Sherwin Law Firm Wins Foreclosure Appeal

foreclosure appeal

I’m pleased to announce that I, along with appellate attorney Joseph Schneiderman, won a foreclosure appeal this week in the Massachusetts Appeals Court.  The case, Nationstar v. Culhane (included below) concerns an important topic for appealing an eviction (“summary process”) case in Massachusetts: the importance of timely filing a notice of appeal.

Overview of Case

It would take much, much more than a single blog post to give the background on this case, or even the procedural history of this matter.  Here’s a quick synopsis.  The homeowner went through a foreclosure sale and faced a post-foreclosure eviction case by the foreclosing lender.  In such a case, the homeowner has a right to defend against the eviction by alleging that the foreclosure was not lawful.  Here, my client had a strong defense based on the lender’s failure to comply with paragraph 22 of her mortgage.

Case History

My client won her case at the District Court, where the foreclosing lender filed this eviction case.  Following my client’s win, the foreclosing lender appealed this case to the District Court Appellate Division.  The Appellate Division is a part of the District Court and hears appeals of most civil cases from the District Court.

The Appellate Division reversed the District Court’s decision, and ruled that the foreclosing lender should have won the eviction case.  I then appealed the case to the Massachusetts Appeals Court, which hears appeals decided by the Appellate Division.

Outcome of Foreclosure Appeal

The Appeals Court ruled in my client’s favor based on a critical argument we raised for my client: the foreclosing lender’s failure to timely file this foreclosure appeal.

Massachusetts eviction law has a short deadline for pursuing an eviction appeal: ten days.  As we argued to the court, previous decisions on this law hold that a failure to meet this deadline, for seemingly any reason, are grounds for dismissing the appeal.  Here, the foreclosing lender filed its notice of appeal after the ten-day deadline, which the Appeals Court agreed was grounds for dismissing the appeal.

Conclusion

This case has some really important lessons not just for a foreclosure appeal, but any appeal of an eviction case.  The deadline for such an appeal must be timely filed.  Often, the failure to timely appeal a civil case is not always fatal to one’s case; appeal courts have discretion to allow a untimely appeal for good cause.  Not so with eviction cases.  This case, along with many prior cases on this matter (discussed in the court’s decision below) suggest that there are few grounds for filing an eviction appeal late.

For this reason, I always recommend that lawyers and parties representing themselves in an eviction appeal err on the side of caution when preserving a right to appeal.   File the notice of appeal as soon as possible and make sure you have proof that the court and opposing party receive this notice.  Take no chances on this.  I have been known to jump in my car on the last day of the deadline to appeal and make a special trip to court if I have any reason to believe the notice of appeal was not timely received by the court.

This case also demonstrates the importance of working with an experienced appellate attorney on one of these matters.  The arguments in this case were highly technical and required a deep understanding of Massachusetts eviction law and appellate procedure.  If you find yourself involved in a similar foreclosure appeal, contact me to see if I can help.

 

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Landlord Not Giving a Security Deposit Back

 

A landlord not giving a security deposit back is one of the most common type of landlord/tenant problems.  What should a tenant do if this happens to them?

Overview of Massachusetts’s Security Deposit Law

Massachusetts’s security deposit law regulates how a landlord is allowed to collect and hold a tenant’s security deposit.  Skim through this law and you’ll see that almost everything concerning a security deposit is subject to one of this law’s provisions.  The amount of the security deposit, bank account where it can be held, and–most relevant to this post–the return of the deposit are covered by this law.

Failure to comply with Massachusetts’s security deposit has dire consequences for landlords.  Penalties can include treble damages, court costs, and attorney fees.  This means that even a small security deposit violation can lead to a large judgement for non-compliance with this law.

Requirements for Returning a Tenant’s Security Deposit

The return of a security deposit must be done carefully.  A landlord is only allowed to deduct from the deposit unpaid rent or water charges, an unpaid increase in real estate taxes (if the tenant was obligated to pay this under the terms of the tenancy), and a reasonable amount to repair any damage to the unit.  For the latter deduction, the landlord must provide a list of these damages, sworn under “the pains and penalties of perjury” and written evidence of these expenses.

