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Foreclosure Mills: America's Newest Housing Nightmare

Borrowers are getting screwed again as bailed-out banks send their foreclosure dirty work to con artists with a history of breaking the law.
 
 
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LATE ONE NIGHT IN February 2009, Ariane Ice sat poring over records on the website of Florida's Palm Beach County. She'd been at it for weeks, forsaking sleep to sift through thousands of legal documents. She and her husband, Tom, an attorney, ran a boutique foreclosure defense firm called Ice Legal. (Slogan: "Your home is your castle. Defend it.") Now they were up against one of Florida's biggest foreclosure law firms: Founded by multimillionaire attorney David J. Stern, it controlled one-fifth of the state's booming market in foreclosure-related services. Ice had a strong hunch that Stern's operation was up to something, and that night she found her smoking gun.

It involved something called an "assignment of mortgage," the document that certifies who owns the property and is thus entitled to foreclose on it. Especially these days, the assignment is key evidence in a foreclosure case: With so many loans having been bought, sold, securitized, and traded, establishing who owns the mortgage is hardly a trivial matter. It frequently requires months of sleuthing in order to untangle the web of banks, brokers, and investors, among others. By law, a firm must execute (complete, sign, and notarize) an assignment before attempting to seize somebody's home.

A Florida notary's stamp is valid for four years, and its expiration date is visible on the imprint. But here in front of Ice were dozens of assignments notarized with stamps that hadn't even existed until months—in some cases nearly a year—after the foreclosures were filed. Which meant Stern's people were foreclosing first and doing their legal paperwork later. In effect, it also meant they were lying to the court—an act that could get a lawyer disbarred or even prosecuted. "There's no question that it's pervasive," says Tom Ice of the backdated documents—nearly two dozen of which were verified by Mother Jones. "We've found tons of them."

This all might seem like a legal technicality, but it's not. The faster a foreclosure moves, the more difficult it is for a homeowner to fight it—even if the case was filed in error. In March, upon discovering that Stern's firm had fudged an assignment of mortgage in another case, a judge in central Florida's Pasco County dismissed the case with prejudice—an unusually harsh ruling that means it can never again be refiled. "The execution date and notarial date," she wrote in a blunt ruling, "were fraudulently backdated, in a purposeful, intentional effort to mislead the defendant and this court."

More often than not in uncontested cases, missing or problematic documents simply go overlooked. In Florida, where foreclosure cases must go before a judge (some states handle them as a bureaucratic matter), dwindling budgets and soaring caseloads have overwhelmed local courts. Last year, the foreclosure dockets of Lee County in southwest Florida became so clogged that the court initiated rapid-fire hearings lasting less than 20 seconds per case—" the rocket docket," attorneys called it. In Broward County, the epicenter of America’s housing bust, the courthouse recently began holding foreclosure hearings in a hallway, a scene that local attorneys call the "new Broward Zoo." "The judges are so swamped with this stuff that they just don't pay attention," says Margery Golant, a veteran Florida foreclosure defense lawyer. "They just rubber-stamp them."

But the Ices had uncovered what looked like a pattern, so Tom booked a deposition with Stern's top deputy, Cheryl Samons, and confronted her with the backdated documents—including two from cases her firm had filed against Ice Legal's clients. Samons, whose counsel was present, insisted that the filings were just a mistake. She refused to elaborate, so the Ices moved to depose the notaries and other Stern employees whose names were on the evidence. On the eve of those depositions, however, the firm dropped foreclosure proceedings against the Ices' clients.