Posted on Monday, September 20, 2010
NEVADA — One of the states where home prices went stratospheric during the housing mania — is now reporting some of the nation’s most horrifying foreclosure figures. Last week, RealtyTrac said that 1 in every 84 households in the state had received a foreclosure notice in August, 4.5 times the national average.
To mitigate this continuing disaster, the Nevada Assembly created a foreclosure mediation program last year. Intended to help keep families in their homes, the program brings together troubled borrowers and their lenders to negotiate resolutions.
The program began on July 1, 2009, and in its first year, 8,738 requests for mediation were received and 4,212 completed, according to the state’s Administrative Office of the Courts. Some 668 borrowers gave up their homes and 445 were foreclosed upon in the period.
“We are the only state that requires the bank to do something — they must come to the table if the homeowner elects mediation,” said Verise V. Campbell, who administers the program. “We are now touted as the No. 1 foreclosure mediation program around the country. The program is working.”
During its first year, 2,590 cases — more than 60 percent of completed mediations — resulted in agreements between borrower and lender, Ms. Campbell said. But when asked how many actually wound up assisting homeowners through permanent loan modifications, she said her office did not track that figure.
Most of these agreements, say lawyers who have worked in Nevada’s program, were probably for temporary modifications like those that have frustrated borrowers elsewhere — you know, the kind of plan that lasts only three months until the bank decides that the borrower does not qualify for a permanent modification.
Clearly, the Nevada program is superior to the White House’s Home Affordable Modification Program, where borrowers have trouble even reaching lenders by phone. Forcing banks to meet with borrowers is definitely a good step.
But some mediators who have participated in the Nevada program and some lawyers who represent borrowers in it say it has flaws that may give the banks an advantage over borrowers.
Patrick James Martin, a lawyer in Reno who is a certified public accountant and an arbitrator for the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority, was an early mediator in the program. In a recent letter to Nevada’s state court administrator, Mr. Martin expressed concern that the program favored lenders.
“I really felt the lenders didn’t have too much interest in having the program work,” Mr. Martin said in an interview. “A lawyer would show up for the lender with none of the documents required by the program. When they got into the mediation, they would call somebody in a bullpen someplace who had a computer handy and the borrower might or might not qualify for modification. No discussion, no negotiation.”
Mr. Martin said he no longer received cases to mediate.
Another experienced mediator, who declined to be identified because he feared reprisals, was removed from the system after he recommended sanctions for banks that did not meet their obligations under the program. These duties include showing up, bringing pertinent documents and having authority to negotiate with the borrower.
After this mediator made a petition for sanctions in a case this year, Ms. Campbell sent him and the other parties in the matter a letter saying that the recommendation was not a “valid Foreclosure Mediation Program document.” The letter, on Supreme Court of Nevada stationery, also stated that nothing in the law that established the mediation program “requires or permits a mediator to recommend specific sanctions.”
But the statute governing mediations in Nevada clearly specifies that if a lender does not participate in the mediation in good faith, by failing to appear, for example, “the mediator shall prepare and submit to the mediation administrator a petition and recommendation concerning the imposition of sanctions” against the lender. The court then has the power to issue sanctions, which can include forcing a loan modification.
Keith Tierney is a veteran real estate lawyer who was until recently a mediator in the program. He, too, stopped receiving mediation assignments after recommending sanctions against lenders in a number of cases. He said that a program official told him last week that he was no longer eligible because he issued a petition and recommendation for sanctions, even though that is what the law allows.
When asked why she believed that such recommendations were not allowed, Ms. Campbell said mediators who issued them were not following the program rules as interpreted by Nevada’s Supreme Court.
Times Topic: Gretchen MorgensonBut Mr. Tierney said: “The statute trumps rules. Every attorney in the world knows that if a rule is in contradiction to a statute, the rule is null and void.”
Administering the program gives Ms. Campbell great power. She issues certificates allowing foreclosures to take place after mediations occur. And while she said such certificates were submitted only when mediators’ statements showed they should be, mistakes have happened.
ONE woman went through a mediation in which the lender didn’t provide necessary documents and the mediator noted it, according to legal documents. Under the rules, no certificate is supposed to be issued in such a circumstance, but shortly afterward, the borrower received notice of a trustee sale. Ms. Campbell’s office had issued a certificate allowing foreclosure; only by filing for bankruptcy could the borrower stop it.
Ms. Campbell said such problems were rare. The state doesn’t produce data that would allow her assertion to be verified.
Ms. Campbell is not a lawyer and is not a veteran of the housing or banking industries. Before overseeing the mediation program, she worked in the casino industry. She worked for a Chinese company developing a gambling property in Macau and was director of administration for the Cosmopolitan Resort and Casino in Las Vegas.
Ms. Campbell said that her position involved administrative duties, not legal insight, and that her experience overseeing large projects amply prepared her to manage the Nevada mediation program.
But David M. Crosby, the lawyer who represented the borrower whose case resulted in an erroneous foreclosure action, said significant questions remained about the program. Among them, he said, was the role that Ms. Campbell played in the process.
“Does she just do administrative stuff or does she make decisions?” he asked. “That doesn’t seem well decided.”
NYT Gretchen Morgenson