Saturday, February 25, 2017

NYS Lawyers' Client Protection Fund Coughs Up Over $2.4 Million To 39 Victims Ripped Off By 14 Attorneys; Fund Chairman: Reimbursements Meant To Restore Trust In Profession In Connection With "Financial Harm Caused By These Few Miscreants..."

In Albany, New York, the New York State Lawyers' Fund for Client Protection recently announced:
  • New York’s legal profession, through the Lawyers’ Fund for Client Protection, recently awarded over $2.4 million in reimbursement to 39 law clients who lost money due to dishonest conduct by 14 former attorneys.

    The Lawyers’ Fund is a unique client reimbursement program financed by attorneys in New York State which reimburses law clients for financial losses caused by their attorney’s dishonest conduct in the practice of law. No other profession provides such protection to its clients.(1)

    The Lawyers’ Fund receives a portion of the registration fees paid by New York’s attorneys. No taxpayer money is used for this client protection program. Of every dollar received by the Lawyers’ Fund, over 92 cents go directly to client reimbursement.

    Of the 39 awards granted by the Lawyers’ Fund, 29 (74%) of the Fund’s awards totaling over $2.1 million reimbursed the thefts of personal injury and medical malpractice settlements by six now disbarred lawyers. All six of these former lawyers were criminally prosecuted for their thefts. Two of these six lawyers, Jeffrey Lewis Lessoff and Stuart A. Schlesinger, both of Manhattan, were responsible for 25 of the 29 awards reimbursing settlement thefts totaling over $1.9 million.

    The Lawyers’ Fund is administered by a seven-member Board of Trustees appointed by the State Court of Appeals, New York’s high court. The Trustees serve without compensation. Since 1982, the Fund has restored more than $198 million to 8,462 eligible law clients.

    The Lawyers’ Fund is chaired by Eric A. Seiff, a Manhattan lawyer of counsel to the law firm of StorchAmini, P.C. In announcing the awards, Mr. Seiff said:

    “The theft of law client money is not only a crime but a profound violation of the trust placed in lawyers. On behalf of the 311,000 members of New York’s legal profession, the Lawyers’ Fund strives to restore that trust by reimbursing the financial harm caused by these few miscreants in our profession.”
    Types of losses covered by the Lawyers’ Fund include a lawyer’s theft of estate assets, real estate down payments, litigation settlement proceeds, and law client money embezzled in investments within an attorney-client relationship. The Fund has not authority to compensate for alleged malpractice or assist in resolving disputes over legal fees.

    The Lawyers’ Fund is located in Albany. Telephone: 800-442-3863. Website:
Source: Lawyers’ Fund Reimbursing Settlement Thefts.
(1) For similar "attorney ripoff reimbursement funds" that attempt to clean up the financial mess created by the dishonest conduct of lawyers licensed in other states and Canada, see:
Maps available courtesy of The National Client Protection Organization, Inc.

No Harm - No Foul? Despite Spotless Record For 30+ Years Of Practice, Lawyer Who, Without Dishonest Intent, 'Borrowed' $30K From Client Trust Account To Pay Personal Expenses During Period Of Great Family Stress, Then Promptly Paid Client In Full Upon Request Before Complaint Was Filed Gets Hammered By State Bar Anyway w/ 2-Year License Suspension

In Los Angeles, California, the Northern California Record reports:
  • Marina Del Rey attorney Geoffrey L. Taylor was placed on suspension by the State Bar Court of California for misappropriation of client funds in a single matter.

    The suspension went into effect Nov. 4, according to the State Bar website.

    According to the statement of facts listed in court documents, Taylor was hired by a woman in September 2013 to represent her in a personal injury suit. The client and attorney agreed that Taylor would receive 33.3 percent of any funds obtained in her case. The matter was settled on Dec. 27, 2013, and the plaintiff received a $50,000 settlement, $16,665 of which should have covered Taylor’s fees.

    The client requested that their portion of the settlement be held in Taylor’s client trust account while they negotiated the medical bills from her accident. Taylor agreed, and by April 2014, Los Robles Hospital had waived her medical expenses. However, between the time of January 2014 and May 2014, the attorney allegedly wrote several checks from his client trust account for personal expenses. At one point, the account fell to a total of $32.70.

    In June 2014, Taylor used his personal account to wire $29,955.99 to his client and settled her remaining medical bills. The client filed a complaint against Taylor for misappropriating funds, and he was contacted about the matter by the State Bar in February 2015.

    The State Bar took into account several factors while determining the severity of Taylor’s sentence, according to court documents.(1) Taylor had no disciplinary history, his candor in the situation was evidenced by his payment of all funds to the client and medical providers prior to contact by the State Bar, and his admission of wrongdoing showed remorse. Taylor also provided personal references and explained that he had been going through personal issues at the time of misconduct.

    Taylor was suspended for two years and also will serve three years of probation.
For the story, see Marina Del Rey attorney suspended for misappropriating funds.
(1) From the Facts & Conclusions of Law:
  • At the time of the misconduct, Respondent had practiced law for over 31 years without discipline.

    By admitting his misconduct and paying the client before the client filed a complaint with the State Bar, Respondent demonstrated remorse and that he is willing to conform his future conduct to the ethical requirements of the legal profession. Moreover, although Respondent’s misconduct related directly to the practice of law, the misappropriation did not involve deceit, and Respondent did not intend to permanently deprive Lacho of her funds.

    Respondent anticipated that the film project he was involved in would provide him with funds to replenish the funds he withdrew from his client trust account prior to Lacho concluding her negotiations with Los Robles Hospital. Although the payment from the film project failed to materialize, when Lacho did request her funds, Respondent did not delay but paid her in full. Respondent took prompt steps to rectify his misconduct before significant harm could injure his client. The facts indicate this was an isolated event.

Florida Supremes Give Three More Attorneys The Bar Boot While Indefinitely Suspending Another Over Issues Related To Mishandling Client Cash, Related Trust Account Records

The Florida Bar, the state’s guardian for the integrity of the legal profession, recently announced that the Florida Supreme Court has disciplined 13 attorneys. – effectively giving six (6) lawyers the boot (five by disbarment & one disciplinary revocation), suspending five (5) others, and giving two more a public slap on the hand (via a public reprimand).

Of the 13, the following four (4) have either been booted or indefinitely suspended amidst allegations of playing fast and loose with their clients' cash(1) and/or the related trust account records:
  • Alan LeBou Carner, Fort Lauderdale, to receive a disciplinary revocation, with leave to seek readmission after five years, effective immediately, following a Jan. 5 court order. (Admitted to practice: 2002) Disciplinary revocation is tantamount to disbarment. A disciplinary matter pending against Carner involved misappropriation of client funds. (Case No. SC16-1928);

    Richard Michael Colbert, Gulf Breeze, suspended until further order, effective 30 days from a Dec. 19 court order. (Admitted to practice: 1987) Colbert pleaded guilty in federal court to 13 felony counts, including charges of theft, embezzlement or misapplication of funds entrusted to a financial institution [ie. while acting as an escrow agent]; money laundering, conspiracy to commit bank and mail fraud and making false statements to a federal financial institution. He is scheduled to be sentenced by the federal court in March. (Case No. SC16-2231);

    James Franklin Lowy, Clearwater, disbarred retroactive to October 15, 2015, following a Jan. 5 court order. (Admitted to practice: 1996) A Bar audit found that Lowy did not maintain the required trust account records, including a cash receipts and disbursements journal, monthly bank reconciliations and individual client ledger cards. Lowy received settlement payments on behalf of clients who were victims of an investment fraud scheme but he paid incorrect amounts to clients, overpaid himself, and failed to maintain a sufficient balance in the trust account to cover payments. Lowy also commingled funds. (Case No. SC15-1741);

    Garry Lee Potts, Clearwater, disbarred effective immediately, following a December 22, 2016, court order. (Admitted to practice: 1988) Potts represented a client in a personal injury matter. When the case settled, Potts kept an attorney’s fee of $8,333 and disbursed $8,523 to the client. Thereafter, the client made multiple attempts to contact Potts regarding his remaining balance of $7,794, but Potts did not respond. Potts also failed to respond to The Florida Bar’s inquiries, nor did he respond to a Bar subpoena to produce financial records. (Case No. SC16-838).
Source: Supreme Court Disciplines 13 Attorneys (Summaries of orders issued Nov 23, 2016 – Jan. 5, 2017).

