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Archive for the ‘Foreclosure Mediation’ Category

Nevada Passes Legislation to Address the Upcoming Wave of Expected Evictions

Nicole Wilmet, August 26th, 2020

In response to COVID-19, Nevada’s Governor Steve Sisolak issued a Declaration of Emergency in March to temporarily halt residential evictions and foreclosures across the state. This initial moratorium was set to expire on June 30, 2020. Before the end of June, Governor Sisolak issued a follow-up Declaration of Emergency to extend the moratorium on evictions through the end of August. This month, the Nevada Legislature passed a bill to provide landlords and tenants facing eviction with options once the state’s eviction moratorium is lifted on September 1, 2020.

It’s reported that in 2019, Nevada courts processed more than 45,000 eviction cases. Recently, news outlets are reporting that after September 1st the number of households facing eviction could vary between 135,000-270,000. Under the recently passed bill, if a court establishes a rule to utilize alternative dispute resolution (“ADR”) to address evictions, then the eviction proceedings may be stayed for 30 days to allow parties the opportunity to participate in ADR. Although the bill doesn’t specify the type of ADR to be used, when presenting the proposed legislation to lawmakers, Nevada Supreme Court Justice James W. Hardesty noted that the program would be modeled after the state’s foreclosure mediation program. Moreover, during his presentation Judge Hardesty also told legislatures that, “this is a short bill for a big problem.” Governor Sisolak signed the bill into law on August 7, 2020.

A Possible Way Forward to Addressing the Coming Eviction Crisis

Jennifer Shack, August 5th, 2020

A few changes to a housing court in St. Paul, Minnesota, appear to have reaped dividends in term of fewer evictions and more settlements. The housing court instituted a housing clinic, bringing together financial services, legal services and mediation at the same place to help those coming to their eviction hearings. Along with changes to court rules and forms, the clinic has had a number of positive outcomes for both landlords and tenants. Although only one component to the changes to housing court was to increase access to mediation, the overall concept is instructive to anyone involved in ADR and housing courts.

In “Justice Served, Housing Preserved: The Ramsey County Housing Court” (Mitchell Hamline Law Journal of Public Policy and Practice, 2020), Colleen Ebinger and Elizabeth Clysdale discuss the impetus for reform, the process for identifying and instituting needed changes and the results of those changes. The Chief Judge saw a need to make changes that would improve access to justice and bring together resources for tenants that would address the root causes of eviction. To that end, he sought the assistance of the McKnight Foundation and Family Housing Fund. They, in turn, turned to the National Center for State Courts to facilitate the planning process. Other stakeholders who were included in the planning process included legal services, the local dispute resolution center, a lawyer who represented landlords, the county’s financial assistance program, the city’s housing department, as well as judges and court administrators.

The group agreed on three areas of action: implement a number of procedural changes, improve coordination among government entities, and expand access to mediation and legal services. Procedural changes included changes to forms, such as including information in the summons tenants receive about the eviction hearing that details the financial, legal and dispute resolution services available to them. In addition, the settlement form allowed the parties to check that they had agreed to an expungement, which keeps the eviction from showing up in their credit history, and the court order was changed to include the possibility of immediate expungement. Further, if expungement was contingent on the tenant making payments, both parties were now allowed to file a notice of compliance with the payments, rather than just the landlord. This meant that the tenant had more control over whether the expungement was carried through.

Coordination among government entities was improved by providing office space in the courthouse for financial assistance workers representing two different funding agencies. This allowed them to work together and allowed tenants to apply to both at the same time rather than having to wait to be denied from one to apply to the other. In addition, the court began providing all partners with information on all litigants on the calendar, which allows them to be more prepared to assist the litigants when they come to court.

To expand access to legal services and mediation, the court and partners agreed to  have attorneys available for consultation at all hearings , as well as mediators, who would be particularly helpful in dealing with disputes that were not legal in nature. Further, the judge began promoting these services from the bench to ensure that all litigants knew about their right to access these resources.

After a year and a half, the court’s numbers appear to show an improvement in outcomes. The court has a goal of reducing evictions by 50% in five years. In the first 18 months, evictions declined by 8%, to the lowest eviction rate in 10 years. Settlements increased by 5%, to the highest rate in five years. The impact was highest on expungements, which doubled. On the other end, fears of increased trial numbers and longer court calls didn’t come true. The number of trials as a proportion of cases declined and court call length increased by 10 minutes on average.

