Posted on 04 July 2010.
Absolutely, positively a MUST READ!
edit: From a reader who makes an excellent point…this case is very important because it turns not on the assignment of mortgage which the court disregards but rather on the failure of the originator to file the mortgage loan lists with SEC-the defendant did not even raise the point that there was also a failure to file with delaware so that the trust was never given assets———most importantly AHMSI seems to have focused on acquisition of other ex lenders servicer portolios that systematically failed to file these lists-this could enable ahmsi to have more potential latitude to allocate/reallocate or even pocket collected monies -it ties in with the comments later last week re junior senior tranche——if there is no clear certainty as to who gets money from foreclosures due to the record breakdown —-then if the money were to go to tranches that have been written off by their owners —–then the servicer can pocket the proceeds———–the servicers are unregulated–who is looking at their allocations?
the real questions now-are the loans actually in the hands of trusts as a matter of law as a result of failed filings and what happens to proceeds of collection of foreclosure proceeds??
These are highlights…
SUPERIOR COURT OF NEW JERSEY
BANK OF NEW YORK, as Trustee for Home Mortgage Investment Trust CHANCERY DIVISION
2004-4 Mortgage-Backed Notes, ATLANTIC COUNTY Series 2004-4 DOCKET NO: F-7356-09
MICHAEL J. RAFTOGIANIS,
Decided June 29, 2010
This opinion deals with the plaintiff’s right to proceed with an action to foreclose a mortgage which secures a debt evidenced by a negotiable note. The original lender elected to use the Mortgage Electronic Registration System in recording the mortgage by designating that entity, as its nominee, as the mortgagee. The note and mortgage were subsequently securitized, without notice to the borrower. This action to foreclose the mortgage was filed years later, in the name of an entity created as a part of the securitization process. The defendant/borrower challenged plaintiff’s right to proceed with the foreclosure. That challenge, framed as a dispute over “standing,” has given rise to a variety of factual and legal issues typically raised in this type of litigation.
Ultimately, the questions presented were whether plaintiff could establish its right to enforce the obligation evidenced by the note and whether it must establish that it held that right at the time the complaint was filed. The answers to those questions require an understanding of the provisions of the Uniform Commercial Code, the Mortgage Electronic Registration System, the securitization of mortgages and how foreclosure litigation is handled. This opinion addresses those disputes. Ultimately, the court concluded that it was appropriate to require plaintiff to establish that it had physical possession of the note as of the date the complaint was filed. Plaintiff was unable to establish that, either by motion or at trial. Accordingly, the complaint has now been dismissed on terms permitting plaintiff to institute a new action to foreclose, on the condition that any new complaint must be accompanied by an appropriate certification, confirming that plaintiff is then in possession of the note.
In this case, the defendant borrowed $1,380,000 from American Home Mortgage Acceptance Inc. (hereafter American Home Acceptance) in September 2004. This action to foreclose the mortgage was brought in the name of The Bank of New York, as Trustee for American Mortgage Investment Trust 2004-4 Mortgage Backed Notes, Series 2004-4 in February 2009. In the interim, a variety of transactions took place, involving a number of entities. Those transactions will be discussed in some detail below. Preliminarily, this opinion will discuss the UCC, MERS and the securitization process in more general terms.
How does one become a holder of a negotiable note? In addressing that question it is necessary to distinguish between “transfer” and “negotiation.” It is also necessary to distinguish between the handling of notes payable “to order” and notes payable “to bearer.” In this particular case, it is also necessary to recognize that a note initially made payable “to order” can become a bearer instrument, if it is endorsed in blank. See N.J.S.A. 12A:3-109(c), providing that an instrument payable to an identified person may become payable to bearer if it is endorsed in blank. See also N.J.S.A.12A:3-205(b), describing what qualifies as a blank endorsement, and The Law of Modern Payment 6 Systems and Notes 2.02 at 77-78, Miller and Harrell (2002), noting that an instrument bearing the indorsement “Pay to the order of __________” is a bearer instrument. Such a bearer note can be both transferred and negotiated by delivery alone. See Corporacion Venezolana de Fomento v. Vintero Sales, 452 F. Supp. 1108, 1117 (Dist. Ct. 1978).
