On August 17, 2011, the California State Bar, California Attorney General and law enforcement agencies raided the offices of several lawyers involved in mass joinder actions against banks, including Philip Kramer and Mitchell J. Stein. They seized records, froze assets and obtained orders closing the lawyers’ practices pertaining to joinder lawsuits against banks, pending further proceedings. The Attorney General also commenced legal action against Kramer, Stein and others involved with them.
Neither SML LLP nor any of our lawyers were raided. We were not mentioned in any press release or in the lawsuit filed by the Attorney General. We have not been advised that we are a target of any inquiry, lawsuit or prosecution. We had no role in the alleged scheme and never received any payments from, or through, any the alleged participants in the scheme.
The core of these actions is the allegation that Kramer, Stein and others working with them were involved in a scam against consumers in which they allegedly: (1) misled consumers about the history of, and prospects for, the joinder actions, particularly by falsely claiming that joinder actions had achieved results they had not achieved and would help consumers stay in their homes or re-acquire their homes if they are foreclosed upon, and (2) charged large fees, a portion of which was paid as sales commissions (an unlawful practice known in California as “capping”). It also is alleged that once clients paid fees, the lawyers ceased communicating with them.
The Attorney General’s lawsuit alleges that these scams grew out of the “granddaddy” (my word, not theirs) of joinder actions against banks relating to the mortgage crisis, Ronald v. Bank of America.
I do not understand there to be an allegation that anyone did anything wrong by filing or prosecuting the Ronald case, or that the State Bar or Attorney General is taking any substantive position regarding what is alleged in the Ronald case. Rather, as I understand the Attorney General’s lawsuit, one of the allegations is that, in time, as part of an improper effort to bilk aggrieved bank customers into signing up as clients for numerous joinder cases, certain lawyers and others working with them in the scheme made false statements about results achieved in the Ronald case and other joinder cases.
The lawsuit filed by the Attorney General specifically states that the Attorney General “does not seek to interfere with any consumer lawsuits or opine on the validity of any legal theories used to challenge alleged fraud by mortgage lenders or services.” A press release issued by the Attorney General on August 18, 2011 also states that in “challenging the defendants’ alleged misconduct in marketing their mass joinder lawsuits. . . [the Attorney General’s] office takes no position as to the legal merits of any claims asserted in the mass joinder lawsuits filed by defendants.”
The Attorney General also should be applauded for apparently recognizing that consumers had already been harmed by the banks when she described the victims of the alleged lawyer scam as people who had been “victimized for the second time.”
Ronald v. Bank of America and Wright v Bank of America
Ronald v. Bank of America
Mitchell J. Stein and Apex Law Group filed the Ronald case in 2009. I was asked to join the legal team in 2010 as co-lead counsel. None of SML, our colleagues at Apex, nor I are involved in any other joinder case with Stein or any joinder cases with Kramer or the other lawyers sued by the Attorney General.
Neither SML nor I have ever been paid a fee by or on behalf of any plaintiff in the Ronald lawsuit. We have worked on behalf of plaintiffs in that case solely on a contingency fee basis and have advanced at our own risk expenses to pursue the litigation on behalf of our clients.
None of SML, Apex or I have ever advertised for clients in the Ronald case or any other case. We have never paid commissions. Certain of my colleagues and I focus on motion practice and strategy in the Ronald action, while other colleagues at SML (including Apex’s founding partners, who joined SML earlier this year as “of counsel” while also maintaining a separate practice of law at Apex) are assiduous in maintaining communications with our clients.
On March 28, 2011, SML and Apex filed a motion in the Ronald case that expressed some of the same concerns set forth in the Attorney General’s lawsuit. Our motion explained that our concerns were based on what we had read on the Internet and some direct communications. Our motion further explained that because of a lack of transparency with Stein, we did not know, and could not to our satisfaction determine, what was happening. We observed that Stein and Kramer denied any wrongdoing and that we did not have sufficient evidence to allege that Stein or Kramer had, in fact, participated in misleading advertising or capping. Rather, based upon the lack of transparency, concerns about possible wrongdoing and deteriorating coordination between Stein and his colleague Erikson Davis, on the one hand, and SML and Apex on the other, we asked that Stein be removed as counsel for the Apex-SML clients, that we be permitted to represent our clients in the case on our own and that we be relieved of any obligation to Stein-Davis clients.