Anecdotally, the response has been positive. Judges report that tenants are more prepared for trial, with a better understanding of the process and when and how to raise their legal defenses. Landlords, too, see benefits from the changes. They have said they appreciate having financial services at the courthouse. Financial assistance staff will spend time with landlords and landlord attorneys, developing relationships with them that, Ebinger and Clysdale note, bear fruit outside of the courthouse as well. For example, one of the services reported an increase in inquiries from landlords before they file an eviction, wanting to know if their tenants are eligible for emergency assistance.

Ebinger and Clysdale outline six lessons learned from the program:

  • a collaborative attitude between partners is critical to success
  • small changes, such as a new check box on a settlement form, can provide big dividends
  • state law matters and can have its own impact regardless of changes made at the court level
  • financial service providers are better situated to solving emergencies than individuals left on their own to navigate social services
  • different circumstances require different interventions – some litigants will need legal assistance, some mediation and some financial assistance, thus each partner is necessary for the success of the program
  • as settlements increased, so did settlement failures (e.g., tenants failing to pay arrearages as agreed to in the settlement) – along with a higher rate of settlement agreements was a greater number of affidavits of non-compliance

This approach to eviction cases is similar to the one taken by many foreclosure courts in response to the housing crisis, in which homeowners are offered an array of services (albeit not at the same time and not all at the courthouse) to help guide them through the court process and stave off foreclosure if possible. Evaluation of those programs demonstrated their effectiveness. While the data looks promising for this program, it is still early and more can be learned. It would be wonderful to know more from the tenants about their experience with the process and whether they feel they are being well-served.

Bernalillo County Launching Landlord – Tenant Mediation Program in Response to COVID-19

Nicole Wilmet, June 2nd, 2020

In March, in response to COVID-19, the New Mexico Supreme Court issued a temporary halt on orders to forcibly remove tenants. This month, in response to the state’s supreme court order, Bernalillo County announced its plan to launch a free mediation program for landlord-tenant disputes. The program is intended to assist landlords and tenants that are struggling to pay rent as a result of the pandemic to create workable rent payment arrangements.  

Judge Frank Sedillo, who is spearheading the program, clarified that tenants eligible to participate in the program must prove that they are unable to pay rent as a result of the pandemic. In a recent interview about the program, Judge Sedillo said, “What we’re hoping to do is help landlords and tenants resolve their disputes so that after the emergency is over the tenants will be able to stay on the property longer and the landlords will hopefully be able to work out some payment arrangements.”

The program launched May 11th and has about a dozen mediators, who are either former judges or attorneys, that are assisting with the program. Individuals who are interested in either participating in the Landlord-Tenant Settlement Program or serving as a volunteer settlement facilitator should contact the court’s Mediation Division at 505-841-8167. 

Managing the Unknown: How RSI Court Programs Are Responding to COVID-19

Jennifer Shack, May 4th, 2020

This is the story of how RSI is working with courts to confront two crises: the COVID-19 pandemic and the economic downturn. Much of the story will be very familiar to anyone running court mediation programs: having to respond to rapidly changing circumstances and figuring out how to operate in remote processes. Some of it may be less familiar to those whose programs don’t deal with housing issues. I hope this story provides some nuggets of insight or at least a feeling of support for the efforts being taken to maintain programs throughout these crises. Although the story is split into three phases, the phases bleed into one another. So although I end the story in Phase III: Planning for the Future, aspects of Phase I: Dealing with the Unknown and Phase II: The Crisis New Normal (to steal a phrase from John Lande) still remain. 

Background

RSI runs three programs for two courts in Illinois. In Kane County, Program Manager Kevin Malone administers both the court’s foreclosure mediation and child protection mediation programs. In Lake County, Program Coordinator Olga Ivari is in charge of the court’s foreclosure mediation program. The other two staff involved in this story are RSI Executive Director Susan Yates and Associate Director Eric Slepak-Cherney. Together, I’ll be referring to them as “the team.”

The story will focus on the foreclosure mediation programs, for reasons that will become clear. These programs have a two-step process. The homeowners contact Kevin or Olga to enroll and learn about how the program can help them. In the first step in Kevin’s program, the homeowners can then opt to work with a housing counselor to learn about the options for avoiding foreclosure and to get help pulling together the documents they need to send to their lender with their request for a loan modification. In Olga’s program, homeowners are required to meet with a housing counselor as their first step. They then work with their housing counselor to submit the required documentation to request a loan modification. In both programs, the most time-consuming and difficult part of the process is facilitating the exchange of these documents between the homeowners and their lenders. The second step in both programs is mediation. 

