Miami-Dade Circuit Court — choked with foreclosure cases, many dating to 2009 — has gotten tough on pushing cases through the system.
Five months into a state-funded project, Florida’s busiest circuit court is conducting hundreds of foreclosure trials a week.
With $626,000 in special funds for the fiscal year ending June 30, 2013, the court has added two senior judge slots and a staff of case managers to help clear a backlog of some 53,668 foreclosure cases.
“It’s a rocket docket,” said Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Jon Gordon, a senior judge who is churning through about 50 trials a day.
Regular civil division judges also handle foreclosure proceedings, typically the more complicated ones, along with other cases.
Miami-Dade remains an epicenter for foreclosures. One in every 201 homes in Miami-Dade received some type of foreclosure filing in November, according to RealtyTrac, a California real-estate data firm. That compares with one in every 728 homes nationally.
The court’s challenge: to chip away at the mountain of cases, even as new foreclosure filings have picked up after a dramatic slowdown in 2010 and 2011, when banks faced regulatory challenges to egregious “robo-signing” practices.
“There is a consensus across the state that the locked up backlog [of foreclosure cases] is contributing to Florida’s economic difficulties, and the only way out of this is through it,” said Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Jennifer Bailey, administrative judge for the civil circuit division. “We’ve been charged by the Supreme Court with this funding to move these cases.’’
Since June, the court has reduced the backlog by more than 3,300 cases.
Miami-Dade’s most controversial tactic: The court is setting foreclosure cases for trial, forcing often reluctant parties to take action.
In the past, “We relied on the parties to move the cases ahead, and that truism doesn’t apply with foreclosure cases,” Bailey said. “We said: ‘We’re setting cases for trials.’ That’s all we’re doing.”
In most other types of lawsuits, one or both parties are motivated to press forward, filing motions and seeking hearings that move the case along.
But foreclosures are often different. The property owners may try to delay as long as possible, allowing more time to live in a residence, usually without paying, or even renting it out.
The lenders may have reasons of their own to delay. They may not be ready to take title to a property because they are still working through a pile of homes they took back earlier. They may not want to have to begin paying condominium or homeowners association fees, or to assume responsibility for maintenance.
Bailey said a variety of earlier strategies aimed at cajoling the parties in foreclosure actions to move their cases ahead have largely failed. Among them are case management conferences. “We realized we were just spinning our wheels,” she said.
“We said for the better part of two years, ‘Move your cases forward,’ ” said Bailey, who notes that motions filed in the court are sometimes left pending for years because attorneys never press for a hearing. “We see every procedure you could possible imagine to avoid going to trial.”