Given the horrible history of special foreclosure courts in Florida, which as we recounted (see here and here for some past discussions) resulted in a bank-friendly travesty of justice, one has good reason to regard dedicated foreclosure courts with more than a modicum of concern.
The variant that is planned to be implemented in New York appears to be more fair-minded in intent than its Florida cousin. And while it appears unlikely to produce the sort of kangaroo court outcome that occurred there, it is not hard to see that this initiative is likely to fall well short of its objectives.
Let’s start with the overview from Reuters:
A new court initiative will allow all New York homeowners facing foreclosure to obtain legal representation and streamline the process of settling mortgage disputes out of court, Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman said Tuesday during his annual State of the Judiciary speech.
The “unprecedented” deal between the state, legal service groups and four large banks — Wells Fargo, Citibank, Chase and Bank of America — includes the creation of a new court part that will hear only foreclosure settlement conferences, Lippman said. Each week of the month will be dedicated to a different bank, with one attorney assigned to handle all cases for that lender.
“There will be no more excuses, no more delays,” Lippman said. “Real negotiations will take place, and homeowners will leave the table with the best available offer.”
The court system, Lippman said, is seeking to avoid scenarios that can delay settlement conferences for years, including homeowners being told their paperwork is out-of-date and lawyers for banks claiming to have incomplete sets of documents.
The program will kick off in New York City, where non-profit legal service groups have agreed to represent all homeowners entering the settlement conference process.
The article mentions the fact that a New York court requirement implemented in October 2010, that required lawyers filing for foreclosures to certify that they had taken reasonable steps to verify the accuracy of the information in the filing. That in turn lowered the bar for sanctioning lawyers who failed bogus information or documents signed by parties with no personal knowledge. That led to a near-halt of new foreclosure actions, which speaks volumes as to the accuracy of prior filings. If the problems were mere “paperwork,” you might have seen a hiatus as banks implemented new procedures, but this points to far more basic problems with the banks’ ability to prove they have the right to foreclose on loans they service.
My skepticism relates to the banks’ intent. The assumption is that they want to foreclose and that the various complaints about foreclosure delays reflect their frustration. But this is like Bre’er Rabbit complaining about being thrown in the briar patch. Banks make money on attenuated foreclosures. Georgetown law professor Adam Levitin has written about how servicers put borrowers in a fee sweatbox. If nothing else, they continue to earn servicing fees even when a borrower is hopelessly delinquent, as well as late fees, which they finally recoup when the home is sold. So I’m not confident the banks are going to enter into these talks with an eye to modifying mortgages. As both Adam Levitin and attorney and securitization expert Tom Adams have said, servicers are not set up to do mods. It’s like a new loan underwriting and they don’t have the staff or the fee structures for that to make sense.
Nevertheless, there is one area where this effort could make a big difference, and that is in short sales. I’ve heard complaints from different states that banks won’t even respond to a short sale proposal. In LA, owners have to advertise “no short sale,” otherwise brokers won’t bring buyers to a viewing. This format will make it awfully difficult for a bank to reject a short sale offer that is in line with current market prices. So this new system will probably yield some benefit but I don’t expect it to be the remedy that its sponsors hope it will be.