Editor's Note: Key discipline case files that are public record are posted to attorneys’ individual online Florida Bar profiles. To view discipline documents, follow these steps.
(1) The Clients' Security Fund was created by The Florida Bar to help (at least partially) compensate persons who have suffered a loss of money or property due to misappropriation or embezzlement by a Florida-licensed attorney.

For similar "attorney ripoff reimbursement funds" that sometimes help cover the financial mess created by the dishonest conduct of lawyers licensed in other states and Canada, see:
Maps available courtesy of The National Client Protection Organization, Inc.

After Allegedly Looting Over $800K From Law Firm's Business Account, Office Manager Began Stealing Cash From Clients' Trust Account, Say Investigators

In Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reports:
  • The son of a partner in a Downtown law firm has been accused of stealing more than $800,000 from the firm by forging checks on its business account and using them for himself.

    Anthony Calaiaro, 33, of Castle Shannon was indicted Jan. 31 following an investigation by the FBI and Pittsburgh police. The case was unsealed Friday in U.S. District Court.

    A federal grand jury said that Mr. Calaiaro, the former office manager at bankruptcy law firm Calaiaro Valencik, did not have signatory authority over the firm’s business account but prepared checks payable to himself, forged partners’ signatures, forged endorsements and then cashed the checks.

    Prosecutors would not say what he did with the money.

    Mr. Calaiaro is the son of partner Donald Calaiaro and handled invoices and checks at the firm, among other duties.

    The grand jury said he pulled the scheme between June 2014 and April 2016 and covered his tracks by falsifying descriptions of the checks in the check register to make it seem as if they had been used to pay legitimate vendors.

    He prepared checks payable to himself totaling $827,020 drawn on the firm’s account at Allegheny Valley Bank, the indictment said.

    Toward the end of the scheme, between February and March 2016, the grand jury said he also prepared six checks totaling about $28,000 made payable to the law firm and drawn on the firm’s Interest on Lawyers Trust Account, or IOLTA, also at Allegheny Valley Bank. He forged a partner’s signature on those checks and then deposited them into the business account so he could keep writing checks on that account for himself, according to the grand jury.

    It’s not clear when the thefts were first discovered or why they weren’t noticed sooner.

    Mr. Caraiaro was arraigned Friday morning [February 3] in U.S. District Court and released on $25,000 bond. A public defender was appointed to represent him. The public defender’s office does not comment on pending cases, nor does the U.S. Attorney’s office.

    The law firm said in a statement that it has cooperated with federal investigators since April and its clients didn’t lose money.

    “This internal office matter has had no impact on our clients in any way,” the firm said.

Disbarred Attorney Faces Multiple Felony Charges For Alleged Pre-Disbarment Pilfer Of $50K In Connection With Settling Estate

In Allentown, Pennsylvania, The Morning Call reports:
  • A former South Whitehall attorney took $50,000 from his client, who happened to be a Lehigh County detective, to pay off an estate tax in 2009 but instead kept the money for himself,(1)(2) District Attorney Jim Martin announced Friday [February 3].

    Glenn D. McGogney, 70, of [...] Upper Macungie was charged Friday with theft by failure to make required disposition of funds received, theft by deception and receiving stolen property, all felonies. He was arraigned by District Judge Rod Beck and released on $50,000 unsecured bail.

    McGogney was disbarred in 2012 for bilking a client of $25,000 in an effort to salvage his investment in a failing Bucks County strip club.

    In 2009, McGogney was practicing law on Route 309 in South Whitehall and represented Christopher Cruz and his wife after they became executors for the estate of their friend, Charles J. Knautz, authorities said.

    In November of that year, McGogney drafted a document that showed the estate owed $42,507.53 in tax liability to the state Department of Revenue, authorities said. Cruz wrote a check for $50,049.15 to cover the tax and attorney fees.

    For several years after that, Cruz received several tax delinquency notices that said he failed to pay the estate tax, authorities said. Cruz contacted McGogney and gave him the documents he received and McGogney told him he would take care of the problem, authorities said.

    After receiving another delinquency notice in 2014, Cruz's wife requested a copy of the original check from her bank. The bank found that the check had been deposited in McGogney's bank account, authorities said.

    For two years, Christopher Cruz attempted to resolve the issue with McGogney, but was unable to, so he filed a theft report in September, and South Whitehall police Detective Chad Moyer began an investigation.

    Moyer confirmed the taxes were not paid.
Source: Attorney stole $50,000 tax check from client, Lehigh County DA says.
(1) See generally, Frederick Miller, "If You Can't Trust Your Lawyer .... ?", 138 Univ. of Pennsylvania Law Rev. 785 (1990) for more on the apparent, long-standing tolerance for deceit by many in the legal profession (while Professor Miller's essay is over a quarter-century old, it appears that his observations maintain their vitality to this day):
  • This tolerance to deception is encouraged by the profession's institutional civility. Seldom is a fig called a fig, or a shyster a shyster. No, our euphemisms are wonderfully polite: "frivolous conduct," or a "lack of candor;" or "law-office failure;" or, heaven forbid, a "peculation," a "defalcation," or a "negative balance" in a law firms's trust account.

    There is also widespread reluctance on the part of lawyers --- again, some lawyers --- to discuss publicly, much less acknowledge, that they have colleagues who engage in deceit and unprofessional conduct.

    This reluctance is magnified when the brand of deceit involves the theft of client money and property, notwithstanding that most lawyers would agree that stealing from clients is the ultimate ethical transgression.
    The fact is, however, that theft of client property is not an insignificant or isolated problem within the legal profession. Indeed, it is a hounding phenomenon nationwide, and probably the principal reason why most lawyers nationwide are disbarred from the practice of law.
(2) The Pennsylvania Lawyers Fund for Client Security which was established by the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania in 1982 to reimburse clients who have suffered a loss as a result of a misappropriation of funds by their Pennsylvania attorney.

For similar "attorney ripoff reimbursement funds" that attempt to clean up the financial mess created by the dishonest conduct of lawyers licensed in other states and Canada, see:
Maps available courtesy of The National Client Protection Organization, Inc.

After 50+ Years Of Practicing Law, Another Aging Attorney Gets Bar Boot For Playing Fast & Loose w/ Hundred$ Of Thousand$ In Client Cash

From a recent story in The Legal Intelligencer (Pennsylvania):
  • Montgomery County solo attorney Raymond J. Quaglia has been disbarred for misusing client money in multiple cases and taking excessive fees for himself.

    In a Jan. 30 order,(1)(2) the Pennsylvania Supreme Court said Quaglia was disbarred based on recommendations from the state Disciplinary Board. Quaglia was a solo practitioner based in Lafayette Hill.

    "Standing alone, respondent's misconduct in any one of the three matters would warrant at least a lengthy suspension," the board said in a November 2016 opinion signed by David Fitzsimons. "Where an attorney converts and misappropriates entrusted funds, employs misrepresentations to hide his actions and engages in derelictions of his professional responsibilities in three clients' matters, disbarment is warranted."

    The Disciplinary Board said Quaglia misappropriated at least $200,000 from an estate he represented beginning in 2007, the Jennings estate, and took an excessive fee. According to the opinion, he took more than $300,000 in fees, which was 32 percent of the estate's value.

    In a bankruptcy matter for which he was retained in 2012, the board said, Quaglia used more than $11,000 for his own attorney fee when it was supposed to be kept in escrow. When his client hired another lawyer to handle the wind-down of his business, Quaglia refused to provide payment from escrow, as he had already used that money for his own fee, the board found.

