FIGHTING MORTGAGE ASSIGNMENT FRAUD – IS FDCPA THE ONLY WEAPON?
By Dean Mostofi
This article, in light of a recent filing of a class action complaint and news of an ongoing criminal investigation, examines the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act and its potential application by homeowners seeking damages against foreclosure trustees and mortgage default servicing companies involved in wholesale and systemic mortgage assignment fraud and other deceptive acts and practices.
The Wall Street Journal reported last Saturday that a unit of Lender Processing Services Inc (LPS), a U.S. provider of paperwork used by banks in the foreclosure process, is being investigated by federal prosecutors. Sources have indicated the investigation is criminal in nature and involves the production and recording of fraudulent mortgage assignments.
Although this may have been news to the WSJ and its readers, loan auditors and foreclosure defense lawyers have been complaining about rampant foreclosure fraud perpetuated by trustees and their attorneys for at least 18 months.
During the recent real estate boom between 2002 and 2007 millions of loans were originated and sold to securitization trusts without much attention to detail or regard for proper paperwork and as a result the majority of loan files are missing the required documentation proving chain of title and assignment of the mortgage and note from originator to the trust. In the event of default, in certain jurisdictions, the trustee cannot foreclose without evidence of a recorded mortgage assignment; but since they were never executed and many of the originators are no longer in business, to facilitate foreclosures the assignments are now being forged, backdated and recorded every time a foreclosure action is commenced.
The fraud was so widespread and blatant that in some instances mortgage assignments were notarized and recorded with the name “BOGUS ASSIGNEE” shown to be the official grantee of the mortgage and no one including the court clerks ever questioned the bogus assignments’ authenticity.
On Feb 17, 2010 a putative class action complaint, styled as Schneider, Kenneth, et al. vs. Lender Processing Services, Inc., et al., was filed in the United States District Court for the Southern District of Florida. The complaint alleges violations of the FDCPA by US Bank, Deutsche Bank, LPS and its subsidiary Docx LLC. Defendants are accused of:
- Making false, deceptive and misleading representations concerning their standing to sue the plaintiffs for foreclosure;
- Falsely representing the status of the debt in that it was due and owing to defendants at the time the foreclosure suit was filed;
- Falsely representing or implying that the debt was owing to defendants as an innocent purchaser for value when in fact such an assignment had not taken place;
- Threatening to take legal action and engaging in collection activities and foreclosure suits as trustee that could not legally be taken by them;
- Obtaining access to state and federal courts to collect on notes and foreclosure on mortgages under false pretences;
- Foreclosing without the ability to obtain and record an assignment of the mortgage and note;
This is a single count complaint that bets the house on FDCPA and its applicability to the named defendants who no doubt will move for dismissal claiming they are not debt collectors but trustees and document providers. As such a more careful analysis of the FDCPA is in order.
There are some gray areas in the applicability of the FDCPA, but it is generally accepted that a mortgage debt and those trying to collect on it are subject to the FDCPA. The Act applies only to debts that were incurred primarily for “personal, family or household purposes, whether or not [a debt] has been reduced to judgment.” This means that the character of the debt is determined by the use of the borrowed money and not by the type of property used for collateral. For example, monies loaned that are invested in a business or used to purchase a commercial building would represent a non-consumer debt and not be subject to the FDCPA. However, regardless of the type of property that is secured by the deed of trust, if the borrower used the money to purchase a boat, jewelry, clothing or for other personal expenses, the debt would be a consumer debt subject to the Act.
Debt Collector Defined
The FDCPA defines debt collector as any person who uses any instrumentality of interstate commerce or the mails in any business the principal purpose of which is the collection of any debts, or who regularly collects or attempts to collect, directly or indirectly, debts owed or due or asserted to be owed or due another. 15 U.S.C.A. § 1692a(6)
Furthermore, the United States Supreme Court has held that lawyers who regularly collect consumer debts, even when their collection efforts are through litigation only, are debt collectors under FDCPA. Heintz v. Jerkins 95 Daily Journal D.A.R. 7134 (1995). However, courts have held that lenders who foreclose on their own mortgage loans are not debt collectors. Olroyd v. Associates Consumer Discount Co., 863 F.2d 23 7 (D.C., E D. Penn 1994).
Assignment Before and After Default
Creditors who take an assignment of the debt while it is in default are generally subject to FDCPA as debt collectors. Therefore, mortgage servicers who obtained the loan while it was in default are subject to the FDCPA as debt collectors [Games v. Cavazas, 737 F.Supp. 1368 (D.C., D. Del. 1990)] but mortgage servicers who receive a loan prior to default are not covered as debt collectors (Penny v. Stewart Elk Co., 756 F.2d 1197 (5th Cir., 1985); rehearing granted on other grounds, 7611 F.2d 237).
The Fiduciary Exception
To make matters more complicated even when assignment takes place after default some trustees may fall under the exception to “debt collector” that covers “any person collecting or attempting to collect any debt … due another to the extent such activity … is incidental to a bona fide fiduciary obligation.” 15 U.S.C.A. § 1692a(6)(F)(i) (West 1998). As such, US Bank and Deutsche Bank may claim that, because they were acting as trustees foreclosing on a property pursuant to a deed of trust, they were fiduciaries benefitting from the exception of § 1692a(6)(F)(i).