Under the UCC, the transfer of an instrument requires that it be delivered for the purpose of giving the person receiving the instrument the right to enforce it. A negotiable note can be transferred without being negotiated. That transfer would be effected by the physical delivery of the note. See N.J.S.A. 12A:3-203(a). In that circumstance, the transferee would not be a holder, as that term is used in the UCC. Such a transferee, however, would still have the right to enforce the note. The UCC deals with that circumstance in the following language: Transfer of an instrument, whether or not the transfer is a negotiation, vests in the transferee any right of the transferor to enforce the instrument, including any right as a holder in due course, but the transferee cannot acquire rights of a holder in due course by a transfer, directly or indirectly, from a holder in due course if the transferee engaged in fraud or illegality affecting the instrument. N.J.S.A. 12A:3-203(b).
The negotiation of the instrument, on the other hand, requires both a transfer of possession and an endorsement by the holder. An instrument which is payable to bearer may be negotiated by transfer alone. Put otherwise, an instrument payable “to order” can be negotiated by delivery with an endorsement, while an instrument payable “to bearer” can be negotiated by delivery alone. N.J.S.A. 12A:3-201. To enforce the note at issue here as a holder pursuant to N.J.S.A. 12A:3-301, plaintiff would have to establish that it received the note, through negotiation, at the appropriate time. That would require that the note be endorsed prior to or at the time of delivery, either in favor of plaintiff or in blank. N.J.S.A. 12A:3-301 also provides that an instrument may be enforced by “a non holder in possession of the instrument who has the rights of a holder.” How does one obtain that status? That may occur, by example, where a creditor of a holder acquires an instrument through execution. See The Law of Modern Payment Systems and Notes 3.01 Miller and Harrell (2002). More frequently, that status will be created by the “transfer” of the instrument, without negotiation. As already noted, transfer occurs when the instrument is delivered for the purpose of giving the person receiving the instrument the right to enforce it. See N.J.S.A. 12A:3-203(a). The statute also provides that the transfer of the instrument, without negotiation, vests in the transferee the transferor’s right to enforce the instrument. See N.J.S.A. 12A:3-203(b). That circumstance can be illustrated by reference to the dispute presented here. The note at issue, as originally drafted, was payable “to the order of” the original lender. The negotiation of the note, in that form, would require endorsement, either to a designated recipient of the note or in blank. The note, however, could be transferred without an endorsement. Assuming the transfer was for the purpose of giving the recipient the ability to enforce the note, the recipient would become a “nonholder in possession with the rights of a holder.” That would require, however, the physical delivery of the note. A number of cases recognize that there can be constructive delivery or possession, through the delivery of the instrument to an agent of the owner. See Midfirst Bank, SSB v. C.W. Haynes & Company, 893 F. Supp. 1304, 1314-1315 (S.C. 1994); Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. v. Linn, 671 F. Supp. 547, 553 8 (N.D. Ill. 1987); and Corporacion Venezolana de Fomento v. Vintero Sales Corp, 452 F. Supp. 1108, 1117 (S.D.N.Y. 1978). Under either of the provisions of N.J.S.A.12A:3-301 which are at issue here, the person seeking to enforce the note must have possession. That is required to be a holder, and to be a nonholder in possession with the rights of a holder. The application of the provisions of the UCC to the dispute presented here will be discussed below.
