California Participated in the Multi-Billion Dollar Settlement Over Wrongful Foreclosures

In a press release today, California Attorney General Kamala Harris announced California’s participation in a nationwide settlement with the top five mortgage banks (Bank of America, Wells Fargo, Chase, CitiBank, and Ally) over wrongful foreclosures, robo-signing, and other mortgage servicing misconduct.

Calfornia’s settlement is valued at $18 billion.  Unlike past mortgage crisis relief programs, the five banks have purportedly agreed to make principal reductions for California homeowners of at least $12 billion total.   AG Harris also noted that the California settlement is unique from “the larger multistate agreement, which is enforceable in a federal court in Washington, D.C.,” in that the AG can enforce the settlement agreement in California state court.  Also, the settlement does not include mortgage loans owned by the government sponsored enterprises (“GSEs”) Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae, which make up around 60% of residential mortgages nationwide.

AG Harris also took this opportunity to announce that she will propose “a comprehensive legislative agenda to protect homeowners in the mortgage market…including a single point of contact for mortgage-holders and an end to the unfair and confusing system of dual-track foreclosures.”  These proposals are very relevant to the foreclosure cases I have recently worked on.

In a case before a federal court in San Francisco entitled Sohal v. Freddie Mac, we recently defeated the banks’ motion to dismiss.  The primary issue was whether the foreclosing party, which sold the mortgage to Freddie Mac and merely acted as a servicer, had the standing and authority to foreclose on the property.  Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae do not service loans so the point of contact of the loans they own are the servicers, who also typically originated the mortgage.  While there have been numerous problems in dealing with the servicer, I don’t think a single point of contact will resolve the problem.  The problem lies in the tangled web of  “back-end” contracts from the securitization of the mortgages.  Servicers do not make the actual decisions.  They have to obtain consent from the “investors.”  Any proposed legislation should, instead, focus on properly define the roles, rights, and obligations of all parties in the transaction, including the originator, the servicer, the fictional “nominee” MERS, and the “investors.”

We also have a wrongful foreclosure action in state court involving dual-track.  It’s not necessarily confusing.  However, from the borrower’s point of view, it is certainly unfair that the lender can sue for foreclosure and at the same time go forward with a non-judicial foreclosure sale.  The primary advantage for the lender (in addition to forcing the borrower to incur additional attorneys fees to deal with both proceedings) is that the lender can request the Court to appoint a receiver to collect rents if there is an assignment of rents.  California’s nearly century old non-judicial foreclosure scheme was intended by the legislature to provide a streamlined process while balancing the interests of both the lender and borrower.  The trend has been and continues to be in favor of lenders.  Courts are unlikely to reverse this trend, so ultimately it will be up to legislative action to re-balance California’s foreclosure scheme.  With the public backlash and the revitalized momentum of the recent settlements, foreclosure law should have very interesting year or two.

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