NEW PORT RICHEY — In his first 20 years as a judge, Wayne Cobb estimates he handled about a dozen foreclosure cases. Total.
These days, he sees between 50 and 100 a day.
Cobb, who retired in 2008, is back as a senior judge working in a stimulus-funded effort to help clear the backlog of mortgage foreclosure cases that are overwhelming the court system and dragging down the local real estate market.
From a windowless hearing room inside the West Pasco Judicial Center, Cobb sits at the head of a conference table and takes them file by file. In case after case, he talks to a lawyer over speakerphone who represents a bank. The borrower usually doesn't show.
If the file is complete and no one is there to object, Cobb signs a summary judgment, a ruling that gives the property back to the bank without a trial. Legally, it's usually pretty clear-cut — there is no defense to simply not paying your mortgage.
Then Cobb sets a date 45 days out when the home will go up for sale at an auction.
Wash, rinse, repeat.
The circuit that covers Pinellas and Pasco counties has more than 33,000 pending foreclosures cases, and they're still being filed at a rate of some 900 a month. Using federal stimulus funds, the Legislature allocated almost $10 million to judicial circuits and clerk's offices across Florida to pay clerks, senior judges and case managers to plow through the mountain of foreclosures. Their mandate: Clear out at least 62 percent of the backlog in a year. The program applies to all residential property, both homeowner-occupied and investor-owned.
More than $300,000 of the state pot is flowing to Pasco and Pinellas, where senior judges also fan out each week to Dade City, St. Petersburg and Clearwater and burn through dockets of up to 100 cases a day.
Pinellas and Pasco courts also recently implemented a mediation program for homeowners who have fallen behind but want to try to keep their homes, another attempt at stopping the bleeding.
The local foreclosure crisis is a tiny reflection of the nationwide calamity, brought when easy credit fueled a hot real estate market that drove values sky-high. But the bubble burst and many homeowners and investors found themselves saddled with loans they couldn't pay and property they couldn't sell. Loan defaults are now commonplace. Cobb said when he was a practicing attorney, the few foreclosures he saw happened when someone died and the surviving relatives didn't want the house.
Now the familiar refrain goes something like this:
I want to keep my house, but I can't afford the payments.
I've been trying for months to get a loan modification from my bank, but they lost my paperwork and I can never get the same person on the phone.
Cobb has no authority to get people a retooled loan they can afford. But when such cases come up for summary judgments and the borrowers tell him their situation, he sets a sale date of 90 or 120 days out to give them time to get a handle on the loan, or move out.
And he has a message for them: "These people have got to be really aggressive. The squeaky wheel gets the grease. I try to tell them, you really got to squeak."
On the other hand, the banks tell him that some borrowers are taking advantage, living two or three years without ever making a house payment or saving any money to get caught up.
"You've got to consider the rights of the banks too," the judge said.
Molly Moorhead can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 869-6245.