This return of the deposit must be made within thirty days of the tenant ending their tenancy.

What To Do About a Landlord Not Giving a Security Deposit Back 

If your landlord is not giving your security deposit back, consult an experienced landlord/tenant lawyer.  An attorney can review your case and quickly determine whether you have a claim against your landlord.  Massachusetts’s security deposit law, importantly, often provides for attorney fees: if you prevail in your case against a landlord, the costs of hiring an attorney may be recovered in the case.

Obtaining a Loan to Avoid Foreclosure

Happy New Year!  I hope 2018 has been off to a great start for you . . . besides the cold weather.  A recent foreclosure case that I successfully resolved is the basis for this blog post: obtaining a loan to avoid foreclosure.  This option, while not for everyone, can be an effective means of foreclosure defense.

Foreclosure 101

Foreclosure is the process by which a lender can force the sale of a property to recover the borrower’s owed debt for the property.  Massachusetts is a non-judicial foreclosure state:  a lender does not need to go to court to foreclose, and performs this process through a series of letters and notices.  The most common cause for foreclosure is a borrower’s failure to pay their mortgage loan.

Obtaining a Loan to Avoid Foreclosure 

Avoiding foreclosure requires a borrower to resolve the underlining money owed on a home.  Foreclosure defense is not about getting a free home and the only permanent solution to foreclosure is addressing the owed debt.  This can occur through a loan modification, where a lender agrees to restructure a loan to make the payments more affordable for the borrower.

Another option for some borrowers is obtaining a loan to avoid foreclosure.  If a borrower can obtain financing from another lender to pay the owed money on the home, this can be an option for saving one’s home.  This new financing, of course, would need to be more affordable for the borrower to make this option worthwhile.

This option is not for every borrower facing foreclosure: many borrowers in these predicaments lack the credit to obtain new financing.  This is a more realistic option for  those facing foreclosure who are not on the underlining loan.  This can occur if a homeowner has inherited a home with a delinquent mortgage loan, or have a partner or spouse whose name alone was on the mortgage debt.  In such a scenario, the non-borrower may qualify for a loan to avoid foreclosure, whose terms are more favorable than the delinquent debt.

Obtaining the Assistance of a Foreclosure Defense Attorney

If obtaining a loan to avoid foreclosure is an option for you, a foreclosure defense attorney can be helpful for your case.  If the underlining mortgage loan is really behind in payments, the owed debt may be much higher than the property value, making it difficult to find new financing.  A lawyer may be helpful in negotiating a more reasonable payoff for the homeowner.

I have had success in such cases, where the homeowner has excellent credit and is facing foreclosure through no fault of their own.  In the right circumstances, the lender might agree to accept less than what is owed on the property, with the borrower getting an affordable mortgage loan.

A word of caution on this blog post.  I have heard from some potential clients who have considered purposely defaulting on their loan, in hopes of getting a better payoff in the end.  This is bad, bad advice.  Defaulting on a mortgage loan has serious consequences, and there is never a guarantee that a permanent foreclosure defense can be reached for such a case.

Conclusion 

If you find yourself facing foreclosure, contact me for a consultation.  The advantages of having an experienced attorney on your side can make all of the difference in attempting to save your home.

Damages for a Security Deposit Violation in Massachusetts

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court issued an important decision on Massachusetts’s security deposit law earlier this year which clarifies the damages than a tenant can obtain from a security deposit violation.

In Phillips v. Equity Residential Management, LLC, the Supreme Judicial Court held that treble damages are not required for every security deposit violation.  Like Massachusetts’s security deposit law itself, Phillips is a complex case.

Overview of Massachusetts’s Security Deposit Law 

Massachusetts’s security deposit law heavily regulates a landlord’s acceptance, holding, and return of a tenant’s security deposit.  This law is so detailed that I, along with many other landlord/tenant attorneys, warn landlords to never accept a security deposit.  This law, among other things, has requirements on where a security deposit must be held, what information must be provided to a tenant about the acceptance of the deposit, and what deductions may be taken from the deposit at the end of the tenancy.

