One of our ongoing frustrations about media coverage of the mortgage mess is its failure to pay much attention to ample evidence of substantial servicer overcharges to borrowers. It’s bad enough that that happens, but far worse is that when servicers are told that they’ve been caught out, they refuse to make corrections and stonewall court-ordered remedies.
The facts that have surfaced before one bankruptcy judge, Elizabeth Magner of the Eastern District of Louisiana, and one servicer, Wells Fargo, should give industry defenders pause. Wells, as we have pointed out repeatedly, has an annoying habit of piously claiming it is better than other servicers when it engages in the same indefensible conduct as its peers. So if you were to take Wells at its word, the conduct of other servicers is at least as bad as what has taken place in this jurisdiction, if not worse. Remember, servicers are highly routinized operations, so if something, it is almost certain to be standard practice. And Wells has admitted that in this case.
Here is a snippet of background from another case in Magner’s courtas recounted by the Center for Public Integrity:
In an April 2008 ruling, Elizabeth Magner, a U.S. bankruptcy judge in New Orleans, rejected the two charges [for broker price opinions charged when the parish in which the home was located was evacuated thanks to Hurricane Katrina] as invalid. She also disallowed 43 home inspections, 39 late charges, and thousands of dollars in legal fees charged to the Stewarts’ account.
Almost every disallowed fee was imposed while the Stewarts were making regular monthly payments on their home…
Magner determined that Wells Fargo had been “duplicitous and misleading” and ordered the bank to pay $27,000 in damages and attorneys’ fees. She also took the unusual step of requiring the servicer to audit about 400 home loan files in cases in the Eastern District of Louisiana.
Wells fought successfully to keep the results of the audit under seal, and last summer a federal appeals court overturned the part of Magner’s ruling that required the audit. But two people familiar with the results told iWatch News that Wells Fargo’s audit had turned up accounting errors in nearly every loan file it reviewed.
The latest example of Wells bad behavior in Magner’s courtroom that has come to a resolution of sorts is another case of Wells overcharging a borrower. In this suit, Jones v. Wells Fargo, filed in 2007, involved a borrower having to sue Wells to recoup overcharges by Wells plus actual damages, plus a request for punitive damages. The ruling sets forth the sorry history in some detail and I strongly suggest you read it in full.
Jones was awarded over $24,000 plus interest on the overcharges. Manger determined then that additional amounts were due because Wells had violated the bankruptcy stay because it applied payments made during the bankruptcy to charges that had not been authorized by the court and thus in violation of the plan of reorganization. She ruled Wells’ conduct to be willful and egregious. The ruling noted (emphasis ours):
Despite assessing postpetition charges, Wells Fargo withheld this fact from its borrower and diverted payments made by the trustee and Debtor to satisfy claims not authorized by the plan or Court. Wells Fargo admitted that these actions were part of its normal course of conduct, practiced in perhaps thousands of cases.
Wells agreed with Magner to remedy certain “systemic problems” with its record keeping. In this ruling, the court also awarded Jones over $67,000 in compensatory sanctions.
Four months after the initial ruling on this case, the Stewart case (the one with the clearly bogus broker price opinions) was filed. The violations were identical to the ones in the Jones case, and this took place after Wells had agreed to fix this sort of accounting problem . Among other things, applying payments to fees first, when they are required to go to principal, interest, and escrow first, which resulted in improper amortization, which then led to additional interest, default fees and costs being incurred. Those additional charges were done without obtaining approval of the court and were flat out not permitted (this is a blatant violation of well established procedures in bankruptcy, hence the vehemence of Magner’s reaction. And notice this comment from her ruling:
The evidence established the utilization of this application method for every Wells Fargo mortgage loan in bankruptcy.
To make a long story short, Wells repeatedly engaged in scorched earth tactics:
While every litigant has a right to pursue appeal, Wells Fargo’s style of litigation was particularly vexing. After agreeing at trial to the initial injunctive relief in order to escape a punitive damage award, Wells Fargo changed its position and appealed. This resulted in:
1. A total of seven (7) days spent in the original trial, status conferences, and hearings before this Court;
2. Eighteen (18) post-trial, pre-remand motions or responsive pleadings filed by Wells Fargo, requiring nine (9) memoranda and nine (9) objections or responsive pleadings;
3. Eight (8) appeals or notices of appeal to the District Court by Wells Fargo, with fifteen (15) assignments of error and fifty-seven (57) sub-assignments of error, requiring 261 pages in briefing, and resulting in a delay of 493 days from the date the Amended Judgment was entered to the date the Fifth Circuit dismissed Wells Fargo’s appeal for lack of jurisdiction;47 and
4. Twenty-two (22) issues raised by Wells Fargo for remand, requiring 161 pages of briefing from the parties in the District Court and 269 additional days since the Fifth Circuit dismissed Wells Fargo’s appeal.
The above was only the first round of litigation contained in this case….
The judge also describes Wells’ “reprehensible” conduct:
Wells Fargo has taken the position that every debtor in the district should be made to challenge, by separate suit, the proofs of claim or motions for relief from the automatic stay it files. It has steadfastly refused to audit its pleadings or proofs of claim for errors and has refused to voluntarily correct any errors that come to light except through threat of litigation. Although its own representatives have admitted that it routinely misapplied payments on loans and improperly charged fees, they have refused to correct past errors. They stubbornly insist on limiting any change in their conduct prospectively, even as they seek to collect on loans in other cases for amounts owed in error.
Wells Fargo’s conduct is clandestine. Rather than provide Jones with a complete history
of his debt on an ongoing basis, Wells Fargo simply stopped communicating with Jones once it
deemed him in default. At that point in time, fees and costs were assessed against his account and satisfied with postpetition payments intended for other debt without notice. Only through litigation was this practice discovered. Wells Fargo admitted to the same practices for all other loans in bankruptcy or default. As a result, it is unlikely that most debtors will be able to discern problems with their accounts without extensive discovery….
Over eighty (80%) of the chapter 13 debtors in this district have incomes of less than
$40,000.00 per year. The burden of extensive discovery and delay is particularly overwhelming. In this Court’s experience, it takes four (4) to six (6) months for Wells Fargo to produce a simple accounting of a loan’s history and over four (4) court hearings. Most debtors simply do not have the personal resources to demand the production of a simple accounting for their loans, much less verify its accuracy, through a litigation process.
Wells Fargo has taken advantage of borrowers who rely on it to accurately apply payments
and calculate the amounts owed. But perhaps more disturbing is Wells Fargo’s refusal to voluntarily correct its errors. It prefers to rely on the ignorance of borrowers or their inability to fund a challenge to its demands, rather than voluntarily relinquish gains obtained through improper accounting methods. Wells Fargo’s conduct was a breach of its contractual obligations to its borrowers. More importantly, when exposed, it revealed its true corporate character by denying any obligation to correct its past transgressions and mounting a legal assault ensure it never had to.
Society requires that those in business conduct themselves with honestly and fair dealing. Thus, there is a strong societal interest in deterring such future conduct through the imposition of punitive relief….
The word “predatory” is not adequate to describe Wells’ conduct. The bank is not simply willing to steal from consumers, via blatant, institutionalized violations of its own agreements on mortgages and later on bankruptcy plans. It has absolutely no respect for the law, whether it be contracts or court procedures. It’s a band of marauders that our society treats as legitimate because the perpetrators wear suits and can afford to hire lobbyists. And the Federal government and state attorneys general are certain to have emboldened Wells and its brethren by rewarding them rather than treating them like the criminals they are.