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Aceves ruling: Foreclosed homeowner has cause to sue bank for fraud

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A California appeals court ruled that a former homeowner's lawsuit against U.S. Bank (USB) for fraud may continue after the bank allegedly reneged on a promise to negotiate a mortgage modification, opening the door for claims from potentially thousands of similarly situated troubled borrowers in the Golden State. While the court ruled that a case for fraud--which includes claims for damages--could proceed, it also ruled that the homeowner, Claudia Jacqueline Aceves, lacked sufficient cause to get her home back after the foreclosure sale. What could become a landmark foreclosure ruling appears to be both a win and a loss, for mortgage servicers and foreclosure defense attorneys alike. Mortgage servicers prevailed on issues of alleged defects in the foreclosure process, with the court ruling that none of the Aceves allegations of irregularities "would permit the trial court to void the deed of sale or otherwise invalidate the foreclosure." Aceves had claimed, for example, that the notice of default was defective and therefore void, a claim the court rejected outright. "Absent prejudice, the error does not warrant relief," according to the ruling. The court spent most of  its 15-page ruling, however, discussing how U.S. Bank had purportedly promised to negotiate a potential loan modification if the homeowner agreed to allow the bank to lift a bankruptcy stay, which had protected the home from seizure. Yet, when the homeowner agreed and attempted to begin negotiation on a loan modification, the bank allegedly opted to foreclose without negotiating. "We conclude plaintiff could have reasonably relied on the bank’s promise to work on a loan reinstatement and modification if she did not seek relief under Ch. 13; the promise was sufficiently concrete to be enforceable; and plaintiff’s decision to forgo Ch. 13 relief was detrimental because it allowed the bank to foreclose on the property," according to the ruling, filed Jan. 27, in the Court of Appeal of the State of California’s second appellate district. In April 2006, Aceves took out a 30-year, $845,000 loan at a rate of 6.35% with original payments about $4,860 per month. After two years, the rate became adjustable. In January 2008, Aceves could no longer make her payments, and a notice of default was filed in March of that year. Shortly thereafter, Aceves filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy protection, which automatically stops foreclosure proceedings. Aceves contacted U.S. Bank, which told her it "would work with her on a mortgage reinstatement and loan modification" as soon as the loan was out of  bankruptcy, according to the ruling. Aceves said her intention was to convert the Chapter 7 case to Chapter 13, which allows a homeowner in default to reinstate original loan payments, pay the arrears over time and avoid foreclosure. U.S. Bank, meanwhile, filed a motion to lift the bankruptcy stay. In November 2008, Aceves’ bankruptcy attorney received a letter from the attorney for the loan's servicer, American Home Mortgage Servicing. The letter asked for an agreement in writing to allow American Home to contact Aceves to "explore loss mitigation possibilities." When Aceves contacted the servicer, she was told American Home would not speak to her before the motion to lift the bankruptcy stay was granted. Aceves decided not to pursue Chapter 13 bankruptcy protection based on U.S. Bank’s promise to reinstate and modify the loan, according to the appellate court. On Dec. 4, 2008, the bankruptcy stay was lifted. Five days later, without contacting Aceves, U.S. Bank scheduled the home for a Jan. 9, 2009, foreclosure sale. Aceves sent documents to American Home on Dec. 10 and was told on Dec. 23 that a negotiator would contact her on or before Jan. 13 (four days after the scheduled auction.). On Dec. 29, a negotiator called and said to forget about the foreclosure because the "file" had been "discharged" in bankruptcy. On Jan. 2, the negotiator called again and said American Home was incorrect and that it would reconsider. On Jan. 8, the day before the scheduled sale, the negotiator said the loan's new balance was $965,926, the new monthly payments would be $7,200 and a $6,500 deposit was due immediately. The negotiator refused to put the terms in writing, according to the appellate court's finding. Aceves did not accept the offer, and the house was subsequently sold back to U.S. Bank the next day. "U.S. Bank never intended to work with Aceves to reinstate and modify the loan," the latest ruling said. "The bank so promised only to convince Aceves to forgo further bankruptcy proceedings, thereby permitting the bank to lift the automatic stay and foreclose on the property." During an original lower court case, U.S. Bank had prevailed with the court, which ruled there was no promissory fraud involved. Aceves filed the appeal spanning issues of standing as well as reiterating a claim for promissory fraud, on which the appellate court based its ruling. For its part, U.S. Bank alleged that Aceves' bankruptcy case was filed in "bad faith." U.S. Bank referred comments to the servicer, American Home Mortgage Servicing.  A spokeswoman for American Home Mortgage Servicing said the company is still reviewing the court case and has no comment at this time. Write to Kerry Curry. Follow her on Twitter @communicatorKLC.

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