Decided on February 29, 2012
U.S. Bank National Association, as Trustee, for CSFB ARMT 2006-2, 3476 Stateview Boulevard, Ft. Mill, SC 29715, Plaintiff,
Dorcas Nyarkoha, et al., Defendants.
Appearances of Counsel:
For the Plaintiff:Hogan Lovells U.S. LLP, by Allison J. Schoenthal, Danielle Mastriano, & Nicole Schiavo, Esqs., 875 Third Avenue, New York, NY 10022
For Defendant Dorcas Nyarkoha: Sumani Lanka, Esq., The Legal Aid Society – – Civil Practice, 120-46 Queens Boulevard, Kew Gardens, New York 11415-1204
Charles J. Markey, J.
The following papers numbered 1 to 13 read on this motion by defendant Dorcas Nyarkoha, pursuant to CPLR 3012(d), for leave to serve and file a late answer, as proposed.
Notice of Motion – Affidavits – Exhibits ……………………………………………………………….1-4
Answering Affidavits – Exhibits …………………………………………………………………………5-10
Reply Affidavits ……………………………………………………………………………………………..11-13
This mortgage foreclosure action raises two controversial issues that will persist in the case law, with incongruent and inconsistent results, until a definitive ruling is eventually made by the New York Court of Appeals. The first issue, especially in the area of mortgage foreclosures, where the statutory framework provides for a conference to all answering defendants in an attempted foreclosure of a residential mortgage (see, CPLR 3408, L 2008, ch 472, § 3), is whether or not a non-answering defendant’s failure to answer timely be excused because he or she relied on ongoing settlement talks, discussions, and negotiations. The second thorny issue is whether or not a plaintiff bank’s alleged lack of standing is a meritorious defense that may be asserted by a defendant seeking permission to file a late answer.
Defendant Nyarkoha, in effect, moves to vacate her default in answering the complaint and for leave to serve a late verified answer as proposed. She claims that her default is excusable, insofar as she believed her engagement in settlement negotiations with plaintiff’s [*2]servicing agent, Wells Fargo Home Mortgage Inc. d/b/a America’s Servicing Company (“ASC”), excused her from taking further action with respect to the suit. Defendant Nyarkoha also claims she has meritorious defenses and counterclaims. The plaintiff opposes the motion.
A defendant who has failed to timely answer the complaint must provide a reasonable excuse for the default and demonstrate a potentially meritorious defense to the action, when moving to compel the acceptance of an untimely answer (see, Palmer Ave. Corp. v. Malick, 91 AD3d 853 [2nd Dept. 2012]; Lipp v Port Auth. of NY & N.J., 34 AD3d 649 [2nd Dept. 2006]; Juseinoski v Board of Educ. of City of NY, 15 AD3d 353, 356 [2nd Dept. 2005]; see also, Rodriguez v Triani, 28 Misc 3d 130(A), 2010 WL 2802747, 2010 NY Slip Op 51256(U) [App T. 2nd Dept. 2010]). The determination of what constitutes a reasonable excuse for a default in answering lies within the sound discretion of the court (see, Adolph H. Schreiber Hebrew Academy of Rockland, Inc. v Needleman, 90 AD3d 791 [2nd Dept. 2011]; Maspeth Fed. Sav. & Loan Assn. v McGown, 77 AD3d 889 [2nd Dept. 2010]; Grutman v Southgate At Bar Harbor Home Owners’ Assn., 207 AD2d 526, 527 [2nd Dept. 1994]).
Defendant Nyarkoha states that she was out of the country at the time of the service of the copy of the summons and complaint, but after her return on June 28, 2009, contacted ASC, seeking to obtain a modification of the subject mortgage. ASC, which participated in the federal Home Affordable Modification Program (“HAMP”), accepted her application for loan modification under HAMP. Defendant Nyarkoha entered into a three-month Trial Period Plan with ASC through HAMP, commencing October 1, 2009, and attended seven conferences held in the Residential Foreclosure Part, wherein she was represented by the Legal Aid Society for the purpose of the conferences.
