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U.S. BANK NA v. KIMBALL | VT Supreme Court Affirms w/Prejudice “AFFIDAVIT FAIL, Jeffrey Stephan, Scott Zeitz, Accredited, Allonge, MERS, RFC, Homecomings, GMAC”

U.S. BANK NA v. KIMBALL | VT Supreme Court Affirms w/Prejudice “AFFIDAVIT FAIL, Jeffrey Stephan, Scott Zeitz, Accredited, Allonge, MERS, RFC, Homecomings, GMAC”


U.S. Bank National Association (2010-169)

2011 VT 81

[Filed 22-Jul-2011]

NOTICE:  This opinion is subject to motions for reargument under V.R.A.P. 40 as well as formal revision before publication in the Vermont Reports.  Readers are requested to notify the Reporter of Decisions, Vermont Supreme Court, 109 State Street, Montpelier, Vermont 05609-0801 of any errors in order that corrections may be made before this opinion goes to press.

2011 VT 81

No. 2010-169

U.S. Bank National Association

Supreme Court




On Appeal from

v.

Grand Isle Superior Court




Christine Kimball

January Term, 2011





Ben W. Joseph, J.

Andre D. Bouffard of Downs Rachlin Martin PLLC, Burlington, for Plaintiff-Appellant.

Grace B. Pazdan, Vermont Legal Aid, Inc., Montpelier, for Defendant-Appellee.

PRESENT:  Reiber, C.J., Dooley, Johnson, Skoglund and Burgess, JJ.

¶ 1. BURGESS, J. Plaintiff US Bank National Association, as trustee for RASC 2005 AHL1, appeals from a trial court order granting summary judgment for defendant homeowner and dismissing with prejudice US Bank’s foreclosure complaint for lack of standing.  On appeal, US Bank argues that it had standing to prosecute the foreclosure claim and the court’s dismissal with prejudice was in error.  Homeowner cross-appeals, arguing that the court erred in not addressing her claim for attorney’s fees.  We affirm the dismissal and remand for consideration of homeowner’s motion for attorney’s fees.

¶ 2. On appeal from a grant of summary judgment, “the nonmoving party receives the benefit of all reasonable doubts and inferences.”  Samplid Enters., Inc. v. First Vt. Bank, 165 Vt. 22, 25, 676 A.2d 774, 776 (1996). We review the decision de novo under the same standard as the trial court.  Id.  Summary judgment is appropriate if there is no genuine issue of material fact and a party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.  Id.; see V.R.C.P. 56(c)(3).

¶ 3. So viewed, the record reveals the following facts.  Homeowner purchased property on June 16, 2005.  To finance the purchase, she executed an adjustable rate promissory note in favor of Accredited Home Lenders, Inc. (Accredited) in the amount of $185,520.  The note was secured by a mortgage deed to Mortgage Electronic Registration Systems, Inc. (MERS) as nominee for Accredited.

¶ 4. On January 12, 2009, US Bank filed a foreclosure complaint for homeowner’s failure to make required payments.  The complaint alleged that the mortgage and note were assigned to US Bank by MERS, as nominee for Accredited, by an instrument dated January 6, 2009.  Attached to the complaint was a copy of the instrument entitled “Assignment of Mortgage,” signed by Jeffrey Stephan, identified therein as Duly Authorized Agent and Vice President of MERS.  The promissory note was also attached to the complaint, and appended to it was an undated allonge[1] signed by a corporate officer of Accredited, endorsing the note in blank.

¶ 5. Homeowner initially filed a pro se answer.  After procuring counsel, homeowner filed an amended answer, claiming, among other things, that US Bank failed to present sufficient evidence that it held homeowner’s note and corresponding mortgage.  Homeowner also filed a counterclaim alleging consumer fraud.  In March 2005, homeowner filed a motion for summary judgment arguing that US Bank lacked standing to bring the foreclosure complaint because it failed to establish that it held an interest in the debt secured by homeowner’s property.  Homeowner argued that US Bank had not established proper assignment of the mortgage because MERS as nominee for Accredited lacked authority to assign the mortgage.  Homeowner further argued that US Bank failed to demonstrate that it held or had a right to enforce the promissory note.  In July 2009, in support of the motion for summary judgment, homeowner submitted an affidavit, averring that in mid-June 2009 she received a letter from her mortgage servicer, Homecomings Financial, notifying her that the servicing rights to her loan were being assigned not to US Bank, but to GMAC Mortgage, LLC effective July 1, 2009.  She also averred that she received a concurrent letter from GMAC, confirming that it was servicing the loan on behalf of Residential Funding Corporation (RFC).  The letters referred to in the affidavit were attached.

¶ 6. US Bank opposed the request and responded with its own cross-motion for summary judgment on the merits, claiming that whatever deficiencies were present in its original complaint were now resolved because it had produced and sent to homeowner “a copy of the fully endorsed note specifically payable to [US Bank].”  In its statement of undisputed facts, US Bank asserted that it had the original note, and that it was endorsed from Accredited to RFC and then to US Bank.  No dates, however, were provided for these endorsements.  In support, US Bank attached an affidavit attesting to these facts, but still devoid of any dates for the purported assignments.  The affidavit was signed by Jeffrey Stephan, the same man who had signed the assignment attached to original complaint, but this time identifying himself as a “Limited Signing Officer” for GMAC, the mortgage servicer for homeowner’s loan.  In the affidavit, Stephan claims that he has “familiarity with the loan documentation underlying the mortgage loan entered at issue in the present foreclosure case.”  The copy of the note attached had an allonge, appearing to be the same allonge previously submitted as endorsed in blank, but this time with “RFC” stamped in the blank spot and containing a second endorsement from RFC to US Bank.  Neither endorsement was dated.

¶ 7. The court held a hearing on the summary judgment motions.  Following the hearing, the court issued a written order on October 27, 2009.  The court concluded that to enforce a mortgage note, “a plaintiff must show that it was the holder of the note at the time the Complaint was filed,” and here there was “simply no evidence of an assignment to a party in interest.”  Because neither note submitted by US Bank was dated, the court concluded that there was no evidence that the note was endorsed to US Bank before the complaint was filed.  Therefore, the court held that US Bank lacked standing to bring the foreclosure action.  The court granted homeowner’s motion for summary judgment, dismissed the foreclosure action, and set the matter for hearing on homeowner’s counterclaim.

¶ 8. On November 23, 2009, US Bank moved for reconsideration.[2] US Bank acknowledged that it had created “confusion” by attaching to the complaint “an outdated copy of the note prior to its transfer to [US Bank], and a mortgage assignment that purports to assign the note along with the mortgage.”  It claimed, however, that because it now held the original note, it was entitled to enforce it.  Homeowner did not dispute that US Bank possessed what appeared to be the original note, but she insisted US Bank was required to authenticate the endorsements through credible affidavits and to demonstrate that it had possession when the complaint was filed.  As to this timing issue, US Bank contended that homeowner’s mortgage had been endorsed to it in September 2005.  In support, US Bank submitted an affidavit signed by Scott Zeitz, who is identified as a litigation analyst with GMAC.  In the affidavit, ZeitzZeitz avers that homeowner’s mortgage note was endorsed to RFC and then to US Bank in September 2005.  The affidavit does not explain the obvious inconsistencies with the prior affidavits offered by US Bank or with the letter homeowner received from GMAC identifying RFC as the holder of her note in June 2009.  It also does not explain how obtained this knowledge given that GMAC did not begin servicing the loan until July 1, 2009.  In the alternative, US Bank argued that, even if did not hold an interest in the note at the time the complaint was filed, it could cure the deficiency by now substituting itself as the real party in interest under Rule of Civil Procedure 17(a).  US Bank also filed a motion to amend its complaint to properly reflect the manner in which it now alleged that it acquired an interest in homeowner’s note and mortgage.

