History repeats itself

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Fraudulent mortgage satisfaction schemes are back

We have heard recently that a group is engaging in a scheme to fraudulent satisfy mortgages (or deeds of trust) in California and Florida. We all know that trends in California and Florida eventually make it to South Carolina, so I wanted to make sure South Carolina dirt lawyers are aware of this scheme. This is not a new scheme, but we thought it had died down until we got this news last month.

Here are some good rules of thumb to assist you in avoiding losses and protect clients in this area:

  • Have your title examiners provide you with copies of mortgage satisfactions and releases. Two sets of eyes reviewing the documents should help with spotting issues.
  • Pay particular attention to satisfactions and releases within a year of your closings. The normal schemes involve satisfying mortgages in order to collect funds at subsequent closings.
  • Pay particular attention to satisfactions and releases that are not connected with a sale or refinance. Contact the lender for confirmation that the loan has been paid in full.
  • Don’t accept a satisfaction or release directly from a seller, buyer or third party without contacting the lender for confirmation that the loan has been paid in full.
  • Many of the fraudulent documents are being executed by an unauthorized party on behalf of MERS. Compare MERS satisfactions with others you have seen in connection with your closings.
  • Check spellings and compare signatures against those of genuine instruments.
  • Be wary of hand-written documents, unorthodox documents, cross-outs, insertions and multiple fonts.

The perpetrators of this fraud are sophisticated and will change aspects of the scheme as needed, so remain vigilant and discuss any suspected fraudulent documents with your title insurance underwriter.

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Dirt Lawyers Will Like This Mortgage Satisfaction Case

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S.C. Supreme Court holds equity lines are subject to the timely satisfaction statute.

In an opinion written by Justice Beatty, our Supreme Court held on August 5 that open-ended mortgages are satisfied in the same manner as conventional mortgages and under the same statutory requirement for timely satisfaction by lenders.

Regions Bank v. Strawn involved a mortgage foreclosure against Robert and Nancy Borchers. The Borchers counterclaimed seeking to recover from Regions Bank under §§29-3-310 and 29-3-320 of the South Carolina Code based on the bank’s failure to satisfy the mortgage within the three-month time period required.

mortgage jengaThe home had been purchased from Cammie Strawn, who had taken title from her then-husband, Richard Strawn. Mr. Strawn had previously obtained the home equity line of credit. At the time of the Borchers’ closing, the balance of the mortgage was $32,240.42. Immediately after the closing, the Borchers’ attorney, James Belk, had an employee deliver a payoff check and a mortgage satisfaction transmittal letter to Regions Bank. The check had the words “Payoff of first mortgage” typed on it.

Instead of satisfying the mortgage, the bank applied the check to the balance, bringing it to zero, and provided Richard Strawn with new checks even though he had not owned the home for more than two years. Mr. Strawn spent more than $72,000 on the equity line.

When Regions Bank attempted to collect on Mr. Strawn’s debt by foreclosing on the Borchers’ home, the Borchers answered, counterclaimed and moved for summary judgment. The bank argued that a revolving line of credit should be handled differently than conventional mortgages, and this particular mortgage could not be satisfied without instructions from Mr. Strawn.

The trial court and Court of Appeals ruled in favor of the Borchers. On appeal to the Supreme Court, Regions Bank made two basic arguments: (1) open ended mortgages are an exception to the statutory satisfaction requirement because only the original borrower is authorized to request a satisfaction; and (2) the Borchers could not assert a violation of the mortgage satisfaction statutes because their attorney had the authority to satisfy the mortgage pursuant to the attorney satisfaction statute (§29-3-330).

The Court affirmed and held that the first argument failed because the mortgage itself contemplated that the property may be sold and specifically stated that it would be binding on the mortgagor’s successors and assigns. Also, the court stated that anyone with an interest in mortgaged property is allowed to request a satisfaction upon payment, and there is no exception for equity lines of credit.

Sale of a house. Object over whiteAs to the argument that the Borchers’ attorney could have satisfied the mortgage, the Court stated simply that this argument is without merit because the statutory framework does not exempt a mortgage holder of an equity line from the penalty provisions for failing to satisfy a mortgage within the required time frame.

This is a good opinion for South Carolina closing lawyers!

SC’s Mortgage Satisfaction Law Was Amended in 2014

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South Carolina’s mortgage satisfaction law changed last year, mostly for the better, but with a few snags. Effective June 2, 2014, Section 29-3-330 of the South Carolina Code was amended to remove the requirement for a “lost mortgage affidavit”, a document that mostly mystified out-of-state lenders and practitioners.

While most states allow a mortgage to be satisfied by a simple document stating, in effect, that the loan is paid in full and the mortgage is satisfied, our statute required either satisfaction by writing on the face of the original mortgage, satisfaction by affidavit of a closing attorney who paid off the mortgage, or satisfaction by a document accompanied by an affidavit from the lender stating that the mortgage was lost.

In most commercial closings, the lender being paid off did not want to deface the original mortgage for fear that the new transaction might fall apart. The attorney handling the closing did not want to sign an affidavit. And nobody wanted to swear that a mortgage in hand was lost.  Closing attorneys and title companies were asked to take mortgage satisfaction documents that clearly did not comply with our statute, but clearly made more sense than our law.

After the amendment, mortgages in South Carolina can be satisfied by four methods:

  1. On the face of the original mortgage in the  presence of the ROD. This is one of the snags. Mortgagees are finding it cumbersome to actually appear before the ROD to satisfy their mortgages.
  2. Onsignature 2 the face of the original mortgage in the presence of two witnesses. This is another snag. The number of witnesses has been increased from one to two, a requirement that some are finding difficult;
  3. By a document in “substantially” the form set out in the statute (that does not require an affidavit that the mortgage is lost); or
  4. By affidavit of a South Carolina licensed attorney who can provide proof of payment and (under penalty of perjury) certifies that he or she was given written payoff information, made the payoff and is in possession of the canceled check or wire confirmation.

Another concern is the mention of the term “deed of trust” in the statute, despite the fact that South Carolina is clearly a mortgage state.

Palmetto Land Title Association is working on some technical amendments. But, generally, the fact that a lost mortgage affidavit is no longer required has made transactions across state lines easier.