Phase I: Dealing with the Unknown

During this first phase, the team was not only facing something they had never faced before, but were reacting to a constantly changing landscape. It seemed that every day brought new information and changes to how they needed to work. During this phase, flexibility, teamwork and, above all, communication were key. 

Susan’s main concern at this time was to keep Olga and Kevin safe, and to be sure they had the support they needed. For her, it was important that she and the rest of the team remain flexible in order to respond to the changing landscape. This required constant communication.  Eric saw his role as making sure that the programs could maintain continuity and to support Olga and Kevin in their efforts to do this. As the situation was rapidly evolving, this required daily calls among the three of them. The calls were meant to be sure that the team was thinking of everything that needed to be addressed as their programs were shifting to remote services. 

At the same time, Kevin, Olga and Eric needed to communicate with the courts. As the courts were issuing new orders changing how they provided services, the team was discussing how these orders would affect their programs and program timelines, and how to ensure these were addressed by the court. Eric noted, “Judges have the big picture of the programs. We have the day-to-day perspective.” So they worked with the judges to make sure that mediation was included in orders extending deadlines and that specific issues were considered in the order. For example, if the parties were given a 35-day continuance in the foreclosure mediation program, how does that change impact when and how the borrowers file paperwork with the lender? 

Based on the court’s new orders, the team began making decisions about whether to reschedule mediations or have the mediators conduct distance mediations. In Kane County, Kevin discussed the options with the judges and together they decided to postpone all child protection mediations, in which parents whose children have been taken into protective custody following a substantiated allegation of abuse and/or neglect can discuss issues with others involved in their children’s case. This was done due to a concern that the mediators wouldn’t have the same control over the process as they would if everyone was in the same room. This is especially problematic if one participant had coercive control over another. If the parties weren’t in the same room with the mediator, there was no way to know, for example, whether that participant was texting threats to the other one. 

For foreclosure mediation, the situation was different. There was no question of participant safety. Instead, the mediations were postponed so that the team could have the time to figure out the best way to conduct the mediations and to think of all the details that would need to be figured out before mediations took place. It also gave time to mediators, who much prefer in-person mediations, to think about how they would deal with remote mediations.

There was another reason to postpone mediations, as well. In response to the economic repercussions of COVID-19, banks began to offer three-month forbearances to homeowners who were in danger of foreclosure. In Lake County, the court has relatively short and strict deadlines, so Olga wanted to be sure that those homeowners who received a forbearance would be able to stay in the program once the forbearance ends in order to obtain a more permanent agreement, rather than having to withdraw because they had reached the court’s deadline for being in the program.  

The decision to postpone the mediations meant Olga and Kevin had to communicate with everyone involved in the programs and in the mediations that were already scheduled. They contacted mediators to let them know what was going on and emailed lawyers and parties about rescheduling mediations to mid- to late-May, after the courts were set to reopen. They also discussed new processes with the housing counselors who help homeowners in their programs and made sure that communications between them remained open. 

Phase II: The Crisis New Normal 

During Phase II, Kevin and Olga began to settle in to new processes put in place and to run their programs as the situation dictated. They also started thinking about how remote mediations might eventually be conducted. As the initial time of being completely off-balance came to an end, the team began to meet once a week, with ad hoc conversations as issues arose. 

The major task for both Kevin and Olga was to continue helping borrowers who had entered the program to continue to move through the beginning steps of the foreclosure mediation process. For Kevin, this means taking phone calls from borrowers who have questions, as well as emailing with them, the lenders and housing counselors as the borrowers provide the lenders with the documents needed in order for the lenders to assess whether borrowers are eligible for a loan modification. Housing counselors have stepped up during this time, taking on a larger role than they had before in facilitating the exchange of documents. 

Olga spends much of her time talking with borrowers, enrolling them in the program and scheduling their initial meetings with the housing counselors (now done remotely) and their mediations. For those homeowners with a forbearance, Olga has been trying to schedule housing counseling sessions and mediations as far out as possible so that they can remain in the program once the forbearance ends. 

Although both Olga and Kevin had postponed foreclosure mediations, they worked with Eric to decide on how they should be structured once they started. They decided to use Zoom, but only conduct the mediations by phone. This decision was based on their concern that borrowers wouldn’t have the technical ability to use videoconferencing. In addition, mediators would be required to learn all the ins and outs, as well as new best practices for videoconferencing. This latter consideration also led to the decision for Kevin and Olga to host the mediations, which means giving each individual permission to enter the teleconference and to send parties to “breakout rooms” when caucus is requested. 

