Two Prince George's families filed a class action lawsuit yesterday seeking to recover millions of dollars in home equity allegedly lost by hundreds of Maryland homeowners in a foreclosure-rescue scheme.
The lawsuit, filed in Prince George's County Circuit Court, claims to involve the single largest mortgage fraud in Maryland history and also seeks unspecified damages from six known and several unknown defendants. It indicates that criminal investigations are under way.
"It's statewide, and it's at least a couple hundred people," said Phillip Robinson, executive director Civil Justice Inc., a Baltimore nonprofit that helped prepare the lawsuit. "There are other victims outside of P.G. County, in almost every county," including Baltimore and Howard counties and perhaps Baltimore City, Robinson said.
Robinson said Civil Justice may ask Gov. Martin O'Malley for a moratorium on foreclosures to address the problems since there are hundreds of people at risk of losing their homes.
Foreclosures rates have been rising sharply in the wake of the housing market's slump, especially in the suburbs, as many buyers who had stretched to purchase homes have found themselves unable to keep up with payments. Just last week the Mortgage Bankers Association reported that loans in the foreclosure process in Maryland rose nearly 30 percent in the first quarter compared with a year earlier. The share of borrowers behind on their payments rose nearly 20 percent.
Named in the complaint filed yesterday are Metropolitan Money Store Corp., a Lanham company that bills itself as a foreclosure consultant and credit services business; Fordham and Fordham Investment Group Ltd. of Lanham; RTE Title & Escrow LLC of Largo; Sussex Title LLC of Rockville; Diane Jones of Capitol Heights; Leticia Nicholls of Takoma Park and other, unknown defendants.
Civil Justice filed the suit along with Legg Law Firm LLC of Frederick and The Holland Law Firm of Annapolis on behalf of two Prince George's County couples, Melvin J. Proctor Jr. and Nadine M. McKenzie-Proctor, and Delores Wallace and Ronnell Wallace, and other homeowners allegedly bilked by the same defendants.
Telephones at Metropolitan Money Store and Fordham and Fordham have been disconnected. Spokespeople for RTE Title and Sussex Title declined comment. Other defendants could not be reached for comment.
Most of the advertising of the mortgage-foreclosure rescues was done in the Washington area on radio, television and with street signs, Robinson said. He said the state as well as federal agencies, including the FBI, were investigating.
State regulators did not return a phone call yesterday, but a Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation memo attached to the lawsuit said the state and other government agencies were conducting "a major investigation." An FBI spokeswoman was unable to comment yesterday.
Peter Holland, one of the attorneys who filed the case, estimated that an average of $100,000 in equity was taken out of each home involved.
"We're talking about bad people," he said yesterday. "A mortgage foreclosure rescue scam is worse than predatory lending. They find out how much equity is in the house, and they come at you like vultures."
According to the suit, the companies approached people already in the foreclosure process but who had significant equity with an offer to save their house. The defendants then arranged its sale to a straw buyer, telling homeowners they could remain in their house for a year and then repurchase it, the suit said.
"The mortgage taken out by the straw buyer was invariably far in excess of the mortgage being foreclosed, which allowed Metropolitan, Fordham and the straw purchaser to cash out the equity in the property to enrich themselves," the suit charged.
"Hundreds of Maryland families, who thought they had entered into contracts to save their homes from foreclosure, did in fact enter into illegal contracts and transactions facilitated by real estate professionals whose sole motive was to enrich their extravagant lifestyles at the expense of hardworking Marylanders who were cash poor but equity rich in their properties," the lawsuit said.
Holland said he believes the scheme has been going on for at least a year.
"This is a foreclosure of the American dream," he said. "They're stealing not only the equity but the title and possession, too."