Speak to a Lawyer for Legal Advice

Happy 2017!  I hope the new year is a good one for you.  In this post, I want to discuss why you should speak to a lawyer for legal advice; advice that will serve you well in this new year (and for years to come).

If I had to guess, I would say that more mistakes in law are made from people who receive “legal advice” from non-lawyers.  The biggest culprit, of course, is the Internet: today, it is easier than ever to create a official looking website that claims to be the authority on an area of law.  This occurs for all different types of legal matters, but especially for foreclosure defense: the Internet is filled with websites that attempt to explain foreclosure defense myths to vulnerable homeowners.

As the old adage goes, “saying something doesn’t make it so.”  Merely creating a website, or offering purported “legal advice”, does not make that information truthful.  Many times, such advice—while well intended—is flat out wrong.  The results can be devastating: I have seen claimants lose cases (and their homes) from relying upon advice with no basis in law.

Those offering such “legal advice” won’t tell you what I will write here: law is difficult.  TV lawyers may make our work seem easy, but the truth is that lawyering requires enormous time, effort, and yes, training.  Training is the key part of this: we require lawyers to attend law school and pass bar examination for a reason.  No, law school alone doesn’t fully prepare someone to practice law, but a legal education is essential for making tough legal decisions.  With this in mind, you should never, never, never trust anyone but a licensed lawyer for legal advice.  Speak to a lawyer for legal advice, and avoid the inevitable problems that come from taking poor advice from a non-lawyer.  The picture above is a coffee mug available for sale on Amazon; it is meant as a “gag gift”, but its slogan has an essential message: don’t replace the advice of a trained attorney with something found on a random website.

This post isn’t meant to discard the use of reputable websites and information sources that assist those with legal needs.  I am proud that this blog has helped many homeowners and other lawyers in making important decisions on legal matters.  This blog, however (like any similar legal resource) is merely an aid towards helping those with legal needs get the assistance they need (a reason why I encourage anyone with help in defending against a foreclosure to consult an attorney).

Fee for a Tenant Attorney

Courtroom

Many tenants in need of legal assistance, as well as landlords involved in legal cases with tenants, often ask about the fee for a tenant attorney.  Most people are familiar with the general model for hiring an attorney: the attorney takes an upfront amount of money and bills the client for their time.  The other common type of billing is a contingency fee, where the attorney takes a fixed percentage of the amount recovered from the case.  In Massachusetts, another type of payment for legal services is also available to tenants: fee shifting.

Fee shifting is a provision in a law that requires the losing party to pay the other side’s legal fees.  Generally, under the American Rule for legal fees, each side bears their own legals fees in a legal matter.  If you spend $10,000 in legal fees to recover a judgment of $5,000, you only get $5,000 in the end (and will have lost the remaining amount spent on the case).  A fee shifting requirement in a law allows the prevailing party to recover these attorney fees if their case is successful.  Many landlord/tenant laws contain such a provision, where the tenant is awarded reasonable legal fees if the claim is successful.  Importantly, many of these laws do not require the tenant to have accrued the legal fee.  In other words, there is no requirement that the tenant had actually spent money towards paying the attorney: the fee for a tenant attorney is still permitted if the underlining claim is successful.

Fee shifting provides a powerful incentive for tenants to pursue claims against landlords.  Without fee shifting, tenants and lawyers have little incentive to consider taking on claims against landlords.  The damages that could be recovered from one of these claims may be too small to make it worth the trouble.  With fee shifting, however, the fee for a tenant attorney becomes part of the case, and can be recovered through settlement or a judgment from the court.

With this in mind, both tenants and landlords should keep in mind the potential fee for a tenant attorney in evaluating a potential landlord/tenant claim.  The potential for damages in one of these cases is an important factor for both sides in attempting to resolve one of these matters.