Damages for a Security Deposit Violation

Failure to comply with the security deposit law can come with harsh consequences.  The law imposes treble damages, attorney fees, and costs for failure to comply with many of its detailed requirements.  In Phillips, the Supreme Judicial Court clarified which security deposit violations permit treble damages against a landlord.

The security deposit law contains a number of “forfeiture” provisions, where a landlord is required to automatically return a deposit.  The law also imposes treble damages for a failure to “return to the tenant the security deposit or balance thereof to which the tenant is entitled after deducting therefrom any sums in accordance with the provisions of this section, together with any interest thereon, within thirty days after termination of the tenancy.”  Phillips determined whether a tenant gets treble damages for failing to return a portion of the deposit that was otherwise forfeited under the law.

Prior to Phillips, many courts took the position that treble damages applied anytime a landlord violated the security deposit law.  Now, the law is clear that for some violations of the law, a tenant is simply entitled to the full return of his deposit, without treble damages.

Conclusion 

While Phillips places limits on the damages one can receive for a security deposit violation, it would be a mistake to under estimate the importance of complying with this law if you are a landlord, and understanding its protections for tenants if your security deposit has been wrongfully withheld.

In my opinion, one of the dire consequences of Phillips is that tenants may not be able to obtain attorney fees for certain security deposit violations.  They may be able to get their full deposit back, but nothing for the expenses of hiring an attorney to assist with the case, making it cost prohibitive to hire a lawyer for such a matter: the reason why the harsh penalties of this law exist in the first place.

However, there is an often unknown law that may provide help in such a scenario.  G.L. c. 186, § 20 provides that, if there is a written lease agreement allowing the landlord to get attorney fees against a tenant, the tenant is also allowed attorney fees against a landlord for any violation of the lease agreement.  This law suggests that a tenant may be able to obtain attorney fees for security deposit violations that are not within the scope of treble damages, attorney fees, and costs, per Phillips.

If you find yourself involved with a security deposit violation, contact me for a consultation.  An experienced attorney is essential in one of these tricky matters.

Preserving a “Pinti” Defense – Paragraph 22 of the Standard Mortgage

The Massachusetts Appeals Court issued an important decision this week on preserving a “Pinti” defense under paragraph 22 of the standard mortgage.  In US Bank v. Milan, the Appeals Court ruled that a homeowner failed to preserve this foreclosure defense and was precluded from raising it in his foreclosure case (a full copy of this decision is below).

Overview of Paragraph 22 of the Standard Mortgage

Paragraph 22 of the standard mortgage (used for most residential home purchases) requires that a default notice be sent to a homeowner containing a number of required disclosures before a foreclosure sale can proceed.  In Pinti v. Emigrant Mortgage, the Supreme Judicial Court held that a lender must strictly comply with this mortgage requirement.  Failure to do so makes any subsequent foreclosure sale void.

Pinti, importantly, limited the homeowners who were entitled to this defense.  Initially, the decision only applied to those paragraph 22 notices sent after July 17, 2015 (the date of Pinti).  The Appeals Court subsequently extended the benefit of Pinti to those homeowners who had a pending appeal on the paragraph 22 issue, and later, to any homeowner who raised it as a defense in a pending trial court case.  In this present appeal, the Appeals Court needed to determine what counts to preserve this defense in a pending foreclosure case.

How Does a Homeowner Preserve a Paragraph 22 Defense? 

In this case, the homeowner was in a post-foreclosure eviction case, where the bank alleged to have foreclosed the home.  The homeowner was entitled to defend against the eviction by arguing that the foreclosure was void, precluding the bank from obtaining possession of the home.

Here, the homeowner appears to have answered the bank’s eviction lawsuit by using a printed answer form, which allows claimants to raise defenses and counterclaims by checking a box.  This homeowner made a general allegation that the foreclosure was void.  In response to the bank’s inquiry on the basis of this defense, the homeowner alleged that there was forgery in his case, and did not mention a failure to comply with paragraph 22 of his mortgage.  While this case was ongoing, the Supreme Judicial Court issued Pinti.  The trial judge ruled that Pinti applied because the homeowner preserved a Pinti defense in this case, and found the overall foreclosure to be void.

