Malekia and Maya McKinney were desperate to keep the property where they had grown up.
The city of St. Petersburg had filed a lawsuit to foreclose on it in March 2018, citing unpaid property fines.
Malekia turned to someone she trusted for advice. He gave her a name:
The St. Petersburg attorney had made a name for himself in the wake of the Great Recession by representing hundreds of Florida homeowners who were being foreclosed upon.
But Malekia was shocked.
“No, that’s the name of the attorney who we’re going up against,” she said.
What Malekia’s friend didn’t know was that Weidner had taken on a new line of work: helping cities foreclose on property owners who owed fines for violating the city’s property code.
Weidner saw the work as helping cities deal with the blight caused by poorly maintained properties, but it also meant that a lawyer once known for helping people keep homes was now helping cities take them away.
What’s more, property owners named in these lawsuits have raised numerous issues about his handling of these cases, issues that in some cases Weidner had himself complained about when he was an attorney for homeowners.
“The highest calling”
Weidner hadn’t started out as a foreclosure defense attorney.
After graduating from law school at Florida State in 1999, Weidner worked for trade groups representing pain care specialists who opposed making it harder for doctors to prescribe opioids — with Weidner at one point describing the “administrative nightmare” that would follow if doctors were forced to have follow-up appointments with their patients before automatically refilling their prescriptions.
Florida — and particularly Broward County — would soon become the painkiller capital of the East Coast, pockmarked with “pill mills” featuring lines of addicts snaking through the parking lot, until strict regulations a decade later brought the scourge under control.
Weidner first began to attract attention as a foreclosure defense attorney in the wake of the Great Recession of 2008.
He was even credited by The Wall Street Journal as having coined the term “robo-signer” to describe mortgage employees who signed off on thousands of foreclosure lawsuits without actually reviewing the underlying documents.
With Florida experiencing one of the highest foreclosure rates in the country, he defended hundreds of homeowners at risk of losing their homes.
And he liked to talk about it.
Weidner chronicled his work and opined on the state of the foreclosure spree with increasing frequency on a blog he maintains on his law firm’s website.
In between posts documenting twists and turns in his own cases, he offered broader cultural commentary.
In the span of 10 days in early 2012, he wrote one post modeled after Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” and another calling Jesus Christ “THE ORIGINAL OCCUPIED PROTESTER,” in reference to the Occupy Wall Street protests, which had occurred months earlier.
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In his post inspired by “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” he wrote “that the work of defending the helpless is the highest calling of the legal profession.” He added that his clients weren’t facing foreclosure because of their personal failings.
“They are in foreclosure because they have no money,” he wrote. “They have no money because there are no jobs. There are no jobs because their government has failed them.”
Weidner’s politics are hard to pin down. His uncle, Donald Weidner, had once been the executive director of the Republican Party of Florida. In his blog posts, Weidner railed against the Obama administration’s handling of the 2008 financial crisis and ensuing foreclosures. But he had few kind words for Republicans — particularly then-Florida Gov. Rick Scott — either.
He helped organize a 2010 protest in the Florida state capital, dubbed the “Rally in Tally,” to advocate for better protections for homeowners facing foreclosure, and in 2012 launched a halfhearted bid for the Florida state House. Calling himself the “(un)Candidate,” Weidner — a former registered Republican who is now registered as a Democrat — ran as an independent in the 2012 race and managed to capture nearly 5% of the vote, despite not actively campaigning and endorsing Democrat Dwight Dudley, who would go on to win, late in the race.
He has continued to take on other public fights since then.
In 2015, he filed a lawsuit in conjunction with the Miami Herald and other news organizations, accusing Scott and his Cabinet of violating state Sunshine laws in their firing of former Florida Department of Law Enforcement Commissioner Gerald Bailey behind closed doors. The Republican governor and the Cabinet settled for $55,000.
More recently, Weidner represented three tenants pro bono who were being evicted in 2021 by then-St. Petersburg City Council member and Republican mayoral candidate Robert Blackmon from an apartment building Blackmon had purchased.
“One of Blackmon’s key issues is that he talks about being an affordable housing champion. It just strikes me as very inconsistent,” Weidner told the Tampa Bay Times. “You’re running for mayor, and you’re evicting four people who are down on their luck?”
“Driver of blight”
Weidner’s shift to filing code-related foreclosure lawsuits began in early 2015, when the number of mortgage foreclosures began to decline in Florida.
