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The Pain of Foreclosure

Following is an article in the Washington Post highlighting the plaintiff in Griffin v. Bierman, who is represented by our ally Civil Justice, Inc. The PJC joined the lawsuit when the PJC's Murnaghan Appellate Advocacy Fellow, Greg Care, wrote an amicus brief in the Maryland Court of Appeals, challenging whether Maryland's minimalist notice to homeowners of a foreclosure sale meets constitutional due process requirements. The brief was written on behalf of the PJC and nine other national and local consumer and housing advocates. The Pain of Foreclosure For Joyce Griffin and Thousands of Others Who Face Losing Their Homes, Sadness and Uncertainty Overshadow a Season of Cheer Joyce Griffin, who saved for 20 years, was the first member of her family to leave public housing and buy a home but now finds herself in foreclosure. (Photos By Lois Raimondo -- The Washington Post) By Brigid Schulte Washington Post Staff Writer Friday, December 21, 2007; B01 Joyce Griffin pulled out the sparkly white artificial Christmas tree she stores in the basement of her Anne Arundel County duplex, draped it with blue and red tinsel, and placed a tiny lighted angel on top. Then she sat down to cry. Roberta, the 8-year-old niece Griffin has raised since shortly after her birth, stopped fooling with a wreath of red jingle bells and looked at her aunt, puzzled. Griffin tried to explain that this might be the last Christmas they celebrate in their home. "You mean we can't stay here?" said her niece, who is known as Tink. Griffin, 49, like hundreds of thousands of homeowners across the country, is in foreclosure. Recently, she sat at the dining room table where for six years she has served holiday meals to her large, extended family of 19 brothers and five sisters, where they all hope to gather again this Christmas, and shook her head. "What will I do if I lose this house? What will I do? I think about it all the time." She is part of what economists are calling a nationwide epidemic as foreclosure rates reach record levels. The trend cuts across geographic, economic and social boundaries. Patricia Ammerman, a Washington area real estate agent who specializes in foreclosure properties, said many of her clients are affluent professionals who often do not want her to put up "For Sale" signs. "They don't want people to know," she said. In Maryland, 8,500 loans went into foreclosure from July through September, propelling the state to 16th nationwide in foreclosure filing rates from 37th during the same period a year earlier, said RealtyTrac, a service that follows foreclosure trends. Virginia, with 7,700 foreclosures, was ranked 21st, a 500 percent increase over the same period last year. The District has also faced an explosive rise in foreclosures. There were 331 filings in the third quarter, a 900 percent increase over second-quarter filings. And although a majority of those facing foreclosure might not be on the street for Christmas -- the process often takes months to complete -- they, like Griffin, will go through this usually joyous season knowing that next year, many will probably be out of their homes. Although President Bush recently proposed a plan to help bail out homeowners in trouble, the program is designed to help those who have fallen one or two mortgage payments behind and whose mortgage interest rates are about to adjust higher. The proposed program would not help those already in foreclosure, such as Griffin. Griffin said she did not know that she was being foreclosed on until she arrived home one day last year after walking her niece home from school and found a note taped to the front door. "I purchased your home at the foreclosure auction," the note read in part. "We need to work together to make this an orderly transition." An investor had bought the duplex, and she wanted Griffin out. Maryland law requires only that banks send notice of foreclosure. There is no requirement of proof that the notice has been received. Griffin maintains she never received a foreclosure notice. "For every other kind of lawsuit, there is a requirement that notice is received, except for foreclosures," said Phillip Robinson, an attorney with the nonprofit legal aid group Civil Justice, who is helping Griffin fight her foreclosure in court. "How many other people in Maryland are being foreclosed on this Christmas that don't even know about it?" Griffin was the first member of her family to break out of public housing and buy a home. She was making $12 an hour as a certified nursing assistant and saved for the down payment for two decades, stuffing dimes, dollar bills and whatever loose change she had into a plastic jar in her bedroom closet. When the water jug was full, she had $5,000. She pooled that with $5,000 from her then-fiance, moving company employee Herberto Tubaya, and they bought a duplex in Pasadena, north of Annapolis, for $123,000 on May 15, 2001. Griffin said she tried to do everything right when she bought the home. She went through a Fannie Mae counseling program for first-time buyers. The course's