'Deadbeat' fights back against foreclosure process

10/20/2010 11:24 AM

10/20/2010 4:04 PM

This deadbeat took on Wall Street, and Wall Street was cowed.

Lisa Epstein, a 45-year-old cancer nurse, mother to a 3-year-old girl, and prolific blogger, has spent the past year growing a grass-roots foreclosure-fighting coalition that is partly credited with forcing the nation's largest banks to take a step back and review their home repossession machines.

She got tangled in the system herself when she was served with foreclosure papers last year, lost her top credit rating and was slapped with the deadbeat label.

But along with fellow local blogger Michael Redman, 35, Epstein fought the machine. The duo have combed through Palm Beach County court records; posted suspicious foreclosure affidavits online; written to judges, politicians and attorneys; and attracted a rock-star-like following of thousands nationwide.

The mounting evidence found by the group of citizen investigators couldn't be ignored, and by late September the nation's colossal financial institutions were on the spot to explain and fix their faulty foreclosure efforts.

"We used to be the wacko fringe; now we're cutting-edge," Epstein said. "Finally, my questions are being asked by reporters and attorney generals nationwide."

Each month, Epstein draws a small crowd to her Foreclosure Hamlet happy hour at E.R. Bradley's Saloon.

Divorced, sick, laid-off or self-employed in an economy on the rocks, attendees gather for support and to share information, attracted by a feisty nurse in a cute pink scarf who refuses to surrender.

Chris Immel, an attorney with the foreclosure defense firm Ice Legal in Royal Palm Beach, said Epstein has been instrumental in providing information and evidence to the public so people could fight on their own. As more people have challenged the allegedly forged signatures, backdated documents and questions of loan ownership, it's been harder to sweep the issues under the rug.

"She went in and looked at individual cases, spent time in the courtroom and courthouse reviewing the files, and she provided the knowledge," Immel said.

In September, Ally Financial Inc., formerly GMAC, said it was freezing foreclosure evictions and sales after depositions of an employee were widely circulated in which he admitted to signing off on 10,000 foreclosure affidavits a month and swearing to personal knowledge on each.

Using so-called "robo-signers" was an industry practice, some experts have said. JPMorgan Chase, Bank of America, Litton Home Loan Servicing and PNC Financial Services Group soon followed Ally's lead.

Bank of America announced Monday it was restarting foreclosures in 23 states, including Florida, and will resubmit affidavits where necessary.

Epstein's road from full-time nurse to foreclosure fighter began when she started hearing her cancer patients talk about their mortgage woes.

In the summer of 2009, a patient with brain cancer was being evicted from her home. Epstein examined the court records and found that the foreclosure was scheduled for a summary judgment hearing - a quickie court trial requested when the banks argue that the foreclosure facts are irrefutable.

Epstein helped the woman write a letter to read to the judge and went to court with the woman on her lunch break. Neither could determine the true owner of the woman's loan, and when the bank's attorneys didn't show up at the hearing, the judge canceled the summary judgment.

"I believe nobody, and I mean nobody, knows who owns what anymore," Epstein said. "We as borrowers didn't create that situation."

When Epstein found herself unable to get a loan modification on a condo she was trying to sell but couldn't, she ended up in foreclosure. Her 800 credit score tumbled.

She said she started hanging out at the courthouse, talking to attorneys, sifting through foreclosure filings and sitting in on trials.

Oddly, she said she was an introvert before her foreclosure - so quiet, she joked, that she was afraid her daughter wouldn't learn to talk.

But in October 2009, she started ForeclosureHamlet.org. A month later, she held her first foreclosure happy hour.

"This has been an amazing amount of support for me, and knowledge," said Jensen Beach resident Nicole West, who said she was "bait and switched" into a predatory loan that she can no longer afford.

"The banks beat you up for so long that you want to just give up," said West, who attended Thursday's happy hour. "But these people here, they are a very rare breed who are willing to fight."

Redman, who runs 4closurefraud.org, got involved in researching court documents when a family member went into foreclosure.

"I started looking into the public record and none of it was adding up," he said. "I'm a very logical thinker and nothing about this was logical."

Redman and Epstein have left their full-time jobs to focus on the foreclosure fight. Redman, previously an online automobile consultant, gets some support for his website from a foreclosure defense attorney. Epstein expects to go back to full-time nursing soon.

Although last week's happy hour was the first since the banks began reviewing their foreclosure work, Epstein said she didn't feel triumphant.

"This is a devastation to the whole of America's economy," she said. "Yet they've made us feel marginalized. I'm as reliable as I was before the foreclosure, but my credit score now says I'm a deadbeat."

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