What to Do When You’ve Lost Everything
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What to Do When You’ve Lost Everything

JC White Law Uses Aggressive Litigation
to Level the Playing Field

The Challenge

Help clients who lost everything when the company hired to manage their foreclosure process illegally entered their house and destroyed all of their personal property .

The Solution

We brought aggressive claims that highlighted unethical (and illegal) corporate policies.

The Result

Our clients ultimately received a large six-figure settlement to make them whole again.  We also had a broader impact, forcing the companies involved to change their improper internal practices.

John and Joan* lived in the same house in a small, wooded North Carolina town for nearly ten years. During this time, they made their house a home by curating a unique and personal collection of home decor full of one-of-a-kind furniture and artwork created by John’s late mother. Employment was very difficult to find in their small town, so Joan commuted to a job in Atlanta. Because of this commute, Joan had an apartment in Atlanta, and soon the cost of two dwellings was overbearing.

 

John and Joan fell behind on their mortgage and MortgageRus foreclosed on their property in July. When it became clear that John and Joan were not going to be able to save their home, they moved in with John’s sister in Florida to save money and start their lives over. Because of their financial position, John and Joan decided to pack their belongings up, leave them locked in the house, and return for them when they had enough money for a storage locker or when the mortgage company told them they needed to remove their property from the home.

 

In late November, MortgageRus held a foreclosure hearing, and in December, the company officially sold the property in a foreclosure sale. As part of the foreclosure process, MortgageRus hired HomeSource, a multi-million dollar property preservation corporation to manage the transition of ownership. HomeSource contracted with Removal Inc., a company based out of Chicago, to “trash out” the property, or remove all leftover personal possessions from the foreclosed premises. Removal Inc., in turn, hired a local contracting company to actually carry out the removal of John and Joan’s property. Altogether, there were 5 companies involved in John and Joan’s foreclosure process: MortgageRus, MortgageRus’ Trustee, HomeSource, Removal Inc., and the local North Carolina “trash out” contractor.

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From November through February, John and Joan kept in close contact with Removal Inc. and HomeSource. HomeSource and MortgageRus sent loan statements to their address in Florida, and John contacted these companies 32 times by phone during this period. Every time John talked to representatives of HomeSource, he was told that he would be given time to pick up his property when the companies went through the proper legal channels to take possession of the home. John was repeatedly told that his family had time to retrieve their property, that no “trash out” was going to take place until HomeSource obtained a writ of possession as required under North Carolina foreclosure law, and that someone would call him back within 24 to 48 hours. However, the companies repeatedly failed to call him back and left John and Joan in the dark about the foreclosure process for months.

 

By March, John and Joan were worried about the state of their property and decided to drive to their home to retrieve their belongings. When they got to their home, they discovered that all of their possessions had been removed and destroyed. Despite continued assurances that their property had not been removed and would not be touched, John and Joan discovered HomeSource authorized Removal Inc. to illegally enter their home and destroy all of their possessions.

 

In reality, HomeSource had authorized two separate “trash outs” of their property, one in December and one in January. The second “trash out” actually occurred just days after a representative of HomeSource assured John that HomeSource would not remove the property until it complied with all legal requirements. HomeSource never received a writ of possession when it authorized Removal Inc. to trash and destroy all of John and Joan’s property. After John and Joan discovered their property had been destroyed, they immediately contacted HomeSource. In response to John and Joan’s complaint, HomeSource only offered to give them a gift card for $100 and never acknowledged it had done anything wrong. Altogether, John and Joan lost more than $50,000 worth of property, including unique antique furniture and personal artwork created by John’s late mother. Devastated by their loss, John and Joan came to the JC White Law Group to see if there was any legal action they could take.

The Court concludes that Plaintiffs have presented sufficient evidence to create a genuine issue of material fact as to whether Defendants' conduct rises to a level of willful or wanton conduct necessary to succeed on a claim for punitive damages.
- Court Order Denying Defendants' Summary Judgment Motion

The Legal Claims

After hearing John and Joan’s story, Jim White took the case and soon discovered that John and Joan were not the only victims of HomeSource’s illegal destruction of personal property in foreclosure proceedings. Through discovery requests, depositions, and speaking to local sheriffs, it became clear that HomeSource had an established policy of illegally entering foreclosed homes before obtaining a writ of possession and destroying all of the former homeowners’ property. While the other actors, including MortgageRus, MortgageRus’s trustee, and Removal Inc., were also liable for illegally destroying John and Joan’s property, the heart of John and Joan’s case sought to hold HomeSource accountable for its purposeful violation of foreclosure law and the harm this policy inflicted on homeowners.

