It's early on a sunny Tuesday morning when I arrive at the chambers of Judge Soud, one of four rotating judges who preside over the local rocket docket. These special foreclosure courts were established in July of this year, after the state of Florida budgeted $9.6 million to create a new court with a specific mandate to clear 62 percent of the foreclosure cases that were clogging up the system. Rather than forcing active judges to hear thousands of individual cases, this strategy relies on retired judges who take turns churning through dozens of cases every morning, with little time to pay much attention to the particulars.
What passes for a foreclosure court in Jacksonville is actually a small conference room at the end of a hall on the fifth floor of the drab brick Duval County Courthouse. The space would just about fit a fridge and a pingpong table. At the head of a modest conference table this morning sits Judge Soud, a small and fussy-looking man who reminds me vaguely of the actor Ben Gazzara.
On one side of the table sits James Kowalski, a former homicide prosecutor who is now defending homeowners. A stern man with a shaved head and a laconic manner of speaking, Kowalski has helped pioneer a whole new approach to the housing mess, slowing down the mindless eviction machine by deposing the scores of "robo-signers" being hired by the banks to sign phony foreclosure affidavits by the thousands. For his work on behalf of the dispossessed, Kowalski was recently profiled in a preposterous Wall Street Journal article that blamed attorneys like him for causing the foreclosure mess with their nuisance defense claims. The headline: "Niche Lawyers Spawned Housing Fracas."
On the other side of the table are the plaintiff's attorneys, the guys who represent the banks. On this level of the game, these lawyers refer to themselves as "bench warmers" — volume stand-ins subcontracted by the big, hired-killer law firms that work for the banks. One of the bench warmers present today is Mark Kessler, who works for a number of lenders and giant "foreclosure mills," including the one run by David J. Stern, a gazillionaire attorney and all-Universe asshole who last year tried to foreclose on 70,382 homeowners. Which is a nice way to make a living, considering that Stern and his wife, Jeanine, have bought nearly $60 million in property for themselves in recent years, including a 9,273-square-foot manse in Fort Lauderdale that is part of a Ritz-Carlton complex.
Kessler is a harried, middle-aged man in glasses who spends the morning perpetually fighting to organize a towering stack of folders, each one representing a soon-to-be-homeless human being. It quickly becomes apparent that Kessler is barely acquainted with the names in the files, much less the details of each case. "A lot of these guys won't even get the folders until right before the hearing," says Kowalski.
When I arrive, Judge Soud and the lawyers are already arguing a foreclosure case; at a break in the action, I slip into the chamber with a legal-aid attorney who's accompanying me and sit down. The judge eyes me anxiously, then proceeds. He clears his throat, and then it's ready, set, fraud!
Judge Soud seems to have no clue that the files he is processing at a breakneck pace are stuffed with fraudulent claims and outright lies. "We have not encountered any fraud yet," he recently told a local newspaper. "If we encountered fraud, it would go to [the state attorney], I can tell you that." But the very first case I see in his court is riddled with fraud.
Kowalski has seen hundreds of cases like the one he's presenting this morning. It started back in 2006, when he went to Pennsylvania to conduct what he thought would be a routine deposition of an official at the lending giant GMAC. What he discovered was that the official — who had sworn to having personal knowledge of the case — was, in fact, just a "robo-signer" who had signed off on the file without knowing anything about the actual homeowner or his payment history. (Kowalski's clients, like most of the homeowners he represents, were actually making their payments on time; in this particular case, a check had been mistakenly refused by GMAC.) Following the evidence, Kowalski discovered what has turned out to be a systemwide collapse of the process for documenting mortgages in this country.
If you're foreclosing on somebody's house, you are required by law to have a collection of paperwork showing the journey of that mortgage note from the moment of issuance to the present. You should see the originating lender (a firm like Countrywide) selling the loan to the next entity in the chain (perhaps Goldman Sachs) to the next (maybe JP Morgan), with the actual note being transferred each time. But in fact, almost no bank currently foreclosing on homeowners has a reliable record of who owns the loan; in some cases, they have even intentionally shredded the actual mortgage notes. That's where the robo-signers come in. To create the appearance of paperwork where none exists, the banks drag in these pimply entry-level types — an infamous example is GMAC's notorious robo-signer Jeffrey Stephan, who appears online looking like an age-advanced photo of Beavis or Butt-Head — and get them to sign thousands of documents a month attesting to the banks' proper ownership of the mortgages.
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