The Appeals Court disagreed, ruling that the homeowner listed forgery, and not a paragraph 22 defect, as the asserted grounds for the homeowner’s foreclosure defense.  In other words, the Court was not willing to let the homeowner “change horses midstream” and get the benefit of Pinti after stating a prior, separate basis for his foreclosure defense.

Conclusion 

Recent court cases have been favorable to foreclosed homeowners with a paragraph 22 defect.  Milan suggests that there are limits to who can get the benefit of Pinti  in their case, and that a failure to expressly raise this matter can be fatal to one’s defense.  This decision, however, really only applies to homeowners with a pending foreclosure case who received a defective paragraph 22 notice before July 17, 2015.  Homeowners who received a defective notice after this date will likely have much more leeway in raising a Pinti defense.

While the Court did not address this issue, Milan touches upon the problems of using forms in answering or bringing a lawsuit.  Such forms allowed a claimant to raise a defense or claim merely by “checking a box” and without providing any supporting facts or detail.  I have long believed that these forms are problematic and not proper under the requirements for raising a legal claimMilan suggests that Massachusetts appeal courts may be inclined to take a closer look at this issue in the future.  Regardless, this is a reason why the benefits of finding an experienced foreclosure defense attorney cannot be overstated.

US Bank v. Milan

Overview of Summary Judgment in Massachusetts

Summary Judgment in Massachusetts

Summary judgment is a common part of civil lawsuits, and a topic that comes up frequently in discussing what to expect in litigation.  Summary judgment applies to any civil case, but I wanted to do a post on this topic because it frequently comes up in discussions with clients on the course of a lawsuit.

Overview of a Lawsuit

A lawsuit, simply put, is a demand for a court to offer a remedy against another party.  This can include a demand for money, possession, or equity (such as a court order demanding a party to do, or not do, something).  A party served with a lawsuit has an opportunity to present a defense and convince the court why it should not find for the plaintiff.

After service of a lawsuit and an answer by the defendant, the parties have an opportunity to do discovery, where they can learn about each other’s case.  Following discovery, the lawsuit is then ripe for trial.  However, either party can seek a summary judgment motion as a means of winning the case without trial.

What is Summary Judgment?

To understand summary judgment, it is helpful to first understand the role of a trial in a civil case.  The purpose of a trial is for the jury (or judge, if there is no jury) to decide which “side of the story” to believe.  Doing so requires the judge or jury to hear the disputed facts and determine which side is more credible.  Once doing so, the jury or judge applies these determined facts to the law, and offers a final judgment in the matter.

Summary judgment is an attempt to get a court judgment without trial.  Summary judgment requires a party to prove that (a) there are no genuine issues of material fact and (b) the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.

For the first element, the moving party must show that the facts are not disputed.  For example, in a landlord/tenant eviction for non-payment of rent, a landlord seeking summary judgment would need to show that there is a tenancy agreement between the landlord and tenant, rent is owed, and all of the required court papers were prepared and served.  If the tenant disputes any of this, such as alleging that no rent is owed, there would be a dispute of fact, and summary judgment would not be allowed.  Instead, a trial would be required.

For the second element, “being entitled to judgment as a matter of law,” the moving party must show that the law provides the remedy they are asking the court for.  It is possible to have a case where no facts are disputed, but the law simply does not provide the relief that the claimant is seeking.

Summary Judgment in Practice

Summary judgment is often requested in lawsuits, as it avoids the need for a trial.  Rather than putting on a full trial before a judge or jury, summary judgment can allowed a case to be decided solely on the papers, and avoid enormous time and legal fees.

The decision to seek summary judgment, however, must be made carefully.  I often seek lawyers attempt a summary judgment motion where the facts are clearly disputed, and the motion merely delays the case and adds unnecessary costs to the case.  In some cases, simply bringing the case to trial is the much more logical choice.

On the other hand, summary judgment can be effective at getting your case resolved quicker than trial.  An effective summary judgment motion, however, requires that the facts and law be presented in a proper manner to allow for this relief.

