Lawsuits

Three Miami Women Join Hawaiian Class Action Lawsuit Against Big Banks

Maria Williams-James (left) still lives in her foreclosed home despite a pending eviction.
Maria Williams-James (left) still lives in her foreclosed home despite a pending eviction. Photo courtesy of Floridians for Honest Lending
Three Miami women who say big banks fraudulently foreclosed on their homes claim they can't get justice in Florida courts. Having run out of possible remedies in the Sunshine State, they're headed to the Aloha State to join a class-action lawsuit unfolding in a Hawaiian federal court.

Ana Lazara Rodriguez, Julie Nicolas, and Maria Williams-James have joined five plaintiffs from Hawaii in a recently filed racketeering lawsuit against Bank of America and Bank of New York Mellon (BNY Mellon).

The plaintiffs, the majority who are people of color, allege that Bank of America and BNY Mellon engaged in discriminatory violations of the Fair Housing Act and the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act, according to a complaint filed late last month and attached to the end of this article.

The plaintiffs allege "systemic foreclosure frauds being committed by [Bank of America] and [BNY Mellon] utilizing a variety of separate schemes, to wrongfully take homes from Countrywide mortgagors in courts of equity, in open defiance to the rule of law that has existed for hundreds of years," according to the complaint. (Bank of America purchased Countrywide Financial in 2008, at a time when the behemoth home-mortgage lender was failing amid the subprime mortgage crisis.)

Rodriguez, who's 84 and a former political prisoner in Cuba, made local headlines last year when she was evicted from her longtime home in Miami's Little Gables neighborhood after it was sold out of foreclosure by BNY Mellon despite Miami-Dade County Mayor Daniella Levine Cava's attempts to intervene.

Both Nicolas, a home health nurse, and Williams-James, a retired schoolteacher, still live in their homes as they battle eviction post-foreclosure.

"It's affecting my life every day. Every day I'm in my home and I'm willing to make mortgage payments but the banks are refusing to accept them," Nicolas, a single mother of three, tells New Times. "You don't know what's going to happen. It's caused a lot of anxiety on my part."

According to the complaint, Nicolas fell behind on her mortgage payments when her employer was audited and she went without pay for three months. When her pay was reinstated and she was given a raise, she applied for a loan modification, which she claims Bank of America denied as servicer of her loan.

The plaintiffs' Miami-based attorney, Bruce Jacobs, has alleged in numerous lawsuits that Bank of America and BNY Mellon have used fraudulent materials to foreclose on homes owned by vulnerable people of color.

The federal complaint alleges that the banks used "forged rubber-stamped mortgage note endorsements" and "false mortgage assignments" in each of the eight plaintiffs' foreclosures.

Reached by New Times via email this week, BNY Mellon declined to comment for this story.

Asked to respond to the allegations in the lawsuit, Bank of America spokesperson William Halldin told New Times the matters have already been dealt with in Florida courts.

"Each of these three matters has been thoroughly litigated in the courts and the current litigation is an attempt to rehash cases and theories that have previously been rejected," Halldin wrote in an email. "We've shared the relevant decisions with the New Times for inclusion in their story."

The foreclosures involving the three Miami plaintiffs were adjudicated in Florida circuit courts, where judges ruled in favor of the banks in each case. Jacobs has attempted to appeal the rulings but says judges in Florida's Third District Court of Appeals refuse to hear his arguments of fraud.

"The court has made it clear they are not willing to consider the fraud, and they're not willing to be fair and impartial," Jacobs contends.

Jacobs is also facing heat from the Florida Bar, in the form of a pending complaint for two instances stemming from comments he made in frustration about court responses to his allegations of widespread foreclosure fraud. He's accused of "[making] disparaging and reckless comments regarding the judiciary," a violation of the Bar's Rule 4-8.2(a): Impugning Qualifications and Integrity of Judges or Other Officers.

Despite the possible looming discipline, Jacobs was contacted by the Hawaii Fair Lending Coalition to serve as special counsel for its case against Bank of America and BNY Mellon.

Bank of America faces another major lawsuit in Hawaii for allegedly breaking a promise to lend $150 million in home loans to Native Hawaiians. The bank contends that it met its obligation through other means, such as lending to developers, according to a report published on the nonprofit news site Honolulu Civil Beat.
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Joshua Ceballos is staff writer for Miami New Times. He is a Florida International University alum and a born-and-bred Miami boy.
Contact: Joshua Ceballos