By RICHARD WILNER
Last Updated: 12:01 PM, February 28, 2010
Posted: 12:54 AM, February 28, 2010
The little-known law firm of Steven J. Baum PC, which is based in suburban Buffalo, NY, and represents dozens of banks in matters of failed mortgages, last year filed a staggering 12,551 foreclosure lawsuits in New York City and the suburbs, which works out to about 48 a day.
The foreclosure mill is one of a handful of super-regional law firms used by the country’s banks — and its lawyers appear to have practiced in every county courthouse and bankruptcy court from Staten Island to Plattsburgh and from Montauk to Niagara Falls.
But as the volume of its workload increased, so did complaints from opposing lawyers and judges that some of the thousands of lawsuits contained questionable legal work.
One bank caught in the crosshairs is JPMorgan Chase Bank, one of the largest mortgage lenders in the city.
Last month, Diana Adams, the US Trustee in Manhattan, filed papers in court supporting punitive financial sanctions against the bank for a string of bad behavior, including seeking to foreclose on homes after they rejected the attempts to make on-time payments and for failing to prove they own the mortgage on a home even as they move to seize it.
Chase filed documents that appear to be patently false or misleading, Adams said in the filing.
Although Chase has recently taken steps to address concerns expressed by courts in connection with other cases, based on Chase’s past and current conduct it needs to be sanctioned, Adams wrote.
A spokesperson for Chase had no comment on the US Trustee’s action.
The complaints against Baum — on the record during hearings, in legal pleadings and, eventually, borne out in judges’ decisions — include:
* Not divulging mortgage payments: In the White Plains bankruptcy of Blanca Garcia, Baum’s firm filed papers claiming Garcia was in arrears — when she actually made payments and showed the court her receipts, but they were not credited to her account. When Garcia’s lawyer complained, Baum’s firm answered the claim but, the lawyer said in court papers, ignored the receipts and continued to claim the mortgage was in arrears.
* Creating questionable assignments: A Suffolk County judge took it upon himself to investigate a filing by Baum’s firm when it attempted to foreclose on the home of Gloria E. Marsh. “A careful review,” the judge wrote in a four-page order, “reveals a number of glaring discrepancies and unexplained issues of substance.”
The judge found that Baum filed the action before the date it claimed its client took ownership of the mortgage.
* Botched legal papers: In the bankruptcy of Matthew Austin, Baum’s firm tried to prove that its client owned the mortgage backing Austin’s house by filing an assignment of that mortgage from a Florida company signed by an executive of that company — but it was notarized in Buffalo, NY.
“To the extent assignor flew to upstate New York to appear before a notary in the law offices of Steven J. Baum, PC, defies all logic,” the lawyer said in court papers. “Clearly this is a manufactured document intended to defraud the Court.” The bank and Austin, in hopes of settling the matter, are discussing a mortgage modification.
The Baum firm has not been found to have committed any fraud. It did not return calls for comment.
Those lawyers’ complaints appear to have gained critical traction.
Judges are taking action. A few, like Justice Jeffrey Spinner in a widely reported case in Suffolk last November, are ripping up mortgages and tossing entire cases brought by Baum after it couldn’t prove its case.
Second, the US Trustee, the arm of the Department of Justice charged with keeping the country’s bankruptcy courts free from malpractice, has had its Manhattan office monitoring cases involving the Baum firm.
And just last month, a New York bankruptcy judge said he now has “probable cause” to believe that lawyers for the Baum firm acted inappropriately.
The problems involving Baum and others highlight the increasingly nasty foreclosure problem in the US after banks started the profitable (for them) system of securitizing mortgages and then slicing and dicing pieces of the loans and selling them around the world. Little attention was paid to having an easy-to-use system tracking mortgage ownership. (MERS ANYONE?)
Now, as foreclosure actions clog the country’s courts, some lawyers are fighting back and asking bank lawyers or mortgage servicers to provide proof they own the mortgage.
In most instances, it can’t be done.
“In 85 percent of the cases I handle, the paperwork submitted by the bank or mortgage service company is not in order,” said Linda Tirelli, a consumer bankruptcy lawyer based in White Plains and Stamford, CT. For example, she said, one mortgage servicer recently filed paperwork to prove it owned a mortgage and it said it was assigned ownership by Lehman Brothers in October 2009.
“Now everyone knows there was no Lehman last October,” Tirelli said.
For clients with aggressive lawyers, pushing back against banks — and forcing them to realize that they can’t prove they own the mortgage and therefore will not be able to foreclose — often result in the banks offering a mortgage modification.
Tirelli said the case of the faulty Lehman assignment resulted in her client getting the interest rate on her mortgage cut to 3 percent and $15,000 being cut from her principal.
“And she was denied a mortgage modification by the bank twice before that,” Tirelli said. “If we didn’t fight back she would have lost her house.”
David Shaev, who also represents consumers in bankruptcy court, concurs that most claims filed by banks are defective.
