Countrywide Sued Over Foreclosure Costs
February 27, 2008
By Peg Brickley
PHILADELPHIA - Countrywide Financial Corp. has been reaping profits from "inflated, unverifiable or false" charges in foreclosure actions that threaten hundreds of thousands of homeowners, according to a lawsuit filed in federal court in Delaware.
The lawsuit, which seeks class-action status, takes aim at attorneys' fees, property inspection charges and other assessments that mount up once homeowners run into trouble paying their loans. Lawyers for homeowners say Countrywide is collecting far more than what it costs to enforce its rights as a lender.
"The mortgage note says the lender shall be 'paid back' -- those are the critical words, 'paid back' -- for its costs of enforcement, so you would think that the borrower would have to reimburse their actual out-of-pocket expenses," said Jeffrey Norton, one of the attorneys who filed the suit Monday.
"But it's not what happens," he said. " We're alleging padded attorney fees, charges for appraisals that never happened, all kinds of made-up fees." Norton is with the firm of Harwood Feffer in New York.
A Countrywide official wasn't immediately available Wednesday to comment on the lawsuit, filed with the U.S. District Court in Wilmington, Del. The Calabasas, Calif., company, the country's biggest mortgage lender, is foreclosing on about 90,000 homes.
The suit adds to Countrywide's legal troubles, which include a probe of its treatment of bankrupt consumers by the Office of the U.S. Trustee, an arm of the Justice Department.
If certified as a class action, the suit could force Countrywide to prove the extra charges it added in "enforcement actions," from collection activities to foreclosure, were real, or give the money back to hundreds of thousands of homeowners.
With mortgage defaults at record levels and expected to rise, the case is one that will be closely watched by the law firms and others that are poised to profit from foreclosures that analysts predict will affect millions of homeowners in the coming years.
The suit was started by Gregory O'Gara, whose mother, Tamara Portnick, died after an illness during which she missed some payments on her Boynton Beach, Fla. home., according to Norton, O'Gara's attorney. O'Gara called Countrywide while clearing up his mother's estate and was told how much he would have to pay to bring the mortgage up to date.
"He did that, and then he started to think, 'This is only a short time. How can they have amassed all these fees?,'" Norton said. Investigation showed "Countrywide had done virtually nothing" to justify the extra charges it imposed on the deceased woman's estate, he said.
According to the lawsuit, Countrywide frequently charges $300 to $500 for appraisals that are not done at all, or that are mere "drive-by" inspections by appraisers who don't even stop their cars when passing mortgaged properties.
Countrywide has $300 to $500 "flat-fee" arrangements with law firms that handle foreclosures, the lawsuit says. Yet it hits homeowners with legal bills of $1,200 to $2,0000.
"The law firms are making a bundle," Norton said. "They frequently have a few attorneys who can go to court and a fleet of law clerks or paralegals who fill out forms. The law firms are probably the biggest beneficiaries of this wave of foreclosures."
Norton said Countrywide's mortgage is a contract that entitles it to recoup its costs if the loan starts to go south. When Countrywide charges more than it costs to enforce the loan, that's a breach of the contract, according to the complaint.
In a series of cases that also challenge the extra fees, a Delaware bankruptcy judge is weighing arguments from Countrywide and other lenders who say the mortgage is a contract that entitles them to impose the costs on bankrupt borrowers without the judge's approval.
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