    In a 2009 insurance case, the board said, Quaglia failed to provide a written agreement to his client David Hatchigian, and gave no notice to the court that he would have to miss a hearing for medical reasons. He then failed to withdraw from the case when he became physically unable to represent his client.

    In another insurance case involving Hatchigian, Quaglia failed to deposit $30,000 of settlement funds into an escrow account, the opinion said, instead depositing it into his attorney operating account. He then deducted $10,000 for fees and held $3,500 to cover costs, with no consent from the client.

    The board found that on top of his actions affecting clients, Quaglia failed to recognize that he had done wrong, did not show remorse, and failed to make required tax payments. He was also held in contempt of court and filed a false attorney's annual fee form, the opinion said.

    "Respondent committed egregious misconduct in three clients' matters, the most serious violations comprising his misappropriation and misapplication of entrusted funds," the board concluded.

    The Disciplinary Board noted that Quaglia made several motions and objections, arguing that the disciplinary charges were stale or barred. But the board said Quaglia's motions misapplied its rules "in all instances."

    The opinion also acknowledged that Quaglia had an otherwise clean disciplinary record. But, the board said, that was not enough to mitigate his actions.

    Quaglia did not respond to a call seeking comment on his disbarment.
For more, see Montco Solo Attorney Disbarred for Misusing Client Money (may require subscription; if no subscription, TRY HERE, then click the appropriate link for the story).
(1) For the disciplinary board's recommendation, see Office of Disciplinary Counsel v. Quaglia.

(2) According to the disciplinary board, Quaglia was admitted to practice law in Pennsylvania in 1963.

Friday, February 24, 2017

Town's Industrial Past Driving Down Today's Property Values? Homeowners Living In Proximity To Former Smelting Plant File Class Action Against Owner, Alleging That 80 Years Of Copper Extraction Has Contaminated Their Homes With Unsafe Levels Of Lead, Arsenic

In Carteret, New Jesrey, reports:
  • It's been five years since the owners of the U.S. Metals Refining Company agreed to test the dirt around its former smelting site along Arthur Kill and clean up any potential contamination.

    Now, alarmed by the findings recently mailed out, borough homeowners have banded together to file a suit against the company. The class action suit alleges that 80 years of extracting copper has polluted nearby properties, exposing residents to unsafe levels of lead and arsenic.

    "This kind of contamination can be crushing to property values," said Steve German, an attorney for residents. "People have invested in their homes. This is where their lives are. This lawsuit is about people who are fearful for their health in the future."

    The lawsuit filed in Middlesex County Superior Court on Jan. 31 seeks damages for the Carteret residents whose property's value may have decreased around the former U.S. Metals Refining Company site at 300 Middlesex Ave.

    The suit also seeks to force the company to cover the costs of specialized medical monitoring for the residents, which could total to about 100 people.

    German said that although no one in the area has shown any signs of illness, it was necessary for the residents to be continually monitored beyond standard physicals for any possible sicknesses due to toxic and hazardous materials from the refinery.

    The current owner of the site, Freeport-McMoRan Copper & Gold, said it has not been served with the civil suit.

    The borough welcomes the lawsuit from its residents, according to Carteret Mayor Daniel J. Reiman, who said the civil suit covers issues the municipality couldn't address in its lawsuit.

    "We've gone after any of these chemical operations that have done business in Carteret and have left without cleaning up," Reiman said.
For more, see Arsenic, lead levels could crush property values in N.J. town, suit says.

See, generally, Carteret's cleanup crusade: Borough battles to banish its industrial past (Though some Carteret sites have been remediated, most just remained "mothballed," the mayor says). Environmental Protection Agency EPA smelter foundry

Hungry Homebuyers Clueless Of NE Denver Neighborhoods' Industrial Past Provide Boon To Enthusiastic Developers; Area Home Price Gains Continue Despite History Of Heavy Industries' Infliction Of Environmental Wounds (Lead, Arsenic Contamination)

In Denver, Colorado, The Denver Post reports:
  • No other populated area in the country carries as high an environmental risk as a few square miles just northeast of downtown Denver, according to a study from ATTOM Data Solution.

    That hasn’t dampened enthusiasm for development, however.

    Normally, high levels of past contamination and heavy industry nearby would weaken or kill off the surrounding housing market. But northeast Denver’s 80216 ZIP code, home to the Globeville and Elyria-Swansea neighborhoods and the River North Art District and National Western complex, is experiencing some of the strongest developer interest and home price gains along the Front Range.

    “It is a hot mess. A lot of people developing are cashing in on the market,” said Candi Cdebaca, a fourth-generation Swansea resident whose family has fought for years to ensure that part of Denver gets the remediation needed.

    To figure out where the highest environmental risks exist for property owners, ATTOM Data Solutions looked at 8,642 ZIP codes with more than 1,000 homes. It then looked at the number of Superfund sites, brownfield sites, active polluters and overall air quality to create an environmental hazard index.

    The four measures combined gave the 80216 ZIP code a score of 455 on the environmental hazard index, putting it ahead of the 92408 area of San Bernardino, Calif., Baltimore’s 21226 ZIP, and the 90670 area of Los Angeles.

    Denver’s most at-risk neighborhoods scored even worse than the 14303 ZIP code-area near the old Love Canal site in New York, considered one of the nation’s worst environmental disasters.

    Many of the area’s environmental wounds came in the late 1800s, when smelters belched lead, arsenic and heavy metals and produced slag that contaminated the soil. Two Superfund sites and six brownfield sites are legacies of that industrial heritage.

    A history of past contamination is common among areas across the country that currently rank high for environmental risk, and in many of those places, the generators of contamination are long gone. But that part of northeast Denver still has two dozen active polluters, as defined by the 2015 Toxics Release Inventory [go here for executive summary]. That pushed the risk score over the top, even with a decent air quality score.

    Typically, environmental hazards are associated with depressed home values, slower turnover, and higher foreclosure rates, said Daren Blomquist, senior vice president at ATTOM Data Solutions.

    “Home values hold up better when you don’t have the presence of a Superfund site,” Blomquist said.

    In the 80216 ZIP code, an index of home values is up 30.1 percent the past year and 250 percent the past five years, handily beating U.S. and Denver averages.

    That strong property appreciation is a testament to both how depressed prices were and how desperate buyers are for affordable properties.

    Some residents fear the severity of the area’s environmental problems are being ignored and remediation plans remain inadequate. Three major redevelopment projects, including reconstruction of Interstate 70, are combining with booming home and land values to push long-time residents out, said Cdebaca.

    I feel like the new people are clueless” of past polluters, she said. “Sellers aren’t required to report it, and the institutional knowledge is being displaced.”
Source: Northeast Denver neighborhood is nation’s most polluted (Two Superfund sites and six brownfield sites are legacies of the Globeville neighborhood’s industrial heritage). Environmental Protection Agency EPA smelter foundry

Foundry Waste From City's Industrial Past Suspected As Prime Source Of Neighborhood Lead Contamination, Causing EPA To Seek Homeowner Permission To Test Soil Samples At 400 Chattanooga Homes

In Chattanooga, Tennessee, the Times Free Press reports:
  • A years-long soil study of lead contamination levels in Chattanooga's residential areas is expanding to four new neighborhoods in 2017.

    The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is seeking landowner permission to sample yards in the Alton Park, College Hill Courts, Richmond and Mountain View neighborhoods next month to gauge whether soil in those areas contains unsafe levels of lead.

    "A lot of this is precautionary," EPA remedial project manager Cathy Amoroso said after a [] public meeting at the South Chattanooga Recreation Center. "We don't know if we're going to find lead there, because we haven't collected any samples yet. But we have reason to believe it's possible."

    There are 400 homes in the study area that the EPA would like to sample. Those in the testing area should have received information in the mail from the federal agency explaining the situation and requesting permission to conduct sampling.