Taking mediations online meant that confidentiality needed to be addressed differently than for in-person mediations. Prior to her first teleconference mediation, Olga and Eric modified the program’s confidentiality agreement to explicitly prohibit recording audio of the mediation. As Olga needed to monitor the mediation for any issues or caucus requests, she signed the confidentiality agreement along with the parties and the mediator. Because it was unusual to listen in on a mediation, she also decided to provide a greater sense of confidentiality to the parties by muting the conversation and responding to mediator requests for help over chat.

Another issue that arose was how to deal with sharing documents during mediation. These documents are generally brought to mediation, but due to the privacy and security issues that were being raised about Zoom, the team decided that the borrowers would submit their documents to Olga prior to mediation, who would then redact them and email them to the mediator. 

Phase III: Planning for the Future

Phase III is similar to Phase II, but with the addition of planning for the courts reopening and the expected new foreclosure crisis that will result from the pandemic. The team has also started taking stock of what will be needed if the courts must suspend operations again. Both are also using this time to update forms and revise their informational materials as they prepare for new enrollees. 

But planning for the future is what differentiates this phase from the last. As unemployment numbers soared and the banks used forbearances as never before, the team began to suspect that a new foreclosure crisis is looming on the horizon. They have begun speaking with the housing counselors they work with and with housing experts to get a clearer picture of what they might be facing.

The court in Lake County is also thinking ahead and judges have asked RSI to figure out what will be needed when the foreclosure crisis hits. The team is in a good position to do this. Because RSI tracked a lot of data during the height of the last foreclosure crisis, the team knows what percentage of cases will be mediated and thus how many mediators will be needed. They also know what supporting technologies, such as intake portals and case management systems, will be beneficial and what could be improved.

Because they have been through a foreclosure crisis before, collected data and made changes to improve their programs, and most of all have a process in place already, Kevin and Olga are much better positioned to confront the next foreclosure crisis than the last one. But there are still some unknowns. How are the federal and state governments going to respond? Will programs be put in place to help homeowners, as they were last time? And if so, what will those programs look like? Susan points to these questions as the new challenge for the team. 

The Next Phase

We’re all still working in a world in which we don’t know what the new normal will be or when it will even come. Indeed, Illinois just extended its stay-at-home order for another month, meaning the team will once again have to respond to changing circumstances. So in part, the team is still in Phase I, dealing with the unknown. This means that for the foreseeable future, they will still be facing the biggest challenge identified by Eric: trying to anticipate new issues and address them before they arise. 

Ohio’s Portage County Launches the Nation’s First ODR Program for Foreclosure Mediation

Nicole Wilmet, November 25th, 2019

On November 18, 2019, Ohio’s Portage County launched the country’s first foreclosure mediation online dispute resolution (ODR) program. The program, developed under the guidance of Portage County Common Pleas Court Judge Laurie J. Pittman, uses Court Innovations’ Matterhorn software. A press release for the program indicates that one of the goals of the program is to make the process more accessible to the public by allowing parties to work on their cases remotely. The program’s mediator Benito Antognoli explains that prior to the launch of the online program, the first in-person mediation session between borrowers and lenders often only lasted about 20-30 minutes and required the parties to attend subsequent mediations. Most often, the brevity of this first meeting stemmed from borrowers being unable to fully respond to forms from the lender’s attorney since, due to the nature of the forms, they do not have the required documentation with them. As Antognoli highlights, the difficulty of having to make accommodations and find time to attend additional mediations is often a substantial inconvenience for both parties.

However, with the new ODR program, borrowers and lenders are now able to complete this process remotely. As Antognoli describes, once a borrower has opted-in to the program they will receive an email that invites them to the platform. From there, the lender’s attorney will request various documents from the borrower, which the borrower can now submit online at their convenience. Additionally, the online platform also now allows Antognoli to be involved during the entire process and communicate with the parties regularly. Like the in-person program, the entire online process is intended to take about 90 days from start-to-finish. Ultimately, the press release notes that Judge Pittman’s hope is to expand the use of online mediation and offer ODR programs to parties involved in other types of civil disputes.

Those interested in learning more about the program or accessing the court’s press release, should please contact Antognoli at 330-298-3233.