Florida’s High-Speed Answer to a Foreclosure Mess – NYTimes.com
After weeks of anticipation, Gretchen and Geraldine finally ran their report that all of us Foreclosure Fraud Fighters have been assisting on for the past few months.
Below are excerpts from the slightly watered down report that could of delivered so much more based on all the information that was provided to them.
Hopefully, this will be enough to peak the interests of other journalists and other high power organizations to take a deeper look at what is really going on in the Florida court system…
Quoting a very dear colleague of mine from a conversation yesterday;
“We have a great battle to fight. Right now our whole Constitutional System has broken down in Florida. Judges are no longer adjudicating cases but are disposing cases. Laws, Due Process and the Constitutional protections guaranteed Honest Citizens are being thrown out the window. Judges don’t read the pleadings or the motions because they have already determined the outcome. Homeowners in foreclosure are treated less than the worst of all criminals. Access to the Courts is being denied. Defense Attorneys cannot get special set hearings so that our motions are read and a fair and just hearing is conducted. Judges are no longer independent.
AND THIS IS A STORY THAT THE MEDIA SHOULD AND MUST PICK UP. WITHOUT JUDGES WHO UPHOLD THE LAW CIVILIZATION AS WE KNOW IT WILL CRUMBLE. You think you have seen the last of people doing desperate thing? Desperate people do desperate things. This battle needs to be fought and fought hard because this Nation — a Nation built upon the Law — will crumble. Again I say, desperate people who believe that the Judges are in the pockets of the Banks (which they are) will do desperate things because the LAW is no longer being recognized.
In Florida, We have a constitutional crisis. This is our battle.”
And this is why we all need to keep up this fight, now, harder than ever.
Let’s ride the momentum from the article below out of this Labor Day weekend and make the world recognize that this is bigger than the Foreclosure Crisis, it is a Constitutional Crisis, that will ultimately become a Social Destruction Crisis. A Crisis, that if not stopped, will effect generations to come…
This next Tuesday, just a few days from now, you will all find out what Lisa (Foreclosure Hamlet) and I (4closureFraud) have done, along with others, and what we are planning to do to abate the horrors that we are all facing in our highly anticipated Expose’ in a major publication…
Now on to the article…
Florida’s High-Speed Answer to a Foreclosure Mess – NYTimes.com
Excerpts from the report…
(Links added for additional facts that were not covered)
TEN days from now, a four-bedroom house on a cul-de-sac in Middleburg, Fla., is scheduled to be auctioned off at the Clay County courthouse, 25 miles south of Jacksonville.
A judge who recently took over their foreclosure case has ordered Rodney Waters; his fiancée, Terri Reese; and their four children to leave the home they bought in 2006.
The predicament of the Waters-Reese family is common in Florida today. The state routinely sets new records for foreclosures — in the second quarter, 20.13 percent of its mortgages were delinquent or in foreclosure, a national high, according to the Mortgage Bankers Association. And with housing prices still in a free fall, almost half of all borrowers in Florida owe more on their mortgages than their properties are worth…
While the Waters-Reese case may not be unusual in Florida, the coming auction of the home is still notable: it will be a result of the Florida Legislature’s new effort to cut the number of foreclosures inching their way through the state’s courts. Earlier this year, Florida earmarked $9.6 million to set up foreclosures-only courts across the state, staffed by retired judges. The goal of the program, which began in July, is to reduce the foreclosures backlog by 62 percent within a year.
No one disputes that foreclosures dominate Florida’s dockets and that something needs to be done to streamline a complex and emotionally wrenching process. But lawyers representing troubled borrowers contend that many of the retired judges called in from the sidelines to oversee these matters are so focused on cutting the caseload that they are unfairly favoring financial institutions at the expense of homeowners.
Lawyers say judges are simply ignoring problematic or contradictory evidence and awarding the right to foreclose to institutions that have yet to prove they own the properties in question.
