Finally, Borrowers Score Points

“The court certainly agrees that ‘mistakes happen,’ ” Judge Bohm wrote. “However, when mistakes happen not once, not twice, but repeatedly, and when actions are not taken to correct these mistakes within a reasonable period of time, the failure to right the wrong — particularly when the basis for the problem is a months-long violation of an agreed judgment — the excuse of ‘mistakes happen’ has no credence.”

Judge Bohm also punted Wells’s claim that its problems with the couple were anomalies. He cited three other federal cases — one in Florida and two in Louisiana — in which Wells improperly collected money from borrowers, applied payments inappropriately, overcharged borrowers or failed to keep accurate records. The judge imposed $11,825 in fines on Wells and required it to pay $4,544 in lawyer’s fees to the De La Fuentes.

Editor’s Note: Finally the ship is turning. Virtually every day I receive another trial court ruling or appellate decision that recognizes the fraudulent predatory practices of the nations largest financial institutions.

Whether it is fines, contempt, damages, title, striking pleadings, or just plain fury directed at these heretofore venerable institutions, one by one, Judges are starting to scrutinize what had been a ministerial clerk-like function of approving foreclosure. One by one they are seeing outright fraud — not just at the time of closing but during servicing, during foreclosure, and even during bankruptcy.

Lawyers who are making money hand over fist advocating for these institutions best be careful that their ankle-biting clients will point the finger at them and claim an “advice of counsel” defense. Law firms that have increased their profits a hundred fold by bringing document fabrication and forgery “in-house” are now up for criminal investigations, indictment, conviction and prison.

Pretender lenders who have been in a non-stop feeding frenzy for years are now seeing the walls close in around them. And the political capital they thought they had purchased on capital hill has depreciated. That is why they are concentrating their lobbying dollars on state legislatures.

At bottom is the sickening awareness that our nation’s finance companies betrayed the country and the world. This was not just fraud on the investors who bought mortgage backed securities and the homeowners who bought unworkable, incomprehensible loan products.

It was fraud upon the country and it worked. Instead of seeing the great wrong perpetrated upon 20 million homeowners and 300 million taxpayers, instead of seeing the storm and the victims for what it was, our leaders and our neighbors were convinced that the victims were to blame. That one assumption magnified the  loss and prevented a robust recovery.

Most of all it prevented justice.

Nobody would argue that a victim of fraud has rights in court. If the fraud is proven, then the object of the decision should be to restore the victims to the position they had before the fraud was committed.

Nobody would argue that if the crime was egregious against society that punitive damages, exemplary damages, compensatory damages and jail should be the punishment.

Somehow this simple proposition that we all believe in has been turned on its head through the purchasing of favors in legislatures. The last bastion left to protect the country from a continuation of fraud in the courts and a perpetuation of fraud upon innocent victims is the judiciary. They are starting to get it right. Let’s hope it stays that way.

June 11, 2010

Finally, Borrowers Score Points

By GRETCHEN MORGENSON

WHILE the wheels of justice have turned very slowly in the years since our nation’s financiers and regulators nearly cratered our economy, the Federal Trade Commission’s settlement last Monday with Countrywide Home Loans suggests that they haven’t entirely ground to a halt.

Countrywide, now a unit of Bank of America, was once led by Angelo Mozilo and was the nation’s largest mortgage lender in the glorious, pre-crisis days of the housing boom. But it was also a predatory institution, and the F.T.C., citing Countrywide’s serial abuse of troubled borrowers, extracted a $108 million fine from Bank of America last week.

That money will go back to some 200,000 customers whom Countrywide forced to pay outsized fees for foreclosure services. These included billing a borrower $300 to have a property’s lawn mowed and levying $2,500 in trustees’ fees on another borrower, when the going rate for that service was about $600.

Though Countrywide’s mortgage contracts specifically barred such practices, they served the company well by generating income during downturns when it was harder to keep making money off new mortgages. This “counter-cyclical diversification strategy,” as Countrywide called it, was designed to “extract the last dollar out of the pockets of the most desperate consumers,” said Jon Leibowitz, the F.T.C. chairman.

Mr. Leibowitz also said Countrywide made bogus claims about what homeowners owed during the resolution of bankruptcy cases and added fees to borrowers’ obligations without notice. His office’s investigation turned up cases in which Countrywide tried to collect improper fees years after a bankruptcy case was over.

