A judge dismissed a foreclosure case against a mother and daughter in Mastic last week, ruling that their bank missed New York's six-year deadline to file its lawsuit.
The decision could allow Randi Richman and her daughter, Lisa Viola, to shed their mortgage and own their home free and clear, more than eight years after their lender sued to foreclose.
State Supreme Court Justice William Rebolini decided in favor of the family on Wednesday, writing that U.S. Bank National Association was "untimely" in suing last year to take back the home.
"It's just like a weight has been lifted -- I can breathe," said Richman, who is 63 and disabled.
Richman has co-owned the three-bedroom, ranch-style house since 2003. In May 2006, she and a family member took out a $250,000 mortgage to fund home repairs, Richman said.
Within months, she said, the relative left the home and Richman underwent two difficult surgeries. As a result, Richman said, she started missing mortgage payments in October 2006.
Richman and her daughter said they applied for loan modifications four times, but the lenders who had bought and sold the loan kept turning them down.
"It was a runaround with every single one of the banks," said Viola, 38, a hairdresser who is disabled.
A lender that previously held the mortgage sued to foreclose in March 2007, declaring the entire mortgage balance due. By calling in the loan, the lender started the clock on New York's six-year statute of limitations for such lawsuits.
In January 2013, a judge threw the case out after the lender filed papers saying it could not comply with new, more stringent court foreclosure rules imposed on lenders.
An attorney who argued the case for U.S. Bank, Sara Boroskin, did not respond to a request for comment. A spokeswoman for the Minneapolis-based bank said the bank had no comment.
Attorneys for lenders say New York's lengthy court foreclosure process is partly to blame for banks' long delays in filing lawsuits; they argue it is unfair for some homeowners to keep their homes after years of failing to make mortgage payments. It took 995 days, on average, to foreclose on a home in New York in the July-to-September period, the eighth-longest delay in the country, according to national real estate data company RealtyTrac.
The recent court decision seems "inequitable" to the lender, said Bruce Bergman, a Garden City-based attorney who represents lenders and is the author of the book "Bergman on Mortgage Foreclosures."
But at the same time, he said, "the statute of limitations exists for a purpose and it's a good purpose, so there is some obligation on the part of a plaintiff . . . to bring the action on a timely basis."
The lender could have used a legal maneuver to stop the six-year clock, but it failed to do so, the homeowners' attorney, Ivan Young of the Young Law Group in Bohemia, said.
The lender stated in court papers that the homeowners made mortgage payments that reset the six-year clock. However, the judge ruled the lender failed to prove its case.
If the lender does not appeal the decision, or if the appeal fails, the homeowners can sue to have the mortgage dismissed as "unenforceable," Young said.
A growing number of homeowners across New York are asking judges to dismiss foreclosure cases because the statute of limitations has expired, Young said.
Last year, a judge dismissed a foreclosure case against a Sound Beach couple because the lender missed the deadline; the lender has appealed.
Young, who also represented the Sound Beach couple, said he has more than a dozen other cases on Long Island and elsewhere that hinge on New York's six-year deadline.
"Banks can avoid putting themselves in this situation by just giving homeowners a modification, helping them cure their defaults," Young said. "If they don't do that, they run this risk."