In Moore v. Deutsche Bank Nat'l Trust Co., the District of Columbia Court of Appeals rejected a Seller’s title challenge to a post-foreclosure eviction, where she claimed that she had been defrauded into selling the property. Although Seller claimed that the Purchaser misled her to believe that she was refinancing her prior mortgage loan, the Court of Appeals rejected her claim, determining that she failed to prove her fraud and forgery allegations by clear and convincing evidence. Rather, the evidence suggested that her alleged misunderstanding was due to her own negligence in failing to read the documents before signing them. Accordingly, the Court determined she has no interest in the property.
A copy of this opinion is available here.
Seller claimed that she sought to refinance her mortgage to obtain $300,000 to make improvements to the property. She contacted a loan officer, who informed her that she would need a co-signer, and introduced her to Purchaser who would be willing to co-sign the loan for a $100,000 fee. During her first meeting with Purchaser, Seller signed several documents handed to her by a notary, including many that she did not read completely, and others without reading them at all. Op. at 3.
Following the meeting, Seller received $78,435.45. Because this was far less than the $300,000 she expected, she contacting the loan officer, who informed her that there was no record of her loan. Seller contacted Purchaser, who told her that she had sold him the property and that he had a sales contract bearing her signature. Appellant sued Purchaser for fraud, which was settled between the parties, whereby Seller agreed to assist Purchaser in paying the mortgage until 2008, when he would transfer the property back to Seller provided she pay-off the balance of the loan.
Despite such agreement, Purchaser defaulted on his own mortgage on the property. At the foreclosure sale, Bank credit bid its debt, and purchased the property. Bank thereafter filed a complaint for possession in the Superior Court, to which Seller filed a plea of title and counterclaim asserting that Purchaser and Bank had no interest in the property because she was defrauded into selling it.
Following a trial, the Superior Court ruled in favor of Bank, determining that Seller had not met her evidentiary burden to prove by clear and convincing evidence that the deed was forged or that the transaction was fraudulent. Seller thereafter filed the present appeal.
On appeal, Seller argued that the deed recorded in the land records was an altered forgery; that the transaction conveying the property to Purchaser was fraudulent and void ab initio; and that Bank’s interest in the property was therefore invalid. Op. at 7. She also claimed Bank was not a bona-fide lender for value without notice.
Rejecting her challenge, the Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court’s findings that “[t]he evidence indicating [that Seller] knew that the transaction was a sale of her property is overwhelming.” Op. at 13. The Court observed that the documents signed by the Seller included an a HUD-1 settlement statement, a “Correction Agreement, Limited Power of Attorney,” and two disbursement authorizations, all of which referred to sale of the property and which Seller signed over lines marked “seller.” Op. at 4-5. Seller also admitted that the signature on the recorded deed “looks like my signature,” but claimed that she didn’t remember signing it. Op. at 6.
The Court also rejected Seller’s claim that the recorded deed was forged, explaining that “[t]here is a presumption that a deed is what it purports to be on its face, and one who seeks to establish the contrary has the burden of doing so by clear and convincing evidence.” Op. at 8. The Court held that Seller’s possession of an unsigned deed with different terms was insufficient because it could not compel an inference that she was given that version to sign. Op. at 8. Nor did a mistake in the notary block referencing the Purchaser instead of the Seller suggest that the deed was forged. Op. at 8. Rather, the trial court deemed such irregularity a “clerical error.” Op. at 8.
Seller also claimed that she proved fraud in the factum, i.e., fraud which “procures a party’s signature to an instrument without knowledge of its true nature or contents.” Op. at 9. However, the Court noted that such a claim must be proved by clear and convincing evidence, and that the claimant would be estopped from making such claim if as a “literate and reasonably intelligent” person they fail to read the instrument. Op. at 9.
Here, the Court agreed with the trial court that “the weight of the evidence did not support [Seller]’s claim that she signed the closing documents believing that they were refinancing documents.” Op. at 10.
Moreover, the Court observed that Seller was a college graduate, had experience in property transactions, and had the opportunity to read the documents before signing. Op. at 10. Even assuming that Seller did not understand them, such a misunderstanding was due to her own negligence, negating any fraud-in-the-factum defense. Op. at 10-11.
Finally, the Court rejected Seller’s fraudulent inducement claim, noting that “the evidence indicating that [Seller] knew that the transaction was a sale of her property is overwhelming.” Op. at 12. In addition to signing the documents, Seller could not give information she would be expected to know if she intended a mortgage refinancing, such as the amount of her new monthly payments. Op. at 12.
The Court echoed the trial court’s suspicions as to whether the transaction as a whole was legitimate, but nevertheless agreed with the findings of the trial court, which was unable to accept as true Seller’s claim that she believed the transaction was a refinancing. Accordingly, as Seller failed to meet her evidentiary burden, the Court affirmed the trial court’s judgment in favor of Bank. Op. at 11-12. In doing so, the Court determined that it need not address Seller’s challenge to the Bank’s status as a bona-fide purchaser for value. Op. at 2, n.1.