However, the fact that trustees foreclosing on a deed of trust are fiduciaries only partially answers the question. Rather, the critical inquiry is whether a trustee’s actions are incidental to a bona fide fiduciary obligation.
In Wilson v. Draper, 443 F.3d 373 (4th Circuit 2006) the court “concluded that a trustee’s actions to foreclose on a property pursuant to a deed of trust are not “incidental” to its fiduciary obligation. Rather, they are central to it.” Thus, to the extent the trustees use the foreclosure process to collect the alleged debt, they could not benefit from the exemption contained in § 1692a(6)(F)(i).
The court further noted that “the exemption (i) for bona fide fiduciary obligations or escrow arrangements applies to entities such as trust departments of banks, and escrow companies. It does not include a party who is named as a debtor’s trustee solely for the purpose of conducting a foreclosure sale (i.e., exercising a power of sale in the event of default on a loan).”
Debt Collector’s Duties
Once subject to the FDCPA, a debt collector must disclose clearly to the debtor that, “the debt collector is attempting to collect the debt,” and, “any information obtained will be used for that purpose.”
The FDCPA also requires that a statement be included in the initial communication with the debtor (or within 5 days of the initial communication), providing the debtor with written notice containing the following:
- the amount of the debt;
- the name of the creditor to whom the debt is owed;
- the statement that, unless the consumer, within thirty (30) days after the receipt of the notice disputes the validity of the debt or any portion thereof, the debt will be assumed to be valid by the debt collector;
- the statement that if the consumer notifies the debt collector in writing within the thirty-day period that the debt or any portion thereof is disputed, the debt collector will obtain a verification of the debt or a copy of the judgment will be mailed to the consumer by the debt collector;
- a statement that upon the consumer’s written request within the thirty day period, a debt collector will provide the consumer with the name and address of the original creditor, if different from the current creditor
Prohibitions against False and Misleading Representation
Under §1692(e) a debt collector may not use any false, deceptive, or misleading representation or means in connection with the collection of any debt. Without limiting the general application of the foregoing, the following conduct is a violation of this section:
(1) The false representation or implication that the debt collector is vouched for, bonded by, or affiliated with the United States or any State, including the use of any badge, uniform, or facsimile thereof.
(2) The false representation of—
(A) the character, amount, or legal status of any debt; or
(B) any services rendered or compensation which may be lawfully received by any debt collector for the collection of a debt.
(3) The false representation or implication that any individual is an attorney or that any communication is from an attorney.
(4) The representation or implication that nonpayment of any debt will result in the arrest or imprisonment of any person or the seizure, garnishment, attachment, or sale of any property or wages of any person unless such action is lawful and the debt collector or creditor intends to take such action.
(5) The threat to take any action that cannot legally be taken or that is not intended to be taken.
(6) The false representation or implication that a sale, referral, or other transfer of any interest in a debt shall cause the consumer to—
(A) lose any claim or defense to payment of the debt; or
(B) become subject to any practice prohibited by this subchapter.
(7) The false representation or implication that the consumer committed any crime or other conduct in order to disgrace the consumer.
(8) Communicating or threatening to communicate to any person credit information which is known or which should be known to be false, including the failure to communicate that a disputed debt is disputed.
(9) The use or distribution of any written communication which simulates or is falsely represented to be a document authorized, issued, or approved by any court, official, or agency of the United States or any State, or which creates a false impression as to its source, authorization, or approval.
(10) The use of any false representation or deceptive means to collect or attempt to collect any debt or to obtain information concerning a consumer.
(11) The failure to disclose in the initial written communication with the consumer and, in addition, if the initial communication with the consumer is oral, in that initial oral communication, that the debt collector is attempting to collect a debt and that any information obtained will be used for that purpose, and the failure to disclose in subsequent communications that the communication is from a debt collector, except that this paragraph shall not apply to a formal pleading made in connection with a legal action.
(12) The false representation or implication that accounts have been turned over to innocent purchasers for value.
(13) The false representation or implication that documents are legal process.
(14) The use of any business, company, or organization name other than the true name of the debt collector’s business, company, or organization.
(15) The false representation or implication that documents are not legal process forms or do not require action by the consumer.
If the debt collector is in violation of the FDCPA, he/she may be held liable for: (1) any actual damages sustained by the consumer (including damages for mental distress, loss of employment, etc.), and, (2) such additional damages as the court may allow, but not exceeding $ 1,000.
In the case of the class action, the court may award up to $500,000 or one percent of the debt collector’s net worth, whichever is less.
Evidently some advocates believe that without the FDCPA and its provisions which prohibit misrepresentation and deceitful conduct by debt collectors, homeowners as a class have little or no recourse against banks that choose to lie, cheat and defraud the court, while aided by judges who are complicit in the fraud for turning a blind eye and rubber stamping Orders. However, borrowers may have various other causes of action individually, which may or may not be economically feasible to litigate. As always the best advice is to have the loan file audited by a skilled forensic loan auditor to detect violations of federal and state laws followed by consultation with a seasoned foreclosure defense attorney.
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