¶ 9. Homeowner opposed the motions, contending that the numerous inconsistencies in the information offered by US Bank made it unreliable.  In addition, homeowner argued that the Zeitz affidavit was not based on personal knowledge and therefore insufficient to support the motion.  Homeowner moved for reasonable attorney’s fees under Rule 56(g), claiming that US Bank acted in bad faith by filing affidavits lacking a basis in personal knowledge and contradicting undisputed evidence.[3] Homeowner explained that as a result her attorney “spent numerous hours responding to and refuting the validity of the affidavits.”

¶ 10. Following a hearing, the court denied the motions for reconsideration and to amend the complaint.  The court concluded that US Bank had submitted a defective complaint and the deficiencies therein were not mere technicalities, but essential items, without which the case could not proceed.  The court held that US Bank lacked standing when the complaint was filed, and dismissed the complaint “with prejudice.”  US Bank appeals.

¶ 11. On appeal, US Bank argues that the court erred in (1) dismissing the complaint with prejudice; (2) concluding there was no standing when there was evidence demonstrating that US Bank was the holder of the note before the complaint was filed; and (3) denying US Bank’s request to substitute itself as the real party in interest.  Homeowner cross-appeals, arguing that the court failed to address her request for attorney’s fees and requesting a remand.

¶ 12. We begin with the issue of standing.  “[O]ur review of dismissal for lack of standing is the same as that for lack of subject matter jurisdiction.  We review the lower court’s decision de novo, accepting all factual allegations in the complaint as true.”  Brod v. Agency of Natural Res., 2007 VT 87, ¶ 2, 182 Vt. 234, 936 A.2d 1286.  We have the same standing requirement as the federal courts in that our jurisdiction is limited to “actual cases or controversies.”  Parker v. Town of Milton, 169 Vt. 74, 76-77, 726 A.2d 477, 480 (1998). Therefore, to bring a case “[a] plaintiff must, at a minimum, show (1) injury in fact, (2) causation, and (3) redressability.”  Id. at 77, 726 A.2d at 480 (citing Lujan v. Defenders of Wildlife, 504 U.S. 555, 560-61 (1992)).  This means a plaintiff “must have suffered a particular injury that is attributable to the defendant,” id. at 77, 726 A.2d at 480, and a party who is not injured has no standing to bring a suit.  Bischoff v. Bletz, 2008 VT 16, ¶¶ 15-16, 183 Vt. 235, 939 A.2d 420.  And, as the U.S. Supreme Court has explained, “standing is to be determined as of the commencement of suit.”  Lujan, 504 U.S. at 570 n.5.

¶ 13. To foreclose a mortgage, a plaintiff must demonstrate that it has a right to enforce the note, and without such ownership, the plaintiff lacks standing.  Wells Fargo Bank, N.A. v. Ford, 15 A.3d 327, 329 (N.J. Super. Ct. App. Div. 2011).  While a plaintiff in a foreclosure should also have assignment of the mortgage, it is the note that is important because “[w]here a promissory note is secured by a mortgage, the mortgage is an incident to the note.”  Huntington v. McCarty, 174 Vt. 69, 70, 807 A.2d 950, 952 (2002). Because the note is a negotiable instrument, it is subject to the requirements of the UCC.  Thus, US Bank had the burden of demonstrating that it was a “ ‘[p]erson entitled to enforce’ ” the note, by showing it was “(i) the holder of the instrument, (ii) a nonholder in possession of the instrument who has the rights of a holder, or (iii) a person not in possession of the instrument who is entitled to enforce the instrument.”  9A V.S.A. § 3-301.  On appeal, US Bank asserts that it is entitled to enforce the note under the first category—as a holder of the instrument.

¶ 14. A person becomes the holder of an instrument when it is issued or later negotiated to that person.  9A V.S.A. § 3-201(a). Negotiation always requires a transfer of possession of the instrument.  Id. § 3-201 cmt. When the instrument is made payable to bearer, it can be negotiated by transfer alone.  Id. §§ 3-201(b), 3-205(a). If it is payable to order—that is, to an identified person—then negotiation is completed by transfer and endorsement of the instrument.  Id. § 3-201(b). An instrument payable to order can become a bearer instrument if endorsed in blank.  Id. § 3-205(b).See Bank of N.Y. v. Raftogianis, 13 A.3d 435, 439-40 (N.J. Super. Ct. Ch. Div. 2010) (reciting requirements for bank to demonstrate that it was holder of note at time complaint was filed). Therefore, in this case, because the note was not issued to US Bank, to be a holder, US Bank was required to show that at the time the complaint was filed it possessed the original note either made payable to bearer with a blank endorsement or made payable to order with an endorsement specifically to US Bank.

¶ 15. US Bank lacked standing because it has failed to demonstrate either requirement.  Initially, US Bank’s suit was based solely on an assignment of the mortgage by MERS.  The complaint did not allege that US Bank held the original note.  US Bank simply attached a copy of the note with an allonge endorsement in blank.  Homeowner challenged this evidence as insufficient to show that US Bank held an interest in her note.  Because homeowner supported her position with an affidavit and documentary evidence, US Bank was required to “come forward with an opposing affidavit or other evidence that raises a dispute as to the fact or facts in issue.”  Alpstetten Ass’n, Inc. v. Kelly, 137 Vt. 508, 514, 408 A.2d 644, 647 (1979). At this point, US Bank abandoned its claim of assignment of the mortgage and instead asserted that it held the original note.  It submitted the note with an allonge containing two undated specific endorsements, one to US Bank.  The supporting affidavit claimed that the note had been endorsed to US Bank, but provided no information about when and failed to explain why a note with a blank endorsement was the basis for the complaint.

¶ 16. Based on this contradictory and uncertain documentation, the trial court did not err in concluding that there was no evidence to show that US Bank was a holder of the note at the time it filed the complaint.  US Bank failed to allege or demonstrate that it held the original note endorsed in blank when it commenced the foreclosure action.  In fact, US Bank asserted that the note with the blank endorsement was an earlier copy that was mistakenly attached to the complaint.  It also alleged that the blank endorsement was stamped with RFC’s name in 2005.  Therefore, it could not possibly have held the original note with a blank endorsement when the complaint was filed.  Further, there is no evidence to show that US Bank held the original note endorsed to its name before the complaint was filed.  While US Bank eventually produced the original note with an endorsement to it, none of the evidence submitted at summary judgment by US Bank established the timing of the endorsement.  Given US Bank’s failure to show it had standing, the foreclosure complaint was properly dismissed.

