In a unanimous decision, the Alabama Court of Civil Appeals reversed a lower court decision on a foreclosure case, U.S. Bank v. Congress and remanded the case to trial court.
We’d flagged this case as important because to our knowledge, it was the first to argue what we call the New York trust theory, namely, that the election to use New York law in the overwhelming majority of mortgage securitizations meant that the parties to the securitization could operate only as stipulated in the pooling and servicing agreement that created that particular deal. Over 100 years of precedents in New York have produced well settled case law that deems actions outside what the trustee is specifically authorized to do as “void acts” having no legal force. The rigidity of New York trust has serious implications for mortgage securitizations. The PSAs required that the notes (the borrower IOUs) be transferred to the trust in a very specific fashion (endorsed with wet ink signatures through a particular set of parties) before a cut-off date, which typically was no later than 90 days after the trust closing. The problem is, as we’ve described in numerous posts, that there appears to have been massive disregard in the securitization for complying with the contractual requirements that they established and appear to have complied with, at least in the early years of the securitization industry. It’s difficult to know when the breakdown occurred, but it appears that well before 2004-2005, many subprime originators quit bothering with the nerdy task of endorsing notes and completing assignments as the PSAs required; they seemed to take the position they could do that right before foreclosure. Indeed, that’s kosher if the note has not been securitized, but as indicated above, it is a no-go with a New York trust. There is no legal way to remedy the problem after the fact.
The solution in the Congress case appears to have been a practice that has since become troublingly become common: a fabricated allonge. An allonge is an attachment to a note that is so firmly affixed that it can’t travel separately. The fact that a note was submitted to the court in the Congress case and an allonge that fixed all the problems appeared magically, on the eve of trial, looked highly sus. The allonge also contained signatures that looked less than legitimate: they were digitized (remember, signatures as supposed to be wet ink) and some were shrunk to fit signature lines. These issues were raised at trial by Congress’s attorneys, but the fact that the magic allonge appeared the Thursday evening before Memorial Day weekend 2011 when the trial was set for Tuesday morning meant, among other things, that defense counsel was put on the back foot (for instance, how do you find and engage a signature expert on such short notice? Answer, you can’t).
The case was ruled in favor of the US Bank, in a narrow and strained opinion (which was touted as significant by reliable securitization industry booster Paul Jackson). It argued that the case was an ejectment action (the final step to get the borrower out after the foreclosure was final) so that, per securitization expert, Georgetown law professor Adam Levitin,
..the question of ownership of the note was not an issue of standing, but an affirmative defense for which the homeowner had the burden of proof…Crazy or not, however, this meant that the homeowner wasn’t actually challenging the trust’s standing. From there it was a small step for the court to say that the homeowner couldn’t invoke the terms of the PSA because she wasn’t a party to it…..
The case has been remanded back to trial court, and the judges put the issue of the allonge front and center.
The court found that the judge put an improperly high burden of proof on Congress, applying a “clear and convincing evidence” standard. The court said that was a misapplication of precedent based on cases dealing with recorded deeds. The document under dispute was an allonge to an unrecorded note. The appeals court found the evidentiary hurdle should instead be that of a preponderance of evidence. In addition, the court also found that the lower court incorrectly focused on the issue of the validity of the signatures. The appeals court found that even though Congress seemed to be contesting the validity of the signatures (the appeals court notes the argument at points seemed to be a bit confused), her real bone of contention was that the allonge was bogus (emphasis original):
Congress appears to be arguing not that signatures on the allonge are forged or otherwise invalid to prevent enforcement of the note, but that the allonge was fabricated or, essentially, created after the first trial in order to remedy the apparent defect in the chain of indorsements.
Keep in mind that Alabama is hardly a consumer friendly jurisdiction; it’s former status as one of the preferred states for launching class action suits, thanks to favorable state statutes and easily riled juries, has led to a concerted effort to elect and place business friendly judges on the bench (Alabama has far and away the most costly Supreme Court elections in the entire nation). The fact that a higher court has finally decided to place the question of the legitimacy of suddenly-appearing allonges at the heart of a ruling is a welcome development.