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Friday, August 14, 2015

Lien Priority Rules!

Property law luminaries R. Wilson Freyermuth and Dale A. Whitman have published a concise and powerful article in the July/August edition of the ABA’s Probate & Property magazine that is both clarifying and compelling with respect to the continuingly contentious issue of residential real estate lien priority.

The priority contest between first mortgage lenders and homeowner’s associations was a dormant (or even non-existent) issue until the Foreclosure Crisis of 2008. But the Foreclosure Crisis changed the context of residential real estate lien priority questions in two ways:

  • First, home values plummeted and for the first time, a significant number of homes were “underwater” – meaning that the value of the home was less than the amount of loans secured by liens thereon. When an asset’s value covers the full face amount of all liens, lien priority doesn’t much matter in terms of whether or not a lienholder will be paid (even though, of course, it still significantly governs procedure and effect of foreclosure of liens).  When an asset’s value fails to cover the amount of its liens, however, the question of priority becomes crucial. In this environment of scarcity, the first in line gets paid, and the later in line may not. 
  • Second, the sheer volume of mortgage loan defaults increased ten-fold, overwhelming the judicial system and the foreclosure departments of banks and servicers. The massive increase in number of defaulted loans (together with the widespread confusion that resulted from over-zealous loan securitization and avoidance of traditional mortgage assignment through the use of MERS – which is a topic for another day) led to previously unimagined delays in foreclosure and a huge increase in the number of homes facing foreclosure, particularly in certain states and communities where the mortgage defaults clustered.  When lienholders delay foreclosure, priority very much matters because liens with higher priority can foreclose and wipe out junior liens.

These two significant context changes arising from the Financial Crisis have not fully abated, even seven years later.  And so, today, priority rules very much matter to any holders of residential real estate liens.

Homeowner Associations are one type of lienholder that is unfairly harmed by this combination of underwater mortgages and high quantity of loan default/foreclosure delay.  In approximately 30 states, a mortgage lien has complete priority over HOA liens, and foreclosure delay coupled with failure to pay association dues can lead to community financial disaster.  Sometimes HOAs are vilified in the media and in popular parlance, but it remains true that even if you hate the concept of an HOA, it is supremely unfair to have financially responsible people living in a neighborhood end up paying their defaulting neighbors’ “fair share” of community common costs.

In approximately 20 other states, statutes (including the state’s version of the Uniform Condominium Act or the Uniform Common Interest Ownership Act) have granted a limited priority to association liens, typically in the amount of six months of association dues.  When mortgage foreclosures were relatively rare and occurred relatively promptly, HOAs merely waited for a mortgage lender to foreclose and then took the 6-months worth of unpaid assessments off the top of the lender’s foreclosure recovery.  When the Foreclosure Crisis hit, it was unclear how this priority would work in cases where a 1st mortgage lender had delayed foreclosure. Could an association independently foreclose its limited priority lien and obtain 6-months worth of back assessments?  If so, what would be the effect of that foreclosure if the 1st mortgage lender failed to redeem its interest by paying off that super-priority portion of the association lien? (See Community Collateral Damages: A Question of Priorities discussing a description of the problem circa 2010).

In 2012, a Washington Court of Appeals held that the limited priority HOA lien acted like any other lien with a higher priority, meaning that the HOA could foreclose its lien with property notice to junior lienholders (including the holder of the first mortgage), and this foreclosure would operate to extinguish the first mortgage lien. Summerhill Village Homeowners Ass’n v. Roughly, 270 P.3d 639 (Wash Ct. App. 2012). Two years later, the DC Court of Appeals and the Nevada Supreme Court agreed with this interpretation. Chase Plaza Condo. Ass’n, Inc. v. J.P. Morgan Chase Bank, N.A., 98 A.3d 166 (D.C. Ct. App. 2014); SFR Investments Pool 1, LLC v. U.S. Bank, N.A. 334 P.3d 408 (Nev. 2014).  The Joint Editorial Board for Uniform Real Property Acts also endorsed this view, stressing that treating the limited priority portion of a HOA’s lien as a lien with “true” priority was essential to strike “an equitable balance between the need to enforce collection of unpaid assessments and the obvious necessity for protecting the priority of the security interests of lenders.” 

Enter yet a THIRD context change resulting from the Financial Crisis: The conservatorship of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. On September 6, 2008, the Federal Housing Finance Authority (FHFA) placed Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac (which are Government Sponsored Enterprises or GSEs) into federal conservatorship.  This unprecedented move likely saved residential mortgage lending as we know it, but has fundamentally changed the players involved in the residential mortgage market.  Back in 2008 and 2009, it appeared that FHFA conservatorship was some form of bankruptcy and possibly even a federal wind-down of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, but the GSEs have bounced back into the black and today are even turning a profit (now for the government).  The FHFA shows no sign of turning the reins back over to shareholders or otherwise ending the now seven-year-old conservatorship of the GSEs.