Guest Blog Post: How To Preserve Your Right to Challenge a Wrongful Foreclosure in Massachusetts

photo

The Massachusetts Foreclosure Law Blog is proud to have Attorney Uri Strauss guest blog on the Massachusetts foreclosure title clearing bill and its upcoming December 31, 2016 deadline for homeowners who have lost their homes to foreclosure.  Uri Strauss is an attorney at Community Legal Aid in Springfield, MA. He has been a Massachusetts attorney since 2010, and has focused on foreclosure law since 2011.  He may be reached at ustrauss@cla-ma.org.

HOW TO PRESERVE YOUR RIGHT TO CHALLENGE A WRONGFUL FORECLOSURE IN MASSACHUSETTS

If your Massachusetts home has been unlawfully foreclosed, you may need to act very soon to preserve your ability to challenge it.

On November 25, 2015, Governor Baker signed into law An Act Clearing Title to Foreclosed Properties, which amended, among other laws, Massachusetts General Laws Chapter 244, Section 15. In a nutshell, the act aims to force homeowners who have left their homes after a foreclosure to bring their case to court within three years, or lose the right to do so against bona fide buyers. This is a reduction of the previous 20-year period during which people could challenge foreclosures that failed to comply with the power of sale.

The deviltry is in the details of this confusing law. This post aims to clear up some of the confusion, and especially to help homeowners identify if they need to act before December 31, 2016 when the first set of people will lose their rights. The other point of this post is to warn people against misinformation about what they need to do to preserve their rights. In all cases, you should consult an attorney, if possible, about your particular situation. I am offering guidance in general, not legal advice for your particular situation.

My aim is to respond to three questions: Who needs to act before December 31? How does a homeowner need to act to preserve his or her rights? And who is entitled to challenge the foreclosure?

Who needs to act before December 31?

If it has been fewer than three years since the foreclosure affidavit has been recorded in your registry of deeds, you do not need to act before December 31 to preserve your rights. You will have until at least three years after the recording of the affidavit. However, if you are already in court in a foreclosure challenge, it is a good idea to record your pleadings. See below for details about the foreclosure affidavit, and about what it takes to challenge the foreclosure.

If it has been three or more years since the foreclosure affidavit was recorded, you need to act to preserve your rights if you fall in one of the following three categories.

  1. People who have moved out of their homes, without the validity of the foreclosure ever being litigated.
  2. People who are currently in litigation over the validity of their foreclosure.
  3. People who have litigated the validity of their foreclosure and won, when there is no deed granting the property back to the owner after foreclosure.

Please note that most lenders and servicers will also conduct a foreclosure by entry at the same time as the foreclosure auction, and that foreclosure is effective after 3 years if it is not opposed. Foreclosure by entry is a whole separate and complicated topic, and I won’t get into it here. If you intend to challenge a foreclosure, be certain to contact your local anti-foreclosure group and/or an attorney about it well before three years have passed.

If you are currently in litigation, do not assume that you are protected. Do not assume that your attorney has thought to take the necessary steps to protect you. Raise the issue with them. Depending on how courts interpret the law, you might get away with missing the deadline if you win your case, but it is risky to rely on it.

You may notice, if you read the amended M.G.L. Chapter 244, Section 15, that only bona fide third party buyers, and not the lender or related organizations like Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac, have the benefit of the new law. Do not rest assured just because the bank or a related entity has bought your property at foreclosure and has not sold it. As I read the law, your failure to act by the deadline, followed by a sale to a third party, eliminates your right to challenge the foreclosure once it is sold. In other words, your title can be laundered while in the bank’s control, then sold clean to a third party buyer.

The three-year clock starts ticking when the mortgagee records an affidavit of sale in the registry of deeds. The affidavit of sale you are looking is usually recorded together with the foreclosure deed as a document type called “Foreclosure Deed/Affidavit”. It might be titled something different than “Affidavit of Sale.” The affidavit identifies the mortgage that was foreclosed, says that the conditions of the mortgage were not performed, and states that notices were published in a newspaper on three dates and sent by mail to the required parties. A copy of the newspaper publication is attached to it as an exhibit. Do not confuse this affidavit with other affidavits that may have been filed, such as an affidavit concerning the note (also called an “Eaton” affidavit), an affidavit concerning compliance with M.G.L. chapter 244, section 35B, an affidavit certifying compliance with 209 C.M.R. section 18.21A, or an affidavit concerning the right to cure (also called an “Pinti” affidavit).

