By Diane Alverio
When the flyer from State Law Group arrived in January 2011, Ramon Lopez thought finally there was hope to save his home. The 58-year-old laborer from New Britain had just endured the death of his son, a stroke, and because of the shrinking economy, fewer hours from his employer.
Lopez, who came from Puerto Rico 26 years ago, says he tried and was denied three times to modify his mortgage with its holder – Wells Fargo. The offer of help from State Law Group, based in California, seemed perfect. “We were frustrated, all doors seemed closed to us, including the bank doors. We saw this as an opportunity until our economic situation improved,” Lopez said.
He contacted the company. Because of his limited English, he asked his cousin Eileen Rivera to translate. They say they were told there would be no cost because this was an Obama program. Anxious to hold on to his single family home he bought eight years ago on a quiet street, Lopez signed on.
And there begins a 15-month trail of e-mails, phone calls and $5,030 in payments “for processing paperwork for the bank” by Lopez to the State Law Group. The trail does not lead to a happy ending however; rather, it leads to foreclosure on the property this past March by Wells Fargo.
Victim of a Scam
Attorney William Rivera of The Rivera Law Group in New Britain is now fighting against the odds for Lopez. Rivera, who was retained this past June, said, “There is no doubt in my mind. This family was a victim of a scam. They never had a fair chance to modify their mortgage.”
Rivera has contacted the state Attorney General’s office to investigate and he is hoping Lopez’s penchant for keeping accurate records of all e-mails and a journal of all calls with specific dates, time, who he spoke with, and the topic of the conversation will help investigators.
Susan Kinsman, director of communications for Attorney General George Jepsen, said in an email that his office had received two complaints about the State Law Group about “the charging of up-front fees for help renegotiating a mortgage and failure to do the work promised, in violation of Connecticut law,” including one from Attorney Rivera that is currently being investigated. The other had been referred to the state Department of Banking, which is well aware of the State Law Group.
Carmine Costa, director of the banking department’s consumer credit division, said, “We can neither confirm nor deny potential investigations.” But he was willing to talk about past interactions with the State Law Group. “We have been successful in getting some refunds for individuals we have become aware of,” he said.
Make that 10 individuals the state is aware of – not including Ramon Lopez. “We have contacted [the State Law Group] and there has been no official action because they have been cooperative when we raised the issues and advised them of the law,” Costa said. That law, which applies to in this situation, requires a firm to be licensed to practice in Connecticut and, if licensed, not to charge more than $500 fee.
State Law Group officials did not return a call from CTLatinoNews.com who spoke to a receptionist who would only give his name as Brian. The law firm also did not respond to a follow-up email sent through its website.
All Seemed Well
At first, all seemed well Lopez says. He signed documents authorizing the State Law Group to represent him with Wells Fargo. Then months went by and they assured him by saying, Rivera claims, “These things take time.”
After a few months he was assigned a Spanish speaking representative named Yvonne Encinas. He says, “She would just tell me to keep sending me any documents Wells Fargo sends you. We’re not going to let you lose your house.” He offered a letter from the State Law Group she sent with the name of the attorney assigned to his case. Soon there were the requests for payments for the paper-processing fees.
The rest of 2011 passed and Lopez said Encinas kept reassuring him all was OK. When asked if he didn’t wonder about the time the process was taking – more than a year – Lopez who teaches adult religion at St. Peter’s Church in Hartford says, “I am a man of faith, I believe in people.”
His attorney has a thick file of e-mails that seem to support what Lopez claims took place. In an e-mail on March 27, 2012 – more than a year after Lopez agreed to have the State Law Group represent him – Encinas apologizes for repeatedly saying she had been in touch with Bank of America on his behalf during their phone conversations after Lopez reminds her, his bank is Wells Fargo – not Bank of America.
That date is significant because a day earlier Lopez, without his knowledge, had lost his home in court. Wells Fargo had successfully foreclosed and now had title to his soon-to-be former home.
Only 3 Days Left
Lopez has already received an eviction notice. If the case is not re-opened by this Thursday, July 26, four months after the original court foreclosure action, the family will then receive an execution notice and will have 24 hours to leave their home.
Rivera claims the State Law Group never contacted Wells Fargo to actually negotiate the mortgage. He has a copy of a letter from Wells Fargo to State Law Group stating they had tried to contact the California firm several times but to no avail.
When Lopez received the notice of foreclosure he called Encinas. She asked him to send it to her along with his bank statements, which he says he did. He did not hear back. He and his cousin say they then tried calling about 20 times.
Finally after two weeks, Encina answered and Lopez says, “She told me because I had not sent the last requested documents by April 10 there was nothing she could do. She said I had lost the house, it was my own fault and you have to move.” They say Encinas then hung up on them.
An e-mail verifies part of the conversation. Attorney Rivera says Encinas citing the April 10 date does not make sense, since the court had ruled on the foreclosure on March 26, effectively closing the case.
To re-open the case, Wells Fargo would have to agree Rivera says, but they so far have refused even after he explained the circumstances to them.
“Every customer is considered individually and there may be any number of reasons that an approval for a refinance is declined. Things considered may include, loan status, LTV (loan to value), first or second lien positions, if the property is owner occupied and others. Because of customer privacy laws, we cannot discuss details of any borrower’s loan,” said Veronica Clemons, who handles home mortgage communications for Wells Fargo out of Charlotte, N.C., in an email explaining why the loan was never modified to begin with.
Lessons To Learn
Rivera is pursuing multiple legal options, including the complaints with the Connecticut Attorney General’s Office and state Department of Banking, but says, “The odds are against us, but we are not giving up.” Those options potentially include filing for bankruptcy, which would stay foreclosure for three months. Lopez may lose the home, Rivera explained, but he would not be responsible for the debt. In 24 to 36 months, he could then apply for a new mortgage on another property through the Federal Housing Administration.
He adds he hopes other Latino families others can learn from the Lopez case, “This type of scam is prevalent in the Latino community – we trust the written word, it comes nicely packaged and we have no reason to doubt, but we can’t be so trusting.”
(Additional reporting by Keith Griffin)