The Big Short: Required Reading (and watching) for Dirt Lawyers

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thebigshort

Super Bowl 50 was the big entertainment news of the weekend, but coming in at a personal close second were the book and movie The Big Short. I rushed to finish the former before dragging my husband to a Saturday matinee of the latter. Then, a friend pointed me to an NPR special “The Giant Pool of Money”, which provided a fascinating diversion for my Saturday afternoon walk.  (I confess to being easily entertained by all matters involving real estate.)

I encourage everyone involved with “dirt” to read the book, watch the movie and listen to the podcast. All relate to the 2008 financial crisis. At the center of the book (and movie) were several eccentric investors/money managers, who predicted the fall and brilliantly crafted a method to cash in on it. At the center of the podcast was the “giant pool of money”, the trillions of dollars in the economy that constantly need a place to be invested.

Locally, we heard the stories about real estate investors who lost properties and funds in the crash. In our office, we compared the crash to a game of musical chairs. The investors who sat in the chairs when the music stopped (the ones who held titles to the properties) were the ones who lost.

All areas of South Carolina were affected, but our coastal areas were hardest hit. Property values were phenomenal!  A contract on a yet-to-be-constructed residence might change hands several times at increasing prices before the final purchase. And loans were easy to procure at all income levels. No one thought property values would ever soften, and it didn’t matter if adjustable rate loans would reset in two years at staggeringly high fixed interest rates because refinances were readily available. Properties and mortgages churned like butter. There was apparently no end in sight.

The book’s author, Michael Lewis, who also wrote Moneyball and The Blind Side (back to football, which really is the center of the universe), said in explaining the mindset of the people who would borrow again and again, “How do you make poor people feel wealthy when wages are stagnate? You give them cheap loans”.

One of the money managers in The Big Short had his eyes opened by a story from his own household. His babysitter revealed she and her sister owned five townhouses in Queens. When he questioned asked how that possibly could have happened, she responded that after they bought the first townhouse, the value increased, and lenders suggested they refinance and take out $250,000, which they used to buy another townhouse. And so on….

The “giant pool of money” that at one time had been invested safely in boring assets like Treasury bonds, needed a place to land with higher interest rates. With mortgage rates being at 3.5% and higher, no better place could be found.

How did the money managers cash in?  They looked at pools of mortgages that were being sold on the secondary market, saw that the interest rates would collectively begin to reset in early 2007, and bet against the housing market.

They created a “credit default swap” market that bet against collateralized debt obligations. Huh?

One of the points of the book is that the financial markets created fancy terms that average individuals could not possibly understand. In this particular case, it turned out that that the big Wall Street firms, the people who ran them as well as their regulators, did not understand what was happening either.

“Credit default swap” is a confusing term because it is not a swap at all. It is an insurance policy, typically on a corporate bond, with semiannual payments and a fixed term. The money managers who predicted the subprime lending crisis bought credit default swaps that paid off, like insurance policies, when the market crashed.  These eccentric money men were able to predict that there would be a crash of the subprime mortgage market even if housing prices only stalled because borrowers would not be able to refinance or make payments.  When prices dropped, the money men were able to cash in at astonishing levels.

The most horrifying point of the book was that the government’s response to the crisis, the so-called bailout, will not prevent the crisis from happening again. We can only hope that we are all better educated the next time around. As I opened Outlook this morning, though, the first article that caught my eye was from Housingwire entitled “Risky home lending really on the comeback?”  Let’s collectively hope not!

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Grace Period for TRID Enforcement? Sort of ….

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hourglassOn October 1, Director Richard Cordray of the CFPB, responded to a request* from the American Bankers Association (ABA) for clarification on how the TRID rules will be enforced in the first few months of implementation. The answer was complicated but ultimately signified examiners will initially look at the good faith efforts of lenders to comply.

