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Signing the Mortgage Insufficient to Establish RESPA Standing

To sue under RESPA, one must have signed the loan, not just the mortgage.

RESPA creates a cause of action but says only “borrower[s]” can use it. 12 U.S.C. § 2605(f). Accordingly, the Sixth Circuit joins the Fifth and Eleventh Circuits in holding that to have a cause of action under RESPA, a plaintiff must not only sign the mortgage, but also the loan. Keen v. Helson, —F.3d—-, 2019 WL 3226989 (July 18, 2019).

Image by Andreas Breitling from Pixabay.

A “borrower” is commonly understood and defined as someone who is personally obligated on a loan—who is actually borrowing money. Because the plaintiff had never signed the mortgage loan, as her ex-husband had, she could not maintain a claim under RESPA, even though she had an interest in the house that she mortgaged and her husband later transferred his interest in the house to her as part of their divorce, shortly before he died.

The Court noted that Congress could have said that “any person” injured by a RESPA violation could sue, or that “mortgagors” or “homeowners” could sue, but it chose not to do so and specified only “borrowers” could.

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The Plain Meaning of RESPA Regulations

If I should call a sheep’s tail a leg, how many legs would it have?

According to Abe Lincoln, “only four, for my calling the tail a leg would not make it so.” So begins the Eleventh Circuit’s opinion holding the motion to reschedule a foreclosure sale was not a motion for an order of sale within the meaning of the RESPA regulation governing loss-mitigation procedures.

The language of 12 C.F.R. 1024.1(g) prohibits a loan servicer from moving for an order of foreclosure sale after a borrower has submitted a complete loss-mitigation plan. Under the plain language of the regulation, a motion to reschedule a previously ordered foreclosure sale is no more a motion for an order of sale than a sheep’s tail is a leg!

This conclusion is reinforced by the construction canon favored by Justice Scalia, known as the “associated word cannon” in English, but more commonly referred to by learned colleagues as the “noscitur a sociis canon.” (Thank god for high school Latin helping me pass the bar!)

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RESPA is a Shield, Not a Sword

RESPA is a Shield, Not a Sword

April 29, 2019

Authored by: Jim Goldberg

In a case of first impression, the Fifth Circuit held that a defendant is not required to plead as an affirmative defense under the Real Estate Settlement Procedures Act that it had complied with Section 1024.41 of the Code of Federal Regulations by responding properly to a borrower’s loss mitigation application. Germain v. US Bank National Association, — F. 3d — (2019 WL 146705, April 3, 2019). It affirmed the dismissal of the borrower’s RESPA claim on a summary judgment motion, based on the following facts.

Image by Nadine Doerlé from Pixabay

After repeated defaults beginning in 2009, the borrower Plaintiff filed three or four loss mitigation applications, asking for loan modifications in 2012, 2013 and 2014, in addition to filing bankruptcy in 2013. Each time, the loan servicer responded to the application properly. When the lender accelerated the loan and scheduled it for foreclosure in 2015, Plaintiff filed a lawsuit. It alleged the Defendants violated RESPA by failing to comply with Section 1024.41(d). That regulation section requires that a servicer who denies a loss mitigation application must notify the applicant of the reason he was denied any trial or permanent loan application option available pursuant to the regulation.

In their Answer to the complaint, the Defendants denied the allegation that they had failed to comply with Section 1024.41(d). The unstated basis for the Answer’s denial was that the loan servicer had complied Section 1024.41(i), which states: “A servicer is only required to comply with the requirements of this section for a single complete loss mitigation application for a borrower’s mortgage loan account.” The Court of Appeals ruled that the denial, without the detail, was sufficient, and affirmed the district court’s determination that the Defendants were not required to plead Section 1024.41(i) as an affirmative defense.

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Lender’s Non-Liability for a Servicer’s RESPA Violation

In a first, a federal circuit court rules a lender cannot be held liable for a servicer’s RESPA violation.

A borrower who took out a home equity loan from Bank of America alleged the Bank is vicariously liable for the failure of its loan servicer to comply with the Real Estate Settlement Procedures Act (RESPA), particularly 12 C. F. R. § 1024.41(c)(1). That regulation imposes duties on servicers who receive a complete loss mitigation application more than 37 days before a foreclosure sale to–within 30 days of receipt–evaluate the borrower for all loss mitigation options available to the borrower and provide the borrower with a notice stating which options, if any, it will offer the borrower.

The Fifth Circuit, which is apparently the first circuit to address the issue, held banks cannot be held vicariously liable for the alleged RESPA violations of servicers. Christiana Trust v. Riddle, — F. 3d — (2018) (2018 WL 6715882, 12/21/18). The Court had three related reasons.

First, “[b]y its plain terms the regulation at issue here imposes duties only on servicers” as it states a “servicer shall.” 12 C. F. R. § 1024.41(c)(1)

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New Mortgage Servicing Rules for “Successors in Interest”

Effective as of April 19, 2018, successors in interest to property secured by mortgage loans that are covered by the Real Estate Settlement Procedures Act (“RESPA”) and Truth In Lending Act (“TILA”) now have certain rights under those acts.

