Industry Remembers ‘Mr. RESPA’

September 17, 2013

Grant E. Mitchell, considered by many to be the most experienced lawyer and regulator working with the Real Estate Settlement Procedures Act (RESPA), passed away Sept. 10 at the age of 76. A memorial service for Grant Mitchell was held Monday, Sept. 16.

Mitchell spent 34 years with HUD and as the senior attorney for RESPA he interpreted statute for a variety of presidential administrations, HUD secretaries and HUD general counsel. He wrote numerous RESPA regulations, statements of policy and interpretive letters. Along the way, Mitchell earned the nickname “Mr. RESPA” as his analysis of the regulation impacted every segment of the residential mortgage and settlement services industries.

Mitchell wrote the 1992 RESPA regulations, which required mortgage brokers to disclose the yield-spread premium received for the first time. The rule came about following the merger of Bank of America and Security Pacific. One bank required disclosure of the information on the HUD-1, while the other didn’t. At the time, mortgage brokers started growing as a major origination source, but RESPA did not specifically consider this business.

Phil Schulman, an attorney with K&L Gates, worked with Mitchell for 10 years at HUD and appeared on numerous panels together in private practice.

“He was Mr. RESPA and I would introduce myself as Mrs. RESPA,” Schulman said. “His word was the law on RESPA for that period. He was a mentor to all who practiced in the RESPA area.”

Rod Alba, vice president and senior regulatory counsel for the American Bankers Association, worked briefly with Mitchell at HUD before moving to the Mortgage Bankers Association.

“RESPA is an extremely difficult law to apply with all the variations that exist,” Alba said. “But the gift that Grant brought to the table was his willingness to pick up the phone, answer the questions, and not only meet high-level issues, but engage and wrestle at seemingly minute problems that would come up with RESPA. By tackling these issues, he could make the law work at a national level. Grant put the grease into the RESPA machinery.”

Alba joined HUD as a junior lawyer and Grant took him under his wing. Alba said he holds Mitchell in such high regard because of his humanity and patience.

“He answered the same questions if he had to,” Alba said. “He was a companion and that’s rare. I don’t think I’d have the confidence or success had it not been for his early guidance.”

Marx Sterbcow, managing attorney of The Sterbcow Law Group LLC, described Mitchell as a legend in the real estate community who enjoyed educating and mentoring attorneys about regulatory mortgage laws.

“Grant was unique in that he truly understood the delicate balance between industry and consumers,” Sterbcow said. “If he believed in a practice that was harmful to consumers or conversely a practice that unintentionally harmed industry, he would actually put his reputation on the line to solve the issue.”

Over the years, Mitchell testified before Congress and spoke at more than 100 events, including trade association meetings, state bar functions, private lending conferences and client seminars. He also served as an expert witness in 24 cases. Sterbcow said success of one’s case “always hinged on whether Grant Mitchell decided to take the case on and which side he was on.”

“He possessed what many other notable attorneys in the industry will never attain—genuine respect, reaching ‘legend’ status and a legacy that will carry on for a long time thanks to the long line of attorneys over the years he mentored,” Sterbcow added. “It didn’t matter what firm you worked for or who you were, he relished the fact that he could pass on his knowledge to others and that is a trait that I know I’ll miss very much.”

After leaving HUD, Mitchell moved to the private sector joining the firm Reed Smith Shaw & McClay. He later spent time with the law firms Lotstein Buckman LLP and Buckley Sandler LLP. Robert Lotstein, managing attorney of LotsteinLegal PLLC, knew Mitchell for more than 20 years and considered the two to be colleagues and good friends.

“It was an honor having someone of his intellect and background,” Lotstein said. “He was an icon in the industry. People throw around that term all the time, but how many could hold onto the title of Mr. RESPA? I remember almost 20 years ago we were at HUD negotiating rulemaking concerning RESPA reform and Grant came into the room with a leather cowboy hat. Only Grant could pull that off and he looked good doing it.” A man for the details, Mitchell would provide specifics when asked a question. Not only would he provide the answer, he’d tell you when it happened. He also was magnificently clever.

“Before we had all the technology, Grant would distribute versions of documents with a different typo on each version so he would know if it got leaked who did it,” Lotstein said.

Bart Shapiro of C3 Compliance Consultants was in HUD’s Office of General Counsel when Mitchell was in the Office of RESPA. Mitchell retired shortly after Shapiro moved to RESPA, but the two came to know each other over the years.

“He helped mentor me on RESPA,” said Shapiro, who like Mitchell transitioned from government to the private sector. “Even after he left the government, he still offered advice. He loved to share his knowledge, but it didn’t always have to be business when speaking with Grant. He was so proud of his family and would share what his children did for a living.”

When Ivy Jackson moved to RESPA office in 1991, she also relied on Grant for explaining the statute, regulations and how the mortgage, title and other industries related to buying a home operated. “He had such a passion for RESPA and how it was meant to protect consumers,” Jackson said. “But Grant was also interested in working with industry to interpret the regulations and policy. He inspired me to stay in RESPA past my detail for many years. He truly was ‘Mr. RESPA.’”

Contact ALTA at 202-296-3671 or [email protected].