A Massachusetts appeals court ruled recently that lenders who lose a promissory note cannot enforce the mortgage. In this particular case, the lender was able to produce the mortgage, but some of the key mortgage terms were missing, rendering it unenforceable.
Another significant issue in this case has to do with the fact that the foreclosure in this case was a second mortgage. When the first mortgage was refinanced, the lenders' attorneys made a crucial mistake. They never obtained a subordination from the second lien holder. When the first mortgage holder asked the court to rearrange the priorities of mortgages (in an attempt to correct their screw up), the court denied their request.
The following article goes into some more detail.
Massachusetts Appeals Court Rules That Lost Promissory Note Renders Mortgage Unenforceable
by RICH VETSTEIN on MARCH 2, 2012
Case Underscores Importance of Safeguarding Loan Documents And Getting Subordinations
JPMorgan Chase & Co. v. Casarano, Mass. Appeals Court (Feb. 28, 2012) (click to read)
In a decision which could impact foreclosure cases involving missing or lost loan documents, the Appeals Court held that a mortgage is unenforceable and must be discharged where the underlying promissory note securing the mortgage could not be found.
Seller Second Mortgage Financing
This case involved an unconventional second mortgage for approximately $15,000 taken back from a private seller. The homeowner subsequently refinanced the first mortgage several times, but the refinancing lenders’ attorneys never obtained a subordination from the second lien-holder. That was a mistake. The first mortgage wound up in Wells Fargo’s hands which realized that due to the lack of recorded subordination, the second mortgage was senior to its first mortgage.
Alas, a title claim arose and the title insurance company had to step in and file an “equitable subrogation” action. In this type of legal action, a first mortgage holder asks the court to rearrange the priorities of mortgages due to mistake, inadvertence or to prevent injustice.
Where’s The Note?
The second mortgage holder had lost the promissory note which secured its mortgage, and notably, could not locate a copy of it. The mortgage itself referenced the amount of the loan and the interest rate but was silent on everything else, including the payment term, maturity date, and whether it was under seal. The second mortgage holder argued that enough of the terms of the missing note could be “imported” from the mortgage, but the Appeals Court disagreed, reasoning that there wasn’t enough specificity on key terms to enforce the mortgage.
Lesson One: Safeguard Original Loan Docs
This decision underscores the importance of safeguarding original promissory notes and other debt instruments, or at a minimum keeping photocopies so that if enforcement is required, the material terms of the original can be proved to the satisfaction of the court. With all the paperwork irregularities endemic with securitized mortgages these days, missing or lost promissory notes and loan documents have become more prevalent. This decision is potentially problematic for those foreclosures where the original promissory note is lost. The standard Fannie Mae form mortgage does not spell out the loan terms with specificity, instead, it references the promissory note. Indeed, the Fannie Mae mortgage does not even reference the interest rate. Based on this decision, a mortgage without sufficient evidence of a promissory note could be rendered unenforceable and un-forecloseable.
As an aside, a lender who lacks an original promissory note could rely upon Uniform Commercial Code Section 3-309, which provides:
(a) A person not in possession of an instrument is entitled to enforce the instrument if (i) the person was in possession of the instrument and entitled to enforce it when loss of possession occurred, (ii) the loss of possession was not the result of a transfer by the person or a lawful seizure, and (iii) the person cannot reasonably obtain possession of the instrument because the instrument was destroyed, its whereabouts cannot be determined, or it is in the wrongful possession of an unknown person or a person that cannot be found or is not amenable to service of process. (b) A person seeking enforcement of an instrument under subsection (a) must prove the terms of the instrument and the person’s right to enforce the instrument. If that proof is made, section 3-308 applies to the case as if the person seeking enforcement had produced the instrument. The court may not enter judgment in favor of the person seeking enforcement unless it finds that the person required to pay the instrument is adequately protected against loss that might occur by reason of a claim by another person to enforce the instrument. Adequate protection may be provided by any reasonable means.
Lesson Two: Get Subordinations For Junior Liens
This decision also underscores the importance of getting a subordination agreement for second mortgages and other junior lien-holders when closing refinances. A subordination agreement is a contract whereby a junior lien-holder agrees to remain in junior position to a first mortgage or other senior lien-holder during a refinancing transaction. Otherwise, the first in time rule of recording would elevate a junior lien-holder to first, priority position after a refinance. If a subordination was obtained and recorded here, this case would not have occurred.
Disclaimer: I drafted the original complaint in this case while working at my previous law firm. I had long since left when the case was decided at the Appeals Court.
Richard D. Vetstein, Esq. is a Massachusetts real estate and title defect attorney. He can be reached by email firstname.lastname@example.org or 508-620-5352.