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On October 1, the Court of Special Appeals for Maryland reversed in part and affirmed in part a dismissal of an action alleging that a mortgage servicer and Fannie Mae (collectively, “defendants”) violated Maryland state law by charging improper property inspection fees. According to the opinion, after defaulting on her mortgage, a consumer was charged $180 for twelve property inspections ordered by her mortgage servicer. After accepting a loan modification, the property inspection fees were rolled into the balance of the consumer’s loan. The consumer subsequently filed a complaint against the defendants alleging violations of, among other things, (i) Section 12-121 of the Maryland Commercial Law Article, “which prohibits a ‘lender’ from imposing a property inspection fee ‘in connection with a loan secured by residential property’”; (ii) the Maryland Consumer Debt Collection Practices Act (MCDCA), with a derivative claim under the Maryland Consumer Protection Act (MCPA); and (iii) the Maryland Mortgage Fraud Protection Act (MMFPA). The defendants moved to dismiss the action, alleging that they were not “lenders” as defined in Section 12-121. The district court dismissed the action.
On appeal, the appellate court disagreed with the defendants’ narrow interpretation of “lender” under Section 12-121, finding that such interpretation is “inconsistent with the structure and purpose of the legislation enacting it.” Specifically, the appellate court held that the lower court erred in finding the defendants not liable as a lender under Section 12-121, as it would be “inconsistent with the purpose of Subtitle 12 to allow an assignee of a note or its agents to charge fees that the originating lender cannot.” The appellate court further held that the lower court erred in determining the property inspection fees were waived through the course of the modification and therefore erred in dismissing the MMFPA claim. However the appellate court upheld dismissal of the MDCPA claim and its derivative MCPA claim, rejecting, among other arguments, the consumer’s argument that the filing of a deed of trust qualified as a communication that “purports to be ‘authorized, issued, or approved by a government, governmental agency, or lawyer’” under state law. Lastly, the appellate court affirmed dismissal of the MMFPA claim, concluding the consumer failed to connect elements of the theory, such as intent to defraud, with any alleged facts in the complaint.
On October 29, the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri dismissed a False Claims Act (FCA) suit against a national bank, concluding the relator failed to prove the inapplicability of the public disclosure bar. According to the opinion, the relator filed an action against the national bank alleging that from 2009 to 2013, as an employee of the bank, she witnessed “numerous violations of [the bank]’s obligations under [government] loan modification programs.” The bank moved to dismiss the action on five separate grounds, including statute of limitations and public disclosure bar. The court first addressed the statute of limitations claims, applying the six-year limitation after the violation and holding that because the relator filed her action against the bank on June 2, 2018, any claims occurring before June 2, 2012 are barred as untimely.
The court then addressed the public disclosure bar, which requires courts to dismiss an action under the FCA “if substantially the same allegations or transactions as alleged in the action or claim were publicly disclosed….” The bank argued, and the relator did not contest, that the relator’s allegations “had already been publicly disclosed through the news media, a federal lawsuit, and federal reports.” The court rejected the relator’s claims that she should qualify as an original source of the information. Specifically, the court concluded that while the relator may have independent knowledge of the information provided in her complaint by virtue of her employment, she did not “materially add to” the public disclosures and thus, did not carry “her burden to prove the inapplicability of the public disclosure bar.” Accordingly, the court dismissed all remaining allegations postdating July 2, 2012.
On May 27, Fannie Mae issued technical updates to Lender Letter LL-2020-07 and LL-2020-05 to include operational requirements related to reporting and completing a Covid-19 payment deferral, as well as the process for obtaining reimbursement for expenses related to the Covid-19 payment deferral. Among other things, servicers are required to pay any expenses associated with the execution of a Covid-19 payment deferral, such as required notary fees, recording costs, and title costs, but Fannie Mae will reimburse allowable expenses in accordance with F-1-05: Expense Reimbursement, in the Fannie Mae Servicing Guide.
As previously covered by InfoBytes, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac announced the new Covid-19 payment deferral option to “help borrowers impacted by a hardship related to Covid-19 return their mortgage to a current status after up to 12 months of missed payments.” The new option is for borrowers who (i) are on a Covid-19 related forbearance plan, or (ii) have a resolved financial hardship due to Covid-19. If a borrower is eligible for the Covid-19 payment deferral, the servicer must allow the borrower to resume their contractual monthly payments; however, the delinquency amount must be deferred as a non-interest bearing balance, due and payable at liquidation, refinance, or maturity.
