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ACLU files court challenge to Lee County’s “mass foreclosure court”

by Christine Stapleton
Full copy of the ACLU lawsuit at

The American Civil Liberties Union filed a petition today in an appeals court accusing the so-called “rocket-docket” foreclosure courts in Lee County of denying homeowners their rights to defend their homes against foreclosure.

In a press release, ACLU staff attorney Larry Schwartztol said: “Operating against the backdrop of well-documented disarray and fraud in mortgage documentation, the shortcuts taken in Lee County courts mean that homeowners may never have a meaningful opportunity to refute faulty evidence supposedly supporting foreclosure. By elevating speed over accuracy, Lee County subjects homeowners to foreclosure proceedings that violate the due process rights guaranteed in the Constitution.”

Lee county has the highest percentage of homes in foreclosure in Florida, with one of every 288 homes in foreclosure. In 2008, the courts created the “mass foreclosure docket” to hear  foreclosure cases.

The petition for a writ of certiorari was filed on behalf of Georgi Merrigan, whose home in Cape Coral went into foreclosure after her husband suffered massive injuries in a car accident. Merrigan left her job as a flight and ground paramedic to care full time for her husband. She now works 4 jobs and attends nursing school, according to the petition.

“From the onset, these procedures were designed to push foreclosure  cases through the litigation process as fast as possible even though Lee County judges were aware of the extraordinary level of fraud and disarray in foreclosure-related paperwork,” according to the petition. Clearing the backlog of cases is the priority of the foreclosure docket and comes “at the expense of compliance with procedural rules.”

Among the affidavits in the 432-page appendix attached to the petition are statements from Palm Beach County foreclosure defense attorneys who have cases in Lee County. Tom Ice, a Royal Palm Beach attorney, said his firm has handled 821 foreclosure cases throughout the state in the last three years, including nine in Lee County.

“Judges in foreclosure cases in Lee County give every indication that they regularly disregard basic procedural norms,” Ice wrote in his affidavit. “Although we have cases pending in 25 counties around the state, only in Lee County have we had to contemplate the possibility of ceasing to practice in front of a certain court.”

Melva Rozier, a West Palm Beach foreclosure defense attorney, said she has appeared in Lee County foreclosure court three times. While waiting for her case to be called she observed dozens of other foreclosure cases: “Typically, each trial lasts only about three minutes.”

In several summary judgment hearing in which the homeowner did not have an attorney, the banks’ lawyers appeared in front of the judge while the homeowner “sits in the gallery, out of earshot” of discussions between the judge and the banks’ attorneys., Rozier wrote in her affidavit.

Michael Olenick, a West Palm Beach lawyer, software engineer and CEO of Legalprise, a data analysis firm, analzyed over 2.4 million docket entries from foreclosure cases in Lee County. Olenick found 6,950 final judgments signed less than 20 days after homeowners had filed evidence disputing the foreclosure.

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