Maryland’s inspection fee statute has been interpreted by the Maryland Court of Appeals and the Maryland Office of the Commissioner of Financial Regulation (“OCFR”) to apply both at the time of origination and throughout the servicing of a residential mortgage loan. More recently, a lower federal district court decision came to a different interpretation.
Maryland’s Inspection Fee Restriction
Maryland Commercial Law Section 12-121 provides that, subject to limited exceptions, a lender may not impose a “lender’s inspection fee” in connection with a loan secured by residential real property. A “lender’s inspection fee” means a fee imposed by a lender to pay for a visual inspection of real property. A lender’s inspection fee may be charged only if the inspection is needed to ascertain the completion of (i) the construction of a new home; or (ii) repairs, alternations, or other work required by the lender. A “lender” is defined as a licensee or a person who makes a loan subject to Maryland’s Interest and Usury subtitle. In turn, a “licensee” is defined as a person that is required to be licensed to make loans subject to Maryland’s Interest and Usury subtitle, regardless of whether the person is actually licensed.
Previously, the Court of Appeals of Maryland held, in Taylor v. Friedman, 689 A.2d 59 (Md. Ct. App. 1997), that, unless permitted by Section 12-121(c), the prohibition on inspection fees was not limited to inspections for closings, but extended to any inspections throughout the life of the loan. In 2014, the OCFR released an advisory opinion stating that Taylor remains good law in Maryland and applies to circumstances where a servicer orders a visual inspection of property following default on the terms of the mortgage.
Roos vs. Seterus
More recently, the U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland in Roos v. Seterus held, despite previous decisions indicating otherwise, that non-lenders may charge inspection fees to mortgagors. The defendants in Roos argued that they did not charge illegal inspection fees because (1) the deed of trust specifically authorized inspection fees; (2) Section 12-121 is inapplicable to the defendants; and (3) Section 12-121 does not have a blanket prohibition on the imposition of inspection fees. The defendants believed that since they were a servicer, and the plain language of the statute only prohibited lenders from charging inspection fees, the statute did not prohibit them from charging inspection fees. The court agreed with defendants that the plain meaning of the statute only prohibits a “lender” from imposing or collecting inspection fees. Although the court in Roos did not itself provide a definition of “lender,” the court pointed to a Montgomery Circuit Court case, Kemp v. Seterus, Inc., No. 441428-V, 2018 Md. Cir. Ct. LEXIS 9 (Md. Cir. Ct. Oct. 19, 2018), which addressed the issue. In that case, the court stated that “the meaning of the statute [wa]s plain; only ‘persons’ which make loans to ‘borrowers’ are lenders and thus covered by the statute.” The court in Roos adopted the Kemp court’s definition of lender, finding it well reasoned and applicable since it involved the same issue and defendant.
It is unclear if this decision will convince the OCFR to change its long-standing position or if plaintiffs will appeal this decision. Moreover, we note that this decision was issued by a federal district court interpreting Maryland state law and, as such, will not have precedential value in Maryland state courts. While defendants may have prevailed in this federal district court case, servicers should still remain cautious in charging inspection fees when servicing a loan secured by residential real estate in Maryland.
* We would like to thank Associate, David McGee, for his contributions to this blog post.