In some cases, Mr. Leibowitz said, even after a distressed homeowner became up-to-date on all of his or her payments, Countrywide would start another foreclosure proceeding against the same borrower.

PRETTY shameful, all in all. But nothing new to lawyers who represent troubled borrowers. They say these kinds of abuses still occur.

“We’ve been screaming about these practices for I don’t know how many years now,” said David B. Shaev, a lawyer in New York City who represents consumers. “A lot of the fees seem like nickel-and-dime charges, but they add up to big money. The $108 million in the Countrywide case is the tip of the iceberg.”

The other dubious Countrywide actions identified by the F.T.C. — pursuing foreclosure improperly, adding fees without notice — also sound familiar to consumer lawyers across the country.

Consider a recent federal bankruptcy case in Houston involving Wells Fargo. The facts of the case were outlined last month in a harsh contempt ruling against the bank by Judge Jeff Bohm.

Back in 2003, Antoinette and Lenord De La Fuente filed for bankruptcy protection after they fell behind on their Washington Mutual mortgage. Court filings show they proposed a restructuring plan that called for 60 monthly payments to the bankruptcy trustee, who would in turn distribute the money to their creditors. The bankruptcy court agreed to the couple’s plan in June 2004.

The couple dutifully made their payments. Wells Fargo took over their loan in June 2007 and the next January sent the couple a letter accusing them of being delinquent by $8,400. Wells told them that they had until mid-February to come up with the money or the bank would start foreclosure proceedings.

The court documents show that the borrowers tried unsuccessfully to argue that Wells was wrong. But Wells refused to back down; afraid they would lose their home, the couple struck a forbearance agreement and received a loan modification in April 2008.

This loan modification violated the borrowers’ repayment plan. “Wells Fargo frightened the De La Fuentes into making payments to Wells Fargo in violation of the confirmation order,” Judge Bohm wrote.

In June 2008, the couple hired a lawyer to investigate the dispute with Wells; they filed a lawsuit against the bank that August. About a year later, Wells offered to settle with the couple. In a court-approved settlement, Wells stated that the couple were indeed current on their $66,572 mortgage and owed no outstanding fees or charges. Wells agreed to pay the couple about $30,000 for their legal fees.

With that, the couple thought their problem with Wells had been solved.

But in November 2009, Wells told them their mortgage balance had mysteriously increased to almost $71,000, even though they had made all of their payments. Two months later, Mrs. De La Fuente noticed that Wells had reversed several of the mortgage payments she and her husband had made. When she asked Wells why, she was told her loan was in bankruptcy status; if she wanted to resolve the problem, she would have to pay almost $9,000. Late fees were also accruing.

The couple and their lawyer went back to court and accused Wells of violating the settlement agreement. After hearing testimony, the court agreed. It also didn’t buy the argument of Wells that errors, including a computer glitch, caused the couple’s problems.

“The court certainly agrees that ‘mistakes happen,’ ” Judge Bohm wrote. “However, when mistakes happen not once, not twice, but repeatedly, and when actions are not taken to correct these mistakes within a reasonable period of time, the failure to right the wrong — particularly when the basis for the problem is a months-long violation of an agreed judgment — the excuse of ‘mistakes happen’ has no credence.”

Judge Bohm also punted Wells’s claim that its problems with the couple were anomalies. He cited three other federal cases — one in Florida and two in Louisiana — in which Wells improperly collected money from borrowers, applied payments inappropriately, overcharged borrowers or failed to keep accurate records. The judge imposed $11,825 in fines on Wells and required it to pay $4,544 in lawyer’s fees to the De La Fuentes.

Teri Schrettenbrunner, a Wells Fargo spokeswoman, said, “There is no doubt here that we didn’t handle this case well, but it is rare that you see a confluence of this many errors coming together as you did on this case.”

She contended that a vast majority of Wells’s mortgage customers are satisfied with it and that its operations are nothing like Countrywide’s. “There are significant contrasts between the way Countrywide did business and the way we do business,” she said.

NEVERTHELESS, for imperiled borrowers, the new scrutiny on foreclosure practices is long overdue. Thankfully, the United States Trustee, the Department of Justice unit that oversees the nation’s bankruptcy courts, is also investigating possible improprieties among lenders, mortgage servicers and the law firms that represent them in bankruptcy cases against homeowners. The trustee’s office assisted the F.T.C. in the Countrywide matter.

