About 60 people from Tampa Bay and West Palm Beach gladly climbed aboard buses in the middle of the night to arrive Wednesday morning outside the Capitol in Tallahassee just to press one issue with legislators.
We may be facing foreclosure on our homes, protesters told elected officials. But do not take away our right to have our day in court before an impartial judge. Do not switch the burden of proof from lender to homeowner. And do not empower banks to pursue "nonjudicial procedures" just to speed up foreclosure proceedings and boot homeowners out of their own houses in just three months.
At 63, Woody Ryan's been fighting his own foreclosure for more than a year. He hopped aboard a chartered bus in Sarasota at 2 a.m. It made a 3 a.m. stop for passengers in Tampa before speeding on to Tallahassee.
"I came because I wanted to let legislators know that the measures (to alter the foreclosure process) would create definite harm to the rights of people in Florida," Ryan said via phone from Tallahassee.
One measure, pushed by the Florida Bankers Association and sponsored by Sen. Mike Bennett, R-Bradenton, ran out of steam last week. A second measure was targeted by the protesters who know enough about politics to realize anything can happen before the session ends.
Florida attorneys who represent folks facing foreclosure are raising red flags over some dangerous legal shortcuts and misrepresentations becoming the norm in a court system awash in foreclosures. The lawyers say many mortgage lenders and their lawyers working for so-called foreclosure mills are, in effect, creating "legal" documents with false signatures, and trying to pass them off in court as proof that suing lenders legitimately own the mortgage paper on homes they are trying to seize.
Tampa Bay attorney Mark Stopa, who traveled Wednesday to Tallahassee, represents about 300 area homeowners in foreclosure. Earlier this week, he showed me examples of documents known as "assignment of mortgages" that are supposed to identify the rightful bank owner of a mortgage on a home.
Many such documents are being doctored to appear legitimate. But the lender that made the original mortgage to the then-new homeowner never legally handed over that mortgage to the institution now seeking to foreclose.
Stopa says banks already get away with this most of the time because 90 percent of all foreclosure proceedings happen without legal counsel, outside of court, by already financially drained homeowners.
State courts overwhelmed by the volume of foreclosures have been slow to recognize and respond to the corruption of legal documents.
Still, says Stopa, as troubling as foreclosure cases may be in court, they sure beat just letting banks — lenders that may or may not be the rightful mortgage owner — push homeowners out of their houses.
"I trust judges more than bankers," Stopa says, "and that's what this boils down to."
This isn't just about slippery or careless banks. Many homeowners failed to pay their mortgages. They will eventually have to give up their houses.
But this absolutely is about folks getting a fair shake in an impartial court — without the deception of mass-produced paperwork.
Robert Trigaux can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.