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Tackling consumer crises in Maryland

The Interview: Phillip Robinson of Civil Justice

By Jamie Smith Hopkins, The Baltimore Sun

September 25, 2011

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Civil Justice might be small — you can count the full-time attorneys at the nonprofit legal assistance group on one hand — but its impact is anything but.

The Baltimore organization has trained more than 1,400 lawyers in foreclosure law so they can help Marylanders who are struggling to save their homes.

That's a sweeping change in a state that just several years ago had few attorneys with any expertise in the subject — not counting the ones representing banks.

Civil Justice also files individual and class action lawsuits in its battle against ever-mutating housing problems. Predators tricking Marylanders into paying for foreclosure help that never materializes. Real estate professionals getting kickbacks to refer their customers to other service providers. Mortgage servicers foreclosing on homeowners with "robo-signed" documents that weren't verified by the employee whose name appeared on them — or, in some cases, were signed by someone else trying to approximate the signature.

Civil Justice's mission isn't just real estate, but much of the staff's efforts have been consumed by housing — and especially foreclosure — since that market went bust.

Now the nonprofit's executive director, Phillip Robinson, says he intends to move on after eight years. He'll keep running Civil Justice while its board conducts a nationwide search for his replacement. And then — probably in January — he will leave to join the Legg Law Firm in Frederick.

Robinson, 44, worked in nonprofits for years before starting at Civil Justice, first as deputy executive director. He helped the group expand its budget from $180,000 to $650,000 a year. As one of its three attorneys, he also works on class action lawsuits. He lives in Silver Spring with his wife, Terri, and their two sons, Parker, 8, and Tully, 6.

Robinson chatted with The Baltimore Sun recently about robo-signing, the value of consumer lawsuits and the next problems Civil Justice wants to tackle.

What has surprised you about the foreclosure crisis?

That it's still going. We thought it would be over in two years. I think what surprised me the most is that the economy is as fragile as it was and nobody knew it.

Why should people who aren't facing foreclosure care about robo-signing?

Because we're all going to end up paying for it. At the moment, state attorney generals are talking about a massive settlement, which may or may not make a difference for anybody. But we have a real problem. … Do we want parties, i.e. banks and their agents, to file bogus paperwork in court cases?

If we want a judicial system like … in the People's Republic of China or Iran, I guess it's OK to … condone the robo-signing practices. If we want a judicial system that's fair and reasonable and does not allow for these kinds of misbehaviors, we should care about it.

From a practical side, it's gummed up our economy. … If the foreclosures were done in a way that was improper, it may make it difficult to sell that property. People aren't going to want to buy it. If that property is next door to my house, that means I'll have a vacant property next to me that lowers property values in the neighborhood.

So it's problematic and we need to be concerned about it, and we shouldn't let [those who caused it] off with a slap on the wrist.

What could or should be done to ensure that mortgage documentation is handled properly from now on?

We got a decision [recently] from the U.S. District Court on a similar issue. Basically the court said we can't sue a lender for violating HAMP [the federal government's loan-modification program]. The reason we're suing the lender is because the federal government won't enforce HAMP.

So my clients now are left in the conundrum that we have a HAMP program with certain rules and policies; the federal government won't enforce it, the court won't let us sue about it. The answer to your question is, I think we need to allow homeowners the right to sue and seek recovery. … We gave the banks all this money. We established all these rules. … When they flat-out violate these rules and are unfair and deceptive about it, I think a homeowner should have a right to sue.

How many Marylanders has Civil Justice helped over the years?

My guesstimate … is we have helped directly or indirectly on our foreclosure work over 5,000 homeowners. … I'm not even including the [ripple effect of the] training. I'm just talking about people calling us back for consults on particular cases.

[In addition], we do referrals here [of Marylanders to outside attorneys]. … We do about 30 to 40 a day. … So it's tens of thousands of people we've helped, directly or indirectly.

What problems are you working on besides foreclosure?

We're … looking ahead to doing a lot of work in the bankruptcy court. There's a huge need there; people need representation. And the court needs help.

We're [also] heavily involved in a bunch of cases under the Real Estate Settlement Procedures Act involving sham title companies. These were established for partnerships between different real estate professionals as a means to, we allege, create referral fees and kickback arrangements that otherwise are illegal.

We do a fair amount of work in areas related to mortgage brokers and the fees that they charge: Are they lawful under Maryland law? Did they disclose the fees in the manner in which they are supposed to be disclosed?

We're going to unfortunately always have problems related to housing, but [the goal is] minimizing the big problems that just snowball.

Where does Civil Justice's funding come from?

We have short- and long-term commitments from different funders … and we continue to do public-interest cases that offer fee-generating opportunities for the organization — we can receive court-awarded attorney fee awards.

The kind of cases we do are ones the private bar won't do, typically, or aren't doing. And that's the way it's supposed to be. Our next step is we teach the private bar how to do it and we move on to some other type of case the private bar won't do.

What could be next for Civil Justice, besides bankruptcy work?

How to help someone with an unemployment claim, with a Social Security disability claim or other Social Security benefits is probably going to be vital. And that could be a great practice niche for young attorneys.

We're going to have, because of the economy, more people who need those services. And those services are going to be more limited.

What made you decide it was time to move on from Civil Justice?

I want to leave it in good hands. Structurally, it's in a terrific position for the short and long term. We have excellent partners. … From that perspective, it's the right time for CJ. I don't believe in nonprofit directors staying in perpetuity.

Personally, I'm committed to this kind of work — I'm just going to be doing it in private practice now. I'm excited about that.

jhopkins@baltsun.com

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