While the case was assigned to that Part, defendant Nyarkoha twice moved, in effect, to stop the running of interest on the mortgage debt. Both motions were denied. In addition, defendant Nyarkoha filed, on July 1, 2010, a pro se motion for leave to serve an answer to the complaint, which motion was repeatedly adjourned. The case was released from the Residential Foreclosure Part on December 1, 2010.
On December 28, 2010, the Legal Aid Society served and filed a notice of appearance on behalf of defendant Nyarkoha in this action. On January 27, 2011, defendant Nyarkoha served and filed a notice, indicating her withdrawal of the pro se motion for leave to serve a late answer, without prejudice to her right to refile it. The instant motion was filed six months later.
Regarding defendant Nyarkoha’s argument that she relied on ongoing settlement discussions and negotiations, the cases are mixed. A number of cases show a great reluctance, if not loathing, for such a defense as an excuse for not taking concrete action in a litigation, such as filing an answer (see, e.g., Community Preservation Corp. v Bridgewater Condominiums, LLC, 89 AD3d 784 [2nd Dept. 2011] [reliance on settlement discussions does not constitute reasonable excuse]; Mellon v Izmirligil, 88 AD3d 930 [2nd Dept. 2011] [motion to vacate was properly denied]; Maspeth Fed. Sav. & Loan Assn. v McGown, 77 AD3d 889, supra [purported reliance [*3]on settlement discussions was unsubstantiated]; Jamieson v Roman, 36 AD3d 861 [2nd Dept. 2007] [upholding denial of motion to vacate default despite party’s claim of ongoing settlement discussions, since party delayed in appearing after being served with a copy of the judgment]; Flora Co. v Ingilis, 233 AD2d 418 [2nd Dept. 1996] [reliance on settlement discussions was questionable at best]; Bank of New York v Jayaswal, 33 Misc 3d 1214(A), 2011 WL 5061626, 2011 NY Slip Op 51922(U) [Sup Ct Suffolk County 2011] [Whelan, J.] [denying motion to file a late answer, court stated that “the mere engagement in discussions aimed at a potential modification of the subject mortgage loan may not serve as a means to open up an otherwise inexcusable default in answering the summons and complaint by the defendant/mortgagor.”; discussing the competing cases and reasoning that defendant’s conversation with the plaintiff bank’s “operations consultant” could not be reasonably characterized as “legal advice” that “allegedly duped defendant . . . into not answering the complaint in a timely manner.”).
The defense or excuse of a party’s abstaining from taking any action in good faith reliance on ongoing settlement discussions and negotiations has, nevertheless, been sustained if the underlying facts and circumstances are substantiated and reasonable (see, e.g., Performance Constr. Corp. v Huntington Bldg., LLC, 68 AD3d 737, 738 [2nd Dept. 2009] [record revealed that party was actively engaged in settlement negotiations, and adversary unfairly and manipulatively failed to disclose plan to enter default judgment]; Scarlett v McCarthy, 2 AD3d 623 [2nd Dept. 2003]; HSBC Bank USA, N.A. v Cayo, ____ Misc 3d, 934 NYS2d 792, 794 [Sup Ct Kings County 2011] [party presented meritorious defense and substantiated belief that action was stayed pending settlement talks]; Emigrant Mortgage, Inc. v Abbey, 2011 WL 972555, 2011 NY Slip Op 30600(U) [Sup Ct Queens County 2011] [McDonald, J.]).
This Court, in the present action, concludes that defendant Nyarkoha’s reliance upon settlement negotiations with ASC was reasonable and her participation in the conferences is substantiated and thus constituting a sufficient and reasonable excuse for her failure to serve an answer through at least December 1, 2010.
To the extent Defendant Nyarkoha’s pro se motion for leave to serve a late answer was withdrawn prior to its submission, and the instant motion was not made for another six months, such additional delay may be attributable to her counsel and constitutes, at most, law office failure, which is excusable (see, CPLR 2005). Plaintiff has not demonstrated it has been prejudiced by the additional delay (see, Merchants Ins. Group v. Hudson Valley Fire Protection Co., Inc.,72 AD3d 762, 764 [2nd Dept. 2010]).
