“When a note is split from a deed of trust ‘the note becomes, as a practical matter, unsecured.’ *** Additionally, if the deed of trust was assigned without the note, then the assignee, ‘having no interest in the underlying debt or obligation, has a worthless piece of paper.’” [In re Veal – United States Bankruptcy Appellate Panel of the Ninth Circuit (June 10, 2011)]
Introduction. This case is significant for two reasons: First, it was heard and decided by a three-judge Bankruptcy Appellate Panel for the Ninth Circuit, which includes Oregon. Second, it represents the next battleground in the continuing foreclosure wars between Big Banks and Bantam Borrowers: The effect of the Uniform Commercial Code (UCC”) on the transferability of the Promissory Note (or “Note”).
Remember, the Trust Deed follows the Note. If a lender is the owner of a Trust Deed, but cannot produce the actual Note which it secures, the Trust Deed is useless, since the lender is unable to prove it is owed the debt. Conversely, if the lender owns the Note, but not the Trust Deed, it cannot foreclose the secured property. [For a poetic perspective on the peripatetic lives of a Note and Trust Deed, connect here. – PCQ]
By now, most observers are aware that Oregon’s mandatory recording statute, ORS 86.735(1), has been a major impediment to lenders and servicers seeking trying to foreclose borrowers. Two major Oregon cases, the first in federal bankruptcy court, In re McCoy, and the other, in federal district trial court, Hooker v. Bank of America, et. al, based their decisions to halt the banks’ foreclosures, squarely on the lenders’ failure to record all Trust Deed Assignments. To date, however, scant mention has been made in these cases about ownership of the Promissory Note. [Presumably, this is because a clear violation of the Oregon’s recording statute is much easier to pitch to a judge, than having to explain the nuances – and there are many – of Articles 3 and 9 of the UCC. – PCQ]
Now we have In re: Veal, which was an appeal from the bankruptcy trial judge’s order granting Wells Fargo relief from the automatic stay provisions under federal bankruptcy law. Such a ruling meant that Wells Fargo would be permitted to foreclose the Veals’ property. But since this case arose in Arizona – not Oregon – our statutory law requiring the recording of all Assignments as a prerequisite to foreclosure, did not apply. Instead, the Veals’ lawyer relied upon the banks’ failure to establish that it had any right under the UCC to enforce the Promissory Note.
Legal Background. For reasons that do not need to be explained here, the Veals filed two contemporaneous appeals. One was against Wells Fargo Bank, which was acting as the Trustee for a REMIC, Option One Mortgage Loan Trust 2006–3, Asset–Backed Certificates Series 2006–3. In the second appeal, the Veals challenged the bankruptcy court’s order overruling their objection to a proof of claim filed by Wells Fargo’s servicing agent, American Home Mortgage Servicing, Inc. (“AHMSI”).
Factual Background. In August 2006, the Veals executed a Promissory Note and Mortgage in favor of GSF Mortgage Corporation (“GSF”). On June 29, 2009, they filed a Chapter 13 bankruptcy. On July 18, 2009, AHMSI filed a proof of claim, on behalf of Wells Fargo as its servicing agent. AHMSI included with its proof of claim the following documents:
- A copy of the Note, showing an indorsement from GSF to “Option One”;
- A copy of the GSF’s Mortgage with the Veals;
- A copy of a recorded “Assignment of Mortgage” assigning the Mortgage from GSF to Option One; and,
- A letter dated May 15, 2008, signed by Jordan D. Dorchuck as Executive Vice President and Chief Legal Officer of AHMSI, addressed to “To Whom it May Concern”, stating that AHMSI acquired Option One’s mortgage servicing business.
The Veals argued that AHMSI [Wells’ servicing agent] lacked standing since neither AHMSI or Wells Fargo established that they were qualified holders of the Note under Arizona’s version of the UCC.
In a belated and last ditch effort to establish its standing, Wells Fargo filed a copy of another Assignment of Mortgage, dated after it had already filed for relief from bankruptcy stay. This Assignment purported to transfer to Wells Fargo the Mortgage held by “Sand Canyon Corporation formerly known as Option One Mortgage Corporation”.
The 3-judge panel noted that neither of the assignments (the one from GSF to Option One and the other from Sand Canyon, Option One’s successor, to Wells) were authenticated – meaning that there were no supporting affidavits or other admissible evidence vouching for the authenticity of the documents. In short, it again appears that none of the banks’ attorneys would swear that the copies were true and accurate reproductions of the original – or that they’d even seen the originals to compare them with. With continuing reports of bogus and forged assignments, and robo-signed documents of questionable legal authority, it is not surprising that the bankruptcy panel viewed this so-called “evidence” with suspicion, and did not regard it as persuasive evidence.
- As to the Assignment of Mortgage from GSF (the originating bank) to Option One, the panel noted that it purported to assign not only the Mortgage, but the Promissory Note as well.
- As to the Assignment of Mortgage from Sand Canyon [FKA Option One] to Wells Fargo [created after Wells Fargo’s motion for relied from stay], the panel said that the document did not contain language purporting to assign the Veals’ Promissory Note. As a consequence [even had it been considered as evidence], it would not have provided any proof of the transfer of the Promissory Note to Wells Fargo. At most, it would only have been proof that the Mortgage had been assigned.
After considerable discussion about the principles of standing versus real party in interest, the 3-judge panel focused on the latter, generally defining it as a rule protecting a defendant from being sued multiple times for the same obligation by different parties.
