By CORY DOCTOROW
Back in 2012, the major US banks settled a federal mortgage-fraud lawsuit for $95,000,000. The suit was filed by Lynn Szymoniak, a white-collar fraud specialist, whose own house had been fraudulently foreclosed-upon. When the feds settled with the banks, the evidence detailing the scope of their fraud was sealed, but as of last week, those docs are unsealed, and Szymoniak is shouting them from the hills. The banks precipitated the subprime crash by “securitizing” mortgages — turning mortgages into bonds that could be sold to people looking for investment income — and the securitization process involved transferring title for homes several times over. This title-transfer has a formal legal procedure, and in the absence of that procedure, no sale had taken place. See where this is going?
The banks screwed up the title transfers. A lot. They sold bonds backed by houses they didn’t own. When it came time to foreclose on those homes, they realized that they didn’t actually own them, and so they committed felony after felony, forging the necessary documentation. They stole houses, by the neighborhood-load, and got away with it. The $1B settlement sounded like a big deal, back when the evidence was sealed. Now that Szymoniak’s gotten it into the public eye, it’s clear that $1B was a tiny slap on the wrist: the banks stole trillions of dollars’ worth of houses from you and people like you, paid less than one percent in fines, and got to keep the homes.
Now that it’s unsealed, Szymoniak, as the named plaintiff, can go forward and prove the case. Along with her legal team (which includes the law firm of Grant & Eisenhoffer, which has recovered more money under the False Claims Act than any firm in the country), Szymoniak can pursue discovery and go to trial against the rest of the named defendants, including HSBC, the Bank of New York Mellon, Deutsche Bank and US Bank.
The expenses of the case, previously borne by the government, now are borne by Szymoniak and her team, but the percentages of recovery funds are also higher. “I’m really glad I was part of collecting this money for the government, and I’m looking forward to going through discovery and collecting the rest of it,” Szymoniak told Salon.
It’s good that the case remains active, because the $95 million settlement was a pittance compared to the enormity of the crime. By the end of 2009, private mortgage-backed securities trusts held one-third of all residential mortgages in the U.S. That means that tens of millions of home mortgages worth trillions of dollars have no legitimate underlying owner that can establish the right to foreclose. This hasn’t stopped banks from foreclosing anyway with false documents, and they are often successful, a testament to the breakdown of law in the judicial system. But to this day, the resulting chaos in disentangling ownership harms homeowners trying to sell these properties, as well as those trying to purchase them. And it renders some properties impossible to sell.
To this day, banks foreclose on borrowers using fraudulent mortgage assignments, a legacy of failing to prosecute this conduct and instead letting banks pay a fine to settle it. This disappoints Szymoniak, who told Salon the owner of these loans is now essentially “whoever lies the most convincingly and whoever gets the benefit of doubt from the judge.” Szymoniak used her share of the settlement to start the Housing Justice Foundation, a non-profit that attempts to raise awareness of the continuing corruption of the nation’s courts and land title system.