Fla. Supreme Court disciplining law firms for foreclosure-related violations

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ORLANDO, Fla. - When the foreclosure crisis rocked Florida, it gave rise to a new legal specialty: foreclosure defense attorneys.

But 9 Investigates found out that in many cases, struggling homeowners already in desperate situations hand over thousands of dollars to attorneys who often can only delay the inevitable – a foreclosure.

WFTV's Lori Brown discovered the Florida Supreme Court has taken the rare step of disciplining attorneys statewide in hundreds of loan modification and foreclosure defense cases.

Brown met with Eva Stephens, who said she turned her Orlando house into her dream home. But she later fell on tough times -- and went to an attorney for help.

"He was assuring me that something could be done," said Stephens, who hired the foreclosure defense attorney.

But more than $2,000 and one year later, Stephens is still waiting for a loan modification, now with a new attorney.

9 Investigates discovered in formal complaints that there are many others like Stephens, people frustrated that the thousands spent on legal help have not saved their homes.

The Florida bar has opened 1,200 foreclosure-related investigations.

The homeowner complaints include going to court unrepresented and attorneys filing the wrong paperwork in court.

Brown learned that 306 law firms statewide were disciplined by the Florida Supreme Court for foreclosure-related violations. The disciplinary issues include attorneys getting large fees for little work and providing frivolous defenses.

Stephens' firm, Kaufman, Englett and Lynd, was admonished for advertising misconduct.

"Do foreclosure attorneys accept thousands of dollars from people who may not be in any position to save their homes?" Brown asked KEL partner Craig Lynd.

"Yes, they do because there's a lot of things that can still be done even though a particular homeowner may not be able to save their home," Lynd said.

KEL, with offices in downtown Orlando, has thousands of foreclosure cases.

Lynd said his firm could have helped Stephens if she had paid the firm's flat rate for a second year.

But Brown also found out it's not always necessary for struggling homeowners to pay an attorney.

"We tell them you can actually receive these types of services for free. And they're like, 'Why didn't anyone tell me?'" said Lora Lee Johnston, an attorney with community legal services of Mid-Florida.

Lynd maintains there's value in hiring an attorney.

"You almost always are in a better position if you hire an attorney than trying to do it yourself," Lynd said.

Stephens has a different opinion: "You're going to fall for it if you're desperate."

More than 20 percent of the disciplinary actions handed out by the Florida Supreme Court went to attorneys handling mortgage and foreclosure cases, brown discovered.

While the Florida Supreme Court has admonished each of KEL's partners, they are all still in good standing with the association.

For help with the legal issues associated with foreclosures, homeowners can contact Community Legal Services of Mid-Florida or the Homeownership Preservation Foundation hotline.