A Sarasota judge in a foreclosure action who ordered the removal of video depositions from YouTube is violating the First Amendment and preventing the public from seeing how alleged "robo-signers" churned out mortgage-related paperwork without verifying the information. In the depositions, three employees of Nationwide Title Clearing, a Palm Harbor company, describe how each had signed hundreds of documents at a time — just the kind of potentially fraudulent conduct that state attorneys general are investigating across the country, including in Florida. But the judge found that the interests of these employees to be free from harassment and public scorn likely overrides the public's right to know. It's a dangerous ruling, given its implications for limits on public access to court records, and the 2nd District Court of Appeal should reverse it.
The issue arose after Sarasota lawyer Christopher Forrest posted the depositions of NTC employees Bryan Bly, Crystal Moore and Dhurata Doko on YouTube in early November. Forrest took the depositions to defend a foreclosure action against his clients, homeowners Peter and Barbara Morlon. The videos seem to demonstrate that NTC employees signed important mortgage-related documents in an assembly-line manner, prompting many nasty comments.
Soon after the depositions were posted on YouTube, they were filed with the court, making them part of the case's record. But on Nov. 19, at a hearing where only the NTC attorney was present, Sarasota Circuit Judge Rick De Furia issued a temporary injunction against the "posting, publishing, disseminating or maintaining" of the depositions by Forrest or anyone acting "in concert" with him. The judge gave a nod to the First Amendment and the public's access to information but said the NTC employees will suffer "irreparable harm" without the injunction.
What the judge missed is that the homeowners have a First Amendment right to make parts of their court case public, and that right far outweighs the privacy interests of a witness. The NTC employee depositions are about potential irregularities in processing mortgage-related documents, an issue of great public importance that has been the subject of news reports and law enforcement investigations, including in Florida.
In fact, what Forrest did is similar to what the office of Florida Attorney General Bill McCollum is doing in its foreclosure fraud investigation. The office is distributing through a website sworn statements of people allegedly involved in presenting fabricated documents to the courts in foreclosure actions.
Robo-signers became the subject of official scrutiny because attorneys such as Forrest began taking these kinds of depositions and publicizing them. The court's obligation is to advance the interests of openness and transparency, not deprive residents of their right to view public court records.