WASHINGTON — A new study confirms allegations made by state prosecutors that some of the nation's biggest banks are violating the terms of the $25 billion national mortgage settlement, the landmark agreement to clean up shoddy foreclosure practices.
The court-appointed monitor of the settlement on Wednesday issued a report saying Citigroup, Bank of America, Wells Fargo and JPMorgan Chase have dragged their feet in processing homeowners' requests for lower monthly loan payments.
These are the same charges being lobbed against the banks by Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan and New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman. The two were among the 49 state attorneys general who teamed with federal agencies to broker the settlement with the top five mortgage servicers last year.
The deal was supposed to ensure that struggling homeowners would not have to endure the same miscommunication, delays and botched paperwork that was commonplace after the housing bust. But, according the monitor, it seems some things haven't changed.
Four out of five banks failed at least one of the 29 metrics the monitor used to measure their compliance with the 304 servicing standards outlined in the settlement.
The report "affirms that the pattern of violations by Wells Fargo that my office documented in New York is harming homeowners nationwide," said Schneiderman, who threatened to sue Wells Fargo and Bank of America in May over the violations. "These flagrant violations put homeowners in New York and across the nation at greater risk of foreclosure."
The most common problem found among the servicers, in particular at Citigroup, Bank of America and Wells Fargo, was failure to notify homeowners of any missing documents in their modification requests within five days of receipt, according to the settlement monitor, Joseph A. Smith Jr. Citigroup and Bank of America were also cited for providing inaccurate information in letters they must send to borrowers before beginning a foreclosure.
"Progress is being made in a number of areas, but other harmful practice endure," said Shaun Donovan, secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development, during a call with reporters. "It is time for [the banks] to live up to their end of the deal . . . if they don't we'll explore all options to remedy this situation from fining them to hauling them back into court."
Servicers who fail to comply with the standards must put in place a plan approved by the monitor to correct the problem. If the problem reoccurs within six months, the monitor can take legal action and seek fines of up to $5 million.
The banks are in some stage of creating or implementing plans to fix the problems reported. JPMorgan has refunded premiums to 2,000 borrowers it failed to quickly reimburse when their force-placed insurance contracts were canceled.
Companies flagged potential violations in addition to having the monitor review their files. Bank of America spokesman Dan Frahm noted that the bank "took immediate action" to resolve the problems found in the report, which did not result "inaccurate foreclosures or improper loan modification denials."
ResCap, formerly known as Ally Financial, passed the monitor's tests through the end of 2012, but the company's bankruptcy proceedings this year delayed additional testing. The monitor is now working with Ocwen Financial, Berkshire Hathaway and Green Tree Servicing, which purchased ResCap's servicing rights and assets, to continue the process.
The monitor's office received nearly 60,000 consumer complaints between October and March. A majority of the grievances involved borrowers being bounced around to different bank employees, rather than being given a single point of contact. Homeowners also complained that banks were initiating foreclosures while simultaneously negotiating a modification, a practice known as dual-tracking.
"A lot of the complaints closely correlate with the failures that we found," Smith said. He said his office is developing some new metrics to, among other things, clearly define what documents borrowers have to file when applying for a loan modification.
A key objective of the settlement was to improve the way servicers interact with struggling homeowners. In some respects, the banks have accomplished that goal. There were no reports of servicers losing documents or using forged paperwork to quickly foreclose on borrowers — the sorts of allegations that led to investigations and eventual agreement in the first place, said Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller.
"There is a difference," he said. "You look at the dysfunctional system that we saw three years ago. . . . Banks never could have provided the kind of homeowner relief we're seeing today under their old system."
To date, the five servicers have provided $50.6 billion worth of loan modifications, short sales, refinancing and forbearance assistance to more than half a million borrowers across the country, according to a report released last month by the settlement monitor.
"We have some more work to do, but we're better off today than we were a year ago," Smith said. "A lot of the metrics were passed. The process has gotten better. Servicers are more responsive."