COLUMBIA — Attorneys being trained Wednesday to handle foreclosure cases in Maryland learned more than just the basics of representing delinquent homeowners.
During the seven-hour foreclosure prevention session, one instructor advised the trainees how to determine if attorneys for the lenders have not signed foreclosure affidavits that purportedly contain their signatures.
“Go to the book,” said Phillip Robinson, referring to the notebook that every newly admitted attorney signs after being sworn in at the Court of Appeals.
Then simply compare that signature to the one on the documents, said Robinson, executive director at Civil Justice Inc., which, along with the Pro Bono Resource Center of Maryland Inc. and the Maryland Department of Housing and Community Development, sponsored the event at Howard Community College.
Robinson’s advice follows revelations that attorneys at Covahey, Boozer, Devan & Dore PA in Towson and Bierman, Geesing, Ward & Wood LLC in Bethesda did not actually sign documents in Maryland foreclosure proceedings. (Lawyers Thomas P. Dore and Jacob Geesing subsequently filed corrective affidavits with their signatures; neither returned calls for comment on the scandal.)
That discovery prompted the Court of Appeals last week to approve a rule calling on judges to summon to court lawyers they believe did not sign affidavits and have them “show cause” why the foreclosure proceeding should not be dismissed.
“This is a problem that we didn’t create but we have to solve,” Robinson told the lawyers. “It’s all about honest courts and not playing fair.”
Benjamin M. Grossman said he attended Wednesday’s session to gain a better understanding of the foreclosure process and use that knowledge to help the older residents he counsels through the Bar Association of Baltimore City.
“We do see a number of seniors who are having foreclosure problems,” said Grossman, an attorney for the association’s Legal Services for the Elderly division. “Seniors have been taken advantage of in many different ways,” including at foreclosure, he added.
Attorney Lydia Nussbaum said she hopes to share the information she receives with students at the University of Baltimore School of Law’s Family Mediation Clinic, where she is a clinical fellow.
“We’d like to diversify a little bit” and expand the clinic’s mission to include foreclosure assistance, she said.
Trainees were also told of a state law that enables homeowners faced with foreclosure to seek mediation with their lenders in an effort to modify their loan agreements. The law went into effect July 1 and applies to filings made on or after that date.
Instructor Anthony DePastina advised the lawyers to lower the expectations of delinquent homeowners who believe mediation will result in them being able to modify their loans and keep their homes.
“The mediator is only there to facilitate the process” of negotiation, said DePastina, a litigation attorney at Civil Justice. “They have no authority” to order an agreement, he added.
DePastina also told the attorneys to bring a calculator and paper to the mediations, as dollar figures and repayment terms are generally discussed.
Additionally, lawyers representing homeowners should make sure the lender’s representative at mediation has — or is in direct contact with the person who has — authority to approve loan modifications, or the session will accomplish little, he said.
Other matters discussed at the session included the federal government’s Home Affordable Modification Program, which generally makes homeowners in delinquency eligible for loan modification if their monthly mortgage payment does not exceed 31 percent of the homeowner’s gross monthly income.
Instructor Diane Cipollone warned that being eligible for a HAMP modification does not mean the homeowner is “qualified” for one.
That qualification decision resides primarily with the lender based on its determination that modification would be in its best interest, said Cipollone, director of Civil Justice’s Sustainable Homeownership Project.
Cipollone, as well as DePastina, told the attorneys of the importance of having clients make a strong effort to reduce personal and family expenses to show lenders that modifying the loan is a feasible alternative to foreclosure.
To illustrate the point, DePastina recalled a conversation he had with a client facing foreclosure who nevertheless had just bought a car, much to the lawyer’s dismay.
“What efforts have you made to get rid of this car?” DePastina had hinted to the client.
“I like it,” objected the client.
“Do you want to live in it?” DePastina retorted, bringing laughter to the conference room.
The approximately 50-person audience was the latest in a group of about 1,100 attorneys who have attended the pro bono training sessions in the 27 months since Court of Appeals Chief Judge Robert M. Bell called on bar members to voluntarily help Maryland residents caught up in the foreclosure crisis.