Another Win for MERS.

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South Carolina Supreme Court tosses case against it brought by five Counties

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County administrators in five South Carolina counties were told they have no statutory cause of action against MERS in a case our Supreme Court dismissed on March 30.* Allendale, Beaufort, Colleton, Hampton and Jasper Counties brought suits against MERS and numerous banking institutions claiming their fraudulent practice of recordings disrupted the integrity of the public records.

The Supreme Court consolidated the five suits and assigned them to Business Court Judge Lawton McIntosh. MERS and the banking institutions filed a joint motion to dismiss, arguing the suit was barred by SC Code §30-9-30. The trial court denied the motion to dismiss, indicating dismissal is improper for a novel question of law. The Supreme Court granted cert and dismissed the actions.

MERS is a member-based organization made up of lenders, investors, mortgage banks and others. When a MERS lender takes a promissory note and mortgage, MERS is shown on the face of the mortgage as the nominee for the lender. The mortgage is recorded in the county where the real estate is located, and the loan is registered in the MERS system.

This system allows lenders to retain priority with MERS as nominee. MERS provides convenient framework through which its members can transfer notes and mortgages without having to record each assignment. As a result, the public records may not accurately reflect the true owners of mortgages.

The lawsuits claimed fraud, misrepresentation, unfair trade practices, conversion, and trespass to chattels. It sought a declaratory judgment stating MERS and the lenders had caused damage to the public index system by recording false documents. It requested injunctive relief barring further recordings showing MERS as nominee and requiring corrections to the public records. The prayer demanded direct and consequential damages to remediate deficiencies in the records, as well as compensatory and punitive damages in the event the errors could not be fixed.

The crux of the matter was surely the loss of income for the assignment fees, although that thought is never mentioned in the published opinion.

Sale of a house. Object over whiteThe statute, §30-9-30, allows a recorder to refuse to accept or to remove any document believed to be materially false or fraudulent or a sham legal process. MERS and the lenders argued the statute does not provide the counties authority to bring the lawsuit, and the counties argued that the statute allows them to bring the suit by implication. They suggest that the statute provides, by implication, the power to commence litigation to remediate the public records and to seek guidance from the Court. The Supreme Court declined to imply language into deliberate legislative silence.

The Supreme Court held that the lower court erred in declining to dismiss the suit on the ground that this is a novel issue of law despite the fact that earlier cases had held to the contrary. The Court stated that where the case involves simple statutory construction, the trial court should not deny a meritorious motion simply because the question is one of first impression.

According to the Court, the statute already provides a remedy to government officials by allowing them to remove or reject any fraudulent records. Will the counties attempt to utilize this remedy?  Only time will tell.

*Kubic v. MERSCORP Holdings, Inc. (Appellate Case 2015-001366, March 30, 2016)

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Need to Foreclose a Mortgage Securing an eNote?

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Indiana case may provide guidance

South Carolina has no reported opinions concerning mortgage foreclosures involving eNotes, and little authority exists elsewhere on what a holder must prove to successfully foreclose a mortgage secured by an electronic note in a judicial state. Until we see opinions closer to home, an Indiana case may provide the best guidance. Solid evidence of control of the note seems to be the key factor, according to this case.

In Good v. Wells Fargo Bank, 18 N.E.3d 618court money 4 (Ind. App. 2014), Wells Fargo acted as servicer for Fannie Mae, the owner of an eNote that was registered with MERS. The original lender had been Synergy Mortgage Group, Inc.  MERS, as nominee for Synergy, had assigned the mortgage to Wells Fargo.

An officer of Wells Fargo executed an affidavit in support of summary  judgment stating that Wells was the servicer, that it maintained a copy of the note, that its systems provided controls to assure that each note was maintained accurately and protected against alteration, and that the paper copy of the note attached to the affidavit was a true and correct copy.

The affidavit was bolstered by testimony at the bench trial that Wells Fargo controlled the note and was entitled to enforce it as the holder pursuant to 15 U.S.C §7021 (a section of the eSign legislation).  Wells’ underlying position appeared to be that the normal requirements of the UCC-3 governing negotiable instruments (delivery, possession and an endorsement), were not required in the case of an electronic note.

15 U.S.C. §7021 creates the concept of a note as a “transferable record”, a single authoritative copy, which is unique, identifiable, and unalterable. The legislation establishes that the holder must have control of the note in the sense that the system for tracking it must reliably establish that the person seeking to enforce it is the person to whom the record was transferred. Also, the authoritative copy of the record itself must indicate the identity of the most recent transferee.

The Indiana appellate court found Wells’ affidavit insufficient to support a grant of summary judgment on the issue of Wells’ holder status and its evidence on the matter at trial “conclusory”. 

The court said it was unclear from the affidavit whether Wells was claiming to have possession of an endorsed paper copy or the electronic note itself. The affidavit was also found lacking because it did not assert that Wells had control of the record (the eNote), either by maintaining the single authoritative copy in its own system, or by being identified as having control of the single authoritative copy in the MERS system.

The court indicated the eSign statutes require the party enforcing the note to provide reasonable proof of its control of the note through detailed evidence, not merely “conclusory statement”. The court specifically pointed to the lack of evidence in the Wells’ affidavit as it related to a transfer or assignment to Wells Fargo or Fannie Mae of the note from the original lender.

We are likely to see similar cases from other jurisdictions, including South Carolina, with the increasing use of eNotes. Stay tuned!stay tuned