Editor's Note, July 25, 2012: This and other BankThink opinion columns written by Joel Sucher bearing this note, published between October 2011 and June 2012, mentioned the law firm of Stephen J. Baum, Litton Loan Servicing, or both. The columns should have disclosed that Baum's firm, working on behalf of Litton, had attempted to foreclose on the writer's property in 2009. American Banker's editors were unaware of this history at the time the columns were published.
The scene is set, cameras set to roll. A dusty town, streets strewn with tumbleweed. A few badge-wielding cowboys stand shoulder to shoulder, contemplative, hands on six guns… waiting. Suddenly, in the distance, a roar; and what appear as specks in the distance soon materialize as bad guys on horseback headed full throttle for a fateful confrontation.
A scene from "High Noon"? "Gunfight at the O.K. Corral"? No, it's my cinematic metaphor for what's playing out in courtrooms and boardrooms in New York State, where three men are standing up, on behalf of embattled homeowners, to the forces of an industry with powerful allies in the Obama administration – an industry intent on forgetting that the ongoing foreclosure crisis affects real people, real lives and real families.
I offer New York's own version of the Justice League of America.
For one, there's the Chief Judge of the New York State Unified Court System, Jonathan Lippman. Back in October 2010, he issued the nation's first legal requirement that attorneys representing banks and mortgage servicers in foreclosure cases actually sign off that they've read the documents they're putting into evidence. In other words, lawyers (many working for infamous “foreclosure mills”) now had to swear in writing that there were no “deficiencies in notarization” and that the individuals signing documents actually did sign (and read) the documents. With one broad sweep of his pen, Lippman held banks and servicers to a common sense legal standard: if you believe that an individual's house should be seized, then make sure you've vetted the documentation; make dead certain that every i has a dot, and cross the t's as well. Lippman, as head legal honcho, had drawn a line in the sand, cocked his pistol, and stood his ground, making sure that all his other judges did the same.
How did the foreclosure lawyers react? Well, from what I've heard, a bit like those roaches sent scurrying by my mother on her frequent missions to bug spray every inch of our old Brooklyn tenement. After carving a notch on the barrel of his Colt, he carved another last February after outlining new procedures to provide all homeowners facing foreclosure with legal representation (making New York the first state to do this).
With a couple of procedural shotgun blasts, Lippman has turned uneven foreclosure turf into level playing fields, where the act of evicting families will require a bit more than questionable paperwork.
Stepping out of the recesses of New York's brand spanking new regulatory agency, the Financial Services Department, comes a former federal prosecutor, Benjamin Lawsky. As chief agency cop riding herd over more than 4,000 companies doing financial business in the state, Lawsky has approached his job with passion (and a mandate from his friend, Governor Andrew Cuomo, to do just that). While making sure that business sticks around, he's also making sure that consumers –including homeowners – get a fair shake.
In the wake of the Fed's Sept. 1 consent order allowing Goldman Sachs to sell its troubled mortgage servicer, Litton Loan, to Ocwen Financial, Lawsky got in his own two cents by negotiating a separate but similar agreement with the Wall Street behemoth. He not only elicited an “I'm sorry, won't do it again” promise to stop controversial servicing practices, but also arm-twisted an agreement to knock off 25% of unpaid mortgage principal for New York State residents whose first liens were serviced by Litton and owned by Goldman or a subsidiary. Truth be told, a letter sent to Lawsky by Goldman, on Aug. 31 indicated that only 143 loans in the state met their “requirements” for forgiveness, which was a bit of an eye-roller. But I'd submit that getting anything out of Goldman without a great big legal fight, or embarrassing revelations in the press, heralds more good things to come for consumers, anyway.
As I type, a Google alert appears with news that (stop the presses) Lawsky has announced similar agreements with Morgan Stanley's servicer, Saxon, as well as American Home Mortgage and Vericrest Financial. Believe it or not, he's also got them to sign off without first agreeing that they go scot free if current or future investigations turn up past misdeeds. Quite a feat! This guy deserves to be watched.
What can you say about Attorney General Eric Schneiderman that hasn't already been said? To many in the industry, and quite a few in the Obama administration, he's both rogue and renegade. Rogue in that, along with California's Kamala Harris and Delaware's Joseph Biden 3rd, he won't buy into an alleged “get them off the hook” mortgage abuse settlement plan being offered to banks by fellow AG's. Renegade in a nothing-is-sacred commitment to investigate any and all things relevant to the ForeclosureGate scandal, including a probing peek into the sleazy activities of a notorious New York foreclosure mill, Steven J. Baum PC (remember, the law firm with candid Halloween party pix mocking their foreclosure victims?)
Is Schneiderman an Eliot Spitzer without the baggage? Time will tell, but his grandstanding quotient does appear held in check. In the meantime, he seems to be damning the torpedoes and proceeding full speed ahead.
From where I sit, these three Justice League guys are the right candidates to be exported, "Seven Samurai" style, to defend the rights of homeowners in less consumer friendly states – or at least, set the example.
Joel Sucher, a filmmaker with Pacific St. Films in Hastings-on-Hudson, N.Y. is working on "Foreclosure Diaries," a documentary about the financial crisis.