Conclusion 

The benefits of having an experienced attorney on your side can make all the difference in winning a case on summary judgment.  If you find yourself in need of help with a lawsuit, contact me for a consultation.

A Foreclosure Defense Success Story

Last week, I got great news that one of my long time clients had obtained a loan modification, permitting him to save his home after eight years of not making payments on the loan, and years of pursuing foreclosure defense.  To say this is a success story would be an understatement: this client was in a incredibly tough position when I took his matter on, but now has a real shot of saving his home.  Read on about this foreclosure defense success story . . .

Post-Foreclosure Eviction

A quick background on Massachusetts foreclosure law.  Massachusetts is a non-judicial foreclosure state.  This means that a lender does not need to go to court to foreclose, but can do so through a series of written notices and a public foreclosure sale.  Once completed, a lender obtains title to the subject property.  It does not, however, obtain possession.  For this, the bank is required to bring an eviction against the homeowners.  In such a post-foreclosure eviction case, the homeowner is permitted to challenge the validity of the foreclosure.

In this particular case, I began representing my client following his default in the eviction case brought by the lender.  Simply put, this means that the homeowner never came to court on the date of his eviction hearing, allowing the bank to automatically “win” the eviction case.

By the time this client came to me, several weeks had passed since the default.  This made the process of lifting the default against my client a particular challenge.  Massachusetts evictions are suppose to be “speedy.”  Failure to act quickly can cost a party their legal rights.  Here, I was able to convince the court to “undo” the default judgment by pointing out an error in one of the initial court documents sent to my client.  Reluctantly, the court let my client go forward with defending against the eviction case from the bank.

Following this, I prepared my client’s case based on a defense related to a Federal Housing Administration (“FHA”) loan.  An FHA loan generally requires the lender to do a face-to-face meeting prior to foreclosure, and failure to comply with this requirement makes any subsequent foreclosure void.  As my client’s lender was unable to prove that it complied with this requirement, my client won his eviction case against the lender.

Loan Modification Application 

Winning a post-foreclosure eviction, on its own, will not solve the long-term goal of keeping one’s home.  Even if a foreclosure is void, a lender can (and almost always will) foreclose end.  To avoid foreclosure, a borrower needs to do something about the outstanding mortgage loan debt, which is most commonly resolved through a loan modification.

After my client’s lender invited him to apply for a loan modification, I helped my client prepare and submit an application.  Doing so required several applications to the lender, as the lender denied the first one.  While I have written about the horror stories of applying for loan modifications, this process was generally straightforward, with the lender being responsive to my phone calls and submitted documentation.

Conclusion

In the end, all of this work was worth it: my client has qualified for a loan modification, and is on his way to keeping his home for good.  I wasn’t the only one surprised by this outcome: the customer service representative I spoke to after getting this decision acknowledge that this outcome, under these circumstances, does not happen very often!

It is important to keep in mind a few things about this case.  While my client avoided losing his home, he (appropriately) owes money on his home, and will need to make payments on it for years to come.  Foreclosure defense is not about getting a free home, and working out an affordable payment plan is the only real way of avoiding foreclosure long term.

Additionally, although it is possible to save a home after a foreclosure sale, doing so is a much tougher route than avoiding foreclosure in the first place.  If you find yourself facing foreclosure, contact a foreclosure defense attorney as soon as possible to learn your options.

What is a Lis Pendens?

An effective tool in pursuing a real estate dispute is a lis pendens.  A request for a lis pendens often comes up in property lawsuits and can be useful for protecting one’s interest in real estate while a lawsuit is ongoing.

What is a Lis Pendens?

A lis pendens, simply put, is a formal notice of a pending legal action.  Per the law, a lis pendens is allowed for a lawsuit that “affects the title to real property or the use and occupation thereof or the buildings thereon . . .”  A lis pendens must be signed by a judge, after finding that the underlining lawsuit is one that meets this standard.  After a judge approves a lis pendens, it may be recorded in the appropriate registry of deeds as part of the land records.

