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Never Underestimate the Value of Face Time: Kersey v. PHH Mortgage Corporation

In 2002, Brenda Kersey received a $71,397 mortgage loan to purchase a home in Richmond, Virginia. The loan was a Federal Housing Administration (“FHA”) loan governed by FHA regulations. PHH Mortgage Corporation was the holder of the note in connection with Ms. Kersey’s loan.

Like so many unfortunate homeowners, Brenda Kersey fell behind on her mortgage payments. PHH appointed the Professional Foreclosure Corporation of Virginia (“PFC”) as substitute trustee on the Deed of Trust securing the mortgage and instructed PFC to foreclose on Ms. Kersey’s home. PFC scheduled a foreclosure sale without having or attempting to arrange a face-to-face meeting between PHH and Ms. Kersey.

The deed of trust allowed foreclosure only if the holder of the note complies with FHA regulations. One of those regulations is 24 C.F.R. Section 203.604 (b), which states in part:

The mortgagee must have a face-to-face interview with the mortgagor, or make a reasonable effort to arrange such a meeting, before three full monthly installments due on the mortgage are unpaid. If default occurs in a repayment plan arranged other than during a personal interview, the mortgagee must have a face-to-face meeting with the mortgagor, or make a reasonable attempt to arrange such a meeting within 30 days after such default and at least 30 days before foreclosure is commenced….

Based on PFC’s failure to schedule a face-to-face interview before initiating foreclosure, Ms. Kersey filed a complaint in the Circuit Court for Richmond City seeking a declaratory judgment that PHH failed to comply with the deed of trust sufficiently to go forward with the foreclosure. PHH removed the matter to the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia, Richmond Division, and moved to dismiss the action under Rule 12(b)(6) for failure to state a claim.

In a memorandum opinion in Kersey v. PHH Mortgage Corporation, Judge Williams refused to dismiss Ms. Kersey’s complaint, concluding that there was a “distinct and ripe controversy” as to whether PHH owed Ms. Kersey a face-to-face interview prior to foreclosing on her home.

PHH’s first argued that Section 203.604 and the National Housing Act (“NHA”) do not grant a plaintiff a private cause of action. Judge Williams dispensed with this argument by concluding that Ms. Kersey was not bringing a claim under the NHA and Section 203.604, but rather was seeking a declaratory judgment based on a state law breach of contract claim. Interestingly, Judge Williams hinted to PHH that perhaps it could assert that Ms. Kersey’s failure to make timely payments constituted the first material breach between the parties that would have relieved PHH from the obligatory face-to-face meeting.

PHH’s second argument was that it fell under an exception found in Section 203.604 (c), that a

face-to-face meeting is not required … if [t]he mortgaged property is not within 200 miles of the mortgagee, its servicer, or a branch office of either.

PHH has loan origination branches, but no servicing branches, within 200 miles of Ms. Kersey’s property, and pointed to an interpretation of this exception on HUD’s website that Section 203.604 relates only to mortgagors living within a 200-mile radius of a servicing office. Judge Williams refused to be swayed by the interpretation on HUD’s website, finding the exception in Section 203.604 (c) to be unambiguous. According to Judge Williams, a lender could escape the face-to-face meeting requirement only if the following are not located within 200 miles of the mortgaged property:

  1. the mortgagee;
  2. the mortgagee’s mortgage servicer;
  3. a branch office of the mortgagee;
  4. a branch office of the mortgagee’s mortgage servicer.

Judge Williams found that PHH could not therefore escape its face-to-face obligation when Ms. Kersey’s complaint alleged that PHH maintains “branch offices” within 200 miles of the mortgaged property.

It will be interesting to see if PHH ultimately prevails by alleging that Ms. Kersey committed the first material breach when she fell behind on her payments.  However, stepping back from the legal analysis for a moment, maybe there is a point to these face-to-face meetings, even if they are time consuming.  In the right situation, such a meeting could enable lenders and borrowers to come up with a mutual plan to avoid painful and costly foreclosure proceedings.