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“Master Robo Signer” – Jeffrey Stephan Vs. Georgia
February 11, 2011
By Justice@Home Staff Writer,
Yinka Winfre (firstname.lastname@example.org)
DeKalb County, GA homeowners fight Jeffrey Stephan and the banks to keep their home.
US Congressman Hank Johnson (D-GA) called him the “master” while chairing the December 15th, 2010 Congressional Judicial Committee Hearings on foreclosure. His real name is Jeffrey Stephan, and he — at least his signature — has shown up in the Congressman’s own back yard.
The Representative has his hands full refereeing a battle between homeowners and the nation’s largest lenders. Two of Johnson’s own constituents – Wekesa Madzimoyo and his wife, Afiya, have been waging a pro-se battle to stop Mr. Stephan’s employers- GMAC, JPMorgan Chase, and Bank of NY Mellon Trust (BNYMT) from foreclosing on their Stone Mountain, GA home. Just when it looked like the homeowners’ case might gain some traction in the GA State Court, the lenders moved the case to Federal Court and brought in quick-signing Jeffrey Stephan to perfect yet another retro-assignment.
South De Kalb County, GA is home to many educated, middle and upper-middle-class African Americans who flooded to the area in the 90s fueled by expanded educational and job opportunities. They were also driven by the aspirations of their parents and grandparents who fought to overcome the lingering legacy of sharecropping, Jim Crow, and redlining. They came to finally realize the American dream – upward mobility and home ownership.
“We never saw so many Black people living in so many fine houses. It was the Black Mecca,”
says Mr. Madzimoyo.
Then a DeKalb County Commissioner, Hank Johnson, saw a dark cloud behind the silver lining. He called it “predatory lending” and in 2002 authored and passed Georgia’s first approved ordinance against predatory lending, which state legislators later used as a guide in passing statewide law. It was not enough.
Today the Mecca is beginning to resemble a wasteland of broken promises and broken dreams.
“His work was crucial, yet too few listened to his warnings,” said Afiya Madzimoyo. Now, there are empty houses all over South DeKalb and the property values have plummeted – dashing homeowners’ dreams and the municipal budget. DeKalb County is closing over a dozen schools. Over the last year 90 churches have been in foreclosure. One of them was Flat Rock Church. According to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, “Flat Rock likely is DeKalb County’s oldest African-American church, whose origins date back to at least 1860. In January of 2011 alone, DeKalb County had 1,438 foreclosures.
In March of 2009, Mr. Madzimoyo sent a letter to Homecomings Financial, LLC asking them questions that would help him validate the debt and to identify the true lender or secured creditor. He says his goal was to sit down with the lender to renegotiate better terms for his loan, given the economy and dropping home values.
He was current on his mortgage when he started to ask for debt validation and lender verification. “I’ve always paid my mortgage since 1999 when we put $20,000 down to move into this house. I love this house. I raised my children here. My wife has worked this red Georgia clay, so now she grows everything from cilantro to blueberries right here on our property.”
When asked to validate the debt and their standing with a qualified written request, the lender-servicer stopped short of answering Mr. Madzimoyo’s questions. They said that what he wanted to know was “confidential and proprietary business information.” “I responded by saying that my money was proprietary, and declined to pay them until they answered — as is my right under the law.”
After being told that Homecomings Financial, LLC was his servicer and JPMorgan Chase was his lender, he sent JPMorgan Chase the same verification request. According to Mr. Madzimoyo, things really sped up after that. Loan servicing changed from Homecomings Financial to GMAC; the purported lenders changed three times between June 10th to July 3rd. Repeated requests sent to each newly identified servicer or lender fell on deaf ears.
The Madzimoyos concluded that since the lenders hadn’t verified themselves as his secured creditors, he didn’t owe what he called the “pretender-lenders” a dime and that they had been collecting money from him illegally.
On July 3rd, 2009, debt collectors, McCurdy and Candler, LLC, acting as lawyers, initiated foreclosure proceedings for GMAC and a new lender – Bank of New York Mellon Trust (BNYMT). They advertised in the Champion newspaper that his home was to be sold at a public auction on the first Tuesday in July.
GA is a non-judicial foreclosure state. All lenders – or those who purport to be lenders – have to do is to say you’re in default on your mortgage, send you a letter asking you to pay the entire amount of the loan, advertise the sale for four weeks, and then proceed to auction your home from the County Courthouse steps. You get no day in court, unless you file suit to stop them.
