for homeowners, the courts ignore perverse incentives created by allowing banks to continue to externalize the costs of their mistakes.
…one approach—that taken by the Florida and Maine Supreme Courts—is to bend the rules of res judicata to avoid a windfall for homeowners. This approach creates few benefits and significant economic problems. In this Part, we argue that further subsidizing banks’ poor litigation practices results in deadweight loss by contributing to negative public-health outcomes and by disincentivizing banks from improving their servicing and litigation techniques. We also explain how granting winning homeowners “free houses” will not negatively affect the mortgage market.
…broader social subsidization of irresponsible [bank] behavior.
…prolonged foreclosure proceedings create negative social externalities, depressing surrounding homes’ resale value, reducing local governments’ tax revenues, and increasing criminal activity.44 Foreclosures also appear to have significant effects on community members’ physical and mental health, and correlate with increased rates of depression, anxiety, suicide, cardiovascular disease, and emergency-care treatment.
…although judges have expressed concern about homeowner windfalls, the alternative creates a windfall for banks that cut corners in managing and prosecuting foreclosures. The risk and costs of losing foreclosures should already be internalized in the price of current mortgages. Empirical studies suggest that greater protection for mortgagors historically corresponds to slightly higher mortgage rates among lenders. These studies indicate that lenders adjust the price of mortgages based on what they anticipate the cost, and not just the likelihood, of foreclosures will be.