Thursday, June 26, 2008

mortgage foreclosure - equitable subrogation - Pennsylvania v. Restatement

1312466 Ontario Inc v. Carr - Superior Court - June 25, 2008

U.S. Bank, mortgagee in 4th lien position loaned property owner (p/o) money, which p/o used to pay off first and second mortgage lienors. US Bank was unaware of the 3rd lienor (Ontario), due to a negligent error in its title search.

When p/o defaulted on 3d mortgage, Ontario sued and got judgment in mortgage foreclosure.

US Bank then filed petition to intervene, claiming that it was entitled to "equitable subrogation" under Restatement 3d, Property 7.6, which says that "one who fully performs an obligation of another, secured by a mortgage, becomes by subrogation the owner of the obligation and the mortgage to the extent necessary to prevent unjust enrichment." Such equitable subrogation is an exception to the "first in time" rule that generally determines the priority of a lien.

The trial and appellate courts rejected US Bank's petition, holding that it was not entitled to equitable subrogation under Pennsylvania law, as that doctrine is defined by Home Owners' Loan Corp. v. Crouse, 30 A.2d 330 (Pa. Super. 1943) and First Commonwealth Bank v. Heller, 863 A.2d 1153 (Pa. Super. 2004) -- which are different from the Restatement definition in important respects.

"Like many other jurisdictions," Pennsylvania requires "four criteria to be met for equitable subrogation to apply....These four requirements are:
(1) the claimant paid the creditor to protect his own interests;
(2) the claimant did not act as a volunteer;
(3) the claimant was not primarily liable for the debt; and
(4) allowing subrogation will not cause injustice to the rights of others."

The appellate court found that there were two "important" differences between Pennsylvania's interpretation of equitable subrogation and that in the Restatement.

a) voluntary agent - Under Pennsylvania cases, a creditor such as U.S. Bank is considered an “entirely voluntary agent with no interest in the property” The Restatement does not adopt the 'volunteer' rule but instead only requires that the subrogee paid the creditor to protect some interest. "Thus, under the Restatement, a mortgagee pays off existing loans in order to protect its own interest in gaining the first priority lien position, and therefore would be entitled to the remedy of equitable subrogation."

b) mistake - Another important difference between Pennsylvania law on equitable subrogation and the Restatement’s approach is also illustrated in the Home Owners’ decision, where the court said that “courts of equity will not relieve a party from the consequences of an error due to his own ignorance or carelessness when there were available means which would have enabled him to avoid the mistake if reasonable care had been exercised.... [A] creditor’s mistake 'can be attributed only to its own negligence in failing to search or discover what clearly appeared on the public records'....The Restatement, on the other hand, says that 'subrogation can be granted even if the payor had actual knowledge of the intervening interest; the payor’s notice, actual or constructive, is not necessarily relevant'....Instead, what is relevant under the Restatement is 'whether the payor reasonably expected to get security with a priority equal to the mortgage being paid.'....In fact, the Restatement declares that a refinancing mortgagee should be presumed to have this expectation, even if they are aware of a remaining lien, unless there is affirmative proof that the mortgagee intended to subordinate its mortgage to the remaining interest."

Although the court pointed out that existing state doctrine might sometimes lead to undesirable results*** and "may be ripe for legislative review," it determined that it was bound by its own prior decisions "and principles of stare decisis." The court was also influenced by "the fact that it was US Bank's carelessness that brought about the pecuniary loss that it is now facing."

*** The court posited that, given Pennsylvania doctrine, US Bank would not made the loan "leaving [borrower] in all likelihood unable to refinance his existing loan" -- a scenario that it thought "may be a frequent dilemma for homeowners amidst the current mortgage crisis....."