It is the opinion of some respected attorneys that the affidavits of sale typically filed by mortgagees do not start the clock running, because they do not, as the law requires, “fully and particularly stat[e] the acts” done to foreclose the property. The affidavits are usually brief, do not fully state the facts, state legal conclusions instead of facts, and are made by people who do not have firsthand knowledge of the facts. I believe that this is a mistake, and that the courts will accommodate this failure by the banks to comply with the law, just as they have done with almost every other failure that they have considered.

How does a homeowner need to act in order to preserve his or her rights? 

To preserve your right to challenge your foreclosure, it is necessary to record the relevant *pleadings* in the registry of deeds. It is not enough to record an *affidavit* in the registry, as the Massachusetts Alliance Against Predatory Lending (MAAPL) has been informing people. The law is very clear that pleadings must be filed.

What is the difference? An affidavit is a sworn statement of facts based on personal knowledge. A pleading is a document filed in court in which legal claims are made. The purpose of the new law is to force people to litigate their claims by the deadline, not simply to make a sworn statement and record it in the registry of deeds. If your deadline is coming up and there is no existing litigation, you need to create litigation by filing a lawsuit. What is more, if you want to actually succeed, you need to file a good case. That means that you need to have a good argument based on your particular circumstances. It will not do to use far-fetched theories of the kind that often circulate on the internet. It is important to speak to an attorney to determine whether you have a good legal argument.

Note that to be valid, the pleadings should be from a court case from a court of competent jurisdiction. In my view, if you challenged the foreclosure as a defense to foreclosure proceedings in Housing Court, that is definitely an appropriate court. If it was in a state district court, that is almost certainly an appropriate court. If you were the plaintiff and you filed your case in Superior Court, Land Court, or the federal District Court, you are probably fine. If it was any other court, consult an attorney about whether it was a court of competent jurisdiction.

That means that if you fall into category (1) above, you need to file a lawsuit in the next few weeks, and record an attested copy of your complaint, to avoid losing your home. If you are in categories (2) or (3), your task is easier. You need to get an attested copy of your complaint, if you were the plaintiff, or of your answer, if you were the defendant, from the clerk’s office of the court in which the litigation is taking place or took place. If the complaint or answer was amended, make sure to get the most recent version, since the complaint or answer should state the foreclosure challenge that the court ruled on, or that you hope the court will rule on.

If you have fought and won your case, you still need to record the *pleadings*, rather than the court’s judgment, in the registry. You might think it makes more sense to record the judgment, in which the court states that it finds in your favor. I would agree, but that is not what the law says you need to do.

According to the law, you need to record a “true and correct” copy of the pleading in the registry of deeds. Does this mean that you can rely on just a photocopy of the pleading? In my view, yes – but the challenge is to get the registry of deeds to record it. The registry is not required to accept any piece of paper you hand to it. The new law requires registries of deeds to accept and record attested copies of pleadings, and this is what I recommend. “Attested” here presumably means attested by the court in which the case is being decided. It may be possible to preserve your rights under the act by signing an affidavit under M.G.L. Chapter 183, section 5B, attaching the pleading is an exhibit, swearing that it is a true and correct copy of a document filed in the court, and having it certified by an attorney as bearing on title – but I recommend getting an attested copy to be on the safe side.

