Bankers are scrambling to extend past Oct. 1 a moratorium that blocks mortgage holders from suing to invalidate their loans because of minor oversights or errors on disclosure documents.
Potentially at stake is billions of dollars in interest and fees already paid.
Lobbyists from large banks and bank trade groups say the stay will extend a moratorium President Clinton signed last spring in anticipation of federal legislation that would protect mortgage lenders from such suits.
"It's just fundamentally unfair to lose your business over minor clerical oversights that are easily corrected," said Warren Lasko, executive vice president of the Mortgage Bankers Association of America.
A measure to amend a glitch that allows borrowers to sue if fees are noted in the wrong place on mortgage documents is now included in the Financial Institutions Regulatory Relief Act of 1995.
But because that bill is bogged down by controversial measures to allow banks to sell insurance, lobbyists may seek separate status for the mortgage proposal, perhaps as a stand-alone bill.
The MBA and other industry groups are backing a proposal that would set higher dollar limits for disclosure errors and also nullify a raft of class actions that have been filed to capitalize on a decision handed down last spring.
The MBA, the American Bankers Association, and lenders such as Countrywide Funding Corp. and GE Capital Corp. are part of the effort to stem the effects of the lawsuit, which was decided by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit.
The suit was filed by Martha Rodash, a blind Florida widow with multiple sclerosis who wanted to pay for medicine by refinancing her home. Ms. Rodash fell behind in payments and risked losing her home until her lawyers scrutinized her loan documents.
The lawyers found two small bookkeeping errors in papers she received from her lender, AIB Mortgage. AIB had listed in the wrong column a $22 Federal Express fee and a $204 Florida intangibles tax, mistakes that constituted violations of the Truth-in-Lending Act.
The Rodash action has spawned more than 50 class actions since last fall, with homeowners seeking rescissions of their mortgages and up to three years in back fees and interest.
As currently structured, the Truth-in-Lending Act disclosure requirements "are excessive and subject the industry to a standard of perfection with harsh results for even the most minor errors or misinterpretations," said John P. Davey, senior vice president at Draper & Kramer, a mortgage company in Chicago.
The bill would place a limit on borrowers' right to seek a way out of their mortgage for disclosure errors. The measure would also increase to a maximum of $200, from $10, the amount for disclosure errors that borrowers can act upon.
The current setup is just too constraining, industry observers say.
"One could argue the vast majority of mortgages have something mischaracterized at the $10 level," said Sharon Canavan, deputy legislative counsel for the MBA.
But the oversights are inadvertent errors, not deliberate attempts to rip off customers, industry representatives said.