¶ 17. US Bank argues that whatever shortcomings were present in its earlier filings were cured by the documents attached to its motion to reconsider, and, therefore, the court erred in denying this motion.  We disagree.  The additional affidavit submitted with the motion to reconsider did nothing to establish the timing of the endorsement to US Bank because it was not based on personal knowledge and contained conclusions rather than facts.  Affidavits must be “made on personal knowledge [and] set forth such facts as would be admissible in evidence, and shall show affirmatively that the affiant is competent to testify to the matters stated therein.”  V.R.C.P. 56(e). The affiant, Zeitz, declared himself to be an employee of GMAC, the servicer of homeowner’s loan.  Zeitz averred that the note was endorsed to US Bank in September 2005 but provided no explanation of how he gained personal knowledge about this endorsement that supposedly took place several years before his company began servicing homeowner’s loan.  Further, the affidavit failed to explain the obvious contradictions with other evidence.  Specifically, Zeitz did not account for the letter from his company, submitted by homeowner, that identifies RFC, the predecessor-in-interest to US Bank, as the holder of the loan in July 2009, months after the complaint was filed.  Having already failed to succeed on its summary judgment motion, reconsideration of the same issues on new evidence was up to the court’s sound discretion.  See Crosby v. Great Atl. & Pac. Tea Co., 143 Vt. 537, 539, 468 A.2d 567, 568 (1983) (per curiam) (affirming court’s denial of plaintiffs’ motion to reconsider summary judgment ruling using an abuse-of-discretion standard).  Fraught with contradictions and evidently lacking information based on personal knowledge, the affidavit was insufficient to establish that US Bank had an interest in the note prior to the time the complaint was filed.  Thus, it was no abuse of discretion for the court to deny the motion to reconsider.

¶ 18. In the alternative, US Bank argues that even if it did not hold the note at the time the complaint was filed, this should be overlooked because it has now produced the original note with a chain of endorsements ending in US Bank.[4] Thus, US Bank contends it can now be substituted as the real party in interest under Rule 17(a).  US Bank argues that this Court allows liberal substitution of parties, citing Korda v. Chicago Insurance Co., 2006 VT 81, 180 Vt. 173, 908 A.2d 1018.  In that case, the trial court dismissed an estate’s claims against a tortfeasor’s employer’s insurance company where the employer did not assign its rights to the estate until three years after the complaint was filed.  This Court reversed, holding that “where, as here, a plaintiff acquires capacity to sue after the suit is filed, and before the action is dismissed for lack of capacity, the acquisition of capacity relates back to the filing of the action for all purposes, including compliance with the statute of limitations.”  Id. ¶ 16. US Bank contends it is similarly situated and is entitled to substitution as the real party in interest now that it has obtained an interest in the note.

¶ 19. The merit of this argument might have been better received by the trial court had it been supported by the necessary documentation and proffered before summary judgment was granted for defendant.  US Bank had notice of the standing deficiency from the start of the litigation and had an opportunity to prove its case.  It was unable to do so.  Having failed to support its position, the court was not required to give US Bank another opportunity to prove its case following the grant of summary judgment, and did not abuse its discretion in denying the request at that late stage in the proceeding.  See V.R.C.P. 17(a) (directing that action not be dismissed for absence of real party in interest “until a reasonable time has been allowed”).

¶ 20. US Bank argues that for reasons of policy it should be permitted to proceed because it would be wasteful to prevent it from being able to “cure” its standing problem.  While we are sympathetic to the desire to avoid wasteful and duplicative litigation, the source of the unnecessary proceedings in this case was not an overly wooden application of the rules, but US Bank’s failure to abide by them.  It is neither irrational nor wasteful to expect a foreclosing party to actually be in possession of its claimed interest in the note, and have the proper supporting documentation in hand when filing suit.[5] Nor is it irrationally demanding to expect the foreclosing party to provide adequate, satisfying proof in response to a motion for summary judgment challenging standing to bring suit.  What should have here been a fairly straightforward, if not a summary, proceeding under the rules, was rendered inefficient by US Bank’s failure to marshal its case before compelling homeowner and the court to waste time and resources, twice, by responding to what could not be proven.  There was nothing inequitable in dismissing this matter.

¶ 21. We turn next to the question of whether the court erred in dismissing the complaint “with prejudice.”  US Bank argues this was in error and homeowner contends that the court’s determination bars US Bank from filing again to foreclose.  At a minimum, the court certainly intended to put an end to US Bank’s instant foreclosure action and dismissal was appropriate because, as another court explained, when a plaintiff is not able to establish that it possessed the note on the date the complaint was filed, the complaint should be subject to dismissal “if only to provide a clear incentive to plaintiffs to see that the issue of standing is properly addressed before any complaint is filed.”  Raftogianis, 13 A.3d at 455.

¶ 22. Nevertheless, and despite the court’s invocation of “with prejudice” in its dismissal order, US Bank cannot be precluded from pursuing foreclosure on the merits should it be prepared to prove the necessary elements.  Although postured as cross-motions for summary judgment, the motion practice addressed only whether the bank had standing for jurisdictional purposes.  The merits of foreclosure were not, and on this record could not have been, litigated.  The court’s dismissal on just jurisdictional grounds was no adjudication on the merits.  See V.R.C.P. 41(b)(3) (providing that any involuntary dismissal, “other than a dismissal for lack of jurisdiction, . . . operates as an adjudication upon the merits” (emphasis added)); see also Wells Fargo Bank, N.A. v. Byrd, 2008-Ohio-4603, ¶¶ 18-20, 897 N.E.2d 722 (Ct. App.) (reversing trial court’s dismissal with prejudice of foreclosure complaint as inappropriate where dismissal was for lack of standing).

¶ 23. Thus, this may be but an ephemeral victory for homeowner.  Absent adjudication on the underlying indebtedness, the dismissal cannot cancel her obligation arising from an authenticated note, or insulate her from foreclosure proceedings based on proven delinquency.  Cf. Indymac Bank, F.S.B. v. Yano-Horoski, 912 N.Y.S.2d 239, 240 (App. Div. 2010) (reversing trial court’s order canceling mortgage and debt).  Homeowner’s arguments supporting a dismissal with prejudice are not convincing.[6] Homeowner relies on Nolen v. State, but that unpublished three-justice decision simply affirmed the trial court’s decision to dismiss with prejudice plaintiff’s constitutional claim for lack of standing without a challenge to or any analysis of the “with prejudice” designation.  No. 08-131, 2009 WL 2411832, at *2 (Vt. May 29, 2009) (unpub. mem.), available at http://www.vermontjudiciary.org/d-upeo/upeo.aspx.New Eng. Educ. Training Serv., Inc. v. Silver St. P’ship, 156 Vt. 604, 613, 595 A.2d 1341, 1345-46 (1991) (affirming dismissal of foreclosure action where recovery on the underlying note would be unconscionable).  While the trial court may have had discretion to exert its equitable powers in this manner, no findings were made to support such a conclusion, and we will not speculate on a matter of such importance. Further, the court’s order does not support plaintiff’s assertion that the court was warranted in dismissing with prejudice on equitable grounds given what homeowner characterizes as inconsistent and “likely fraudulent filings” submitted by US Bank.  See

¶ 24. Finally, we address homeowner’s cross-appeal.  In response to US Bank’s motion to reconsider, homeowner filed a motion for attorney’s fees asserting that US Bank had filed affidavits in bad faith.  We agree that the request for attorney’s fees under Rule 56(g) was timely and properly raised in the trial court, and that the court erred in failing to consider the motion.  Therefore, we remand for consideration of homeowner’s request.

