Anthony and April Soper's financial troubles were only starting last October when they applied for a mortgage adjustment through the Obama administration's Home Affordable Modification Program.
Bank of America, their mortgage servicer, put them on a HAMP trial payment plan in December that cut their monthly payments from about $4,000 a month to about $3,130 a month.
They say they made their reduced monthly payments early and did everything else that was asked of them. But they didn't get a permanent modification, and they say they don't know why.
Instead, according to a lawsuit they've brought against Bank of America, they are now more than $8,000 behind on a mortgage that had been current 12 months ago. Each of their credit scores has dropped by nearly 100 points. And, they allege, Bank of America has threatened them with foreclosure.
"We jumped through all their hoops, and they did nothing but cause us heartache," says April, 41.
Whether the Lake Stevens, Wash., couple keep their home may hinge on the outcome of a legal strategy that aims to join struggling homeowners with similar experiences in the HAMP program in a class-action lawsuit against the nation's largest bank. On Sept. 30 in Nashville, a federal court hearing is scheduled to consider consolidating the Sopers' case with more than a dozen others against Bank of America.
Similar lawsuits, also seeking class-action status, are pending against other major servicers such as JPMorgan Chase and Wells Fargo. Taken together, the cases threaten to amplify a growing public frustration with mortgage servicers' treatment of HAMP borrowers and HAMP's modest results. Permanent modifications, which lower mortgage payments to 31% of a borrower's pretax monthly income for five years, have been given to only about a third of the 1.3 million borrowers in trial plans since the program's launch in April 2009.
Most of the lawsuits allege that the three- or four-month trial payment plans are contracts, and that Bank of America and other servicers broke them by not giving permanent modifications to homeowners who made their trial payments on time and provided the necessary documentation.
Servicers have asked courts to dismiss some of the cases, saying the trial plans are not contracts. Bank of America, which says it plans to seek dismissal of the Soper case, argues in a court filing in a similar case that it must consider borrowers for a HAMP modification, but that it has discretion in granting permanent modifications.
The bank also argues that homeowners have no case because courts have dismissed earlier HAMP-related lawsuits against mortgage servicers. Those cases claimed that in denying some homeowners modifications, the servicers had breached the contracts they made with the Treasury Department when they agreed to participate in HAMP. Courts said homeowners could not sue on those grounds because they weren't parties to the contracts between the government and the servicers.
Lawyers for homeowners say they are now making a different legal argument: that Bank of America and others broke contracts made directly with homeowners.
"Borrowers have said we should be able to enforce the contract between Treasury and mortgage servicers, and many courts have rejected that. Our cases are the first filed that touch on a contract between servicers and borrowers," says Kevin Costello, a lawyer with Roddy Klein & Ryan in Boston, which represents homeowners in cases against Bank of America, JPMorgan Chase and Wells Fargo.
"This litigation is spreading all across the country. People have been relying on a promise all along, and then they get a denial. Then they find themselves in that much worse of a hole," he says.
Many homeowners could be affected: Nearly 620,000 trial modifications since spring 2009 have been canceled, according to an Aug. 20 Treasury report.
Chronicles of delays
The lawsuits allege servicers are purposely denying permanent modifications and keeping loans in default so lenders can profit from heftier late fees and other charges. Court filings provide detailed chronologies of borrowers who allege that over periods of months, they repeatedly sent banks requested documents that the banks said they didn't receive, made inquiries that went unanswered, and received promises of help that were later contradicted or denied by other representatives.
"Bank of America has serially strung out, delayed, and otherwise hindered the modification processes that it contractually undertook to facilitate when it accepted" billions of dollars in government bailout funds in 2008, the Sopers' complaint alleges.
By failing to live up to its obligations, according to the court filing, "Bank of America has left thousands of borrowers in a state of limbo — often worse off than they were before they sought a modification from Bank of America."
The Sopers' complaint alleges that Bank of America customer service representatives are instructed to mislead homeowners who call to inquire about loan modifications they've applied for. The complaint, citing information provided by unnamed former employees, says "representatives regularly inform homeowners that modification documents were not received on time or not received at all when, in fact, all documents have been received."
When homeowners are denied permanent modifications, even those who were current before going on reduced-payment trials are considered in default, and servicers tell them they must immediately pay the difference between their trial payments and their higher former payments to avoid foreclosure, according to the Sopers' complaint and others.
Borrowers' mortgage debt in default rises further the longer they stay in trial plans.
By making trial payments during and after the plan's scheduled end, the Sopers' complaint alleges, they "forgo other remedies that might be pursued to save their homes" such as restructuring their debt by filing for bankruptcy, or pursuing other ways to deal with their default, such as selling their homes.
Foreclosure proceedings have started against some borrowers while they were on trial plans, violating a Treasury directive, according to the lawsuits. Homeowners' credit scores have also been damaged when servicers cancel trial plans, then report the amounts in default to credit bureaus.