He signed a deal with St. Petersburg in February 2015 to file these types of lawsuits on behalf of the city as part of a pilot program to tackle what the city called “zombie properties” — vacant lots that had racked up big code enforcement liens.
The work was slow at first — he filed a total of six lawsuits for St. Petersburg in 2015 — but it soon picked up. He filed 56 foreclosure suits on behalf of St. Petersburg in 2016 and also signed a contract that year with Hillsborough County, after which he began filing similar suits, the Herald found.
Over the next three years, Weidner would sign additional contracts with other nearby cities and file more than 500 foreclosure lawsuits. He has filed more than 775 lawsuits since 2015, representing a total of nine jurisdictions, according to the Herald’s analysis.
Weidner sees the work as both a financial boon for cities and a way for them to improve neighborhoods by taking properties away from owners who haven’t properly cared for them and incurred code enforcement liens.
“The driver of blight is the liens and the failure of the people to address the underlying violations,” he said.
Weidner isn’t the first attorney to take on new clients that would seem to be in contrast with his earlier work. Former public prosecutors, for example, regularly defend the kind of clients they used to bring cases against. But Weidner’s shift is, nevertheless, stark.
In a 2017 blog post, for example, he promoted websites run by Pinellas County and Hillsborough County that sell foreclosed properties, including the properties he had filed suit against.
“COUNTY FORECLOSURE AUCTIONS- A “SECRET” SOURCE OF INCREDIBLY VALUABLE REAL ESTATE OPPOTUNTIES,” the misspelled headline on the post read.
Under the terms of his contracts, Weidner receives a portion of whatever money cities bring in from the lawsuits, typically between 25% and 40%, depending on the point in the process at which the cities recover money.
He keeps a portion of the money when houses are foreclosed upon and sold and also when property owners reach settlement deals with the city to pay some or all of their outstanding fines and keep the property. He’s also entitled to a portion of the money even if cities reach a settlement with owners before a lawsuit is filed.
Weidner touts the arrangement as a win for cities because they don’t have to pay anything upfront and pay him only if he actually recovers money, but critics worry that the arrangement could also produce what one lawyer described as a “profit motive” for bringing cases.
While individual cases aren’t typically lucrative — foreclosed homes were sold at auction for an average of $26,000 — the fees have added up.
Records requests filed with the nine jurisdictions where Weidner has worked show that his firm has been paid nearly $3 million in fees and expenses for his work on the foreclosure cases.
It isn’t his only work.
Weidner, whose firm employs one additional attorney, is listed as an attorney of record on more than 400 additional cases in that time period in his home base of Pinellas County.
“It felt predatory”
The code enforcement foreclosure cases Weidner brings tend to move quickly.
The median time between when Weidner filed a case and when it was dismissed or decided in his favor was less than six months, according to the Herald’s review.
That speed has occasionally brought problems. He once listed the wrong city on a complaint — Fruitland Park instead of Fort Pierce — and has had several other typos, or “scrivener’s errors,” as they’re known in legal terms, that required him to refile legal documents.
His initial complaints typically don’t indicate how much property owners actually owe in code enforcement fines and on several occasions he’s failed to attach information about the liens that are the cause for the lawsuits in the first place.
He’s filed lawsuits that owners said were for the wrong property or notified the wrong people about a case.
And several property owners argued in their cases that they had not been properly notified of their lawsuits at all.
Tom Szczygielski said he learned that the house he owned in Madeira Beach was being foreclosed upon only when a neighbor called him asking if Szczygielski would sell to him instead.
He would soon learn that Madeira Beach, the Pinellas County municipality that had hired Weidner earlier in 2020, was originally saying he owed more than $200,000 in code enforcement fees that stemmed from not mowing the grass and maintaining the landscaping on his property in 2017.
Szczygielski, a lawyer who lives in Lexington, Kentucky, acknowledges that the lawn and landscaping had at times been overgrown, but said he hired a lawn mowing service to fix the problem and was shocked to learn that he owed so much.
“They’re trying to take away a whole piece of property because the grass was too long for a couple of months,” he told the Herald. “It felt predatory to me.”
The property had originally belonged to Szczygielski’s grandparents, who had given it to him after he helped them buy a home in Lexington to be closer to him and other family.
He had plans to make improvements and it also had sentimental value.
“I grew up going there,” he said. “I took my first steps in that home.”
Szczygielski was particularly upset about Weidner’s insistence that he had been notified of the lawsuit.
Anyone targeted by a lawsuit is required to be officially notified, a process called “being served.” It is among the bedrocks of judicial systems and informs a person that they have to defend themselves in court.
