Editor: David Reiss
Brooklyn Law School

October 17, 2013

$2.7 Million Punitive Damages for Wrongful Foreclosure Action

By David Reiss

Many argue (see here, for instance) that wrongful foreclosures aren’t such a big deal. A recent case, Dollens v. Wells Fargo Bank, N.A., No. CV 2011-05295 (N.M. 2d Jud. Dist. Aug. 27, 2013)  highlights just how bad it can be for the homeowner who has to defend against one.

Dollens, the borrower, died in a workplace accident but had purchased a mortgage accidental death insurance policy through Wells Fargo, the lender (although the policy was actually underwritten by Minnesota Life Insurance Company). Notwithstanding the existence of the policy, Wells Fargo kept trying to foreclose, even five months after the insurance proceeds paid off the mortgage.  Some lowlights:

  • “Apparently, ignoring its ability to to make a death benefit claim is typical of how Wells Fargo deals with such situations. . . . This is a systemic failure on the part of Wells Fargo.” (4)
  • “There is no doubt that Wells Fargo’s conduct was intended to take advantage of a lack  of knowledge, ability, experience or capacity of decedent’s family members, and tended to or did deceive.” (5)
  • “Wells Fargo charged the Estate for lawn care of the property” even though the “property did not have a lawn.” (6)

The court found that the”evidence of Wells Fargo’s misconduct is staggering.” (6) The court also found that “Wells Fargo used its computer-driven systems as an excuse for its ‘mistakes.’ However, the evidence established that this misconduct was systematic and not the result of an isolated error.. . . The evidence in this case established that the type of conduct exhibited by Wells Fargo in this case has happened repeatedly across the country.” (7) As a result of these findings, the Court awarded over $2.7 million in punitive damages.

Mary McCarthy famously said that “[b]ureaucracy, the rule of no one, has become the modern form of despotism.” We generally think of this in terms of government actors, but it applies just as well to large financial institutions that implement “computer-driven systems” that seemingly cannot be overwritten by a human being who might exercise common sense and common decency.

Given that this type of problem seems to affect all of the major loan servicers, I must reiterate, thank goodness for the CFPB.


[HT April Charney]

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