A Lesson in Actions to Quiet Title

Suser v. Wachovia Mortgage, FSB, 433 N.J. Super. 317 (App. Div. 2013).  Though also embodied in N.J.S.A. 2A:62-1, an action to quiet title is a classic equitable remedy that allows an owner of property to “clear up all doubts and dsputes” concerning someone else’s claim, or purported claim, to a lien or encumbrance on the property at issue.  Such Chancery matters are often the subject of opinions by Judge Fisher, especially given his extensive Chancery background.  Sure enough, Judge Fisher wrote the panel opinion in this case.

This action to quiet title arose in the context of foreclosure.  The key issue was whether either or both of two mortgage holders, Wells Fargo and Deutsche Bank, had standing to foreclose on their respective mortgages.  The standing issues arose because neither Wells Fargo nor Deutsche Bank was the original mortgagee.  The Chancery Division granted summary judgment in favor of both mortgagees.  The Appellate Division affirmed the summary judgment for Wells Fargo, but reversed as to Deutsche Bank.

Plaintiff had contested the Wells Fargo mortgage on the grounds that “robo-signing” had occurred in a number of assignments of mortgages.  But Judge Fisher observed that Wells Fargo did not claim to have acquired the mortgage through an assignment.  “Instead, Wells Fargo asserted, without substantial contradiction, that the original mortgage holder– World Savings Bank, FSA– changed its name to Wachovia Mortgage, FSB, effective December 31, 2007, and that Wachovia was acquired by and merged into Wells Fargo effective November 1, 2009.  It would appear that Wells Fargo’s right to enforce the mortgage arises by operation of its ownership of the asset through mergers or acquisitions, not assignment.”  The panel also rejected a laches argument that plaintiff had made.

As to Deutsche Bank, however, whose claim of standing was based on an assignment, the result was different.  The Chancery Division had granted summary judgment before discovery was completed, and in fact had “barred discovery into the assignment.”  Yet, there was evidence to question Deutsche Bank’s standing.  As a result, especially given the incompleteness of discovery, summary judgment for Deutsche Bank was improper.

Judge Fisher went on to note, however, that even if Deutsche Bank were ultimately found to lack standing, plaintiff had not challenged the validity of the mortgage under which Deutsche Bank claimed.  As a result, someone would have the right to foreclose.  All that plaintiff had sought was a ruling that Deutsche Bank lacked standing.  Though that relief would not fully quiet plaintiff’s title, since the person or entity who did have the right to foreclose might still do so, the Deutsche Bank “cloud sufficiently enshrouds plaintiff’s title” so as to permit him to invoke the rights provided by N.J.S.A. 2A:62-1.  Judge Fisher cautioned, however, that not “every perceived or imagined cloud on title is entitled to adjudication.”  But plaintiff was entitled to adjudication of Deutsche Bank’s claim.

The opinion contains a good discussion of some general principles of actions to quiet title, in what Judge Fisher rightly described as a “convoluted” set of circumstances.  The line that divides those clouds on title that may be litigated from those that cannot be may still be somewhat hazy, but that is the nature of equitable remedies such as the action to quiet title.