KEL law firm resigns from Better Business Bureau amid client complaints

Article Courtesy of The Orlando Sentinel

By Richard Burnett

Published November 4, 2011


Peppered with complaints by former clients, the KEL law firm has been forced to resign from the Better Business Bureau of Central Florida the first area law firm to be ousted in the business-rating agency's 27-year history, the local BBB chief has confirmed.

The resignation of Orlando-based KEL, formally known as Kaufman, Englett & Lynd, from bureau membership followed a jump in the number of complaints during the past year and the BBB's determination that KEL had "failed to resolve the underlying cause(s) of a pattern of complaints," the agency's latest report states. The agency gives the firm an F rating a rarity for a law firm.


Although the firm has resolved all but three of the 39 complaints filed against it during the past three years, KEL's inability to slow the pace of the complaints 27 in the past 12 months moved the BBB to act in June, said Judy Pepper, the agency's chief executive officer.

"Once a company no longer meets our standards, they are not eligible to have the BBB accreditation," she said. "We will give those companies the opportunity to resign, or their membership will be revoked."

According to the BBB complaints, many of the former clients accused the high-profile, widely advertised law firm of charging thousands of dollars in fees for foreclosure-defense and mortgage-modification services that were poorly executed or never provided.

An associate attorney adds a case to the hearing scheduling board at KEL in 2010 as lawyers, loss mitigation specialists and paralegals worked on the 4,000 foreclosure cases. 

"There's no doubt I am losing my house now because of them," said Amanda Smith-Gillaspie of DeBary, who said she paid KEL more than $3,500 last year to defend her home against foreclosure. "They dropped the ball so many times, it was ridiculous. When I wouldn't pay them another $3,500, they dropped me. Then I started working directly with Citibank and found out KEL hadn't filed some of the paperwork at all."

KEL has denied such allegations, according to the BBB. In cases where it was accused of taking clients' money but doing nothing, the firm has cited specific dates on which it filed modification paperwork with clients' lenders. In some instances, the firm said, its clients provided erroneous or inadequate financial information, which delayed the process.

A KEL representative said last week that the firm worked diligently to address the complaints, which constituted only a tiny fraction of the firm's 15,000 cases during the past three years. He acknowledged that KEL had resigned from the bureau's accredited-membership program, but only as a protest.

"We disagree strongly with the bureau, and we removed our membership because of the way this was being handled," spokesman Christian Hertenstein said. "We stand by our work and the services we perform for clients, and we always make a good-faith effort to resolve any issues they have."

The 39 complaints against KEL fielded by the local BBB during the past three years are more than for any other local law firm but one. The Johnson Law Group of Orlando, a BBB nonmember that specializes in debt-relief cases, has drawn 45 complaints during the same period along with an F rating from the BBB.

More than 330 law firms are listed as accredited members of the Central Florida BBB a designation that means they subscribe to the agency's formal dispute-resolution process and maintain at least a B rating. Overall, the bureau has files on nearly 2,800 law firms in an 11-county region surrounding Orlando.

Karen Pintor of St. Cloud said she paid KEL $4,000 for foreclosure-defense work. After a year, the firm said her lender had denied her request for a mortgage modification, and the firm wanted more money to continue her case. But Pintor said the lender later told her that her application had been denied, in part, because KEL had missed a deadline for filing certain paperwork.

She complained to the BBB, and KEL refunded her $1,000 but Pintor was not satisfied.

"They made so many mistakes, I didn't feel they deserved any money from me," she said. "I started working with my lender directly, resubmitted the whole modification package, and did the legwork myself. Within a month, I got approved; I saved my house myself."

In its response to the BBB about Pintor's case, KEL denied making any errors. It blamed the problems on Pintor's incomplete financial documents and delays by the lender in reviewing her application. In denying her a full refund, it also cited her contract with KEL, which states that the original fee was a "flat, nonrefundable rate earned upon acceptance."

Larry Glinzman, a spokesman for Community Legal Services of Mid-Florida, said it is unfortunate that people buy into the notion that they must pay so much for legal help to save their home from foreclosure.

"The truth is many people really don't need a lawyer for loan-modification assistance," he said. "Why hire a lawyer when you can get help for free? Most people qualify for it these days; you can call our agency and any number of agencies. We have a reduced-fee program, as well, for people don't qualify for the free help."