U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, U.S. Department of Housing & Urban Development (HUD) Secretary Shaun Donovan, Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller and Colorado Attorney General John W. Suthers have announced that the federal government and 49 state attorneys general have reached a $25 billion agreement with the nation’s five largest mortgage servicers to address mortgage loan servicing and foreclosure abuses. The joint agreement is the largest federal-state civil settlement ever obtained and is the result of extensive investigations by federal agencies, including the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ), HUD and the HUD Office of the Inspector General (HUD-OIG), and state attorneys general and state banking regulators across the country. The joint federal-state group entered into the agreement with the nation’s five largest mortgage servicers: Bank of America, JPMorgan Chase, Wells Fargo, Citigroup and Ally Financial Inc. (formerly GMAC).
“This agreement holds mortgage servicers accountable for abusive practices and requires them to commit more than $20 billion towards financial relief for consumers," said Holder. "As a result, struggling homeowners throughout the country will benefit from reduced principals and refinancing of their loans. The agreement also requires substantial changes in how servicers do business, which will help to ensure the abuses of the past are not repeated.”
The joint federal-state agreement requires servicers to implement new mortgage loan servicing standards and to commit $25 billion to resolve violations of state and federal law. These violations include servicers’ use of “robo-signed” affidavits in foreclosure proceedings; deceptive practices in the offering of loan modifications; failures to offer non-foreclosure alternatives before foreclosing on borrowers with federally insured mortgages; and filing improper documentation in federal bankruptcy court.
"A final agreement can play an important role stabilizing and providing certainty and confidence to the housing and mortgage markets," said David H. Stevens, president and chief executive officer of the Mortgage Bankers Association (MBA). "With all the rumors and speculation surrounding these negotiations behind us, it is now imperative that policymakers, lenders, servicers and other stakeholders work together on policies and initiatives that will allow us to get the housing market on the road to recovery."
Under the terms of the agreement, the five servicers are required to collectively dedicate $20 billion toward various forms of financial relief to borrowers. At least $10 billion will go toward reducing the principal on loans for borrowers who, as of the date of the settlement, are either delinquent or at imminent risk of default and owe more on their mortgages than their homes are worth. At least $3 billion will go toward refinancing loans for borrowers who are current on their mortgages but who owe more on their mortgage than their homes are worth. Borrowers who meet basic criteria will be eligible for the refinancing, which will reduce interest rates for borrowers who are currently paying much higher rates or whose adjustable rate mortgages are due to soon rise to much higher rates. Up to $7 billion will go towards other forms of relief, including forbearance of principal for unemployed borrowers, anti-blight programs, short sales and transitional assistance, benefits for service members who are forced to sell their home at a loss as a result of a Permanent Change in Station order, and other programs. Because servicers will receive only partial credit for every dollar spent on some of the required activities, the settlement will provide direct benefits to borrowers in excess of $20 billion.
"The standards in this settlement can provide a framework for a national servicing standard that would provide borrowers with equal protections, regardless of where they live, and would give lenders a single set of rules governing how they interact with their customers," said Debra W. Still, CMB, chairman of MBA's Council on the Future of Residential Mortgage Servicing in the 21st Century. "If done properly, and in recognition of different business models, a nationwide standard would provide renewed confidence in the system and encourage qualified borrowers to jump back into the housing market."
Mortgage servicers are required to fulfill these obligations within three years. To encourage servicers to provide relief quickly, there are incentives for relief provided within the first 12 months. Servicers must reach 75 percent of their targets within the first two years. Servicers that miss settlement targets and deadlines will be required to pay substantial additional cash amounts.
In addition to the $20 billion in financial relief for borrowers, the agreement requires the servicers to pay $5 billion in cash to the federal and state governments. $1.5 billion of this payment will be used to establish a Borrower Payment Fund to provide cash payments to borrowers whose homes were sold or taken in foreclosure between Jan. 1, 2008 and Dec. 31, 2011, and who meet other criteria. This program is separate from the restitution program currently being administered by federal banking regulators to compensate those who suffered direct financial harm as a result of wrongful servicer conduct. Borrowers will not release any claims in exchange for a payment. The remaining $3.5 billion of the $5 billion payment will go to state and federal governments to be used to repay public funds lost as a result of servicer misconduct and to fund housing counselors, legal aid and other similar public programs determined by the state attorneys general.