Weidner himself complained that many homeowners weren’t being properly served in an August 2012 blog post about a ruling in a mortgage foreclosure case.
“Unfortunately, this office has seen too many cases where service of process is an issue,” Weidner wrote. “These statutes are meant to protect defendants and ensure they receive proper notice of lawsuits.”
In the Madeira Beach case, Weidner hired a process server in Kentucky to notify Szczygielski of the lawsuit. She submitted paperwork saying she had personally notified Szczygielski of the lawsuit on the night of April 21, 2020, by handing him a copy of the litigation at his law office in Lexington.
But Szczygielski told the court that he knew that he hadn’t been in the office at that time on that day.
The day before his property was set to go to auction, Szczygielski’s lawyers filed an emergency motion asking the court to halt the sale, citing this discrepancy.
The sale wound up going through anyway and Szczygielski’s house sold for $136,100.
But a judge ultimately agreed to a hearing in December, at which point Tiana Jackson, the process server, admitted that she had never actually delivered the papers to Szczygielski in person and had never signed court filings that showed her signature. She had done the work for the investigative firm of her brother, Kelvin Jackson, but said that she didn’t want to get in trouble on her brother’s behalf.
At the time Weidner hired the firm, Kelvin Jackson was facing felony charges in Kentucky related to a domestic dispute, to which he would later plead guilty.
The judge canceled the initial 2020 sale of the property, but Madeira Beach continued its suit against Szczygielski again and he was still foreclosed upon the next year. The city wound up buying the property in September 2021 for $125,100. Szczygielski maintains that the city reneged on an earlier offer it had given him to settle the code enforcement fines for roughly $50,000. In the meantime, Szczygielski was forced to tear down the house after discovering issues with asbestos and a bee infestation.
The city declined to discuss the case or answer any of the Herald’s questions about its contract with Weidner and the code enforcement lawsuits he filed on its behalf.
Weidner acknowledged that there had been issues with Szczygielski’s notification in the case but insisted that he has properly followed legal requirements in notifying property owners in his other cases.
Szczygielski appealed the 2021 foreclosure and, two years and thousands of dollars in legal fees later, the appeals court ruled in his favor in February, agreeing that the judge presiding over the original case had not given Szczygielski an opportunity to defend his case after he had raised legitimate issues with the facts in the lawsuit.
The outcome is rare among the cases Weidner has brought. But Szczygielski is also unique among the property owners targeted in these suits: He is a lawyer himself, licensed in both Florida and Kentucky, and was able to hire attorneys to represent him in his initial foreclosure case and the appeals process.
Weidner, who formerly represented homeowners, said he prefers when those he files suit against have an attorney.
“To me the gold standard is when an attorney appears, so that the rights of these people can be properly represented,” he said.
But the Herald’s analysis of more than 775 lawsuits filed by Weidner on behalf of the nine cities and counties he has represented shows that it is a relatively rare occurrence: Fewer than 3 in 10 of the targeted owners hire attorneys to defend them.
The experience of Malekia and Maya McKinney in St. Petersburg is more common. They were unable to find an attorney who would represent them at a price they could afford. They settled on help from a paralegal, but wound up losing their case and the property they had been fighting to keep.
For owners named in these lawsuits, the clock starts ticking immediately and there are numerous dates to keep straight.
They have 20 days to respond after being served in the case and, if they fail to respond in that time period, they can be considered in default, which limits their ability to defend the case going forward.
If Weidner, as he often does, files a motion for summary judgment — asking a judge to rule in the city’s favor without a trial — owners have to file their defense 20 days before the hearing is scheduled. If they fail to do so, even if they responded to the initial complaint, the foreclosure is a foregone conclusion.
“I can’t imagine someone going through it without legal help, because I know how it was for me,” said Philip Jackson, a retired Clearwater police detective who has been involved in a long-running legal fight with St. Petersburg stemming from a foreclosure lawsuit the city brought against him in 2019.
In Madeira Beach, Szczygielski’s case now goes back to the original court that heard the case. Szczygielski said he is still willing to settle, though it isn’t clear if the city will agree.
But the case already cost Weidner his contract with the city.
Madeira Beach gave him notice that it was terminating his contract on June 15, 2021. Madeira Beach’s city manager had said in an April 28, 2021, meeting of the city’s Board of Commissioners that he didn’t believe Weidner addressed the issues with Szczygielski’s property during the mediation process.
Since then, the city hasn’t filed a single new code enforcement foreclosure lawsuit.