Billionaire Wilbur Ross’s American Home Mortgage Servicing Inc., facing lawsuits by attorneys general in two states, was sued by a homeowner who accused the firm of using tactics that lead to improper foreclosures.
The lawsuit, filed Oct. 25 in federal court in Dallas, seeks class-action status on behalf of homeowners with mortgages serviced by American Home going back to 2006. American Home’s “illegal, unfair and deceptive business practices victimize borrowers” across the U.S., according to the complaint.
American Home “routinely and systematically assesses unwarranted fees against consumers, resulting in premature default that often gives rise to unfair and improper foreclosure proceedings,” according to the complaint.
Banks and loan servicers are under scrutiny for their foreclosure practices following accusations they relied on faulty documentation to foreclose on people’s homes. Attorneys general in all 50 states have launched a coordinated investigation into the issue.
The complaint in Dallas, filed by Kay VanHauen of Sanger, Texas, follows lawsuits by Greg Abbott, the state’s attorney general, and Ohio Attorney General Richard Cordray. They separately sued American Home, based in Coppell, Texas, for alleged violations of consumer protection laws.
“While a lawsuit on occasion may identify a legitimate servicing error, most of which are isolated and none of which to our knowledge indicate any systematic process flaws or patterns or unlawful behavior, we believe the majority of them are without merit,” Philippa Brown, a spokeswoman for American Home, said today in a phone interview.
Ross, 72, is chief executive officer of WL Ross & Co., a company that specializes in reorganizing distressed companies. He founded the New York-based company in 2000 after overseeing the bankruptcy practice at Rothschild Inc.
WL Ross bought American Home from its bankrupt lender parent in 2008, and later added operations and servicing contracts from H&R Block Inc., Citigroup Inc. and Taylor, Bean & Whitaker Mortgage Corp. Servicers collect payments from homeowners, negotiate loan modifications and foreclose on properties when borrowers default.
In an Oct. 23, 2008, interview with Bloomberg Radio, Ross said American Home was the second-largest servicer of subprime mortgages in the U.S. and was “eager” to continue expanding. The company has servicing operations in Irvine, California, Jacksonville, Florida, and Pune, India, according to its website.
In his lawsuit, the Ohio Attorney General said American Home required borrowers to sign loan modifications, forbearance agreements and security-retention agreements that contain “illegal and unfair provisions and are unconscionably one-sided” in the company’s favor. American Home also provided “incompetent, inadequate and inefficient customer service,” lost documents and failed to respond to requests by borrowers for assistance, according to the complaint.
“The acts of some mortgage servicers have gone beyond the point of being negligent -- they have become predatory financial practices and in Ohio, they won’t be tolerated,” Cordray said in a statement on Nov. 5, when the lawsuit was filed.
The Texas Attorney General said in his lawsuit that American Home fails to properly credit homeowners for payments made on their mortgages; falsely claims borrowers didn’t make payments in order to justify late fees; and refuses to accept payments allegedly because a borrower is in default, thereby adding more late charges. The result, Abbott said, is to render homeowners in default on their mortgages.
“The cumulative effect of the foregoing acts and practices was to place more homes into foreclosure than there should have been,” Abbott said in the Aug. 30 lawsuit.
American Home is among 30 banks and mortgage companies that Abbott wrote to on Oct. 4, demanding they halt foreclosures in the state until they ensure that foreclosures that relied on faulty documents “will be rectified” and that future foreclosures are done with “legally correct documentation.”
American Home has been reviewing its procedures and is placing “tighter controls” on document signing and notarization, according to the attorney general’s office. The company found “a very limited number of cases” in which a person signing a document may not have done so in the presence of a notary, according to the attorney general.
The lawsuit by VanHauen, the Texas homeowner, mirrors allegations made by the attorney general. American Home, she said, misapplied mortgage payments on two loans in September 2008 and improperly assessed fees and other charges. After notifying American Home about the problem, the company refused to correctly apply the payments. It treated the loan as being in default and initiated foreclosure proceedings, according to the complaint.
American Home also charged her for a homeowner insurance policy she didn’t need and charged her for property taxes she was paying to the county, according to the complaint. VanHauen proposed that her lawsuit cover homeowners who have similar complaints against American Home.
American Home has faced similar allegations in other lawsuits. In an April lawsuit filed in federal court in Baltimore, Michael and Ingrid Landi of Frederick, Maryland, accused American Home of falsely claiming in October 2009 that they had not made mortgage payments. American Home has asked the court to dismiss the complaint.
San Diego Suit
In a complaint filed in May in federal court in San Diego, American Home was accused of foreclosing on a home while it was discussing a loan modification with the owner, Kenneth Coplin. Coplin said in his complaint that American Home assured him it didn’t intend to foreclose or sell the property “in an effort to conceal” its intention to “mislead” him and “steal” the property.
Brown, the American Home spokeswoman, said the lawsuit was dismissed. The most recent entry on the court docket shows the case would be dismissed if Coplin failed by Oct. 25 to file certain documents related to serving the complaint. Coplin couldn’t be reached for comment.
The cases are Kay VanHauen v. American Home Mortgage Servicing Inc., 10-02146, U.S. District Court, Northern District of Texas (Dallas); State of Texas v. American Home Mortgage Servicing Inc., 2010-3307, District Court of El Paso County, Texas; State of Ohio v. American Home Mortgage Servicing Inc., 09-708888, Court of Common Pleas, Cuyahoga County, Ohio; Michael Landi v. American Home Mortgage Servicing Inc., 10-00921, U.S. District Court, District of Maryland (Baltimore); Kenneth Coplin v. American Home Mortgage Servicing Inc., 3:10-cv-01096, U.S. District Court, Southern District of California (San Diego).