Homeowners who lost their homes to foreclosure may need to commit perjury to get restitution payments though the settlement.  That would be the deepest kind of insult on injury.

In the last blog, I explained what a homeowner who lost a home to foreclosure (from 2008 through 2011) will have to assert to get his or her small share of that $1.5 billion pot of money:

1. “Borrower lost the home to foreclosure while attempting to save the home through a loan modification or other loss mitigation effort.”

2. “Servicer errors or misconduct in the loss mitigation or foreclosure processes affected the borrower’s ability to save the home.”

While these may seem superficially sensible, in practice they are very troublesome, especially because the statements must be made under penalty of perjury.

As to the first statement, what “other loss mitigation effort” “to save the home” will be considered sufficient to be able to make that statement? Must that effort have continued right up to the foreclosure date to be considered to have “lost the home to foreclosure while attempting to save the home”?  How is the former homeowner to know whether he or she can make this statement truthfully?

The second statement is even more of a problem. How can the former homeowner know whether “servicer errors or misconduct in the loss mitigation or foreclosure processes affected the borrower’s ability to save the home”? The robo-signing of foreclosure documents—mortgage servicers’ false assertions made under oath by the thousands—were only discovered through borrowers’ attorneys’  aggressive discovery efforts during litigation. In this nationwide settlement, the five banks are not admitting ANY wrongdoing or liability. (For example, see the non-admission clause in the Federal Release, Exhibit F in the Wells Fargo settlement documents, paragraph F on page F-11, which is page 232 of the 315 pages of those documents.) Presumably the banks are not now going to start admitting wrongdoing on a case-by-case basis so that borrowers can answer this statement accurately.

So to receive the restitution payment a former homeowner will have to sign a statement under penalty of perjury affirming the truthfulness of one statement that is so vague as to be in many situations meaningless, and the truthfulness of a second statement the accuracy of which is unknowable.

There may yet be a partial solution, to at least the first required statement about the extent of borrowers’ efforts to save the home. The claim form to be sent out to the borrowers’ by the yet-undesignated Settlement Administrator may give enough guidance about this. A tentative 3-page claim form has been prepared by the Monitoring Committee for possible use by the Settlement Administrator. It may create a bright line between qualifying and non-qualifying borrower efforts. We don’t know yet because although this tentative claim form is being made available for companies applying to become the Settlement Administrator (the application deadline is April 30, 2012), it is not being released to anyone else.

But even so, I see no conceivable way that the second statement about “servicer error or misconduct” can be made known to the borrowers in order for them to be able to assert that under penalty of perjury. The banks are not going to admit to wrongdoing as to two million or so homeowners in direct contradiction of their non-liability assertion in the settlement documents.

So here’s the moral irony:

1. The banks were accused by the federal government and 49 states of a long list of allegations of serious wrongdoing which take 10 pages to detail (see pages F-2 through F-11 of the Federal Release in the settlement documents referred to above). These allegations include fraud and misrepresentations of numerous kinds, including in the form of many thousands of perjured documents submitted to courts over an extended period of time. The banks do not admit to any of these allegations or to any resulting liability.

2. Now the banks have negotiated with the governmental entities to pay restitution for their extensive alleged wrongdoing, and in particular to homeowners who’ve already lost their homes to foreclosure. But as a precondition to receiving that restitution, these former homeowners will in many cases be faced with a moral dilemma: can they sign a statement under penalty of perjury asserting that their “ability to save the home” was affected by “servicer errors or misconduct” when they do not know whether such errors or misconduct happened as to their mortgage, and if so whether it had any effect on their “ability to save the home.”

3. Because the “Monitoring Committee” has made clear that the “Settlement Administrator” will not be required to get documentation from borrowers about their statements on the claim forms, borrowers are seemingly being encouraged to make statements that will in many cases be vague and factually unverifiable, while asserting the truthfulness and accuracy of those statements under penalty of perjury.

4. The banks, having admitted to no fault, having paid their modest penalty, and having foisted this moral conundrum onto the foreclosed borrowers, can now wash their hands entirely of the matter. They no longer care how each borrower handles the matter since the pot of money does not change. The money just shifts out of the hands of the perhaps more carefully honest borrowers who disqualify themselves by admitting that they cannot swear to the fact that they lost the property because of lender wrongdoing.

