Posted on 07 June 2011.
In re: CARLOS RAMON FONTES and EVA MARIE FONTES, Debtors.
CARLOS RAMON FONTES; EVA MARIE FONTES, Appellants,
HSBC BANK, USA, NA; DIANNE CRANDELL KERNS, Chapter 13 Trustee, Appellees.
BAP No. AZ-10-1345-JUMKPa, Bk. No. 08-13133.
United States Bankruptcy Appellate Panel, Ninth Circuit.
Argued and Submitted on February 17, 2011 at Phoenix, Arizona. April 22, 2011.
Ronald Ryan, Esq. argued for Appellants Carlos and Eva Fontes Steven D. Jerome, Esq. of Snell & Wilmer LLP argued for Appellee HSBC Bank USA, NA Craig Morris, Esq. argued for Appellee Dianne Crandell Kerns.
Before: JURY, MARKELL, and PAPPAS, Bankruptcy Judges.
A. HSBC’s Theories
HSBC argues that we should affirm the court’s decision on the ground that debtors’ statements in their schedules and confirmed plan regarding ASC were judicial admissions that HSBC had standing to bring the motion for relief from stay because ASC was HSBC’s loan servicer. HSBC further argues that the doctrine of judicial estoppel should bar debtors from challenging HSBC’s standing because debtors acknowledged their debt to ASC, HSBC’s loan servicer, in their schedules and plan. Thus, HSBC maintains that debtors should not be able to take an inconsistent position in the context of the relief from stay proceeding. Finally, HSBC contends that despite these grounds for affirming the bankruptcy court’s ruling, it independently met its burden of proof that it had a colorable claim to debtors’ property.
Although we may affirm the bankruptcy court’s decision on any ground fairly supported by the record, Wirum v. Warren (In re Warren), 568 F.3d 1113, 1116 (9th Cir. 2009), we disagree with HSBC that it should prevail under any of these theories.
We first address HSBC’s argument that it proved it had a colorable claim to debtors’ property. The record shows that the bankruptcy court did not directly address this question because it relied on debtors’ confirmed plan for its decision. Regardless, we review standing issues de novo and there is no evidence in the record that supports HSBC’s contention.
The assignment of the deed of trust from MERS, as nominee for Infinity, to HSBC also purported to assign the note. However, HSBC, as MER’S assignee, would take subject to the rights and remedies of its assignor. HSBC overlooks the fact that there is no evidence in the record that shows MERS had any interest in the note to assign. Although the deed of trust gave MERS, as nominee, the power to assign the deed of trust, it did not mention the note, nor did the note itself name MERS as nominee, so MERS could not take this right from the documents themselves. Further, there is no independent evidence that Infinity conveyed the note to MERS. Finally, debtors were not obligated under the note to make payments to MERS. In short, the language in the deed of trust which names MERS as a beneficiary, solely as nominee of Infinity, was insufficient to confer any economic benefit on MERS. In re Weisband, 427 B.R. 13, 20 (Bankr. D. Ariz. 2010).
In Weisband, the bankruptcy court considered whether a MERS assignment of a deed of trust provided the loan servicer with standing for purposes of obtaining relief from stay. The court concluded that MERS had no interest in the note and would suffer no injury if the note was not paid and the deed of trust not foreclosed. As a result, the court concluded that MERS did not have constitutional standing and, if MERS did not have constitutional standing, its assignee could not satisfy the requirements for constitutional standing either. Id.; see also Wilhelm, 407 B.R. at 404 (discussing validity of MERS’s assignments related to the note). We do not perceive a different result is warranted under these circumstances.
Moreover, HSBC gives the Williams’ declaration more credence than the rules of evidence allow. Williams’ declaration was conclusory, simply stating that she was familiar with the business records of HSBC and that HSBC was the “holder or servicer” of the note. Williams also stated that HSBC had a contractual right to collect payments and maintain legal actions for the beneficial note holder, either as the current note holder or pursuant to either a Master Servicing Agreement or Power of Attorney. However, neither of those documents were attached to her declaration and there is no other foundation for her to have made these equivocal statements. Finally, the declaration creates an ambiguity because Williams stated that HSBC was “the holder or servicer” of the Note. Which is it? If HSBC was a servicer of the note, it does not necessarily follow that HSBC was the holder of the note under Ariz. Rev. Stat. § 47-1201(B)(21)(a).Weisband, 427 B.R. at 21 (noting that “[E]ven if a servicer has constitutional standing, it may still not be the `real party in interest’ under Fed. R. Civ. P. 17 and may not, therefore be able to satisfy the requirements for prudential standing.”). In short, Williams’ declaration did not establish that HSBC had constitutional or prudential standing or that HSBC had authority to act for any entity that did have standing. See
HSBC’s judicial admission and estoppel theories as grounds for affirmance are also unpersuasive. HSBC seeks to have these doctrines applied to itself vis-a-vis ASC. The only manner in which HSBC links itself to ASC in the record is through its repeated assertion without reference to any evidence that ASC was its “servicer.” No further details are given. Does HSBC mean that ASC was its agent at the time of debtors’ filing? Or, does HSBC mean it somehow became the successor in interest to ASC? The record does not support either theory.
Generally, a loan servicer acts only as the agent of the owner of the instrument. We do not find any evidence in the record that establishes an agency relationship between HSBC and ASC that existed when debtors filed their petition and proposed their plan. The record contains no servicing agreement between ASC and HSBC indicating that ASC was HSBC’s agent, and ASC’s proof of claim did not state that it was acting as the authorized agent for HSBC. Further, MERS’s assignment to HSBC of the trust deed and note is dated September 11, 2009 — a date well past the petition and plan confirmation dates. Thus, the only inference to be drawn from the record is that ASC was acting as servicer for some party other than HSBC when debtors filed their petition.
We also cannot conclude on this record that HSBC established that it was ASC’s successor in interest. A successor in interest is “one who follows another in ownership or control of property. A successor in interest retains the same rights as the original owner, with no change in substance.” Black’s Law Dictionary, (9th ed. 2009). Nothing in the record shows ASC was in the line of assignments of the note or trust deed. In reality, ASC and HSBC appear to be separate unrelated entities at the time of debtors’ filing. Without a direct link to ASC, HSBC cannot take advantage of the judicial admission or estoppel doctrines to bar debtors’ challenge to its standing.
In sum, the record is devoid of evidence that would support any of HSBC’s theories.
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