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AURORA v. TOLEDO | NJ SC  “We question whether Lehman’s designation of MERS as its nominee remained in effect after Lehman filed its bankruptcy”

AURORA v. TOLEDO | NJ SC “We question whether Lehman’s designation of MERS as its nominee remained in effect after Lehman filed its bankruptcy”


NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE
APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
SUPERIOR COURT OF NEW JERSEY
APPELLATE DIVISION
DOCKET NO. A-0804-10T3

AURORA LOAN SERVICES, LLC,
Plaintiff-Respondent,

v.

BERNICE TOLEDO,
Defendant-Appellant,

and

MR. TOLEDO, Husband of
BERNICE TOLEDO, MORTGAGE
ELECTRONIC REGISTRATION
SYSTEMS, INC., As Nominee
For LEHMAN BROTHERS BANK FSB;
MORTGAGE ELECTRONIC REGISTRATION
SYSTEMS, INC., As Nominee For
AURORA LOAN SERVICES LLC,
Defendants.
_________________________________________________________

Submitted September 26, 2011 – Decided October 18, 2011

Before Judges Alvarez and Skillman.

On appeal from Superior Court of New Jersey,
Chancery Division, Passaic County, Docket
No. F-10005-09.

Kenneth C. Marano, attorney for appellant.

Victoria E. Edwards (Akerman Senterfitt),
attorney for respondent.

PER CURIAM

Defendant appeals from an order entered on August 31, 2010,
which granted a summary judgment in this mortgage foreclosure
action declaring that defendant’s answer “sets forth no genuine
issue as to any material fact challenged and that [plaintiff] is
entitled to a judgment as a matter of law.” There is no
indication in the record before us that plaintiff ever secured a
final judgment of foreclosure. Therefore, the appeal appears
interlocutory. See Wells Fargo Bank, N.A. v. Garner, 416 N.J.
Super. 520, 523-24 (App. Div. 2010). However, because defendant
did not move to dismiss on that basis and the appeal has been
pending for a substantial period of time, we grant leave to
appeal as within time and address the merits. See R. 2:4-
4(b)(2).

The record before us is rather sparse and disjointed.
However, the following facts may be gleaned from that record.
Defendant owns a home in the Borough of Prospect Park. On
July 24, 2006, defendant executed two promissory notes payable
to Lehman Brothers Bank, the first for $320,000, which was
payable on August 1, 2036, and the second for $60,000, which was
payable on August 1, 2021. Both notes were secured by mortgages
on defendant’s home.

On September 1, 2006, plaintiff began servicing the notes
on behalf of Lehman.

Sometime in 2008, defendant went into default in the
payment of her obligations under the notes.

On January 30, 2009, plaintiff purportedly obtained an
assignment of the $320,000 note from Lehman and the mortgage
securing that note.1 This assignment was signed by a person
named Joann Rein, with the title of Vice-President of Mortgage
Electronic Systems, Inc. (MERS). MERS was described in the
assignment document as a “nominee for Lehman Brothers Bank.”

This document is discussed in greater detail later in the
opinion.

On February 23, 2009, plaintiff filed this mortgage
foreclosure action. The parties subsequently engaged in
negotiations to resolve the matter. Those negotiations were
unsuccessful and are not relevant to our disposition of this
appeal.

Plaintiff filed a motion for summary judgment to strike
defendant’s answer on the ground there was no contested issue of
fact material to plaintiff’s right to foreclose upon defendant’s
property. In support of this motion, plaintiff relied primarily
on an affidavit by Laura McCann, one of its vice-presidents,
and exhibits attached to that affidavit, which are discussed
later in this opinion. Defendant submitted an answering
certification.

After hearing oral argument, the trial court issued a brief
written opinion and order granting plaintiff’s motion. This
appeal followed.

To have standing to foreclose a mortgage, a party generally
must “own or control the underlying debt.” Wells Fargo Bank,
N.A. v. Ford, 418 N.J. Super. 592, 597 (App. Div. 2011) (quoting
Bank of N.Y. v. Raftogianis, 418 N.J. Super. 323, 327-28 (Ch.
Div. 2010)). If the debt is evidenced by a negotiable
instrument, such as the promissory notes executed by defendant,
the determination whether a party owns or controls the
underlying debt “is governed by Article III of the Uniform
Commercial Code (UCC), N.J.S.A. 12:3-101 to -605, in particular
N.J.S.A. 12A:3-301.” Ibid. Under this section of the UCC, the
only parties entitled to enforce a negotiable instrument are
“[1] the holder of the instrument, [2] a nonholder in possession
of the instrument who has the rights of the holder, or [3] a
person not in possession of the instrument who is entitled to
enforce the instrument pursuant to [N.J.S.A.] 12A-3-309 or
subsection d. of [N.J.S.A.] 12A:3-418.” N.J.S.A. 12A:3-301
(brackets added).