Some court filings claim bank employees have demanded upfront fees to start consideration of a modification — in violation of HAMP rules — or told homeowners to stop paying mortgages in order to start a trial modification. The Sopers' complaint alleges an unnamed homeowner was illegally asked to pay $1,400 upfront to Bank of America to be considered for a modification.
In another case, Alex Lam of New York alleges he was told he could only be considered for a HAMP trial modification if he stopped paying his mortgage for several months, according to a lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in Brooklyn against JPMorgan. He skipped two months of payments in 2009 and says he was denied a permanent modification. JPMorgan declined to comment.
Homeowners' lawyers say there is no effective way to appeal mortgage servicers' decisions because Treasury has no ability to overturn a decision.
Government watchdogs, too, have raised similar criticisms about the HAMP program, as well as about servicers' performance and Treasury's oversight.
The Congressional Oversight Panel, which oversees the government fund that pays for HAMP, said in an April report it "is deeply concerned about the unacceptable quality of the denial and cancellation reasons, and strongly urges Treasury to take swift action."
A Government Accountability Office report in June found servicers were erroneously denying permanent modifications to some homeowners because servicers were inaccurately applying a formula used to determine if the value of modifying the mortgage was greater than the proceeds from foreclosing. The number of homeowners who had been wrongly denied could "range from a handful to thousands."
When errors have been found, Treasury says, it has made servicers go back and fix problems, and re-do their work as a check on their decision-making. It also says that 45% of those who started trials but were ineligible for permanent adjustments received an alternative modification through their servicer. Fewer than 2% have gone to foreclosure sale, according to Treasury.
Some homeowners say they've already lost their homes to foreclosure because a permanent HAMP modification was denied to them.
Jennifer Voltaire, 33, of Medford, Mass., alleges Wells Fargo approved her for a trial HAMP modification, which lowered her payments starting in December 2009, according to court filings in U.S. District Court in Massachusetts. Voltaire is a co-plaintiff in the case.
But after making regular payments, Voltaire was told in May that she was being taken out of the HAMP program and was $40,000 in default, the lawsuit alleges. After she protested, Wells Fargo agreed to reconsider her for a HAMP modification, according to the complaint, but in July, the bank took possession of the home.
"I was literally crying my eyes out," Voltaire says. "I put everything I have into this house, into getting my kids out of the projects. That's the part that really hurts. My kids could look at me like I failed."
Wells Fargo agreed not to sell her house pending further court action. Voltaire is still staying there and making her trial plan payments.
In its motion to dismiss the lawsuit brought by Voltaire and others, Wells Fargo said the plaintiffs have not adequately shown that their trial modifications were contracts to enter into permanent modifications. It says homeowners benefited from being able to make reduced monthly payments while staying in their homes.
Treasury Department officials say homeowners in HAMP trial plans are not promised permanent modifications.
But the Soper lawsuit and others quote language from some trial plan agreements that states: "If I am in compliance with this trial period plan and my representations ... continue to be true in all material respects, then the servicer will provide me with a Home Affordable Modification Agreement ... that would amend and supplement the mortgage on the property, and the note secured by the mortgage."
"They get a letter from the bank that says, 'If I comply, I'm entitled to a HAMP modification.' That's a contract. The bank has not performed under the contract," says Steve Berman, a lawyer with Hagens Berman Sobol and Shapiro in Seattle, who represents the Sopers and other homeowners in HAMP cases.
The Obama administration's rapid launch of HAMP and its changing guidelines since then may have contributed to the program's administrative confusion. When HAMP began in 2009, servicers enrolled borrowers in trial modifications without verifying income or financial hardship. That brought immediate financial relief to more people, but ineligible homeowners were not weeded out until they completed trial plans. In June, the government began requiring participating servicers to verify applicants' income and financial hardship before starting trials. Treasury says that has improved the rate of conversions to permanent modifications.
"The HAMP program was an unprecedented response to an enormous crisis in this country's housing market. The administration needed to act quickly." says Phyllis Caldwell, Treasury's chief of the homeownership preservation office.
Meanwhile, the number of homeowners claiming improper denials of HAMP modifications is climbing.
One is Peter Salinas, 52, who struggled to pay his mortgage after the economy collapsed and his wife developed cancer. He appealed to his lender for help.
Salinas says he felt elated last year when he received a HAMP trial modification slashing $500 off his monthly payments. But later, he was told he made too much money to qualify for permanently reduced payments, he says. Wells Fargo threatened foreclosure if he didn't pay $9,000, the difference between his original mortgage and what he paid during the trial.
His servicer, Wells Fargo, declined to comment on his situation. Salinas is working with Gulfcoast Legal Services, a not-for-profit civil legal aid office, that says it is preparing a lawsuit against the lender.
"I was convinced I was doing everything right," says Salinas, a reporter for an automotive trade publication who lives near Bradenton, Fla. "I wasn't trying to walk away from this mortgage. It's just infuriating."