NEW YORK -- Massachusetts sued five major banks Thursday over deceptive foreclosure practices such as the "robo-signing" of documents, potentially undermining negotiations between lenders and state prosecutors across the nation over the same issue.
The lawsuit named Bank of America Corp., JPMorgan Chase & Co., Wells Fargo & Co., Citigroup Inc., and GMAC. It was filed in Massachusetts by Attorney General Martha Coakley.
"We have two clear goals with this lawsuit -- one is to provide for real accountability for the role the banks have played in unlawful and illegal foreclosures, and secondly to provide for real and enforceable relief for the harm that the misconduct has caused," said Coakley in a press conference to announce the lawsuit.
The lawsuit also named Mortgage Electronic Registration System, Inc. and its parent company as defendants. The company, a mortgage registry database, has been accused of shoddy record-keeping in large numbers of foreclosure proceedings.
The complaint claims that the banks violated Massachusetts law with "unlawful and deceptive" conduct in the foreclosure process, including illegal foreclosures, false documentation, robo-signing, and deceptive practices related to loan modifications.
The lawsuit comes as talks have dragged on for more than a year between major banks and the attorneys general from all 50 states over fraudulent foreclosure practices that drove millions of Americans from their homes following the bursting of the housing bubble.
In October 2010, major banks temporarily suspended foreclosures following revelations of fraudulent documents processed by banks. The talks between prosecutors and the banks have been designed to institute new guidelines for mortgage lending nationwide. It was anticipated to be the biggest overhaul of a single industry since the 1998 multistate tobacco settlement.
Coakley said that banks have had more than a year to "show accountability for this economic mess," and have failed to do so. "It's taken too long," she said.
Banks had been hoping to put the issue behind them by reaching a blanket agreement with prosecutors. The Massachusetts complaint, and potentially similar lawsuits springing up in other states, could be the first phase of a widening legal quagmire that banks had hoped to avoid.
"This could put pressure on banks and lead to a stronger settlement for homeowners," said Lewis Finfer, executive director of Massachusetts Communities Action Network, an organization that works on foreclosure prevention.
Over the past year, several obstacles to the settlement have arisen. Attorneys general of different states have disagreed over what terms to offer the banks. In September, California announced that it would not agree to a settlement over foreclosure abuses that state and federal officials have been working on for more than a year.
Coakley, along with New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman and Delaware's Beau Biden, have argued that banks should not be protected from future civil liability. Other states, including Kentucky, Minnesota and Nevada, have raised concerns about the extent of legal civil immunity that the banks would receive as part of a settlement.
Both sides have also argued over the amount of money that should be placed in a reserve account for property owners who were improperly foreclosed upon. Many of the larger points of the deal, including a $25 billion cost for the banks, have been worked out, according to people briefed on the internal discussions but who are not authorized to speak publicly about them.
State officials had been hoping to finish a deal by the end of the year.
The lead negotiator on behalf of state prosecutors, Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller, said in a statement that he hopes Massachusetts would join the broader settlement that's still being worked on.
"We're optimistic that we'll settle on terms that will be in the interests of Massachusetts," Miller said.
Coakley said that she had hoped for a nationwide agreement by Thanksgiving but acknowledged a deal could still happen. "We intend to both stay in touch with what's happening and pursue our own lawsuit," she said.
JPMorgan Chase, Wells Fargo and GMAC Mortgage responded mostly with statements of disappointment. MERS said it complies with Massachusetts law; Citigroup said it would defend its actions vigorously. Bank of America said it believed that a collaborative resolution was a better path to healing the housing markets versus continued litigation.
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10 Cities Getting Slammed by Foreclosures
Mass. AG Breaks Ranks, Sues Big Banks Over Foreclosures
Quarterly increase in foreclosures: +32%
# of Foreclosures Q3 2011: 2,273
% home value down from peak: -12.42%
Columbus hit its median home value peak in the first quarter of 2006. Since that time, home values have declined a relatively modest 12.4%, including a 3.4% drop last year. By the second quarter of 2012, Fiserv projects that homes in the area will lose another 2.3% of their value. Median family income in Columbus is above the national average, and unemployment is just 8%, a full percentage point less than the national average. Despite the fact that things don’t look so bad for the Columbus housing market compared to other regions, the city foreclosure rate still increased by 32% last quarter. A total of 2,273 homes were foreclosed upon during that time.