The foreclosure complaint is dismissed and the case is remanded for consideration of defendant’s motion for attorney’s fees.




FOR THE COURT:












Associate Justice




[1] An allonge is “[a] slip of paper sometimes attached to a negotiable instrument for the purpose of receiving further indorsements when the original paper is filled with indorsements.”  Black’s Law Dictionary 83 (8th ed. 2004).  The Uniform Commercial Code (UCC) accepts the use of such endorsements, explaining that “a paper affixed to the instrument is a part of the instrument.”  9A V.S.A. § 3-204(a). Although at one time an allonge could be used only when there was no room on the original document, the official comment to the UCC explains that now an allonge “is valid even though there is sufficient space on the instrument for an indorsement.”  Id. § 3-204 cmt.

[2] Because final judgment had not yet been entered, the motion was filed pursuant to Rule of Civil Procedure 56.  See Kelly v. Town of Barnard, 155 Vt. 296, 307, 583 A.2d 614, 620 (1990) (holding that trial court retains jurisdiction to modify or rescind order prior to entry of final decree and may grant summary judgment motion after denying prior similar motion).

[3] In pertinent part, Rule of Civil Procedure 56(g) states:


Should it appear to the satisfaction of the court at any time that any of the affidavits presented pursuant to this rule are presented in bad faith . . . , the court shall forthwith order the party employing them to pay to the other party the amount of the reasonable expenses which the filing of the affidavits caused the other party to incur, including reasonable attorney’s fees, and any offending party or attorney may be adjudged in contempt.

[4] This argument in and of itself underscores the extent of confusion created by US Bank’s evidence.  While, on the one hand, US Bank wishes us to accept that it has uncontroverted evidence that it has held homeowner’s note since September 2005, on the other hand, it argues that it has acquired an interest in the note recently and can now be substituted as the real party in interest.  It appears that even US Bank is unsure of when the note was endorsed to it.

[5] We note that the foreclosure rule as amended now specifically requires a plaintiff to attach to the complaint “the original note and mortgage deed and proof of ownership thereof, including copies of all original endorsements and assignments of the note and mortgage deed.”  V.R.C.P. 80.1(b)(1) (Cum. Supp. 2010); see 2009, No. 132 (Adj. Sess.) § 1.

[6] We note that two cases cited by homeowner to support dismissal of a foreclosure complaint with prejudice have since been reversed.  U.S. Bank N.A. v. Emmanuel, No.  19271/09, 2010 WL 1856016  (N.Y. Sup. Ct. May 11, 2010), reversed by 921 N.Y.S.2d 320 (App. Div. 2011); IndyMac Bank F.S.B. v. Yano-Horoski, 890 N.Y.S.2d 313 (Sup. Ct. 2009), reversed by 912 N.Y.S.2d 239 (App. Div. 2010).

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Posted in STOP FORECLOSURE FRAUDComments (1)

In re: GILBERT | NC Appeals Court Reversal “Improper Indorsement, No Evidence of Debt” JEFFREY STEPHAN AFFIDAVIT, DEUTSCHE BANK, GMAC, RESIDENTIAL FUNDING

In re: GILBERT | NC Appeals Court Reversal “Improper Indorsement, No Evidence of Debt” JEFFREY STEPHAN AFFIDAVIT, DEUTSCHE BANK, GMAC, RESIDENTIAL FUNDING


Here’s a snippet and highly recommend reading this in its entirety!

Excerpt:

The record is void of any evidence the Note was assigned and securitized to a trust.

[ipaper docId=54673705 access_key=key-1dch86ck9zy229rl5p87 height=600 width=600 /]

IN THE MATTER OF THE FORECLOSURE BY DAVID A. SIMPSON, P.C., SUBSTITUTE TRUSTEE, OF A DEED OF TRUST EXECUTED BY REX T. GILBERT, JR. AND DANIELA L. GILBERT, HUSBAND AND WIFE, DATED MAY 5, 2006 AND RECORDED ON MAY 10, 2006, IN BOOK 219 AT PAGE 53 OF THE HYDE COUNTY PUBLIC REGISTRY.

No. COA10-361.

Court of Appeals of North Carolina.

Filed May 3, 2011.

Katherine S. Parker-Lowe, for respondent-appellants.

The Law Office of John T. Benjamin, Jr., P.A., by John T. Benjamin, Jr. and James R. White for petitioner-appellee.

HUNTER, JR., Robert N., Judge.

Respondents Rex T. Gilbert, Jr. and his wife Daniela L. Gilbert, appeal from the trial court’s Order authorizing David A. Simpson, P.C., as Substitute Trustee, to proceed with foreclosure under a power of sale in the Deed of Trust recorded in Book 219 at Page 53 in the Hyde County Register of Deeds. We reverse.

I. Factual and Procedural History

On 5 May 2006, Respondent Rex T. Gilbert, Jr. executed an adjustable rate note (“the Note”) to refinance an existing mortgage on his home. According to the terms of the Note, Mr. Gilbert promised to pay a principal amount of $525,000.00 plus interest to First National Bank of Arizona. The Note was secured by a Deed of Trust, executed by Mr. Gilbert and his wife, Daniela L. Gilbert, on real property located at 134 West End Road, Ocracoke, North Carolina. The Deed of Trust identified First National Bank of Arizona as the lender and Matthew J. Ragaller of Casey, Grimsley & Ragaller, PLLC as the trustee.

The record reveals that, during 2008, Respondents ceased making payments on the Note and made an unsuccessful attempt to negotiate a modification of the loan. On 9 March 2009, a Substitution of Trustee was recorded in the Hyde County Register of Deeds, which purports to remove Matthew Ragaller as the trustee of the Deed of Trust and appoint his successor, David A. Simpson, P.C. (“Substitute Trustee”). The Substitution of Trustee identified Deutsche Bank Trust Company Americas as Trustee for Residential Accredit Loans, Inc. Series 2006-QA6 (“Petitioner”) as the holder of the Note and the lien created by the Deed of Trust.

On 12 March 2009, the Substitute Trustee commenced this action by filing a Notice of Hearing on Foreclosure of Deed of Trust with the Hyde County Clerk of Superior Court pursuant to section 45-21.16 of our General Statutes. N.C. Gen. Stat. § 45-21.16 (2009). The Notice of Hearing stated, “the current holder of the foregoing Deed of Trust, and of the debt secured thereby, is: Deutsche Bank Trust Company Americas as Trustee for Residential Accredit Loans, Inc. Series 2006-QA6.”

In a letter dated 5 April 2009, Mr. Gilbert purported to exercise his right to rescind the loan transaction he entered into with the original lender, First National Bank of Arizona, pursuant to the federal Truth in Lending Act, 15 U.S.C. § 1635. As justification for his purported rescission, Gilbert alleged that the Truth in Lending Disclosure Statement provided by First National Bank of Arizona failed to accurately provide all required material disclosures including, inter alia, the correct annual percentage rate and payment schedule. The Substitute Trustee responded with a letter from GMAC ResCap, in which it denied any material disclosure errors were made and refused to rescind the loan transaction.

