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Mortgage fraud and MERS


A Missouri appellate court, without trying, may have drawn a map to a defense to foreclosures-if borrowers can figure it out before the Missouri Supreme Court overturns the decision in Bellistri v Ocwen. The opinion shows how an assignment of a loan to a servicing company for collection can actually make the loan uncollectible from the mortgaged property.

This case concerns the procedures of MERS, which is short for Mortgage Electronic Registration Service, created to solve problems created during the foreclosure epidemic of the 1980s, when it was sometimes impossible to track the ownership of mortgages after several layers of savings and loans and banks had failed without recording assignments of the mortgages. The MERS website contains this explanation:

MERS is an innovative process that simplifies the way mortgage ownership and servicing rights are originated, sold and tracked. Created by the real estate finance industry, MERS eliminates the need to prepare and record assignments when trading residential and commercial mortgage loans.

MERS is the named mortgage holder in transactions having an aggregate dollar value in the hundreds of billions, and its service of providing a way to trace ownership of mortgages has played a large role in the securitization of mortgages and the marketability of derivative mortgage-backed securities, because it seemed to eliminate the necessity of recording assignments of mortgages in county records each time the ownership of a mortgage changed, allowing mortgage securities (packages of many mortgages) to be traded in the secondary market, with less risk.

This case began as a routine quiet title case on a collector’s deed, also known as a tax deed. Following the procedure by which people can pay delinquent property taxes and obtain the ownership of the delinquent property if the owner or lien holder fails after notice to redeem, Bellistri obtained a deed from the Jefferson County (Mo.) collector.

Because of the possibility of defects in the procedures of the county collectors and in the giving of proper notices, the quality of title conferred by a collector’s deed is not insurable.

A suit to cure the potential defects (called a “quiet title suit”) is required to make title good, so that the property can be conveyed by warranty deed and title insurance issued to new lenders and owners. The plaintiff in a quiet title suit is required to give notice of the suit to all parties who had an interest in the property identified in the collector’s deed.

A borrower named Crouther had obtained a loan from BCN Mortgage. The mortgage document (called a deed of trust) named MERS as the holder of the deed of trust as BCN’s nominee, though the promissory note secured by the deed of trust was payable to BCN Mortgage and didn’t mention MERS.

Crouther failed to pay property taxes on the mortgaged property.

Bellistri paid the taxes for three years, then sent notice to Crouther and BNC that he was applying for a collector’s deed. After BNC failed to redeem (which means “pay the taxes with interest and penalties,” so that Bellistri could be reimbursed), the county collector issued a collector’s deed to Bellistri, in 2006.

Meanwhile, MERS assigned the promissory note and deed of trust to Ocwen Servicing, probably because nobody was making mortgage payments, so that Ocwen would be in a position to attempt to (a) get Crouther to bring the loan payments up to date or (b) to foreclose, if necessary. But this assignment, as explained below, eliminated Ocwen’s right to foreclose and any right to the property.

Bellistri filed a suit for quiet title and to terminate any right of Crouther to possess the property. After discovering the assignment of the deed of trust to Ocwen, Bellistri added Ocwen as a party to the quiet title suit, so that Ocwen could have an opportunity to prove that it had an interest in the property, or be forever silenced.

Bellistri’s attorney Phillip Gebhardt argued that Ocwen had no interest in the property, because the deed of trust that it got from MERS could not be foreclosed. As a matter of law, the right to foreclose goes away when the promissory note is “split” from the deed of trust that it is supposed to secure. The note that Crouther signed and gave to BNC didn’t mention MERS, so MERS had no right to assign the note to Ocwen. The assignment that MERS made to Ocwen conveyed only the deed of trust, splitting it from the note.

When MERS assigned the note to Ocwen, the note became unsecured and the deed of trust became worthless. Ironically, the use of MERS to make ownership of the note and mortgage easier to trace also made the deed of trust unenforceable. Who knows how many promissory notes are out there that don’t mention MERS, even though MERS is the beneficiary of the deed of trust securing such notes?

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