“Now you show up and you get whatever judge is on the schedule and they have not looked at the file — they don’t even look at the motions,” says April Charney, a lawyer who represents imperiled borrowers at Jacksonville Area Legal Aid. “You get a five-minute hearing. It’s a factory.”
Florida’s foreclosure mess is made murkier by what analysts and lawyers involved in the process say are questionable practices by some law firms that are representing banks. Such tactics, these people say, have drawn out the process significantly, making it extremely lucrative for the lawyers and more draining for troubled homeowners.
Doctored or dubious records presented in court as proof of a bank’s ownership have become such a problem that Bill McCollum, the Florida attorney general, announced last month that his office was investigating the state’s three largest foreclosure law firms representing lenders.
“Thousands of final judgments of foreclosure against Florida homeowners may have been the result of the allegedly improper actions of these law firms,” said Mr. McCollum in an interview. “We’ve had so many complaints that I am confident there is a great deal of fraud here.”
The Waters case offers an example of how wrong things can go in complex foreclosure cases.
While AmTrust, a failed Ohio bank that is now a division of New York Community Bank, said it owned the note and could foreclose, Mr. Waters’s lawyer produced documents showing that Fannie Mae, the taxpayer-owned mortgage finance giant, was really the owner.
In spite of the conflicting evidence, Aaron Bowden, the retired judge overseeing the case, made a summary judgment on Aug. 3, ruling that the property should go back to AmTrust.
Chip Parker, managing partner at Parker & DuFresne in Jacksonville, which represents Mr. Waters, said: “The threshold issue in any foreclosure case is who has the right to foreclose. We presented evidence to the judge that Fannie Mae owns the note and mortgage, and yet the judge ignored this crucial evidence.”
Mr. Parker is concerned that some homeowners are victimized by the system. “What we are talking about is railroading homeowners through the rocket docket,” he added.
When contacted by a reporter on Thursday, a spokeswoman for Fannie Mae confirmed that it owned the note.
David Tong, the lawyer representing AmTrust in the case, declined to comment on the matter. But on Friday, he did an about-face, filing papers with the court acknowledging that Fannie Mae owns the note.
Clearing the Backlog
Setting up discrete foreclosure courts statewide was seen as a way to help deal with the issue; consumer law experts say they aren’t aware of any other state that has set up a temporary court to work down such a backlog.
But it is paradoxical, say lawyers representing homeowners in the cases, that Florida’s attorney general acknowledges problems in the cases while retired judges, intent on reducing caseloads, seem unconcerned about those same problems — like flaws in the banks’ documentation of ownership.
“The most shocking thing of all is the A.G.’s office understands the problem and yet the court system turns a blind eye to the fact that mortgage servicers are the problem,” says Margery Golant, a lawyer in South Florida and a former executive at Ocwen, a large mortgage servicing company. “In the meantime, neighborhoods are being destroyed, homeowners’ associations are being destroyed, and the tax base is being clobbered.”
Steven P. Combs, a lawyer at Combs, Greene, McLester, who formerly was general counsel to the Fourth Judicial Circuit as well as a family law magistrate, says the entire process may be unconstitutional.
The Florida Supreme Court has consistently recognized the need to hire retired judges on a temporary basis, Mr. Combs said, and has ruled that such a “temporary” use is constitutional.
But because the retired judges are being given foreclosure assignments “repeatedly and consecutively” to the point of usurping the elected judges’ jurisdiction over all residential foreclosure cases, he said, their use may not qualify as temporary and could thus violate the Florida constitution.
The fact that these judges are being paid to reduce the court’s case load creates a perception among homeowners that the judges have a financial interest in dispensing cases prematurely, Mr. Combs said, creating a potential bias against borrowers and possibly violating their right to due process.
He pointed to a recent case in Broward County in which a retired judge refused to postpone a borrower’s foreclosure sale even though the bank had agreed to it. The judge stated that she was there to “dispose of cases.”