The foreclosure hearing was held on 2 June 2009 before the Clerk of Superior Court of Hyde County. The Honorable Sharon G. Sadler entered an Order on 17 June 2009, permitting the Substitute Trustee to proceed with the foreclosure. In the Order, the Clerk specifically found, inter alia, that Petitioner was the holder of the Note and Deed of Trust that it sought to foreclose and the Note evidenced a valid debt owed by Mr. Gilbert. Respondents appealed the Order to superior court.

The matter came on for a de novo hearing on 18 August 2009 before the Honorable Marvin K. Blount, III, in Hyde County Superior Court. During the hearing, the trial court admitted into evidence a certified copy of the Note and the Deed of Trust and two affidavits attesting to the validity of Gilbert’s indebtedness pursuant to the Note, and that Deutsche Bank Trust Company Americas as Trustee for Residential Accredit Loans, Inc. Series 2006-QA6 is the current owner and holder of the Note. Additionally, Petitioner introduced the original Note and Allonge for the trial court’s inspection.

Reviewing the record before this Court, the Allonge contains a series of indorsements evidencing the alleged assignments of the Note, as follows:

PAY TO THE ORDER OF: First National Bank of Nevada WITHOUT RECOURSE BY: [Signature] ___________________________ AMY HAWKINS, ASSISTANT VICE PRESIDENT FIRST NATIONAL BANK OF ARIZONA Pay to the order of: RESIDENTIAL FUNDING CORPORATION Without Recourse FIRST NATIONAL BANK OF NEVADA By: [Signature] __________________________ Deutsche Bank National Trust Company, F/K/A Bankers Trust Company of California, N.A. as Custodian as Attorney in Fact [Illegible Name and Title] PAY TO THE ORDER OF Deutsche Bank Trust Company Americas as Trustee WITHOUT RECOURSE Residential Funding Corporation BY [Signature] ________________________ Judy Faber, Vice President

Respondents made two arguments at the hearing. First, Respondents argued that the debt evidenced by the Note no longer existed, as Mr. Gilbert had rescinded the transaction for the loan with First National Bank of Arizona. Petitioner objected to Respondents’ rescission argument as being a defense in equity and, as such, inadmissible in a proceeding held pursuant to N.C. Gen. Stat. § 45-21.16. The trial court agreed and refused to let Respondents’ expert witness testify as to alleged material errors in the Truth in Lending Disclosure Statement, which Mr. Gilbert alleged permitted him the right to rescind the loan. Second, Respondents argued that Petitioner had not produced sufficient evidence to establish that Deutsche Bank Trust Company Americas as Trustee for Residential Accredit Loans, Inc. Series 2006-QA6 was the holder of the Note.

Based on the preceding evidence, the trial court entered an order on 18 August 2009 in which it found, inter alia: Mr. Gilbert executed the Note and, with his wife, executed a Deed of Trust in favor of First National Bank of Arizona, secured by the real property described in the Deed of Trust; a valid debt exists and is owed by Gilbert to Petitioner; Gilbert is in default under the Note and Deed of Trust; proper notice of the foreclosure hearing was given to all parties as required by N.C. Gen. Stat. § 45-21.16; Petitioner was the current holder of the Note and the Deed of Trust. The trial court concluded as a matter of law that the requirements of N.C. Gen. Stat. § 45-21.16 had been satisfied. Based on these findings and conclusion of law, the trial court authorized the Substitute Trustee to proceed with the foreclosure. Respondents timely entered notice of appeal.

II. Analysis

A party seeking permission from the clerk of court to proceed with a foreclosure pursuant to a power of sale contained in a deed of trust must prove the following statutory requirements: (1) the party seeking foreclosure is the holder of a valid debt, (2) default on the debt by the debtor, (3) the deed of trust provides the right to foreclose, (4) proper notice was given to those parties entitled to notice pursuant to section 45-21.16(b). N.C. Gen. Stat. § 45-21.16(d) (2009). The General Assembly added a fifth requirement, which expired 31 October 2010: “that the underlying mortgage debt is not a subprime loan,” or, if it is a subprime loan, “that the pre-foreclosure notice under G.S. 45-102 was provided in all material respects, and that the periods of time established by Article 11 of this Chapter have elapsed[.]” Id. The role of the clerk of court is limited to making a determination on the matters specified by section 45-21.16(d). See Mosler ex rel. Simon v. Druid Hills Land Co., Inc., 199 N.C. App. 293, 295-96, 681 S.E.2d 456, 458 (2009). If the clerk’s order is appealed to superior court, that court’s de novo hearing is limited to making a determination on the same issues as the clerk of court. See id.

The trial court’s order authorizing the foreclosure to proceed was a final judgment of the superior court, therefore, this Court has jurisdiction to hear the instant appeal. N.C. Gen. Stat. § 7A-27(b) (2009). Our standard of review for this appeal, where the trial court sat without a jury, is “`whether competent evidence exists to support the trial court’s findings of fact and whether the conclusions reached were proper in light of the findings.'” In re Adams, __ N.C. App. __, __, 693 S.E.2d 705, 708 (2010) (quoting In re Foreclosure of Azalea Garden Bd. & Care, Inc., 140 N.C. App. 45, 50, 535 S.E.2d 388, 392 (2000)).

We note the trial court classified multiple conclusions of law as “findings of fact.” We have previously recognized “[t]he classification of a determination as either a finding of fact or a conclusion of law is admittedly difficult.” In re Helms, 127 N.C. App. 505, 510, 491 S.E.2d 672, 675 (1997). Generally, “any determination requiring the exercise of judgment or the application of legal principles is more properly classified a conclusion of law.” Id. (citations omitted). Any determination made by “`logical reasoning from the evidentiary facts,'” however, “is more properly classified a finding of fact.” Id. (quoting Quick v. Quick, 305 N.C. 446, 452, 290 S.E.2d 653, 657-58 (1982)). When this Court determines that findings of fact and conclusions of law have been mislabeled by the trial court, we may reclassify them, where necessary, before applying our standard of review. N.C. State Bar v. Key, 189 N.C. App. 80, 88, 658 S.E.2d 493, 499 (2008) (citing In re Helms, 127 N.C. App. at 510, 491 S.E.2d at 675).

Looking to the trial court’s Order, we conclude that the following “findings of fact” are determinations that required the application of legal principles and are more appropriately classified as conclusions of law: a valid debt exists and is owed to Deutsche Bank Trust Company Americas as Trustee for Residential Accredit Loans, Inc. Series 2006-QA6; proper notice was given to and received by all parties as required by N.C. Gen. Stat. § 45-21.16 and the Rules of Civil Procedure; Deutsche Bank Trust Company Americas as Trustee for Residential Accredit Loans, Inc. Series 2006-QA6 is the current owner and holder of the Note and Deed of Trust. See In re Watts, 38 N.C. App. 90, 92, 247 S.E.2d 427, 428 (1978) (noting upon the appeal of a N.C. Gen. Stat. § 45-21.16 special proceeding the trial court’s conclusions of lawsee also Connolly v. Potts, 63 N.C. App. 547, 549, 306 S.E.2d 123, 124 (1983) (same). In light of this reclassification of the trial court’s findings of fact and conclusions of law, we turn to the issues raised on appeal. included the existence of a valid debt, the right to foreclose under the deed of trust, and proper notice to the mortgagors);

1. Rescission of the Loan Transaction

Respondents raise several arguments alleging the trial court erred by refusing to consider their defense to the foreclosure action, that the debt Petitioner sought to foreclose was not a valid debt——a required element under the statute for foreclosure by power of sale. See N.C. Gen. Stat. § 45-21.16(d)(i) (requiring, inter alia, that the clerk of court must determine that a valid debt exists). Respondents contend the debt is not valid because Mr. Gilbert rescinded the transaction by which he obtained the loan from First National Bank of Arizona pursuant to the federal Truth in Lending Act (“TILA”), 15 U.S.C. §§ 1601-1667f, and the Federal Reserve Board’s Regulation Z, 12 C.F.R. § 226.1-.58. We conclude the trial court did not err.

