Real Estate: ACLU calls foreclosure courts biased- Says courts use quota

By Mike Schneider

Associated Press

ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) -- The ACLU challenged foreclosure courts in southwest Florida last week, claiming they are biased against homeowners and don't provide the same rights as regular civil courts.

The American Civil Liberties Union filed court papers in state appellate court in Lakeland asking for a review of the procedures used in foreclosure courts covering southwest Florida.

The lawsuit was filed on behalf of Georgi Merrigan, a Lee County homeowner in the middle of a foreclosure fight who wants her case taken out of foreclosure court and heard in regular civil court. Merrigan was unable to continue payments on a $335,000 loan in 2008 after she left her job as a paramedic to care for her husband, who had suffered a heart attack and was in a car accident.

The foreclosure courts were set up all over Florida last year to prevent foreclosure hearings from clogging up the regular circuit court system. They usually are run by retired judges and involve cases between homeowners who have defaulted on their mortgage payments and banks trying to claim the properties.

The ACLU claimed in court papers that procedures in foreclosure courts are set up to push through cases as quickly as possible, despite the fact that many cases have troubled paperwork. The emphasis on clearing cases puts homeowners at a disadvantage because it limits their opportunity to develop their cases or present a defense, the court papers said.

The ACLU said the foreclosure courts use a quota on the number of cases that should be cleared each month.

A spokeswoman for the 20th judicial circuit, which covers southwest Florida, said there were no set quotas but there always was a goal to clear up as many backlogged case as possible.

"They are given due process," said Sheila Mann, a spokeswoman for the courts.

But Mann said there isn't a lot of "wiggle room" in foreclosure cases since the courts are constrained by the law. If there is a problematic foreclosure where the banks' documentation of who owns the loan is suspect, it is up to the homeowner to bring it to the court's attention she said.

"People are trying to say it's the court's responsibility to ferret this information out," Mann said. "But if it's not brought to the court's attention, we're not investigators ... The courts can't give out legal advice."

Published: Mon, Apr 11, 2011

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