WSJ.com By Nick Timiraos and Ruth Simon | October 4, 2011
Millions of current and former homeowners will have a chance to get their foreclosure cases examined to determine whether they should be compensated for banks’ mistakes, under a wide-ranging review being planned by federal regulators.
John Walsh, acting head of the OCC, unveiled some aspects of the plan in a speech last month to banking executives, when he said the agency was exploring “the best means of ensuring that injured homeowners had the opportunity to seek relief,” when they were harmed by lender improprieties.
The process will include a broad public-outreach campaign, including direct mail to eligible borrowers and a single website and toll-free number. The reviews will be conducted by independent third-party companies that were hired earlier this year by 14 banks that signed consent orders in April with the OCC and the Federal Reserve. The regulators had to sign off on the selection of these companies.
“It’s a substantial undertaking at great expense to the banks,” said Tim Rood, a partner at Collingwood Group, a housing-finance consulting firm.
Borrowers who are determined to have suffered “financial injury” could be eligible for compensation that would be determined on a case-by-case basis by the third-party firms. Borrowers will have to request reviews before a cutoff date, likely to fall near the end of the first quarter of 2012. It hasn’t been determined whether borrowers that accept restitution would have to agree to surrender related legal claims.
Regulators declined to provide estimates of the amount of money that injured borrowers might receive or how much the program might cost lenders.
However, few if any borrowers are expected to have foreclosures overturned.
The review process is one of several continuing efforts to address disclosures that surfaced a year ago over banks’ use of “robo-signers,” bank employees who signed off on huge numbers of legal foreclosure filings daily and falsely claimed in the documents to have personally reviewed each case. The disclosures prompted some judges to question the veracity of other bank foreclosure practices.
The process is separate from the months-long talks between federal agencies, state attorneys general and banks to reach a multibillion-dollar settlement over foreclosure abuses. That effort took a big step backwards Friday, when California Attorney General Kamala D. Harris called the deal “inadequate” and pulled out of the settlement talks.
The loss of California could cripple any settlement because the state has among the nation’s highest volumes of foreclosures. Banks are less likely to agree to the $25 billion price tag pushed by federal and state officials without the participation of California. Banks, federal officials and state attorneys general are set to resume meetings in Washington on Tuesday.
Representatives for both sides said they still hope to reach an agreement despite Friday’s setback. The banks “remain committed to the dialogue and continue to believe that a global settlement would be an effective means of supporting the recovery of the housing market and helping to strengthen the economy,” said one person familiar with the banks’ thinking.
“We are still full-steam ahead,” said a spokesman for Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller, who is spearheading the 50-state negotiations. “With or without some states, we are still moving forward.”
In the OCC review process, financial injury could cover a wide range of misrepresentations or errors committed by mortgage companies, according to people familiar with the process.
Banks could be liable if they miscalculated mortgage payments or applied impermissible fees or penalties. A handful of borrowers have alleged that mortgage-servicing companies, for example, improperly placed expensive insurance coverage onto their mortgage, pushing them into default and preventing them from becoming current with their payments.
Borrowers may be able to receive compensation if the review finds that the bank moved a borrower to foreclosure while the bank was receiving partial payments as part of a trial or permanent loan modification. Compensation might also be due if borrowers provide evidence that they provided the necessary documentation required to qualify for a modification but were denied the modification.
A separate report to be released on Tuesday raises new questions over Fannie Mae‘s oversight of the attorneys that conduct foreclosures on its behalf. The report, from the inspector general for the Federal Housing Finance Agency, faulted Fannie for inadequate oversight of those firms
Since 2008, Fannie has required its mortgage servicers to use designated law firms that are part of its “retained attorney network.” The network arrangement allows Fannie to negotiate discounted rates with approved firms, which in turn can lock in business from the nation’s largest mortgage investor.
The report said that in June 2010, the FHFA conducted a two-day field visit to Florida, where it found that “documentation problems were evident and law firms…were not devoting the time necessary to their cases due to Fannie Mae’s flat fee structure and volume-based processing model.”
FHFA staff subsequently informed senior Fannie officials that its attorneys were “increasingly unprepared when they enter the courtroom,” leading to a larger backlog of foreclosures.
Fannie Mae declined to comment on the report.