The admissibility of evidence in the trial court is based upon that court’s sound discretion and may be disturbed on appeal only upon a finding that the decision was based on an abuse of discretion. Gibbs v. Mayo, 162 N.C. App. 549, 561, 591 S.E.2d 905, 913 (2004). Here, we conclude the trial court properly refused to consider Respondents’ evidence of rescission. Rescission under the TILA is an equitable remedy. See Am. Mortg. Network, Inc. v. Shelton, 486 F.3d 815, 819 (4th Cir. 2007) (“`[A]lthough the right to rescind [under the TILA] is [statutory], it remains an equitable doctrine subject to equitable considerations.'” (quoting Brown v. Nat’l Permanent Fed. Sav. & Loan Ass’n, 683 F.2d 444, 447 (D.C. Cir. 1982)). While legal defenses to a foreclosure under a power of sale are properly raised in a hearing held pursuant to section 45-21.16, equitable defenses are not. Watts, 38 N.C. App. at 94, 247 S.E.2d at 429. As we have previously stated, a hearing under section 45-21.16 is “not intended to settle all matters in controversy between mortgagor and mortgagee, nor was it designed to provide a second procedure for invoking equitable relief.” Id. A party seeking to raise an equitable defense may do so in a separate civil action brought in superior court under section 45-21.34. Id.; N.C. Gen. Stat. § 45-21.34 (2009) (stating that a party with a legal or equitable interest in the subject property may apply to a superior court judge to enjoin a sale of the property upon legal or equitable grounds). Accordingly, the trial court properly concluded Respondents’ argument that Mr. Gilbert had rescinded the loan transaction, invaliding the debt Petitioner sought to foreclose, was an equitable defense and not properly before the trial court. Respondents’ argument is without merit.[1]

2. Evidence that Petitioner was the Owner and Holder of Mr. Gilbert’s Promissory Note

Respondents also argue the trial court erred in ordering the foreclosure to proceed, as Petitioner did not prove that it was the holder of the Note with the right to foreclose under the instrument as required by section 45-21.16(d)(i) and (iii). We agree.

A “foreclosure under a power of sale is not favored in the law and its exercise will be watched with jealousy.” In re Foreclosure of Goforth Props., Inc., 334 N.C. 369, 375, 432 S.E.2d 855, 859 (1993) (citations and internal quotation marks omitted). That the party seeking to foreclose on a promissory note is the holder of said note is an essential element of the action and the debtor is “entitled to demand strict proof of this element.” Liles v. Myers, 38 N.C. App. 525, 528, 248 S.E.2d 385, 388 (1978).

For the trial court to find sufficient evidence that Petitioner is the holder of a valid debt in accordance with section 45-21.16(d), “this Court has determined that the following two questions must be answered in the affirmative: (1) `is there sufficient competent evidence of a valid debt?’; and (2) `is there sufficient competent evidence that [the party seeking to foreclose is] the holder[ ] of the notes [that evidence that debt]?'” Adams, __ N.C. App. at __, 693 S.E.2d at 709 (quoting In re Cooke, 37 N.C. App. 575, 579, 246 S.E.2d 801, 804—05 (1978)); see N.C. Gen. Stat. § 45-21.16(d) (2009) (in order for the foreclosure to proceed, the clerk of court must find, inter alia, the existence of a “valid debt of which the party seeking to foreclose is the holder,” and a “right to foreclose under the instrument” securing the debt) (emphasis added).

Establishing that a party is the holder of the note is essential to protect the debtor from the threat of multiple judgments on the same note.

If such proof were not required, the plaintiff could negotiate the instrument to a third party who would become a holder in due course, bring a suit upon the note in her own name and obtain a judgment in her favor. . . . Requiring proof that the plaintiff is the holder of the note at the time of her suit reduces the possibility of such an inequitable occurrence.

Liles, 38 N.C. App. at 527, 248 S.E.2d at 387.

We have previously determined that the definition of “holder” under the Uniform Commercial Code (“UCC”), as adopted by North Carolina, controls the meaning of the term as it used in section 45-21.16 of our General Statutes for foreclosure actions under a power of sale. See Connolly, 63 N.C. App. at 550, 306 S.E.2d at 125; Adams, __ N.C. App. at __, 693 S.E.2d at 709. Our General Statutes define the “holder” of an instrument as “[t]he person in possession of a negotiable instrument that is payable either to bearer or to an identified person that is the person in possession.” N.C. Gen. Stat. § 25-1-201(b)(21) (2009); Econo-Travel Motor Hotel Corp. v. Taylor, 301 N.C. 200, 203, 271 S.E.2d 54, 57 (1980). Furthermore, a “`[p]erson’ means an individual, corporation, business trust, estate, trust . . . or any other legal or commercial entity.” N.C. Gen. Stat. § 25-1-201(b)(27) (2009).

As addressed above, we conclude the trial court properly found that a valid debt existed. The remaining issue before this Court is whether there was competent evidence that Petitioner was the holder of the Note that evidences Mr. Gilbert’s debt.

In support of its argument that it provided competent evidence to support the trial court’s findings, Petitioner first points to its production of the original Note with the Allonge at the de novo hearing, as well as its introduction into evidence true and accurate copies of the Note and Allonge. Petitioner asserts this evidence “plainly evidences the transfers” of the Note to Petitioner. We cannot agree.

Under the UCC, as adopted by North Carolina, “[a]n instrument is transferred when it is delivered by a person other than its issuer for the purpose of giving to the person receiving delivery the right to enforce the instrument.” N.C. Gen. Stat. § 25-3-203(a) (2009). Production of an original note at trial does not, in itself, establish that the note was transferred to the party presenting the note with the purpose of giving that party the right to enforce the instrument, as demonstrated in Connolly, 63 N.C. App. at 551, 306 S.E.2d at 125, and Smathers v. Smathers, 34 N.C. App. 724, 726, 239 S.E.2d 637, 638 (1977) (holding that despite evidence of voluntary transfer of promissory notes and the plaintiff’s possession thereof, the plaintiff was not the holder of the note under the UCC as the notes were not drawn, issued, or indorsed to her, to bearer, or in blank. “[T]he plaintiff testified to some of the circumstances under which she obtained possession of the notes, but the trial court made no findings of fact with respect thereto.”)

