Ally Financial Inc.’s GMAC Mortgage unit, which suspended evictions in 23 states last week after finding employees didn’t verify foreclosure documents, was sanctioned in 2006 for similar practices, court records show.
GMAC gave “false testimony” when it justified foreclosures by submitting sworn affidavits signed by a mortgage executive who later said in a deposition she didn’t actually review the loan documents or sign in the presence of a notary, according to a 2006 court order filed in Duval County, Florida. In response to the sanctions, GMAC Mortgage directed employees to “read and fully understand” court documents before signing.
“Do not sign unless you have that comfort level,” said a policy directive from GMAC Mortgage’s James Barden, then-associate counsel for the legal staff. “It is the integrity of our cases that is at stake and we cannot afford anything less than full accuracy.”
GMAC Mortgage is facing new allegations in court documents that it evicted homeowners without verifying that borrowers actually defaulted or whether the firm had legal standing to seize the homes. Ally, the Detroit-based auto and home lender, said this week it found a “technical” deficiency in its foreclosure process allowing employees to sign documents without a notary present or with information they didn’t personally know was true.
Ally declined to say how many loans may be affected. The firm, formerly known as GMAC Inc., ranked fourth among U.S. home-loan originators in the first six months of this year with $26 billion, and fifth among loan servicers, with a $349.1 billion portfolio, according to Inside Mortgage Finance, an industry newsletter. It’s also the beneficiary of more than $17 billion in U.S. bailout funds.
Servicers conduct billing and collections on mortgages, sometimes for other firms that actually own the loans, and handle foreclosures when borrowers default.
Gina Proia, a spokeswoman for Ally, confirmed that a policy directive was issued in 2006, “but we recently became aware of a breakdown in the process. The process has since been addressed and the prior practice is no longer taking place.”
Mark Paustenbach, a spokesman for the U.S. Treasury Department, which owns 56.3 percent of Ally, declined to comment. Kim Fennebresque, a director named by the Treasury to serve as an independent board member, didn’t return calls.
In a statement earlier this week, Proia said “the entire situation is unfortunate and regrettable and GMAC Mortgage is diligently working to resolve the situation,” and that “there was never any intent on the part of GMAC Mortgage to bypass court rules or procedures.” Florida was among the 23 states where evictions have been halted.
Lawyers defending borrowers have accused mortgage firms including GMAC and JPMorgan Chase & Co. of foreclosing on homeowners without making proper efforts to verify the accuracy of the documents. In foreclosure cases, companies typically file affidavits to start court proceedings. Affidavits are statements written and sworn in the presence of someone authorized to administer an oath, such as a notary public.
The 2006 case stems from a GMAC Mortgage foreclosure that began in August 2004 on a home owned by Robert and Lillian Jackson. The filing included an affidavit signed by a GMAC officer laying out the amount owed on the loan.
Florida Circuit Court Judge Bernard Nachman sanctioned GMAC in May 2006, saying that the company “submitted false testimony to the court in the form of affidavits of indebtedness.” The company was ordered to submit an explanation and confirmation that the policies were changed, and told to pay defendants’ legal costs of $8,135.55.
GMAC’s legal department issued a statement afterward that told employees “not to sign verifications on court pleading documents unless you have independently reviewed and checked the facts.” The policy, distributed in June 2006, also stated in italics and boldface that employees should sign documents only in the presence of a notary. GMAC told the court four years ago that the policies were “being corrected.”
In December 2009, a GMAC Mortgage employee said in a deposition that his team of 13 people signed about 10,000 affidavits and other foreclosure documents a month without verifying their accuracy. The employee’s supervisor is the same executive sanctioned in the 2006 case.
GMAC’s internal review discovered the new discrepancies “a few months ago” and halted the practice, according to Proia’s statement earlier this week. Barden, who wrote the 2006 directive, and the two employees still work at GMAC, Proia said. Barden didn’t return a request for comment left on his work phone.
“They’re acting like this is a new problem,” said O. Max Gardner III, a bankruptcy attorney at Gardner & Gardner PLLC in Shelby, North Carolina, who isn’t directly involved in either GMAC case. “It’s the exact same thing,” Gardner said. “This is not just a GMAC problem. This is an industry-wide problem.”
Deborah Rhode, a Stanford University law professor and director of the school’s Center on the Legal Profession, said GMAC Mortgage’s behavior may amount to misleading the court.
“It’s not ‘technical’ when people attest under oath to knowledge they don’t have, and it doesn’t matter that in fact there isn’t actual error or discrepancy,” Rhode said. “Any court would take this very seriously.”
Judges could decide to dismiss the foreclosures, sanction the attorneys and company or levy a “substantial” financial penalty that would “get their attention,” she said.
The U.S. took control of Ally as part of a larger effort to prop up auto manufacturers. On a national level, regulators and lawmakers are trying to persuade bankers to avert foreclosures as seizures of homes by banks set records. Bank repossessions climbed 25 percent in August from a year earlier to 95,364, according to RealtyTrac Inc., the Irvine, California-based data provider.