Massachusetts Sues 5 Major Banks Over Foreclosure Practices

Posted by revolt | Massachusetts Sues 5 Major Banks Over Foreclosure Practices | Thursday 31 May 2012 2:39 pm

By GRETCHEN MORGENSON

Published: December 1, 2011Top of Form

Massachusetts Sues 5 Major Banks Over Foreclosure Practices

By Gretchen Morgen December 2, 2011

Citing extensive abuses of troubled borrowers across Massachusetts, the state’s attorney general sued the nation’s five largest mortgage lenders on Thursday, seeking relief for consumers hurt by what she called unfair and deceptive business practices.

In addition to creating a new and significant legal headache for the banks named in the suit — Bank of America, JPMorgan Chase, Citigroup, Wells Fargo and GMAC Mortgage — the Massachusetts action diminishes the likelihood of a comprehensive settlement between the banks and federal and state officials to resolve foreclosure improprieties.

Also named as a defendant in the Massachusetts suit was the electronic mortgage registry known as MERS, an entity set up by lenders to speed property transfers by circumventing local land recording officials.

The attorney general, Martha Coakley, and her investigators contend that the banks improperly foreclosed on troubled borrowers by relying on fraudulent legal documentation or by failing to modify loans for homeowners after promising to do so. The suit also contends that the banks’ use of MERS “corrupted” the state’s public land recording system by not registering legal transfers properly.

“There is no question that the deceptive and unlawful conduct by Wall Street and the large banks played a central role in this crisis through predatory lending and securitization of those loans,” Ms. Coakley said at a news conference announcing the lawsuit. “The banks may think they are too big to fail or too big to care about the impact of their actions, but we believe they are not too big to have to obey the law.”

Ms. Coakley has been among the most aggressive state regulators in her pursuit of financial institutions involved in the credit crisis. In addition to her inquiry into foreclosure improprieties in Massachusetts, she has also conducted far-reaching investigations into predatory lending and securitization abuses.

Since 2009, Ms. Coakley has extracted more than $600 million in restitution and penalties from lawsuits against mortgage originators like Option One and Fremont Investment and Loan and Wall Street firms like Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley, which bundled loans into mortgage securities.

Officials at all of the banks issued statements saying they would fight the suit. Most of them also indicated dismay that Massachusetts had taken action during negotiations to reach a settlement over the types of practices highlighted in the case.

“We are disappointed that Massachusetts would take this action now,” said Tom Kelly, a Chase spokesman, “when negotiations are ongoing with the attorneys general and the federal government on a broader settlement that could bring immediate relief to Massachusetts borrowers rather than years of contested legal proceedings.”

Lawrence Grayson, a Bank of America spokesman, said: “We continue to believe that collaborative resolution rather than continued litigation will most quickly heal the housing market and help drive economic recovery.”

And Vickee Adams of Wells Fargo said, “Regrettably, the action announced in Massachusetts today will do little to help Massachusetts homeowners or the recovery of the housing economy in the Commonwealth.”

But as Ms. Coakley made clear during the news conference, her office had come to view as unacceptable the negotiating stance taken by the banks in the protracted settlement talks.

“When those negotiations began over a year ago, I was hopeful that we would be able to reach a strong and effective solution,” she said. “It is over a year later and I believe the banks have failed to offer meaningful relief to homeowners.”

Delaware, Nevada and New York have also objected to the direction the settlement negotiations were taking.

Kurt Eggert, a professor at Chapman University School of Law in California who is an expert in mortgages and securitization, said the Massachusetts lawsuit was a significant step because it opened the banks’ practices to far greater scrutiny than they had been subject to.

“So far the servicers have escaped any real review or punishment for their bad practices because federal regulators have by and large given them a pass on whether they followed the law in foreclosures,” Mr. Eggert said. “This lawsuit argues that they haven’t followed the law and that they can’t just fix all their problems after the fact.”

Among the misconduct cited in the Massachusetts complaint were 14 cases of foreclosures by institutions that had not shown proof that they had the legal right to seize the underlying properties when they did so. All the banks also deceived troubled borrowers, the complaint said, about the loan modification process. For example, some banks incorrectly advised borrowers that they would receive priority treatment if they were more than 90 days delinquent on their loans. Other borrowers were misled when told that they must be more than two months’ delinquent to receive a loan modification, it said.

Although Mr. Eggert said that the banks were likely to argue that a state like Massachusetts had no right to bring such a case against federally regulated institutions, he said that the Dodd-Frank legislation restricted the ability of federal authorities to bar states from acting in such cases.

“If the state can go forward and do real discovery, it will be the first time that anyone has really dug into the servicers’ files to see what they have done,” he added. “The feds conducted an investigation where they looked at very few files, and here the state could demand to see a lot.”

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