ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
The mortgage settlement announced today began in Florida. In December of 2009, a Florida lawyer deposed an employee for a bank who admitted to signing hundreds of mortgage documents in one day all without reading them. It was dubbed robo-signing. Soon, lawyers across the country were using evidence of systematic fraud in the mortgage industry to have foreclosure cases dismissed. NPR's Greg Allen reports from Miami that some of those lawyers think today's settlement lets the mortgage industry off too easily.
GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: Tom Ice is the lawyer in Florida's Palm Beach County who uncovered and named robo-signing. From the beginning, he says he realized this was more than just a paperwork problem.
TOM ICE: I suspected then, I suspect now that we were really just touching the tip of the iceberg.
ALLEN: Other defense attorneys around the country began using Ice's deposition and started conducting their own investigations. As judges reviewed the cases, they found mortgages that had been improperly recorded and assigned. In many cases, Ice says there's an unanswered, nagging question.
ICE: Who is the real owner of the note? Who is really entitled to the home at the end of the day?
ALLEN: This settlement, Ice says, doesn't unravel that question. It does, however, set new federal standards aimed at eliminating the problem in the future. But for those who've already lost their home, Ice says this settlement does little. Divided among 750,000 potential claimants, the settlement provides about $2,000 for robo-signing victims who have already lost their homes. Nicole DuPuy also thinks that part of the settlement falls short. She's from Cape Coral and lost her home to foreclosure in 2010 even though her bank had approved a mortgage modification and she was making monthly payments.
NICOLE DUPUY: Oh, it's an insult. Two thousand dollars, generally, doesn't even provide enough money to get into a rental property, because you have to do first and last a security deposit.
ALLEN: But the largest and most significant part of today's settlement is some $17 billion set aside to reduce loan principal for homeowners who owe more than their house is worth. Ice expects the problem here will be the same as with previous loan modification programs. Because of loan securitization, mortgages often are held by many institutions. Ice has found it's often difficult to find someone who has the authority to modify the loan.
ICE: They either don't know who the real owner is, and they're hidden behind the curtain. Or if you find the real owner, it's a trust. And a trust doesn't have the power to negotiate the loan.
ALLEN: Homeowner Nicole DuPuy thought an earlier federal loan modification program was the answer to her problems. She was disappointed with that one and expects little this time as well.
DUPUY: To me, it's just more rhetoric. If you continue to do the same thing over and over again but you don't change how you're doing it, it's still the same program.
ALLEN: The settlement announced today and the principal reduction program that's part of it is different, however. For one thing, it's mandatory - billions of dollars set aside by the largest mortgage lenders to settle a serious legal case. And how it's administered will be overseen and followed up on by federal and state officials. Kevin Jursinski is a lawyer in the epicenter of Florida's foreclosure crisis - Lee County on the Gulf Coast. He represents both homeowners and mortgage companies in cases where there's no conflict.
He likes this settlement. He thinks the principal reduction program will be much more successful than earlier loan modification efforts, but agrees, it may present problems for the banks.
KEVIN JURSINSKI: They're going to have to do this, so they're going to have to force it upon themselves to go back to all the securitized loans they have and say, look, we have to get together and identify. We're going to do this principal reduction. We've got to put so much money in.
ALLEN: Defense lawyers say homeowners who don't accept payouts under this settlement can still take their cases to court where questions about robo-signing and fraudulent documents will still have to be answered. Greg Allen, NPR news, Miami.