“Legal cowboy” winning showdowns with banks, helping homeowners avoid foreclosure
In the current Wild West economy, high unemployment, lower wages, and falling home prices aren’t the only things that have homeowners running scared. There’s also the threat of their properties being repossessed by greedy bank barons. Luckily, there’s a new sheriff in town who isn’t afraid to have a high noon showdown with the men in the black hats.
His name is Darren Fish, a Chicago-based attorney better known as the “legal cowboy,” and his aggressive tactics have allowed nine out of 10 foreclosure-facing clients to stay in their homes over the past few years.
Not everyone is so lucky to be represented by a big fish like Darren. Consider that foreclosure filings in Illinois spiked 18 percent from July to August, when the rate was 12,493 (the most recent data available), according to RealtyTrac; by the end of the year, it is expected that more than 100,000 foreclosures will have been filed in 2011 alone.
Fish decided to specialize in foreclosure fighting back in 2006, when he was brought aboard a case involving two senior citizens who lost their Joliet home to foreclosure, primarily due to medical circumstances that created a financial hardship.
“Here was an 86-year-old former school principal who went blind and lost his legs to diabetes. His bank essentially stole this home from him, a place he and his wife lived in for 47 years, even though he attempted to make his mortgage payments,” said Fish. “The lender refused to negotiate, and they lost their property. From that day forward, I took an oath to the Almighty that I would fight these banks for the rest of my life and extract a billion dollars from them as justice for this $300,000 home they repossessed.”
Fish soon learned that there were no attorneys who fought foreclosures in Illinois. What’s more, law schools only taught that homeowners merely had four options when facing foreclosure: modification, short sale, bankruptcy (to stall), and deed in lieu. However, Fish felt that these were defeatist approaches to those threatened by foreclosure, often by fraudulent lenders. Networking with other pioneering attorneys in other states, Fish learned the ins and outs of the mortgage securitization process and explored creative legal ways to aggressively fend off foreclosures. He began taking on cases deemed “hopeless” by fellow lawyers and training others in the law profession in his tactics. At a time when none of his peers were handling such cases and prior to the housing market crash, Fish said he became the first known lawyer in Illinois to fight foreclosures.
“Most of these homeowners have wiped out their savings and used up every last dime they’ve got to simply keep their properties, so they can’t afford an attorney’s hourly rate. Instead, I set up a flat rate monthly payment arrangement that would allow clients to afford my services,” said Fish, who noted that he typically charges less for his services than a client would otherwise pay for rent after being thrown out of their home. “Once they hire me, I’m usually successful at enabling them to remain in their homes [without paying their monthly mortgage] until the situation with the bank is settled. It costs a lot less for these folks to pay me a low fee than what they’d normally fork over in monthly mortgage payments.
“Only 3 people out of every 100 people facing foreclosure go see a lawyer, and only 1 of those 3 is likely to find an attorney who knows how to successfully prevent foreclosure through the processes I follow,” he said. “While most other attorneys won’t go further than a phone call or two with the client’s lender, I go on the attack. They call their strategy ‘foreclosure defense,’ while I liken mine more to ‘foreclosure offense.’ I put the lenders on the defensive and make them uncomfortable because they’re not used to someone going after them.”
Other lawyers often employ strategies that benefit clients less, such as pursuing a short sale, deed-in-lieu, bankruptcy, refinance, or loan modification through the government. Modifications usually aren’t worth it, Fish said, because “91% of the time they are not made permanent, and of the successful ones they commonly only lower the monthly payment slightly. But after penalties and fees are added for late payments, the new monthly mortgage amount due is often much higher.”
Instead of relying on these tactics, Fish brings out the big guns—using subpoenas, audits, discovery, and lawsuits to get the banks to play ball. He’s also adept at discovering flawed paperwork, fraudulent documentation, and robo-signing problems that can turn the tables in his clients’ favor.
Fish quickly realized that the only way to make the banks sit up and listen was to hit them in the pocketbook.
“Let’s say they have a $300,000 home they’re seeking to repossess. Well, now it’s only worth $200,000 on the market. I tell them it will cost them $400,000 to foreclose on it and go up against me,” said Fish. “I try to convince them with common sense that it’s easier and cheaper for them to simply restructure that mortgage and work with the homeowner.”
The numbers indicate that Fish must be pretty convincing. Approximately 70 percent of his homeowner clients—that majority of whom have mortgages averaging $200,000 to $500,000—reach a resolution that is mutually satisfactory to borrower and lender. Keeping someone in their home and obtaining a reduction in the mortgage balance is always our foremost concern.
Case in point: The lender refused to modify the loan for or accept partial payments from a 49-year-old unemployed construction worker with a family of five who had exhausted all his savings. Fish and his crew found defective loan paperwork earlier this year and were not only able to get the foreclosure judgment reversed, but got a 20 percent reduction in the client’s mortgage as well as a major interest rate drop. The family continues to reside happily in their Geneva home, which is valued at $230,000.
On the higher end of the scale, a Wilmette client threatened with foreclosure on his $1.2 million home came to Fish on a Thursday evening; by the following Monday, the bank offered a $250,000 mortgage reduction and an interest rate drop from 9 to 5.5 percent, lowering the homeowner’s monthly loan payment from nearly $11,000 to about $7,800.
And in late September, after a Chicago client’s house was sold via foreclosure, the homeowner was able to get his home back from the lender at nearly 50 percent of what he originally owed on it—all thanks to the efforts of Fish Law Group.
Over the past five years, Fish’s practice has impressively represented more than 450 state and federal foreclosure clients, representing 70 percent of his firm’s caseload. His arsenal includes 12 attorneys on staff, “many of whom made financial sacrifices to join my team and fight foreclosures,” Fish said.
Fish is now making ripples across the airwaves. “The Legal Cowboy” currently makes TV appearances every Thursday morning on WCIU’s You and Me This Morning, and he’s in discussions with the station to host his own a weekly 30-minute law advice program. Additionally, Fish had previously appeared on the Oprah show as well as Chicago radio stations like WLS 890 AM, WBBM AM 780, and The Drive 97.1 FM and can be heard weekly from 5 to 6 p.m. on WYLL 1160 AM as a guest expert on the John Moran show.
“I’m getting the word out there that there are successful alternatives for everyday people at risk of being foreclosed on,” he said. “My message is, don’t give up. “Fight back, and stay in your home. Take the fight to the lenders and trust in a reliable professional who’s going to best represent your interests.”
The Fish Law Group LLC has offices in Chicago at 2821 N Halsted St., in Rosemont at 5600 N. River Rd. (suite 800), and in Hinsdale at 15 Spinning Wheel Rd. For more information, phone (855) FISH-LAW (347-4529) or visit www.fishlawgroup.com.