ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.
MELISSA BLOCK, host:
And I'm Melissa Block.
One of the nation's largest mortgage lenders, Bank of America, plans to resume the foreclosure process in 23 states by early next week, but it says it will do so with new safeguards to be sure their paperwork is legal and accurate. Bank of America is among several major lenders that froze or delayed foreclosure proceedings because of evidence that legal documents had been falsified or handled carelessly.
To find out how these document troubles have affected the pace of foreclosure proceedings, NPR's Greg Allen visited one of the nation's busiest foreclosure courts in Fort Myers, Florida.
GREG ALLEN: Among attorneys, homeowners, even judges, it's known as the rocket docket. Since 2008, courts here in Lee County have been hearing as many as 200 foreclosures each day.
Judge JAMES THOMPSON (Lee County Circuit Court): Okay, which one are we talking about now?
Unidentified Woman: Number 14, Wells Fargo versus Gregory Benetti(ph).
ALLEN: Judge James Thompson is one of four senior judges brought back from retirement specifically to hear foreclosures in Fort Myers. He's hearing a request from defense attorney Ryan Dugan to dismiss a foreclosure. It involves a property on which Wells Fargo says it has the mortgage. Dugan says the paperwork shows it's owned by another company.
Mr. RYAN DUGAN (Attorney): My point, your honor, is that there's nothing that was attached that shows anything to support the transfer from United Mortgage Corp. to Wells Fargo...
ALLEN: This kind of missing paperwork is routine in foreclosure courts here in Florida and across the country. Dugan says requiring the banks to find the missing documents buys time for defendants to negotiate with their lenders or stay a few more months in their home but rarely changes the end result.
Now, it appears as if some problems with mortgage documents may be more widespread and more systemic than previously suspected. Multiple federal agencies and attorneys general of all 50 states are investigating.
But here in Fort Myers, even attorneys like Dugan, who represent homeowners, say the new questions about mortgage documents are likely to do little to slow the momentum of the rocket docket.
Mr. DUGAN: It is going to be a road bump. The question is, is it a small pebble or is it a large speed bump? But either way, it's only going to delay it for a while.
ALLEN: That's not to say that everyone here in Fort Myers is happy with how the courts handle foreclosures, take Nicole DePuy. After she was forced to take a pay cut in her job with the Lee County schools, she began having trouble making her mortgage payment and began negotiating with her lender, Bank of America. After more than a year, she says, in January, Bank of America finally agreed to modify her loan.
Ms. NICOLE DEPUY: Sent the payments in. Everything was wonderful. I'm thrilled. And March 31st, I had a note stuck on my door from a gentleman that had bought my house at auction the day before. So Bank of America never contacted the courts to let them know that we were in a modification and to not sell my house.
ALLEN: DePuy immediately hired a lawyer and went back to the rocket docket with a motion seeking to overturn the foreclosure. The judge ruled against her and said it was a justified sale.
Ms. DEPUY: The judge actually admitted that she had not read my affidavit or any of the information because she had too many cases to listen to that day. So I think that was a big part of the problem right there.
ALLEN: DePuy lost the house and her good credit rating.
Judges and other officials in Lee County are unapologetic about the rocket docket. They point proudly to the backlog of foreclosures they've cleared. From a high of 25,000, the courts are now down to about 14,000 foreclosures.
The clerk of courts in Lee County, Charlie Green, says processing foreclosures quickly gets them back on the market where they can be resold and help Lee County begin rebuilding its battered economy. He sees the freeze and the issue of false affidavits as just a temporary setback.
For homeowners, Green says, there really is just one pertinent question.
Mr. CHARLIE GREEN (Clerk of Courts, Lee County): Did you make your payment in a timely manner and have you been a good mortgagor? If you haven't made your payments, you're in default by definition. Now, if there's some technicality that the bank should have done, shame on them and they should probably be punished for that. But the underlying thing is: Did you make your payment?
Mr. KEVIN JURSINSKI (Attorney): With all due respect to the judiciary, I think it's a blemish on our court system.
ALLEN: Attorney Kevin Jursinski has handled foreclosures for nearly 30 years. He believes that Lee County's rocket docket takes shortcuts that deny many homeowners their right to due process. Disclosure of the new problems, Jursinski says, means homeowners and their attorneys can no longer automatically accept affidavits as fact.
Now, he says, he'll have to begin routinely requiring bank officers to appear for depositions.
Mr. JURSINSKI: That makes it a longer process. I've got one coming up in November. We're going to ask now to delay the case. We're going to have to take a deposition wherever they're from. If they're from New York, they're going to have to fly here. Again, more costs, more delays.
ALLEN: Court officials in Fort Myers say even with those delays, they expect the rocket docket will soon return to its normal speed and efficiency.
Greg Allen, NPR News, Miami.