    The EPA's interest in the lead levels of Chattanooga's residential soil originated from a 2011 case in which a Read Avenue resident showed up at an emergency room with lead poisoning.

    The case led to a large-scale assessment of the city's Southside neighborhood that resulted in the use of heavy machinery to remove lead from 68 of the 82 tested properties, according to newspaper archives.

    EPA officials received data [] from a fall study of 84 yards conducted in the Jefferson Heights, Cowart Place and Southside Gardens neighborhoods. The agency is in the process of sharing results with landowners and residents there, Amoroso said.

    There are some yards that will require cleanup, she said.

    Lead-based paint and leaded gasoline are typical sources of lead contamination in soil, but foundry waste from Chattanooga's industrial past is suspected to be the source of this area's problems. The sand-like mixture could contain elevated levels of lead.

    Children are most susceptible to lead poisoning, University of Tennessee environmental health specialist Bonnie Hinds explained at Tuesday's meeting. Young children who play in lead-contaminated dirt and then put dirty hands in their mouths could be at risk.

    Residents of the soon-to-be tested areas filled the meeting room with questions for the EPA and Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation officials.

    Many said they have lived in the area for decades, since well before the lead poisoning case was discovered in 2011.

    "We've been living in this area since 1968, in the same house," said Omelia Flemister, adding that she raised seven healthy children there. Flemister planned to allow the EPA to conduct sampling in her yard.

    Her daughter, Jacqueline Sorrell, said the family felt that some of the area's former industries had released contaminants.

    "I might," Sorrell said when asked if she would get tested for lead. "I'll have to read these samples."

Thursday, February 23, 2017

NYC Woman Gets Bagged For Allegedly Forging Multiple POA Documents Used To Hijack Title To Pair Of Queens Homes, Two Miami Beach Condos From Her Deceased "Very Good Friend"; Pocketed $50K In Rent Before Scoring $800K On Sale Of One House: Prosecutors

In Rockaway Park, Queens, DNAinfo (New York City) reports:
  • A "very good friend" of a woman who died a year before Hurricane Sandy was caught carrying out an elaborate scheme to drain $1.3 million from the dead woman's bank accounts and homes in Queens and Miami Beach — and leaving her body to be buried in the city's Potter's Field,(1) prosecutors charge.

    Donata Rea, 53, was caught as part of a probe by the Department of Investigation after signing her friend Mary Karen Connors' homes on Beach 120th Street in Rockaway Park up for the city's Build It Back program. She registered the homes with Build It Back in July of 2013, receiving up to $60,000 in repair work and reimbursement for construction on the homes.

    But her Build It Back sham was just a small part of her deception, the Queens District Attorney said.

    Investigators soon found that Rea had forged power of attorney forms to gain control of Connors' homes, as well as two condominiums she owned in Miami Beach, prosecutors said. She also took control of Connors' bank accounts, furniture and jewelry, prosecutors said.

    Connors, who was unmarried and didn't have children, died on Nov. 18, 2011 at the now-closed Peninsula Hospital Center. Despite her large property holdings, officials said Connors was buried at the city's Potter's Field on Hart Island, which is typically a place for people who are either indigent or whose bodies go unclaimed at the Medical Examiner's office.

    Rea, whose lawyer described as a "very good friend" of Connors, swooped in two years after Connors' death and awarded herself all of Connors' property — along with her jewelry and furniture — by forging multiple power of attorney documents, the DA said.

    She took over two homes in Rockaway Park belonging to Connors at 174 and 178 Beach 120th St., and began renting one of them out to tenants in 2013, getting more than $50,000 in rent before selling the house for $800,000 this fall, prosecutors said.

    Rea had no legal authority over any of the property or items, prosecutors said. As a person without heirs, everything belonging to Connors should have been transferred over to a public administrator, officials said.
For the story, see Scammer Took Over Dead Woman's Cash and Beach Homes, DA Says.
(1) See The New York Times: First a Mistaken Burial as a Pauper. Then the Indignities Piled Up for more on the disrespect that befell this victim subsequent to her death.

Appointed After Death Of Elderly Man, Financial Guardian Admits To Pilfering Over $60K From Deceased's Widow, Leaving Bills Unpaid, Sending Home Into Foreclosure

In Kentwood, Michigan, WZZM-TV Channel 13 reports:
  • A Kentwood woman accused of siphoning funds from an elderly widow, putting her in jeopardy of losing her home, pleaded no contest to a felony charge that accused her of pocketing funds over a seven-year period.

    Christina Ledesma, 60, was accused of taking more than $60,000 from the Kentwood victim between 2009 and 2015.

    After the victim’s husband died, Ledesma became her guardian to handle finances, court records show.

    The victim’s husband had taken care of paying the bills, “so after he died the victim needed assistance with handling her financial matters,’’ Kentwood Police Detective William Frederick wrote in a probable cause affidavit.

    “In 2015, the victim’s bills were not being paid and the victim’s home was in the process of foreclosure,’’ Frederick wrote. “The investigation revealed that Christina Ledesma had taken over $60,000 from the victim’s account at Fifth-Third Bank.’’

    Kentwood launched the investigation after getting a call from Adult Protective Services, a division of the Michigan Department of Health & Human Services, on behalf of the 83-year-old woman.

    Ledesma was charged in December with embezzlement of $50,000 or more but less than $100,000, a felony punishable by up to 15 years in prison. During an interview with police, Ledesma “admitted to taking the victim’s money,’’ court records show.

    During a brief appearance Wednesday, Feb. 8 before Kent County Circuit Court Judge Donald A. Johnston, Ledesma pleaded no contest to an attempted embezzling charge. She’ll return to court for sentencing in May. Ledesma remains free on bond.

HUD Rules Force Seneca Nation To Give Ten Senior Citizens Of Non-Native American Ancestry The Boot From Elderly Housing Authority Complex, Or Face Loss Of Funding & Fine Of Up To $500K

In Salamanca, New York, The Salamanca Press reports:
  • Ten non-Native American residents of the Seneca Nation Housing Authority’s Elderly Complex at 44 Seneca St. have been given until the end of May to vacate their apartments.

    The decision that non-Native residents could not continue to live in the elderly Seneca housing complex came after an audit last year by the Chicago office of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development office.

    Phil Pantano, a Seneca Nation spokesman, said [], “HUD officials informed the Nation that having non-Native tenants in our Seneca Housing Authority apartments was non-compliant with HUD regulations, and could result in a fine and loss of HUD funding if not addressed.”

    Pantano, who spoke with Seneca Nation Housing Authority Chairman Adrian Stevens, said, “After lengthy discussions between the Housing Authority Board and the Nation Council, the Nation decided to give the residents until May 31, 2017 to move, knowing that a loss of important funding was possible.”

    Stevens met with residents to explain the situation, Pantano said.

    “The Seneca Nation will be actively working with the City of Salamanca, other housing agencies, and local, state and federal officials to find alternate housing for the approximately 10 residents who will be affected by this mandatory action,” said Pantano.

    Sources told The Press on Monday the residents were put on notice after Thanksgiving, but have not complained publicly for fear of retaliation.

    Those who have received the notices that their leases will not be renewed range from a woman in her early 90s, who has lived there for nearly 30 years, to a resident in her 70s who has lived there for four years, according to several sources.

    Mayor Michael Smith said Tuesday he and other city officials are working very closely with Seneca Nation on the eviction issue.

    “The city and the Seneca Nation are on the same side, working against HUD,” he explained.

    Mayor Smith said the Senecas were facing a possible HUD fine up to $500,000 because non-Natives were in what HUD considered to be Native American housing.

    Mayor Smith, who is of Seneca descent, said, “It looks awful for the Nation to throw out the non-Natives.” He said the Native American HUD office in Chicago “is desperately trying to find alternate housing” for the people being evicted.

