A Mortgage Tornado Warning, Unheeded
LOOSE PROMISSORY NOTES
There was a time when Americans had mortgage-burning parties: When they paid off a promisory note, they celebrated by burning the release of the lien.
But they kept the canceled promissory note — and there was a reason for that. Promissory notes, like dollar bills, are negotiable currency. Whoever holds them can essentially claim them.
According to O.C.J. Case No. 5595, Fannie held roughly two million mortgage notes in its offices in Herndon, Va., in 2005 — a fraction of the 15 million loans it actually owned or guaranteed. Who had the rest? Various third parties.
At that time, Fannie typically destroyed 40 percent of the notes once the mortgages were paid off. It returned the rest to the respective lenders, only without marking the notes as canceled.
Mr. Lavalle and the internal report raised concerns that Fannie wasn’t taking enough care in handling these documents. The company lacked a centralized system for reporting lost notes, for instance. Nor did custodians or loan servicers that held notes on its behalf report missing notes to homeowners.
The potential for mayhem, the report said, was serious. Anyone who gains control of a note can, in theory, try to force the borrower to pay it, even if it has already been paid. In such a case, “the borrower would have the expensive and unenviable task of trying to collect from the custodian that was negligent in losing the note, from the servicer that accepted payments, or from others responsible for the predicament,” the report stated. Mr. Lavalle suggested that Fannie return the paid notes to borrowers after stamping them “canceled.” Impractical, the 2006 report said.
This leaves open the possibility that someone might try to force homeowners to pay the same mortgage twice. Or that loans could be improperly pledged as collateral by some other institution, even though the loans have been paid, Mr. Lavalle said. Indeed, there have been instances in the foreclosure crisis when two different institutions laid claim to the same mortgage note.
In its statement last week, Fannie said it quickly addressed questions of lost note affidavits and issued guidance to servicers that no judicial foreclosures be conducted in MERS’s name. It also said it instructed Florida foreclosure lawyers “to use specific language to assure no confusion over the identity of the ‘owner’ and the ’holder’ of the note.”
The 2006 report said Mr. Lavalle at times came across as over the top, that he was, in its words, “partial to extreme analogies that undermine his credibility.” Knowing what we know now, he looks more like one of the financial Cassandras of our time — a man whose prescient warnings went unheeded.
Now, he hopes dubious mortgage practices will be eradicated.
“Any attorney general, lawyer, bank director, judge, regulator or member of Congress who does not open their eyes to the abuse, ask pertinent questions and allow proper investigation and discovery,” he said, “is only assisting in the concealment of what may be the fraud of our lifetime.”