Judge: 357 idle foreclosure suits gone in 2 1/2 hours

10/30/2010 © Bradenton Herald

MANATEE — The foreclosure case was filed in March 2007. Within a month, all of the parties were served with copies of the suit.

Then, nothing.

No reply from the homeowner. No filings nor hearings set by the bank’s attorney.

The court case sat idle for the next 3 1/2 years, seemingly forgotten among the thousands of foreclosures clogging the legal system.

That was until Thursday, when Manatee County Circuit Court Judge Paul E. Logan dismissed it for inactivity.

He was just getting warmed up. In the span of 2 1/2 hours, he threw out 357 foreclosure cases because they had been inactive for at least 10 months.

The purge was part of an effort to reduce the backlog of open foreclosure cases, estimated at 12,000 in Manatee alone. The target: A 62-percent reduction, or nearly 7,500 cases, before July.

“It’s just a small dent,” Logan said Friday of the cases he dismissed the previous day, the most he’s done in a single day.

Logan estimated he and other judges have tossed about 1,250 inactive foreclosure cases since the initiative began in July. And more are likely as several more dismissal dockets are planned in the coming months.

“We will be doing this on a regular basis to try to get these cases moving,” Logan said.

He said the most common reasons attorneys gave for the inactivity were ongoing negotiations with the borrower, a settlement had been reached with the borrower or that the lender was reviewing paperwork.

A local attorney said there was another reason, especially if the homeowner is in a trial mortgage modification or attempting to arrange a short sale.

In such cases, lenders usually leave foreclosure cases in limbo for months or years in case those alternate arrangements fall through, said Dawn Bates-Buchanan, managing attorney of Gulfcoast Legal Services’ Bradenton office. That way, lenders don’t have to re-file the foreclosure suit and pay another filing fee of up to $1,900.

But in dismissed cases, the lender might be more willing to modify a loan, approve a short sale or accept an alternative instead of filing for foreclosure again, she said. Bates-Buchanan called the mass dismissals “great news” and said two of her clients’ cases already have been dismissed while another 15 might be.

The administrative dismissals are among several methods that local judges and court officials are using to better manage the foreclosure process. They also have set up an automated system for scheduling court hearings and established “rocket dockets” to expedite uncontested cases.

They’ve also taken a harder stance against law firms, especially so-called “foreclosure mills” with large case volumes, for not abiding by court rules and procedures.

In one case, Manatee County Circuit Court Judge Janette Dunnigan found a Fort Lauderdale firm in contempt and levied a $49,000 fine for missing court hearings it scheduled and not filing required paperwork. The firm is appealing.

Logan said of the roughly 500 cases on his docket Thursday, bank lawyers voluntarily dismissed 68 beforehand, The remainder were either set for trial, referred to case management or allowed to remain open.

Duane Marsteller, Herald staff writer, can be reached at 745-7080, ext. 2630.

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