Servicers must begin evaluating borrowers for the Covid-19 payment deferral beginning July 1.
On May 13, the FHFA, Fannie Mae, and Freddie Mac, announced a new Covid-19 payment deferral option that will be available starting on July 1. According to Fannie Mae Lender Letter LL-2020-07 and Freddie Mac Bulletin 2020-15, the new Covid-19 payment deferral is “a new workout option specifically designed to help borrowers impacted by a hardship related to Covid-19 return their mortgage to a current status after up to 12 months of missed payments.”
The new option is for borrowers who (i) are on a Covid-19 related forbearance plan, or (ii) have a resolved financial hardship due to Covid-19. Specifically, the servicer is required to confirm that the borrower is now able to continue making the full monthly contractual payment of their loan but is unable to reinstate the mortgage loan or afford a repayment plan to cure the previous delinquency. If a borrower is eligible for the Covid-19 payment deferral, the servicer must allow the borrower to resume their contractual monthly payments; however, the delinquency amount (which includes up to 12 months of past-due principal and interest payments; out-of-pocket escrow advances paid to third parties; and servicing advances paid to third parties in the ordinary course of business) must be deferred as a non-interest bearing balance, due and payable at liquidation, refinance, or maturity. Among other requirements detailed by the Lender Letter and Bulletin, servicers must report the loan in accordance with the Fair Credit Reporting Act, as amended by the CARES Act, which requires lenders to report as current any loans subject to Covid-19 forbearance or other accommodation. Additionally, servicers must waive all late charges, penalties, and fees upon completing the Covid-19 payment deferral.
In addition to the new Covid-19 payment deferral, borrowers will continue to have other hardship options including repayment plans, lump-sum repayment, or permanent modification. Servicers must begin evaluating borrowers for the Covid-19 payment deferral beginning July 1.
On March 24, Iowa’s Superintendent of Banking sent an update letter to bank presidents and CEOs concerning the state’s Covid-19 response efforts. The update highlighted, among other things, the following: (i) loan and grants available to small businesses through state and federal programs; (ii) the governor’s suspension of foreclosures and evictions in the state; (iii) the Division of Banking’s temporary suspension of requirement for in-person annual meetings; (iv) the governor’s outreach to county auditors, recorders and treasurers asking them to facilitate full range of vital mortgage-related services; (v) ongoing efforts to refine the offsite exam process; and (vi) guidance at the federal level from the Treasury Department and the March 22 Interagency Statement regarding loan modifications and troubled debt restructurings (covered by InfoBytes here).
On March 22, the Federal Reserve Board (Fed), CFPB, FDIC, NCUA, OCC, and Conference of State Bank Supervisors (CSBS) issued an “Interagency Statement on Loan Modifications and Reporting for Financial Institutions Working with Customers Affected by the Coronavirus” to address the “unique and evolving situation” created by Covid-19. Guidance covered in the statement includes, among other things (i) “encourage[ing] financial institutions to work prudently with borrowers” negatively impacted by disruptions in the economy caused by the virus, to include providing loan modifications to borrowers and mitigating credit risk; (ii) advising that in “accounting for loan modifications” the modifications “do not automatically result in [troubled debt restructurings] (TDRs).” The agencies assert that “short-term modifications made on a good faith basis in response to COVID-19 to borrowers who were current prior to any relief, are not TDRs”; (iii) reporting loans as past due as a result of a payment deferral is “not expected”; (iv) reporting short-term loan arrangements, such as deferrals, as nonaccrual assets is temporarily not required; and (v) reminding financial institutions that restructured loans “continue to be eligible as collateral at the [Fed’s] discount window.” The statement adds that “the agencies view prudent loan modification programs offered to financial institution customers affected by COVID-19 as positive and proactive actions that can manage or mitigate adverse impacts on borrowers, and lead to improved loan performance and reduced credit risk,” and “agency examiners will not criticize prudent efforts to modify terms on existing loans for affected customers.” (See Fed press release; OCC press release; FDIC press release and FIL-22-2020; NCUA press release; CFPB press release; and CSBS press release.)
