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Baum: Striving to improve foreclosure process

By: Todd Etshman//August 19, 2011

Baum: Striving to improve foreclosure process

By: Todd Etshman//August 19, 2011//

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As one of the most well known foreclosure attorneys in the state, Steven J. Baum gets a lot of media criticism and negative attention for the thousands of cases his firm handles.

Since he represents many of the area’s largest lenders — including Wells Fargo and HSBC — in foreclosure proceedings against mortgagees, Baum is sometimes vilified for his work. But it’s a job someone has to do, and one that’s become particularly challenging in New York.

“My father did this kind of work. I think it used to be rewarding but now it’s become increasingly difficult and contentious,” Baum said on Friday.

The process has become more involved for several reasons.

“New York is the most complex state [to process a foreclosure]. It’s highly regulated and that complexity has only increased,” he said.

Baum noted it takes on average about 1,000 days to complete a foreclosure case downstate, and 600 days upstate.

The length of time it takes to complete may be up, but the volume of foreclosure cases is down. Baum doesn’t see it picking up for at least six to 12 months, or until the state Office of Court Administration (OCA) “lends clarity” to the affirmation rules it imposed on lenders back in October 2010.

“Government hasn’t been able to wrap their arms around this,” he said. “They were unable to come in and help people on a successful level. The OCA didn’t realize the delays associated with the new rules [regarding affirmation and settlement conferences]. …”

Baum said working together with New York’s Chief Administrative Judge Ann Pfau and the OCA is a good way to help improve the process.

“They have held meetings with all the foreclosure attorneys in the past but we’re about due for another one,” he noted. “It’s good to get everyone together, and [the OCA does] listen. [Their] message is take your time and don’t come to court until your ducks are in order, but it takes a tremendous amount of time.

“To remedy the robosigning issue [in which documents weren’t authenticated], we have to go back and have the court accept what’s happened so far and that requires thousands of forms to be re-mediated.” Baum explained. “We’re still in the infancy stage of that. It requires a lot of effort on the clients’ part. Lenders and servicers are not only dealing with New York but other states, too.”

It’s taking a long time, but Baum said his firm is working with lenders on best practice methods for setting up an effective affirmation process. Meanwhile, court funding is down while the complexity and requirements associated with foreclosure cases increases.

The filing of a request for judicial intervention (RJI) in foreclosure cases can also cause considerable delay. It’s the subject of a recent class action law suit filed in Eastern District of New York by MFY Legal Services against him.

The suit alleges Baum engaged in “unfair and unconscionable debt collection and deceptive practices” in failing to file requests for judicial intervention. As he explained, an RJI assigns the case to a judge and schedules a settlement conference, something he and his firm have participated regularly in since settlement conferences began in 2008.

Baum couldn’t comment specifically on the suit, but said the RJI rule is unclear as to when it is supposed to be filed. And since it has to be served on all the borrowers and anyone else who holds an inferior lien, it results in additional delays. Baum said the suit should signal the need for clarity in the court rules.

His clients’ goal is to help people stay in their homes, he said, although it simply isn’t possible for that to happen in every case. He added that allowing people to stay in a home they can’t pay the mortgage or taxes on for years doesn’t help the community.

The Amherst-based attorney thinks most of the negative attention he’s received is the result of people “unfamiliar with the practice.” Baum said he’ll continue to work with the courts and nonprofit foreclosure assistance groups to ensure the foreclosure process is a fair one for everyone involved.

–          [email protected]

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