It’s a slow process, to be sure. But at least it is proceeding.

11 Responses

  1. So if my house was taken with fraudulent documents that brought fraud upon the court. This can be undone and they take my house anyway?
    Stan
    Racine Wi.

  2. This site is an amazing resource and helps us all get the information we need to feel like we have a chance. The courts are becoming more sympathetic and listening to the facts. I looking for other to talk with about what else we can do to help ourselves. Thanks again Neil for a great job. Robert Stonington Ct. 860-599-5557

  3. THIS IS A GREAT QUOTATION FOR THE AGES

    “Those who made the laws have apparently supposed, that every deficiency of payment is the crime of the debtor. But the truth is, that the creditor always shares the act, and often more than shares the guilt, of improper trust. It seldom happens that any man imprisons another but for debts which he suffered to be contracted in hope of advantage to himself, and for bargains in which proportioned his own profit to his own opinion of the hazard; and there is no reason, why one should punish the other for a contract in which both concurred.”

    — Samuel Johnson (September 16, 1758)

  4. I have received funds from the FTC verses Bear Stearns/ EMC. I filed a complaint with the FTC , they settled for 28 million which my part came to a whole 42.00 … that’s right forty two dollars. I did not cash that check . The check states on the back … by signing this you agree to settle for the amount and will not seek other legal remedy’s . It is another smoke screen they do not admit fault! Emc decided it was in their best interest to just pay them off as to not cause an investigation… How do I know you ask? The Plaintiff in my case just referenced it in the summarry judgement against me… Stating that the FTC did settle a complaint with EMC/Bear Stearns but EMC did not admit any wrong doing.

  5. Well Neil – you probably always expect some objection from me (amicably – of course). Today, I have none. Great post – like your analysis. – particularly your point: “At bottom is the sickening awareness that our nation’s finance companies betrayed the country and the world. This was not just fraud on the investors who bought mortgage backed securities and the homeowners who bought unworkable, incomprehensible loan products.-” (MBS is important).

    and your point: “Nobody would argue that a victim of fraud has rights in court. If the fraud is proven, then the object of the decision should be to restore the victims to the position they had before the fraud was committed.”

    I might just add that the US Government has done nothing to stop the foreclosure fraud and to restore victims to their prior position. Especially offended by Mr. Ben Bernanke’s recent comment that the answer is “short sales.”

    Anger is increasing across America. People are finally starting to have a voice.

  6. I believe the most important thing we almost have left is our legal protection from this platform we can be restored and start to heal

  7. I.m under chapter13 protection, U.S. Bank Trustee, servicer Barclays Capital Real Estate, dba HomEq Servicing,’ a Real Scumball”. have not received a statement in a year, don’t know what balance is, or if taxes are paid up to date, Sent Standing Order 09-03
    from Ma, signed by Five Judges permitting billing and settlement communication, does not violate 11 U.S.C. 362, still no statement, should I file a discovery or something in bankruptcy ? any Help???

  8. Guaranty Bank pulled the same crap on me, claiming “5 missed payments”. Utterly false, but ended up homeless anyway in spite of proof of payments.

    Law and Order must be restored. Retroactively.

  9. CO MINGLING OF FUNDS. THAT IS WHAT OUR WHOLE CASE RELIES ON. IF WE CAN PROVE THAT THE BANKS
    ARE COMINGLING FUNDS ARE CASE IS WON.

    GOD BLESS AMERICA

  10. In my opinion, there is only one practical solution to this problem:

    ALL of the nations banks MUST be NATIONALIZED!!!

    Banks should be a place to cash your paycheck, keep your savings and administer a checking account. It should be just like utility company and nothing more…

    South Dacota’s state owned bank has done amazingly well during this downturn and our nation should learn from this example.

    As Neil said, the banks “BETRAYED OUR COUNTRY AND THE WORLD”.

    I am calling for a FINANCIAL CIVIL WAR on ALL PREDATORY INSTITUTIONS!!!

    The sooner we can put them out of their misery, the sooner our country and the world can start the healing…

    My new slogan is: “DUMP the BANK!!!”

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