Foreclosure law firm to pay $2 million fine, overhaul practices
New York-based foreclosure law firm Steven J. Baum P.C. agreed to pay a $2 million fine and change its foreclosure processes, U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara said. Bharara, based in Manhattan, described the Baum firm, based in Amherst, N.Y., as one of the largest volume mortgage foreclosure firms in New York state. The agreement between the Baum firm and the U.S. attorney's office resolves an investigation into Baum's mortgage foreclosure-related practices, specifically whether the firm, on behalf of its lender clients, filed misleading pleadings, affidavits and mortgage assignments in state and federal courts in New York, the U.S. attorney's office said. "In mortgage foreclosure proceedings, there are no excuses for sloppy practices that could lead to someone mistakenly losing their home," Bharara said. "Homeowners facing foreclosure cannot afford to have faulty paperwork or inadequate evidence submitted." The agreement will help "minimize that risk,” he said. Baum could not immediately be reached for comment. The agreement prohibits Baum from engaging in certain practices related to the Mortgage Electronic Registration Systems, an electronic registry system that tracks ownership interests in mortgages. Until recently, employees of the Baum firm, with the consent of MERS, had been assigning mortgages on behalf of MERS, even though they had no connection to MERS, which resulted in errors in its legal filings in state and federal court, the U.S. attorney said. The agreement prohibits Baum from executing any assignment of a mortgage as an "officer" or "director" of MERS and requires a general overhaul of its filings in mortgage foreclosure actions, including keeping courts informed, obtaining appropriate affidavits and having experienced attorneys supervise and review the preparation of pleadings before they are filed. Other requirements include implementing a 12- to 24-month training program for its attorneys that includes an overview of the foreclosure process in New York state and a review of the litigation procedures expected at Baum. The firm must pay the United States $2 million in exchange for a release from any potential claims pursuant to the Financial Institutions Reform, Recovery, and Enforcement Act of 1989. The release from liability does not preclude other parties, including individual homeowners, from pursuing claims. The agreement also "does not constitute a finding by any court or agency that Baum has engaged in any unlawful practice or wrongdoing," the U.S. attorney said in a statement. "Baum acknowledges, however, that it occasionally made inadvertent errors in its legal filings in state and federal court, which it attributes to human error in light of the high volume of mortgage defaults and foreclosures throughout the state of New York in the wake of the national subprime mortgage crisis." In April, Attorney General Eric Schneiderman subpoenaed the firm, but declined to comment on the subpoena. At the time, Baum said he was cooperating fully with Schneiderman's investigation. Schneiderman has been critical recently of the effort by the country's 50 state attorneys general to get a settlement from mortgage servicers to rectify foreclosure improprieties. Write to Kerry Curry. Follow her on Twitter @communicatorKLC.