Real Estate

False signatures cloud Maryland foreclosure cases

Lawyers at two Maryland firms handling foreclosures filed court documents without actually signing the papers themselves, a development that is calling into question the validity of at least some of the home foreclosure cases in the state.

The two attorneys, one based in Hunt Valley and the other in Bethesda, have filed more than 20,000 foreclosure cases in Maryland courts since 2008.

The lawyers have acknowledged that in documents filed in court for some of their foreclosure cases their names were signed by others at their behest. The documents, known as affidavits, are the written equivalent of court testimony. Maryland law requires that affidavits be signed by the person whose name they bear, according to the state attorney general's office.

The lawyers have submitted "corrective affidavits" in counties across the state in recent months in an effort to remedy the signature problem. The courts could not immediately say how many corrective affidavits have been filed, but Mike Morin, an Annapolis attorney who represents homeowners, said there have been hundreds.

"We believe the issue extends to thousands of cases," said Morin, who has defended borrowers with other attorneys.

Meanwhile, the Maryland secretary of state between August and this month removed from office six notaries employed at the firms for violations related to improperly prepared documents. The agency is investigating four more. Notaries must verify that the person signing a document is who he says he is.

The signature issue is separate from "robo-signing," in which mortgage officials sign foreclosure documents in bulk without verifying the details. That practice has prompted a growing number of companies to halt foreclosure sales in many states.

In the corrective affidavits filed by Jacob Geesing, of Bierman, Geesing, Ward & Wood in Bethesda, and Thomas P. Dore, with Hunt Valley-based Covahey, Boozer, Devan & Dore, both lawyers said the information in the original documents was accurate — except for the signatures.

'Signed at my direction'

"The aforesaid papers were prepared under my supervision and signed at my direction," Geesing wrote in the corrective affidavits to explain the original signatures, a phrase echoed in Dore's filings. "The process was implemented through an inappropriate view that it would be sufficient."

A document examiner hired by Jerry Solomon, an attorney who represents Maryland and Florida homeowners facing foreclosure, said that Geesing's name had been signed by multiple people. The Baltimore Sun, reviewing court documents, found Geesing signatures ranging from a scrawl to neat cursive script. The "D" that constitutes Dore's signature varied as well, the review found.

Dore did not respond to telephone messages and letters left at his office and home during the last week seeking comment. Another firm principal, Mark S. Devan, declined to comment.

Geesing said in an interview that the "delegated signing authority" was not robo-signing and has not happened since 2009. "We voluntarily took corrective action," he said, adding that his office "became aware" of the problem about a year ago. "We've had a brand-new procedure since last year, so this is an old issue in our firm, and we don't believe there are any issues with current foreclosures. I'm confident there are not."

Geesing said he could not say how many cases he filed that had documents signed by someone other than himself. He would not elaborate on decisions that led to others' signing documents in his stead. The information in the documents, he reiterated in a later, e-mail interview, "was true and accurate in substance to the best of our knowledge.

"No borrower has alleged otherwise and, certainly, no court has held otherwise," Geesing wrote in the e-mail.

But in a letter sent Saturday to the chief judge of Maryland's Court of Appeals, Gov. Martin O'Malley and every member of Maryland's mostly Democratic congressional delegation referred to corrective affidavits as an example of why they wanted the courts to halt foreclosures for at least 60 days.

"These developments provide clear indication that the same problems with robo-signed affidavits and other flawed documentation acknowledged in other states are also occurring in Maryland," they wrote, adding later, "Because we can no longer have confidence in the process by which the documentation justifying a foreclosure is produced, the fundamental fairness of the entire foreclosure process is now in serious doubt."

In response to the officials' letter, the Court of Appeals has launched a review to determine if it has the authority to halt foreclosures, a spokeswoman for the state court system said Tuesday. The chief judge, Robert M. Bell, declined to comment about the effect that improperly signed affidavits could have on the foreclosure cases involved.

Raquel Guillory, a spokeswoman for Maryland Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler, said her agency was aware of the two attorneys' affidavits but could not say whether an inquiry was under way.

Speaking of the national documentation problems, Guillory said, "We've quickly come to realize … that there are so many layers to this issue, and our office will be taking a look at each and every one of them."

Frank M. Conaway Sr., clerk of the Circuit Court in Baltimore, where the two attorneys have filed more than 3,200 foreclosure cases since 2008, said the nature of the original documents would seem to undermine the cases' validity.

"Who knows what a judge might say?" said Conaway, who has announced his intention to run for mayor next year. "Something needs to be done, I would think."

