Posted on 24 April 2010.
One of the reasons homeowners have such a fear of being sued by their bank for a deficiency judgment after facing foreclosure is that nearly any lawyer they contact will bring up this possibility. Some attorneys may even use the threat of further litigation after foreclosure as a reason to file bankruptcy prematurely or otherwise pressure borrowers into retaining legal counsel throughout the process of disposing of the home. Lawyers, though, have a vested interest in keeping clients in fear of litigation, even for such a rare case as deficiency judgments.
Many in the real estate market are aware of the fact that banks rarely, if ever, sue former homeowners after a house has been lost to foreclosure. It is simply not in the bank’s financial interests to hire local attorneys to pursue another lawsuit in the courts and obtain a judgment when it was unable to collect on the initial foreclosure judgment except by selling the underlying asset, the real estate. Lenders know that it may be difficult even to locate the borrowers after a foreclosure in order to serve them properly with the lawsuit. As well, it will be even more difficult to collect the potentially tens of thousands of dollars owed from families who just lost their largest (and sometimes only) asset and who have no respectable credit score to maintain.
But none of this common sense matters when real estate or bankruptcy attorneys are threatening foreclosure victims with the potential of such a judgment and the possibility of having their wages garnished, retirement accounts seized, or similar implausible scenarios. It would seem that this is little more than fearmongering, lawyers attempting to wring a retainer fee out of homeowners or push them into paying a filing fee for bankruptcy. But there are a number of reasons that homeowners are threatened with a deficiency judgment every time they speak with a legal professional regarding foreclosure.
Obviously, in states where deficiency judgments are allowed, there is the possibility of the bank suing homeowners to obtain one. If lawyers did not mention the possibility, and the mortgage company then sued after foreclosure, the homeowners may feel they had been improperly advised. Thus, lawyers should mention any possibility of litigation relating to the foreclosure matter at hand, including future lawsuits even after the house has been auctioned off. From the lawyer’s perspective, past behavior is no indicator of future actions, and just because few banks have ever brought this lawsuit to court in the past does not mean financial firms will never use the law to go after former homeowners for even more money.
Homeowners , though, should evaluate the potential of being sued under such a case and not be afraid to ask their lawyers how many deficiency judgments they have had direct experience with and under what circumstances they occurred. A couple of such cases in decades of practice is a strong indication that banks may still be avoiding such lawsuits against former clients. Also, if the only homeowners the attorney is aware of who were sued after a foreclosure had clearly engaged in mortgage fraud or had substantial liquid assets they bank was aware of, and the current borrowers do not fit into such categories, then the fear of a deficiency may be unfounded.
There is little debate that America is now a society paranoid about being sued and knows that there is always the potential for a frivolous lawsuit by anyone against anyone else, and that the more resources one party has the more likely that party is to win. It should be no surprise that the legal profession is filled with some of the most unhappy people in the working world. Everyone fears a group of people who spend most of their time parsing words and phrases, looking for the simplest reasons to hang others on such legalese.
In foreclosure cases, in the best case a small local bank with tens of millions of dollars is suing a homeowner with little; in the worst case a multinational corporation with over a trillion dollars in assets is suing a homeowner with little. The deck is always stacked in favor of the mortgage companies in such instances in terms of financial resources and time available to go litigating for years. Unless homeowners wish to go down fighting on their own, there may be little money with which to mount their own legal defense with legal assistance.
Attorneys often find themselves in a difficult position in terms of discussing the real possibility of litigation with clients. Although the potential to be sued in any given situation is often quite minuscule, lawyers live in a world where everyone is always trying to get an advantage over everyone else and no one can solve a problem without the fine print and a judge to interpret it. To such eyes, the possibility of a deficiency judgment is a real one and one worth losing sleep over, just because the law is on the books allowing banks to go after former homeowners. Under the circumstances, it is borrowers who need to look a little closer and analyze the reality of the situation with some common sense and from the bank’s perspective; i.e., why would the lender sue a homeowner again after foreclosure?