    The mayor added, “It’s almost criminal. The best we can hope for is to grandfather these people in.”
For more, see Non-Natives facing eviction from Seneca Housing over HUD rule.

For a story update, see Three elderly grandfathered in Seneca housing:
  • Three non-Native residents facing eviction from the Seneca Nation Housing Authority’s Salamanca elderly housing complex will not have to leave after all. [...] “The magic number is down to five. Three of the residents were grandfathered,” said the mayor, who was informed Friday by Adrian Stevens, executive director of the Seneca Nation Housing Authority.
    The 10 residents had been under threat of eviction at the end of May since shortly after Thanksgiving. Since last week, one person has moved to Hillview Manor, across from the Post Office, and another left public housing, Smith said.
    Last week, State Sen. Catharine Young, R-Olean, also urged HUD to relent in its pursuit of forcing the Seneca Nation Housing Authority to evict the non-Natives.

    She said, “One of the women who is being evicted has lived in the complex for nearly 30 years and she is in her 90s. Another, who has already been forced out, had to give up her companion animal of 14 years, so she could secure a new place to live.”

    “It is heartbreaking,” Young said.

    She asked HUD to grandfather in the remaining 10 residents so that they can live out their years in the housing accommodations of their choice. “I also requested that the agency not impose harsh penalties on the Seneca Nation for housing these elderly individuals,” she said.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Lead Man In 3-Person, Title Hijacking Racket Gets 97 Months For Forging & Recording Dozens Of 'Dirty Deeds' On Vacant Foreclosed Homes, Then Peddling Them For Rent Or Sale To Unwitting Victims

In Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, the Delaware County Daily Times reports:
  • A Chester man who pleaded guilty last year in a scheme to gain ownership over government- and bank-owned properties in Delaware County was sentenced [] to more than eight years in a federal prison.

    Steven Hameed, 57, was also ordered to serve three years of supervised release and pay $190,818 in restitution, according to the sentence handed down Feb. 15 by U.S. District Judge Timothy J. Savage.

    Hameed and co-conspirators Darnell Young, 49, and Damond Palmer, 42, were arrested in December 2015 following a joint investigation by local and federal law enforcement, including Delaware County detectives, the FBI, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, and the Aston and Upper Darby police departments.

    The defendants filed bogus deed documents in the Delaware County Recorder of Deeds office between Feb. 2010 and March 2013 labeled with some variation of “Revised Full Reconveyance of Living Trust Deed Claims” or “Revised Full Reconveyance of Trust Deed of Release,” according to court records.

    The properties the documents referenced were located throughout the county, including Chester, Aston, Sharon Hill, Upper Chichester, Marple and Upper Darby. The defendants would use the fictitious deeds to either live in the homes, or rent or sell them to unsuspecting third parties, according to prosecutors.

    An indictment indicates Hameed, Young and Palmer delivered false and fraudulent deeds for 54 such properties to Delaware County Solicitor Michael Maddren in March 2012 alone, along with paperwork denying any claim Wells Fargo Bank might have to the parcels.

    The defendants, all of whom pleaded guilty in June 2016, also filed hundreds of false tax forms against police officers, judges and other government employees in an attempt to harass and intimidate them.(1) The fraudulent IRS forms indicated the defendants paid dividends or interest to the named individuals – often in the amount of $9,999,999 – in order to have the IRS scrutinize the victim “payee” when those funds were not reported on their own taxes.

    Hameed was sentenced to 97 months in a federal prison on charges of bank fraud, conspiracy, corrupt interference with Internal Revenue laws, conversion of government property and creating fictitious obligations.

    Young, who pleaded guilty to conspiracy, conversion, bank fraud, creating a false financial bond and corrupt interference, was sentenced in October to 40 months in prison with three years of supervised release. He was also ordered to pay $190,818 in restitution.

    Palmer pleaded guilty to conspiracy and bank fraud charges, for which he received one day in prison, three years of supervised release and was ordered to pay $147,481 in restitution.
Source: Chester man gets prison for property-fraud scheme.
(1) According to the Philadelphia office of the U.S. Attorney, the defendants were 'self-proclaimed' sovereign citizens (a group notorious for using this type of 'paper terrorism' to harass law enforcement, court, and government officials).

Upstate NY Man That Targeted Foreclosed Homes In Title Hijacking Racket Cops Guilty Plea In One County; Prosecutions In Neighboring Jurisdictions To Continue

In Troy, New York, the Albany Times Union reports:
  • An Albany man who was the focus of a multi-county investigation of phony property deeds pleaded guilty to forgery and falsification of business records on Friday [February 17].

    Zarak O. Ali, 43, is expected to be sentenced to 3 to 9 years in state prison as part of the plea deal reached by his attorney and the Rensselaer County District Attorney's office.

    Ali pleaded guilty to the charges after state Supreme Court Justice Andrew Ceresia outlined the parameters of the deal in court.

    Prosecutors said it was expected that Ali's sentence would run concurrently with the sentence he receives for an expected plea in Albany County. But the judge said there was no guarantee that judges in Saratoga, Schenectady and Columbia counties would adhere to such a sentencing agreement.

    Ali of Maiden Lane, Albany, was accused of forging deeds to five foreclosed properties in Brunswick, Rensselaer and Troy from January to March and filing them with the clerk's office, according to the indictment.

    Ali listed his business address as 40 Wall St., New York City, the location for The Trump Building, in leases provided to tenants.

    The State Police Special Investigations Unit uncovered evidence of forged deeds in Rensselaer County, as well as the Capital Region and Hudson Valley counties extending back 18 months. Authorities said the forged deeds affected people who believed they were getting a deal on buying a home or renting an apartment. The status of the other cases could not be immediately learned on Friday.

    Ali was indicted in Rensselaer County in October on 20 counts charging that he forged deeds for properties around the county. He was charged with second-degree forgery and criminal possession of a forged instrument and first-degree falsifying business records and offering a false instrument for filing.
Source: Man admits forging deeds in Rensselaer County (He's accused of similar crimes in other Capital Region and Hudson Valley counties).

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Foreclosure Rescue Operator Dodges Hard Prison Time, Gets One Year In County Jail After Guilty Plea To Ripping Off Financially Strapped Homeowners Of Over $100K With False Promises Of Mortgage Help; All But One Client Lost Homes To Bank

In Ventura, California, the Ventura County Star reports:
  • A Canyon Lake man has been sentenced to jail for his part in a fraudulent real estate foreclosure rescue business, the Ventura County District Attorney's Office said Friday [February 17].

    Patrick Iturra, 46, was sentenced [] to 365 days in jail by Ventura County Superior Court Judge Matthew Guasco.

    In December, Iturra pleaded guilty to two felony counts of foreclosure consultant fraud and three counts of felony grand theft.

    He operated a business under the name of Mercury Business Group, promising homeowners he could save their properties from foreclosure, prosecutors said. In return, Iturra received thousands of dollars from homeowners, although he failed to help them, prosecutors said.

    Homeowners suffered more than $100,000 in losses and all but one of the victims lost their homes to foreclosure, prosecutors said.

    The charges came after an investigation by the District Attorney's Real Estate Fraud Unit.

    Iturra was also placed on 60 months of probation, ordered to pay $100,000 in restitution to the victims and prohibited from working in real estate or any business related to foreclosure rescue.

    He operated the business with Roberto Sanchez, 68, and Rosalva Sanchez, 63, both of Oxnard. They were earlier each sentenced to 180 days in jail and ordered to pay victim restitution after pleading guilty to felony grand theft and foreclosure consultant fraud, prosecutors said..

Foreclosure Rescue Operator Gets 18 To 48 Months In Prison For Role In Racket That Duped Financially Strapped Homeowners Into Paying Upfront Fees In Exchange For Fraudulent Bailout Promises

From the Office of the Nevada Attorney General:
  • Nevada Attorney General Adam Paul Laxalt announced that Alicia Ruiz, 45, of Las Vegas, was sentenced for two felony counts of theft, a category “C” felony, for her role in a foreclosure rescue scheme. The fraud was committed between December 2011 and May 2013.

