On February 18, the New York Court of Appeals reversed appellate division orders in four cases concerning the timeliness of mortgage foreclosure claims, seeking to develop “clarity and consistency” for cases affecting real property ownership. In particular, the decision clarifies questions regarding what actions will constitute acceleration of a debt and how such acceleration can be revoked, or de-accelerated, which resets the foreclosure timeline.

The Court of Appeals first addressed the question about how and when a default letter to a borrower constitutes an acceleration, thus commencing the six-year statute of limitations period for initiating a foreclosure action. With respect to two of the cases (appellants three and four), the Court of Appeals applied the ruling from Albertina Realty Co. v. Rosbro Realty Corp., which held “that a noteholder must effect an ‘unequivocal overt act’ to accomplish such a substantial change in the parties’ contractual relationship.” The Court of Appeals reviewed a default letter sent in one of the cases and agreed with the bank that merely warning a borrower of a potential future foreclosure via a default letter does not count as an “overt, unequivocal act.” “Noteholders should be free to accurately inform borrowers of their default, the steps required for a cure and the practical consequences if the borrower fails to act, without running the risk of being deemed to have taken the drastic step of accelerating the loan,” the Court of Appeals stated. Instead, the letter must be accompanied by some other overt, unequivocal act. In addition, the Court of Appeals also reviewed a portion of the appellate division’s decision in appellant four’s case, which held that the bank “could not de-accelerate because it ‘admitted that its primary reason for revoking acceleration of the mortgage debt was to avoid the statute of limitations bar.’” The Court of Appeals majority wrote, “We reject the theory. . .that a lender should be barred from revoking acceleration if the motive of the revocation was to avoid the expiration of the statute of limitations on the accelerated debt. A noteholder's motivation for exercising a contractual right is generally irrelevant.”

The Court of Appeals also addressed the issue of “whether a valid election to accelerate, effectuated by the commencement of a prior foreclosure action, was revoked upon the noteholder’s voluntary discontinuance of that action” in the two other cases (appellants one and two). According to Court of Appeals, when a noteholder has accelerated a loan by filing a foreclosure action, “voluntary discontinuance” of that foreclosure action de-accelerates the loan unless the noteholder states otherwise. Thus, the noteholder can later choose to re-accelerate the loan and file another foreclosure action with a new six-year statute of limitations period, the Court of Appeals wrote, reversing appellate division orders that had dismissed the two cases as untimely.

While largely unanimous, one judge issued a dissenting opinion on two of the rulings concerning whether the noteholders effectively revoked acceleration. The judge stated that if the court is going to impose a deceleration rule based on a noteholder’s voluntary withdrawal of a foreclosure action, she would require that noteholders “provide express notice to the borrower regarding the effect of that withdrawal.”