Wall Street Journal

Moves by banks to ditch law firms snared in the "robo-signing" mess are spreading delays and confusion to borrowers, while angering judges grappling with thousands of foreclosure cases now trapped in limbo.

The trouble began when U.S. banks and government-owned mortgage giants lost confidence in some law firms that handled a huge volume of foreclosures. After controversy erupted last fall over the shoddy review of loan documents known as robo-signing, banks dropped some law firms.

Finding replacement lawyers who can pick up the slack quickly has been a struggle. While the resulting slowdown means that fewer houses are being seized, late fees are piling up for homeowners seeking a loan modifications. Investors who own bonds backed by those mortgages could face higher costs from the snags.

"It’s causing chaos because nobody knows who’s representing whom," says Thomas Ice, a foreclosure defense lawyer in Royal Palm Beach, Fla.

The problems are particularly acute in Florida, one of 23 U.S. states where foreclosures must be processed through courts. Last fall, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac terminated their relationship with the Law Offices of David J. Stern. At its peak, the Plantation, Fla., firm handled nearly 20% of all foreclosures in the state.

In March, the Stern law firm told judges across Florida that it was unable to file the necessary paperwork to withdraw from 100,000 cases. Florida’s attorney general is investigating allegations that the firm routinely forged notarized documents. The firm denies the accusations and is challenging the attorney general’s jurisdiction in court.

"There’s nobody to call to expedite any of these things. My clients are in limbo every day," says Craig Lynd, a founding partner of KEL Attorneys, an Orlando, Fla., law firm.

Two of his clients, 58-year-old Ruth Diehl and her husband, have been in talks with a J.P. Morgan Chase & Co. unit for more than two years about a loan modification on their home in Ocoee, Fla. The bank agreed to offer different loan terms at a court-ordered mediation session last summer, where it was represented by the Stern law firm.

But the deal wasn’t finished, Mr. Lynd says, and efforts to force compliance with the agreement in court was hampered by the removal of the Stern firm from the case. A different law firm was assigned to the case, and J.P. Morgan asked the new firm to reach out to Mr. Lynd, said a J.P. Morgan spokesman.

Ally Financial Inc., the GMAC Mortgage parent in which the U.S. government owns a 73% stake, transferred to other lawyers its foreclosures previously assigned to the Stern firm.

Lisa Butterfield, who is trying to surrender her Middleburg, Fla., home to GMAC through a "deed-in-lieu" of foreclosure, says she has heard nothing from the new lawyer who was assigned her case. "You finally think, ‘I’m finally going to get this settled,’ and then it’s not," she says. She moved last year to take care of her parents but still pays the utilities in hopes of reaching a deal with GMAC.

An Ally spokeswoman says the "situation in Florida is challenging, given the large number of borrowers in foreclosure and the number of quality law firms to manage these cases." She declined to comment on Ms. Butterfield’s situation.

Mr. Stern has blamed former foreclosure clients for failing "to take into consideration any succession planning" when they terminated his firm, according to a written response to a Florida judge. Jeffrey Tew, a lawyer for Mr. Stern, says banks have withheld millions in legal fees and are to blame for delays.

A Fannie spokeswoman says transfers of foreclosure files from terminated firms to new lawyers have been completed. Fannie has approved 16 law firms to handle its cases in the state, up from nine firms last year. Freddie uses 14 law firms in Florida, up from four.

Peter Blanc, the chief judge in Palm Beach County, Fla., with nearly 9,000 cases from the Stern firm, last month urged Mr. Stern to reconsider his decision to walk away from cases. Another problem: Two law firms that got some of the Stern cases were later dropped by Fannie, Freddie and banks.

"Whatever anyone thinks the cost of David Stern’s implosion is, quadruple it," says Richard Shuster, a real-estate lawyer in Miami.

On Friday, Judge Blanc will start convening special hearings to reassign hundreds of cases a day until the backlog is cleared. "If nobody shows up" on behalf of the banks, "we will dismiss the cases," he says. If that happens, banks would have to essentially start over.

In February, Fannie terminated its relationship with Ben-Ezra & Katz after the Fort Lauderdale firm notified Fannie that some paralegals took inappropriate technical shortcuts. Marc Ben-Ezra, a principal at the law firm, says the firm is trying to withdraw from 15,000 cases "cooperatively and responsibly."

But other firms taking over those foreclosures "tend to be overwhelmed," while some clients have seized files and told his firm to no longer act on their behalf. "It’s bad for everybody," Mr. Ben-Ezra says. On Thursday, the law firm said it is suspending its foreclosure practice until further notice.

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