WEST PALM BEACH —
A foreclosure case that loitered in Palm Beach County’s courts for more than four years was over in four minutes last week as judges hustle under a new order to clear dockets of aging files.
In less time than it takes to boil an egg, a judgment against borrower Clara Urgelles set a July 15 auction date for the condominium she bought in 2007. Urgelles put up no defense, didn’t attend the trial, and never called the condo home, according to county homestead exemption records.
Why the case lingered since November 2008 is anybody’s guess _ loans are sold, lawyers change, banks close and paperwork is lost, tossed or flawed.
But the delays are done. In February, Palm Beach County Chief Judge Peter Blanc ordered foreclosures filed before July 1, 2010, be inventoried and set for trial.
Since the hearings began April 15, about 815 trials have been conducted. Another 750 are scheduled to be heard before June 30. Senior judges, brought in especially for foreclosures, are set to hear an additional 915 trials.
“A lot of the older cases have just been sitting, the homes are vacant, the process stalled,” Blanc said. “There is improvement in the new cases, but the ones from 2008, 2009, 2010, I think if a defense was filed, the case got slowed down and the lenders just threw up their hands.”
The quickie trials can last mere moments when the homeowner isn’t fighting to keep the property, and most agree those cases should be ushered swiftly through the system.
But attorneys who say they have legitimate defenses to save a home complain they’re too often limited to 15-minute trials, have hearings set simultaneously so they can’t attend both, see lopsided rulings and are forced to trial when foreclosure alternatives are in negotiations with the bank.
Royal Palm Beach-based foreclosure defense firm Ice Legal has eight trials set for June 26 in two courtrooms. Four trials are set for 15 to 20 minutes. The longest trial is three hours. The firm also has a trial in Miami that day.
“When we object that we cannot possibly try all these cases simultaneously in three different courtrooms, Judge (Diana) Lewis responds ‘hire more attorneys.’” Ice said. “This, of course, flies in the face of the due process consideration that parties have the right to choice of counsel.”
Ice said he typically asks for six hours for a foreclosure trial _ a block of time Lewis was unwilling to set aside during a May 13 hearing on a 2008 case.
“You are not getting six hours. Just put that out of your head,” Lewis said, according to a transcript of the hearing. “And if you can’t do it within an hour, you’re not a trial attorney.”
Blanc defended Lewis, saying Ice’s firm had nine attorneys file pleadings in the case described in the transcript and that the state’s time standard to complete a non-jury civil case is 12 months.
Also, he noted that Palm Beach County’s trial periods cover 20 days, so that if a trial needs more time, judges can schedule it within that period.
“Not only the court, but the attorneys have an obligation to conclude litigation as soon as reasonably possible,” Blanc said. “The court will continue to meet its obligation to try these cases as efficiently as possible while protecting the due process rights of the parties.”
Florida’s courts have grappled with foreclosures since the housing crisis began and cases quickly logjammed. As of March, there were 352,890 foreclosure cases in the court system statewide, including 30,272 in Palm Beach County.
In January, the statewide Foreclosure Initiative Workgroup was formed to find ways to streamline the process. The group of judges and court administrators issued a report in April that included adding magistrates in addition to senior judges.
But some courts had already taken action on their own.
Miami-Dade County judges began setting trial dates for lagging foreclosure cases in the fall. Attorneys complain the trials are cattle calls and fear the same is happening in Palm Beach County.
On the fourth floor of the county courthouse, trial lists _ 40-cases long on some days _ are posted to a dry erase board. Lawyers huddle around the sheets, checking schedules and judge rotations.
“The courts are under a lot of pressure to make sure these cases get done,” said attorney Charles Neustein, who was defending a homeowner last week in a 2008 case involving an Acreage property. Bought in 2007 for $567,000, the 3,600-square-foot home had a total market value last year of $196,732.
Neustein believes the current system tilts in favor of the banks, with judges deciding cases from the fundamental belief that a borrower who hasn’t paid back the debt can’t live in a house for free.
“Morally, that may be the right thing, but they still have to follow the law,” Neustein said.
If a lender and homeowner are working on a loan modification, Blanc said a judge may order a judgment be written so if the modification fails it will revert to an automatic ruling in favor of the bank. Other attorneys have said judges have issued rulings, but given lengthy sale dates so a foreclosure alternative can be negotiated before the auction.
While homeowner attorneys worry the banks have the upper hand in the rapid trials, that’s not always the case.
In courtroom 10-D last week, Neustein faced off against a bank attorney who showed up without a witness to verify foreclosure documents filed in the 2008 Acreage case.
“They’ve had five years to get a witness to testify. I think this case should be dismissed,” Neustein told Judge Catherine Brunson.
She agreed. Case dismissed. And because the case is butting up against a five-year statute of limitations to try a foreclosure, Neustein said there’s a chance his clients will win the Orange Boulevard home free and clear.
“The average guy knows they didn’t pay the money, and they roll over and die,” Neustein said. “When we get a client, we defend the case vigorously.”
by Kimberly Miller