All of this is a major headache for the banks, but according to the New York Times, "The companies say they are reviewing their procedures to take care of any violations." They seem to think they can correct the problem by redoing some paperwork. But if the holdings in recent court decisions are upheld, it will not be just a question of hiring extra staff to clean up some files. For all those mortgages filed in the name of MERS, say these courts, the chain of title has been irretrievably broken. Humpty Dumpty has had a great fall and cannot be put together again.
MERS is simply an electronic data base. On its website and in assorted court pleadings, it declares that it owns nothing. It was set up that way intentionally so that it would be "bankruptcy-remote," something required by the credit rating agencies in order to turn the mortgages passing through it into highly rated securities that could be sold to investors. MERS not only has no assets; it has no employees. The thousands of people enlisted to sign affidavits on its behalf are merely conduits. The arrangement satisfied the ratings agencies, but it has not satisfied the courts. Increasingly, judges are holding that if MERS owns nothing, it cannot foreclose, and it cannot convey title by assignment so that the trustee for the investors can foreclose. MERS breaks the chain of title so that no one has standing to foreclose. The homes are effectively owned free and clear.
That does not mean the homeowners don't owe money to someone. They do. But the claim for relief is not in "law" (by virtue of an enforceable contract or rule) but in "equity" (a remedy provided just because it is fair), and MERS is not the proper plaintiff. Every MERS case involves a securitization, which means the real parties in interest are a group of investors somewhere; and before the homeowners can be made to pay, the investors have to come forward and prove not only that they are the parties owed the money, but the actual sums they are owed. In some cases they might already have been paid; for example, by insurers on credit default swaps held by the investment pool. The investors are entitled to recover in equity only so much as they are actually out of pocket, not the full amount of the original promissory notes, since they were not parties to those notes and there is no way to re-establish the chain of title.
What About the Non-judicial Foreclosure States?
Foreclosures have been suspended by JPMorgan, GMAC and BOA in 23 states, but what about the rest? The others are non-judicial foreclosure states, which means they allow foreclosure through a power of sale clause in a deed of trust without going to court. The presumption is that if the lender doesn't have to prove his standing to sue before a judge, he can proceed. State laws in non-judicial states allow the sale of a property to satisfy a foreclosure as long as the trustee follows the regulations concerning notice. That would seem to violate Constitutional due process, but the United States Supreme Court has held that due process protections apply only when the government is involved in the taking of property. When a deed of trust and promissory note are executed between two private parties (homeowners and lenders), there is no automatic due process protection. The homeowners agreed to it in writing; case closed.
But here's the catch: what if the lender signing the original documents is not the party foreclosing on the property? Then it becomes a question of fact whether the foreclosing party has authority to proceed, and that makes it a judicial issue a question of fact for the courts. If the foreclosing party can show a clear chain of title an assignment or progression of assignments from the original lender to himself he is home free. But courts have increasingly been holding that MERS breaks the chain of title. Foreclosure expert Neil Garfield argues that even in non-judicial foreclosure states, that means the investors have to go to court to prove their case. And when they do, they will run up against the brick wall of MERS. He concludes:
There will be a head-slapping moment when title carriers, attorneys, judges and administrative agencies and clerks suddenly realize that the monster created on Wall Street has its equivalent in the public records of counties across the nation. I doubt if more than 6-7% of all the foreclosures in the past 10 years have resulted in clear title delivered to anyone. And the only corrective instrument can come from the original owner. That homeowner is sitting in the catbird seat and doesn't know it. Millions of people who THINK they have lost their homes still own them and if anyone wants a signature from those people to clear title, they are going to be required to pay dearly, which is at it should be. Eventually the purse gets returned to the victim from whom it was snatched.
To Subsidize or Nationalize?
Where does that leave JPMorgan, GMAC, Bank of America, and the other major lenders? Investors have massive claims against these banks, and so do homeowners. A major title insurance company has already said it will not insure title to properties foreclosed upon by GMAC until further notice. Moody's has placed the servicer ratings of GMAC and JPMorgan Chase on review for possible downgrade, and the Treasury is asking regulators for an investigation.
Investment adviser Christopher Whalen thinks we could soon be looking at more Wall Street bankruptcies. If so, hopefully we won't fall into the trap this time of underwriting the losses while letting the banks keep the profits. If we the people are picking up the tab, we should insist on owning the banks. Publicly-owned banks can pay higher interest to savers, charge lower interest to borrowers, and still have huge profits to return to the state, reducing taxes by that amount. The government-owned Bank of North Dakota and Commonwealth Bank of Australia are stellar examples.
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