As a result of the motion, the Court divided the Ronald case into two dockets and changed the name of the case to In re Countrywide/Bank of America Los Angeles Foreclosure Litigation, though most of us still refer to it as the Ronald case. The SML lawyers (including the Apex lawyers who joined SML) are the lawyers for what is called Docket I. Docket I includes approximately 100 plaintiffs, including Mr. and Mrs. Ronald. Until the Attorney General’s order seizing Stein’s joinder practice, Stein’s law firm (including Davis) represented Docket II, which initially included about 145 plaintiffs. Stein has since added other plaintiffs to Docket II.
I am unclear about who now will represent Stein’s Docket II plaintiffs. SML does not intend to do so for a number of reasons, including the concerns raised in our March motion to separate from Stein and economic constraints.
Wright v. Bank of America
In addition to representing the Docket I plaintiffs in the Ronald case, SML has advised Brookstone Law P.C. as to certain legal aspects of its joinder cases (SML has been paid at a very reduced rate by Brookstone for that advice). SML also recently agreed to represent three of the plaintiffs in a joinder lawsuit filed by Brookstone in Orange County against the same banks as are being sued in the Ronald case. That joinder action, Wright v Bank of America, makes claims substantially similar to the claims in the Ronald action. The three plaintiffs who we now represent in that case do not compensate SML for its assistance. Rather, we continue to advise Brookstone on joinder matters and receive nominal fees for that service.
I agreed that SML would represent these three plaintiffs in order to argue the demurrer to the complaint in the Wright case filed by the bank. I did so because of my extensive knowledge of the relevant issues as a result of: (i) my position as lead counsel in Docket I of the Ronald case, (ii) my having just argued in the Court of Appeal against the bank’s effort to overturn the Court’s decision in the Ronald case permitting our concealment cause of action against the bank to proceed, and (iii) SML’s familiarity with the Wright case and the particular plaintiffs because of SML’s advice to Brookstone.
Thus, aside from nominal compensation paid by Brookstone to SML for our advice, neither SML nor I have ever been compensated for our services, or reimbursed for our expenses, regarding joinder cases.
The Attorney General and State Bar Actions
In some measure, the actions of the Attorney General and State Bar likely will benefit the banks. Though the lawsuit and the press releases are rooted in alleged misleading advertising and “capping” (as described above), there is verbiage in the press releases and in interviews given by the Attorney General that may be read to suggest the Attorney General or others may believe that consumers should not pursue their rights through joinder actions, or that lawyers should pursue these claims at their cost and risk, without charging clients for their services or out-of-pocket expenses.
Given the economic reality of these joinder cases, if lawyers cannot be paid to litigate joinder cases against banks, other than through contingency fees, then the banks will win and consumers will lose. If the lawyers sued by the Attorney General did what they are alleged to have done, an appropriate remedy is in order. As noted above, SML and Apex expressed similar concerns in our successful motion in March to separate ourselves and our clients from any potentially improper acts.
Economic Reality of Joinder Cases
Unfortunately, joinder cases are very expensive. Litigation costs are considerable, including transcripts, depositions, experts and discovery. These cases also require teams of lawyers. Lawyers are highly compensated professionals. As a result of the these factors, aside from three plaintiffs in the Wright action, SML has not taken on any additional clients in these joinder cases in a very long time.
Moreover, SML cannot take on any additional clients in Ronald or any other joinder case unless our out-of-pocket costs, including discovery and professional staff, is defrayed by fee income or reimbursement. It is simple economics of litigating on behalf of hundreds of plaintiffs against multi-billion dollar corporations and doing so rather than undertaking other matters for which full compensation is received on a current basis.