The letter, which copied 17 industry trade associations, recognized the burden on the mortgage industry to make significant systems and operational changes and engage in extensive coordination with third parties. Initially, according to the letter, examiners will evaluate a lender’s compliance management system, implementation plan, staff training and overall efforts to comply, recognizing the scope and scale of the necessary changes. The letter stated:

 “Examiners will expect supervised entities to make good faith efforts to comply with the Rule’s requirements in a timely manner.”

As a vote of confidence, the letter concluded that this examination process will be similar to the agency’s approach after the January 2014 effective date of several mortgage rules, where the experience was “our institutions did make good faith efforts to comply and were typically successful in doing so.”

No time limit was stated for this initial examination methodology.

On October 6, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac followed with announcements that they will not conduct routine file reviews for technical compliance with TRID but will evaluate whether correct forms are being used in the closing process. Fannie and Freddie expect lenders to make good faith efforts to comply with TRID. Failure to use the correct forms will be deemed a violation of the good faith effort standard.

Lenders were reminded that Fannie and Freddie have several remedies for a lender’s violation of law that may impair the ability to enforce notes and mortgages. But the announcements stated that the remedies will be used in two limited circumstances in connection with TRID: (1) where the required forms are not used; and (2) where a court of law, regulator or other authoritative body determines that a practice violates TRID and impairs the ability to enforce the note and mortgage or would results in assignee liability

No time limit was placed on this grace period.

On October 16, Federal Housing Administration’s (FHA) Office of Single Family Housing announced that it will not include technical TRID compliance as an element of its routine quality control reviews, except to determine that correct forms were used, until April 16, 2016.

Efforts are underway in Congress to establish a formal grace period until January 1, 2016. The Homebuyer’s Assistance Act has passed in the House and is up for a vote in the Senate.

*The request was made by the ABA to FFIEC, which is comprised of the Federal Reserve System, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, the National Credit Union Administration, the Comptroller of the Currency, the CFPB, and the State Liaison Committee.

Dirt Lawyers: Beware of Marketing Services Agreements

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beware pumpkinsThe Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) is scrutinizing Marketing Services Agreements (MSAs) in a way that appears to be contrary to decades of HUD guidance. In addition to a significant number of enforcement actions involving MSAs, the agency issued Compliance Bulletin 2015-05 on October 8 which casts doubt about whether the CFPB would ever approve an MSA.

CFPB Richard Cordray was quoted:  “We are deeply concerned about how marketing services agreements are undermining important consumer protections against kickbacks. Companies do not seem to be recognizing the extent of the risks posed by implementing and monitoring these agreements within the bounds of the law.”

The bulletin began with a seminar message: “The Bureau has received numerous inquiries and whistleblower tips from industry participants describing the harm that can stem from the use of MSAs, but has not received similar input suggesting the use of those agreements benefit either consumers or industry.”

The Bureau’s position appears to be that MSAs serve no useful purpose.

Let’s look at the background. First, the prohibition against kickbacks: Section 8(a) of RESPA prohibits giving or accepting “any fee, kickback or thing of value pursuant to any agreement or understanding, oral or otherwise, that business incident to or a party of a real estate settlement service involving a federally related mortgage loan shall be referred to any person.” Second, the carve out that MSA participants have relied upon: Section 8(c)(2) provides “(n)othing in this section shall be construed as prohibiting the payment of bona fide salary or compensation or other payment for goods or facilities actually furnished or for services actually performed.”

Based on years of HUD guidance and legal advice from industry authorities, many lenders, real estate agencies, law firms, title agencies and other providers have routinely entered into agreements to pay each other marketing fees. The entities often share office space as well as sophisticated marketing efforts.

The advice of HUD and the experts was, generally:

  • don’t tie the relationship or compensation to sales, referrals or productivity;
  • limit the services to marketing;
  • avoid exclusivity provisions;
  • value marketing services objectively. This requirement was often the sticking point because shared marketing campaigns are difficult to value. Some experts suggested hiring auditing or actuarial companies; and
  • track the services in the event proof is needed.

The bulletin suggested that the kickbacks and referral fees associated with MSAs may result in consumers paying higher prices for mortgages, and that the practice of steering business may indirectly undermine consumers’ ability to shop for mortgages.

