Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Core Settlement Services; Chelsea Settlement Services; Jami Braafhart; Preliminary Injunction issued by Court; Stewart Title Guaranty Company;

A lawsuit is proceeding in Cumberland County that reveals the seamier side of the real estate business and the risks to innocent purchasers from settlements. 

On June 1, 2012, the Cumberland County Court of Common Pleas issued a "Temporary Restraining Order and Special Injunction" against Core Settlement Services, Chelsea Settlement Services and Jami Braafhart.  The lawsuit and Order are docketed at 12-3471.  A hearing is scheduled for June 14, 2012.  In the meantime, the Defendants are prohibited from engaging in real estate transactions or selling assets.

Core/Chelsea are settlement companies that issue title insurance and disburse funds in connection with real estate purchases and refinances. The companies are owned/managed by Jami Braafhart.  The companies serve(d) as title agents for Stewart Title Guaranty Company.  The Defendants were required to collect the proceeds from real estate settlements, pay the sellers and pay the liens, taxes and old mortgages and insure title to the properties in each transaction.  These are the typical duties and functions of any title agency/settlement company.

Stewart has filed suit against all Defendants, alleging essentially that for a period of several years, they have failed to pay liens and mortgages from properties for which they conducted settlement. Stewart's lawsuit accuses the Defendants of keeping the settlement proceeds instead of paying liens and mortgages.  The lawsuit claims that the agencies' escrow accounts have a negative balance in excess of one million dollars and have had a negative balance for some time.  Stewart discovered this conduct in May 2012.

Escrow accounts are not supposed to have negative balances at all, as the accounts do not belong to the title agents, but exist solely to collect the sale proceeds and then pay the sellers, the old mortgages and liens, taxes, etc. 

Paragraph 25 of Stewart's Complaint alleges that the Defendants' account balances have been negative since 2007.  Paragraph 31 alleges that the shortage in the accounts exceeded 1.1 million dollars as of May 29, 2012.  To the extent that these allegations are true, Stewart (as the underwriter) is ultimately responsible to pay off unsatisfied mortgages and other liens on numerous real estate transactions - even though Stewart committed no wrongdoing.

This matter is of concern to more than Stewart Title Guaranty Company and the Defendants. The Defendant companies operated at very high volume for a number of years. There are possibly numerous transactions and properties that now suffer from defective title because liens may not have been paid off. Indeed, paragraph 20 of the Complaint alleges that some customers have complained that prior mortgages have not been paid off. Those customers can seek redress through Stewart Title, but the story does not end there. 

Customers that obtained title policies through Core/Chelsea/Braafhart will someday seek refinance through other agencies.  It has been the policy of many title companies in recent years to search the title only so far back as the last mortgage, instead of searching the previous 60 years (as the practice used to be).  The theory for this shortcut is that if a mortgage was placed on the property five years ago (for example), there must have been a title search at that time and the new title company can rely on the fact that someone did their job 5 years earlier and corrected any liens.  But now that whole practice becomes suspect - especially in light of the large volume that Core/Chelsea handled.  If Core/Chelsea failed to pay old liens (as they were required to do), other title companies should not rely on the fact that a settlement occurred in which Core/Chelsea was involved. Once a new title company insures title (defective or not) with a new purchaser, the old title company is off the hook, as the old title company did not insure that new purchaser.

Other title companies need to be concerned, as Core/Chelsea's high volume has created a potential nightmare scenario in which thousands of purchasers/owners unknowingly spread Core/Chelsea's problems to new title companies.  Title companies should decide whether to stick with the recent policy of searching only back to the last mortgage or resuming the old policy of searching the previous sixty years. 

The insurance commission may want to rethink the rate schedule, in which properties that have been insured within the last two or three years are eligible for deeper discounts.  Due to situations such as Core/Chelsea's as well as the general real estate collapse of the past four years (with the resulting increase in short sales, foreclosures, tax sales, unpaid contractors, etc.) properties that have been sold or financed in the past two or three years involve greater risk than those that have seen no transactions for 10 or more years.

Property owners should be cautious also, especially those that used Core or Chelsea for their transaction.  Even though a buyer is covered by the title insurance policy, there still exists a certain amount of aggravation and stress in dealing with an unpaid lien.  Those who merely refinanced (instead of purchasing) through Core/Chelsea are at greater risk. In that scenario, only the mortgage company was insured and only the mortgage company can make a claim through the policy.  As long as the owner is current on the mortgage, the mortgage company suffers no loss, even if an old mortgage remains unpaid or unsatisfied. 

The bottom line is that buyers should not be comfortable with just any settlement company that a mortgage broker or Realtor sends them to for settlement on their purchase or refinance.  Core and Chelsea were favorites for referrals among many Realtors and mortgage brokers.  Those same Realtors and brokers will now begin sending unsuspecting buyers to other settlement companies, about whom the buyers know or understand little.

If you are a buyer or property owner, use your own attorney for settlement. 

Update - here is a link to the Patriot News article from June 7, 2012.