Mr. Madzimoyo, who is an educator, not a lawyer began to research and talk to other homeowners in similar situations. He called lawyers who asked for $10,000 to take his case; others wouldn’t even touch it. Afiya tells of the lawyers who said, “Call me after they foreclose; we’ll sue for wrongful foreclosure.” Afiya, the gardener and tax professional, frowned at the idea of letting them foreclose on their home. She and Wekesa called a family meeting with all of the children and decided to mount a legal counter-attack by themselves. They would join an increasing number of pro se litigants around the country fighting to keep their homes.
A week before the scheduled foreclosure, the Madzimoyos went to DeKalb County Superior Court to get a Temporary Restraining Order and to sue the pretender-lenders and their lawyers.
“More determined than scared, I showed the Court that we had been trying to get them to validate their standing as servicers, lenders, etc. for nearly four months,” says Mr. Madzimoyo.” He continued: “We had return receipts showing they had received our requests for verification and the paper work to show that there was no valid assignment recorded in the DeKalb County real estate records since my wife and I purchased our home in 1999. My petition stated that the so-called lenders had broken Georgia Law to commence foreclosure without recording, or otherwise validating themselves as the secured creditors.”
Superior Court Judge Tangela Barrie agreed and issued an order halting the foreclosure and ordering the Defendants – the lenders and their lawyers – to bring “proper evidence of the chain of title” to an August 29th, 2009 hearing – 30 days from the date of the order.
After Judge Barrie’s order, he thought that he would finally get his questions answered; that he would finally know the secured creditor – the proper party with which to negotiate and pay. He would also be reassured that he was not a party to a predatory lending scheme.
However, one day before the hearing, his calm was interrupted by a legal lightning bolt. He was notified that the Defendants – the purported lenders- had “removed” the case to Federal Court.”
Questions raced through his mind – “How could they do that? Was that legal? What can I do?” He pressed for answers in the DeKalb County Courthouse. According to Mr. Madzimoyo, “The clerks would only say: “Once it’s removed, there’s nothing we can do here. You’ll have to go over to Federal Court.”
It had been an exhausting five months. While his wife and children supported this stand, they didn’t want to lose their home. Wekesa recalls – “Many times I thought of just dropping it. I told many people in the community about our fight; they were kind enough, but most either suggested programs that would help me get a loan modification or either they said that I ought to just pay what I’ve been asked to pay and shut up. I wasn’t about to do either.”
As they researched and prepared for the next stage of the battle, the Madzimoyos’ suspicion of lender/servicer deceit grew. “If they had the proper evidence, why didn’t they just bring it to Judge Barrie’s Court?” Wekesa asked his friends. He reasoned that they were trying to evade the Superior Court Judge’s order, because they couldn’t meet it.
Over the months of motions, oppositions, counter motions, in Federal court, the news stories began to report about foreclosure mills, expired notaries, and some apparently illegal activity on the part of the very lenders he was fighting – GMAC, JPMorgan Chase, etc. Mr. Madzimoyo began to wonder if any of these issues would show up in his fight to save his home.
He would soon find out. Several days before Christmas, 2010, Mr. and Mrs. Madzimoyo checked DeKalb County Courts to see if the Defendants had filed anything new in the county real estate records. They weren’t prepared for what they were about to find – an assignment.
There, 17 months into this case, was an assignment. Did they miss it before? The Madzimoyos paid the clerk to print out a copy of the assignment and began to examine it.
They hadn’t missed it. The official clerk date stamp indicated that it was filed into the DeKalb County records on Feb. 18th, 2010. Looking more closely, they noticed that the actual assignment of the mortgage to the foreclosing lender – Bank of NY Mellon Trust (BNYMT) occurred on February 8th, 2010. That’s a full 7 months after the Defendants had started foreclosure proceedings against the Madzimoyos.
That’s what they suspected all along – that the pretender lenders didn’t have title to their property when they commenced foreclosure by public advertisement back in July. The months of study and pro se litigation paid off in another way for Afiya. She looked at the signature on the document and shouted, “That’s a robo signer.” Everyone in the clerk’s office was startled.
She was talking about Mr. Jeffrey Stephan, Congressman Johnson’s “master robo signer.”
Robo-signers are the staff used by US banks to sign off on foreclosures. They are dubbed “robo-signers” for the speed with which they rubber-stamped mortgage documents without checking their accuracy. They have also been dubbed “Burger King kids” – walk-in hires who barely knew what a mortgage was. Tens of thousands of American families have been evicted in this way. US banks have submitted affidavits attesting to the accuracy of these documents.
