SABINA v. JPMORGAN CHASE BANK, N.A. | ME SJC - Chase failed to comply with the statute governing the discharge of a mortgage, 33 M.R.S. § 551 (2015)

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SABINA v. JPMORGAN CHASE BANK, N.A. | ME SJC – Chase failed to comply with the statute governing the discharge of a mortgage, 33 M.R.S. § 551 (2015)

SABINA v. JPMORGAN CHASE BANK, N.A. |  ME SJC – Chase failed to comply with the statute governing the discharge of a mortgage, 33 M.R.S. § 551 (2015)

MAINE SUPREME JUDICIAL COURT Reporter of Decisions
Decision: 2016 ME 141
Docket: BCD-15-430
Argued: April 7, 2016
Decided: September 13, 2016
Panel: ALEXANDER, MEAD, GORMAN, JABAR, HJELM, and HUMPHREY, JJ.
Majority: MEAD, GORMAN, HJELM, and HUMPHREY, JJ.
Dissent: ALEXANDER and JABAR, JJ.
ALEC T. SABINA et al.
v.
JPMORGAN CHASE BANK, N.A.
GORMAN, J.
[¶1] Alec T. and Emma L. Sabina appeal from a judgment entered in the
Business and Consumer Docket (Murphy, J.) dismissing their action against
JPMorgan Chase Bank, N.A., (Chase), in which they claimed that Chase failed to
comply with the statute governing the discharge of a mortgage, 33 M.R.S.
§ 551 (2015). We vacate the judgment and remand the matter for further
proceedings.
I. BACKGROUND
[¶2] The Sabinas filed their amended complaint against Chase in the
Business and Consumer Docket on April 27, 2015. They alleged the following

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facts, which we view as admitted for purposes of this appeal. See Andrews v.
Sheepscot Island Co., 2016 ME 68, ¶ 2, 138 A.3d 1197.
[¶3] In March of 2011, the Sabinas received a loan from Chase that was
secured by a mortgage on their real property in Portland. When they finished
paying off the mortgage in October of 2013, Chase executed a written
mortgage release and recorded that document in the Cumberland County
Registry of Deeds. The registry then returned the recorded mortgage release
to Chase. Chase mailed a copy of the document to the Sabinas, but it retained
the actual document that it received from the registry. The Sabinas claimed
that Chase violated 33 M.R.S. § 551 by failing to mail them the “original”
mortgage release document.1
[¶4] Chase moved to dismiss the action pursuant to M.R. Civ. P.
12(b)(6). After a hearing in July of 2015, the court granted Chase’s motion
and dismissed the case with prejudice. The court concluded that 33 M.R.S.
§ 551 is ambiguous as to whether a mortgagee complies with the statute when
it mails a copy of the mortgage release, as opposed to the “original,” to the
mortgagor. Construing section 551 strictly as a “penal” statute, the court
concluded that mailing a copy of the recorded document accomplishes the
1 The Sabinas also brought their claim as a class action on behalf of similarly situated borrowers.
See M.R. Civ. P. 23. Their class action allegations are not at issue in this appeal.

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purpose of the statute, noting that the statute does not contain the word
“original.” This appeal followed.
II. DISCUSSION
[¶5] Reviewing a trial court’s dismissal for failure to state a claim upon
which relief can be granted pursuant to M.R. Civ. P. 12(b)(6), “we view the
facts alleged in the complaint as if they were admitted.” Nadeau v. Frydrych,
2014 ME 154, ¶ 5, 108 A.3d 1254 (per curiam) (quotation marks omitted).
“We review the legal sufficiency of the complaint de novo and view the
complaint in the light most favorable to the plaintiff to determine whether it
sets forth elements of a cause of action or alleges facts that would entitle the
plaintiff to relief pursuant to some legal theory.” Id. (quotation marks
omitted).
[¶6] We review a trial court’s interpretation of a statute de novo as a
question of law. Efstathiou v. Aspinquid, Inc., 2008 ME 145, ¶ 57, 956 A.2d
110. We look first to the plain language of the statutory provision at issue to
determine its meaning, and “we interpret [statutory] provisions according to
their unambiguous meaning unless the result is illogical or absurd.”
MaineToday Media, Inc. v. State, 2013 ME 100, ¶ 6, 82 A.3d 104 (quotation
marks omitted). Interpreting the plain language of a statute also involves

