Nationwide Title Clearing, a Palm Harbor company at the center of the nation's robo-signing controversy, is going on the offensive against its critics.
On Wednesday, the company sued a St. Petersburg foreclosure defense lawyer, Matthew Weidner, for alleged libel and slander.
And it recently obtained an injunction, ordering Sarasota lawyer Christopher Forrest to remove videotaped depositions he had posted of three Nationwide Title employees describing an assembly-line process of signing mortgage-related documents.
The ACLU of Florida said Thursday that it has filed an emergency appeal of the injunction, which it called a "gag order" and a restraint of free speech.
The legal action marks another chapter in a storm over the validity of documents used to foreclose on millions of American homes. Earlier this fall, Bank of America and other lenders temporarily halted foreclosure proceedings because of evidence that many documents contained errors and fraudulent statements.
One of the most outspoken critics of the foreclosure process is Weidner, who writes a widely read blog in which he has criticized not only banks, but judges, lawyers and companies like Nationwide Title that process mortgage-related documents.
Nationwide Title does not prepare foreclosure papers. However, lenders have authorized several of its employees to sign for them on assignments of mortgage, which transfer ownership of a loan from one party to another and are key in determining who has the legal right to foreclose.
In a suit filed in Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Court, the company says Weidner has "deliberately and maliciously" used the term robo-signers "to vilify NTC for signing documents … when (Weidner) knew that it is entirely legally and appropriate to do so."
The "gist" of statements on Weidner's blog, the suit says, is that Nationwide Title is an "unethical company" that manufactures false evidence used to foreclose. The statements have permanently damaged the company's reputation and subjected it to "public hatred, scorn and ridicule," according to the suit, which seeks damages in excess of $15,000.
Weidner declined to comment.
Barbara Petersen, president of Florida's First Amendment Foundation, praised him for bringing to light serious problems, including court hearings from which the public was barred.
"I've been working with Matt on trying to open the foreclosure process and we've made great strides that have a lot to do with his activism," Petersen said. "He's bringing a great deal of national attention to what's going on in Florida."
In the Sarasota case, Nationwide Title obtained an injunction Nov. 19, ordering Forrest to remove the depositions he posted on YouTube of employees Bryan Bly, Crystal Moore and Dhurata Doko. All three said they signed hundreds of documents at a time and Moore acknowledged she never read any of them.
Because of the postings, Nationwide Title said, the three had to endure veiled death threats and "highly offensive" comments about their appearance.
"The defendants are not public figures but rather enjoyed quiet private lives until the abrupt disruption caused by Mr. Forrest and his firm," Nationwide Title said.
As of Thursday, the depositions were still on YouTube. Forrest said he took down the ones he posted but "what appears to have happened is that a whole bunch of people re-posted them."
Forrest represents a Sarasota couple challenging their foreclosure, partly on the grounds that Nationwide Title improperly prepared certain documents related to their mortgage. However, the company is not a party to the foreclosure suit.
In appealing the injunction to Florida's Second District Court of Appeal, the ACLU said that putting the videotaped depositions on YouTube "gives the world an opportunity to see how the practices of banks and title companies are affecting homeowners having serious financial problems."
Susan Taylor Martin can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.