MERS The Mortgage Electronic Registration System (hereafter, MERS), is a unique entity. Its involvement in the foreclosure process has been the subject of a substantial amount of litigation throughout the country, resulting in the issuance of a number of reported opinions. Recently, MERS was the focus of a decision of the Supreme Court ofKansas, reported as Landmark National Bank v. Kesler, 289 Kan. 528, 216 P.3d. 158 (Kan. 2009) which is now cited frequently in this court. That opinion reviews the manner in which MERS functions, the potential problems it can create, and some of the competing policy issues presented. The opinion also cites a variety of published opinionsfrom around the country, addressing those same issues.
In essence, MERS is a private corporation which administers a national electronic registry which tracks the transfer of ownership interests and servicing rights in mortgage loans. Lenders participate as members of the MERS system. When mortgage loans are initially placed, the lenders will retain the underlying notes but can arrange for MERS to be designated as the mortgagees on the mortgages which become a part of the public record. In that context, the lenders are able to transfer their interests to others, without having to record those subsequent transactions in the public record. See Mortgage Elec. Reg. Sys. Inc. v. Nebraska Depart. Of Banking, 270 Neb. 529, 530, 704 N.W.2d 784 (2005), cited in Landmark. The process is apparently cost efficient, from the perspective of the lenders. Among other things, the use of MERS permits lenders to avoid the payment of filing fees that might otherwise be required with the filing of multiple assignments. By the same token, it can make it difficult for mortgagors and others to identify the individual or entity which actually controls the debt at any specific time. See Landmark, 216 P.3d. at 168. On occasion, foreclosure actions are also brought in the name of MERS. When MERS is involved, defendant/borrowers often argue there has been a “separation” of the note and mortgage impacting on the plaintiff’s ability to proceed with the foreclosure. That argument has been raised here and will also be addressed below.
This case also involves the securitization of mortgage loans, a practice which is facilitated by the MERS system. Trial courts in this state regularly deal with the foreclosure of mortgages which have previously been securitized. Generally, one or more lenders will sell substantial numbers of mortgage loans they have issued to a pool or trust.
Interests in that pool or trust are then sold to individual investors, who receive certificates entitling them to share in the funds received as the underlying loans are repaid. That can occur without any notice to the debtors/mortgagors who remain obligated on the original notes. Other entities, generally called “servicers,” are retained to administer the underlying loans. Those servicers or additional “subservicers” will be responsible for collecting and distributing the funds which are due from the debtors/mortgagors. Many are given the authority to institute and prosecute foreclosure proceedings.
The note executed by defendant Raftogianis is clearly a negotiable instrument as that term is defined by the UCC. In the terms of the statute, the note is payable to bearer or to order, and it is payable on demand or at a definite time. While the note contains detailed provisions as to just how payment is to be made, it does not state any other undertaking or instruction by the person promising or ordering payment to do any act in addition to the payment of money. See N.J.S.A. 12A:3-104. The note recites that defendant Raftogianis “promises to pay U.S. $1,380,000.00 … plus interest, to the order of the Lender,” then referring to “the Lender” as American Home Acceptance, beginning with payments due in November 2004. See N.J.S.A. 12A:3-104(a)(1), (2) and (3). This note, as originally drafted, was payable “to order.” At some point, however, the note was indorsed in blank. The original note was produced at oral argument on the motion for summary judgment. It contained the following indorsement:
BY AMERICAN HOME MORTAGE ACCEPTANCE, INC.
Ms. Bury’s original signature was just above her printed name in that indorsement. Defendant had signed the note on September 30, 2004, payable to the order of American Home Acceptance. In that form the note could be transferred by delivery, but could only be negotiated by indorsement. The indorsement in blank, however, would effectively make the note payable “to bearer,” permitting it to be transferred and negotiated by delivery alone, without any additional indorsement. While it was clear the note had been indorsed prior to the time it was presented to the court, presumably as a part of the securitization process, it was not clear just when that occurred, or when the note had been physically transferred from American Home Acceptance to some other individual or entity.