Plaintiff made no motion seeking any relief during that six-month period, notwithstanding that the order dated December 1, 2010, permitted it to seek an order of reference, and makes no cross motion for such relief. A strong public policy, furthermore, exists favoring the disposition of matters on their merits (see, Berardo v Guillet, 86 AD3d 459, 459 [1st Dept. 2011]; Yu v Vantage Mgt. Servs., LLC, 85 AD3d 564[1st Dept. 2011]; Billingly v Blagrove, 84 AD3d 848, 849 [2nd Dept. 2011]; Khanal v Sheldon, 74 AD3d 894, 896 [2nd Dept. 2010]; Rakowicz v [*4]Fashion Institute of Technology, 65 AD3d 536, 537 [2nd Dept. 2009]; Reed v Grossi, 59 AD3d 509, 511-512 [2nd Dept. 2009]; Bunch v Dollar Budget, Inc., 12 AD3d 391 [2nd Dept. 2004]).
The motion papers, in the case at bar, adequately demonstrate that the defendant Nyarkoha may have a meritorious defense based upon lack of standing (compare Citigroup Global Markets Realty Corp. v. Randolph Bowling, 25 Misc 3d 1244(A), 2009 WL 4893940, 2009 NY Slip Op 52567(U), slip op at 3 [Sup Ct Kings County 2011] [standing issue was not raised as a last minute gesture to avert sale of property and was thus properly raised on a motion to file a late answer] with Deutsche Bank Nat. Trust Co. v. Young, 66 AD3d 819,819 [2nd Dept. 2009] [upholding lower court’s denial of motion to vacate default in mortgage foreclosure action, Second Department stated that “the Supreme Court did not err in determining that they waived the issue of standing by failing to timely appear or answer”] and HSBC Bank, USA v. Dammond, 59 AD3d 679, 680 [2nd Dept. 2009] [where it was “undisputed that the respondent was personally served” and the defendant did not raise the standing defense until “immediately prior to the date scheduled for the sale of the property,” the Second Department stated: “The respondent waived any argument that HSBC lacked standing to commence the foreclosure action. Having failed to interpose an answer or file a timely pre-answer motion which asserted the defense of standing, the respondent waived such defense pursuant to CPLR 3211(e).”]; and Deutsche Bank Nat. Trust Co. v. Pietranico, 33 Misc 3d 528 [Sup Ct Suffolk County 2011] [Whelan, J.] [alleged lack of standing was untimely asserted on motion to vacate a default in a mortgage foreclosure action]; see, U.S. Bank, N.A. v Collymore, 68 AD3d 752 [2nd Dept. 2009] [upholding denial of plaintiff bank’s motion for summary judgment and appointment of a referee, Second Department stated: “Contrary to the Bank’s contentions, it failed to demonstrate its prima facie entitlement to judgment as a matter of law because it did not submit sufficient evidence to demonstrate its standing as the lawful holder or assignee of the subject note on the date it commenced this action.”]).
In the present action, the assignment agreement indicates that the mortgage, “[t]ogether with all moneys . . . owing or that may . . . become due or owing in [r]espect thereof,” were assigned by First United Mortgage Banking Corp. to plaintiff on May 12, 2009. The endorsement on the underlying note, however, is undated, and in blank and without recourse, and the affidavit of Jennifer Robinson, the vice-president of loan documentation for Wells Fargo, indicates that the note was physically delivered to Wells Fargo as custodian for plaintiff “prior to the commencement of this action on May 25, 2009.” The action, however, was commenced on May 21, 2009, and Ms. Robinson does not state the actual date of physical delivery of the note.
The Court holds, under the circumstances of the present action, that the alleged lack of standing of the plaintiff bank may be considered on a motion to vacate a default in a mortgage foreclosure action. Absent express legislation barring a litigant from proving a meritorious defense in an attempt to vacate a default because of an alleged lack of standing, courts should not engraft such a prohibition on the case law of this State.
The Court grants defendant’s motion for leave to serve a late answer is granted, and the [*5]proposed answer annexed to the motion papers shall be deemed served upon service of a copy of this order bearing the date stamp of the County Clerk, with notice of entry. Plaintiff shall serve a reply or move with respect to the answer, within 30 days of the service of a copy of this order with notice of entry. Defendant Nyarkoha shall file a copy of the answer within 20 days of service of a copy of this order with notice of entry.
The foregoing constitutes the decision, opinion, and order of the Court.
Dated: February 29, 2012
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