    Ruiz and two co-defendants operated a business known as “National Prevention Center” that defrauded homeowners using a foreclosure rescue scheme. Together, they solicited homeowners and promised their clients that they would purchase their foreclosed homes and then subsequently sell their homes at current value. After placing their trust in this business and paying thousands of dollars in upfront fees, clients’ homes were never purchased as promised, and the victims were not reimbursed. [Go here for criminal complaint]
    Eighth Judicial District Court Judge David Barker sentenced Ruiz to 18-48 months in prison. Ruiz previously entered a guilty plea agreement that requires her to pay back five victims nearly $50,000 in restitution. Ruiz’s co-defendants have already pleaded guilty and were previously sentenced for their crimes.
Source: Attorney General Laxalt Announces Sentencing of Las Vegas Woman for Foreclosure Rescue Scheme (Defendant Defrauded Homeowners Out of Thousands of Dollars).

Court Orders Ex-Attorney To Cough Up $18 Million For Role In Recruiting Homeowners Into Phony "Mass Joinder" Lawsuits Purporting To Challenge Mortgage Lenders' Foreclosure Rights

Law360 reports:
  • A California federal judge on Wednesday [February 15] ordered a former California attorney to pay more than $18 million and barred him from the debt relief market to settle claims by the Federal Trade Commission that he wrongly recruited homeowners into “mass-joinder” lawsuits against mortgage lenders.

    A unanimous FTC in May sued former California lawyer Vito Torchia Jr. and four attorneys for using law firms Brookstone Law and Advantis Law to steal millions from homeowners by falsely promising debt relief and financial rewards through lawsuits alleging mortgage fraud...

Monday, February 20, 2017

Bankster Cited For "Unclean Hands": Appeals Court Nixes $893K Award In Favor Of "Reckless" Lender To Reimburse It For Losses Suffered In Mortgage Fraud Scheme That It Facilitated; Urges Trial Judge To Consider Ordering Scammers Pay "Fines" Rather Than "Restitution", So That Loot Goes To Federal Treasury Instead, "A Far Worthier Recipient Of It Than BOA!"

The Indiana Lawyer reports:
  • Three defendants convicted of wire fraud in the purchase of 16 properties in Gary were clearly guilty of the crimes, but the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals Friday [February 10] threw out a restitution order in favor of Bank of America and urged the district court in Hammond to consider fining the defendants instead.

    The bank was reckless,” Judge Richard Posner wrote in United States of America v. Minas Litos and Adrian and Daniela Tartareanu, 16-1384, -1385, 2248, 2249, 2330. The defendants were convicted of wire fraud, and the 7th Circuit affirmed those convictions, but reversed an order that they pay the bank restitution of $893,015, the amount it claimed was lost in the scheme.

    The defendants were convicted on wire fraud charges filed in 2012 for a scheme in which home buyers were provided down payment kickbacks from the defendants after mortgages were secured on loan applications that provided false information. The defendants then walked away with the purchase price of the properties. But the 7th Circuit wrote Bank of America didn’t have clean hands, and there was little evidence that the bank would not have made the loans had it know the true source of the down payments — the defendants, not the buyers.

    Posner detailed the bank’s dubious mortgage-lending history during the real-estate bubble leading up to the Great Recession, noting for instance one woman to whom the bank issued six mortgages in a 10-day period. Posner noted that District Judge Philip Simon said during sentencing in this case, “Bank of America knew [what] was going on. They’re playing this dance and papering it. Everybody knows it is a sham because no one is assuming any risk. So what’s wrong with saying they’re [of] equal culpability?”

    “Indeed,” Posner continued, “and we are puzzled that after saying this the judge awarded Bank of America restitution — and in the exact amount that the government had sought.”

    Restitution for a reckless bank? A dubious remedy indeed — which is not to say that the defendants should be allowed to retain the $893,015.” That is stolen money,” he wrote. “We don’t understand why the district judge, given his skepticism concerning the entitlement of Bank of America to an award for its facilitating a massive fraud, did not levy on the defendants a fine of not more than the greater of twice the gross gain or the gross loss caused by an offense from which any of $893,015. 18 U.S.C. § 3571(d) authorizes a fine of not more than the greater of twice the gross gain or the gross loss caused by an offense from which any person either derives pecuniary gain or suffers pecuniary loss.”(1)

    The 7th Circuit vacated the restitution order as to the Tartareanus and remanded for full resentencing with the alternative remedy of a heavy fine on the defendants.(2) The panel remanded Litos’ sentencing for the limited purpose of reconsideration of the restitution order with direction to consider whether a fine is possible.
Source: 7th Circuit halts fraud restitution for ‘reckless’ Bank of America.

For the court ruling, see USA v. Litos, et al., Nos. 16-1384, -1385, 2248, 2249, 2330 (7th Cir. February 10, 2017).
(1) The court went on to say:
  • Had the amount of the fraud been made the basis of a fine rather than restitution, the $893,015 would have gone to the federal Treasury, a far worthier recipient of it than Bank of America in this case. At least that is an issue that deserves the further scrutiny of the district court, ...
(2) Ibid.

Court: City Violated Tenants' Due Process Rights By Giving Them Quick Boot Over Alleged Code Enforcement Violations Without Giving Notice Spelling Out Details About Why They Were Being Forced To Leave

In Little Rock, Arkansas, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reports:
  • Pulaski County Circuit Judge Alice Gray said Tuesday [February 14] that she's preparing to strike down a section of the fire code as unconstitutional in response to a legal challenge by tenants of a Little Rock apartment complex whom city officials tried to evict after discovering dangerous conditions at the property.
    The city has said it will appeal the decision.

    Gray said the notice city officials gave tenants to vacate has no details about why they were being forced to leave.

    "It basically just tells them to get out," she said.

    City officials say they had to move quickly once inspectors uncovered dangerous conditions at the apartments.

    But the judge questioned how city officials could call it an emergency situation when the city did not immediately warn tenants about what inspectors had found.

    The city took four days to notify tenants they were being evicted, then gave them a week to get out, then extended that time even further, Gray noted.

    "You let people stay in those apartments ... sleep in those apartments ... knowing there was an emergency," she said.

    The city closed the 141-unit, 17-building complex on Colonel Glenn Road and evicted its tenants in December 2015 after inspectors reported finding numerous fire-code and building violations that city officials said had put apartment residents' lives in danger.

    Fire marshals found exposed wiring, raw sewage, broken smoke alarms, possible mold, a dead cat and plumbing and mechanical issues, Fire Chief Gregory Summers reported at the time.

    The residents, who numbered more than 100, were given a week to find someplace else to live, a deadline that provoked worry and concern among many tenants, given that they were being forced to suddenly relocate just a few days before Christmas.

    But the judge halted the evictions two days later in response to a lawsuit filed by the apartment owners, ruling that the city could not act against the complex and tenants until the lawsuit is resolved.

    The tenants joined the lawsuit shortly after it was filed, and Tuesday, Gray sided with the women, represented by law students Kyla Farmer and Reese Owens with attorney Dustin Duke,(1) that Section 108 of the fire code violates due-process guarantees in both state and federal constitutions.

    The tenants' right to due process means they were owed a clear explanation of what the city was doing and why it was doing it to them, Farmer said. The tenants are also disputing that the situation was an emergency as the city has claimed.

    But the fire code does not have any requirements that the city provide any such explanation nor do those rules provide for an opportunity for tenants to challenge or question the city's actions, even retroactively, she said.

    "Due process rights don't disappear in an emergency," Farmer told the judge.

    Deputy City Attorney Cliff Sward argued that the city needed to act swiftly once inspectors found the complex could not be safely inhabited.

    City officials had to move immediately to protect the health and safety, not just of the apartment residents, but also to protect their neighbors and local businesses from the dangerous conditions, he said.

