Senior news editor
updated 12:28 p.m. ET, Wed., Jan. 28, 2009
Luis Molina is not a lawyer and he has never played one on TV.
But that didn’t stop him from putting on his best suit, marching into a Miami courtroom this month and going up against an attorney with 30 years of experience to stop a foreclosure proceeding against his family’s home. Molina did such a good job of representing himself that the judge in the case thought he was a lawyer and punctuated his ruling in Molina's favor by tearing up the other side’s motion for summary judgment and throwing it over his shoulder.
“I felt like a million dollars,” Molina told msnbc.com, describing his day in Judge David C. Miller's courtroom in Florida’s 11th Judicial Circuit Court. “I felt like if there was anything in my life that I had done correctly, it had to be that. Every single lawyer after the fight came over and shook my hand.”
Molina, a former car salesman and deli owner whose formal education ended with a diploma from Teaneck High School in New Jersey, is among a growing number of American homeowners representing themselves as what are called "pro se" — a Latin phrase meaning “for oneself” — litigants in foreclosure proceedings.
There’s no way to know how many pro se foreclosure cases are currently moving through U.S. courts, but anecdotal accounts from lawyers and others indicate the number is growing along with the nation’s mortgage crisis, which has reached unprecedented proportions.
A myriad of issues
Along with trained and licensed attorneys, pro se litigants are forcing courts to look at myriad foreclosure issues that go far beyond whether or not a loan is being properly repaid, including allegations of predatory lending practices and the fundamental question of who actually has the right to foreclose.
“There’s a surge in the number of pro se litigants,” said Arizona attorney Neil F. Garfield, who runs a Web site called “Living Lies” that offers information to homeowners facing foreclosure and lawyers defending foreclosure lawsuits. He said traffic to his Web site had increased from 1,000 hits a month at this time last year to more than 67,000 last month.
Eric Halperin, director of the Center for Responsible Lending in Washington, D.C., said, “I haven’t done any statistical study to know whether there’s an increase, but it makes sense given that there’s a lot more foreclosures.”
More than 2.3 million U.S. properties were involved in foreclosure proceedings last year, almost double the number in 2007 and more than triple the 2006 volume, according to RealtyTrac, an online foreclosure information service. Even more foreclosures are expected this year. While many occur in the states that normally handle the process outside court, including California and Arizona, many occur in the 20 states where foreclosure is only accomplished via a lawsuit, as in New York and Florida.
Driven by finances
The reasons that foreclosure defendants end up representing themselves are usually financial. “A lot of lawyers out there have been extremely reluctant to take homeowners’ cases,” said Garfield. “They figure if the person can’t pay their mortgage, they can’t pay their lawyer.”
Even when homeowners in foreclosure can show errors by their lenders and mortgage servicers, many lawyers still aren't interested in representing them, according to Halperin.
“A lot of the time, what you’re getting is loan forgiveness,” he said. “There’s no cash for you to take a piece of. It’s challenging. ... I don’t think there’s an adequate number of attorneys who both are trained and will take foreclosure cases.”
More on the mortgage mess by Mike Stuckey
Molina and other pro se litigants told msnbc.com that when they found attorneys willing to take their cases, the lawyers didn’t know a lot of basic information about foreclosure defense that is available on Web sites like Garfield’s “Living Lies” and “Mortgage Servicing Fraud.”
Mario Kenny, another Miami resident who is fighting foreclosure pro se and writing about his experience online, said the cost of professional help is too high. “A lawyer wants too much money — ... $5,000, $10,000, $15,000,” he said.
Besides, Kenny said, the legal profession is doing more to aid foreclosures than avert them.
“They are stopping us and getting in our way,” he charged, referring to what he described as a warning by someone with the Florida Bar Association that advice on his Web site bordered on practicing law without a license. “I don’t practice law, I don’t have any clients, I don’t charge anybody,” said Kenny, a 52-year-old fashion designer.
The bar association, which regulates the state’s 85,000 lawyers, had no record of Kenny being contacted or investigated. Lori Holcomb, the bar’s counsel for unlicensed practice of law, said that while the bar is more likely to get complaints on companies that have gone into business to do this, rather than individuals, the bar investigates all complaints.