“If you are an individual whose house is being foreclosed and you hear these judges are being paid to clean out the backlog, under a realistic appraisal of human tendencies, do you think that the average judge would be biased in favor of prematurely terminating your case to clean out the backlog?” Mr. Combs asked.
J. Thomas McGrady, chief judge in the Sixth Judicial Circuit, said in a press release announcing the program: “We have to clear these cases because of the negative impact they are having on other civil litigation. The real estate crisis has placed a tremendous burden on our judges, and people with other types of pending litigation are also entitled to their day in court.”
Who Owns the Notes?
A foreclosure crisis that has forced millions of delinquent borrowers from their homes across Florida and elsewhere has also created enormous profits for the law firms and foreclosure servicers that represent banks and financial services in these actions.
Among the busiest of these firms are the three under investigation by Florida’s attorney general: the Law Offices of Marshall C. Watson; Shapiro & Fishman; and the Law Offices of David J. Stern.
and lets not forget about…
“These law firms appear to be mills,” says Mr. McCollum. “They submit false documents, fabricate the documents, or the documents actually don’t exist. They wanted to speed the process up because the faster they get the foreclosures done the better.”
But Mr. Stern said: “I can’t speak for the other firms, but I can assure you there has not been submission of fraudulent documents. We feel a lot of it is politically motivated. We have done nothing wrong and are going to cooperate fully.”
Borrowers’ lawyers say they confront dubious practices, often involving false documentation “proving” who owns the note on a given property.
Typically, they say, this involves questionable affidavits asserting ownership of a note because the actual document has been lost or cannot be produced. Because the affidavits are often signed by bank representatives who have a stake in the outcome, they should not be allowed as evidence, borrowers’ lawyers say.
Yet they routinely are introduced as evidence; the Waters case involves such an affidavit signed by an AmTrust official.
Documents showing that a note has been assigned to a foreclosing bank are often dated after a foreclosure, meaning that the bank bringing the case may not have the right to foreclose.
Other questions arise involving documents with improper notary stamps and wildly different signatures on legal papers supposedly prepared by the same person, borrowers’ lawyers say.
In a case in May 2009, Thomas E. Ice, a defense lawyer at Ice Legal in Royal Palm Beach, Fla., took the deposition of Cheryl Samons, an operations manager at the David J. Stern law firm. He asked her about instances at the firm of backdating the assignment of mortgages to allow foreclosures to go forward.
LINK – Full Deposition of the Soon to be Infamous Cheryl Samons RE: Deutsche Bank National Trust Company, As Trustee for Morgan Stanley ABS Capital Inc, Plaintiff, Vs. Belourdes Pierre – 50 2008 CA 028558 XXXX MB
Mr. Ice and his wife, Ariane, who works with him, had found problems with notary stamps on mortgage assignments. “Many assignments of mortgages were signed and notarized with a stamp that had not been issued at the time of the signing, reflecting that the assignment was backdated,” Mr. Ice says.
In her court deposition with Mr. Ice, Ms. Samons testified that she was both an executive of the entity that handles the mortgage transfers and an officer at the Stern firm. Mr. Ice says that this creates a conflict of interest because clients of the Stern firm — most of the nation’s major banks — benefit from the transfer.
The law firm helps its own clients by “creating an illusion that the signing took place before and it did not,” says Mr. Ice.
Mr. Stern attributed any backdating to sloppiness on the part of paralegals and said that it had since been corrected.
As for Ms. Samons’s dual roles at the mortgage transfer registry and the law firm, he responded that, “We believe it is a solid practice.”
Another popular practice that ties up courts’ calendars occurs after a foreclosure is granted and the property is scheduled to be returned to the bank. As ownership shifts from borrower to bank, so do all the obligations associated with it, like payment of homeowners’ association dues.