To get an attested copy of your pleading, first call ahead to the court in which your case is being heard and let them know you want this. They might ask for a couple of hours to create an attested copy. Then show up and get your copy. It currently costs $2.50 per page to get attested copies of court documents. If you are poor, low-income or on state assistance, you may qualify for a waiver of fees – ask the court about it. Then go in person to the Registry of Deeds in your district, and ask them to record it. Take a printed copy of the statute – Massachusetts General Laws, Chapter 244, Section 15, Subsection (d) – with you. Registries of Deeds have not historically accepted attested copies of pleadings for recording, so you may need to show them the law that says they need to. I believe the cost of recording the document is $75. You can ask the Registry of Deeds about waiver of fees for poor, low-income or state-assisted people as well.

Who is entitled to challenge the foreclosure?

To be eligible to challenge the foreclosure, you need to be a person entitled to a notice of foreclosure, which means that you need to be the person who gave a mortgage to the lender (which is not necessarily the same as the person who obtained the loan), or else a person who held an interest in the property junior to the mortgage more than thirty days before the foreclosure sale. Based on this statute, you are not entitled to challenge the foreclosure if you are the spouse of the mortgagor, the child of the mortgagor, or the tenant of the mortgagor, unless you yourself are a mortgagor, or you happen to have a junior lien on the property.

This represents an apparent change in the law. It used to be the case that if a foreclosure was void, any person whose rights were affected by it – a spouse, a child, a tenant, a long-term guest – could challenge its validity. The new law clearly restricts it so that only persons entitled to notice can challenge the foreclosure.

What about after the pleadings are recorded?

If you have recorded your pleadings challenging a foreclosure within the time limit, do you have the benefit of the previous 20 year rule? Not necessarily. There are at least two ways a foreclosure can be undone by a court. A foreclosure is void if it is not conducted strictly in accordance with the power of sale, or if it fails to comply with preconditions to foreclosure stated in the mortgage. Void foreclosures can be challenged up to 20 years afterwards. A foreclosure is voidable if the power of sale and the preconditions in the mortgage are complied with, but the manner in which it was conducted was fundamentally unfair or perhaps violated some other law. In all likelihood, you need to assert a claim to undo a voidable foreclosure within the statute of limitations of some other law. For example, if you have a claim under the consumer protection statute, M.G.L. section 93A, there is a four year statute of limitations from the time of the unfair or deceptive act. If you have a tort claim, you may have to bring the case within three years. You should consult an attorney about whether your unlawful foreclosure claim is a claim that the foreclosure was void or voidable.

Everything in this article is directed at what it takes to preserve your claim of illegal foreclosure. Of course, it is not enough to have your case in court. You need to actually win your case in order to undo the foreclosure. The legislature has set up a tough procedure for illegally foreclosed homeowners to undo the harm that was done to them. It might seem very unfair that a bank can abuse you, deceive you, and illegally foreclose on you without going to court, yet you have to go to court and follow an unclear procedure just to avoid losing your home. For better or worse, this is the process that your elected representatives have chosen to impose on you, so you need to take care to comply with it.

President-Elect Trump and the Foreclosure Crisis

white-house

President-Elect Trump’s selection of Steven Mnuchin to head the Department of Treasury has raised a troubling story about this nominee’s involvement with OneWest Bank, a national financial institution (which has since been acquired by CIT Bank).  OneWest is reported to have foreclosed a 90-year-old-woman’s home for a $0.27 payment error.   OneWest Bank has also been alleged to have made a mess out of reviewing borrowers for loan modifications and proceeding with foreclosure while loss mitigation options have been under review.  All of these raise questions regarding President-Elect Trump and the Foreclosure Crisis, namely, how the new administration will assist struggling  homeowners trying to avoid foreclosure.

The federal Home Affordable Modification Program (“HAMP”) is set to expire at the end of 2016, and the Trump Administration will need to decide whether to extend this program, or offer another federal program in its place.  HAMP has done little to help the many homeowners in need of this assistance, and it will be interesting to see whether the new administration keeps the program, replaces it, or eliminates this type of assistance all together.

