Monday, April 11, 2016

In Defense of "Free Houses"

From a recent article in The Yale Law Journal:
  • Eight years after the start of America’s housing crisis, state courts are increasingly confronting an unanticipated consequence: what happens when a bank brings a foreclosure suit and loses? Well-established legal principles seem to provide a clear answer: the homeowner keeps her house, and res judicata bars any future suit to foreclose on the home. Yet state courts around the country resist this outcome.

    Banks have lost many foreclosure cases for two reasons, both resulting from recent changes in the mortgage market. First, securitization has created widespread errors in mortgage notes’ chains of assignment, making it difficult for banks to prove that they in fact own any particular mortgage. Second, securitization contracts incentivize banks to use “foreclosure mill” law firms to keep up with the flood of defaults, despite the fact that these firms are unable and sometimes unwilling to detect and rectify basic legal errors.

    When addressing faulty foreclosures, courts are afraid to bar future attempts to foreclose—that is, afraid of giving borrowers “free houses.” While courts rarely explain the reasoning behind this aversion, it seems to arise from a reflexive belief that such an outcome would be unjust.1 Courts are therefore quick to sidestep well-established principles of res judicata in favor of ad hoc measures meant to protect banks against the specter of “free houses.”

    This Comment argues that this approach is misguided; courts should issue final judgments in favor of homeowners in cases where banks fail to prove the elements required for foreclosure. Furthermore, these judgments should have res judicata effect—thus giving homeowners “free houses.” This approach has several benefits: it is consistent with longstanding res judicata principles in other forms of civil litigation, it provides a necessary market-correcting incentive to promote greater responsibility among foreclosure litigators, and it alleviates the tremendous costs of successive foreclosure proceedings.

    This Comment proceeds as follows. Part I explains basic foreclosure and mortgage-acceleration law. Part II describes how systemic banking behaviors and market forces have resulted in banks increasingly losing foreclosure suits after the 2008 financial crisis. Part III then describes how state courts have struggled to develop their jurisprudence on “free houses,” often ignoring these significant market problems. Finally, Part IV contends that the application of res judicata in foreclosure litigation is essential for two reasons: (1) it would uniformly apply civil rules of finality to foreclosure cases, and (2) it would have a much-needed positive behavioral effect on a mortgage-foreclosure market run amok.
For more, see In Defense of "Free Houses".

Thanks to Deontos for the heads-up on this article.

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