Throughout the pandemic, the Mortgage Foreclosure Clinic continued to work to help South Jersey homeowners keep their homes, using creative ways to connect with clients while the law school buildings were closed.
Working with non-profit agencies in Southern New Jersey, including Clarifi, a housing and financial counseling agency, Rutgers clinic students, under the direction of Professor Anne Mallgrave, represented clients at risk of losing their homes in foreclosure. “Homeowners are unrepresented in 95 percent of the cases,” said Mallgrave. “It’s what we see over and over again. At least in the cases referred to us by Clarifi, it makes all the difference in the world [for the homeowner] to have representation.”
Students Riley Anderson, Eric Bessette, Lauren Coyle, Taylor Farrow, Brian Hayes, Bao Ngo, and Danielle Pell, all RLAW ’21, participated in the clinic during the 2020-21 academic year. Tess Berkowitz, Christian Chung, Kasey Gregg and Harry Harnitchek, RLAW ’22, also participated.
Clinic students worked with a partner and each semester, each Mortgage Foreclosure Clinic team is assigned to resolve a case started in the previous semester and also take on a new case. The students took part in training that included interviewing and counseling, advanced legal research skills, and persuasive writing.
Their work included requesting documents from lenders and researching and analyzing state and federal mortgage and foreclosure laws. Federal laws include a number of regulations that govern what a lender can and cannot do when servicing a mortgage and what it must do when a homeowner with a federally-backed mortgage is delinquent in paying their mortgage. “The students have to master their ability to read different laws at different levels . . . and then need to go through the client’s often voluminous mortgage files to find out what went wrong here,” Mallgrave said.
Despite state and federal foreclosure moratoriums that were in place, Mallgrave said there were several homeowner clients who needed help. She said their clients faced a variety of challenges – losing their jobs, going through divorces, not having their mortgage payments accurately credited to their accounts, and having their monthly mortgage payment suddenly and unexpectedly increase as a result of mistakes made by loan servicers contracted by the lender to service the mortgage.
Mallgrave said because of the pandemic restrictions, students found creative ways to connect with clients, through phone calls, Zoom meetings, and occasional outdoor conferences. “They did a great job of effectively lawyering clients remotely,” she said. “Not all of our clients had access to the technology we had.” One particular challenge was getting needed documents from clients; students were creative in arranging to get documents from their clients, even offering to come to the client’s home for a front porch pick-up.”
Mallgrave said students were successful in many of their representations. She described cases that occurred during the last year that were resolved in favor of the homeowner:
- A homeowner who had lost his job and survived an illness, and whose home had been foreclosed upon and was scheduled for sheriff’s sale in April 2020, was able to apply to the court for assisted mediation in the hopes of saving his home after building up his finances to bring his mortgage out of arrears.
- Another client, who had fallen behind on her mortgage and was in foreclosure before the pandemic began, had attempted to modify her mortgage, so she could get back on track with her payments, by submitting a mortgage modification application with the loan servicer. The loan servicer kept “losing” documents she submitted and would continuously tell her she needed to submit additional documents even though they had previously told her she had submitted everything needed. Students prepared a motion on the client’s behalf asking the court to allow the client to participate in court-assisted mediation and represented the client at mediation. As a result, the client was approved for a mortgage modification and saved her home from foreclosure.
- In another matter, clients had fallen behind in their mortgage after their lender failed to properly credit their account for payments made and charged the account for items that should not have been charged. The students requested the clients’ file from the lender, reviewed federal regulations to determine what fees could properly be charged to a mortgage account and how payments had to be credited, very carefully reviewed all of the account documents to determine where the mistakes were made, and wrote a persuasive letter to the lender outlining the mistakes. As a result, the mistakes were corrected and the clients were offered an opportunity, and payment plan, to get back on track with their mortgage, which they had previously not been able to pay for several years as a result of the lender’s mistakes.
Hartnitchek said of his experience, “I would say doing the work meant a lot, it was gratifying to be able to help someone who just needed a little assistance to keep his home. I believe it will help in my career because it is important to always remember that there is always a person who will be deeply affected by the outcome of a case. The stakes are always very high for someone involved.”