Improper affidavits would also call into question the validity of the deeds on the homes taken back by lenders, said Anne Balcer Norton, an attorney who is the state's acting deputy commissioner of financial regulation. An affidavit, she said, is "relied on throughout the process, so if it's invalid at the beginning it's going to have an effect on the ultimate end result."

'Different-looking signatures'

It was last fall that Solomon scrutinized affidavits purportedly signed by Geesing, the Bethesda lawyer. One signature struck Solomon as unusual because it was too neat. Another signature, also supposedly Geesing's, differed from the first. Notary signatures varied, too. Solomon pulled about two dozen documents and shipped them to a certified document examiner to verify his suspicion that the paperwork was improperly signed.

"There were so many different-looking signatures," said John J. Bascietto, a Beltsville attorney who represents homeowners with Solomon and Morin.

Solomon, in five cases last November, asked judges to bar clients' foreclosure auctions on the basis of "fraud on the court." Geesing agreed to Solomon's motions to have all the cases dismissed.

"If you have a right way to do it and a wrong way to do it and you consistently do it the wrong way, somebody should say, 'Stop,' " said Solomon.

Two of the homeowners involved in the dismissed cases are now fighting new foreclosure proceedings even as they're being considered for a loan modification, Solomon said. Another refiled case ended with the home's being auctioned. Solomon is no longer representing the remaining two borrowers.

In August, one of Solomon's co-counsels looked through a case file for another client they were representing and found that Dore, the Hunt Valley attorney, had submitted a corrective affidavit acknowledging the same signature issue.

Geesing — who launched nearly 10,000 foreclosure proceedings last year — submitted corrective affidavits for cases in almost every county in Maryland, according to a Baltimore Sun analysis of the court's online docket system. Because the dockets don't offer specifics, The Sun reviewed a sample of affidavits filed by Geesing and Dore in circuit courts in Anne Arundel County, Baltimore City, Baltimore County and Howard County. All were about the signature issue.

In at least some of the attorneys' cases, the record was corrected after the borrowers' homes had already been auctioned. That means the substitute signings could affect the new buyers as well as the lenders and borrowers.

A question of insurance

Winston Miller, vice president at Artisan Title Co. in Baltimore, who's been in the title business for 35 years, said the issue of whether the deeds are valid is "a doozy" of a question.

"I would immediately have to ask my title insurer whether or not we could insure over it," he said.

Concerns about deeds have been raised nationally since mortgage-servicer staffers acknowledged in court depositions that they could not personally verify — as affidavits require — that the information they were attesting to was correct. The New York Times reported early this month that Minnesota-based Old Republic National Title Insurance Co. told agents that it would no longer insure titles on homes foreclosed on by two of the servicers reviewing their procedures, JPMorgan Chase and Ally Financial's GMAC Mortgage.

Loose lending during the housing boom and layoffs in the resulting recession have left the mortgage industry overwhelmed with defaults. Companies that service the loans for investors were trying during the spring to foreclose on more than 40,000 homes in Maryland and 2 million nationwide, according to the most recent figures from the Mortgage Bankers Association.

Consumer attorneys have complained for years about problems in the foreclosure process, including mortgage servicers who did not adequately prove that the investors on whose behalf they were repossessing homes actually owned the often-resold loans. Judges were generally unwilling to throw cases out due to such errors, sometimes saying that what mattered was not the details but the borrowers' delinquency, Bascietto said.

But the recent revelations of robo-signing prompted outrage and nationwide calls for investigations.

"We didn't know the full breadth of what was happening behind the scenes until now," said Phillip R. Robinson, executive director of Civil Justice, a Baltimore nonprofit that helps homeowners in foreclosure. "When you have these kinds of issues, the integrity of the system has been damaged."

Mortgage servicers say the information included in court filings is correct even if the process might not have been.

"We believe the accuracy of the factual loan information contained in the affidavits was not affected by whether or not the signer had personal knowledge of the precise details," JPMorgan Chase said in a recent statement. "The affidavits were prepared by appropriate personnel with knowledge of the relevant facts based on their review of the company's books and records."

Thomas A. Cox, a Maine attorney who helped bring robo-signing to light, has heard that argument from servicers and he disagrees. He said he's seen "a lot of mistakes" in case files — from how much is owed to whether homeowners were given notice.

"Any homeowner and their family losing a house is a tragedy," said Cox, who is retired and is working pro bono. "To have those people start wondering if it was done fairly, and if they got a fair shake, is really compounding the tragedy."

Baltimore Sun reporters Larry Carson, Nick Madigan and Andrea F. Siegel contributed to this article.