In this case, it is clear for the same reasons as in Ford,
418 N.J. Super. at 598, that plaintiff is neither a “holder” of
the promissory notes executed by defendant nor a “person not in
possession” of those notes who is entitled to enforce them
pursuant to N.J.S.A. 12A:3-309 or N.J.S.A. 12A:3-418(d).

Therefore, as in Ford, plaintiff’s right to foreclose upon the
mortgages defendant executed to secure those notes depends upon
whether plaintiff established that it is “a nonholder in
possession of the instrument[s] who has the rights of a holder.”
N.J.S.A. 12A:3-301; see Ford, supra, 418 N.J. Super. at 498-99.

To establish its right to foreclose upon the mortgage
defendant executed to secure her $320,000 note to Lehman,
plaintiff relied upon an affidavit by Laura McCann, a vicepresident
of plaintiff. McCann’s affidavit states that she has
“custody and control of the business records of [plaintiff] as
they relate to [defendant’s] loans.” Regarding each of the
copies of defendant’s notes and mortgages attached to her
certifications, McCann asserts that it is a “true and correct
copy.” However, McCann does not state that she personally
confirmed that those attachments were copies of originals in
plaintiff’s files.

McCann’s affidavit also has attached a copy of a document
that purports to be a “Corporate Assignment of Mortgage” from
MERS, as Lehman’s nominee, to plaintiff. Again, McCann’s
affidavit asserts that this document “is a true and correct copy
of the instrument assigning the Mortgage and Note to
[plaintiff],” but does not state that she personally confirmed
that it was a copy of the original.

A certification in support of a motion for summary judgment
must be based on “personal knowledge.” Ford, supra, 418 N.J.
Super. at 599 (quoting R. 1:6-6); see also Deutsche Bank Nat’l
Trust Co. v. Mitchell, ___ N.J. Super. ___, ___ (App. Div. 2011)
(slip op. at 17-19). Our Supreme Court has recently reaffirmed
the need for strict compliance with this requirement in mortgage
foreclosure actions by adopting, effective December 20, 2010, a
new court rule which specifically states that an affidavit in
support of a judgment in a mortgage foreclosure action must be
“based on a personal review of business records of the plaintiff
or the plaintiff’s mortgage loan servicer.” R. 4:64-2(c)(2).
McCann’s affidavit does not state that she conducted such a
“personal review of [plaintiff’s] business records” relating to
defendant’s notes and mortgages.

Furthermore, even if plaintiff had presented adequate
evidence that the purported assignment of the mortgages and
notes attached to McCann’s affidavit was a copy of the original
in plaintiff’s files, this would not have been sufficient to
establish the effectiveness of the alleged assignment. This
document was signed by a JoAnn Rein, who identifies herself as a
vice-president of MERS, as nominee for Lehman Brothers, and was
notarized in Nebraska. Plaintiff’s submission in support of its
motion for summary judgment did not include a certification by
Rein or any other representative of MERS regarding her authority
to execute the assignment or the circumstances of the
assignment. In the absence of such further evidence, we do not
view the purported assignment of the mortgages and notes to be a
self-authenticating document that can support the summary
judgment in plaintiff’s favor. N.J.R.E. 901; see 2 McCormick on
Evidence § 221 (6th ed. 2006).

There is an additional potential problem with this
purported assignment. The assignment was not made by Lehman, as
payee of the promissory notes secured by the mortgage, but
rather by MERS, “as nominee for Lehman.” Although the notes and
mortgages appointed MERS as Lehman’s nominee, Lehman filed a
petition for bankruptcy protection in September 2008, see Andrew
Ross Sorkin, Lehman Files for Bankruptcy; Merrill is Sold, N.Y.
Times (Sept. 14, 2008), which was before the purported
assignment of defendant’s mortgage and note on January 30, 2009.

Therefore, we question whether Lehman’s designation of MERS as
its nominee remained in effect after Lehman filed its bankruptcy
petition, absent ratification of that designation by the
bankruptcy trustee. On remand, the trial court should address
the question whether MERS was still Lehman’s nominee as of the
date of its purported assignment of defendant’s note and
mortgage to plaintiff.

Accordingly, we reverse the August 31, 2010 order granting
plaintiff’s motion for summary judgment and remand to the trial
court for further proceedings in conformity with this opinion.

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