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Invasion of the Home Snatchers

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This isn't some rare goof-up by a low-level cubicle slave: Virtually every case of foreclosure in this country involves some form of screwed-up paperwork. "I would say it's pretty close to 100 percent," says Kowalski. An attorney for Jacksonville Area Legal Aid tells me that out of the hundreds of cases she has handled, fewer than five involved no phony paperwork. "The fraud is the norm," she says.

Kowalski's current case before Judge Soud is a perfect example. The Jacksonville couple he represents are being sued for delinquent payments, but the case against them has already been dismissed once before. The first time around, the plaintiff, Bank of New York Mellon, wrote in Paragraph 8 that "plaintiff owns and holds the note" on the house belonging to the couple. But in Paragraph 3 of the same complaint, the bank reported that the note was "lost or destroyed," while in Paragraph 4 it attests that "plaintiff cannot reasonably obtain possession of the promissory note because its whereabouts cannot be determined."

The bank, in other words, tried to claim on paper, in court, that it both lost the note and had it, at the same time. Moreover, it claimed that it had included a copy of the note in the file, which it did — the only problem being that the note (a) was not properly endorsed, and (b) was payable not to Bank of New York but to someone else, a company called Novastar.

Now, months after its first pass at foreclosure was dismissed, the bank has refiled the case — and what do you know, it suddenly found the note. And this time, somehow, the note has the proper stamps. "There's a stamp that did not appear on the note that was originally filed," Kowalski tells the judge. (This business about the stamps is hilarious. "You can get them very cheap online," says Chip Parker, an attorney who defends homeowners in Jacksonville.)

The bank's new set of papers also traces ownership of the loan from the original lender, Novastar, to JP Morgan and then to Bank of New York. The bank, in other words, is trying to push through a completely new set of documents in its attempts to foreclose on Kowalski's clients.

There's only one problem: The dates of the transfers are completely fucked. According to the documents, JP Morgan transferred the mortgage to Bank of New York on December 9th, 2008. But according to the same documents, JP Morgan didn't even receive the mortgage from Novastar until February 2nd, 2009 — two months after it had supposedly passed the note along to Bank of New York. Such rank incompetence at doctoring legal paperwork is typical of foreclosure actions, where the fraud is laid out in ink in ways that make it impossible for anyone but an overburdened, half-asleep judge to miss. "That's my point about all of this," Kowalski tells me later. "If you're going to lie to me, at least lie well."

The dates aren't the only thing screwy about the new documents submitted by Bank of New York. Having failed in its earlier attempt to claim that it actually had the mortgage note, the bank now tries an all-of-the-above tactic. "Plaintiff owns and holds the note," it claims, "or is a person entitled to enforce the note."

Soud sighs. For Kessler, the plaintiff's lawyer, to come before him with such sloppy documents and make this preposterous argument — that his client either is or is not the note-holder — well, that puts His Honor in a tough spot. The entire concept is a legal absurdity, and he can't sign off on it. With an expression of something very like regret, the judge tells Kessler, "I'm going to have to go ahead and accept [Kowalski's] argument."

Now, one might think that after a bank makes multiple attempts to push phony documents through a courtroom, a judge might be pissed off enough to simply rule against that plaintiff for good. As I witness in court all morning, the defense never gets more than one chance to screw up. But the banks get to keep filing their foreclosures over and over again, no matter how atrocious and deceitful their paperwork is.

Thus, when Soud tells Kessler that he's dismissing the case, he hastens to add: "Of course, I'm not going to dismiss with prejudice." With an emphasis on the words "of course."

Instead, Soud gives Kessler 25 days to come up with better paperwork. Kowalski fully expects the bank to come back with new documents telling a whole new story of the note's ownership. "What they're going to do, I would predict, is produce a note and say Bank of New York is not the original note-holder, but merely the servicer," he says.

This is the dirty secret of the rocket docket: The whole system is set up to enable lenders to commit fraud over and over again, until they figure out a way to reduce the stink enough so some judge like Soud can sign off on the scam. "If the court finds for the defendant, the plaintiffs just refile," says Parker, the local attorney. "The only way for the caseload to get reduced is to give it to the plaintiff. The entire process is designed with that result in mind."

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Matt Taibbi

Matt Taibbi is a contributing editor for Rolling Stone. He’s the author of five books and a winner of the National Magazine Award for commentary. Please direct all media requests to taibbimedia@yahoo.com.

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