Monday, June 13, 2011

Second Department Issues Big Foreclosure Decision

In a case having potentially enormous implications on foreclosure actions in New York State and throughout the country, the Second Department in Bank of New York v. Silverberg, addressed whether a party has standing to commence a foreclosure action when that party's assignor, Mortgage Electronic Registration Systems, Inc. (MERS), was listed in the underlying mortgage instruments as a nominee and mortgagee for the purpose of recording, but was never the actual holder or assignee of the underlying notes.

As Judge Leventhal described MERS in the Court's decision: "'In 1993, the MERS system was created by several large participants in the real estate mortgage industry to track ownership interests in residential mortgages' (Matter of MERSCORP, Inc. v Romaine, 8 NY3d 90, 96). MERS was intended to 'streamline the mortgage process by using electronic commerce to eliminate paper.'  MERS's implementation followed the delays occasioned by local recording offices, which were at times slow in recording instruments because of complex local regulations and database systems that had become voluminous and increasingly difficult to search (see Peterson, Foreclosure, Subprime Mortgage Lending, and the Mortgage Electronic Registration System, 78 U Cin L Rev 1359, 1366 [2010]).

'Mortgage lenders and other entities, known as MERS members, subscribe to the MERS system and pay annual fees for the electronic processing and tracking of ownership and transfers of mortgages. Members contractually agree to appoint MERS to act as their common agent on all mortgages they register in the MERS system' (Matter of MERSCORP, Inc. v Romaine, 8 NY3d at 96 [internal footnotes omitted]).

The MERS system facilitated the transfer of loans into pools of other loans which were then sold to investors as securities (see Peterson, at 1361-1362). MERS delivers savings to the participants in the real estate mortgage industry by allowing those entities to avoid the payment of fees which local governments require to record mortgage assignments (see Peterson at 1368-1369).

Lenders identify MERS as nominee and mortgagee for its members' successors and assignees. MERS remains the mortgagee of record in local county recording offices regardless of how many times the mortgage is transferred, thus freeing MERS's members from paying the recording fees that would otherwise be furnished to the relevant localities (id.; see Matter of MERSCORP, Inc. v Romaine, 8 NY3d at 100). This leaves borrowers and the local county or municipal recording offices unaware of the identity of the true owner of the note, and extinguishes a source of revenue to the localities. According to MERS, any loan registered in its system is 'inoculated against future assignments because MERS remains the mortgagee no matter how many times servicing is traded.'  Moreover, MERS does not lend money, does not receive payments on promissory notes, and does not service loans by collecting loan payments."

Judge Leventhal speaking for the Court held:

"because MERS was never the lawful holder or assignee of the notes described and identified in the consolidation agreement, the corrected assignment of mortgage is a nullity, and MERS was without authority to assign the power to foreclose to the plaintiff. Consequently, the plaintiff failed to show that it had standing to foreclose.

MERS purportedly holds approximately 60 million mortgage loans (see Michael Powell & Gretchen Morgenson, MERS? It May Have Swallowed Your Loan, New York Times, March 5, 2011), and is involved in the origination of approximately 60% of all mortgage loans in the United States (see Peterson at 1362; Kate Berry, Foreclosures Turn Up Heat on MERS, Am. Banker, July 10, 2007, at 1). This Court is mindful of the impact that this decision may have on the mortgage industry in New York, and perhaps the nation. Nonetheless, the law must not yield to expediency and the convenience of lending institutions. Proper procedures must be followed to ensure the reliability of the chain of ownership, to secure the dependable transfer of property, and to assure the enforcement of the rules that govern real property."

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