As a result of economic reality, SML can only assist additional consumers in these cases if an appropriate and equitable means can be found by which SML receives income in connection with these cases on a current basis, even if that income is materially below our usual fees.
The Status of Ronald and other Joinder Cases to Protect Consumers
A key issue, in light of all applicable laws and rules governing lawyers in this State, and the nature of the claims alleged by consumers against the banks and applicable law regarding those claims, is whether and how consumers who were induced to take mortgages from these banks can seek redress for alleged wrongs.
Let me be very clear: joinder cases are not about emergency relief. They won’t stop a foreclosure, or get a house back. Except as the result of a settlement (which are few and far between), they won’t result in a loan modification. Joinder cases are a longer term potential remedy intended to seek financial damages and restitution for wrongs allegedly committed by the banks and other defendants. For example, the Ronald lawsuit alleges concealment, misrepresentation, unfair competition and other claims. The trial court in the Ronald case has ruled that the plaintiffs in that case should have the right to prove the concealment claim, unfair competition claim and certain other claims; but has not yet ruled regarding the current misrepresentation claims. As noted above, the bank has appealed the Court’s ruling regarding the concealment claim.
We won’t know the outcome of the appeal for some time. The outcome could be as bad as a complete reversal of the trial court’s decision that the concealment cause of action states a permissible claim that the plaintiffs should have the opportunity to prove. The outcome could be as good as sustaining the trial court’s decision permitting the concealment claim to proceed, or it could be slightly less good by technically reversing the trial court’s decision, but doing so with a requirement that the plaintiffs modify the complaint to include some items the bank asserts should be there and that are easy to add. The decision also could surprise us by being different than any of the foregoing.
If a lawyer touts results that have not been achieved or describes relief that is unrealistic, that lawyer should be stopped from doing so to the extent permitted by law.
But, if a law firm fairly explains what joinder cases are about, evaluates whether a particular individual is suitable for inclusion as a plaintiff in a joinder lawsuit, fairly explains the risks of proceeding (including that if the individual pays any fees to a law firm and the case loses, those fees would be lost, increasing the individual’s woes), and diligently seeks appropriate relief for that individual, then that law firm should have the right to proceed, including the right to charge fair and reasonable fees and costs for doing so.
If the Attorney General’s enforcement actions chill ethical lawyers from being able to receive reasonable compensation for pursuing good faith claims against banks, then informed consumers who want to fight back will be prevented from doing so and the banks will win.
The Path Ahead – Fighting Back
To prevail in joinder actions, plaintiffs have to overcome at least three primary hurdles:
First, plaintiffs must establish that if the banks did and failed to do what the plaintiffs allege these acts and/or failure to act would give rise to civil liability to the plaintiffs. This hurdle has been, at least in part, overcome in the Ronald case.
Next, plaintiffs must establish that the banks actually did and/or failed to do that which the plaintiffs claim the banks did or failed to do, and therefore the banks are, in fact, liable to plaintiffs. This step has not yet been reached in any of the joinder cases.
Third, if the plaintiffs prevail as to liability, plaintiffs then must establish how the banks’ acts and failure to act damaged the plaintiffs and the amount of the damages and any restitution.
Hence, the process has a long way to go and there is no way to know what will occur. Joinder cases make it more economic than individual actions for consumers to pursue these claims, because the issues are – to some degree – common to all or many plaintiffs and so the cost of litigating those issues can be spread across many plaintiffs.
The lawyers and the plaintiffs pursuing these joinder cases are “fighting back.” They may win or they may lose. If they win, plaintiffs will receive financial recompense and the lawyers will share in those rewards through contingency fees. If they lose, any plaintiffs who paid a retainer will lose that retainer and will be “worse off” for trying. The lawyers in those cases will receive no compensation (or very little compensation) for their many thousands of hours of work and many lawyers (including my firm) will lose money we invested in litigation costs.