What does the FHFA conservatorship of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac have to do with the association-mortgage lender lien priority question? Well, in cases where Fannie and Freddie are the secondary mortgage lender for a first mortgage lien, the FHFA now claims it has the power to stop or invalidate foreclosures of liens that are above GSE first mortgages in priority according to state law. That means, for example, that even though Nevada has held that the limited priority portion of a HOA’s lien is a true super-priority lien that extinguishes a first mortgage lien if that lienholder fails to redeem its interest in foreclosure (meaning: if the first mortgage holder doesn’t pay off the nine months of unpaid association dues before the HOA forecloses), that Fannie and Freddie can simply opt out of Nevada’s laws regarding lien priority and enforcement. 

FHFA’s argument that a lien with higher priority than a Fannie/Freddie interest cannot be foreclosed without its consent arises from the language of 12 U.S.C. §4617(j)(3):

No property of the Agency shall be subject to levy, attachment, garnishment, foreclosure, or sale without the consent of the Agency, nor shall any involuntary lien attach to the property of the Agency. 

Similar language in the FDIC statute has been held to preclude foreclosure of super-priority state tax liens on property of banks put into FDIC receivership. FHFA reasons, therefore, that liens prior to Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac mortgages can only be validly foreclosed with FHFA consent.

Freyermuth and Wilson do a masterful job dissecting and destroying this argument. I would encourage everyone to read their thorough and compelling analysis. The “Readers Digest” version of their argument is as follows: 

  1. FDIC receivership is a qualitatively different context than FHFA conservatorship of the GSEs because FDIC receivership is short-term. FDIC receivership is a form of bank bankruptcy, and thus the consent provision operates as a merely temporary stay.  The FHFA conservatorship, on the other hand, has gone on the better part of a decade now, and it shows no sign of stopping. In Matagorda County v. Russell Law, the case that interpreted the FDIC statute as establishing FDIC consent as a prerequisite to effective foreclosure of a priority lien, the court carefully explained that a temporary delay in the ability to foreclose did not impact 5th Amendment rights of the lienholder, but the court did note that “unmitigated delay, coupled with diminishment of distinct investment-backed expectations may, at some point” amount to an uncompensated taking. 19 F.3d 215, 224-25 (5th Cir. 1994)(emphasis in original).
  2. Stays such as the automatic stay in bankruptcy are also qualitatively different than the stay in the FHFA context because FHFA decisions with respect to GSE conservatorship are non-reviewable. The FHFA has long claimed that its actions as a conservator of the GSEs are not subject to judicial review, and the Second Circuit confirmed this in Town of Babylon v. Federal Housing Finance Agency, 699 F.3d. 221 (2d Cir. 2012). Other circuits have followed suit. Thus, whereas a lienholder hamstrung by bankruptcy’s automatic stay can seek relief under the Code (for example, under §363 or through appellate review), there is no avenue to contest the FHFA’s failure to consent to a foreclosure of an HOA lien on property burdened by a Fannie or Freddie mortgage. FHFA consent, therefore, can be given or withheld in FHFA’s sole and absolute discretion.
  3. During the past several years, FHFA has evidenced its intent and consent to be bound to state lien priority law in multiple ways and contexts. For example, Fannie and Freddie servicing guidelines specifically instruct its servicers to pay off priority liens and a promise to reimburse the servicers for doing so. As Freyermuth and Wilson aptly point out, there would be no need for or purpose to this instruction if the priority liens could not be foreclosed without FHFA consent.  FHFA has also consistently operated as if it were bound by state law lien priority and enforcement rules in making arguments in various lawsuits wherein priority contests were decided.
  4. Finally, Freyermuth and Wilson point out that it is not at all clear that even the FDIC consent provision applies to private parties. The 5th Circuit, for one, has specifically ruled that the provision requiring consent to foreclosure of prior liens is specific and limited to tax liens held by local governments and does not extend to private entities. FDIC v. McFarland, 243 F.3d 876 (5th Cir. 2001). Because HOAs are private entities, their liens would thus be unaffected by the cited statutory provision requiring prior FHFA consent to foreclose, even if that provision were interpreted the same way.

Freyermuth and Wilson conclude:

The notion that FHFA and the GSEs can thumb their noses at time-honored state law priority rules is deeply offensive. The GSEs themselves have, in the past, consistently acted as though they were fully bound by those rules. From the inception of the uniform Fannie Mae-Freddie Mac 1-4 family mortgage and note instruments, for example, the GSEs have always been careful to obtain reviews by local counsel to ensure that the documents conformed to the varying laws of the individual states. They have asserted no federally preemptive right to disregard state law. Their claim to the power to ignore state priority law under HERA is unexpected. It is not justified by any emergency because—whatever the exigencies of the mortgage crisis—the procedure that allows an otherwise-first mortgage lender to protect its lien from destruction by the foreclosure of a prior owners’ association lien is perfectly clear and simple to employ. Any such destruction is a consequence of nothing more than Fannie’s or Freddie’s servicer being asleep at the switch. There is no reason the homeowners’ association should be punished for the servicer’s carelessness; rather, Fannie or Freddie should seek reimbursement from the servicer for such losses. The authors hope and believe the courts will understand this and will continue to hold the GSEs to the normal standards of state priority law.

I couldn’t agree more.


Posted by Andrea Boyack on August 14, 2015 at 12:17 PM in Article Spotlight, Property | Permalink


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