If you're a foreclosure defense lawyer doing work in Broward County, there are lots of reasons to think Chief Judge Victor Tobin doesn't side with homeowners. In his tenure at the top of the county's legal system, he has instituted rules that make it tougher on homeowners to fight foreclosures and resisted changes that would protect them from cases being rushed through the system.
The widespread belief that he's biased toward banks seemed supported this week when Tobin announced that he'll be leaving the bench for a job at the law offices of Marshall C. Watson, one of the largest foreclosure firms in the state. It's a move that angers foreclosure defense lawyers who say it appears as if Tobin established a system that will favor his new position. Worse, Tobin may
have been negotiating his new job while creating rules that will benefit him later.
"It's a concern, and certainly I can tell you that it looks really bad," said attorney Mike Wasylik, who has offices in Boca Raton and Dade City. "Judges are required to avoid even the appearance of impropriety, and I'm not saying what he did is improper, but certainly someone could look at it and say it appears that way."
Tobin didn't return a phone call to his office Thursday. But on Wednesday, he told the Pulp he's going to Watson to help the firm's quality control. Watson paid the state $2 million in March to settle an Attorney General's Office inquiry into foreclosure paperwork that the firm pushed through without the necessary checks required by law. Watson has for months been at the center of criticism of Florida firms accused of rushing foreclosures on homeowners who may not have received notice in order to collect millions in fees from the banks.
Tobin's reign at the top of the judiciary included several "administrative orders" changing the way the county handles foreclosures, many of them favoring lawyers representing the banks. The most contested of them forbids foreclosure sales from being canceled ten days before the auction is set to take place. That means homeowners who strike a last-minute deal with a bank to save their home have no choice but to watch their house go to the highest bidder. Wasylik says the rule solidified "the perception that Broward is a place where it's easier for banks to litigate."
Last summer, Tobin added to the pro-bank rules by instituting what's referred to as the "rocket docket." It requires foreclosure judges to move hundreds of cases a day with almost no discussion. Judges simply have no time to consider complex paperwork filed by foreclosure defense attorneys, says Fort Lauderdale lawyer Jason Weaver.
"It's doubtful justice can be done in three and a half minutes in front of a judge who has to hear hundreds of cases in a day," Weaver said.
Efforts to create a mediation program that could help homeowners settle with banks were also rebuffed by Tobin, attorneys say. He finally instituted a mediation program last year, but only after the Florida Supreme Court issued an administrative order requiring every circuit court to do so.
And just two weeks ago, Tobin instituted another rule hampering homeowners who want to fight foreclosures. Previously, attorneys representing homeowners could schedule online what's called a "special set" hearing. The hearing allows homeowners' attorneys to make complex legal arguments that can't be heard during the rocket docket. Tobin's new rule required that a hearing be set during the rocket docket in which attorneys must ask for a longer hearing. Homeowners typically have little money to fight foreclosures, and the extra bureaucracy means they must pay their attorney to appear at a hearing simply to ask for another hearing, says lawyer Margery Golant.
"In Broward, defendants have fewer rights and fewer due process options," Golant said.
Judges in Palm Beach and Miami-Dade counties have worked to protect homeowners facing bogus foreclosures, attorneys say. Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Jennifer Bailey, for instance, famously threw out 15,000 foreclosure cases for filing irregularities, served on a statewide task force on mortgage foreclosures, and was recognized with a community service award for her work protecting homeowners from bogus cases.
Meanwhile, Tobin gave many signs that he favored lawyers from the banks, lawyers say. In foreclosure courtrooms, most bank lawyers sit in the front, with access to tables where they can spread out their paperwork, while defense lawyers are relegated to the back, Golant says. "When you're told to go sit in the back of the room until your case is called and you see your opposing counsel sitting way up in the front of the room, you get the impression of bias," she said.
Worse, lawyers say Tobin has been known to say things in open court that seem to show a bias toward the banks. Golant says she heard Tobin tell one homeowner: "Sorry, you're not paying your mortgage. What do you want from me?"
The damage has already been done to the system, foreclosure defense lawyers say, but now they want Tobin to step down early. He agreed to continue on the bench until the end of June, but several defense lawyers say he can't continue to serve as chief judge after taking the job at a firm that has regular dealings with the court.
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"I don't know how long he has been negotiating with Watson -- a week, a month, a year -- but it sure doesn't look good," Golant said. The only remedy now, she says, is for Tobin to leave.
If he does, he may find himself back in Broward courts arguing foreclosure cases for the banks -- and he'll find a system that he designed to make his new job easier.