The assignment from MERS was executed and recorded a short time after the complaint was filed. That document is dated February 18, 2009. It is captioned “Assignment of Mortgage.” It recites that MERS, as nominee for American Home Acceptance, transfers and assigns the mortgage at issue to Bank of New York, as Trustee.
The assignment refers to the mortgage as securing the note at issue. It recites the transfer of the mortgage “together with all rights therein and thereto, all liens created or secured thereby, all obligations therein described, the money due and to become due with interest, and all rights accrued or to accrue under such mortgage.” The assignment was executed by one Linda Green, as Vice President of MERS, as nominee for American Home Acceptance. Ms. Green’s signature was notarized. The assignment was recorded with the Atlantic County Clerk on February 24, 2009. It does appear the assignment was intended to indicate that the debt in question had been transferred to the Bank of New York as Indenture Trustee in February 2009. It is now apparent that is not what occurred.
In any event, the matter proceeded in the vicinage based upon the filing of defendant’s contesting answer. While discovery was permitted, the parties apparently elected to forego any formal discovery. Plaintiff filed its motion for summary judgment in January 2010. The motion was based upon a certification from plaintiff’s counsel providing copies of the note, the mortgage and the February 2009 assignment. While the copy of the note provided with the motion did contain the blank indorsement noted above, there was no information provided as to when the note was indorsed, when the note was physically transferred, or where the note was being held. Defendant filed written opposition, challenging the validity of the MERS assignment. Plaintiff responded with a certification executed by a supervisor for American Home Mortgage Servicing, Inc., the servicer for the loans.
THE MERS ASSIGNMENT–THE SEPARATION OF THE NOTE AND MORTGAGE
The issue is framed, at least in part, by the description of MERS as “nominee.” The use of that term, as it is used by MERS, was analyzed in some detail in the decision of the Supreme Court of Kansas in Landmark, a case relied upon by defendant and cited above. Landmark involved a property which was encumbered by two mortgages. The loan provided by Landmark National Bank was secured by a first mortgage payable to it. There was a second mortgage on the property securing a loan that had been provided by Millennia Mortgage Corp. Millennia was a participant in MERS. The second mortgage securing the debt due Millennia was in the name of MERS “solely as nominee” for Millennia. The Millennia mortgage was subsequently transferred or assigned to Sovereign Bank. That transfer was not reflected in the public record. Landmark filed an action to foreclose its first mortgage naming Millennia, but neither MERS nor Sovereign as defendants. No one responded on behalf of Millennia and the matter proceeded through judgment and sale. Sovereign subsequently filed a motion to set aside the judgment, arguing that MERS was a “contingently necessary party” under Kansas law. The trial court concluded that MERS was not a real party in interest and denied the
motion to set aside the judgment. Both the Court of Appeals and the Supreme Court of Kansas affirmed, essentially concluding that MERS did not have any real interest in the underlying debt. Notably, the opinion of the Supreme Court of Kansas recognizes the potential for the separation of interests in a note and related mortgage. In that context, the opinion addressed the use of the term “nominee” in some detail, as follows: The legal status of a nominee, then, depends on the context of the relationship of the nominee to its principal. Various courts have interpreted the relationship of MERS and the lender as an agency relationship. (Citation omitted)
. . .
The relationship that MERS has to Sovereign is more akin to that of a straw man than to a party possessing all the rights given a buyer. A mortgage and a lender have intertwined rights that defy a clear separation of interests, especially when such a purported separation relies on ambiguous contractual language. The law generally understands that a mortgagee is not distinct from a lender: a mortgagee is “[o]ne to whom property is mortgaged: the mortgage creditor, or lender.” Black’s Law Dictionary 1034 (8th ed. 2004). By statute, assignment of the mortgage carries with it the assignment of the debt. K.S.A. 38-2323. Although MERS asserts that, under some situations the mortgage document purports to give it the same rights as the lender, the document consistently refers only to rights of the lender, including rights to receive notice of litigation to collect payments, and to enforce the debt obligation.
