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New York to sue Wells Fargo over mortgage settlement

Adam Jeffery | CNBC

Fielding complaints from borrowers struggling to save their homes, New York's top prosecutor is preparing a lawsuit against Wells Fargo, accusing the bank, the nation's largest home lender, of flouting the terms of a multibillion-dollar settlement aimed at stanching foreclosure abuses.

The lawsuit, which is expected to be filed as early as Wednesday, accuses Wells Fargo of violating the guidelines of a broad agreement reached last year between five of the nation's largest banks and 49 state attorneys general.

Under that deal, the banks must comply with 304 servicing standards. The guidelines map out how banks should field and process requests from distressed homeowners.

Vickee J. Adams, a spokeswoman for Wells Fargo, said the bank had not been served with a copy of the lawsuit. But, she added, "if true, it is very disappointing that the New York attorney general continues to pursue his course, given our commitment to the terms of the National Mortgage Settlement and ongoing engagement.

(Read More: Stocks are about to plunge, Wells Fargo strategist warns)

"Wells Fargo has been a leader in preventing foreclosures, helping families maintain homeownership with more than 880,000 modifications nationwide and 26,000 in New York over the last four years," she said.

The New York attorney general, Eric T. Schneiderman, sent a previous warning shot to Bank of America and Wells Fargo, announcing in May that he had found that both banks violated the terms of the mortgage settlement. That announcement prompted negotiations between the New York prosecutor's office and the two banks.

The outcomes for the lenders are starkly different. While Wells Fargo is bracing for a lawsuit, Bank of America is poised to announce a series of additional protections that it has adopted after discussions with Mr. Schneiderman's office. Those additional protections — including an agreement to designate a "high-level" employee dedicated to fielding and responding to questions from housing counselors — appear to have won the bank a reprieve from a lawsuit.

"We are pleased to resolve these matters without litigation," said a spokesman for Bank of America, Dan B. Frahm. "Along with the settlement monitoring committee, we continue to improve the experience for eligible customers and groups that represent them."

Wells Fargo is also working with the monitor on additional consumer protections.

More state attorneys general may follow Mr. Schneiderman's lead. The Massachusetts attorney general, Martha Coakley, has also sent a letter to Joseph A. Smith, the settlement monitor, outlining "recurring issues" with servicers, according to a copy of the letter reviewed by The New York Times.

(Read More: Mortgage slowdown forces new layoffs at Wells Fargo)

For Wells Fargo, though, the discussions with the New York attorney general's office resulted in a standoff. Mr. Schneiderman's office, people briefed on the matter said, had pushed Wells Fargo to acknowledge a systematic pattern of mortgage servicing errors and to commit to a new agreement codifying changes to the way the bank services mortgages. Wells Fargo balked, the people said, and the talks broke down last week.

Amid the languishing talks, the bank sent a letter to Mr. Schneiderman's office, reiterating its commitment to "helping borrowers maintain homeownership and achieve long-term financial success," according to a copy of the letter reviewed by The Times.

Mr. Schneiderman had found 210 separate violations involving the bank and 96 borrowers. Four of those borrowers, the letter said, were not Wells Fargo customers. In its letter, the bank said it "disagrees with allegations" related to the remaining borrowers. Of the remainder, the bank has approved loan modifications for 39 customers and made a final decision on the loan modification applications for 28 others. Beyond helping the homeowners identified by the attorney general's office, Wells Fargo voluntarily improved its processes, the bank argued in its letter.

Those concessions apparently did not appease Mr. Schneiderman's office. Part of the problem, the people briefed on the matter said, was that Wells Fargo refused to improve their processes in a formal agreement.

More from the NYT:

Some within the attorney general's office also felt the bank's proposed fixes constituted a Whac-a-Mole approach in which it addressed only the cases originally highlighted, the people briefed on the matter said. The New York attorney general's office still receives more complaints about Wells Fargo's servicing than for any other lender, they added.

The settlement guidelines include requirements that banks provide homeowners with a single point of contact and notify borrowers of missing documentation within five days.

(Read More: Wells Fargo eliminates 2,300 mortgage jobs)

They are intended to help homeowners who are looking to modify their mortgages — a process that can prove frustrating for homeowners asked to submit the same documents again and again.

Such delays can mean the difference between saving a home and losing it to foreclosure, according to housing counselors. When applications for relief languish with borrowers caught in a bureaucratic maze, homeowners amass additional costs.

Ms. Adams of Wells Fargo said that the bank "continuously implements additional customer-focused measures based on the constructive feedback we receive from our customers, the monitoring committee and individual states, including New York." She added that the bank believed a "collaborative approach" was better for homeowners than "protracted litigation."

The move against Wells Fargo is the first time that an attorney general has sued one of the five participating banks on charges related to the settlement. That settlement, reached in 2012, sprung from an investigation that began in 2010 amid a national outcry that banks were relying on mass-produced documents to evict homeowners wrongfully.

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