(Bloomberg News) Home to more foreclosures than 47 U.S. states, Florida sought to clear out its backlog with a system of special court hearings that dispensed with cases quickly, sometimes in less than a minute.
Homeowners like Nicole West now threaten to slow that system, Florida's so-called rocket docket, to a crawl. West, who has been fighting to save her Jensen Beach house from foreclosure, has leveled a new allegation in her three-year battle: the entire process is based on fraud.
West said her case is rife with the kind of flawed mortgage documents that have caused lenders including Bank of America Corp. and JPMorgan Chase & Co. to stop the process of foreclosures and evictions across the country. The banks said they are investigating homeowner charges like West's that signatures were forged and documents were backdated.
"It's not right," said West, 40, who lives about an hour's drive north of West Palm Beach. "It's like lying to the judge. It's like lying about what's really going on."
The bank moratoriums are already thwarting the initiative by Florida officials to clear jammed court dockets. Now, efforts by homeowners such as West to bring claims of fraud to the attention of judges are further prolonging evictions, and in turn slowing purchases of foreclosed properties.
Florida has the third-highest foreclosure rate in the U.S. behind Nevada and Arizona. One in every 34 housing units-double the U.S. average-was in the foreclosure process or bank-owned as of Sept. 1, data vendor RealtyTrac Inc. said.
Florida's legislature appropriated $9.6 million this year to pay semi-retired judges and case managers to clear the backlog of foreclosures. Some judges have been churning through cases at a rapid clip, such as those last week in Tampa who considered dozens of foreclosures per day, sometimes in as little as 30 seconds.
The goal is to clear 62 percent of the backlog by next July, according to Craig Waters, a spokesman for the Florida Supreme Court. J. Thomas McGrady, chief judge of Florida's Sixth Judicial Circuit, said he once thought that was achievable. Now that Charlotte, N.C.-based Bank of America, New York-based JPMorgan and Detroit-based Ally Financial Inc. have put the brakes on foreclosures or evictions to look for irregularities, he said he's "very doubtful" his courts can resolve that many cases. The circuit, which covers the area around Clearwater and St. Petersburg, has a backlog of 33,000 foreclosure cases, he said.
"All of a sudden all of these issues pop up with the lenders," McGrady said in an interview at his Clearwater office. "It's going to slow down the whole process because there will be more backlog. We're still getting 1,000 cases a month."