New Jersey Foreclosure Defense 101 – Pro Se Answer to Foreclosure Complaint Is Almost Always Useless at Best

Most Pro Se Answers Filed by Defendants in New Jersey Foreclosure Proceedings Are a Waste of Money and Precious Time

Defendants in New Jersey foreclosure proceedings sometimes file a a pro se answer to the foreclosure complaint without consulting a foreclosure defense attorney.  When a property owner files an “answer” to the complaint, they do so without any knowledge of the New Jersey Court Rules that govern these answers which are vastly different in mortgage foreclosure actions.   Almost without exception, the result is, at best, a waste of time and the money spent on the filing fee.  At worst, the homeowner may be waiving the opportunity to raise a valid defense to the foreclosure action.

What is a Pro Se Answer?

For those who are not legal professionals, the latin phrase “pro se” means that a party in a lawsuit is representing themselves without representation by a lawyer.  The literal Latin definition is “on behalf of themselves”.

Generally, in lawsuits, an answer is a response to the complaint filed by the plaintiff.   Answers must be filed to raise any defenses to the lawsuit or claims filed by the Plaintiff.  Answers are often filed in lawsuits which do not contain any specific facts or allegations and simply deny the allegations of the Plaintiff in the Complaint.

Commonly, in many areas of the law, the Defendant will file an answer that contains “general denials” stating only “Denied”.  Though in any particular legal matter this may have consequence, a “general denial” may be effective in disputing the Plaintiff’s claims and allowing the defendant to dispute the complaint in a trial process.  For example, even an experience personal injury defense attorney might file an answer to a complaint containing “general denials” in an action for significant money damages in the Law Division.

An answer may also contain a “denial” which neither admits nor denies the Plaintiff’s allegations.   Typically, experienced attorneys in the Law Division will include the phrase that the defendant is without knowledge or information sufficient to form a belief as to the truth of an allegation in the complaint.  Under N.J. Court Rule R. 4:5-3, this answer has the effect of a denial.  This is typically effective in denying the Plaintiff’s claims and often used where the defendant is not in a position to take a position but wishes to reserve its rights.

Non-Contesting Answer in Foreclosure Complaint

There are very important differences between foreclosure proceedings before the Chancery Division of the New Jersey Superior Court and proceedings in the Law Division.

First and foremost, general denials or responses which “neither admit nor deny” allegations do not have the effect of a denial in foreclosure actions.   As is clearly set forth in 4:5-3, the allowance of a general denial applies “except as otherwise provided by R. 4:64-1(c) (foreclosure actions)”.   When a defendant in a foreclosure proceeding  files an answer which alleges that they are “without knowledge or information sufficient to form a belief as to the truth of an allegation in the complaint”, the Rules require that the Foreclosure Unit deem that response as “non-contesting to the allegation of the complaint to which it responds.” See R. 4:64-1(a)(3).

Loan Modification is Not a Defense to a Foreclosure Complaint

Another frequent example of a fruitless and counter-productive answer filed by a pro se defendant in foreclosure relates to the owners efforts to obtain a loan modification.   Any property owner who has tried unsuccessfully to resolve their foreclosure through a mortgage modification assumes that the Court will share in their anger and frustration at the callous and uncaring treatment by the mortgage company in the process.  Certainly many judges understand their frustration and share in their desire for better communication between property owners and the mortgage companies.   This desire for better communication lead to the establishment of the New Jersey Foreclosure Mediation Program.

Unfortunately, in the great majority of cases, the process of a loan modification or the bank’s actions in communicating with the borrower, does not constitute a defense to the foreclosure. “The only material issues in a foreclosure proceeding are the validity of the mortgage, the amount of indebtedness, and the right of the mortgagee to foreclose on the mortgaged property. Great Falls Bank v. Pardo, 263 N.J. Super. 388, 394 (Ch. Div. 1993).”

The New Jersey Supreme Court, in U.S. Bank. Nat’l Ass’n. v. Guillaume, 209 N.J. 449 (2012), also found that attempting to modify a mortgage does not constitute “excusable neglect” where the Defendant fails to file a timely contesting answer to the foreclosure complaint and seeks to raise legal defenses at a later date.   U.S. Bank. Nat’l Ass’n. v. Guillaume at 468.

There are cases when the conduct of a lender is so egregious that may give rise to a claim by foreclosure defendant.  See, for example, Sundquist v. Bank of Am., N.A., 2017 Bankr. LEXIS 809.  However, only  an attorney who is a foreclosure defense expert, after a comprehensive review of the facts and circumstances, can identify these infrequent cases.

New Jersey Foreclosures

We also see many pro se Defendants who rely on their knowledge of the history of foreclosures in New Jersey and believe that a foreclosure filed in 2017 will face the same legal challenges and delays that foreclosures have faced in the past.

Many pro se Defendants meet with us having “defended” prior foreclosure cases filed between 2008 and 2012 where they tell us of their “success” in winning their case.   Often, a further review shows that prior foreclosures were abandoned by Plaintiffs and that the legal arguments raised by the defendants on issues such as “chain of title” or the ever-present “statute of limitations” were never litigated to a successful result.

Many Defendants are surprised when we advise that there are no current delays in a foreclosure Plaintiff obtaining a Final Judgment and that the New Jersey Supreme Court has ruled that “chain of title” and other popular pro se defenses are not valid defenses to a foreclosure action.

Conclusion

The notion of filing an answer in a foreclosure action should be part of a strategy developed by the defendant and experienced counsel to proceed in the client’s bests interests.   Filing a pro se answer without full knowledge of the particular applications of the New Jersey Court Rules and the state of New Jersey foreclosure law is misguided at best.   Only through a consultation with an experienced New Jersey foreclosure attorney can a defendant in foreclosure truly understand what actions to take, and those not to take, to avoid finding themselves with fewer and worse options than those which could have been developed with the assistance of counsel.