In 1993, when she was 38, Ranae L. Dugan bought a two-bedroom, one-bath house in Spring Hill. She was the happiest she had ever been. A nurse at the top of the pay scale, she had a place to call her own.
"My home is the biggest part of my American dream," she told me the other day in her attorney's office. "It may not be a castle in the eyes of other people, but it is my castle. It is where I want to retire. It is truly my sanctuary."
Now she is fighting foreclosure. She received the notice from Bank of America the day after Mother's Day.
The shattering of Dugan's dream is a predicament millions of other Americans find themselves in, victims of a mortgage and banking system that places the value of property over the value of people and their lives. It is a system that apparently ignores the legitimate circumstances that drive many homeowners into financial crisis.
Dugan, now 55, lost her job at a Spring Hill hospital in November 2009.
"After I lost my job, I called the bank right away and asked if there's anything I can do until I can get another job, escrow or something like that," she said. "I wanted to be up front with them to let them know that if I got behind to give me a way to keep up. I was told to get my finances in order.
"I just hit a brick wall. I was not given any cooperation. They were rude. One day I spent three and half hours trying to get through but couldn't. I was behind three months, and when I got my income tax return, I paid them for three months. Now, though, I was two months in default. Nobody would talk to me."
She had to get a lawyer to have any chance of keeping her home. In July, she watched a foreclosure special on television and heard St. Petersburg attorney Charles R. Gallagher III speak. She hired Gallagher a few days later.
"He was able to do what I couldn't do," Dugan said. "He got somebody to actually pay attention to me."
Gallagher said Dugan's original 1993 loan was with Helms Mortgage Associates. Without giving his client proper notice, he said, Countrywide Home Loans assumed the loan. Then Bank of America bought Countrywide's debt, which included Dugan's mortgage. Again, her lawyer said, Dugan was not properly notified.
Gallagher is countersuing Bank of America on several counts of misconduct, which include the breach of the contractual obligation of good faith and fair dealing; failure to provide Dugan with preforeclosure counseling and troubled loan servicing counseling under the National Housing Act, which is required; and failure to provide Dugan with the rights and notices established under the terms of the mortgage.
Like other lenders, Bank of America deploys agents who conduct occupancy checks purportedly to verify if someone is living in a property. Dugan has had such visits. "The first time was a Saturday morning," she said. "I'm looking out my kitchen window, and a car drives by, slows down and someone in the car starts snapping pictures of my house. I just wanted to run out and chase them down the street. Nothing is more upsetting and humiliating than to have these people come by and knock on your door."
Gallagher said many occupancy checks are intended to intimidate, especially when agents come inside after work hours, taking pictures and inspecting the place. He refers to extreme examples of this practice as psychological torture.
Then there is the stigma of foreclosure.
"I feel very ashamed," Dugan said. "It's as if people think I cannot afford my house or I have somehow been irresponsible. It's a lot of stress and loss of peace of mind. As a nurse, I'm used to being in control of things. My foreclosure isn't fair. I tried to be proactive and reach out to the bank. They did not care, and didn't offer me any solution."
Dugan's case is in the discovery process. Bank of America did not return my call for a comment.
Dugan said she is in the fight of her life to hold on to the home she loves and has lived in for the last 17 years.
"I take great pride in ownership and enjoy improving my house," she said. "I've been divorced for 34 years, and I've learned to be very handy with repairs and improvements. All by myself, I have painted, replaced doors and closets, installed crown molding and new baseboards, constructed a backyard shed, stuccoed, tiled and carpeted flooring, installed wallpaper and replaced my shower. I even have a miter saw."
Dugan has a new job as a nurse. She can afford to keep her home if she is given the opportunity.