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An Update on the Lawsuit Against Bank of America for Failing to Issue Accurate Interest Information Statements

Posted on Feb. 8, 2016

One of the most viewed posts last year was one that discussed a lawsuit alleging that Bank of America intentionally and systematically understated millions of dollars in homeowners’ mortgage interest payments following loan modifications. Today is the first of a two- part post by the lead lawyer on the case, David Vendler, a partner at Morris Polich & Purdy LLP. In this post, David updates us on developments in the case and related cases. In tomorrow’s post, David walks through in detail his legal arguments that underlie the claim that the bank has underreported interest.

David is an accomplished attorney who has been lead counsel in a number of high profile class action lawsuits. The charges in the Bank of America case relate to fundamental issues of tax administration, including whether consumers can rely on information returns that financial institutions issue. This post and tomorrow’s post show us that perhaps consumers and preparers may need to think twice about whether they can rely on those statements. In addition, there may be a need for millions of consumers to amend prior years’ returns when the returns include interest deductions when banks have modified loans. As David describes, the district court case that I originally discussed last year was dismissed, and now is on appeal. Related cases though are percolating, and it is likely as David describes the IRS and courts may be weighing in soon. Les

We are writing to update your blog on the status of our case against Bank of America, N.A. involving its failing to include on Forms 1098 customer payments of deferred interest in the loan modification context. As your readers will recall, the question at the heart of the case is whether 26 U.S.C. 6050H requires banks and mortgage servicing companies to report on Forms 1098 borrower repayments of interest that were owed at the time of a loan modification and which have been are “wrapped into” the “new principal” of the loan post-modification.

An example was given in the earlier blog post that well illustrates the issue. Assume a homeowner facing financial distress has a $600,000 principal balance on a 15-year mortgage. At the time of the modification, the homeowner also owes $60,000 in delinquent interest. Post modification, the homeowner ends up with a 30-year mortgage and owes $660,000. That amount consists of the original principal plus the $60,000 in back interest. Our view is that the entirety of the borrowers’ post-modification payments should be applied first to retiring the $60,000 of pre-modification interest, and that those amounts should be reported on Form 1098. Bank of America and many other banks have taken the position that they are not going to report the repayment of this interest at all.

Our position is that pre-loan-modification interest retains its character as interest post-modification and that therefore 26 U.S.C. Section 6050H requires that the borrowers’ post-loan modification payment of that interest must be reported on Form 1098. We further take the position that under the “interest before principal” payment allocation provisions that exist in all standard mortgage agreements, the borrowers’ post-loan-modification payments should be first applied to retire any pre-modification interest. Only then, should payments be allocated to retiring interest accrued post-modification and principal. See Prabel v. Commissioner, 91 T.C. 1101, 1113 (1988), affd. 882 F.2d 820 (3d Cir.1989) (courts generally have “deferred to the loan agreements between debtors and creditors where the agreements make specific provision for the accrual or allocation of loan payments between principal and interest.”)

Last year, our case against Bank of America got thrown out by the district court (that dismissal is  here). The ground for the district Court’s opinion was that the IRS supposedly has “exclusive enforcement” jurisdiction over 26 U.S.C. Section 6050H. We have appealed that ruling and briefing on that appeal will be complete next month. Argument will likely take place sometime in 2017. In the months since our case against Bank of America was thrown out, two other district courts in similar cases have explicitly refused to follow the Bank of America decision and have found these other Form 1098 cases “cognizable” in court; those opinions are found here and here. In our view, these subsequent decisions by two different federal judges bode well for our chances before the 9th Circuit. But there are also other movements afoot that will have ramifications on this issue (and our appeal) within this year.

Although the IRS refused all of our entreaties to become involved with this issue (made through the Office of the Taxpayer Advocate), two banking industry submissions – made pursuant to Rev. Proc. 2003-36 on September 15, 2015 and October 15, 2015 by the Mortgage Bankers Association (“MBA”) (MBA letter here) and American Bankers Association (“ABA”) (ABA letter here) – have apparently gotten the IRS to finally take notice. Specifically, on January 7, 2016, the IRS as part the IRS’ Industry Issue Resolution Program issued a curt statement stating it had agreed to accept two issues for consideration: (1) whether Section 6050H requires reporting of pre-loan-modification interest and (2) whether deferred interest in the negative amortization loan context should be reported.

Not surprisingly, neither the AMA’s and MBA’s letters claim that such interest should not be reported, but instead seek that the IRS issue a prospective-only rule that would (at least potentially) eliminate their members’ liability for having failed to report such interest in past years. We responded with our own submissions here in which we urged that the there is no need for “guidance” since there is a mountain of legal authority that already exists pointing inexorably to the conclusions: (1) that the payment of previously deferred mortgage interest must be reported on Form 1098 by the recipient of that interest in the year of actual payment and (2) that an intervening loan modification does nothing to change this.

We also pointed out that the only reason the ABA and MBA were seeking “guidance” is that some of its members are seeking to have the IRS help them avoid exposure in litigations like ours for their having improperly reported the mortgage interest payments of millions of Americans. Specifically, we stated that they are hoping to be able to create their own precedent so they can argue in Court that the IRS’s issuance of some sort of “prospective” “guidance” proves that an ambiguity existed in the law such that their under-reporting of interest was “reasonable.” However, we argued that the mere fact that some banks are reporting interest in a manner that is contrary to well-established law does not mean that there is an ambiguity in the reporting requirements. It just means that those banks are doing it wrong.

The real truth is that some ABA member banks (like Bank of America) chose expediency over compliance because tracking deferred interest is costly. But accuracy lies at the core of section 6050H. Clearly, any rule that promotes a schism between the amount of interest that a borrower pays to a lender from the amount of interest that lender reports on Form 1098 crosses purposes with the intent of section 6050H (this is not to say that the amount of interest deducted by the taxpayer will always match the amount of interest reported on Form 1098. For instance, a borrower might pay less than $600 in interest and thus not receive a Form 1098, but that borrower could still deduct the interest that he or she did pay). Because taxpayers, their tax preparers, and the IRS all routinely rely on the amounts contained on the lender-issued Form 1098, if pre-existing interest is not reported on Form 1098, most borrowers (and their tax preparers) would never even know: (1) there is a pre-existing interest balance that can be deducted, or (2) how to allocate their mortgage payments to determine in which tax-year they have repaid the prior interest balance. While this may be “good” for the treasury, it is inconsistent with the principle that everyone pays only the amount of tax they are required to pay under the tax code.

These problems all completely disappear if banks simply report the “aggregate” amount of interest (both current and pre-existing) that they actually receive as is mandated by the unambiguous language of § 6050H (recipients of “interest” on “any mortgage” are required to report on Form 1098 (to the IRS and to the payer) the “aggregate” amount of “interest” “received” during the calendar year if that amount “aggregates” to over $600). If that happens, then the taxpayer will deduct the proper amounts and the Form 1098 will have served its raison d’être by helping the IRS to verify that the amounts deducted are proper.

In tomorrow’s post we will discuss the legal issues underlying how banks are supposed to report interest.

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