For foreclosure processors hired by mortgage lenders, speed equaled money
Saturday, October 16, 2010; 12:57 AM
Millions of homes have been seized by banks during the economic crisis through a mass production system of foreclosures that was set up to prioritize one thing over everything else: speed.
With 2 million homes in foreclosure and another 2.3 million seriously delinquent on their mortgages - the biggest logjam of distressed properties the market has ever seen - companies involved in the foreclosure process were paid to move cases quickly through the pipeline.
Law firms competed with one another to file the largest number of foreclosures on behalf of lenders - and were rewarded for their work with bonuses. These and other companies that handled the preparation of documents were paid for volume, so they processed as many as they could en masse, leaving little time to read the paperwork and catch errors.
And the big mortgage companies overseeing it all - including government-owned Fannie Mae - were so eager to get bad loans off their books that they imposed a penalty on contractors if they moved too slowly.
The system was so automated and so inflexible that once a foreclosure process began, homeowners and consumer advocates say, there was often no way to stop it.
"The problem is when you try to fight back against this machine, well, it's a machine," said Michael Alex Wasylik, an attorney for homeowners in Dade City, Fla. "You have to be able to get your case off the mass production line and to someone who will take the time to read what they file, but in many mortgage firms that person doesn't exist."
The financial incentives show that the problems plaguing the foreclosure process extend well beyond a few, low-ranking document processors who forged documents or failed to review foreclosure files even as they signed off on them. In fact, virtually everyone involved - loan servicers, law firms, document processing companies and others - made more money as they evicted more borrowers from their homes, creating a system that was vulnerable to error and difficult for homeowners to challenge.
"This was a systemic problem. It's not like a few renegade employees made mistakes," said lawyer Peter Ticktin, who defends Florida homeowners facing foreclosure. "It was industry-wide and pervasive, and everyone knew about it."
$1,300 per case
The law firm of David J. Stern in Plantation, Fla., for instance, assigned a team of 12 to handle 12,000 foreclosure files at once for big financial companies such as Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac and Citigroup, according to court documents. Each time a case was processed without a challenge from the homeowner, the firm was paid $1,300. It was an unusual arrangement in a legal profession that normally charges by the hour.
The office was so overwhelmed with work that managers kept notary stamps lying around for anyone to use. Bosses would often scream at each other in daily meetings for "files not moving fast enough," Tammie Lou Kapusta, the senior paralegal in charge of the operation, said in a deposition Sept. 22 for state law enforcement officials who are conducting a fraud investigation into the firm. In 2009 alone, Stern's law firm handled over 70,000 foreclosures.
"The girls would come out on the floor not knowing what they were doing," Kapusta said. "Mortgages would get placed in different files. They would get thrown out. There was just no real organization when it came to the original documents."
Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac and Citigroup said they no longer do new business with Stern's firm.