I do not believe it is wrong to charge reasonable fees, including advance retainers to fund in whole or in part the cost of good faith joinder litigation against banks. In fact, charging fees, including advance retainers, to undertake litigation is the typical and customary financial arrangement between lawyer and client. I do not believe it is wrong to explain to consumers that they might have a way to fight back through these joinder cases, provided the limitations and risks are also described. That is what SML and Apex have done with our clients and in our public statements and what I am endeavoring to again do in this Statement.
Assuming I am correct that a law firm has the right to charge reasonable fees for good faith joinder litigation against banks that are alleged to have violated clients’ rights, provided the firm first makes a full and fair disclosure to its prospective clients of the limitations and risks of such a lawsuit, then consumers have a choice to make. They can assess that the risk is too great, or the cost too large and give up, or hope that the Government will step in to provide a remedy. Or, they can invest a few thousand dollars (or possibly several thousand dollars) each to fight back and possibly win.
We do not believe it is the intent of the State Bar and Attorney General to “throw the baby out with the bathwater.” If some lawyers did improper things, those lawyers should be subject to an appropriate remedy. But, those lawyers challenging the banks lawfully, properly and honestly, should not be targets of the State Bar or Attorney General, and we do not believe they are.
SML remains in this fight on behalf of consumers alongside other lawyers and clients willing to take some risk as to money and time. We hope to win. We are doing what we are doing to win a just result. We don’t know that we will win. We well might lose. However, one thing seems certain to me: any individual who gives up will not win damages or restitution from the banks.
If enforcement actions or commentary make joinder cases against banks impractical or impossible for ethical lawyers to pursue, then the banks will have won before a single consumer has his or her day in court. I do not believe that is the Attorney General’s or the State Bar’s objective. Well-intentioned and ethical law firms and consumers who understand the costs and the risks should work together to seek redress. I do not believe the Attorney General or the State Bar would disagree.
Then again, I don’t truly know what the Attorney General or the State Bar intends as to these matters. They might, in fact, want to stop all joinder cases against the banks or to prohibit advance retainers in bank joinder cases. I doubt it. But, in fairness and all candor, I must admit that I do not know.
The decision as to what is right for each individual will differ. That decision should be made only after the individual meets with a qualified lawyer and evaluates the costs and risks of proceeding.
SML’s Intentions Going Forward as They Impact Potential New Clients
SML is in discussions with Brookstone and other law firms about whether we can work together and by so doing keep costs down for SML, make our services available to suitable clients at a reasonable price, with a complete disclosure of the limitations and risks of joinder actions and in full compliance with all applicable laws and rules.
We also must ensure that increasing the number of clients can be achieved with two important objectives in mind: (i) there must be informed and qualified lawyers on the team to maintain communications with potential and actual clients, and (ii) the process of interviewing potential clients and communicating with those clients cannot place a burden on the senior lawyers who are actively performing the services necessary to litigate or settle the actions.
The first objective is obvious. But, the second objective is equally important. If the lawyers prosecuting the actions are diverted from doing the substantive legal work it takes to prosecute the joinder actions and to represent their other clients, then the work will not get done, the joinder cases will be lost, and the law firms themselves will fail.
Still, and so I am very clear as to SML, SML cannot and will not represent any client who does not have a qualified lawyer who is either associated with SML or working with SML as a direct point of contact. As a result, SML will not accept additional clients unless and until we can resolve all of the issues above. When and if SML is able to affiliate with a qualified law firm that can work with SML to provide the client service, disclosure and other resources necessary for effective representation of additional joinder clients, we will let you know.
Until then, we intend to represent the clients we have.
This is a difficult time, made more difficult by the allegations of troubling acts of a few lawyers and uncertainty arising from some of the Attorney General’s comments.
We will again issue a statement when we have worked through the issues – which we intend to do with a strong desire to make our services available to additional consumers for whom our services would be suitable and who make an informed decision to take a risk to fight back.
Very truly yours,
By: /s/ Kenin M. Spivak
Chairman and Managing Partner – Source