    Sward said the department put firefighters on guard at the complex once inspectors determined much of it was uninhabitable.

    The city gave tenants time to move out in consideration of their potential difficulty in finding new lodging and to avoid leaving any of them homeless at Christmas, he said.

    Sward further argued that the tenants don't have grounds to challenge the legality of the city procedures because, as renters, they do not have the same stake in the apartment complex as the owners do.

    The tenants are being represented by lawyers from Arkansas Community Organizations, Legal Aid of Arkansas and students from the consumer protection clinic at the W.H. Bowen School of Law(2) at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock under the supervision of attorney Amy Pritchard, the clinic director.
For the story, see Judge: LR's using code to evict violates rights.
(1) Duke is an attorney with the Center for Arkansas Legal Services, a 501(c)(3) non-profit, public interest law firm that provides free legal aid to low-income Arkansans in civil (non-criminal) cases. Their headquarters is in Little Rock, Arkansas, and they service 44 out of 75 Arkansas counties (the rest being served by Legal Aid of Arkansas, Inc., which is headquartered in Jonesboro, Arkansas).

(2) In the Consumer Protection Clinic, qualified University of Arkansas at Little Rock law students receive a special license to practice law in Arkansas under the guidance of a supervising attorney. Most Consumer Protection clinical cases deal with housing or consumer law. Students may represent clients who are facing foreclosure, eviction, housing instability, fraud, unfair or deceptive trade practices, and problems with credit reports and credit access.

"Wolf of Wall Street" Movie Mogul Contests Feds' Forfeiture Claims, Fighting Off Seizure Of $17.5 Million Mansion, Other Homes By Denying Allegations That He Bought Them With Dirty Money Scored In Suspected Malaysian Gov't Kleptocracy

In Los Angeles, California, The Real Deal (Los Angeles) reports:
  • Riza Aziz, co-founder of the production firm behind “The Wolf of Wall Street,” is contesting the feds’ attempt to seize several homes that he allegedly bought with funds embezzled from a Malaysian state fund.

    The Justice Department seized multiple properties linked to Aziz last year, and is seeking forfeiture of the rights to the Martin Scorsese-directed film, according to the court documents cited by the Hollywood Reporter.

    But Aziz, the stepson of Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak, is merely an “innocent owner” of the assets, according to his lawyer, Matthew Schwartz, who has filed a motion to dismiss several complaints against his client.

    “Riza Aziz is neither alleged to have participated in any transactions involving 1MDB nor even to have knowledge of any transactions involving 1MDB — let alone knowledge of any supposed misappropriation,” the motion reads.

    An 11,000-square-foot walled Beverly Hills mansion at 912 Hillcrest Road is among the properties at stake. Aziz purchased it for $17.5 million from Jho Low, a Malaysian businessman that has also been implicated in the scandal.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Amateur Landlords Using Faulty Wording In Online Ads Make For Ripe Targets For Extortion-Like Fair Housing Lawsuits Filed By One Central Florida Attorney; Dozens Of Near-Identical Suits Filed On Behalf Of Four Plaintiffs All Used Same Lawyer

In Fort Pierce, Florida, WPTV-TV Channel 5 reports:
  • An extra way to make cash, could end up costing you. As home rental sites become more popular, a Contact 5 investigation found you could end up slapped with a federal lawsuit, paying thousands of dollars, for what you advertise.

    Having the surf, the sand, so close to her Fort Pierce condo is a dream for Debra Vazzana. Vazzana decided to share her dream, renting her place when she’s away.

    “In the 11 years I've had the condo, I've never had one complaint. Not one,” said Vazzana.

    That is, until a lawsuit showed up on her doorstep.

    “Said I was being sued under the Fair Housing Act for causing her distress, depression, feeling of unworthiness because I was discriminating against her children,” said Vazzana.

    In the lawsuit, a woman named Lucia Rist claims Vazzana discriminated against her, because she “prohibits families with children under three from renting her home.”

    It was all because of wording that was put on my ad where it said, because of pool regulations, children under the age of 3 are not allowed, please inquire,” said Vazzana.

    Vazzana said she'd had families with children stay with her before. The ad was meant to explain that the main pool didn't allow children. Vazzana never got to explain there was a kiddie pool instead.

    “I never heard from anybody. Not an email, not a phone call, nothing. Just a subpoena.”

    She paid $5,000 to settle the case. Rist originally asked for $25,000.

    Contact 5 found almost 60 identical discrimination lawsuits filed in Florida. Homeowners in Boca, Jupiter, Delray and Lake Worth among those sued.

    The lawsuits go after ads featuring words like, “Condo rules, no children under 15-years-old,” sleeps maximum of four adults, no children,” and Adults Only Please!

    Contact 5 discovered four different people filed the 60 lawsuits.

    A man from Maryland filed 39 of them.

    All 4 plaintiffs use the same lawyer, Shawn Heller.

    “It just seems to be a pattern of excessive abuse,” said Richard Vecchio, owner of Realty Associates in South Florida, and one of the people sued.

    One of Vecchio’s employees posted an ad on behalf of a client, claiming “no children under 12 are allowed per HOA rules.”

    “It's not that people don't make mistakes, but we should really have an opportunity to correct our mistakes,” said Vecchio. Vecchio paid $9,000 to settle his lawsuit.

    For months Contact 5 tried to talk with Heller or his partner Joshua Glickman. Heller canceled or backed out of several interviews, claiming he did not have time to talk, even by phone.

    But Contact 5 asked a Scripps investigation team in Tampa to track him down. When asked why he was filing these lawsuits, and if he was taking advantage of people, Heller would only say the same thing, “We stand by our statement.”

    That statement says, in part, “Given the limited resources of governmental agencies and fair housing organizations, lawsuits brought by individuals and testers play a significant role in combating housing discrimination.”

    Scott Holtz is a lawyer specializing in landlord-tenant issues. Holtz says you need to think carefully about what you write before advertising.

    He says it may be okay to write the house is not suitable for children, or not child proof to avoid liability, but ultimately, the decision on whether the home is safe, should be left up to the interested renters.

    Holtz admits the Federal Fair Housing law hasn’t necessarily caught up to home rental sites, like VRBO and Air BnB, so many renters aren’t entirely sure what they can write.

    But Holtz said, “Unfortunately ignorance is not a defense in these types of cases.”

    Vazzana said she regrets what she wrote but meant no harm. “It's just horrible,” said Vazzana.

    Vazzana sold the condo after settling the lawsuit, leaving others to live out her beach-front dream.

    “No, it's not fair at all. It's not fair at all,” said Vazzana.

    Bottom line, discriminating against families with children is breaking the law. An attorney with the Fair Housing Legal Society of Palm Beach told Contact 5 it’s best not write any lines in an ad that concern children.

Real Estate Brokerages Make For Ripe Targets For ADA-Related, Lawyer-Authored 'Shakedown' Letters & Lawsuits In Connection With Website Accessibility For Those With Visual, Hearing Impairments

Syndicated real estate columnist Kenneth Harney writes:
  • It hasn’t gotten much public attention, but here’s something that has the real estate brokerage industry upset: a sudden wave of potentially costly and embarrassing legal challenges to companies’ websites, alleging violations of the Americans With Disabilities Act, or ADA.

    Lawyers representing visually impaired, hearing-impaired and other clients say the vast majority of realty sites don’t offer features needed to allow handicapped individuals to shop for homes and absorb content as other people can. These features include alternative texts accompanying images, transcripts for audiovisual content, descriptive links and resizable text.

    Lawyers at one firm alone — Carlson Lynch Sweet Kilpela & Carpenter in Pittsburgh — have sent out “demand letters,” as they are called, to as many as 25 realty and home-building companies in recent months. The letters threaten lawsuits if the firms do not agree to modifications of their sites. The warnings also raise the prospect of hefty financial penalties.