These amendments are part of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau’s 2016 Mortgage Servicing Rule amendments to RESPA and TILA.  The CFPB issued the new rules because “it had received reports of servicers either refusing to speak to a successor in interest or demanding documents to prove the successor in interest’s claim to the property that either did not exist or were not reasonably available.”  81 Fed. Reg. 72,160 at 72,165. The rules are therefore designed to make it easier for potential successors in interest to communicate with servicers and establish that they are successors in interest.

At the outset, the new rules define a “successor in interest” as anyone who obtains an ownership interest in a property secured by a mortgage loan, provided that the transfer occurs under one of the scenarios listed in the new rule.  The scenarios range from a transfer resulting from the death of the borrower to a transfer from the borrower to a spouse or child.  The person does not have to assume the loan in order to be a successor in interest.

The amendments create several potential pitfalls for servicers because certain obligations are triggered when a servicer receives actual or inquiry notice that someone might be a successor in interest.  As discussed below, the amendments require servicers to “promptly” communicate with anyone who may be a successor in interest.  Servicers must also only request documents “reasonably” required to confirm whether that person is in fact a successor in interest.  And a “confirmed” successor in interest now has the same rights as the original borrower under RESPA and TILA mortgage servicing rules.

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CFPB “Guidance” on Marketing Services Agreements

On October 8, 2015, the CFPB announced new “Guidance About Marketing Services Agreements,” publishing a Compliance Bulletin on the subject of RESPA Compliance and Marketing Services Agreements.  The Bulletin is lacking in clear “guidance,” at least in the sense of outlining regulatory standards, but it does provide an unequivocal warning that marketing services agreements (MSAs) in the mortgage industry are much less likely to pass regulatory scrutiny than in the past.

The CFPB expresses “grave concerns” about the use of MSAs to evade the requirements of RESPA, and they note that certain mortgage industry participants have already stopped entering into MSAs given the RESPA compliance burdens.  To ensure that the industry is getting the message, they warn that careful consideration of the legal and compliance risks “would be in order” for all industry participants, especially in light of the increase in whistleblower complaints under RESPA.

Every MSA must comply with the RESPA Section 8 prohibition on the payment or receipt of any fee, kickback or other “thing of value” for the referral of mortgage loan or other “settlement services” business.  However, compensation for goods or facilities actually furnished or services actually performed is permissible under Section 8, at least so long as the compensation reflects the fair market value of the goods, facilities or services.  The industry has long attempted to rely on this exception for the payments for services actually performed as a means to avoid Section 8 violations.  This has usually worked in the past, but it’s going to be much harder to make this work in the future.

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Transfer of Servicing Letter under RESPA Triggers FDCPA Notice Requirements

The Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (“FDCPA”) provides that within five days of any initial communication with a consumer “in connection with the collection of any debt,” a debt collector shall send the consumer a written notice.  The notice must contain, among other things, the amount of the debt, the name of the creditor to whom the debt is owed, and a statement that unless the consumer, within thirty days after receipt of the notice, disputes the validity of the debt, or any portion thereof, the debt will be assumed valid by the debt collector.

The Real Estate Settlement Procedures Act obligates a new servicer of certain types of mortgage loans timely to notify the borrower of the change in servicer and to provide certain other information regarding the transfer, including the effective date of the servicing transfer.

A recent case from the Second Circuit Court of Appeals (which covers New York and New England) holds that an attempt to comply with the Real Estate Settlement Procedures Act constitutes an “the initial communication with a consumer in connection with the collection of any debt” that requires the consumer be given the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act notice.

The debt collector mailed the consumer a letter entitled “Transfer of Servicing Letter.” An attachment stated it was “an attempt to collect upon a debt” and purported to explain some of the provisions of the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act.

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Will High Impact Perspectives Shape Litigation Risk? CFPB RESPA Enforcement Appeal

Litigators often talk to clients about the power of judges and juries. The first Decision of Director issued by CFPB’s Richard Cordray should give counselors and clients alike pause. Pause first because of the ultimate outcome ($109 million disgorgement) and interpretations of RESPA offered. And pause second (perhaps more importantly) because of the focused perspectives announced by the Director and their potential to activate others. With all due respect to the Director and the administrative appeal process, the Director clearly is taking advantage of this opportunity to make known his beliefs. Like a jury or a judge he is meting out justice the way he sees fit. What is fascinating, just like polling a jury after the verdict, is looking for the perspectives which drove the result. The Decision presents yet another glimpse of the Director who now shapes not just CFPB supervision and examination, but also may shape going forward the theories asserted by the plaintiffs’ class action bar.

Many are digesting the Decision and Order (2014-CFPB-0002, June 4, 2015). Here, I will not quote chapter and verse, nor will I analyze the overarching regulatory construct of the administrative appeals process which enabled the Decision. Those whose legal work touches financial services institutions should review the Decision themselves. It is the first. It is public. And it has impact. Each of us can draw our own conclusions. Some will see a righteous vision of justice and others may see, at best, the unintended consequences of concentrated partisan power.

Food for thought: We all may want to consider the impact the Decision could have on how financial institutions ought to assess their business operations and how such institutions may be able to justify those operations and defend themselves in court or before an administrative tribunal.

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