4
considering the statute’s “subject matter and purposes . . . and the
consequences of a particular interpretation.” Dickau v. Vt. Mut. Ins. Co.,
2014 ME 158, ¶ 21, 107 A.3d 621. “[O]nly if the statute is ambiguous will we
look to extrinsic indicia of legislative intent such as relevant legislative
history.” Strout v. Cent. Me. Med. Ctr., 2014 ME 77, ¶ 10, 94 A.3d 786
(quotation marks omitted).
[¶7] When a mortgagor performs his or her payment obligations
according to the mortgage, the mortgagee’s security interest in the subject
property is extinguished. 4 Richard R. Powell, Powell on Real Property
§ 37.33[1]-[2] at 37-226 (Michael Allan Wolf ed., 2005). Generally, so that the
cloud on the property owner’s title is removed, the mortgagee must execute
and record a formal instrument of release or satisfaction. Id. In Maine, the
discharge of a mortgage is governed by 33 M.R.S. § 551.2
2 Title 33 M.R.S. § 551 (2015) provides, in its entirety:
§ 551. Entry on record; neglect to discharge
A mortgage only may be discharged by a written instrument acknowledging
the satisfaction thereof and signed and acknowledged by the mortgagee or by the
mortgagee’s duly authorized officer or agent, personal representative or assignee.
The instrument must recite the name or identity of the mortgagee and mortgagor, or
their successors in interest and the record location of the mortgage discharged.
The instrument, when recorded, has the same effect as a deed of release duly
acknowledged and recorded.
Within 60 days after full performance of the conditions of the mortgage, the
mortgagee shall record a valid and complete release of mortgage together with any

5
[¶8] Section 551 first explains how mortgages are discharged after
payment in full: “by a written instrument acknowledging the satisfaction” of
the mortgage that, “when recorded, has the same effect as a deed of release
duly acknowledged and recorded.” 33 M.R.S. § 551. Next, the statute requires
the mortgagee to undertake two actions: first, within a specific time period, it
instrument of assignment necessary to establish the mortgagee’s record ownership
of the mortgage. Within 30 days after receiving the recorded release of the
mortgage from the registry of deeds, the mortgagee shall send the release by first
class mail to the mortgagor’s address as listed in the mortgage agreement or to an
address specified in writing by the mortgagor for this purpose. As used in this
paragraph, the term “mortgagee” means both the owner of the mortgage at the time
it is satisfied and any servicer who receives the final payment satisfying the debt. If
a release is not transmitted to the registry of deeds within 60 days, the owner and
any such servicer are jointly and severally liable to an aggrieved party for damages
equal to exemplary damages of $200 per week after expiration of the 60 days, up to
an aggregate maximum of $5,000 for all aggrieved parties or the actual loss
sustained by the aggrieved party, whichever is greater. If multiple aggrieved parties
seek exemplary damages, the court shall equitably allocate the maximum amount. If
the release is not sent by first class mail to the mortgagor’s address as listed in the
mortgage agreement or to an address specified in writing by the mortgagor for this
purpose within 30 days after receiving the recorded release, the mortgagee is liable
to an aggrieved party for damages equal to exemplary damages of $500. The
mortgagee is also liable for court costs and reasonable attorney’s fees in any
successful action to enforce the liability imposed under this paragraph. The
mortgagee may charge the mortgagor for any recording fees incurred in recording
the release of mortgage and any postage fees incurred in sending the release to the
mortgagor.
With respect to a mortgage securing an open-end line of credit, the 60-day
period to deliver a release commences after the mortgagor delivers to the address
designated for payments under the line of credit a written request to terminate the
line and the mortgage together with payment in full of all amounts secured by the
mortgage. The mortgagee may designate in writing a different address for delivery
of written notices under this paragraph.
All discharges of recorded mortgages, attachments or liens of any nature
must be recorded by a written instrument and, except for termination statements
filed pursuant to Title 11, section 9-1513, acknowledged in same manner as other
instruments presented for record and no such discharges may be permitted by entry
in the margin of the instrument to be discharged.

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must “record[3] a valid and complete release of mortgage”; second, “[w]ithin
30 days after receiving the recorded release of the mortgage from the registry
of deeds, the mortgagee shall send the release by first class mail to the
mortgagor’s address.” 33 M.R.S. § 551. The statute also provides for
exemplary damages in the event that the mortgagee fails to complete either
action. 33 M.R.S. § 551.
[¶9] Based on the statute’s plain language, we conclude that it
unambiguously requires the mortgagee to send to the mortgagor the
mortgage release document that it receives from the registry, and not a copy
of that document. After requiring the mortgagee to record “a valid and
complete release of mortgage,” the statute then states, in the next sentence,
that within thirty days after receiving “the recorded release” from the registry
of deeds, the mortgagee must mail “the release” to the mortgagor. 33 M.R.S.
§ 551 (emphases added). The Legislature’s use of the definite article “the”—
as opposed to the indefinite article “a” or the phrase “a copy of”—indicates
that it intended to require the mortgagee to mail the same document that it
3 Used in this sense, the “recording” of a document like a mortgage release involves no more and
no less than sending the document to the appropriate registry with the required fee. Compare
Black’s Law Dictionary 1465 (10th ed. 2014) (defining the verb “record” as “[t]o deposit (an
original or authentic official copy of a document) with an authority” and providing, as an example,
“she recorded the deed in the county property office”), with id. at 1473 (defining “register of deeds”
as “[a] public official who records deeds, mortgages, and other instruments affecting real property”
(emphasis added)).