“I mean as the court and everyone in the country knows, the number of foreclosures has increased exponentially, and the volume — I think frankly — had an impact on the quality of the work that was done and submissions to the court,” Jay Teitelbaum, a lawyer for JPMorgan Chase Bank, said in a Jan. 7 court hearing.
Chase hired Teitelbaum after debtors raised questions about the quality of work by the Baum firm.
Steven J. Baum, 41, took over his father’s sleepy Buffalo law practice several years ago, moved it to suburban Amherst and super-sized it. It now has about 500 employees, according to an ad it placed on an online jobs site, plus has started Pillar Processing, a legal-document processing company. Pillar, too, has gotten the attention of judges.
One judge blasted Baum for trying to distance himself from a bad courtroom gambit by having a non-lawyer employed by Pillar file a motion canceling the request.
Last year, Baum filed 5,312 foreclosure actions in New York City, according to state court online records: 2,231 cases in Queens, 1,592 cases in Brooklyn, 692 cases in Staten Island, 678 cases in the Bronx and 119 cases in Manhattan.
One bank executive told a judge during a hearing in a Poughkeepsie court hearing that the bank pays law firms $650 for every referral — presumably just to file the foreclosure action. Additional pleadings would be extra.
And Baum counts nearly every bank that provided a mortgage in The Big Apple as a client — Bank of America, Chase, Wells Fargo, HSBC, US Bank, GMAC Mortgage, Deutsche Bank, Sovereign Bank, Citibank, OneWest, M&T Bank, Bank of New York Mellon, to name just a dozen, according to court records.
While embattled homeowners with aggressive lawyers like Tirelli and Shaev fight the banks and lawyers and end up with mortgage modifications. most of Baum’s 5,312 cases in NYC last year were fought against no legal opponent. Usually, delinquent homeowners can’t afford to hire lawyers. The result is a slam-dunk win for Baum — and the foreclosure of another house — in what amounts to a legal heavyweight picking a fight with a 98-pound legal weakling.
There’s no telling how many houses could have been saved from foreclosure, how many homeowners would still be in their homes and how far down the recovery road the housing market would have been had each embattled homeowner fought back against a broken foreclosure system.
The case of Sylvia Nuer, a Bronx home health care aide, is one exam ple. Nuer owns a one-bedroom Parkchester condo and moved to buy a larger two-bedroom unit in the same building. After her lawyer, who also represented the seller and collected a commission on the sale, messed up some paperwork, Nuer was unable to take possession of the larger unit.
She had to pay two mortgages on her modest salary and soon was forced to file bankruptcy. But Nuer was lucky. She hired a lawyer and fought the bank, which at first refused to simply take back the larger apartment Nuer knew she couldn’t afford to pay for and not live in.
The bank filed costly motion after costly motion.
Finally, Manhattan Bankruptcy Judge Robert E. Gerber had hadenough and told the bank’s lawyer to work out a deal with Nuer.
Alluding to those fighting foreclosure actions without a lawyer, Gerber said: “There must be hundreds, if not thousands of [Nuers] . . . who get this stuff done to them all the time.”
Shaev, of Shaev & Fleischman, citing a recent study, said more than 95 percent of claims in foreclosure cases are not scrutinized. Until that changes, homeowners are going to be needlessly tossed from their homes.
Playing with house money
JPMorgan Chase Bank, under CEO Jamie Dimon, and the law firm of Steven Baum are drawing unwanted attention from bankruptcy judges who are upset over how they are handling some foreclosure actions. Federal authorities are asking for punitive monetary sanctions to be levied against Chase, citing these three cases:
Name: Christopher and Bobbi Ann Schuessler
Home: $299K Sullivan County home with $120K equity.
Wrong: Chase refused to accept payment made at bank branch, then moved to foreclose on house after falsely claiming debtor was two months in arrears and that no equity existed in the home.
Result: Bank backs down, pays Schuesslers’ costs.
Judge: “The system utilized by [Chase] constitutes an abuse of the bankruptcy process.” Court’s action should “serve as warning to all [banks].”
Name: William R. Pawson
Home: $1.5M Midtown Manhattan Co-op with $220K mortgage.
Wrong: Chase refused online payments then went after apartment because Pawson was delinquent.
Result: Chase paid $50K to settle after Pawson complained.
Judge: “But what concerns me is, after reading Schuessler case [and] having seen [Chase’s] papers here, it’s kind of two strikes. Three strikes and you’re out, frankly.”
Name: Sylvia Nuer
Home: $39K Bronx condo plus $104K second property lien.
Wrong: Chase wrongly claims it owns the mortgage to condo; its own witness couldn’t explain bank’s paperwork.
Result: US Trustee joins Nuer’s lawyer’s move for punitive monetary sanctions against Chase.
Judge: “There must be hundreds, if not thousands of [Nuers] . . . who get this stuff done to them all the time.”
Steven J. Baum’s law firm filed 12,551 foreclosure actions in the New York area last year.
Staten Isl. 692
ALL NYC: 5,312 or 102/week
SUBURBS: 7,239 or 139/week
NYC & SUBURBS: 12,551 or 241/week or 48/day
Source: Official Web site, New York State Courts