New York, NY - Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman has filed a lawsuit against several of the nation’s largest banks charging that the creation and use of a private national mortgage electronic registry system known as MERS has resulted in a wide range of deceptive and fraudulent foreclosure filings in New York state and federal courts, harming homeowners and undermining the integrity of the judicial foreclosure process. The lawsuit asserts that employees and agents of Bank of America, J.P. Morgan Chase, and Wells Fargo, acting as "MERS certifying officers," have repeatedly submitted court documents containing false and misleading information that made it appear that the foreclosing party had the authority to bring a case when in fact it may not have. The lawsuit names JPMorgan Chase Bank, N.A., Bank of America, N.A., Wells Fargo Bank, N.A., as well as Virginia-based MERSCORP, Inc. and its subsidiary, Mortgage Electronic Registration Systems, Inc.
The lawsuit further asserts that the MERS System has effectively eliminated homeowners’ and the public’s ability to track property transfers through the traditional public records system. Instead, this information is now stored only in a private database - which is plagued with inaccuracies and errors - over which MERS and its financial institution members exercise sole control. Additional defendants include BAC Home Loans Servicing, LP, Chase Home Finance LLC, EMC Mortgage Corporation, and Wells Fargo Home Mortgage, Inc.
"The banks created the MERS system as an end-run around the property recording system, to facilitate the rapid securitization and sale of mortgages. Once the mortgages went sour, these same banks brought foreclosure proceedings en masse based on deceptive and fraudulent court submissions, seeking to take homes away from people with little regard for basic legal requirements or the rule of law," said Attorney General Schneiderman. "Our action demonstrates that there is one set of rules for all - no matter how big or powerful the institution may be - and that those rules will be enforced vigorously. Only through real accountability for the illegal and deceptive conduct in the foreclosure crisis will there be justice for New York’s homeowners."
The financial industry created MERS in 1995 to allow financial institutions to evade local county recording fees, avoid the hassle and paperwork of publicly recording mortgage transfers, and facilitate the rapid sale and securitization of mortgages. MERS operates as a membership organization, and most large companies that participate in the mortgage industry - by originating loans, buying or investing in loans, or servicing loans - are members, including JPMorgan Chase, Bank of America, Wells Fargo, Fannie Mae, and Freddie Mac. Over 70 million loans nationally have been registered in MERS System, including about 30 million currently active loans.
Through their membership in MERS, these companies avoided publicly recording the purchase and sale of mortgages by designating MERS Inc. - a shell company with no economic interest in any mortgage loan - as the "nominal" mortgagee of the loan in the public records. Instead, MERS members were supposed to log mortgage transfers in the MERS private electronic registry. The basic theory behind MERS is that, because MERS Inc. serves as a "nominee" (or agent) for most major lenders, it remains the "mortgagee" in the public records regardless of how often the loan is sold or transferred among MERS members. Thus, although MERSCORP has only about 70 employees, MERS Inc. serves as the mortgagee of record for tens of millions of loans registered in the MERS System.
MERS has granted over 20,000 "certifying officers" the authority to act on its behalf, including the authority to assign mortgages, to execute paperwork necessary to foreclose, and to submit filings on behalf of MERS in bankruptcy proceedings. These certifying officers are not MERS employees, but instead are employed by MERS members, including JPMorgan Chase, Bank of America, and Wells Fargo.
The lawsuit specifically charges that the defendants have engaged in the following fraudulent and deceptive practices:
• MERS has filed over 13,000 foreclosure actions against New York homeowners listing itself as the plaintiff, but in many instances, MERS lacked the legal authority to foreclose and did not own or hold the promissory note, despite saying otherwise in court submissions.
• MERS’ indiscriminate use of non-employee "certifying officers" to execute vital legal documents has confused, misled, and deceived homeowners and the courts and made it difficult to ascertain whether a party actually has the right to foreclose. MERS certifying officers have regularly executed and submitted in court mortgage assignments and other legal documents on behalf of MERS without disclosing that they are not MERS employees, but instead are employed by other entities, such as the mortgage servicer filing the case or its counsel. The signature line just indicates that the individual is an "Assistant Secretary," "Vice President," or other officer of MERS. Indeed, these documents often purport to assign the mortgage to the certifying officer’s own employer. Moreover, as a result of the defendants’ failure to track the designation of certifying officers and the scope of their authority to act, individuals have executed legal documents on behalf of MERS, such as mortgage assignments and loan modifications, when they were either not designated as a MERS certifying officer at the time or were not authorized to execute documents on behalf of MERS with respect to the subject loan.
• The MERS System is riddled with inaccuracies which make it difficult to verify the chain of title for a loan or the current note-holder, and creates confusion among stakeholders who rely on the information. In addition, as a result of these inaccuracies, MERS has filed mortgage satisfactions against the wrong property.
The lawsuit also seeks a court order requiring defendants to take all actions necessary to cure any title defects and clear any improper liens resulting from their fraudulent and deceptive acts and practices.