Amid mounting national concern over the accuracy of court documents in foreclosure cases, the New York state court system on Wednesday directed lawyers for lenders to file an affirmation that they have taken reasonable steps to verify the accuracy of papers they file to support residential foreclosures.
"We feel we have an obligation to make sure the attorneys do their due diligence and come to us with credible papers because the consequences [of wrongful foreclosures] are so great," Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman said in an interview, adding that the new filing requirement is the first in the nation.
See a sample (pdf) of the affirmation attorneys will be required to provide.
Attorneys must now certify, "under the penalties of perjury," that they have communicated with a representative of the plaintiff bank or lender and that they have personally reviewed all documents and records related to the case.
After making this review and "other diligent inquiry," they must attest that "to the best of my knowledge information and belief, the Summons and Complaint and all other documents filed in support of this action for foreclosure are complete and accurate in all relevant respects."
The court system's affirmation form notes that foreclosure filings in various courts around the nation have been subject to a variety of defects, including the failure of counsel to review documents and establish standings, bogus notarized affidavits and the "robosignature" of piles of documents by parties and their counsel.
"The wrongful filing and prosecution of foreclosure proceedings which are discovered to suffer from these defects may be cause for disciplinary and other sanctions upon participating counsel," the court system warns.
"I think this makes clear to everybody the court system's absolute commitment that we are not going to allow anything to interfere with the integrity of the court process," said Lippman.
Attorneys general in all 50 states and the District of Columbia are jointly investigating whether mortgage companies have violated state laws. In Maryland, an emergency measure approved this week by the state's highest court outlines how state judges can review foreclosures and stop them if documents are invalid.
In New York, attorneys already have an obligation to ensure that the documents they present to the court are valid. For example, Rule 3.3 of the Rules of Professional Conduct states that lawyers should not knowingly "make a false statement of fact or law to a tribunal or fail to correct a false statement of material fact or law previously made to the lawyer."
However, Judge Lippman told The Associated Press that forcing lawyers to sign something to certify that all papers have gotten a proper review will hold them accountable like never before.
"We want to make sure that everyone is focusing like a laser on these particular types of proceedings," he said. "It puts them on notice. That's what this is all about. We all have to make doubly sure that we are doing what we should be doing in the first place."
Some New York judges have complained loudly about rampant errors of varying severity in legal filings by banks seeking to foreclose on record numbers of homeowners.
Brooklyn Supreme Court Justice Arthur M. Schack, one of the judges who have pressed lenders to submit accurate paperwork, said the new Lippman rules are a "great idea," which he hopes will allow defendants and judges to "get to the bottom of this mess."
He said some lawyers appearing before him have admitted to signing documents at a rate of "hundreds a week and thousands a month, and the notary wasn't even in the room." The new rule may reduce inaccuracies, he said.
"I don't know if it is unfair," Schack said. "You want to use the court system for relief, you have the burden of trying to have accurate paperwork and, based on your diligent inquiry, that it is true."
Chief Administrative Judge Ann Pfau said she had judges with cases in which they refused to sign foreclosure orders without more documentation.
"There are particular issues in the foreclosure process that require us to be particularly diligent," she said.
Judge Lippman said in a press release that "we cannot allow the courts in New York State to stand by idly and be party to what we now know is a deeply flawed process."
The New York State Bar Association welcomed the new requirement. Its president, Stephen P. Younger, said in a statement that "the chief judge has taken swift steps to address a nationwide problem in foreclosure actions. The New York State Bar Association applauds any effort to preserve and maintain the integrity of the foreclosure process."
Younger said the affirmation form would be printed on the State Bar's Web site at www.nysba.org/foreclosureaffirmation.
Robbie L. Vaughn of Vaughn & Weber in Mineola, N.Y., who represents homeowners in foreclosure matters, said that "anything that would help the veracity of the paperwork would help. We find so many problems, it's a shame."
Gale D. Berg is a solo practitioner who is also the director of Pro Bono Attorney Activities for the Nassau County Bar Association, which runs a monthly foreclosure clinic. Speaking personally, she said the new requirement could prove difficult for some attorneys hired by the banks. Such counsel sometimes are hired on a per diem basis and first learn of the specific cases they are to handle only on the day they are to appear.
Anthony A. Capetola, a Williston Park-based attorney, has been court referee in Nassau and Suffolk County foreclosure matters for about 35 years. He noted that many homeowners facing foreclosure cannot afford to hire a lawyer. Without someone to advocate for the homeowner, the new requirement was the court's effort to "try to put somebody's neck on the line," he said.
"The merits of this rule are going to be in the detail," said Joshua Stein, a Manhattan commercial real estate attorney who watches the residential market. Stein said it might make sense to ask a lawyer to make reasonable efforts to assess the facts, but attorneys could not be expected to become a "guarantor" of those facts.
"Is this imposing some higher standard and if it does, what will the unintended consequences be?" said Stein, who is the chair of the education committee for the state Mortgage Bankers Association but was speaking for himself. He added that slowing down the mortgage process was not a good idea. "It's a slow enough process already," he said.
Michael P. Smith, the president of the state bankers' group, said his members have long worked with court administrators to bring a "fair and timely resolution to foreclosure proceedings."
"While we have not yet analyzed the new rules, we reaffirm our support for efforts to provide further clarity to a process which already is subject to stringent state laws," Smith said in a statement.
New York is one of 23 states that requires judicial approval of foreclosures. JPMorgan Chase has estimated that its average foreclosure takes 792 days, one of the longest rates in the nation.
JPMorgan was one of a few major banks that froze all foreclosures nationwide while they reviewed their filings for problems. Two of the biggest, Bank of America and GMAC Mortgage, resumed proceedings this week.
The rule requiring a signed affirmation applies to both new cases and the 78,000 foreclosure actions already under way in New York courts. (See Foreclosure Figures for New York State: 2010 Year-to-Date Foreclosures Filed and Pending by County, 2009 Foreclosures Filed and Pending by County, and Number of Filings by County 2005-2009.)
Lawyers handling pending foreclosure actions will probably need to go back to their clients and verify that all proper steps were followed, Judge Lippman said. The form created by the court requires the lawyers to give the name of the bank employee who affirmed that the records were accurate and the date the conversation took place.
Because the process is so lengthy and there are so many pending foreclosures, attorneys will be allowed to submit their affirmations at one of several points in the process.
For new cases, the affirmation would have to be included for the file to be complete. For pending cases -- which can be at any point between the initial filing and the final ruling -- the new affirmation is required before the judge's final signature on the decision.
Once an order is signed, the affirmation would be required before an auction sale of the property is held.
The Associated Press and New York Law Journal reporter Joel Stashenko contributed to this report.