Another important policy matter for the Trump Administration will be whether the President-Elect keeps many of the Obama Administration’s consumer protection efforts, namely the Consumer Protection Financial Bureau (“CPFB”) and its regulations for banks and loan servicers.  The CFPB has issued numerous regulations on how loan servicers are to review loan modification applications and deal with borrower’s concerns about their accounts.  Regulations are issued by a president’s administration, unlike laws, which Congress must pass.  Because of this, regulations are subject to change when a new president comes into office.  Time will tell whether President-Elect Trump keeps in place many of these rules, or goes in a different direction than the previous administration.  Stay tuned!

Notice of Eviction

eviction-notice

A notice of eviction in Massachusetts can mean one of two things.

To start an eviction, a landlord is required to send a tenant a notice to quit.  The notice to quit informs the tenant that the tenant’s tenancy is over, and that the tenant must leave the apartment by a definite date.  The required number of days that must be given in one of these notices depends on the reason for terminating a tenancy.   A case for non-payment of rent generally requires a fourteen day notice to quit; a no-fault eviction usually requires thirty days.  After the tenant is provided this notice, and the time in the notice has elapsed, the landlord can then file the eviction case.

After serving the notice to quit, the landlord begins an eviction case through the service of an eviction summons, which lists the reason for the eviction, the court where the case is being brought, and the deadline that the tenant has to respond to the eviction.  This is the final notice of eviction for the tenant; the tenant must then answer the eviction complaint and state any reasons why they do not believe they should be evicted.  Failing to answer an eviction summons has serious consequences: a landlord can request a default judgment against a tenant, which is an automatic “win” for the landlord.

A landlord sending a notice of eviction, and a tenant receiving one of these notices, should check the document to ensure that it is accurate and contains all of the required information.  The smallest defect in one of these notices may lead to the notice, and subsequent eviction, as being invalid (a reason why both landlords and tenants should consider consulting with an experienced attorney on one of these matters).

A tenant who receives either type of notice needs to act quickly in dealing with it.  Both notices make it clear that an eviction is imminent, and a tenant needs to plan accordingly in responding to one of these cases.

If you are a tenant facing a notice of eviction, or a landlord who needs to perform an eviction, contact me for a consultation.

Attorney Sherwin Argues Foreclosure Appeal Before Massachusetts’s Supreme Judicial Court

SJC

I had the honor of arguing before the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (“SJC”) this week on a foreclosure appeal.  The SJC is Massachusetts’s highest court and the final decision maker on Massachusetts law.  The SJC often takes cases where the law in a particular area is uncertain.  In recent years, the SJC has heard an increasing number of foreclosure cases, which shows that this area of law continues to evolve.

My appeal concerned whether G.L. c. 244, § 15A, a law requiring a mortgagee to inform a local municipality about a foreclosure sale thirty days after it happened, is a requirement of the foreclosure process.  Different courts across Massachusetts have taken different positions on this, making this a matter that the SJC needs to resolve.  Click here to watch the oral argument.

My experience before the SJC reminded me of the importance of having an attorney who knows and understands the process of pursuing an appeal.  A appeal is a review of a case that was heard before a trial judge or jury; the appellate judges do not hear the testimony of witnesses or review evidence, and are limited to reviewing the entire record presented in the lower court.  A foreclosure appeal is a particular challenge to bring: foreclosure law constantly changes, and a successful appeal requires knowing and understanding the most recent changes in the law.  My appeal will likely be decided in the next three to four months, stay tuned!

I was deeply humbled by my appearance before the SJC.  With the recent election forcing many Americans to look closely at our form of government, I had a chance to see Massachusetts’s highest court up close.  I many not always agree with the SJC’s decisions, but I can’t doubt the Court’s sincerity and devotion to the “rule of law” in our state.  I’m proud to be a Massachusetts attorney and look forward to continuing my practice in this great state.

If you are in need of an appellate attorney, contact me for a consultation.  The importance of having an experienced appellate attorney on your side can be the difference between winning or losing your case.

