Foreign statutory trusts that acquire delinquent residential mortgage loans are NOT required to be licensed under the Maryland Collection Agency Licensing Act (the “Act”), based on an opinion released today by the Maryland Court of Appeals. The opinion reverses lower court rulings that called for such licensing. According to the opinion, the Act’s plain language is ambiguous as to whether the Maryland General Assembly intended foreign statutory trusts, acting as a special purpose vehicle in the mortgage industry, to obtain a license as a collection agency. The court conducted a fulsome review of the original legislative history, subsequent legislation, and related statutes to discern legislative intent.

Finding that the original impetus for licensing was to address abuses in the debt collection industry, the court held that the General Assembly did not intend for foreign statutory trusts to obtain a collection agency license under the Act before their substitute trustees filed foreclosure actions in various circuit courts. As a result, the court held that the lower courts improperly dismissed foreclosure actions (which the courts had done simply because the two foreign statutory trusts that had acquired the delinquent mortgage loans were not licensed under the Act before the substitute trustees instituted the foreclosure proceedings).

Of particular interest in the opinion is the conclusion that a foreign statutory trust is not “doing business” as a collection agency. The court wrote:

 Applying that definition of “business” as used in [the Act] to the consolidated cases before us presents further ambiguity. Specifically, the foreign statutory trusts that own the mortgage loans in the cases sub judice do not have any employees or offices, do not have any registered agent, and do not have any specifically identified pursuit in the State of Maryland. Instead, [the trusts] both act solely through trustees and substitute trustees. Therefore, it would be hard for this Court in the first instance to conclude that the foreign statutory trusts engage, either directly or indirectly, in the business of a collection agency when it is hard to deduce if these entities are even conducting “business” under Funk and Wagnall’s definition.

The earlier, now overturned, opinions had set off a frenzy within the Maryland foreclosure bar and the delinquent loan holders they represent. Many foreclosure law firms simply were unwilling to pursue foreclosures unless the owner of a loan that had been acquired in a delinquent status was licensed as a collection agency, and Maryland had to create an entirely new process to license trusts. Underlying the confusion was the view that a trust simply is not “doing business” as a matter of law, and thus a state did not have jurisdiction to require the licensing of the trust. The earlier Maryland opinions followed a twisted logic that a trust may not be “doing business” in the state as a matter of Maryland law on foreign qualifications, but is “doing business” as a collection agency. The plain speaking Maryland Court of Appeals concluded that doing business means doing business, and not doing business means not doing business — a logical conclusion that is elegant in its simplicity.

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