Stephen J. Baum, the New York-based foreclosure mill law firm which drew attention last year after photos cropped up from a Halloween party featuring its employees dressed as homeless people, reached a settlement with the New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman over the filing of unverified, unsubstantiated and outright fabricated documents with state courts. Under the settlement, Steven J. Baum will pay a $4 million fine and its top two attorneys, Baum and Brian Kumiega, may not handle foreclosure cases for lenders or servicers in New York state courts for two years. This is on top of a $2 million fine Baum paid to the US Attorney for the Southern District of New York last October. Baum will share the fine with Pillar Processing, the document processor it used on the vast majority of cases.
Once again, Baum will not have to admit or deny wrongdoing in the case, and while this is the largest fine of a foreclosure mill law firm in the history of this foreclosure fraud saga, that’s not saying much. The barring from working on foreclosure cases had to be imposed on Baum and Kumiega directly, because the Baum firm no longer exists, having gone out of business late last year. Anyway, the proper penalty for members of a law firm filing repeated false documents would be disbarment, one would think. And because lawyers in New York must attest to the veracity of the documents they file, a judicial ruling made specifically for foreclosure fraud, this settlement with merely civil penalties seems like it misses a step.
Schneiderman’s complaint in the case is very thorough, showing the systematic way in which the Baum firm and Pillar processing filed improper documents that sacrificed accuracy for speed. And half of the settlement money will go toward a fund to help New Yorkers in foreclosure. This has earned praise from all the foreclosure legal aid groups who will benefit from those funds. But the fact that this settlement is inadequate is summed up by staff attorney Elizabeth Lynch of MFY Legal Services, who said in a statement that “Steven J. Baum is not off the hook yet. MFY represents a class of people adversely affected by his deceptive practices and our clients look forward to vindication of their rights.”
Baum, for their part, continued to use the “but they were deadbeats” defense, saying in a statement that “the Attorney General’s Office did not identify a single instance where a foreclosure proceeding was brought by the Baum firm where the homeowner wasn’t actually in default.” So expect more of this “ends justify the means” nonsense.
Meanwhile, I think the biggest example of how criminal conduct has been allowed to fester in this blur of settlements comes from Georgia, which is nearing completion on a law criminalizing foreclosure fraud for the first time. Previously the state did not penalize fraud in the foreclosure process under its statute. The very fact that Georgia feels this is necessary at this time puts the lie to the notion that the national settlement “ended robo-signing.” Obviously Georgia just wants to make sure.