5. Thus this settlement process has lowered borrowers—through circumstances almost entirely outside their control—to the moral level of the original robo-signers: “just sign here and don’t worry what the statements say or what they mean.”

What qualifies you to receive the $1,500 to $2,000 restitution payment for losing your home to foreclosure? More clues have just become available.

 The “largest consumer financial protection settlement in US history,” the $26 billion national mortgage fraud settlement, was announced with great fanfare in February. More than a month later, on March 12, 2012, the details of the settlement were finalized and hundreds of pages of settlement documents were signed and finally made public. But all those pages still did not at all make clear how a person whose home was foreclosed will qualify to get the money.

To remind you about this, most of the money in this settlement is earmarked for current homeowners for loan modifications, refinances, and other ways to help them hold on to their homes. But just shy of $1.5 billion is for those who’ve already had their homes foreclosed. That’s the subject of this blog.

This part of the settlement applies only to:

  • foreclosures that occurred during the calendar years 2008 through 2011
  • mortgages held or serviced by Bank of America, Wells Fargo, J.P. Morgan Chase, Ally Financial/GMAC and CitiGroup and their affiliates
  • mortgages on which at least 3 payments were made and the property “was not abandoned by the homeowner or condemned prior to the time of the foreclosure sale” 
  • “owner-occupied, one-to-four unit” residence in all states except for Oklahoma, which is not participating in this settlement

Find out if your mortgage is included in this settlement pool by going to the special settlement website for the banks’ toll-free phone numbers and websites.

But once you are in this pool, what further conditions, must you meet to get the money? The initial settlement documents last month surprisingly did not make this clear. They just stated that “cash payments” from the $1.5 billion fund would be provided to borrowers whose homes were foreclosed during the 2008 through 2011 period and “who submit claims arising from the Covered Conduct [the alleged mortgage servicing and foreclosure fraud]; and who otherwise meet criteria set forth by the State members of the Monitoring Committee.”

So if you are a foreclosed homeowner, do you only get the settlement money if you can show your foreclosure happened because of your bank’s alleged misconduct? Has the “Monitoring Committee” provided any more information on this or any other criteria to be used?

Two and a half months after the February 9 announcement of the settlement, there is still no definite answer to the first question. And the second question? The 14 state attorneys general on the “Monitoring Committee” has curiously not directly told foreclosed homeowners anything more about the qualifying criteria, apparently because that will be the job of the “Settlement Administrator.” But in the last few days this Committee HAS indirectly provided some important clues about the criteria through its release of two documents:

The RFP states the following:

Borrower Certifications:

In addition to the baseline eligibility criteria listed above, eligible claimants must also complete a claim certification form in which they certify under penalty of perjury to the following:

  • Borrower lost the home to foreclosure while attempting to save the home through a loan modification or other loss mitigation effort.
  • Servicer errors or misconduct in the loss mitigation or foreclosure processes affected the borrower’s ability to save the home.

But those two requirements are not clear either. What would be considered an adequate attempt by the borrower to save the home? For example, if you simply made a number of unsuccessful attempts to get the lender to respond to phone messages—would that be enough? And how are you going to know when a bank’s misconduct “affected” your ability to save the home when the bank is providing you that kind of information and not admitting anything? Indeed, in this entire multi-billion dollar settlement the banks are not admitting to a single act of misconduct!

The First Addendum—released just a few days ago on April 20—gives some further clues, albeit maddening ones. Here is a pertinent question from the Addendum and the Monitoring Committee’s response:

Question #12: Will the Settlement Administrator be required to request and review documentary proof from claimants who submit claim certification forms in order to determine eligibility?

Answer: No. Other than reviewing the claim certification forms to ensure that claimants properly made the required certifications, the Settlement Administrator will not be required to request and review documentary proof from claimants in order to determine eligibility.

So to receive the settlement money, it looks like you as a foreclosed homeowner will have to sign a claim form stating under penalty of perjury that the foreclosure occurred in spite of you efforts to save the home, AND the foreclosure occurred because of the bank’s “errors or misconduct”—which you may well have no way of knowing about. But, it looks like you will not need to provide any documentation to verify your statements. It is unclear whether information will be provided by your bank to the Settlement Administrator which might contradict your statements—for example asserting that you did not attempt to contact the bank to try to save the home. And if that occurs, there’s also no indication how such disputed facts would be resolved.