Legal Theories of the Case

The JC White Law Group brought several claims against four of the companies responsible for John and Joan’s harm to try and make them whole again and to demonstrate that even multi-million dollar companies are responsible to the law. The combination of these different claims led to a six-figure settlement that compensated for the destruction of John and Joan’s property, forced the defendants to give John and Joan financial restitution for their bad behavior, and exposed an unethical and illegal corporate policy.

John and Joan’s Claims

The JC White Law Group brought two types of claims against four companies involved in the foreclosure process. They also sought enhanced punitive damages. The first type of claim was designed to get direct compensation for the destruction of John and Joan’s property and the second type of claim was to punish the defendants for their unethical and illegal behavior. Bringing these two different types of claims allowed John and Joan to seek damages for significantly more than the value of their lost property.

John and Joan principally used the claim of conversion  to get direct compensation for the value of the destroyed property. Conversion is the civil equivalent to criminal theft, occurring when a party wrongfully interferes with the possession of the plaintiff’s property. John and Joan argued that all of the defendants were liable under conversion because the defendants unlawfully interfered with possession of their property by destroying it without legal permission.

Additionally, the JC White Law Group brought an unfair and deceptive trade practices claim. North Carolina’s Unfair Competition and Deceptive Practices Act provides plaintiffs a claim against companies that engage in unfair or deceptive business practices that harm consumers. John and Joan claimed the defendants violated the Unfair Competition and Deceptive Business Practices Act by purposefully engaging in the unlawful activity of destroying property in foreclosed homes without obtaining writs of possession. Though this claim was brought against all defendants, it was mainly targeted at HomeSource as the principal bad actor. HomeSource instituted a corporate policy that purposefully violated foreclosure laws in order to save money on projects. John and Joan argued this conduct clearly violated the provisions of the Unfair Competition and Deceptive Practices Act.

John and Joan also sought punitive damages for the defendants’ willful and wanton conduct. Punitive damages are financial court awards designed to punish bad behavior by forcing the bad actor to give the plaintiff compensation valued much higher than the direct harm inflicted by the defendant. Courts will grant punitive damages when they find the defendant has engaged in the bad behavior purposefully and with malice. John and Joan argued HomeSource’s conduct entitled them to punitive damages because HomeSource acted purposefully and with malice when it instituted its policy of violating the law to increase profit margins on projects. In this sense, punitive damages were appropriate to punish HomeSource for its purposeful violation of established foreclosure law.

Defenses Raised and the Court’s Response

The defendants raised several unsuccessful defenses in an attempt to escape liability for John and Joan’s harm. Initially, all defendants argued they were not liable for the claims because John and Joan bore the risk of damage to their property when they left it behind and moved to Florida. By leaving their property locked in their own home, John and Joan assumed some risk of damage to their property, such as from natural disasters or a fire. However, the court was unamused by the defendants’ proposition that John and Joan should have expected their possessions were at risk of the foreclosure companies illegally entering their property and destroying all of their belongings.

 

HomeSource, a multi-million dollar corporation with a robust legal team, argued it was not liable because it relied on its small business contractors to keep HomeSource informed of local foreclosure laws. HomeSource attempted to shift responsibility for ensuring its operations comply with local laws onto the small companies it delegated projects to. HomeSource stated that because Removal Inc. failed to inform HomeSource that HomeSource was required to obtain a writ of possession before authorizing the “trash out” it should not be held liable. Ultimately, the court was unconvinced that HomeSource could rely on other companies to operate as its compliance department and rejected the argument. Beyond the inherent baselessness of HomeSource’s argument, an investigation proved that HomeSource had a corporate policy of purposefully disregarding the legal requirement to obtain writs of possession to save profit on projects. John and Joan were able to obtain a wealth of evidence that proved the highest-level executives at HomeSource implemented this policy with the sole purpose of increasing profit.