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receives from the registry of deeds.4 See Lydon v. Sprinkler Servs., 2004 ME 16,
¶¶ 13-14, 841 A.2d 793.
[¶10] Although the dissent is correct to note that, at one time, the only
purpose of the statute was to ensure that discharges are filed with the county
registries, see Dissenting Opinion ¶ 16, that changed in 2011, when the
Legislature added the two sentences that are at issue here. See P.L. 2011,
ch. 146, § 1 (effective Sept. 28, 2011). The relevant language added by the
Legislature is highlighted below:
Within 60 days after full performance of the conditions of
the mortgage, the mortgagee shall record a valid and complete
release of mortgage together with any instrument of assignment
necessary to establish the mortgagee’s record ownership of the
mortgage. Within 30 days after receiving the recorded release of
the mortgage from the registry of deeds, the mortgagee shall send
the release by first class mail to the mortgagor’s address as listed in
the mortgage agreement or to an address specified in writing by the
mortgagor for this purpose. As used in this paragraph, the term
“mortgagee” means both the owner of the mortgage at the time it
is satisfied and any servicer who receives the final payment
satisfying the debt. If a release is not transmitted to the registry
of deeds within 60 days, the owner and any such servicer are
jointly and severally liable to an aggrieved party for damages
equal to exemplary damages of $200 per week after expiration of
4 Because we conclude that section 551’s mailing provision is unambiguous, we do not address
the parties’ arguments regarding the “penal” or “remedial” nature of the statute. See Violette v.
Macomber, 125 Me. 432, 434, 134 A. 561 (1926) (“The rule of strict construction of a penal law is
subordinate to the rule of reasonable, sensible construction . . . .”); see also 3 Norman J. Singer & J.D.
Shambie Singer, Statutes and Statutory Construction § 58:1 at 103 (7th ed. 2008) (“Strict
construction cannot be used to defeat the clear intent of the statute . . . .”); id. § 59:8 at 228 (“[W]hen
legislative intent can be determined from the language of the statute, it will be given effect without
resort to other aids of construction.”).

8
the 60 days, up to an aggregate maximum of $5,000 for all
aggrieved parties or the actual loss sustained by the aggrieved
party, whichever is greater. If multiple aggrieved parties seek
exemplary damages, the court shall equitably allocate the
maximum amount. If the release is not sent by first class mail to the
mortgagor’s address as listed in the mortgage agreement or to an
address specified in writing by the mortgagor for this purpose
within 30 days after receiving the recorded release, the mortgagee
is liable to an aggrieved party for damages equal to exemplary
damages of $500. The mortgagee is also liable for court costs and
reasonable attorney’s fees in any successful action to enforce the
liability imposed under this paragraph. The mortgagee may
charge the mortgagor for any recording fees incurred in recording
the release of mortgage and any postage fees incurred in sending
the release to the mortgagor.
Id. (emphases added). We agree that we must always endeavor to avoid
creating an absurd result when attempting to determine the Legislature’s
intent. Here, however, where the language is not ambiguous, we must accept
that, by adding this language, the Legislature intended to create a new
obligation for mortgagees. See Wong v. Hawk, 2012 ME 125, ¶ 8, 55 A.3d 425
(“Words in a statute must be given meaning and not treated as meaningless or
superfluous.” (quotation marks omitted)).
[¶11] The Legislature’s choice not to use the word “original” does not
make the statute ambiguous. In fact, as became clear at oral argument, use of
the word “original” would likely have created ambiguity. Chase argues that
many registries now accept submission of electronic documents for recording,

9
and so the “wet ink original” may never reach the registry. Electronic
recording was not alleged in this case but, assuming that such a possibility
exists, a mortgagee that submits a document electronically can still mail to the
mortgagor the release that it receives from the registry, as required by the
statute.5
[¶12] To the extent that the Sabinas argue that section 551 requires a
mortgagee to mail to the mortgagor the “wet ink original” document, even
where the registry of deeds never receives that document, we cannot agree
that the statute imposes such a requirement. The mailing requirement
commands the mortgagee to give the legally operative mortgage release
document to the mortgagor. The document the mortgagee must mail to the
mortgagor, therefore, is the recorded mortgage release document that the
mortgagee receives from the registry of deeds, even when that document is
not the “wet ink original.”
[¶13] Here, in their amended complaint, the Sabinas alleged that Chase
mailed a copy of the recorded mortgage release document that it received
from the registry, instead of the actual document. Because these allegations
5 Neither party has asserted that Maine’s registries return recorded mortgage releases to
mortgagees only in electronic format. If the registries start to do so, however, the Legislature may
wish to clarify how a mortgagee could “send the release by first class mail” to a mortgagor,
33 M.R.S. § 551.

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were sufficient to state a claim that Chase violated section 551, the trial court
erred when it dismissed the action, and we vacate the judgment and remand
the case for further proceedings.6
The entry is:
Judgment vacated. Remanded for further
proceedings consistent with this opinion.

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