Quarterly increase in foreclosures: +35%
# of Foreclosures Q3 2011: 1,743
% home value down from peak: -59.3%
There is arguably no single housing market with a worse long-term outlook than southwest Florida, and the Cape Coral-Fort Myers region is the worst of these. Housing prices in the have already dropped 59.3% from their peak, and Fiserv project them to decline another 12.2% by the second quarter of next year. According to Corelogic, 47% of the homes in the Cape Coral-Fort Myers area are worth less than their mortgages because of declining values. Foreclosures have increased 35% in the last quarter, and with no sign of recovery in the immediate future that trend may worsen in the coming months.
Quarterly increase in foreclosures: +36%
# of Foreclosures Q3 2011: 1,348
% home value down from peak: -59.1%
As of last month, Vallejo-Fairfield had the second-highest foreclosure rate in the country, with one out of every 51 homes being foreclosed upon in the third quarter of this year. This was a 36% increase in foreclosures from the second quarter. Home values have dropped 7.5% in the past year and are projected by Fiserv to drop an additional 4.9% by the second quarter of 2012. A remarkable 53% of homes in the region are worth less than their mortgages. This is the seventh highest rate of homes with underwater mortgages in the country.
Quarterly increase in foreclosures: +41%
# of Foreclosures Q3 2011: 2,174
% home value down from peak: -54%
Fresno’s economy has continued to suffer since housing prices began to drop in 2006. It currently has an unemployment rate of 14.9%, which is one of the highest in the country. Home prices peaked in the first quarter of 2006 and have been decreasing since. The metropolitan area also has one of the highest underwater mortgage rates in the country, with a negative equity share of nearly 46%. In the last year alone home prices have dropped 11%.
Quarterly increase in foreclosures: +44%
# of Foreclosures Q3 2011: 1,039
% home value down from peak: -53.4%
More than 1,000 homes were foreclosed upon in the Palm Bay-Melbourne-Titusville region last quarter, a 44% increase from the previous three-month period. Nearly half of the region’s homes are worth less than their mortgages. With Fiserv projecting home values would drop 7.1% by next year and another 4.9% the year after that, things may just get even worse.
Quarterly increase in foreclosures: +49%
# of Foreclosures Q3 2011: 2,559
% home value down from peak: -39.3%
Jacksonville has experienced a quarterly increase in foreclosures of nearly 50%. Home prices have dropped 39.1% since their peak in the second quarter of 2006. The metropolitan area’s negative equity share also exceeds 46%, making it among the worst in the country for underwater mortgages. Home prices are expected to decrease another 10.7% by the second quarter of 2012.
Quarterly increase in foreclosures: +55%
# of Foreclosures Q3 2011: 1,956
% home value down from peak: -15.9%
Nearly 2,000 homes were foreclosed upon during the last quarter, a 55% increase from the previous three months. Unlike many of the regions on this list with accelerating home foreclures, Cincinnati’s local economy is doing fairly well. Home prices are only down 15.9% from their peak in the first quarter of 2006. Unemployment and median family income are both better than average. One possible explanation for this recent increase may be that nearly a third of the total decline in home value since the peak has occurred in the past 12 months.
Quarterly increase in foreclosures: +57%
# of Foreclosures Q3 2011: 1,673
% home value down from peak: -51.4%
The Sarasota-Bradenton-Venice metropolitan area has seen the third largest increase in the country in foreclosures in the third quarter. However, only 1,673 homes out of the 311,475 on the market were foreclosed upon. The housing market has suffered a great deal since housing prices peaked in the first quarter of 2006. Since then, overall home prices have dropped 51.4%.
Quarterly increase in foreclosures: +67%
# of Foreclosures Q3 2011: 2,003
% home value down from peak: -15.8%
The Boston metropolitan area is considered to have a particularly resilient housing market. In the most recent quarter, however, foreclosures have increased 67%. Home prices have only dropped 15.8% since they peaked in the third quarter of 2005. The national average is -32.3%. From the second quarter of 2010 to the second quarter of 2011, home prices dropped a mere 1.7%.
Quarterly increase in foreclosures: +151%
# of Foreclosures Q3 2011: 1,358
% home value down from peak: -14.9%
Albuquerque’s housing market, like Boston’s, is relatively healthy. While home prices decreased 32.3% nationally after their peak, home prices in Albuquerque only decreased 14.9% since they peaked. Regardless, foreclosures have recently skyrocketed. In the third quarter of 2011, the number of foreclosures in Albuquerque increased 151%. According to New Mexico Business Weekly, the lack of job creation in the area has been a major contributor to this problem.