    Benjamin J. Sweet, a Carlson Lynch partner, says website inaccessibility “is an epidemic in this country” in almost every segment of the economy.(1) He added that his firm has “more than 100 clients in 40 states” who either have been plaintiffs in various suits or are being represented through demand letters. Sweet declined to identify specific realty brokerages that have been contacted, citing the potential for litigation.

    Other law firms reportedly are gearing up legal attacks — a prospect that has the National Association of Realtors worried enough that it recently pleaded with the Department of Justice to accelerate its timetable for releasing long-awaited guidance on the standards that commercial websites must meet to be compliant with the disabilities law.

    In a letter to the head of Justice’s civil rights division [], Tom Salomone, president of the Realtors group, said the “lack of federal regulation governing website accessibility” has “left our members confused about how to mitigate legal risks in this area or what is even required of their websites” under the law. In the meantime, “plaintiffs are using the ADA to demand restitution from businesses.”
For more, see Advocates for the disabled find fault in many realty websites (The real estate brokerage industry faces a sudden wave of potentially costly and embarrassing legal challenges to companies’ websites, alleging violations of the Americans With Disabilities Act, or ADA).

See also, Increasing Legal Scrutiny of Website Accessibility in the Real Estate Industry.
(1) See, generally,

Single-Family Home's Landlord Who Allegedly Refused To Waive $250 Pet Deposit Fee For Tenant With Emotional Support Dog Now Finds Itself In Battle With HUD's Fair Housing Cops

From the U.S. Department of Housing & Urban Development (Washington, D.C.):
  • The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) announced [] that it is charging the landlords of a Moore, Oklahoma rental home with violating the Fair Housing Act by denying the reasonable accommodation requests of their tenant, a veteran with disabilities. Read the charge.

    The Fair Housing Act prohibits housing providers from denying or limiting housing to persons with disabilities, or from refusing to make reasonable accommodations in policies or practices for people with disabilities. This includes waiving pet fees for persons with disabilities who use assistance animals.

    The case came to HUD’s attention when a combat veteran living with a mental disability(1) who uses an emotional support animal filed a complaint alleging that the owners of the house he was renting. The tenant complained that AMH 2015-1 Borrower, LLC, and its management company, AH4R Management – OK, LLC, refused to waive their pet deposit fee.(2)

    HUD’s charge alleges that although the man provided the owners and management company with medical documentation attesting to his need for the animal, they denied his request to waive a $250 pet fee. Under the law, assistance animals are not considered pets.

    Disability is the most common basis of fair housing complaint filed with HUD and its partner agencies. Last year alone, HUD and its partners considered over 4,900 disability-related complaints, or more than 58 percent of all fair housing complaints.
    People who believe they have experienced discrimination may file a complaint by contacting HUD’s Office of Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity at (800) 669-9777 (voice) or (800) 927-9275 (TTY). Housing discrimination complaints may also be filed by going to, or by downloading HUD’s free housing discrimination mobile application, which can be accessed through Apple and Android devices.
For more, see HUD Charges Oklahoma Landlords With Discriminating Against Veteran With Disabilities.
(1) According to HUD's complaint, the combat veteran is diagnosed with service-connected Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and Major Depressive Disorder (MDD), which substantially limit his personal, work, and social life. The disability's symptoms include anxiety, isolation, avoidance, and a difficulty and a difficulty going out in public, as well as difficulty with interpersonal relationships and insomnia, the complaint states.

(2) According to HUD's complaint, the subject property being rented is a single family home, and the animal involved is a dog.

HUD Squeezes Fair Housing Lawsuit Settlements From Two Insurance Companies Over Allegations That They Denied Landlords' Requests For "Umbrella Coverage" For Rentals Considered To Be "Subsidized" & "Low-Income" Housing; Practice Had Discriminatory Effect Based On Race, Nat'l Origin, Say Feds

From the U.S. Department of Housing & Urban Development (Washington, D.C.):
  • The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) announced agreements with two insurance companies in Ohio and Florida settling allegations the companies violated the Fair Housing Act by denying insurance coverage to properties that contain “subsidized housing” and “low-income housing.”
  • The Fair Housing Act makes it unlawful for providers of housing-related services or products, including insurance providers, to discriminate because of race, color, religion, sex, national origin, disability, and familial status.

    The agreements stemmed from a Secretary-Initiated complaint HUD filed after receiving reports the insurance companies’ policies and practices had a discriminatory effect because of race and national origin. Specifically, HUD’s complaint alleged that the companies refused to provide umbrella coverage, which provides additional liability coverage when an insured’s other primary policy limits have been reached, to properties containing subsidized or low-income housing.

    Under the agreements, McGowan and Company will remove “subsidized” and “low-income” from its list of prohibited properties, spend $100,000 to affirmatively market its services and products to the affordable and low-income housing markets and provide fair housing training for management and staff that review and/or approve applications for insurance. Mack & Waltz will spend $10,000 to affirmatively promote its services in affordable and low-income housing markets, and provide fair housing training for its management and staff.

HOA Faces Fair Housing Hot Water For, Among Other Things, Allegedly Requesting 'Additional Documentation' From Rental Applicant Of Ethiopian Ancestry Not Required From Other Prospective Tenants, Despite Prior Pre-Approval Already Given By Apartment Complex's Management Company

In Washington, D.C., Washington City Paper reports:
  • A D.C. resident born in Ethiopia is suing the cooperative association of an apartment complex near the U Street corridor for allegedly denying her housing on the basis of her national origin. She was pregnant with her second child and looking for larger accommodations at the time.

    In a suit filed Friday [February 3] in U.S. District Court for D.C., attorneys for Melikt Mengiste argue that the cooperative association of 1901-07 15th St. NW and its president unlawfully discriminated against Mengiste in refusing to rent her an apartment there in 2015.

    According to the lawsuit, the cooperative association required Mengiste to "submit additional documentation" not required of other applicants—including verification forms from her employer and landlord—as part of her housing application, even after the complex's management had "pre-approved" her that June. Though Mengiste complied, she was never contacted for a tenant interview, and was denied a unit in October without any explanation.

    Mengiste's lawyers say that while Mengiste's application was pending, the president of the cooperative association, Delia Thompson, made "disparaging remarks about Ms. Mengiste's family, history, and personal appearance, and about individuals of Ethiopian national origin" to the management company. Thompson allegedly claimed that Mengiste "had poor credit, that she had damaged her prior apartment, and that her husband had a criminal background"—all false, per the lawsuit. The suit furthermore claims that Thompson's brother told Mengiste "we don't want your kind here" when she was visiting the property, and that Thompson allegedly referred to Mengiste as "dirty" and "nasty."

    Thompson could not immediately be reached for comment, but an attorney who serves as the "registered agent" for the co-op said Friday in an email that she had not yet discussed the lawsuit with her client.

    Mengiste's lawyers say she "suffered from depression and insomnia [for] at least eight months" as a result of these incidents, plus "attendant harms" like remaining in an "overcrowded" apartment for longer than necessary and having to find other housing. They're seeking an injunction and compensation under both D.C. and federal laws.

    "Ms. Mengiste's experience of being denied housing on the basis of her national origin is but one example of the types of discriminatory and harassing treatment faced by members of the District's immigrant community," says Adam Chud, a partner at Goodwin Procter LLP, which is representing Mengiste along with the Washington Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs.(1) Mengiste, who has since relocated, lived in a studio with her husband, sister, and two children during the time she was applying for housing, according to her lawyers.

    The suit is being brought under the Fair Housing Act and the District's Human Rights Act, which both bar discrimination based on national origin.
Source: D.C. Ethiopian Woman Alleges Housing Discrimination at Building Near U Street Corridor (She was called "dirty" and "nasty," according to a new lawsuit).

For the lawsuit, see Mengiste v. 1901-07 15th Street, N.W., Cooperative Association, et al.
(1) The Washington Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs, a non-profit 501(c)(3) organization, was established in 1968 to provide pro bono legal services to address discrimination and entrenched poverty in the Washington, DC community..