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  1. Real Estate

Attorney Mark Stopa's foreclosure cases are halted but clients' checks are being cashed

TAMPA — A bankruptcy judge has ordered a temporary halt to all state and appellate court proceedings in which suspended foreclosure defense attorney Mark Stopa and his former law firm are counsel of record.

The emergency order, effective until Nov. 6, could give dozens of Florida homeowners a temporary respite from the threat of foreclosure. But many have been surprised and dismayed to find that the trustee overseeing the law firm's bankruptcy case has been cashing post-dated checks they wrote to the firm.

"It's a hot mess," Tonya McKendree, a former client of Stopa, said Wednesday. She said trustee Stephen Meininger cashed four checks totaling $1,250, causing her account to be overdrawn by about $400 and costing her more than $100 in overdraft fees.

RELATED: Authorities: Foreclosure lawyer Mark Stopa made nearly $5 million off clients' homes

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Tampa lawyer Richard Mockler took over Stopa's law firm and 4,000 active cases in July, shortly before Stopa was suspended for professional misconduct. The firm was unable to continue operations after its accounts were frozen and its computers seized in the wake of an Aug. 21 raid by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.

The firm, Stay in My Home, P.A., filed a petition for a Chapter 7 bankruptcy liquidation Oct. 2.

In his motion for the emergency order, Meininger said it has been "challenging" to identify the cases in which Stopa and the firm were still listed as counsel because paper records were incomplete and the firm's electronic case management system had been suspended for non-payment.

"The Trustee and his counsel are diligently working to get their arm's around the Debtor's case load so they can administer related assets and otherwise carry out the Trustee's duties to the estate," the motion said. "But additional time is needed."

Among the potential assets are attorney fees awarded but not yet paid to Stopa in cases in which he prevailed. Meininger's motion said third parties also have expressed interest in buying the firm's large case load, which could generate "significant value" for the bankruptcy estate. But that value would "quickly dissipate" if cases moved forward and clients hired other attorneys, the motion said.

Judge Roberta Colton granted the motion, although it does not apply to any foreclosure sales scheduled between Oct. 11 and Nov. 6. Nor does it cover motions to withdraw as counsel during that period.

As trustee, Meininger's duties include collecting as many of a debtor's assets as possible in order to pay creditors. Stopa's firm typically charged a $2,500 annual retainer but allowed clients to pay in installments with post-dated checks. Those, too, could be considered assets of the estate.

Contact Susan Taylor Martin at smartin@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8642. Follow @susanskate

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