Plaintiffs attorney Charles Pekor has carved out a new business niche in the mortgage foreclosure crisis, and he’s going after it with all the resources of his small Buckhead law firm.
“Lockout lawsuits” is the name Pekor has given to the actions he’s taking against companies that seize the contents of foreclosed homes without taking proper legal steps to notify homeowners that they’re about to be evicted.
He said his clients have returned home from work or appointments after foreclosure sales to find all their possessions gone and their locks changed. One family’s wrapped Christmas gifts were taken from under their tree. Another family lost their grandfather’s rocking chair and their grandmother’s handmade blanket, along with family photos. Another family said their horse was taken from where it had been grazing inside a fenced pasture.
“It destroys people,” said Pekor. He has taken the cases on contingency and hopes to pursue them either to trial or settlements that will pay not only for the value of the contents of the homes but also for pain and suffering damages. He said he’s had early settlement offers, but they were far too low. His response: “I appreciate that, but you have just stolen someone’s life.”
So far, Pekor has filed three such lawsuits in U.S. District Court for former homeowners around metro Atlanta. He said he is preparing to file two others and is receiving calls almost daily from all over Georgia about more potential cases. He said he doesn’t know how many are out there, but even a fraction of the thousands of foreclosures in progress would be significant.
“Foreclosure does not give the right to possession,” Pekor said, noting that state law requires a formal dispossessory process with notice to the resident unless the home has been abandoned. “Nothing gives them the right to steal property out of the house.”
Pekor acknowledged that most banks, mortgage companies and mortgage servicers take proper steps, filing legal notice of a dispossession after a foreclosure and giving homeowners notice of when they have to be out of the house. Many even offer the homeowners “cash for keys” to speed up and smooth out the process of vacatingthe homes.
But with so many foreclosures in Georgia moving at such a “fast and furious” pace, not all companies are taking proper steps, Pekor said. He alleged that some mortgage companies or other loan services are hiring companies that have “a truck, strong backs and a locksmith” to back up to the door and empty the homes. Part of the deal is that the movers can have the contents to sell, use or take to a landfill. By the time residents ask what happen to their possessions, everything is gone.
In conversation, Pekor has begun to call the moving or “trash out” companies “local goons” who work for big national banks or mortgage companies. In the lawsuits, Pekor calls what they do “breaking, entering, looting and wrongful eviction.”
Two of Pekor’s cases have been filed in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia. The cases are: Sidnetta Smith v. Bank of America, No. 1:12-CV-01182; and Dana Bussell v. American Home Mortgage Servicing, No. 1:12-CV-0129.
One has been filed in U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Georgia. The case is Rhonda Bruce v. Fannie Mae, No. 3:12-CV-00090-CDL.
Each complaint has multiple defendants, starting with a mortgage company and going on to the moving companies, which have “services” or “environmental” in their names. Individuals who work for the move-out companies also are listed, or are named as John Doe defendants if their identities are unknown.
“These are complicated cases,” Pekor said. He said he can only take a fraction of the ones he’s hearing about. He’s working with two attorneys in his firm, in collaboration with friends at Carlin Phillips and Andrew Garcia at Phillips & Garcia in Dartmouth, Mass., who have done a high volume of illegal lockout lawsuits along with their wrongful foreclosure business.
Phillips and Garcia were not available for comment, but they are named in the court documents.
In the first lawsuit, Sidnetta Smith named two mortgage companies as defendants: Bank of America and Freedom Mortgage Corp. Her lawsuit alleges her Rockdale County home was wrongfully foreclosed after she refinanced her Taylor, Bean & Whitaker Mortgage Co. loan with Freedom. The suit said her payments were current, and that Freedom paid TBW the balance on the loan.
Bank of America took over the loan from TBW and began notifying her of late payments. Despite repeated attempts to show that she had refinanced and paid off her loan, the lawsuit said, BOA foreclosed on her property. The lawsuit alleged wrongful foreclosure, because BOA did not any longer hold title to the loan.
Attorneys for Bank of America at McGuireWoods declined comment and referred the inquiry to the corporate office, where a spokesman said he could not comment on pending litigation. He said he does not know whether Smith’s payoff to TBW was part of thousands of loans payments that were held by FDIC for two years after the takeover of TBW.
“The stress of the almost unbelievable position she was in caused medical problems, depression and substantial emotional stress to Ms. Smith,” the lawsuit said.
In September 2010, Smith received a letter telling her that BOA had sold her home in foreclosure on the Rockdale County courthouse steps and bought it back, according to the lawsuit. The complaint said the letter ordered her to vacate, but that BOA never filed a dispossessory order.
“In November 2010, Ms. Smith began the process of moving herself, her children, and some of her belongings to North Carolina,” the lawsuit said. Pekor said she had relatives there who took her in. She left most of what she had to be picked up on a second trip.
“When Ms. Smith returned to the property in December, all of her belongings has been removed from the house and the locks were changed. Ms. Smith was unable to gain entry to her home, and was never able to recover her property, which was stolen,” the lawsuit said, alleging “wrongful dispossession.”
After BOA and Freedom, Smith’s lawsuit names as defendants LPS Field Services Inc. and John Doe defendants 1-5. Freedom’s attorney, James Blum Jr. of Beloin, Brown, Blum & Wise, declined to comment. Field’s attorney, Carl Hugo Anderson Jr. of Hawkins Parnell Thackston & Young, could not be reached.
In the second lawsuit, plaintiffs Dana and Clayton Bussell said they were told they would be given notice to move out after their Washington County home was foreclosed by American Home Mortgage, but were never given notice. Instead, their suit said, nine days after the January 2011 foreclosure, they returned home to find all of their family’s possessions gone.
The lawsuit alleged “wrongful breaking, entering, looting and wrongful eviction.” The suit named among the missing contents jewelry, family photos, a blanket made by a deceased grandmother, a rocking chair belonging to a grandfather, children’s toys from the front porch, and a living horse and its saddles. The suit said it was “impossible for any reasonable person to believe the home was abandoned.”
The third lawsuit, Rhonda Bruce v. Fannie Mae, was filed in July and does not yet have attorneys of record named for the defendants, which include: Fannie Mae, Chase Home Financial, Reston Inc., Realaware LLC, L. Realty Inc., and employees of the companies that allegedly moved out the Bruce family possessions.
The Bruce lawsuit alleged the family returned to their foreclosed Social Circle home from an appointment in Atlanta 28 days after the foreclosure to find most of their belongings gone. Then the family was confronted in the home by employees of the move-out company coming back for more.
The lawsuits did not name dollar amounts to be recovered, but said only that the damages exceed $75,000.