It's speed vs. skepticism for Fla. judges facing avalanche of foreclosure cases
Friday, October 15, 2010; 12:11 AM
FORT LAUDERDALE - In a cramped, makeshift courtroom, Broward County Judge Victor Tobin was signing off on uncontested foreclosure cases as fast as a clerk could keep them coming, only a few seconds per file.
"Batter up," he said as he finished one stack and eyed the next. With scores of cases remaining on the day's "rocket docket" earlier this week and tens of thousands more awaiting judgment in this courthouse, there was little time to pause.
On the other side of the state, in a Sarasota County courtroom, another judge on a recent day was taking a dramatically different tack. Impatient with attorneys for lenders trying to seize hundreds of homes, fed up with their sloppy paperwork and errant practices, Judge Harry Rapkin dismissed 61 foreclosure cases in that single day - a quarter of those awaiting his approval. While the plaintiffs could re-file, it would mean hefty fees and significant delay.
These two approaches - one focused on speed, one brimming with skepticism - represent the choice confronting judges in Florida, with its backlog of a half-million cases, and increasingly across the United States as reports of problems with foreclosure filings mount.
Judges in Florida are under pressure to clear their foreclosure dockets; the state's crippled real estate market and its lagging economy cannot recover until cases work their way through the courts. Earlier this year, Florida's legislature allocated $9.6 million to help speed up the processing of foreclosures. Much of that money went to pay retired judges and case managers to help shoulder the load and quickly dispose of cases in special foreclosure courts.
But the recent reports about flawed and fraudulent filings - and a series of announcements by large lenders that they are freezing foreclosures - have given pause to some judges in Florida. While judges agree that speed remains important, some are warning that churning through cases so quickly could mean overlooking fraudulent documents and prematurely seizing homes, perhaps depriving borrowers of due process.
How judges in Florida, at the epicenter of the foreclosure crisis, strike a balance could presage how courts elsewhere in the country will grapple with the mortgage meltdown's latest challenge for homeowners, financial firms and the broader economy.
The 'rocket docket'
In Broward County, on Florida's east coast, the fifth-floor waiting area of the county courthouse has been converted to a courtroom for foreclosure cases. A clerk began a recent morning session by calling out the scores of cases on the day's calendar, the vast majority uncontested. A bailiff nodded off in his chair. Inmates from the county jail, shackled and on their way to criminal court, shuffled through the improvised courtroom.
At a wooden desk up front, Judge Tobin raced through the "rocket docket," signing unopposed foreclosure judgments for the better part of two hours.
The week was shaping up to be relatively light, court officials said. Two weeks ago, judges had dispensed with 900 cases. But as lenders came under fire for faulty paperwork, companies including Ally Financial, J.P. Morgan Chase and Bank of America hastily pulled cases from the dockets and the number last week fell to about 300.
Down the hall, attorneys for the small minority of homeowners contesting seizures pleaded their cases in courtrooms 518 and 519. The attorneys cited faulty notarizations, questionable signatures, missing assignments on the part of lenders trying to foreclose. They argued that the sloppy paperwork had resulted in a broken chain of title, that lenders didn't have legal standing to seize homes.
"There are federal investigations going on!" one defense attorney said to a judge as he argued about the legitimacy of a foreclosure affidavit.