Touro’s Mortgage Foreclosure Clinic Has Rewarding First Quarter
By: Joan Clay, Esq.
The Mortgage Foreclosure Clinic at Touro Law Center has had a busy and successful first quarter. The clinic is sponsored by a grant from the Attorney General’s office to provide pro bono legal services to the public. Attorney Joan Clay, as Practitioner in Residence, currently oversees the day to day operation of the Homeownership Protection Program and supervises the students’ work on foreclosure cases.
“The clinic is very hands on and each student is generally assigned 8-10 files at any given time. Students conduct client intakes and interviews, assist clients with loan modification applications and negotiations, assist with pro se answers, research legal issues, and attend court conferences and present cases under the student practice order. The great thing about the clinic is that no two cases are the same so the students learn how to address all sorts of issues and challenges throughout the semester” says Clay.
The grant period runs October 1, 2015 to September 30, 2016 and as of February 29, 2016 the clinic has already provided legal assistance to 206 individuals and an additional 153 individuals received housing counseling services through Touro’s sub-contractor, Central Islip Civic Council (“ClCC”). Together the clinic and CICC has helped over 50 homeowners obtain trial or permanent modifications during the first quarter.
The grant is currently in its fourth year and there has been a steady flow of individuals seeking legal assistance from Touro. This consistent flow indicates the foreclosure crisis is far from over as people are still dealing with the effects of reduced or lost income along with increased medical and credit card debt. On average it is taking a minimum of 2 years for homeowners to find new jobs and often times they are taking jobs that pay less than they used to make. The clinic receives referrals from several sources including a statewide HOPP hotline, Touro students and alums, court staff and other pro-bono agencies. In addition, the clinic’s staff attorney, Stephanie Diemer is at the Riverhead courthouse offering assistance to unrepresented parties on average 3-4 times a week.
“Clients are often frustrated because they have tried for some time to modify their mortgages on their own but the servicers request documents more than once, delaying the modification process and causing documents to become stale. We are working on several files that have had multiple submissions due to stale documents and repeated requests for documents. We have also seen more transfers of servicing rights during the process. These transfers result in delays as the new servicers sift through the documents received from the previous servicer.” The clinic strives to submit a complete package at one time to expedite getting a decision for the homeowners.
Here is an overview of a recent case handled by the clinic. Mr. C owns a home in Shirley, NY. Ocwen obtained the servicing rights to Mr. C’s account on November 1, 2011 from Litton Loan Servicing. According to Ocwen, Mr. C’s account was delinquent when Ocwen took over the loan. Mr. C was approved for a HUD forbearance agreement in August of 1996, after he was injured on the job. The HUD agreement stated that it must be renewed every year in order for it to continue. We believe that the problem started with Litton Loan and the forbearance agreement with HUD. There are several bank statements from Mr. C January 2003 through December 2012 and it appears that Mr. C made a monthly payment every month. Mr. C was double billed on several occasions and improperly charged with late fees. Some of the excessive fees that have been charged according to the monthly statements have been property inspection fees, late fees, priority service fees, property valuation expenses, and certified mail fees. Another issue was that payments were mailed to a P.O. Box and not retrieved by Ocwen in a timely manner. Touro attempted to resolve this matter with Ocwen for quite some time, even escalating the issue with Ocwen.
Because the amount owed on the mortgage was so low Touro assisted Mr. C with an application for a New York State Mortgage Assistance Program (MAP) loan to pay off the mortgage. The MAP loan is a zero percent interest loan up to $40,000 that does not require repayment for 30 years as long as the homeowner owns the property as his or her principal residence. It was often used to reinstate mortgages or pay them off. The MAP loan was approved and in December 2015 the loan closed. This loan ended years of frustration for the homeowner.
The Role of the Clinics in Real Lawyering
By Jorge Macias
As a student intern in the Veterans’ and Servicemembers’ Rights Clinic, I have gained valuable on-the-job training by helping veterans apply to restore their driving privileges, appealing child support orders, and by helping a veteran begin eviction proceedings to remove squatters from his home.