In Connolly, determining who had possession of the note became the critical question for the foreclosure proceeding. 63 N.C. App. at 551, 306 S.E.2d at 125. Several years prior to the foreclosure proceedings at issue in Connolly, the petitioners obtained a loan from a bank and pledged as collateral a promissory note that was payable to the petitioners by assigning and delivering the note to the bank. Id. at 549, 306 S.E.2d at 124. After obtaining their loan, the petitioners sought to foreclose on the promissory note and deed of trust, which was in the bank’s possession, but were denied at the special proceeding before the clerk of court. Id. at 548, 306 S.E.2d at 124. The petitioners appealed the decision to superior court. Id. During the de novo hearing, the petitioners testified their loan to the bank had been paid, but “they had left the [] note at the bank, for security purposes.” Id. at 551, 306 S.E.2d at 125. The petitioners, however, “introduced the originals of the note and deed of trust” during the hearing. Id. The trial court found the bank was in possession of the note and concluded, as a matter of law, the petitioners were not the holders of the note at the institution of the foreclosure proceedings; the foreclosure was again denied. Connolly, 63 N.C. App. at 550, 306 S.E.2d at 124-25. On appeal, this Court concluded that despite the fact that the party seeking foreclosure introduced the original note at the time of the de novo hearing, the trial court’s findings of fact did not address whether the petitioners were in possession of the note at the time of the trial; the trial court’s judgment was vacated and remanded. Id. at 551, 306 S.E.2d at 125-26.

Similarly, here, the trial court’s findings of fact do not address who had possession of Mr. Gilbert’s note at the time of the de novo hearing. Without a determination of who has physical possession of the Note, the trial court cannot determine, under the UCC, the entity that is the holder of the Note. See N.C. Gen. Stat. § 25-1-201(b)(21) (defining “holder” as “the person in possession of a negotiable instrument that is payable either to bearer or to an identified person that is the person in possession“) (emphasis added); Connolly, 63 N.C. App. at 550, 306 S.E.2d at 125 (“It is the fact of possession which is significant in determining whether a person is a holder, and the absence of possession defeats that status.“) (emphasis added). Accordingly, the trial court’s findings of fact do not support the conclusion of law that Petitioner is the holder of Mr. Gilbert’s note.

Assuming arguendo that production of the Note was evidence of a transfer of the Note pursuant to the UCC and that Petitioner was in possession of the Note, this is not sufficient evidence that Petitioner is the “holder” of the Note. As discussed in detail below, the Note was not indorsed to Petitioner or to bearer, a prerequisite to confer upon Petitioner the status of holder under the UCC. See N.C. Gen. Stat. § 25-1-201(b)(21) (requiring that, to be a holder, a person must be in possession of the note payable to bearer or to the person in possession of the note). “`[M]ere possession’ of a note by a party to whom the note has neither been indorsed nor made payable `does not suffice to prove ownership or holder status.'” Adams, __ N.C. App. at __, 693 S.E.2d at 710 (quoting Econo-Travel Motor Hotel Corp., 301 N.C. at 203, 271 S.E.2d at 57).

Petitioner acknowledges that following the signing of the Note by Mr. Gilbert, the Note was sequentially assigned to several entities, as indicated by the series of indorsements on the Allonge, reprinted above. Respondents argue these indorsements present two problems. First, Respondents state that Petitioner did not provide any evidence to establish that Deutsche Bank National Trust Company had the authority, as the attorney-in-fact for First National Bank of Nevada, to assign the Note to Residential Funding Corporation in the second assignment. Respondents make no argument——and cite no authority to establish——that such evidence is needed. Therefore, we do not address the merits of this alleged error and deem it abandoned. See N.C. R. App. P. 28(6) (2011) (“Issues not presented in a party’s brief, or in support of which no reason or argument is stated, will be taken as abandoned.”)

Second, Respondents argue Petitioner has not offered sufficient evidence that Deutsche Bank Trust Company Americas as Trustee for Residential Accredit Loans, Inc. Series 2006-QA6 was the holder of the Note and, thus, the party entitled to proceed with the foreclosure action. We agree.

Respondents note the third and final assignment on the Allonge was made to “Deutsche Bank Trust Company Americas as Trustee,” which is not the party asserting a security interest in Respondents’ property; this action was brought by Deutsche Bank Trust Company Americas as Trustee for Residential Accredit Loans, Inc. Series 2006-QA6, the entity the trial court found to be the owner and holder of the Note. Section 3-110 of the UCC, as codified in our General Statutes, states in pertinent part:

For the purpose of determining the holder of an instrument, the following rules apply:

. . . .

(2) If an instrument is payable to (i) a trust, an estate, or a person described as trustee or representative of a trust or estate, the instrument is payable to the trustee, the representative, or a successor of either, whether or not the beneficiary or estate is also named . . . .

N.C. Gen. Stat. § 25-3-110(c) (2009) (emphasis added). Additionally, the official comments to this section of the UCC state, in part, “This provision merely determines who can deal with an instrument as a holder. It does not determine ownership of the instrument or its proceeds.” Id. § 25-3-110, Official Comment 3.

In the present case, the Note is clearly indorsed “PAY TO THE ORDER OF Deutsche Bank Trust Company Americas as Trustee.” Thus, pursuant to section 25-3-110(c)(2), the Note is payable to Deutsche Bank Trust Company Americas as Trustee. See Id. Because the indorsement does not identify Petitioner and is not indorsed in blank or to bearer, it cannot be competent evidence that Petitioner is the holder of the Note. See N.C. Gen. Stat. § 25-1-201(b)(21) (defining “holder” as “[t]he person in possession of a negotiable instrument that is payable either to bearer or to an identified person that is the person in possession“); Econo-Travel Motor Hotel Corp., 301 N.C. at 204, 271 S.E.2d at 57 (concluding that where the defendants produced a copy of the note indorsed to an entity other than the plaintiff, the “defendants established that plaintiff was not the owner or holder of the note”).

In addition to the Note and Allonge, Petitioner points to two affidavits provided by two GMAC Mortgage employees as further evidence that the trial court’s findings are based on sufficient competent evidence. Again, we disagree.

The first affidavit is an Affidavit of Indebtedness by Jeffrey Stephan (“Stephan”).[2] In his affidavit, Stephan averred, inter alia, he was a limited signing officer for GMAC Mortgage, the sub-servicer of Mr. Gilbert’s loan, and as such, was “familiar with the books and records of [GMAC Mortgage], specifically payments made pursuant to the Note and Deed of Trust.” Accordingly, Stephan testified as to the principal amount of Mr. Gilbert’s loan and to his history of loan payments. Stephan further testified that after the Note and Deed of Trust were executed they were “delivered” to the original lender, First National Bank of Arizona; the original lender then “assigned and transferred all of its right, title and interest” to First National Bank of Nevada, which, in turn, assigned all its rights, title, and interest in the instruments to Residential Funding Corporation. The final assignment to which Stephan averred is an assignment and securitization of the Note and Deed of Trust from Residential Funding Corporation to “Deutsche Bank Trust Company Americas as Trustee.” Stephan then makes the conclusory statement, “Deutsche Bank Trust Company Americas as Trustee for Residential Accredit Loans, Inc. Series 2006-QA6 is the current owner and holder of the Note and Deed of Trust described herein.”