The document consistently limits MERS to acting “solely” as the nominee of lender. 289 Kan. 538-540.
While the Landmark court recognized that issues might be raised as to an alleged separation of a note and mortgage, it was not required to address those issues directly. Its analysis of the role MERS plays as nominee, however, supports the conclusion reached by this court with respect to that issue. MERS, as nominee, does not have any real interest in the underlying debt, or the mortgage which secured that debt. It acts simply as an agent or “straw man” for the lender. It is clear to this court that the provisions of the mortgage describing the mortgagee as MERS “as nominee” were not intended to deprive American Home Acceptance of its right to security under the mortgage or to separate the note and mortgage.
It is a fundamental maxim of equity that “[e]quity looks to substance rather than form.” See Applestein v. United Board & Carton Corp., 60 N.J. Super. 333, 348 (Ch.Div. 1960) aff’d o.b., 33 N.J. 72 (1960). The courts have applied that principle in dealing with mortgages in a variety of contexts. So it is that an assignment of a bond or note evidencing a secured obligation will operate as an assignment of the mortgage “in equity.” See 29 New Jersey Practice, Law of Mortgages 11.2, at 748 (Myron C. Weinstein) (2d ed. 2001) (citing Stevenson v. Black, 1 N.J. Eq. 338, 343 (Ch. 1831) and other cases). Conversely, commentators have noted the propriety of treating the assignment of a mortgage, without a specific reference to the underlying obligation, as effectively transferring both interests. But it does not follow that an assignment in terms of the “mortgage” without express reference to the secured obligation is insufficient to transfer the obligation and is therefore a nullity, as some courts have held. As Mr.Tiffany long ago pointed out, The question is properly one of the construction of the language used, and in arriving at the proper construction, evidence of the sense in which that language is ordinarily used is of primary importance. The expression “assignment of mortgage” is almost universally used, not only by the general public, but also by the Legislature, the courts, and the legal profession, to describe the transfer of the totality of the mortgagee’s rights, that is, his right to the debt as well as to the lien securing it, and to hold, as these cases apparently do, that when one in terms assigns a mortgage, he intends, not an effective transfer of his lien alone, which is an absolute nullity, not only ignores this ordinary use of the term “mortgage”, but is also in direct contravention of the well recognized rule that an instrument shall if possible be construed so as to give it a legal operation. See 29 New Jersey Practice, Law of Mortgages 11.2 at 754(Myron C. Weinstein)(2d ed.2001) (citing 5 Tiffany on Real Property 428-29). It is apparent there was no real intention to separate the note and mortgage at the time those documents were created. American Home Acceptance remained the owner of both the note and mortgage through the date the loan was securitized. It did have the right to transfer its interests when the loan was securitized.
It was entirely appropriate to argue that the February 2009 assignment from MERS, as nominee for American Home Acceptance, to the Bank of New York, as Trustee, was ineffective. From the court’s perspective, that assignment was, at best, a distraction. The actual transfers of interests in the note and mortgage occurred in different ways. There was no reason, however, that plaintiff could not acquire the right to enforce the note and mortgage through those other transactions. In that context, defendant’s attack on plaintiff’s right to proceed based on the alleged separation of the note and mortgage is rejected.
Defendant’s attack on plaintiff’s ability to proceed with the foreclosure based on the alleged “separation” of the note an mortgage was rejected. Plaintiff, however, failed to establish that it was entitled to enforce the note as of the time the complaint was filed.
In this case, there are no compelling reasons to permit plaintiff to proceed in this action. Accordingly, the complaint has been dismissed. That dismissal is without prejudice to plaintiff’s right to institute a new action to foreclose at any time, provided that any new complaint must be accompanied by an appropriate certification, executed by one with personal knowledge of the circumstances, confirming that plaintiff is in possession of the original note as of the date any new action is filed. That certification must indicate the physical location of the note and the name of the individual or entity in possession.
An appropriate order has been entered