By DIANA B. HENRIQUES
While Sgt. James B. Hurley was away at war, he lost a heartbreaking battle at home.
In violation of a law intended to protect active military personnel from creditors, agents of Deutsche Bank foreclosed on his small Michigan house, forcing Sergeant Hurley’s wife, Brandie, and her two young children to move out and find shelter elsewhere.
When the sergeant returned in December 2005, he drove past the densely wooded riverfront property outside Hartford, Mich. The peaceful little home was still there — winter birds still darted over the gazebo he had built near the water’s edge — but it almost certainly would never be his again. Less than two months before his return from the war, the bank’s agents sold the property to a buyer in Chicago for $76,000.
ERIK HOLLADAY FOR THE NEW YORK TIMES
|Sergeant Hurley with one of his lawyers, Matthew R. Cooper, and some of the files from the case.|
Since then, Sergeant Hurley has been on an odyssey through the legal system, with little hope of a happy ending — indeed, the foreclosure that cost him his home may also cost him his marriage. “Brandie took this very badly,” said Sergeant Hurley, 45, a plainspoken man who was disabled in Iraq and is now unemployed. “We’re trying to piece it together.”
In March 2009, a federal judge ruled that the bank’s foreclosure in 2004 violated federal law but the battle did not end there for Sergeant Hurley.
Typically, banks respond quickly to public reports of errors affecting military families. But today, more than six years after the illegal foreclosure, Deutsche Bank Trust Company and its primary co-defendant, a Morgan Stanley subsidiary called Saxon Mortgage Services, are still in court disputing whether Sergeant Hurley is owed significant damages. Exhibits show that at least 100 other military mortgages are being serviced for Deutsche Bank, but it is not clear whether other service members have been affected by the policy that resulted in the Hurley foreclosure.
A spokesman for Deutsche Bank declined to comment, noting that Saxon had handled the litigation on its behalf. A spokesman for Morgan Stanley, which bought Saxon in 2006, said that Saxon had revised its policy to ensure that it complied with the law and was willing to make “reasonable accommodations” to settle disputes, “especially for our servicemen and women.” But the Hurley litigation has continued, he said, because of a “fundamental disagreement between the parties over damages.”
In court papers, lawyers for Saxon and the bank assert the sergeant is entitled to recover no more than the fair market value of his lost home. His lawyers argue that the defendants should pay much more than that — including an award of punitive damages to deter big lenders from future violations of the law. The law is called the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act, and it protects service members on active duty from many of the legal consequences of their forced absence.
Even though some of the nation’s military families have been sending their breadwinners into war zones for almost a decade, some of the nation’s biggest lenders are still fumbling one the basic elements of this law — its foreclosure protections.
Under the law, only a judge can authorize a foreclosure on a protected service member’s home, even in states where court orders are not required for civilian foreclosures, and the judge can act only after a hearing where the military homeowner is represented. The law also caps a protected service member’s mortgage rate at 6 percent.
By 2005, violations of the civil relief act were being reported all across the country, some involving prominent banks like Wells Fargo and Citigroup. Publicity about the violations spared some military families from foreclosure, prompted both banks to promise better compliance and put lenders on notice that service members were entitled to special relief.
But the message apparently did not get through. By 2006, a Marine captain in South Carolina was doing battle with JPMorgan Chase to get the mortgage interest rate reductions the act requires. Chase eventually reviewed its policies and, earlier this month, acknowledged it had overcharged thousands of military families on their mortgages and improperly foreclosed on 14 of them. After a public apology, Chase began mailing out about $2 million in refunds and working to reverse the foreclosures.
For armed forces in a war zone, a foreclosure back home is both a family crisis and a potentially deadly distraction from the military mission, military consumer advocates say.
“It can be devastating,” said Holly Petraeus, the wife of Gen. David Petraeus and the leader of a team that is creating an office to serve military families within a new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.
“It is a terrible situation for the family at home and for the service member abroad, who feels helpless,” Mrs. Petraeus said. “I would hope that the recent problems will be a wake-up call for all banks to review their policies and be sure they comply with the act.”
Chase’s response, however belated, is in sharp contrast to the approach taken by Deutsche Bank and Saxon in the Hurley case.