Once Foreclosure Begins, Can It Be Stopped?

Foreclosure by Sale

Once foreclosure begins, can it be stopped?  In Massachusetts, the answer is “yes.”

The start of the foreclosure process in Massachusetts begins with a series of notices sent to the homeowner, informing them of the foreclosure sale date.  These notices are also published in a local newspaper.  While this is the official beginning of the foreclosure process, the homeowner has usually been provided notice of the foreclosure well in advance of these notices, through letters from the bank informing them of the loan default and offering them an opportunity to cure the default.  At this point, the sale is scheduled, but has not occurred.  Here, there are several options that homeowners can do to stop a foreclosure.

If the homeowner has not applied for a loan modification, they can speak with the lender and see if the lender is willing to consider reviewing them for this loss mitigation assistance.  If the homeowner applies far enough in advance of a foreclosure sale, the lender may be willing to do so and postpone the foreclosure.  Generally, however, a lender will not postpone a foreclosure sale if a loan modification application is received after a scheduled sale date.

If the lender is unwilling to stop a foreclosure sale, a homeowner may be able to ask a court to stop the foreclosure, if there are grounds for challenging the foreclosure’s validity.  A homeowner can request a temporary restraining order or preliminary injunction to stop a foreclosure.  Obtaining the help of an attorney in doing this is highly, highly recommended.

A homeowner can also consider filing bankruptcy to stop foreclosure.  A bankruptcy creates an automatic stay against all creditors, including a foreclosure sale.  A homeowner, again, should consult with an attorney before taking this action.

After a foreclosure sale occurs, a homeowner still has a right to challenge the foreclosure’s validity.  A homeowner can seek a declaratory judgment or another type of court order requesting that the foreclosure be rescinded.  While it is possible to stop a foreclosure after a sale has occurred, it is much harder than fighting a foreclosure before a sale has happened.  It is, however, not impossible.

If you find yourself facing a foreclosure, contact me for a consultation to see if I can be of help.

Somerville Eviction Cases

Courtroom

While I take cases all over Massachusetts, I have many landlord and tenant clients in Somerville . . . not surprising because my office is located in Assembly Square and I proudly call Somerville my “business” home.  Somerville is a fantastic city and I’m proud to be a lawyer in this great community.  In this post, I’ll provide an overview of Somerville eviction cases.

Evictions in Somerville, with a few exceptions, must be brought in Somerville District Court.  Somerville, like many cities outside of Boston, are not within the jurisdiction of a housing court, making District Court the main venue for these cases.  Somerville District Court has jurisdiction over eviction cases not just in Somerville, but Medford as well.  Somerville District Court is located in Assembly Square and is within walking distance of the T.  Parking is generally available near the court as well, but plan ahead to give yourself enough time to find a spot.

Somerville eviction cases, like most eviction cases across Massachusetts, are held on Thursdays in Somerville District Court.  Court begins at 9:00AM, with a “first calling” of the cases before the court.  During this initial reading of the cases, the clerk asks if both parties are in court, and what the parties are in court for.  If the parties are in court for a bench trial (where the judge decides the matter, and not a jury), a trial can be held that day.  If the tenant has requested a jury trial, the court usually holds a pre-trial conference to select a trial date.

For both types of cases, mediation is usually an option for both parties.  Mediation allows parties to meet with a trained facilitator to discuss the issues in the cases and see if the matter can be worked out.  Parties should always try mediation (even if they have an attorney): there is nothing to lose, and much to gain if the parties can work out a resolution on their own.

Compared to other courts (especially housing court), Somerville District Court usually doesn’t have a huge caseload of eviction cases.  You should expect a bit of a waiting time in court, but cases are usually heard in the morning.  If your case needs to go to trial, the court may schedule it on a non-Thursday.

If you find yourself involved in a Somerville eviction case, contact me for a consultation.  Landlord/tenant law can be tricky, and it is helpful to have an experienced attorney on your side.