Whether Deutsche Bank Trust Company Americas as Trustee for Residential Accredit Loans, Inc. Series 2006-QA6 is the owner and holder of the Note and Deed of Trust is a legal conclusion that is to be determined by a court of law on the basis of factual allegations. As such, we disregard Stephan’s conclusion as to the identity of the “owner and holder” of the instruments. See Lemon v. Combs, 164 N.C. App. 615, 622, 596 S.E.2d 344, 349 (2004) (“`Statements in affidavits as to opinion, belief, or conclusions of law are of no effect.'” (quoting 3 Am. Jur. 2d, Affidavits § 13 (2002))); see also Speedway Motorsports Int’l Ltd. v. Bronwen Energy Trading, Ltd., __ N.C. App. __, __ n.2, __ S.E.2d __, __ n.2, slip op. at 12 n.2, No. 09-1451 (Feb. 15, 2011) (rejecting a party’s contention that this Court must accept as true all statements found in the affidavits in the record, stating, “our standard of review does not require that we accept a witness’ characterization of what `the facts’ mean”). While Stephan referred to a Pooling and Servicing Agreement (“PSA”) that allegedly governs the securitization of the Note to Deutsche Bank Trust Company Americas as Trustee, the PSA was not included in the record and will not be considered by this Court. See N.C. R. App. P. 9(a) (2011) (“In appeals from the trial division of the General Court of Justice, review is solely upon the record on appeal, the verbatim transcript of proceedings, if one is designated, and any other items filed pursuant to this Rule 9.”) The record is void of any evidence the Note was assigned and securitized to a trust.

We also note that Stephan alleged no facts as to who possesses Mr. Gilbert’s note, other than his averment that the Note was “delivered” to the original lender, First National Bank of Arizona. Stephan referred to a statement made by counsel for GMAC Mortgage that the original Note “would be brought to the foreclosure hearing,” but he did not provide any facts from which the trial court could determine who has possession of the Note. As demonstrated by Connolly,63 N.C. App. at 551, 306 S.E.2d at 125. Thus, we conclude Stephan’s affidavit is not competent evidence to support the trial court’s conclusion that Deutsche Bank Trust Company Americas as Trustee for Residential Accredit Loans, Inc. Series 2006-QA6 is the owner and holder of Mr. Gilbert’s note. discussed above, production of a note at trial is not conclusive evidence of possession.

Petitioner also provided the affidavit of Scott Zeitz (“Zeitz”), who alleged in his affidavit to be a litigation analyst for GMAC Mortgage. Zeitz’s basis for his affidavit testimony is that he works with “the documents that relate to account histories and account balances of particular loans” and that he is familiar with Mr. Gilbert’s account. Accordingly, Zeitz testified to the details of Mr. Gilbert’s loan and the terms of the Note. Zeitz’s affidavit, substantially similar to the affidavit of Jeffrey Stephan, also averred to the transfer of the Note and Deed of Trust through the series of entities indicated on the Allonge, stating in part:

Residential Funding Corporation sold, assigned and transferred all of its right, title and interest in and to the Note and Deed of Trust to Deutsche Bank Trust Company Americas as Trustee for Residential Accredit Loans, Inc. Series 2006-QA6. This is reflected on the Allonge to the Note, a true and accurate copy of which is attached and incorporated hereto as EXHIBIT 5. (Emphasis added.)

This statement is factually incorrect; the Allonge in the record contains no indorsement to Deutsche Bank Trust Company Americas as Trustee for Residential Accredit Loans, Inc. Series 2006-QA6. Zeitz further stated that “Deutsche Bank Trust Company Americas as Trustee for Residential Accredit Loans, Inc. Series 2006-QA6 is the current owner and holder of the Note and Deed of Trust.” This statement is a legal conclusion postured as an allegation of fact and as such will not be considered by this Court. See Lemon, 164 N.C. App. at 622, 596 S.E.2d at 349.

Unlike Jeffrey Stephan, Zeitz stated that Deutsche Bank Trust Company Americas as Trustee for Residential Accredit Loans, Inc. Series 2006-QA6 “has possession of the original Note and Deed of Trust.” We note, however, that “[w]hen an affiant makes a conclusion of fact, it must appear that the affiant had an opportunity to observe and did observe matters about which he or she testifies.” Lemon, 164 N.C. App. at 622, 596 S.E.2d at 348-49 (quoting 3 Am. Jur. 2d Affidavits § 13) (internal quotation marks omitted). Moreover,

[t]he personal knowledge of facts asserted in an affidavit is not presumed from a mere positive averment of facts but rather the court should be shown how the affiant knew or could have known such facts and if there is no evidence from which an inference of personal knowledge can be drawn, then it is presumed that such does not exist.

Id. at 622-23, 596 S.E.2d at 349 (quoting 3 Am. Jur. 2d Affidavits § 14, cited with approval in Currituck Associates Residential P’ship v. Hollowell, 170 N.C. App. 399, 403-04, 612 S.E.2d 386, 389 (2005)). Thus, while Zeitz concluded as fact that Deutsche Bank Trust Company Americas as Trustee for Residential Accredit Loans, Inc. Series 2006-QA6 has possession of the Note, his affidavit provides no basis upon which we can conclude he had personal knowledge of this alleged fact. Because of these deficiencies, we conclude that neither the affidavit of Jeffrey Stephan nor the affidavit of Scott Zeitz is competent evidence to support the trial court’s finding that Deutsche Bank Trust Company Americas as Trustee for Residential Accredit Loans, Inc. Series 2006-QA6 is the owner and holder of Mr. Gilbert’s note.

III. Conclusion

We conclude the record is lacking of competent evidence sufficient to support that Petitioner is the owner and holder of Mr. Gilbert’s note and deed of trust. The trial court erred in permitting the Substitute Trustee to proceed with foreclosure proceedings and its order is

Reversed.

Judges MCGEE and BEASLEY concur.

[1] During the pendency of this action, the Gilberts filed a separate action against Deutsche Bank Trust Company Americas, Residential Funding, LLC, GMAC Mortgage, LLC, and David A. Simpson, P.C. to litigate, inter alia, their TILA claim in Hyde County Superior Court. The defendants removed the action to federal court. See Gilbert v. Deutsche Bank Trust Co. Americas, slip op. at 1, 4:09-CV-181-D, 2010 WL 2696763 (E.D.N.C. July 7, 2010), reconsideration denied, 2010 WL 4320460 (E.D.N.C. Oct. 19, 2010). Because the Gilberts’ claim was filed more than three years after the loan transaction was completed, the federal trial court dismissed the action for failure to state a claim upon which relief could be granted. Id. at __, slip op. at 5.

[2] This Court finds troubling that GMAC Mortgage, LLC was recently found to have submitted a false affidavit by Signing Officer Jeffrey Stephan in a motion for summary judgment against a mortgagor in the United States District Court of Maine. Judge John H. Rich, III concluded that GMAC Mortgage submitted Stephan’s false affidavit in bad faith and levied sanctions against GMAC Mortgage, stating:

[T]he attestation to the Stephan affidavit was not, in fact, true; that is, Stephan did not know personally that all of the facts stated in the affidavit were true. . . . GMAC [Mortgage] was on notice that the conduct at issue here was unacceptable to the courts, which rely on sworn affidavits as admissible evidence in connection with motions for summary judgment. In 2006, an identical jurat signed under identical circumstances resulted in the imposition of sanctions against GMAC [Mortgage] in Florida. James v. U.S. Bank Nat. Ass’n, 272 F.R.D. 47, 48 (D. Me. 2011).

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