Running afoul of the CFPB in this area has resulted in injunctive relief including bans on entering MSAs, bans on working in the mortgage industry for up to five years, and penalties totaling more than $75 million.

Wells Fargo, Bank of America and Prospect Mortgage have announced decisions to discontinue MSAs. The Mortgage Bankers Association, which had asked the CFPB for guidance on this topic, has now warned its members to take the bulletin very seriously because it appears to be a series of warnings rather than the requested guidance.

Because of the possibility of enormous potential liability, I urge South Carolina real estate lawyers to completely avoid MSAs in the current regulatory environment, at least until more guidance is provided either by the CFPB or court action.

Still Need to Reach Out to Your Realtor® Partners About TRID?

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toolboxSome new tools are available!

Residential dirt lawyers may still need to reach out to their real estate agent partners to discuss how the CFPB rules will affect closings after October 3. Some new resources are available to assist in that effort.

I previously blogged about five things real estate agents should know before the new rules become effective. Now there is more useful information in a format that is easy to share.

On September 17, Richard Cordray, Director of the CFPB, met with an officer of the National Association of Realtors® (NAR) to unveil online tools designated to help consumers and real estate professionals navigate the new closing procedures.

The CFPB had previously developed an array of online tools for prospective home buyers, the most important of which is an interactive resource called, “Your home loan tool kit, a step-by-step guide”. This guide allows consumers to perform calculations and obtain information to assist them in understanding their financial prospects for obtaining financing and avoiding pitfalls associated with the process.

The CFPB encourages real estate professionals to consider linking the toolkit on their websites to position themselves as trusted sources of information for consumers.  I encourage residential dirt lawyers to do the same to position themselves for their consumer clients.

Last week’s announcement included a new resource called “Guide for real estate professionals”, the goal of which is to “ensure smooth and on-time closings”.  I encourage real estate lawyers to use this new guide to connect with their real estate agent partners.  Link it on your website. Send the link to you best real estate agent contacts.  Offer to meet with them to answer questions. Your goal is to be perceived as a thought leader and problem solver when questions begin to surface after October 3rd.

we are here to helpSouth Carolina residential real estate lawyers should also keep in mind that their title insurance companies have prepared to assist in the transition. Don’t hesitate to use your title insurance company friends as valued resources. They are ready! Their goal, like yours, is to give their very best customer service as we all navigate these new closing rules together.

National Association of Realtors® Reports on TRID Survey

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Real estate practitioners should expect changes in contracts

NAR

The Research Department of the National Association of Realtors® surveyed members in August about their awareness and preparation for the changes in residential closings being implemented by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau in October of 2015. The most dramatic change is eliminating the current disclosure forms in favor of a Loan Estimate and Closing Disclosure, collectively called the TILA RESPA Integrated Disclosures (TRID).

The results of the survey were detailed in an Executive Summary entitled “TRID: REALTORS® and the New Closing Process”.

The best news from the report is that 71.2% of the respondent members rated their level of preparedness as average or better. Many stated they are taking action and working with their industry partners to prepare for a smooth transition. More than 80% of respondents indicated they have taken some form of TRID training.

Dirt lawyers should expect to see changes in residential form contracts. More than half of respondents indicated they will adjust contracts to reflect longer closing time frames, and almost a third indicated they plan to adjust contracts to include new contingencies.

Take a look at the following chart for more information on how Realtors® plan to deal with the new rules.

NAR Realtors Chart

Although it is anticipated that the changes may introduce new burdens on lenders, closing attorneys and REALTORS®, many of the respondents indicated the number of delayed closings has been low in the past, and they will continue to work with their industry partners to help make the transition smooth.

Real estate lawyers who have not reached out to their REALTOR® contacts should do so soon and often to assist with the transition!

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!

Malpractice Case Questions Delegation of Responsibility for Title Work

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SC Supreme Court decides client’s informed consent is required.

