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Homes at Risk, and No Help From Lawyers

David Streitfeld |The New York Times
Tuesday, 21 Dec 2010 | 6:36 AM ET

In California, where foreclosures are more abundant than in any other state, homeowners trying to win a loan modification have always had a tough time.

Bank owned home
AP
Bank owned home

Now they face yet another obstacle: hiring a lawyer.

Sharon Bell, a retiree who lives in Laguna Niguel, southeast of Los Angeles, needs a modification to keep her home. She says she is scared of her bank and its plentiful resources, so much so that she cannot even open its certified letters inquiring where her mortgage payments may be. Yet the half-dozen lawyers she has called have refused to represent her.

“They said they couldn’t help,” said Ms. Bell, 63. “But I’ve got to find help, because I’m dying every day.”

Lawyers throughout California say they have no choice but to reject clients like Ms. Bell because of a new state law that sharply restricts how they can be paid. Under the measure, passed overwhelmingly by the State Legislature and backed by the state bar association, lawyers who work on loan modifications cannot receive any money until the work is complete. The bar association says that under the law, clients cannot put retainers in trust accounts.

The law, which has few parallels in other states, was devised to eliminate swindles in which modification firms made promises about what their lawyers could do, charged hefty fees and then disappeared. But foreclosure specialists say there has been an unintended consequence: the honest lawyers can no longer afford to assist Ms. Bell and all the others who feel helpless before lenders that they see as elusive, unyielding and skilled at losing paperwork.

The revelations three months ago that large banks were sloppy and negligent in preparing foreclosure documents underscore just how important it is for distressed homeowners to have representation, lawyers and consumer advocates say. Homeowners whose cases were handled improperly have little way of knowing it. Even if they found out, they would be hard-pressed to challenge a lender without a lawyer.

“Consumers just don’t know what is going on,” said Walter Hackett, a former banker who is now a lawyer for a nonprofit service in Riverside. “They get a piece of paper saying they are going to lose their homes and they freak out.”

The problem for lawyers is that even a simple modification, in which the loan is restructured so the borrower can afford the monthly payments, is a marathon, putting off their payday for months if not years. If the bank refuses to come to terms, the client may file for bankruptcy. Then the lawyer will never be paid.

Alice M. Graham, a lawyer in Marina del Rey, said a homeowner in default recently tried to hire her. When Ms. Graham declined, the despairing owner begged her in vain to accept payments under the table.

“The banks have all the lawyers they want, and the consumers are helpless,” Ms. Graham said.

In some states, including New York and Florida, foreclosure proceedings are overseen by courts. In California, the process is more of a private matter between the bank and the homeowner. Through Sept. 30, lenders filed notices of default on 229,843 homes in California this year, according to the research firm MDA DataQuick.

The length of time California households spend in foreclosure, which was rising as owners pursued modifications, fell in the third quarter to 8.7 months, from 9.1 months in the second quarter. That could indicate that the absence of defense lawyers is beginning to accelerate the process.

While lawyers for nonprofits like Mr. Hackett continue to represent clients, they are too overwhelmed to help everyone. “A homeowner in California is going to have an extraordinarily difficult time finding an attorney,” he said.

That group includes Ms. Bell, who owned two properties free and clear and then gave in to a friend’s urging to “put your money to work.” That friend was an agent, and soon Ms. Bell owned two more properties and was making unsecured loans.

The loans went bad, the investments went bust, and Ms. Bell is trying to salvage her home. She wants an advocate but is reluctant to respond to any of the solicitations that fill her mailbox. “I know better,” she said.

Many people did not. Defaulting owners saw television commercials or heard radio ads where a lawyer promised relief. They handed over a few thousand dollars and heard no more.

Two years ago, the state bar association had seven complaints of misconduct in loan modifications. By March 2009, there were more than 100 complaints, and a task force was formed to deal with the problem. Soon, there were thousands of complaints.

It was a public relations disaster. The president of the bar association wrote in a column last year that “hundreds, and perhaps thousands, of California lawyers” were victimizing people “at the most vulnerable point in their lives.”

Politicians heard complaints, too. Ron Calderon, a state senator who represents several communities east of Los Angeles, sponsored a bill that prohibits advance payments for modifications and required lawyers to warn clients that they could do the job themselves without professional assistance. Lenders were supportive of the bill, Senator Calderon said.

It passed 36 to 4 in September 2009. The maximum punishment is a $10,000 fine and a year in jail.

The law is working well, Senator Calderon said. “You do not need a lawyer,” he said.

Mark Stone, a 56-year-old general contractor in Sierra Madre, feels differently. A few years ago, he got sick with hepatitis C. Unable to work full time, he began to miss mortgage payments. The drugs he was taking left him “a little confused,” he said.

Mr. Stone knew that his condition put him at a disadvantage in negotiations with his bank. So he hired Gregory Royston, a real estate lawyer in Redondo Beach. It took Mr. Royston nearly a year, but he restructured the loan.

Without the lawyer, Mr. Stone said, “I’d be living under a bridge.”

The legal bill, paid in advance, was $3,500. “Worth every penny,” said Mr. Stone, who is now back at work.

Mr. Royston said winning modifications was never easy and often impossible. “The banks stymie the borrower, and they really stymie any third party who works on behalf of the borrower,” he said.

A spokesman for the Mortgage Bankers Association said it simply wanted to protect homeowners from fraud. “Be very careful about anyone who wants you to pay them to help you get a loan modification,” said the spokesman, John Mechem.

That advice has never been more true. If any honest lawyers still do modifications, they are lost in a sea of swindles. “This law,” Mr. Royston said, “took the wrong people out of the game.”

Suzan Anderson, supervising trial counsel of the California bar’s special team on loan modification, defended the law, saying that in other types of cases, including personal injury and medical malpractice, the lawyers do not get paid until the end. She acknowledged, however, it was “a very problematical situation.”

As for the swindlers singled out by the law, they appear unfazed. The state bar is investigating 2,000 complaints of modification fraud.

“I wish the law had worked,” Ms. Anderson said.

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