Adam Levitin on the New Massachusetts Court Foreclosure Decision

(Update.  Megan McArdle has a number of interesting comments and posts on foreclosure, modification, the effect of securitization, and the processes for recording title and other things.  This blog post has very interesting comments as well.)

Adam Levitin writes at the ForeclosureBlues blog about the Ibanez decision in the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts (pdf via Creditslips blog), handed down last Friday.  (Actually, I think Adam’s post originated at CreditSlips.) This is an important decision in addressing the exceedingly vexed and, as Megan McArdle notes, highly technical legal questions surrounding the property issues – chain of title, etc. – in foreclosures on mortgages that have been securitized.  Levitin offers this assessment of the holding in Ibanez (I recommend also his article with Anna Gelpern, Rewriting Frankenstein Contracts):

The Ibanez case itself is actually very simple. The issue before the court was whether the two securitization trusts could prove a chain of title for the mortgages they were attempting to foreclose on.

There’s broad agreement that absent such a chain of title, they don’t have the right to foreclose–they’d have as much standing as I do relative to the homeowners. The trusts claimed three alternative bases for chain of title:

(1) that the mortgages were transferred via the pooling and servicing agreement (PSA)–basically a contract of sale of the mortgages

(2) that the mortgages were transferred via assignments in blank.

(3) that the mortgages follow the note and transferred via the transfers of the notes.

The Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) held that arguments #2 and #3 simply don’t work in Massachusetts. The reasoning here was heavily derived from Massachusetts being a title theory state, but I think a court in a lien theory state could easily reach the same result. It’s hard to predict if other states will adopt the SJC’s reasoning, but it is a unanimous verdict (with an even sharper concurrence) by one of the most highly regarded state courts in the country. The opinion is quite lucid and persuasive, particularly the point that if the wrong plaintiff is named is the foreclosure notice, the homeowner hasn’t received proper notice of the foreclosure.

Regarding #1, the SJC held that a PSA might suffice as a valid assignment of the mortgages, if the PSA is executed and contains a schedule that sufficiently identifies the mortgage in question, and if there is proof that the assignor in the PSA itself held the mortgage. (This last point is nothing more than the old rule of nemo dat–you can’t give what you don’t have. It shows that there has to be a complete chain of title going back to origination.)

I don’t think it is too much to ask the financial services industry to follow the rules on title and transfer.  I have been surprised by how many people, including lawyers, have simply said that intentions were clear even if the requirements of transfer were not followed.  I don’t think that’s good enough, not for the past and less so going forward.  There are reasons why we treat transfer of property, and real property and associated rights, differently than contract.  I have no doubt that things are much more complicated than I imagine, but with computerization and technology, on a regulatory reform basis, shouldn’t we be able to do a whole lot better than this?

What would a rational, going forward system of title and transfer look like – tell me in ways that take advantage of technology as it is, not some imagined possible world, and tell me ways that match up to things already being done in the securities industry.

While everyone is at it, tell me how we should address the Frankenstein hangover of the past.