The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has filed a petition in a Florida appellate court charging that the foreclosure court system in Lee County, Fla. systematically denies homeowners a fair opportunity to defend their homes against foreclosure. The special “mass foreclosure docket” established in December 2008 operates under rules that differ substantially from those that govern the rest of Lee County’s civil cases and was designed to speed through as many foreclosure cases as possible without providing homeowners facing foreclosure a meaningful opportunity to develop their cases or present defenses, according to the petition.
“Operating against the backdrop of well-documented disarray and fraud in mortgage documentation, the shortcuts taken in Lee County courts mean that homeowners may never have a meaningful opportunity to refute faulty evidence supposedly supporting foreclosure,”
said Larry Schwartztol, staff attorney with the ACLU Racial Justice Program. “By elevating speed over accuracy, Lee County subjects homeowners to foreclosure proceedings that violate the due process rights guaranteed by the Constitution.”
The petitioner in the ACLU’s case, Georgi Merrigan of Cape Coral, Fla., is facing foreclosure after leaving her job as a flight and ground paramedic to care full-time for her husband, who suffered massive injuries in a car accident. Merrigan has every intention of contesting her foreclosure case. But because Merrigan’s case is assigned to the “mass foreclosure docket,” the ACLU charges that she cannot get a fair shot at defending her home. The ACLU’s petition asks that Merrigan’s case be re-assigned to the general civil division so that she will be afforded due process under the Florida and U.S. Constitutions.
“No one should ever have to go to court with the deck already stacked against them,” said Howard Simon, executive director of the ACLU of Florida. “Nowhere does it say someone is entitled only to the justice we have time for. We can’t allow the basic protections of due process to be the victim of judicial shortcuts.”
The ACLU’s petition is the culmination of a months-long investigation into foreclosure court systems throughout the state of Florida, where media reports have long suggested that the constitutionally-protected due process rights of homeowners have been ignored in a rush to push foreclosure cases through the courts. With one in every 288 housing units in foreclosure, Lee County has the highest percentage of foreclosures in the state of Florida, arguably the epicenter of the nation’s foreclosure crisis.
According to the ACLU’s petition, officials in Lee County seek to clear the foreclosure court docket as quickly as possible, at the expense of complying with basic procedural rules. Despite explicit instructions from the chief justice of the state supreme court that reducing the backlog of foreclosure cases should not “interfere with a judge’s ability to adjudicate each case fairly on its merits,” judges move through cases at lightning speed, sometimes seeing as many as 200 cases a day, according to the petition.
“Despite the extremely high stakes for homeowners, procedural violations in the ‘mass foreclosure docket’ are rampant,” said Rachel Goodman, an attorney with the ACLU Racial Justice Program. “Homeowners face systemic handicaps, and banks get a pass in proving their cases because the courts have effectively suspended the rules that give homeowners a chance to review the evidence against them.”
About 25 percent of Lee County’s population is black or Latino, and government data show that the foreclosure crisis across the country has disproportionately impacted communities of color. According to a recent report by the Center for Responsible Lending, nearly eight percent of both African Americans and Latinos have lost their homes to foreclosures, as compared to 4.5 percent of whites. Additionally, the indirect losses in wealth that result from foreclosures as a result of depreciation to nearby properties will also disproportionately impact communities of color. The Center for Responsible Lending report estimates that by the end of 2012, the African-American and Latino communities will be drained of $194 and $177 billion, respectively, in these indirect “spillover” losses alone.