Stay tuned here, and on the settlement website, for answers to these continuing ambiguities.

Will Fannie and Freddie finally be making mortgage principal reductions now that their own analysis shows that doing so would benefit their own financial health—and make them better able to repay billions owed to U.S. taxpayers?

My last blog described Fannie and Freddie’s conflicting purposes: to make home ownership more accessible, but to do so profitably for themselves. And I showed how this inherent conflict has led to a political dispute between the Obama Administration on one side pushing for greater flexibility in helping distressed homeowners keep their homes—and specifically to allow principal reductions, while on the other side Edward DeMarco, the acting director of the Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA) and Fannie and Freddie’s overseer, disallowing principal reductions in order “to preserve and conserve [Fannie and Freddie’s] assets.”

Helping Homeowners Also Helps Taxpayers

But what if there is no conflict between these purposes? What if reducing mortgage balances would help hundreds of thousands of homeowners stay in their homes and at the same time would save money for Fannie and Freddie?  

That is the conclusion of a very recent not-yet public analysis by Fannie and Freddie presented to the FHFA, according to the ProPublica article: “Fannie and Freddie: Slashing Mortgages Is Good Business.”

The new analyses by Freddie and Fannie were done to assess the new financial incentives that the Obama administration announced in late January.  … . The companies now find that reducing principal on troubled mortgages has a “positive net present value” — in other words, that doing it would bring in more money for the companies over the life of the loans than not doing it.

The two companies’ analyses showed that upwards of a quarter million borrowers who owe more on their mortgages than their homes are worth could benefit from principal reductions. The companies would take a loss upfront, but over the long run these mortgage modifications would save the companies money because they would lead to lower default rates.

FHFA’s Response

DeMarco is thinking about it. In a statement he said:

“As I have stated previously, FHFA is considering HAMP incentives for principal reduction and we have been having discussions with [Freddie and Fannie] and Treasury regarding our analysis.”

But he also stated:

“FHFA’s previously released analysis concluded that principal forgiveness did not provide benefits that were greater than principal forbearance as a loss mitigation tool. FHFA’s assessment of the investor incentives now being offered will follow the previous evaluation, including consideration of the eligible universe, operational costs to implement such changes, and potential borrower incentive effects.”

DeMarco seems to be saying that this new analysis may well not change their policy. Why not? After looking at all their options (“the eligible universe”), and considering how borrowers would react to principal reductions (“incentive effects”), it seems to come down to “operational costs”—changes to their accounting and computer systems—which could outweigh the other benefits. It just might be too hard to change Fannie and Freddie’s operations so that principal reductions would work for them.

The Bigger Picture      

So is the FHFA so institutionally ingrained with the short-term profit motive that it would reject Fannie and Freddie’s own conclusions about principal reductions being good for their long term financial health? Does it have SO little ability to adapt? Does the FHFA have such tunnel vision that it can’t give any consideration to the potential benefits to the national housing market, where home values STILL continue to slide? And where in DeMarco’s comments is there any hint whatsoever of compassion for the millions of Americans—about half of them under his control—at continued risk of losing their homes?

Now that Fannie and Freddie are essentially owned by the taxpayers, why aren’t these institutions doing more to help homeowners? Particularly, why are they so adamantly against allowing mortgage principal reductions?

These are questions that ProPublica, “an independent, non-profit newsroom that produces investigative journalism in the public interest,” has been following and reporting on in a recent series of articles. I’m highlighting two of those articles in this blog.

Inherently Conflicting Purposes

Why Fannie and Freddie Are Hesitating to Help Homeowners” describes “Fannie and Freddie’s role in the housing market, and why it seems as if their actions often go against the interests of homeowners.” At the heart of it, these two institutions operate within a conflict about their core purpose: they were set up to make home ownership more accessible, but they are also supposed to make a profit. This first purpose would encourage Fannie and Freddie to be as flexible as possible to allow distressed homeowners to keep their homes. But the profit-making purpose would seem to run counter to letting homeowners too easily get out of their mortgage commitments.

