Supreme Court Should Not Have Determined the Mortgage Company Did Not Negotiate a Loan Modification in Good Faith Without a Hearing, and Could Not, Pursuant to the Contract Clause, Order the Mortgage Company to Enter a Loan Modification Agreement
After defendant, Ms Hepburn, failed to answer the summons and complaint in a mortgage foreclosure action, the plaintiff mortgage company moved for an order of reference (the appointment of a referee to compute the amount due). Supreme Court denied the motion and, sua sponte, determined the mortgage company had not negotiated a loan modification in good faith (CPLR 3408), and directed the mortgage company to offer a loan modification within sixty days. The Second Department determined Supreme Court should have granted the motion for an order of reference (which was not opposed), should not have made a finding the mortgage company failed to negotiate a loan modification in good faith without conducting a hearing, and could not, pursuant to the Contract Clause, order the mortgage company to enter a loan modification agreement:
The Supreme Court should not have, sua sponte, determined that the plaintiff failed to negotiate in good faith as required by CPLR 3408, and directed it, within sixty days, to offer a loan modification to Ms. Hepburn allowing her to assume the subject mortgage. “It is well-settled that an action to foreclose a mortgage is equitable in nature and triggers the equitable powers of the court” … . “Once equity is invoked, the court’s power is as broad as equity and justice require” … . A court “may impose a sanction sua sponte, but the party to be sanctioned must be afforded a reasonable opportunity to be heard” … .
Here, the only matter before the Supreme Court was the plaintiff’s motion for an order of reference. Without an evidentiary hearing or notice to the parties, the Supreme Court sua sponte determined that the plaintiff had not acted in good faith in its negotiations with Ms. Hepburn at settlement conferences, which were held over a 16-month period, and thereupon denied the plaintiff’s motion. Such procedure did not afford the plaintiff an opportunity to oppose the Supreme Court’s finding that it had not met it obligation to negotiate in good faith as required by CPLR 3408 or to oppose the imposition of sanctions … . Moreover, even if sanctions for failure to negotiate in good faith were appropriate in this matter, the Supreme Court erred in directing the plaintiff to, in effect, enter into a contract with Ms. Hepburn … . Such a sanction violates the Contract Clause of the United States Constitution … . PHH Mtge. Corp. v Hepburn, 2015 NY Slip Op 03817, 2nd Dept 5-6-15