But few banks want to pay these bills, so firms representing them move to delay the final step in the process by canceling the sale of a foreclosed property at the last minute, court officials say. This does not require the banks to restart the foreclosure process, but it keeps the property in the hands of the borrower, who remains responsible for maintenance and association dues.
Earlier this year, Jennifer D. Bailey, administrative judge in Miami-Dade County, said such cancellations were occurring in 55 percent of cases in her district. In July, she instituted new rules to reduce last-minute cancellations, including a requirement that a judge hear the reason.
“There was huge volume to start with and then with this extra bogus stuff going on, the courts were cross-eyed from it,” says Ms. Golant. “There is a certain amount of truth to the gridlock, but the reason for the gridlock is the foreclosure firms are practically running the courtrooms.”
One Firm, Many Cases
The lawyer most closely identified with Florida’s foreclosure morass is David J. Stern. He is something of a mystery man within the foreclosure world; it is impossible to reach him by phone since his name is not in the firm’s voice-mail directory and, until recently, there were no publicly available photographs of him.
The firm filed 70,382 foreclosure cases last year.
Critics say the Stern firm has been able to handle this high volume because its lawyers frequently refuse to work with borrowers and are very aggressive about pushing cases through the courts even when there are questions about the documentation.
Mr. Stern sees it differently. “I refer to us as an efficient law firm with a specialization in mortgage lending,”’ he responded. “Should I feel ashamed that I have built a successful practice?” he asked. “No one references how committed I am, how I built my firm and how I work 20 hours a day.”
Earlier this year Mr. Stern, who has profited handsomely from the foreclosure trade, sold the part of his operation that provides support services for his firm’s foreclosure work — DJS Processing — to a public company called the Chardan 2008 China Acquisition Corporation.
In recent years, Mr. Stern and his wife, Jeanine, have bought nearly $60 million in real estate, mostly in Florida, property records show. Their Mediterranean-style home on Harborage Isle Drive, in a gated community in Fort Lauderdale, faces water on two sides and cost almost $14 million. Not far away, in Hillsboro Beach, the Sterns bought two waterfront properties for $17 million.
Mr. Stern also spent $6.8 million last year on a 9,273-square-foot apartment at the Castillo Grand Residences in Fort Lauderdale, part of a Ritz-Carlton complex. He and his wife own two homes in Beaver Creek, Colo.; one was purchased in 2001 for $4.975 million, and another bought in 2007 for $14.2 million.
His automobile collection may be worth $3 million, auto experts said; it includes a 2008 Bugatti, multiple Ferraris, Porsches and Mercedes and a Cadillac.
This being Florida, Mr. Stern also collects boats. A 108-foot Mangusta yacht, Lady J, is for sale at $5.9 million, Web postings show. It was replaced by a 130-foot yacht that cost about $20 million, according to an acquaintance who requested anonymity over concerns about Mr. Stern’s influence in the community.
In a nod to his foreclosure work, according to the acquaintance, Mr. Stern mused about possibly naming the larger yacht Su Casa Es Mi Casa — “Your House Is My House.” But his wife and others cautioned against it, according to this acquaintance, and Mr. Stern named the boat “Misunderstood.” Mr. Stern denies that he considered the “Su Casa Es Mi Casa” name.
As you can see, the article did a good job of covering the surface issues of what is going on, and I commend them for that.
I hear there was a trip to NY by Stern and his lawyers so that may explain why this isnt as hard hitting as it should have been…
I am surprised the article did not get into all the class actions that are pending against Mr. Stern and DJSP Enterprises…
It is now up to us Foreclosure Fraud Fighters to keep pushing these injustices to the forefront of the media as often as possible since it is obvious the judiciary does not care…
The NY Times article can be read in its entirety here…
Great work everyone!
Keep up the Fight!
Judge Jennifer Bailey;
“We don’t make widgets, we don’t build clocks, we don’t build cars. We have nothing but the pleadings we file and sign our name to evidence the quality and integrity of who we are.”