Tax-Payer Takeover Only Complicated the Conflict

Now that taxpayers stand to gain or lose many billions of dollars depending on the profitability of Freddie and Fannie, that would seem to put more emphasis on profit-making and less on homeowner relief. On the other hand, providing significantly more help for distressed homeowners would arguably help stabilize home prices and improve the economy to everyone’s benefit.

As the ProPublica article states:

The two aims of Fannie and Freddie are continually at odds — policies encouraging refinancing and forgiveness for more mortgage holders can increase costs to the taxpayer-owned companies. While the administration has made relief for homeowners their priority, [Edward] DeMarco [the acting head of the Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA), which oversees Fannie and Freddie] says his agency’s priority is to protect Fannie and Freddie’s profits, aka taxpayers’ assets. Of course, many of those taxpayers are struggling homeowners, and that is at the heart of the dilemma over Fannie and Freddie’s future.

Mortgage Principal Reduction Caught between the Conflicting Purposes

A second ProPublica article addresses whether Fannie and Freddie will allow some homeowners to reduce their mortgage principal balances. That decision hangs in the political balance because of this same conflict between profitability and helping homeowners:

The Obama administration has repeatedly tried to push principal reduction — reducing the size of a borrower’s mortgage — as a way to help homeowners, especially those with homes worth less than their mortgages. But… time and again, Fannie and Freddie wouldn’t participate: a crippling problem, since the two companies own or guarantee about half of the country’s mortgages.

[Edward] DeMarco [the interim head of the Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA), says principal reduction could cost taxpayers $100 billion. Some economists counter that while principal reductions might lead to a short-term hit for Fannie and Freddie, it would ultimately result in fewer underwater mortgages, fewer foreclosures and a healthier housing market — all good for Fannie and Freddie’s bottom line.

To give DeMarco the last word, until my next blog:

DeMarco has… [told] Congress many times that “as conservator, FHFA has a statutory responsibility to preserve and conserve the enterprises’ assets.” In plainer terms, he [states] that his role is to “make sure Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac undertake activities that don’t cause further losses for the American taxpayers.”

DeMarco has strongly asserted his independence insisting that he is promoting needed fiscal discipline.

The settlement documents of the deal that was announced more than a month ago were finally completed and filed at court on Monday, March 12. They catalog page after page of serious wrongdoing by the banks in their servicing of mortgages and processing of foreclosures.

In my last blog I said that the settlement would be finalized and made public “any day now.” It actually happened only hours later.

The settlement documents consist of hundreds of pages, but I’ll make it easy for you.

One document talks about the past, the wrongdoing by the banks. That’s the Complaint. The plaintiffs are the United States, 49 of the 50 states (all except Oklahoma), and the District of Columbia; the defendants are five of the biggest banks—Bank of America, JPMorgan Chase, Wells Fargo, Citi, and Ally/GMAC, and their subsidiaries, totaling 18 named defendants. This 99-page Complaint is the subject of today’s blog.

The rest of the documents—one Consent Judgment for each of the five banks—talk about the agreed penalties for the banks’ past wrongdoing, but mostly focus on the future: 1) where the money from those penalties is going to be spent; and 2) the new standards by which these banks are now required to service mortgages and process foreclosures.  In my next blog I’ll talk about these penalties, and how they are supposed to help homeowners who have been hurt by the banks.

To say that the Complaint is 99 pages long is misleading, because it actually ends on page 48, followed by signature pages for each of the 51 plaintiffs. And In fact the document doesn’t really get to the point until the Factual Allegation starting on page 21. The detailed litany of bank misconduct goes on relentlessly for the following 16 pages, totaling 55 paragraphs of allegations, some including many subparagraphs of even more detailed allegations. It’s difficult to do justice to all this in one blog. To try to show both the breadth and depth of the alleged misconduct, I’ll give you most of the Complaint’s outline of the types of wrongdoing, and one or two examples quoted under each one:

A. The Banks’ Servicing Misconduct

            1. The Banks’ Unfair, Deceptive, and Unlawful Servicing Processes

Failing to timely and accurately apply payments made by borrowers and failing to maintain accurate account statements; imposing force-placed insurance without properly notifying the borrowers and when borrowers already had adequate coverage.

