Is signing foreclosure documents for others forgery?

Article Courtesy of The Palm Beach Post

By Kimberly Miller

Published January 16, 2012

The Nevada attorney general calls signing another person's name on documents used to repossess a home "forgery" and a "scheme."

Michigan's attorney general launched a criminal investigation that includes whether "falsified signatures" were used in foreclosure cases.

But Theresa Edwards and June Clarkson were forced to resign their jobs as foreclosure fraud investigators for the Florida Attorney General's Office, in part, for referring to so-called "surrogate signing" as forgery.

According to a Florida Inspector General report that cleared Attorney General Pam Bondi's office of wrongdoing in the firings, the duo repeatedly used the word "forgery" in a 2010 presentation that included documents from the Jacksonville-based Lender Processing Services. The company complained and drew the attention of economic crimes boss Richard Lawson.

Lawson says in the inspector general's Jan. 6 report that surrogate signing as it relates to Lender Processing Services, also called LPS, is not forgery, which requires an intent to defraud. The practice was authorized by the company, more evidence, Lawson said, that no forgery occurred.

Homeowner advocates who support

Theresa Edwards (left) and June Clarkson, who led Florida’s foreclosure fraud investigations, were routinely praised in performance reviews before losing their jobs.

Edwards and Clarkson are now questioning portions of the 83-page report. They point to the LPS signature issue as an example of what they say is Florida's resistance to go after foreclosure fraud.

Big paperwork processor

"Theresa Edwards and June Clarkson were fired for aggressively investigating these practices," said Palm Beach County home­owner Lynn Szymoniak, who is in foreclosure. " Are these practices really OK in the opinion of the chief financial officer and the attorney general?"

LPS processes paperwork for more than 50 percent of the nation's foreclosures, according to a December lawsuit filed by the Nevada attorney general. The company has said it stopped surrogate signing after its own investigation uncovered it at a now-closed subsidiary company called DocX.

Still, tens of thousands of documents are affected nationwide and the forgery debate contributes to the foreclosure logjam that has stalled Florida's economic recovery.

While at least one Florida law professor agrees with Lawson, others maintain the issue transcends surrogate signing. Most of the signed foreclosure documents are also notarized, said Royal Palm Beach-based foreclosure defense attorney Tom Ice, meaning someone is swearing that the person signing is who they say they are.

"So, at the very least, surrogate signers are a species of notary fraud, which the courts take very seriously," Ice said. "Why require notarizations at all if we don't care who actually signs them?"

Edwards and Clarkson, who led Florida's foreclosure fraud investigations, were routinely praised in performance reviews by their direct supervisor, Robert Julian, and lauded for netting a $2 million foreclosure-related settlement from the Law Offices of Marshall C. Watson.

But the inspector general report details complaints about the duo's work made by Lawson, some of their colleagues, and LPS.

Those complaints include disorganized paperwork, the lack of independent investigation, relying too heavily on two Palm Beach County homeowner advocates for evidence (including Szymoniak), being unprofessional, and using incorrect legal theory.

Their work was so slipshod, Lawson said, that the investigations didn't truly begin until after Edwards and Clarkson left and the files were reassigned.

A major issue raised was a December 2010 PowerPoint presentation Edwards and Clarkson gave at a conference of the Florida Association of Court Clerks and Comptrollers.

The presentation includes several references to LPS and "forgeries."

LPS attorney Joan Meyer wrote a letter to Edwards and Clarkson on Jan. 6, 2011, criticizing the PowerPoint, which she said mischaracterized "delegated signing authority" as forgery.

Lawson supports that stance, adding that Meyer gave the information to Edwards and Clarkson prior to the presentation.

Edwards maintains surrogate signing is forgery. If there was no intent to injure or defraud, why wouldn't the person just sign their own name, she said.

"Clearly, it was done to mislead the reader of the document," Edwards said. "It is unbelievable the manner in which these entities believe they can flaunt the requirements for the proper execution of legal documents."

In Nevada's lawsuit, the attorney general said LPS' forged documents, often signed by temporary workers with no training and, in at least one case, limited English skills, caused "grievous harm" to homeowners.

Professor backs state

One confidential witness told the Nevada attorney general that she may have notarized documents that she had actually signed because "she was signing her own name as a notary, but forging someone else's name as a surrogate signer."

LPS says on its website that the Nevada suit was filed to sensationalize "false allegations in a misleading manner."

"Because the surrogate signers were signing the documents as part of their jobs, and presumably believed that they had the authority to sign, they could not have committed fraud," said Nova Southeastern Law professor Robert Jarvis. "Moreover, in most loan documents, the borrower expressly agrees that the bank, or the bank's representatives, can take all steps necessary to protect its interest. This would include signing documents."

Bondi foes complain LPS has an undue influence on her office, pointing to LPS' hiring last year of former Deputy Attorney General Joe Jacquot and campaign donations from LPS to Bondi and the Republican Party.

In a July 14 email, Meyer asked Florida Chief Assistant Attorney General of Economic Crimes Victoria Butler, to "please encourage" Michigan to consider a civil pursuit rather than criminal investigation.

"The only discussion we had with Michigan was in regards to their attendance at an informational meeting with LPS," said Bondi spokeswoman Jennifer Meale. "They chose not to attend the meeting."

Lawson said in the report it's "laughable" to insinuate his office was "cutting LPS some favors" because he assigned Julian, an experienced attorney and the former supervisor of Edwards and Clarkson, to the LPS case.

"And this is one of the biggest issues in my division," Lawson said in the report and referring to LPS, "and it's one of the biggest issues in the State of Florida."



Generally referred to as a bank employee who signs thousands of foreclosure documents regularly, swearing to the veracity of the information contained in them, but in reality does not have personal knowledge of the case.


Surrogate signer

Someone who signs another person’s name on documents after receiving permission to do so. Some attorneys say this practice is forgery and can also lead to notary fraud.