TAMPA — From his cubicle on the fifth floor of the Tampa courthouse, Brian Krummerich gets an intimate look at the mortgage foreclosure crisis.
Case files overwhelm his desk. He stamps each with a number. Three other court clerks process cases alongside him, and still the tsunami of paperwork doesn't cease.
At 9:30 a.m. on a recent Wednesday, he stamps the latest lawsuit: Case No. 9,141.
In 2006, the 9,141th civil case wasn't filed until October.
With foreclosures now making up 70 percent of all civil cases filed in Hillsborough County, the courthouse is swamped with paperwork that needs to be stamped, recorded, scanned, shelved and then retrieved for judicial hearings and auctions.
Spend a day with the clerks, judges and judicial assistants who bear the crushing load, and you learn why they all feel exhausted.
"It's a mess," said Senior Circuit Judge Frank Gomez. "Really backlogs everything else."
Back at his desk, Krummerich readies his document stamp for No. 9,142.
Three times a day, his stamp runs out of ink.
• • •
April 8 is a typical day in the circuit civil division of the Hillsborough clerk's office. Four times on this day, boxes of cases are delivered to the courthouse. Three batches arrive by mail; a fourth is hauled in by courier.
The loads get heavier and heavier. In 2005, 3,500 foreclosure cases were filed in Hillsborough. In 2008, there were 21,000. So far this year, the county's record-breaking pace leads the Tampa Bay area.
Unlike some other states, Florida requires judges to sign off on foreclosures. State law gives counties three days to record cases.
The subsequent workload strains county resources at a time when property tax revenue is plummeting. In January, the clerk's office eliminated weekend overtime pay, so that all work must get done during the regular work week. Recently, Clerk of the Circuit Court Pat Frank announced furloughs for employees.
To compensate, administrators shifted staff. Workers who once processed marriage licenses now help process foreclosures. Employees started scanning documents into the system last year so they could be viewed online to save time spent fetching cases for investors looking for bargains.
Still, they can't get ahead.
The average case load per employee has doubled since 2005, even though the clerk's civil division has 19 more employees.
Krummerich can think of only one day this year when the work flow ebbed. The break lasted about an hour. Then eight boxes arrived.
"We've been trying to catch up ever since," he said.
Two desks down from Krummerich is Mary Ann Stafford. She started filing foreclosures about 18 months ago, in 2007, when the surge began.
Back then, she believed the rise was temporary.
"You don't have a clue of the enormity of this until you're here, day after day, week after week, month after month, and what's now becoming year after year," Stafford said, taking a rare break.
"This has to end at some point. But it's not ending. The paper keeps coming in. There's no end in sight."
• • •
A couple of hours later, in another corner of the fifth floor, Gomez clicks on a speaker phone.
"Judge Gomez here."
It's 2:18 p.m. A foreclosure attorney waits on the line, ready to tell the judge about the $313,508 her banker client is owed by homeowners who stopped making payments more than a year ago. She wants the judge to sign off on an order that will foreclose the property and send it to auction.
Gomez, dressed in a dark sports jacket instead of a robe, flips through the case file. Seeing that everything appears to be in order, he signs the final judgment and sets the public sale date for May 20.
Total hearing time: two minutes.
None of the 35 foreclosure cases Gomez hears on this afternoon gets much more time than that. There simply are too many.
Mortgage foreclosures filed at the Tampa courthouse are spread out among 10 judges. As of April 1, each had 1,800 to 2,700 pending foreclosure cases. Retired jurists like Gomez also are called upon to help.
Most of the judicial burden falls on the judges' assistants, who comb through each inch-thick file to make sure paperwork is in order.
"We're just bombarded," said Judy Williams, judicial assistant for Hillsborough Circuit Judge James Arnold. "It has tripled the workload."
The increased filings mean longer waits for hearings on all types of civil cases, judges say.
That might not sound like a big deal. But court funding hasn't kept up with the influx, leading to a backlog of civil cases that hinders the private sector's ability to do business, according to a recent study commissioned by the Florida Bar.
The study estimates that delays caused by mortgage foreclosure cases cost the state $9.9 billion each year.
Once the cases get to the judges, there isn't much relief available for those facing foreclosure. Judges can order the parties into mediation or give people a bit more time before their homes go on the auction block.
"But a lot of times that's just delaying the inevitable," Gomez said.
Many homeowners don't even bother filing a defense or showing up. For hours of hearings, it's just Gomez, a cart full of case files and a parade of attorneys piped in over the speaker phone.
The few homeowners who do attend offer only hints of their struggles. One man in an olive sweater vest says he defaulted on his loan after running into financial problems. Another says he has been trying to sell his house since August.