             2. The Banks’ Unfair, Deceptive, & Unlawful Loan Modification and Loss Mitigation Processes

Providing false or misleading information to consumers while initiating foreclosures where the borrower was in good faith actively pursuing a loss mitigation alternative offered by the Bank; miscalculating borrowers’ eligibility for loan modification programs and improperly denying loan modification relief to eligible borrowers.

   3. Wrongful Conduct Related to Foreclosures

Preparing, executing, notarizing or presenting false and misleading documents, filing false and misleading documents with courts and government agencies, or otherwise using false or misleading documents as part of the foreclosure process (including, but not limited to affidavits, declarations, certifications, substitutions of trustees, and assignments).

 B. The Banks’ Origination Misconduct

   1. Unfair and Deceptive Origination Practices

In the course of their origination of mortgage loans in the Plaintiff States, the Banks have engaged in a pattern of unfair and deceptive practices. Among other consequences, these practices caused borrowers in the Plaintiff States to enter into unaffordable mortgage loans that led to increased foreclosures in the States.

 C. The Banks’ Bankruptcy-Related Misconduct

Making representations that were inaccurate, misleading, false, or for which the Banks, at the time, did not have a reasonable basis to make, including without limitation representations contained in proofs of claim under 11 U.S.C. § 501, motions for relief from the automatic stay under 11 U.S.C. § 362, or other documents.

 D. Violation of Servicemembers Civil Relief Act (SCRA)

The Banks foreclosed upon mortgages without required court orders on properties that were owned by service members who, at the time, were on military service or were otherwise protected by the SCRA.

 The 55 paragraphs of wrongdoing resulted in these five banks agreeing to pay about $26 billion in a combination of cash and other forms, to the states and to individual homeowners. As I said, I’ll tell you how this is supposed to be divvied up in my next blog.

Is the most infamous home mortgage story of late 2010—the “robo-signing” of foreclosure documents—finally coming to closure in early 2012?

For those of us who keep an eye on this stuff, we’ve wondered throughout all of 2011 whether the states’ attorneys general could do what the federal banking and housing regulators seemed unable to do: hold the mortgage lenders responsible for their glaring problems in loan servicing and foreclosure processing.  “Robo-signing” itself involved loan servicing company employees signing countless foreclosure documents in which they asserted personal knowledge about essential facts, when in fact those employees had no knowledge whatsoever of those facts. This then led to the uncovering of one major set of irregularities after another, including the giant MERS fiasco involving serious challenges to the legal authority of mortgage lenders and servicers to foreclose under any circumstances.

When all 50 of the states’ attorneys general got together in late fall of 2010 to address this set of problems, there was hope that they would be able to accomplish what the national regulators could or would not. They were seen as being closer to Main Street than Wall Street, and experienced with dealing pragmatically with both consumer abuses and business concerns. Indeed within a few months detailed draft settlement terms were drafted and being circulated. But then major rifts quickly arose. Last spring, eight Republican attorneys general—from Virginia, Texas, Florida, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Alabama, Georgia and Nebraska—announced that they did not support the draft settlement as being too tough on the banks and unfair to people who were paying their mortgages. Around the same time, the watchdog National Institute on Money in State Politics issued a report stating that the “campaign war chest” of the Democratic attorney general Tom Miller of Iowa

“got a dramatic boost after he announced his leadership of the 50-state attorneys general investigation into foreclosure irregularities. Out-of-state law firms and donors from the finance, insurance, and real estate sector gave $261,445-which is 88 times more than they had given him over the previous decade.”

And now more recently, as the settlement again seems to be finally reaching a close, some of the more liberal attorneys general, from among the most populous and influential states, such as New York and California, as well as perhaps Massachusetts, Nevada, and Delaware, seem to be backing out of the deal because they say that their homeowners would simply not be getting adequately compensated by the banks.

So is there going to be a deal or not, whether it covers all 50 states or not? It certainly now looks highly unlikely that a universal 50-state agreement will happen. And if some of the largest states—such as California and New York—and some with the worst foreclosure problems—such as Nevada and Florida—are not participating, then the banks lose a great deal of incentive to stay in the deal either. There continues to be some indication that a settlement will come together—here’s a very recent Time magazine blogger’s summary of its anticipated terms, which he figures will be “finally unveiled” as early as January. You can read about them there it you want—I won’t be telling you more about any deal terms here until I think there’s a better chance that it will ever come to pass and have any practical impact on my clients.