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The Utah Attorney General's Office is close to an agreement to halt what it considers illegal foreclosures by Bank of America, which has conducted a majority of foreclosures against homeowners since the subprime-fueled collapse of the housing bubble.
The Attorney General's Office had intervened in a home-owner lawsuit to argue that BofA was illegally foreclosing on properties in Utah. But recently it has been negotiating a settlement over foreclosures conducted by ReconTrust, a unit of the giant banking corporation.
A.G. spokesman Paul Murphy said Wednesday an accord is near. Although he declined to provide details, Murphy said in an email that "any settlement would require that all illegal activity [by ReconTrust] stop."
Representatives for BofA declined comment.
Marco Fields, a homeowner advocate, said she wanted to see any agreement require at least a $10 million payment from BofA that could go to homeowners who had been foreclosed on and to pay for counseling and services to help those facing loss of their homes.
"The harm is unmeasurable, unrepairable," she said. "When you take someone's home illegally and you displace them, you take away the foundation of their life."
Fields said she expects to see 40,000 foreclosures in Utah this year. If that's correct, that would cover 4.2 percent of the 953,000 homes that the Census Bureau says existed in Utah in 2009, the latest figures available. From 60 percent to 80 percent of those foreclosures are conducted by ReconTrust, depending on the county, according to Fields.
A settlement could force ReconTrust to restart thousands of pending foreclosures. A new state law also makes the company vulnerable to legal action if it admits to acting illegally.
In February, the A.G.'s Office intervened in the appeal of a foreclosure lawsuit, arguing that under Utah statutes trustees who sell foreclosed property must be either attorneys who are members of the State Bar or Utah-based title insurance companies. ReconTrust is neither but argued it was governed by federal laws, not state.
But the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals last week granted a motion to dismiss the appeal, pointing out the lawsuit on which the appeal was based had been dropped in U.S. District Court for Utah.
John Christian Barlow, the attorney for St. George resident Peni Cox, said the lawsuit was voluntarily dismissed because U.S. District Court Judge Clark Waddoups had ruled against Cox several times, and her attorneys did not want another unfavorable decision.
"We didn't want Clark Waddoups to make another ruling on the case," said Barlow, adding that the judge "can't get it right. His ruling basically confuses the issues."
In January, Barlow asked Waddoups to disqualify himself from the Cox case, saying the judge had previously worked at Parr, Brown, Gee & Loveless, a law firm that represents BofA. Waddoups declined, saying he had not represented the bank, and that attorneys had not presented any evidence that a conflict existed.
The negotiations between the A.G.'s office and BofA come as some Utah homeowners plan to rally Thursday in advance of a federal court hearing over whether another legal action, a proposed class-action lawsuit against BofA and others, will be dismissed or allowed to continue.
Organizer Melanie Thomas said she was expecting more than 70 homeowners to show up for the 1 p.m. event in advance of the 2:30 p.m. hearing before U.S. District Judge Dee Benson.
Lawsuits by homeowners against BofA and ReconTrust over alleged illegal foreclosures would continue even if the A.G.'s Office reaches an agreement.
Attorneys for homeowners hope Benson will be more favorable toward their arguments about illegal foreclosures than have other judges in Utah. Including Waddoups, judges at the federal level have almost overwhelmingly ruled against homeowners, but Benson recently allowed a lawsuit to halt a foreclosure going forward.
P Homeowners facing foreclosure plan to rally at 1 p.m. Thursday in front of the federal courthouse in Salt Lake City, 350 S. Main St. A hearing on a proposed class-action lawsuit is set for 2:30 p.m.