An hour into the docket, the judge calls the case of Wachovia Bank vs. Curl.
Fidgeting with a pen, James Curl, 45, calmly explains his plight.
Curl, who works for a construction company, had bought and renovated three South Tampa homes. He hoped to build a college fund for his 8-year-old daughter.
Then the market went bust. His mortgage payments soared, and his efforts to sell failed. The properties are now worth less than he owes.
"I would like to try to save the property," Curl tells the judge.
But Gomez says the bank is entitled to a ruling in its favor.
"My hands are tied," he says. "Your answer is simply an explanation. It's not any kind of legal defense."
The judge sets a May 20 auction date. Curl sighs.
"I sympathize," Gomez says. "I don't think anybody can escape this market."
• • •
As Gomez sets sale dates, the afternoon's auctions are already under way down on the second floor.
Up for grabs are homes that were part of judges' rulings last month.
The auctions draw regulars, investors who come every day to bid on foreclosed properties. Even in these times, they hope to buy homes, flip them quickly and turn a high profit.
Law firms send couriers on behalf of lenders who sued the borrowers and now have a claim on the property. There are a handful of couriers who represent the major law firms litigating the foreclosure cases. They sit apart from the clutch of investors, who make up a clubby group. The investors behave more like co-workers than rivals trying to outbid each other for bargain homes.
Eddie Thornburg is one of the more successful investors. He dresses down most days, like the rest in the group. T-shirts. Shorts. Ball caps. Flip-flops and sneakers.
Minutes before the April 8 auction begins, Thornburg thumbs through a list of homes.
His report is marked up, figures scrawled in the margin. He knows what he can pay to make a profit. He even knows what the banks will bid. Banks don't keep their bids secret. The reason is simple. Banks have big inventories. Investors like Thornburg help them unload homes they would otherwise have to maintain.
Thornburg said he bought 58 homes last year at auction, and made a nice profit selling them quickly. In December, banks started slashing prices at steeper discounts, allowing investors like him to buy more homes. About 300 sell each week at the courthouse, and Thornburg said he researches each one.
On this day, only 12 homes are up for sale, and of those, only one catches Thornburg's eye. It's a house in Riverview that sold for $177,000 in 2006. He likes it, but he won't pay more than $70,000.
Thornburg has to be careful. Housing prices continue to drop.
At 44, he has been in real estate for 25 years and has outlasted investors who went bankrupt when they couldn't flip homes.
"It's not like what it was five years ago," he said in his Gadsden, Ala., drawl. "Back then, you put a house on the market and you had five brokers calling you. It was crazy. Then it just died."
As the auction begins, more than a dozen other investors join him.
They sit at banquet tables facing Tonya Tucker, a county clerk who reads off the list of properties for sale.
No borrowers show up. Many of the homes were never occupied. Of those up for auction, nearly 40 percent were owned by borrowers who defaulted on another mortgage for another home.
Christopher and Arline O'Keefe, for instance, bought their Seffner home in 2006 for $753,000. They've been sued 10 other times, nine since 2008, for foreclosure in Hillsborough County. The Seffner house is now valued at $247,000 — a third of what they borrowed. It sold for $100 to the plaintiff, Washington Mutual Bank.
Case after case plays out like that. There are no takers, and they are sold back to the banks for a pittance.
The next property up is the Riverview house that Thornburg had eyed before the auction.
Tucker starts the bidding at $100.
"A bid for $100, do I hear another bid?"
"$56,201," says one investor.
"I have a bid for $56,201, do I hear another bid?" Tucker says. "$56,201 going once..."
"$56,300," says a second investor.
It goes back and forth like this for 15 minutes, the price creeping up in small increments of $50 and $100. More than 60 bids are made.
Then, with the price up to $69,700, Thornburg bids $70,000 — exactly the price he said he would pay. And that's it. Nobody counters. The house is his.
Of the 12 homes that were sold today, 11 went back to the banks for $100.
During boom times, those houses sold for a total of $2.4-million, made possible by mortgages borrowers didn't pay back.
Today, they sold for a total of $71,100.
Thornburg has no time to celebrate.
"I'm going to put it on the market as soon as I can," he said. "I don't even know if it's occupied, so I have to check that out first."
He takes the elevator back to the fifth floor, where the clerks are busy hustling paperwork. A clerk tells him the amount he needs to complete the sale.
In just a few hours, new cases will arrive.
Before long, Thornburg could be bidding on them, too.
Colleen Jenkins can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3337. Michael Van Sickler can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3402.