"This is an historic amount of relief for California homeowners, but it is one piece of a broader focus," said California Attorney General Kamala D. Harris. "We will continue our crackdown on mortgage fraud and quickly move to pass legislation that will simplify, reform and upgrade our broken mortgage system."
The $5 billion includes a $1 billion resolution of a separate investigation into fraudulent and wrongful conduct by Bank of America and various Countrywide entities related to the origination and underwriting of Federal Housing Administration (FHA)-insured mortgage loans, and systematic inflation of appraisal values concerning these loans, from Jan. 1, 2003 through April 30, 2009.
Payment of $500 million of this $1 billion will be deferred to partially fund a loan modification program for Countrywide borrowers throughout the nation who are underwater on their mortgages. This investigation was conducted by the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of New York, with the Civil Division’s Commercial Litigation Branch of the Department of Justice, HUD and HUD-OIG. The settlement also resolves an investigation by the Eastern District of New York, the Special Inspector General for the Troubled Asset Relief Program (SIGTARP) and the Federal Housing Finance Agency-Office of the Inspector General (FHFA-OIG) into allegations that Bank of America defrauded the Home Affordable Modification Program.
The joint federal-state agreement requires the mortgage servicers to implement unprecedented changes in how they service mortgage loans, handle foreclosures, and ensure the accuracy of information provided in federal bankruptcy court. The agreement requires new servicing standards which will prevent foreclosure abuses of the past, such as robo-signing, improper documentation and lost paperwork, and create dozens of new consumer protections. The new standards provide for strict oversight of foreclosure processing, including third-party vendors, and new requirements to undertake pre-filing reviews of certain documents filed in bankruptcy court.
“This settlement has broad bipartisan support from the states because the attorneys general realize that the partnership with the federal agencies made it possible to achieve favorable terms and conditions that would have been difficult for the states or the federal government to achieve on their own,” said Colorado AG Suthers.
The new servicing standards make foreclosure a last resort by requiring servicers to evaluate homeowners for other loss mitigation options first. In addition, banks will be restricted from foreclosing while the homeowner is being considered for a loan modification. The new standards also include procedures and timelines for reviewing loan modification applications and give homeowners the right to appeal denials. Servicers will also be required to create a single point of contact for borrowers seeking information about their loans and maintain adequate staff to handle calls.
The agreement will also provide enhanced protections for service members that go beyond those required by the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act (SCRA). In addition, the four servicers that had not previously resolved certain portions of potential SCRA liability have agreed to conduct a full review, overseen by the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, to determine whether any servicemembers were foreclosed on in violation of SCRA since Jan. 1, 2006. The servicers have also agreed to conduct a thorough review, overseen by the Civil Rights Division, to determine whether any servicemember, from Jan. 1, 2008, to the present, was charged interest in excess of 6% on their mortgage, after a valid request to lower the interest rate, in violation of the SCRA. Servicers will be required to make payments to any servicemember who was a victim of a wrongful foreclosure or who was wrongfully charged a higher interest rate. This compensation for servicemembers is in addition to the $25 billion settlement amount.
The agreement will be filed as a consent judgment in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. Compliance with the agreement will be overseen by an independent monitor, Joseph A. Smith Jr. Smith has served as the North Carolina Commissioner of Banks since 2002. Smith is also the former Chairman of the Conference of State Banks Supervisors (CSBS). The monitor will oversee implementation of the servicing standards required by the agreement; impose penalties of up to $1 million per violation (or up to $5 million for certain repeat violations); and publish regular public reports that identify any quarter in which a servicer fell short of the standards imposed in the settlement.
The agreement resolves certain violations of civil law based on mortgage loan servicing activities. The agreement does not prevent state and federal authorities from pursuing criminal enforcement actions related to this or other conduct by the servicers. The agreement does not prevent the government from punishing wrongful securitization conduct that will be the focus of the new Residential Mortgage-Backed Securities Working Group. The U.S. also retains its full authority to recover losses and penalties caused to the federal government when a bank failed to satisfy underwriting standards on a government-insured or government-guaranteed loan. The agreement does not prevent any action by individual borrowers who wish to bring their own lawsuits. State attorneys general also preserved, among other things, all claims against the Mortgage Electronic Registration Systems (MERS), and all claims brought by borrowers.