By Eric Carlson, Center for Media and Democracy
In July 2008, Florida lawyer Lynn Szymoniak received foreclosure papers on her home. Szymoniak had encountered financial difficulties after spending several years caring for her ailing mother while simultaneously fighting her own health problems, and failed to re-negotiate her adjustable-rate mortgage with her lender.
But Szymoniak, a former Certified Fraud Examiner with FBI training, noticed something strange on her foreclosure documents. The company servicing her mortgage was located in Dallas, nowhere near Linda Green, the Georgia woman whose signature validated Lynn's mortgage assignment. So Szymoniak began accumulating and comparing mortgage papers from county recording offices across the country in an attempt to make sense of the bizarre documentation.
Her investigation ultimately uncovered the industry-wide practice of robo-signing: employees at document processing companies (also known as signature sweatshops) pretend to be executives at major banks, like Bank of America and Wells Fargo, to sign off on hundreds of thousands of foreclosure affidavits. According to Szymoniak's calculations, "Linda Green" appeared as an officer of at least 20 different banks and mortgage companies, accounting for almost $128 billion in mortgages. Szymoniak's work helped blow the "robo-signing" scandal wide open and illuminated the fraud plaguing the foreclosure system. Since then a variety of other illegal practices have come to light and untold thousands of consumers have been affected, generating investigations by 50 state attorneys general, U.S. Justice Department officials and regulatory agencies. Yet so far, no one has been thrown behind bars.
Discovering Green's ubiquitous signature generated dozens of lawsuits and media exposes. It made Szymoniak a hero to thousands of victims of foreclosure fraud. 60 Minutes even featured her efforts and interviewed male and female "Linda Greens" in a recent broadcast.
But big banks didn't appreciate having their dirty laundry aired in front of a national audience. Deutsche Bank, which had a case pending against Szymoniak since June 2008, has now come after her graduate student son, suing him for foreclosure at his mother's Palm Beach Gardens residence even though he hasn't lived there in seven years.
Suing her son, who has never held an interest in his mother's loan or property, appears to be a purely retaliatory, move against Szymoniak, whose public presence has pressured banks into ending improper foreclosure practices. The renewed effort to go after Szymoniak -- who had her own foreclosure case against Deutsche Bank dismissed on April 5, only to have it re-filed last week -- is, as she sees it, "way over the top" and obviously a form of "harassment." In fact, the case wasn't even properly serviced. After dismissing a process server from her driveway, Szymoniak found a FedEx package wedged under her doormat. As she puts it, banks have a "very warped interpretation of the rules of civil procedure."
Two law firms have already offered to represent Szymoniak's son, Mark Cullen, a Carnegie Mellon graduate and New School graduate student, for free. The bank must also know that winning a case against Cullen, who has no connection to the property or the mortgage, would be nearly impossible. However, Szymoniak knows the lawsuit will permanently stain her son's credit record, making future borrowing all the more difficult. If he applies for a loan, a security clearance or even if he is called for jury duty, he will have to say he was sued for foreclosure.
There isn't much that surprises Szymoniak about bank behavior. Courts, she says, "have constantly bent the rules to favor the banks," often deploying empty rhetoric asserting that forcing people out of their houses somehow benefits the American economy. Even though Deutsche Bank case against Szymoniak was dismissed due to missing, faulty paperwork, when the complaint was refiled it was again riddled with problems. For instance, a footnote under the verification signature said the verification only applied to paragraphs 1-8 in the 18-paragraph complaint. Szymoniak said she had never seen a partially verified document in the 31 years she's practiced law.
Aside from fighting her own legal battles, Szymoniak receives "thousands of calls a week" from people claiming she is their "only hope" against banks and mortgage servicing companies. Szymoniak knows though that if she is their only hope, then "we're all in trouble." New guidelines protecting servicemen from eviction are a wonderful step forward, she says, but special protection should also be given to people who "through no fault of their own have had their investment cut in half by big banks." Courts have instead chosen to protect the banks, allowing bank attorneys to appear by telephone, permitting the use of illegitimate documents, and otherwise creating an uneven playing field that disadvantages the average American homeowner.
Deutsche Bank is a German-based multinational corporation with offices in the United States. According to ProPublica, it was the beneficiary of over $1 trillion in short term government loans and supports during the financial crisis under various secret programs run by the Federal Reserve. Indeed, it has only recently been revealed that foreign banks were some of the biggest beneficiaries of U.S. taxpayer assistance.
While the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) has abjectly failed to come to the aid of foreclosure fraud victims, DOJ recently sued Deutsche Bank AG, for defrauding the federal government by "repeatedly" lying to a federal agency when securing taxpayer-backed insurance for thousands of worthless mortgages. The price DOJ wants to extract? $1 billion -- chump change for one of the world's ten largest banks.
Unfortunately, the personal price extracted from Szymoniak's son may be much greater.
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