ATLANTA — For 34 years, Robert Thompson Jr. had been a business and labor lawyer — as was his father before him — defending corporations and financial institutions and even serving on several banks’ boards of directors.
But something happened to him two and half years ago that changed his entire practice. Now, he challenges banks and financial institutions in court, accusing them of wrongful foreclosure and outright fraud on behalf of individuals who are a step away from losing their homes.
The turning point for Thompson came at Christmas time, 2009. His mortgage servicer — with whom he had been embroiled in disputes over what he said were misapplied or lost checks, late fees for payments that had been made on time, unnecessary insurance costs and double billings for taxes — moved to foreclose on his home.
“I was a single father with three young children living with me in that house,” the silver-haired Thompson said during an interview in his Buckhead Thompson Law Group office filled with books about the financial industry and the economic crisis. “It was very upsetting.”
But, he added, “I was the wrong person to pick on about injunctions and bank law.”
On Dec. 28, 2009, he went before Fulton County Superior Court Judge John Goger, asking for an order enjoining the mortgage company from proceeding with the foreclosure. The judge’s first question was, “How much do you owe?” Thompson recalled.
“I told him I didn’t owe anything, that my payments had all been made on time, and that in fact they owed me more than $50,000 in overpayments and mystery fees,” Thompson recalled.
“Can you prove it?” the judge asked.
Thompson recalled he pointed the judge to canceled checks and FedEx receipts, and the judge granted Thompson’s injunction. Thompson filed a lawsuit against his loan servicer for mortgage fraud and abuse, wrongful foreclosure, unjust enrichment, breach of contract, conversion, misrepresentation, defamation, libel and deceit.
“People started talking about it,” Thompson said. “I thought it was just me, but then people started calling saying they had the same problem and wanting to know if I could help them.”
Now, Thompson is a man obsessed. And he said he’s had success halting foreclosures — but acknowledged securing such an injunction for a client is only the first step.
Thompson said he still has new clients coming to his office daily. Most don’t have the exact situation as his, where the payments were current but not applied to the account. The biggest percentage, he said, are struggling because of a loss of income and are seeking loan modifications to make payments more manageable, but were told by their mortgage holder they weren’t eligible either because they weren’t behind or far enough behind.
Thompson said being behind on mortgage payments isn’t a requirement of federally funded modification programs. But, on the assumption that it was, he said, his clients missed payments in hopes of qualifying for modifications, then found themselves in foreclosure with their lender refusing to accept more payments. Thompson calls that being “lured into default.”
Out of hundreds of cases he’s reviewed in the past two and a half years, he said, there wasn’t a single one where he didn’t find fraud or at least errors in the records. So far, he said, he has not yet been able to say to a homeowner, “I can’t help you because the bank did everything right.”
Bank representatives say it’s absurd to suggest banks want to foreclose if there are other options. They admit some paperwork mistakes happen but suggest it’s not right to make those a basis for loan forgiveness.
Meanwhile, Thompson is ordering up forensic audits — at a minimum of $1,000 each — to ferret out problems so that he can go to court to block foreclosures. A forensic auditing company analyzes the loan activity and tracks the transfers of deed and title as the loan has been sold by one financial company to another — and sometimes to several others.
Sometimes, Thompson said, he finds the foreclosing lender has already sold the note and collected the balance, and thus doesn’t have the legal right to foreclose. Often Thompson finds what he calls a “break in the chain of title” because the deed and the note have not been kept together in the transactions, which he said is illegal.
He can’t charge the homeowners the hourly rates he used to bill his corporate clients. Some can hardly pay anything. Occasionally, he said, he just offers free advice on how to fight a foreclosure pro se. Most of the time he negotiates a flat fee varying in amounts according to the work that needs to be done and the client’s ability to pay. “I have to make it affordable or they can’t do it,” he said. “But I can’t do it for free.”
He is especially busy the week before the first Tuesday of every month, when crowds gather on the courthouse steps for the auctioning of foreclosed homes. This month alone, he went to court for 25 injunctions to stop foreclosures.
Asked how many he won, he said, “All of them. But the injunction is only the first step.”
The next step varies, but often includes lawsuits against the lenders or servicers who initiated the foreclosure.
Lender representatives said Thompson’s charges about banks’ motivations don’t make sense.
“Do you really think the lender wants that house back?” asked Mo Thrash, a lobbyist for the Mortgage Bankers Association of Georgia and McCalla Raymer, a law firm with offices in Georgia that represents lenders. “It is absolutely ridiculous to think the lender would want the home back.”
Thrash said the conventional wisdom — that the best outcome for the lender is for the homeowner to make all their payments until the loan is paid in full — is still true, maybe more so now because of falling real estate prices and difficulty in selling homes. “I admit mistakes do happen, but I’d be willing to bet that the majority of these cases are a two-way street,” he said. “It takes two to tango.”
The majority of mortgage banks — 99 percent — are ethical and honest, Thrash added. To suggest otherwise, he said, is “absolutely crazy.”
If the personal foreclosure experiences of Thompson and some of his clients are as they described them, “It was a mistake,” said J.D. Crowe, senior vice president of Southeast Mortgage of Georgia Inc. and a member of the Mortgage Bankers Association of Georgia Board of Governors.
“If that’s the case, that’s why he won an injunction and will probably win his lawsuit. With the number of foreclosures in the last few years, there’s a lot of paper going back and forth,” Crowe said.
But like Thrash, Crowe said it’s “ridiculous” to suggest that a lender would want to foreclose if there were an alternative. “Lenders want to work with borrowers. They don’t want to foreclose,” he said.
Crowe also suggested that when homeowners win their foreclosure fights, they usually win on a technicality — a mistake in the paperwork or the separation of the deed and note in the selling of the loan by one financial institution to another. In such cases, if homeowners win damages or loan forgiveness, allowing them to walk away from their mortgage payments, said Crowe, “I think it is unconscionable.”
Disbelief, said Thompson, is the biggest challenge he faces in fighting foreclosure fraud. “People who have never suffered through it cannot believe it. It challenges the fundamentals of everything you want to believe about the banks being honest and the government protecting you.”