June 6, 2015

Can You Sue Your Lender After Foreclosure?

Your lender has gotten a foreclosure judgment against you, and you’re mad. You want to force the mortgage company to work something out with you. You want to stop your home from being sold.

So you file a lawsuit against the lender. You accuse it of violating laws and unjustly depriving you of your property. Will you win?

Probably not, because there are legal principles that prevent parties from litigating the same set of issues more than once. If you could have made your claims in the original foreclosure case, it’s not likely that you’ll be allowed to argue them in a new lawsuit.

A recent U.S. District Court case illustrates this point.

Nivia v. Nationstar Mortgage, LLC, was dismissed because the borrowers tried to raise new claims against the lender after there had already been a final foreclosure judgment in state court.

The plaintiffs were homeowners who defaulted on their mortgage. The lender obtained a judgment of foreclosure in Miami-Dade County Circuit Court in 2011. We don’t know what the plaintiffs did to defend themselves before the judgment, but after the foreclosure judgment was final, they filed a lawsuit against the lender.

They claimed the lender violated the federal Troubled Asset Relief Program, or TARP, and Florida’s Unfair Trade Practices Act by refusing to grant them a loan modification.

The lender asked the court to dismiss the lawsuit because the borrowers had already lost their foreclosure case in state court. The lender cited a pair of legal principles that are designed to prevent people from litigating the same issue more than once.

The first of these, known as “res judicata”, means if a court makes a decision in a lawsuit, then the same parties cannot bring another lawsuit based on claims they could have raised the first time around. Res judicata gives parties the peace of mind of knowing that once a lawsuit is decided, there won’t be another lawsuit between the same parties on the same issue.

The district court agreed that res judicata prevented the borrowers from raising claims related to the foreclosure in a new lawsuit. The court noted that the parties in both cases were the same, and the borrowers had an opportunity to raise foreclosure defenses and litigate the case before a foreclosure judgment was entered.

The lender also argued that the case should be dismissed under the Rooker-Feldman doctrine, which prevents federal courts (other than the U.S. Supreme Court) from overruling the decisions of state courts or deciding issues that are too closely related to the issues in a state court case.

The court decided that the Rooker-Feldman doctrine also applied in this case because the borrowers claimed that the lender should have granted them a loan modification and that the foreclosure was therefore improper. Since this was “inextricably intertwined” with the state foreclosure judgment, the federal court could not hear the case.

The lesson from this case is that it’s always best to raise defenses to foreclosure as early as possible. Once a court has issued a foreclosure judgment, it may be impossible to argue defenses or hold the lender accountable in a new lawsuit.