On my first day in the clinic I had to immerse myself in family law so that I could help a client lift a driver’s license suspension stemming from arrears in child support payments (In New York, Child Support Enforcement can suspend your driver’s license if you get too far behind in your payments.) With guidance from a staff attorney, I was able to decipher what the client owed and calculate how much he was able to pay. I then prepared an affidavit of net worth to send to Child Support Enforcement so that they could set a reduced payment that our client can afford, and get his license back.
On the second day, I was fortunate enough to sit in on a client interview conducted by staff attorney Rosanne Trabocchi, a retired U.S. Coast Guard JAG officer. In that interview, I learned more about interviewing a client than I did in any classroom simulation. That’s not to say that the classroom work was for naught, but the subtle nuances and skill required to glean information from a client can only be learned by either watching a professional or by actually doing it yourself. Little did I know that I would have to employ what I learned in that interview just a week later when a client showed up at the clinic without an appointment. After examining the facts of my client’s case, it was apparent that I would have to submit official paperwork to a government agency. However, it was obvious that the client was holding something back. My instinct was to confront him on the discrepancy but I feared he would not “budge.” Instead, I decided to investigate further before submitting any paperwork on his behalf. In the end, it turned out that the client was indeed withholding facts and I was able to avoid submitting paperwork to a government agency with false information.
The case that I am most excited about is the eviction proceeding. Here, a veteran with mental health issues abandoned his home when it went into foreclosure, but later had his home taken over by squatters. The local government had cited the veteran for town ordinance violations for not maintaining the property. When I was assigned the case, the veteran had a court appearance within seven days. I managed to persuade the assistant town attorney to adjourn the case until we could figure out how to proceed. Once the case was adjourned, I met with the client and his family members and decided to start the eviction proceeding. However, because an eviction proceeding takes time, we needed another adjournment. The difficulty was that the case had already been adjourned; therefore, we had to make an appearance in court to meet with the assistant town attorney (who turned out to be a recent Touro Law grad) and conference the case with the judge (whose daughter was a Touro grad). At the court appearance I went on the record for the first time and we negotiated with the town to give us time to evict the squatters. Our client and his family members were pleased and relieved that someone was standing up for them.
Bankruptcy law clinicians Alexandros Tsionis and Saba Khan were desperate to locate a client – and for good reason. The client’s petition was completed and filed with the bankruptcy court. However, the client had yet to complete one final step, a debtor education course. By not completing this necessary step, the client’s case would be closed and he would not receive a discharge of his debts.
Alexandros and Saba understood the severity of the situation. They called the client several times and left messages for the client to call back. Realizing that the client was unresponsive, they expanded their search efforts by sending e-mails and letters to the client. The client had come so far in the bankruptcy process that it would be a waste to see the case dismissed over this minor, yet necessary, formality. Moreover, it would cost the client even more money to reopen the case in the future.
However, Alexandros and Saba did not give up. They continued to call the client day after day. Almost a week passed until they finally received a call back from the client. He left a message stating he had been in rehab and left his case worker’s number as the number to reach him at. Alexandros and Saba thought it would be easy from here on out. However, they again encountered difficulties because even after calling the caseworker several times, and leaving messages stating the urgency of their call, the caseworker did not call back.
Alexandros and Saba again enhanced their efforts. They researched the rehab facility in hopes of speaking with a manager who could connect them to the client. As time was of the essence, they also thought perhaps they could go to the rehab facility directly to help the client complete the certificate.
Suddenly, with a stroke of good fortune, the client called! He was out of rehab. Alexandros and Saba were finally able to speak with him in person. However, the task was still not over. Unfortunately, the client was not computer literate. Alexandros and Saba patiently stayed on the phone and guided the client through the tedious process. Within two hours or so, the client completed the last step in his bankruptcy. More importantly, Alexandros and Saba were able to successfully receive a discharge for the client by the next day.
It was very stressful for both Alexandros and Saba to know that the client’s petition was on the verge of a dismissal, but relieved that such an outcome was avoided. They were happy that their persistence and dedication to this client paid off in the end.
Jan Wolfe , Corporate Counsel