A quick reminder – an affidavit is a sworn statement under oath that the facts asserted in the statement are true and has been personally verified by the signer. The signature is sworn to before a notary public, who verifies that the signature was made under oath. Filing an affidavit in court where you actually have no such personal knowledge, or putting a false notarization on the affidavit, is perjury, pure and simple. If employers encourage the practice, they too are liable.
According to Florida and Maine court depositions, Stephan has testified that he signs between 400 and 1000 documents per day. Only this time, Mr. Stephan may have signed a bit too quickly. The date on his assignment proves that the foreclosing bank wasn’t the secured creditor when they commenced foreclosing which violates Georgia law OCGA 44-14-162.2 (b) and common sense – you can’t lay claim to something that isn’t yours.
Also, during the flurry of motions over the preceding months, the Defendants submitted documents in Federal Court stating that the assignment to NYBMT took place in 2006!
The pretender lenders were determined to stop the Madzimoyos from presenting that evidence in Federal District Court. They moved for a “Judgment on the Pleadings” against the Madzimoyos. Wekesa and Afiya objected.
Unfortunately, their objections and the standing order by State Judge Barrie fell on the deaf ears of Chief US Magistrate Judge, Gerrilyn Brill and District Judge, Charles Parnell. They ruled for the Defendants saying that the:
Madzimoyos had no case that deserved to be heard in the courts.
“This is unbelievable,” said Afiya. “Our State Superior Court Judge – Tangela Barrie issued a standing order that they bring “proper evidence of chain of title” and the Federal Judges ignored it completely! They didn’t over-rule her order; they just ignored it, and allowed the Defendants – the banks — to trample on our property rights and GA law.”
Wekesa was also fuming: “By their own hand, they submitted a document proving that we were right; they didn’t have title to the property when they started to foreclose, and probably don’t have proper title now, given Mr. Stephan’s involvement. Jeffrey Stephan’s signature on documents has caused over 10,000 foreclosure cases to be withdrawn in Maryland alone, and they say we have no case that deserved to be heard in the courts? This isn’t justice.”
It’s been two weeks since that order has come down and Wekesa says that he’s “sharpening his axe” for the appeal to the 11th Circuit. “We’re still pro se. We’ve talked to some lawyers, and it’s hard to get lawyers to represent homeowners who have little money going up against companies with pockets as deep as the ocean, especially when those companies have the national and state legislators’ ears,” he says.
“Sharpening his axe” goes back to an old Madzimoyo family story. Wekesa drifted into it: “My great grandfather was born into captivity – others call it slavery. After winning his freedom, he amassed over 300 acres of land in Cumberland County, NC. On a number of occasions, the white citizens tried to cheat him out of it. He persisted, and won out. On one occasion he awoke to Klansmen in his bedroom. He slept with an axe beside his bed. With deadly accuracy, he hurled this axe, decapitating one of the Klansmen. Three days later he went to court with the head of the Klansman as evidence. The judge exonerated him of wrong doing and gave him a sword saying “next time one of the $@%# come into your house, use this.”
“I’m sharpening my legal axe, and to borrow a term from Afiya’s Great Uncle Jake who also fought injustice and oppression – we’ll see who shall and who sh’aint be whipped!”
By now, there are approximately 100 people who are fighting with the Madzimoyos in a movement they call Justice@Home. “They want us to give up; by dismissing the Madzimoyos’ case, they just made our pro se movement stronger,” says D. Aaquil, an active Justice@Home supporter. Aaquil is a younger college graduate who supports the group. He says, “Many before me, who couldn’t read, worked, marched and sacrificed, so that I could get the education that would allow me to read these important laws and court rules. Many of them died for justice; the least I can do is to read and write for justice.” Others in the group, like Abena Ajanaku, are also pro se litigants working with supportive senior and youth volunteers, like Aaquil, who research GA law and case law. They all, litigants and supporters, are also sharpening their legal axes.
They also hope that Georgia Congressman Hank Johnson and other legislators, lawyers, and the courts will follow other states like Massachusetts, Florida, Ohio, NY, to protect their citizens from the latest part of the predatory lending schemes – the unnecessary and often fraudulent foreclosures that trample citizens, municipalities, and 333 years of land title and transfer laws that extend back to 1667.
In the Bible, David wins, and Davies goes to hell; in Georgia – we’ll have to see.