Florida's courts cleared 65,830 foreclosure cases in a three-month period beginning July 1, with 71 percent being decided in quickie hearings before the judge sometimes called "rocket dockets."
According to a report released today by the Office of State Courts Administration, only 23 foreclosure cases went to trial statewide during the same time period.
The report, the first of its kind, was conducted between July 1 and Sept. 30 to measure how Florida's 20 circuit courts are using a $6 million state allotment awarded over the summer to hire additional judges and staff to handle foreclosures.
Despite clearing 65,830 cases, 25 percent of which were dismissed for reasons that could include a completed short sale or deed-in-lieu of foreclosure agreement, the report found a backlog of 396,509 cases are still clogging Florida courts.
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Lawmakers awarded the $6 million, in part, hoping that getting homes back onto the market will hasten an economic recovery.
"We needed a way to see how we are doing and identify reasons for delays or slowdowns," said Kris Slayden, who oversees foreclosures for the Office of State Courts Administration. "This shows we are doing what we said we would do, reducing the backlog."
Palm Beach County's foreclosure court cleared the most cases in the state during the three-month period, wiping 9,846 suits from its system. About 70 percent of those cases were decided via summary judgment, with just one trial being held, according to the report.
The concern among foreclosure defense attorneys has been that some senior judges hired with the state money would rush through foreclosures using summary judgments. A summary judgment is held in lieu of a traditional trial when the facts of the case are considered irrefutable. They are often allowed when the borrower is not contesting the foreclosure or represented by an attorney, having possibly walked away from the home.
"Summary judgment is a shortcut that should rarely be used," said foreclosure defense attorney Tom Ice, of the Royal Palm Beach-based Ice Legal. "In foreclosure cases they are routinely filed and routinely granted. That's a disturbing trend that there are so few trials."
Ice said it's even more of a concern in light of recent revelations that some foreclosure affidavits, which are used in summary judgments, are flawed or fraudulent. Beginning in late September, major lenders including Bank of America, Ally Financial, Inc., and JP Morgan Chase, acknowledged that some of their foreclosure paperwork would need to be re-filed.
"All you need is one issue of fact, such as dispute over note ownership, to get a trial," Ice said.
Palm Beach County Judge John J. Hoy, who took over foreclosure court today, refused to comment for this story. Hoy replaces Judge Meenu Sasser, who is now hearing civil cases.
Palm Beach County, which is the 15th Circuit Court, received $646,540 of the $6 million, using it to hire two senior judges and six case managers to tackle foreclosures. The Palm Beach County Clerk and Comptroller's Office received $403,000 out of a $3.6 million statewide allowance given to clerks' offices to handle foreclosure paperwork.
Today's report showed Palm Beach County had 46,438 foreclosures backlogged as of June 30. That fell to 36,592 as of Sept. 30.
The 19th Circuit Court, which includes Martin and St. Lucie counties, received $212,729 to hire senior judges, case managers and administrative assistants. As of Sept. 30, it had cleared 951 cases, but still had a backlog of 18,110.