Recording a lis pendens, on its own, will not stop the buying or selling of property.  The practical effect of a lis pendens, however, is to preserve the status quo while a lawsuit is ongoing.  Few people will buy real estate knowing that a lawsuit affecting the subject property remains ongoing.

Requirements for a Lis Pendens

Compared to a preliminary injunction (another legal tool for preserving the status quo during a lawsuit), a lis pendens is relatively easy to obtain.  The lawsuit must be one that affects title to real property, and must be verified by the party seeking the lis pendens.  This means that the party has affirmed, under the pains and penalties of perjury, that the facts of the lawsuit are correct.

Prior to recording a lis pendens, the law requires the party to prepare an affidavit stating that notice of the allowance of the lis pendens has been provided to the other parties in the lawsuit by certified mail.

In Superior Court, a lis pendens generally requires a hearing before the Court with proper notice to the other side.  While not in the formal rules for other trial courts in Massachusetts, this is the general practice for most lis pendens requests: the court will likely only consider this relief upon notice and hearing to the opposing party.

A party is permitted to seek a lis pendens on an emergency basis, by going to court first and not giving the opposing side notice (known as an”ex parte” action).  However, a party needs to show a real emergency for doing so.  If there is time for the court to hold a hearing and hear from the opposing side, the court will likely require a hearing.

Conclusion

A lis pendens is an effective part of litigating real estate disputes.  An experienced real estate litigation attorney can make a real difference in obtaining this relief and getting you the results you need.  If you find yourself in a dispute that may justify a lis pendens, contact me for a consultation.

Reversing a Foreclosure

reversing-a-foreclosure

Fall has been off to a great start for me, and I hope for you too.  My busy schedule is providing me opportunities to work on some great cases and I’m looking forward–to what I hope–will be some rewarding outcomes in the end.  So far, so good: I have reached favorable resolutions for several of my foreclosure defense cases.  One of my favorite parts of doing these cases is the actual process of reversing a foreclosure, a topic I want to discuss here.

What Happens to the Ownership of a Home After Foreclosure?

Following a foreclosure sale, the lender will record a foreclosure deed in the applicable land records for the property.  “Recording” is the act by which documents are made part of the public land registries.  Deeds and mortgages are the most commonly recorded documents, and searching the appropriate land registry is how one learns about the history of a particular piece of property.  In Massachusetts, these records can be found online:  http://www.masslandrecords.com.

A foreclosure deed is among these recorded documents, and states that the mortgagee held a foreclosure sale of the property and lists who purchased the property at the auction sale (which is often the mortgagee itself).

Challenging a Foreclosure Sale

Massachusetts is a non-judicial foreclosure state:  a lender does not need to go to court to foreclose a home.  A homeowner, however, has the right to challenge the validity of a foreclosure sale, which generally comes either through a defense in a post-foreclosure eviction or in a separate civil lawsuit.  If successful, a homeowner can ask the court to “undo” the foreclosure sale and restore ownership to the homeowner.  How is this done?

Reversing a Foreclosure 

My approach to reversing a foreclosure involves requesting a declaratory judgment from the court.  A declaratory judgment, simply put, is a court order that resolves a legal dispute.  In Abate v. Fremont Investment & Loan, the Supreme Judicial Court stated that declaratory judgments are a proper means of  challenging a foreclosure’s validity (page 835 of the decision).

I often request a declaratory judgment stating that the underlining foreclosure sale is void, and  ownership of the home belongs to the homeowner.  If a settlement is reached in one of these cases, the homeowner and bank can (and should) jointly request a declaratory judgment.  A declaratory judgment is generally a 1-2 page document stating the case name and number, a summary of the court’s order,  and is signed by a judge.

Once a court grants a declaratory judgment, I record this in the land records, along with the other property documents.  As part of the “chain of title”, the property is now officially back in the homeowner’s name and the foreclosure is reversed.  This recorded declaratory judgment will include a reference to the previously recorded foreclosure deed, so anyone searching the land records will learn of this court order.

Conclusion 

Reversing a foreclosure is one of the most rewarding parts of my job.  It is a great feeling to see the actual result of my work: an official order that gives someone their home back.  If you find yourself in need of foreclosure defense, contact me for a consultation.