Homeowners Struggle to Challenge Premature Evictions
Sam Frazier remembers the first time that he caught two men coming out from the back of his house.
FRAZIER: I said what are you doing on my property. They said, well we were told to come out here and change the locks.
It was last year. At the time, Frazier was living two doors over, in the home he inherited after his dad passed away. But he continued to renovate the two-flat he had bought, and would occasionally peek over just to check on it. That's how he happened to see the men on the day they came to change the locks.
FRAZIER: So I said, who told you to change them. And he says my boss told me to change them. I said well i don't know who your boss is, but you better get in contact with your boss, because you're getting ready to go to jail.
The men caved and put Frazier's original locks back in.
FRAZIER: Then this other guy comes out maybe six months later and he does the same thing. But only he didn't put the locks back in.
Frazier says he called police the second time, but they believed the visitor's claim that he no longer owned the property. Frazier backed off.
FRAZIER: And then when I come to find out that it hadn't been signed off from the judge, only then that I noted what they were doing was illegal.
Frazier's house had been sold at a foreclosure auction just the day before he was locked out of it. But in Illinois, that sale doesn't automatically transfer ownership of a house. A judge still has to issue an order that confirms the sale was done properly, and also to say how much longer the homeowner may continue to live there -- usually 30 days.
DUDLEY: I did not start seeing premature board-ups, except anecdotally, until the past year.
Kelli Dudley has been practicing consumer and foreclosure law for nearly a decade. She and two other attorneys have taken on Frazier's case, and they say they're seeing a number of similar stories. They're trying to identify common threads in these cases to mount a class-action lawsuit.
Right now, their big target is U.S. Bank, based in Minneapolis. Dudley says it probably wasn't anyone from US Bank who boarded up Frazier's home, but she asserts the bank is ultimately responsible when any of its agents, or agents of its agents, do something illegal.
DUDLEY: With the market of buying and selling mortgages, it's very easy for any bank to say we didn't do it, the servicer did, or the investor did, and so on. But cases where we believe U.S. bank had involvement in the loan.
US Bank referred calls to another company, Litton Loan, which manages Frazier's mortgage. Litton Loan declined to comment.
Dudley says there's another thing about these cases they're seeing.
DUDLEY: Even if there is an order of possession, we've still got the hurdle to get over that only the sheriff or the authorized person can do the eviction.
Frazier says the man who locked him out of his home wouldn't give any ID, but Frazier says he certainly wasn't from the Cook County Sheriff's department.
Dudley attributes these cases to the sheer volume of foreclosures that banks are dealing with, and the amount of time they take in Illinois courts.
LINDSEY: It's hard to convey, unless you do this stuff everyday, how screwed up every layer is in this whole giant runaway train of foreclosure industry.
Dan Lindsey is with the Legal Assistance Foundation of Metropolitan Chicago, and has handled several cases of premature evictions himself. He says the problem is that when these things happen, it's really hard for a homeowner to fully get back the damages.
LINDSEY: The lenders in so many ways have the upper hand, and it is very difficult to fight back, and even when they fight back, it's at least unclear, sometimes, what the end result is going to be.
In Sam Frazier's case, it's been eight months since he was last able to get into his house. He says that since then, people have gone in and stripped it of everything he'd put in to renovate it: furnaces, plumbing, kitchen cabinets and counter top. If he ever does get back in, he says it will be worth less than the $40,000 he bought it for fifteen years ago.