 

Ultimately, John and Joan’s case never went to trial because the parties reached a large settlement agreement that was too lucrative to refuse. However, this settlement could not have been negotiated if the court’s rulings in the pre-trial process had not demonstrated to all parties that John and Joan had a very strong case for the conversion and unfair competition claims and were likely to receive punitive damages against HomeSource.

Suing Large Corporations

John and Joan’s case was challenging because many of the defendants were multi-million dollar corporations. Though being a large company does not provide impunity for violations of the law, it does provide strong resources to defend against claims from consumers. This David and Goliath power dynamic is common in suits against financial institutions and can lead to complex, lengthy, and expensive litigation proceedings. John and Joan experienced this dynamic through a complex and burdensome litigation process and with challenges in gathering evidence through discovery.

Complex Litigation

Large companies often have greater resources available to spend on defending suits. These resources are often used to complicate and drag out litigation proceedings as leverage against plaintiffs to incentivize settling or dropping claims. To compound this issue, financial companies are often interconnected and entwined with each other on particular deals or accounts. This means suits in the financial industry are often against multiple multi-million dollar companies.

 

John and Joan faced the complicated and lengthy pre-trial litigation process expected when taking on large financial companies. Having three large company defendants, and one small contractor defendant, quadrupled the scope of the litigation, discovery to process, and attorneys advocating in the case. Additionally, defendants individually filed many motions that further complicated the litigation process and required four times more energy in responding. All of this strategic maneuvering extended the pre-trial process for over a year. As each company had its own defenses to the claims and interests to advocate for, this case required diligent management and experience pursuing multifaceted litigation strategies.

Access to Evidence

Discovery is a crucial stage in any litigation as it allows each party to gather all the relevant evidence to prove, or defend against, the claims. Rules of civil procedure protect discovery processes and ensure that all parties are acting fairly in providing evidence. However, parties often try to hide evidence or prevent meaningful access to discoverable information.  Multiple defendants violated discovery rules and stalled presenting crucial evidence that delayed the pre-trial process and ultimate justice for John and Joan. Removal Inc. failed to start the discovery process and provide any evidence until after the discovery timeframe had officially ended. Furthermore, once Removal Inc. was forced to engage in discovery, it slowly produced new pieces of evidence after claiming to not have them in their possession. These documents were crucial to proving the defendants acted purposefully and that HomeSource had a company policy of violating foreclosure laws.

 

HomeSource initially sent blurry photos it had taken of the property after the “trash out,” claiming that the illegible photos were all the evidence they had. Later it was discovered that they possessed perfectly clear photos and the company ultimately produced them. HomeSource also claimed that there was no documentation of the second “trash out” that took place in January. However, a HomeSource employee later admitted in a deposition that company policy required documenting all “trash outs.” After John and Joan filed a motion to compel this evidence with the court, HomeSource eventually produced the documentation of the second “trash out.” In the end, the JC White Law Group received all the evidence it needed to prove John and Joan’s claims, but this case demonstrated that perseverance is necessary to successfully bring claims against large companies.

The Impact

With the loss of valuable personal property and one-of-a-kind family heirlooms, full restoration for John and Joan’s losses would not be possible. However, the settlement agreed upon by the parties ended up being nearly 7 times the claimed value of the property. John and Joan were able to receive much higher compensation than the value of the destroyed property because their case would prove that HomeSource had a corporate policy of purposefully violating the law to save money. After John and Joan initiated this case, HomeSource changed its policy to comply with all the requirements of North Carolina law. If John and Joan had not sought out legal representation, and been willing to go through the long and arduous process of suing a large corporation, HomeSource might still be trashing homes without legal permission and destroying precious belongings and valuables. This case provided a unique opportunity for the JC White Law Group to make a family whole again after such great loss and hold corporate actors accountable for their illegal conduct.

* Names have been changed to protect confidentiality, but the results are real.

Case studies do not represent this law firm’s or our lawyers’ entire records. Each case is unique and factors outside the control of attorneys and clients can produce very different results .   This case study is not intended as a guarantee that the same or similar results can be obtained in every matter and you should not assume that a similar result can be obtained for you.

This post was co-written with Mallory Miller, JD.

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