On March 15, the Massachusetts Division of Banks issued guidance for financial institutions on working with consumers affected by Covid-19 and regulatory assistance available from the Division. The Division encourages financial institutions to work with affected customers and communities, including by: (i) waiving fees; (ii) increasing ATM cash withdrawal limits; (iii) easing restrictions on cashing checks; (iv) increasing credit card limits; and (v) offering payment accommodations to assist members having payment difficulty. The guidance notes that “prudent efforts” to modify loan terms would not be subject to examiner criticism, and institutions can ease their terms for new loans consistent with prudential banking practices. In the guidance, the Division also committed to work with affected institutions to reduce the burden when scheduling examinations and inspections, utilize off-site reviews, and work with institutions experiencing difficulties fulfilling reporting requirements. It further acknowledged that institutions may need to temporarily close facilities and encouraged them to offer alternative service options where practical and notify the Division regarding business disruptions or other significant developments, such as staff shortages, rapid withdrawal of deposits or other signs of erosion in consumer confidence.
On December 30, the FTC announced that the U.S. District Court for the District of Nevada had, on December 5, granted its motion for summary judgment in an action against a mortgage loan modification operation (operation) for allegedly violating the FTC Act and the Mortgage Assistance Relief Services Rule (MARS Rule). The January 2018 complaint alleged that the operation had engaged in unfair or deceptive acts or practices when it “preyed on financially distressed homeowners” by making false representations in advertising that its mortgage relief services could prevent foreclosures and “substantially lower” mortgage interest rates, as previously covered here. Additionally, the complaint charged that the operation used “doctored logos” in correspondence with consumers to give the impression that it was “affiliated with, endorsed or approved by, or otherwise associated with the federal government’s Making Home Affordable loan modification program,” and similarly claimed affiliation or “special arrangements” with the holder or servicer of the consumer’s loan. The court agreed with the FTC’s allegations, finding that the operation violated the FTC Act and the MARS Rule. The court entered a monetary judgment against the operation of over $18.4 million as equitable relief, which the FTC may use to compensate consumers harmed by the operation’s business practices. To the extent that an FTC representative determines that direct consumer redress is impracticable or money remains after redress is completed, the FTC may apply any remaining funds to other equitable relief (including consumer information remedies) that it determines is reasonably related to the practices alleged in the complaint. The court also permanently enjoined the operation from marketing or providing any secured or unsecured debt relief product or service, as well as from making deceptive statements to consumers regarding any other financial product or service.
On August 13, the Connecticut Supreme Court reversed the appellate court’s judgment, concluding a borrower’s special defenses and counterclaims raised against a bank during a foreclosure action “bore a sufficient connection to the enforcement of the note or the mortgage.” According to the opinion, the bank sought to foreclose on real property owned by the borrower, and during that proceeding, the borrower and loan servicer began loan modification negotiations. The borrower contacted the Connecticut Department of Banking, which intervened on his behalf in the negotiations, but the bank subsequently increased the mortgage payment and the parties were unable to reach an agreement. The borrower asserted special defenses and counterclaims, which included, among other things, that the bank allegedly engaged in conduct that increased the borrowers overall indebtedness and caused the borrower to “incur costs that impeded his ability to cure the default, and reneged on loan modifications.” The trial court rendered a judgment of strict foreclosure, which the appellate court affirmed.
On appeal, the Supreme Court held the appellate court incorrectly concluded the borrower’s allegations did not provide a legally sufficient basis for those defenses and counterclaims. The Court noted that the borrower’s allegations—that the bank “engaged in a pattern of misrepresentation and delay in postdefault loan modification negotiations before and after initiating a foreclosure action,” which added to the borrower’s debt and hampered his ability to avoid foreclosure—involved misconduct that “bore a sufficient connection to the enforcement of the note or the mortgage.” To the extent the intervention of the Department of Banking actually resulted in a binding loan modification, the potential breach of such agreement would also “provide a legally sufficient basis for special defenses in the foreclosure action.” Therefore, the Court reversed the appellate judgment upholding the strict foreclosure.
On March 14, the U.S. District Court for the Western District of North Carolina issued an order certifying a settlement class of individuals who alleged that, while they were subject to Chapter 13 bankruptcy proceedings, a national bank imposed “no-application loan modifications” (NAMs) to their mortgages without consent. The class members claimed that the bank filed payment change notices in their bankruptcy proceedings around the time it sent out the NAM solicitations, which asserted that the mortgage payments had been adjusted to the amount of the proposed NAM payment, even though borrowers had not requested or accepted the changes. As a result, class members’ mortgage loans went into contractual default. According to the class, the bank has since ended the alleged practice. Under the terms of the settlement approved by the court, the bank has agreed to pay approximately $13.8 million into a common fund that will go to class members, account remediation, and attorneys’ fees and costs, as well as to injunctive relief.