by Jeff Sovern
I have now finished the audio version of David Dayen's book, Chain of Title. With two caveats, I think it's an excellent book. The caveats: first, I don't know enough about the events it describes to know how accurate it is, and second, I lose some comprehension with audiobooks, as opposed to reading the text. Nevertheless, it would be an excellent book for folks interested in consumer law to read. It reads like a novel about consumer protection, but unfortunately, it's not fiction. I am tempted to assign it as background reading the next time I teach consumer law, in part to make up for the fact that we don't devote class time to foreclosure fraud and robo-signing (I wish we could cover everything!), and in part to teach something about where consumer protection fits in today's landscape. Unfortunately, where consumer protection fits in the landscape is largely out of sight.
(Spoiler alert) The book is ultimately upsetting on several levels. First, consumers were treated badly. Many lost their homes to banks that couldn't prove that they were entitled to foreclose, and sometimes the bank clearly did not have a right to foreclose, as with people who were current on their mortgage payments or didn't even have a mortgage and were still foreclosed upon. Second, rather than regulators or consumer lawyers, according to the book, it was ordinary people who got the ball rolling, though regulators and consumer lawyers later played key roles. Third, while banks ultimately paid significant amounts in the national settlement, the author makes a strong case that the remedy wasn't nearly enough. Fourth, regulators and pro-industry government officials appear to have done more to protect banks than consumers. Florida Attorney General Bondi comes off as particularly terrible, but the Obama administration also failed to cover itself with glory. The book makes a strong argument that the law, including consumer protections, failed consumers.
Update: a consumer advocate who knows more about the AG settlement than I do says that while the settlement wasn't perfect, it also had a lot to recommend it, and that the AGs may well have gotten as good a deal as possible.