Applicability of UCC Articles 3 and 9. The Veal opinion is well worth reading for a good discussion of the Uniform Commercial Code and its applicability to the transfer and enforcement of Promissory Notes. The panel wrote that there are three ways to transfer Notes. The most common method is for one to be the “holder” of the Note. A person may be a “holder” if they:
- Have possession of the Note and it has been made payable to them; or,
- The Note is payable to the bearer [e.g. the note is left blank or payable to the “holder”.]
- The third way to enforce the Note is by attaining the status of a “nonholder in possession of the [note] who has the rights of a holder.” To do so, “…the possessor of the note must demonstrate both the fact of the delivery and the purpose of the delivery of the note to the transferee in order to qualify as the “person entitled to enforce.”
The panel concluded that none of Wells Fargo’s exhibits showed that it, or its agent, had actual possession of the Note. Thus, it could not establish that it was a holder of the Note, or a “person entitled to enforce” it. The judges noted that:
“In addition, even if admissible, the final purported assignment of the Mortgage was insufficient under Article 9 to support a conclusion that Wells Fargo holds any interest, ownership or otherwise, in the Note. Put another way, without any evidence tending to show it was a “person entitled to enforce” the Note, or that it has an interest in the Note, Wells Fargo has shown no right to enforce the Mortgage securing the Note. Without these rights, Wells Fargo cannot make the threshold showing of a colorable claim to the Property that would give it prudential standing to seek stay relief or to qualify as a real party in interest.”
As for Wells’ servicer, AHMSI, the panel reviewed the record and found nothing to establish that AHMSI was its lawful servicing agent. AHMSI had presented no evidence as to who possessed the original Note. It also presented no evidence showing indorsement of the Note either in its favor or in favor of Wells Fargo. Without establishing these elements, AHMSI could not establish that it was a “person entitled to enforce” the Note.
Quoting from the opinion:
“When debtors such as the Veals challenge an alleged servicer’s standing to file a proof of claim regarding a note governed by Article 3 of the UCC, that servicer must show it has an agency relationship with a “person entitled to enforce” the note that is the basis of the claim. If it does not, then the servicer has not shown that it has standing to file the proof of claim. ***”
Conclusion. Why is the Veal case important? Let’s start with recent history: First, we know that during the securitization heydays of 2005 – 2007, record keeping and document retention were exceedingly lax. Many in the lending and servicing industry seemed to think that somehow, MERS would reduce the paper chase. However, MERS was not mandatory, and in any event, it captured at best, perhaps 60% of the lending industry. Secondly, MERS tracked only Mortgages and Trust Deeds – not Promissory Notes. So even if a lender can establish its ownership of the Trust Deed, that alone is not enough, without the Note, to permit the foreclosure.
As recent litigation has revealed, some large lenders, such as Countrywide, made a habit of holding on to their Promissory Notes, rather than transferring them into the REMIC trusts that were supposed to be holding them. This cavalier attitude toward document delivery is now coming home to roost. While it may not have been a huge issue when loans were being paid off, it did become a huge issue when loans fell into default.
So should the Big Banks make good on their threat to start filing judicial foreclosures in Oregon, defense attorneys will likely shift their sights away from the unrecorded Trust Deed Assignments, and focus instead on whether the lenders and servicers actually have the legal right to enforce the underlying Promissory Notes.
 The word “indorsement” is UCC-speak for “endorsement” – as in “endorsing a check” in order to cash it.
 Although not perhaps as apparent in the opinion as it could have been, there were not successive indorsements of the Veals’ Promissory Note, i.e. from the originating bank to the foreclosing bank. There was only one, i.e. from GSF to Option One. There was no evidence that the Note, or the right to enforce it, had been transferred to Wells Fargo or AHMSI. Ultimately, there was no legal entitlement under the UCC giving either Wells or its servicer, AHMSI, the ability to enforce that Note. The principle here is that owning a borrower’s Trust Deed or Mortgage is insufficient without also owning, or have a right to enforce, the Promissory Note that it secures.
 Mr. Dorchuck did not appear to testify. His letter, on its face, is clearly hearsay and inadmissible. The failure to properly lay any foundation for the letter, or authenticate it “under penalty of perjury” is inexplicable – one that the bankruptcy panel criticized. This was not the only example of poor evidentiary protocol followed by the banks in this case. However, this may not be the fault of the banks’ lawyers. It is entirely possible these were the documents they had to work with, and they declined to certify under “penalty of perjury” the authenticity of them. If that is the case, one wonders how long good attorneys will continue to work for bad banks?
 This is a drafting sleight of hand. Mortgages and Trust Deeds are transferred by “assignment” from one entity to another. But Promissory Notes must be transferred under an entirely different set of rules – the UCC. Thus, to transfer both the Note and Mortgage by a simple “Assignment” document, is facially insufficient, by itself, to transfer ownership of – or a right to enforce – the Promissory Note.
 The successive recording requirement of ORS 86.735(1) only applies when the lender is seeking to foreclose non-judicially. Judicial foreclosures do not contain that statutory requirement. However, to judicially foreclose, lenders will still have to establish that they meet the standing and real party interest requirements of the law. In short, they will have to deal head-on with the requirements of Articles 3 and 9 of the Uniform Commercial Code. The Veal case is a good primer on these issues.