Certificate of Achievement is framed and displayed on a wall among pictures of her niece. Her family helped her move to her $930-a-month duplex from her $900-a-month, three-bedroom apartment in Annapolis. She had a Federal Housing Administration loan with a 30-year fixed interest rate of 6.5 percent. She planted flowers. Tubaya built a screened-in back porch. The little duplex on Bar Harbor Drive was so much more than a house to her. She taped a photo of it to her kitchen window, and every time she looked at it she thought, "You've accomplished something." Her niece has her own bedroom and a room, decorated with Tweety Bird wallpaper, for her Easy-Bake Oven and Barbie dolls. There also is plenty of room for Griffin's two grown children to stay on occasional weekends. Then, life changed unexpectedly. While sitting at the dining room table at 6:18 on Christmas morning 2004, Tubaya, who had been up all night cooking Christmas dinner, had a massive heart attack and died. He was 45. Suddenly, the monthly mortgage payments were too much for Griffin to handle alone. She had drained the plastic jug of its savings, and Tubaya's life insurance went to his mother. A few weeks later, Griffin called Ameriquest Mortgage -- she and Tubaya had refinanced with the company to pay for the porch -- asking for a deferral and to have Tubaya's name removed from the deed. An Ameriquest agent came to her home about midnight, she said, and had her sign a sheaf of papers. Griffin said she thought she was signing to remove Tubaya's name from the deed. Instead, she later learned, she had refinanced into an expensive $153,000 subprime loan with an adjustable interest rate that was set to rise to as much as 14 percent in coming years. In September 2005, after having failed to pay her $1,127 monthly mortgage for several months, Griffin filed for reorganization under Chapter 13 of the federal bankruptcy code. What she did not know, however, was that Ameriquest had already decided to foreclose on her. Attorneys for the current lender -- Ameriquest was taken over by Citigroup in August -- said in court papers that it sent her notices of the impending May 2, 2006, auction. She said she never received them. On May 18, she found the note on her door. Griffin was stunned. "They shouldn't be able to take our homes from us out of the blue like this," she said. Griffin called Robinson, at Civil Justice in Baltimore, which helps homeowners in foreclosure negotiate deals to keep their homes. Robinson maintains that Griffin's constitutional right to due process was violated. He sued in Anne Arundel Circuit Court and lost and has filed with the Maryland Court of Appeals. Robinson said 24 states require that lenders have proof that homeowners have received notices of foreclosure before any sale takes place, either through certified mail, a process server, a posting on the property or some combination of the three. In Virginia and the District, foreclosures are covered by contract law and not considered judicial proceedings, so there is no legal requirement that homeowners receive notification before a sale. Jacob Geesing, an attorney representing the lender that has acquired the loan, declined to comment on the pending litigation. He argued in Circuit Court that Ameriquest fully complied with Maryland law and sent Griffin three notices of the impending foreclosure, by certified and first-class mail. He acknowledged that the certified letters sent to Griffin were returned unopened. He said it is "remarkable" that Griffin did not receive any of the three foreclosure notices sent by first-class mail. Griffin testified, he argued in court filings, "that, except for all mail of any kind relating to her mortgage default and pending foreclosure sale of her home -- from any source whatsoever -- that she had never had any problem receiving mail addressed to her." Even if the Postal Service misdelivered the first-class mail, he argued, the lender could not be blamed for Griffin not knowing about the foreclosure. "It would be unfortunate, but it wouldn't be unconstitutional," he said, according to court transcripts. Consumer advocacy groups, which have filed friend of the court briefs on behalf of homeowners, say that the recent crisis shows flaws in the system. "When you see the run-up in foreclosures like we're seeing, that's when you see a lot of the idiosyncrasies exposed in state foreclosure laws," said Allen J. Fishbein of the Consumer Federation of America. "And the fact is that many of these laws are not consumer-friendly." Griffin's new fiance, a long-haul trucker, has put up a $13,000 bond to keep her in the home while the court case is pending. And, because Griffin is now out of work and on disability after several wrist surgeries, he is paying $1,200 a month toward the interest on the loan. If she had known about the foreclosure, she said, she could have at least sold the home, paid off the loan and had more than $100,000 in equity -- the house was valued at more than $300,000 in 2006 -- to help her start over. Now, if she loses in court, she will have nothing.

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