As foreclosures soar to record levels, Florida homeowners, defense lawyers and even some judges have complained about what they say is shoddy and fraudulent paperwork filed by banks seeking to foreclose.
Now, the Florida Attorney General's Office is joining the fray.
The office announced Tuesday that it is investigating the law firms of Shapiro & Fishman in Tampa, Marshall Watson in Fort Lauderdale and David J. Stern in Plantation for alleged "unfair and deceptive actions" that may have cost people their homes.
Among the allegations: that the firms, which represent banks, filed "fabricated" documents in court on numerous occasions when the original paperwork needed to foreclose was missing.
"Thousands of final judgments of foreclosure against Florida homeowners may have been the result of the allegedly improper actions of the law firms under investigation," the Attorney General's Office said in a news release.
All three firms were served with subpoenas Friday demanding they turn over reams of records, including the names of all lenders they have represented in the past five years and the names of all lawyers, notaries and other employees.
In addition, each firm was asked to provide documents on certain foreclosure cases it has handled. Among them is that of Ernest Harpster, a Pasco County homeowner whose case was dismissed by Judge Lynn Tepper in March after she ruled that Stern's firm had submitted what she called a "fraudulently backdated" document.
Jeffrey Tew, a Miami lawyer representing Stern, said the firm "fully intends to cooperate" with the subpoena.
"We are confident when they see all facts they will conclude the Stern law firm hasn't done anything wrong," he said.
As with the Harpster case, 21 assignments of mortgage filed in Palm Beach County by the Stern firm appeared to be backdated because they bore stamps from notary seals that did not exist at the time the documents supposedly were notarized.
Assignments of mortgage — which transfer ownership of a loan from one party to another — are key in determining who has the legal right to foreclose. A backdated assignment could mean that the bank didn't own the note at the time it started foreclosing, or that the assignment was created to show ownership that didn't actually exist.
Tew said that cases with problematic notary seals were a minuscule number of the 100,000 or so foreclosures Stern's firm has handled in the past few years.
"These are clerical mistakes, and it's wrong to attribute some sort of evil motives because they were legitimate mortgages and legitimate foreclosures," Tew said. "And when the firm found out this mistake in dating they withdrew the misdated assignments from the court files and filed proper ones."
The other two law firms, Shapiro & Fishman and Marshall Watson, did not return calls and e-mails seeking comment.
The three law firms bring to five the number of institutions under investigation by the Attorney General's Office for allegedly deceptive foreclosure practices. The office already had been looking at Florida Default Law Group in Tampa and Fidelity National Financial in Jacksonville.
Pinellas Circuit Judge Anthony Rondolino, who handles some of the 33,000 foreclosure cases pending in Pinellas and Pasco Counties, said he could not comment on the investigation. But he acknowledged that he and other judges "have had concern for some time" about foreclosure filings.
As a result, lawyers must certify that they have complied with proper foreclosure procedures and that they are "actually paying attention to what (is) being filed," Rondolino said.
But lawyers representing homeowners say problems are rampant nationwide.
"We have fraudulent documents in each and every foreclosure case of mine and in every foreclosure case filed in this country," said lawyer April Charney, a foreclosure expert with Jacksonville Area Legal Aid.
"There is layer upon layer of bogus documents in the assignments, powers of attorney, pleading, judgments, affidavits, service of process, etc., from one end to the other," she said.
The largest of what Charney and other critics call "foreclosure mills" is the Stern firm. It represents most of the nation's biggest banks and handles 20 percent of all foreclosure suits filed in Florida.
As the St. Petersburg Times reported last month, Stern, who lives in a $15 million Fort Lauderdale house with a tennis court, was publicly reprimanded by the Florida Bar in 2002 for misleading and overcharging both homeowners and his own clients.