"Why mortgage litigation is the next refi boom."
That was the subject line of an email the Litigation Compliance Law Center sent out to mortgage brokers earlier this month. It was part of an invitation to a web seminar the Los Angeles law firm was setting up to introduce what the email termed an "increasingly profitable area of mortgage litigation."
As the law center explained during the May 10 webinar, it was offering to pay finders' fees to mortgage brokers for recruiting homeowners who themselves paid a $5,000 up-front "retainer" to affiliated attorneys.
The sales pitch appears to be the latest tactic in a cat-and-mouse game between plaintiffs' attorneys and debt-modification firms on one side and regulators on the other.
The tactics used to sell loan modification services first became the focus of criticism in the media and elsewhere in the wake of the housing collapse a half-decade ago. Many related legal cases involve so-called mass joinder suits in which attorneys claim they can obtain favorable mortgage concessions from lenders, or can stop a foreclosure. Homeowners typically are required to pay $6,000 to $10,000 in advance but often fail to enjoy the advertised benefits.
Such suits have added to banks' legal burdens and to concerns among regulators and bar associations that troubled homeowners are at growing risk of falling victim to mortgage modification scams. The State Bar of California alone has revoked the licenses of 18 lawyers since 2009 over charges related to loan modification wrongdoing.
The Federal Trade Commission responded to growing reports of abuse in late 2010 by implementing the Mortgage Assistance Relief Services rule. Known as Mars, it bans mortgage assistance relief companies — mortgage brokers, lead generators and affiliated marketing companies — from collecting "advance fees" from homeowners. Instead, loan modification firms are permitted to collect fees only after homeowners have received written loan modification offers that they deem acceptable from lenders or servicers.
Attorneys are exempted from Mars, primarily because they are already required to comply with state ethics rules. To be eligible for the Mars exemption, a lawyer must be licensed in the state where a homeowner-client resides, offer mortgage assistance as part of his regular practice and comply with all state regulations, says Reilly Dolan, assistant director in the FTC's division of financial practices.
The FTC has brought 36 actions against companies under the Mars rule. Mars rulemaking authority was transferred last July to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, which is yet to launch any enforcement actions. The FTC and CFPB share Mars enforcement authority.
The Litigation Compliance Law Center says on its website that it's involved in "the process of procuring clients" who want to file mortgage-related suits against banks. Mortgage brokers can earn a "six or seven figure income" by helping the law firm enlist homeowner-plaintiffs to pursue mortgage litigation, it adds.
The Litigation Compliance Law Center lists no physical address and Chad T-W Pratt Sr. as its only attorney. Pratt, a 1989 graduate of Loyola Law School, is separately listed as a senior litigation attorney at Real Estate Law Center PC. The Pasadena, Calif., firm appears to be a one-partner shop. Letterhead jointly bearing the name of the firm and Chad T-W Pratt & Associates Inc. lists as its local phone number 441-CHAD.
"Mortgage litigation is the homeowner suing their [sic] lender for predatory lending, robo-signing and bad acts by the lender," Pratt said during the webinar. Pratt spoke only briefly at the beginning of the webinar. He then ceded the floor to Brian Suder, who was introduced by an unidentified presenter as a mortgage expert and a "superstar." No job title or corporate affiliation was given for Suder. Not long afterward, the presenter said that Pratt was no longer online.