The South Carolina Supreme Court has ruled that a closing attorney cannot delegate the ultimate responsibility for delivering clear title to a purchaser without the purchaser’s informed consent. Johnson v. Alexander is an attorney malpractice case decided on July 29. This case involved Amber Johnson’s 2006 closing of a home in North Charleston.  Ms. Johnson alleged that her closing attorney, Stanley Alexander, breached his duty of care by failing to discover the house had been sold at a tax sale in 2005.

shutterstock_113463292The title examination had been performed by another attorney, Charles Feeley at the request of Ms. Johnson’s previous attorney, Mario Inglese.  Mr. Alexander purchased the title work from Mr. Inglese and relied on the title examination, which concluded that no back taxes were owed on the property. Ms. Johnson stopped making mortgage payments when she learned she didn’t have title to the property, and the property went to foreclosure.

At trial, Ms. Johnson moved for partial summary judgment as to Mr. Alexander’s liability. At the summary judgment hearing, an affidavit of the Delinquent Tax Collector for Charleston County was proffered to prove the availability of the delinquent tax records during the time when the title would have been examined.  Mr. Feeley’s affidavit indicated he could  not remember the specific title work, but that he always searched titles the same way, and he always checked delinquent taxes for a ten-year period. His notes showed that he found no outstanding taxes. Further, Mr. Feeley attested that the tax sale would not have appeared in the chain of title because the tax sale deed was actually recorded after the closing.

As a side note to abstractors: recent tax sales often do not appear in chains of title because the deeds are not yet recorded. Title examiners should check for payment of taxes for a ten-year period to uncover ad valorem tax delinquencies.

The trial court granted Ms. Johnson’s motion on Mr. Alexander’s liability.  On appeal, the Court of Appeals reversed and remanded, holding the lower court incorrectly focused its inquiry on whether an attorney conducting a title examination should have discovered delinquent taxes from 2003 and 2004 and the tax sale from 2005. Instead, the appellate court held the proper question was whether Mr. Alexander acted reasonably in relying on the title work and reversed and remanded the case for trial.

The Supreme Court reversed and remanded for a determination of damages. Ms. Johnson argued that the Court of Appeals erred in holding the correct inquiry is whether an attorney reasonably relied on another attorney’s work where that work is outsourced. She contended that an attorney should be liable for negligence arising from tasks he delegates unless he has expressly limited the scope of the representation. The Supreme Court agreed.

The Supreme Court said the Court of Appeals erroneously equated delegation of a task with delegation of liability. The opinion, written by Justice Hearn, stated that while Feeley’s negligence was the issue, that does not displace Alexander’s ultimate liability.

The opinion states, “while an attorney may delegate certain tasks to other attorneys or staff, it does not follow that the attorney’s professional decision to do so can change his liability to his client absent that client’s clear, counseled consent.”

The Court cited Rule 1.8(h) of the Rules of Professional Responsibility which indicates a lawyer shall not make an agreement prospectively limiting the lawyer’s liability to a client for malpractice unless the client is independently represented in making the agreement.

Notice that the Court makes no distinction between delegating a task to staff and delegating it to another attorney. Mr. Alexander had argued that because Ms. Johnson knew he did not personally examine the title, its accuracy was not within the scope of his representation to her. The Court clearly held that the scope of representation can only be limited through the clear, counseled consent of the client.

Many residential closings are handled in South Carolina by attorneys who have nothing to do with the title examination. This case clearly states that those attorneys should limit the scope of their representation and obtain their clients’ clear, counseled consent. Otherwise, the title work is the ultimate responsibility of the closing attorney regardless of who performs it.

shutterstock_233295964And on a related topic, it is my opinion that any title examination that covers less than a full-search period or is based on a prior title insurance policy should be used only after consultation with the client and obtaining the client’s informed consent.  Many residential and commercial closing attorneys rely heavily on prior title policies for back title, and they may want to tweak their practices after they read this opinion.

Closing attorneys’ files should be papered with those informed consents confirmed in writing!