The highest court in Massachusetts ruled that U.S. Bancorp and Wells Fargo erred when they seized two troubled borrowers’ properties in 2007, putting the nation’s banks on notice that foreclosures cannot be based on improper or incomplete paperwork.
The Supreme Judicial Court voided the foreclosures, returning ownership of the properties to the borrowers and opening the door to other foreclosure do-overs in the state. However, this decision did not set any precedent for other courts, however, this is still a good decision and other lenders should be warned. The case dates to 2007, when Wells Fargo and U.S. Bancorp began foreclosure proceedings against delinquent borrowers on two separate properties. Neither borrower fought the proceedings — the courts in Massachusetts are not obligated to oversee foreclosures — and both banks quickly seized the properties.
The banks’ problems began in the fall of 2008, when Wells Fargo and U.S. Bancorp sought judgments from the Massachusetts Land Court that would have given them clear title to the properties. In 2009, the court rejected the banks’ arguments, ruling that the banks had not been assigned the mortgages before they foreclosed, as is required. Instead, the banks had acquired the mortgages after they had begun foreclosure proceedings.
Foreclosures are supposed to occur only when lenders can prove they own the note underlying the property. While it is common now for borrowers to question whether banks moving to seize their properties have the right to do so, in 2007, most borrowers assumed that the institutions foreclosing on them were acting properly.
Since then, lenders’ foreclosure practices have come under intense scrutiny. Borrowers’ advocates have argued that lenders flouted private property rights in their rush to foreclose on troubled borrowers. As lenders and Wall Street firms bundled thousands of mortgage loans into securities, banks often failed to record each link in the chain of documents demonstrating ownership of a note and a property.
As our readers are well aware, attorneys general in all 50 states are investigating foreclosure improprieties, which include forged signatures on legal documents and other dubious practices meant to patch up holes in loan documentation. Both mortgages in the Massachusetts case had been bundled into securities and sold to investors. The banks that foreclosed on the borrowers were acting as trustees, bringing the actions on behalf of investors in the trusts, which held the properties at the time of the ruling.