Who Do the Foreclosure Mills Represent?
I received a motion in today’s mail that appears inocuous but is an eye-opener on many levels. Butler & Hoesch, P.A., moved to withdraw as counsel and sought a charging lien on the Plaintiff’s recovery in a pending foreclosure case. The Plaintiff in the case is a securitized trust; Wilmington Trust Company is Trustee. In its Motion to Withdraw, though, the foreclosure mill makes no mention of Wilmington. Rather, the mill says it used to represent the servicer, Litton Loan Servicing, Inc. but that Litton has been sold to Ocwen Financial Corporation and that it has no attorney-client relationship with Ocwen.
Are you confused yet? Read the motion so you see what I mean. This foreclosure mill has been litigating a foreclosure lawsuit on behalf of Wilmington, but as far as I can tell, has never represented Wilmington. Moreover, although the mill talks about its relationships (or lack thereof) with Litton and Ocwen, neither Litton nor Ocwen is a party in the case.
So who, exactly, is the mill trying to withdraw from representing? Presumbly Wilmington, the Plaintiff, as that’s the only plaintiff in this case. But the mill’s own motion makes it clear it has no attorney-client relationship with Wilmington anyway.
Call me crazy, but shouldn’t the mill have an attorney-client relationship with the party who is prosecuting the lawsuit?
The unseemly nature of this aside, I see a few significant issues which merit discussion:
First, the Florida Supreme Court requires via Fla.R.Civ.P. 1.110(b) that the Plaintiff verify its Complaint in all residential foreclosure cases. Given the relationship between the foreclosure mills, the servicers, and the trustees, it seems clear the required verifications aren’t being done by the plaintiffs, but by the servicers. Many learned judges in Florida before whom I appear have made it clear that verification by a servicer is insufficient – the complaints are supposed to be verified by the “plaintiff.” Remember, the Rule doesn’t permit verification by a third party, but by “the plaintiff.” In fact, Shapiro & Fishman moved for rehearing of the Florida Supreme Court’s ruling on this precise issue, and the Court rejected its motion.
This prompts a significant question – if verification is required by the plaintiff, and the attorneys representing the plaintiff have no relationship with the plaintiff, how on earth can they get the required verification? Undoubtedly, this is why the mills ask for 90 days or 120 days to get the requisite verification (when complaints are dismissed with leave to amend), as they often don’t even represent the plaintiff prosecuting the foreclosure case! Literally, the mills are in the position of calling up an entity who they don’t represent and saying “You don’t know me, but I’m representing you in this foreclosure case, and I need you to verify under penalty of perjury that the allegations we’ve raised are correct.”
A bit awkward, eh? Yet that’s the position in which the mills have put themselves (in a large percentage of foreclosure cases in Florida).
Second, though I’m hesitant to call out others on ethical issues where the answer is not black-and-white, I struggle to see how the mills can prosecute lawsuits on behalf of plaintiffs without the plaintiffs’ knowledge or consent in a manner consistent with The Rules Regulating The Florida Bar. I’ve spoken with the Bar on this, and given our conversation, I’m not prepared to say it’s impossible, but I will say this. Personally, I couldn’t imagine appearing as counsel for a party in any lawsuit without that party’s knowledge or consent, much less doing so on a widespread, systematic basis.
Think about it this way. An attorney is able to act on behalf of a client because the attorney’s actions bind the client. Stipulations, representations, court filings, etc. … we as attorneys are, quite literally, agents for our clients. If a client is going to be bound in this manner, the attorney’s authority to represent/bind the client must be clearly established. This is why, for example, there are strict rules about how an attorney may appear as counsel, failing which the attorney’s actions don’t bind the client. See Pasco County v. Quail Hollow Props., Inc., 693 So. 2d 92 (Fla. 2d DCA 1997).
If these foreclosure attorneys don’t have an attorney-client relationship with the plaintiff, it seems to me they cannot represent the plaintiff at all and should be disqualified from doing so. After all, how can an attorney bind the plaintiff when the attorney has no relationship with the plaintiff? Why should any court accept the representations or stipulations of a plaintiff’s attorney when that attorney has no relationship with the plaintiff?
There must be a better answer than “there are lots of foreclosure cases in Florida, and this is just how it’s done.”
Third, on the issue of a charging lien, Florida law plainly requires that a charging lien be signed, in writing, by the party against whom the lien is sought. How does any foreclosure mill expect a court to award a lien in its favor on the recovery of a securitized trust (in this case, Wilmington), when the attorney has no relationship with Wilmington and no signed fee agreement? Should Wilmington really have to pay some of its recovery to a law firm with whom it has no relationship? And no signed fee agreement?
Fourth, you want to know why the Florida Supreme Court’s mediation program failed? Take another look at this motion. How can anyone expect to get a binding agreement with Wilmington Trust Company when the attorneys prosecuting this foreclosure case don’t even represent Wilmington? This is a good illustration why loan modifications and reasonable settlements are so hard to get – the appropriate parties aren’t even at the bargaining table.
Fifth, when the plaintiff alleges in the complaint that it is the owner and holder of the Note and Mortgage, what exactly does that mean? Taking plaintiff’s allegations literally, the plaintiff is the owner/holder. But in all of these cases where the entity driving the suit is actually the servicer, it seems that the servicer is the “holder” of the Note, not the Plaintiff. Remember, to be the holder, the “plaintiff” must be in “possession” of the Note. See Fla. Stat. 671.201(21). Are these plaintiffs really in possession when they don’t even know a case has been filed? I suppose it’s possible, but when the Note is subsequently put into the court file, how did it get there? If it’s from the servicer, as I’d think it must since the servicer is the only one who knows about the case, then doesn’t that show the servicer was in possession, not the Plaintiff? And that the servicer was the “holder,” not the Plaintiff? Actually, no – where the Note is specifically indorsed to the plaintiff, the servicer isn’t the holder, either. In that situation, the servicer has possession, but the plaintiff has the indorsement, so neither one is the “holder.”
So what’s the solution to all of this madness? It’s two-fold: (1) Require verifications by the plaintiff (not the servicer, the plaintiff) and dismiss all cases without it; and (2) Require the foreclosure mills to have attorney-client relationships with the plaintiff (not the servicer, the plaintiff prosecuting the case) and disqualify all attorneys who lack such a relationship. That sounds harsh, but it’s ridiculous to inundate our courts with garbage pleadings that languish for years without a resolution when the parties prosecuting them don’t even know they’ve been filed.
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