In Florida, judge attempts to get handle on foreclosure problem

MANATEE — The fifth time was the final straw for Manatee County Circuit Court Judge Janette Dunnigan.

Four times in a 2007 foreclosure case, a Fort Lauderdale law firm representing a bank scheduled a hearing and either did not appear or canceled it at the last minute without telling others. So when it happened again April 13, Dunnigan called Smith, Hiatt and Diaz P.A. and issued a warning: Stop it or I'll hold you in contempt of court.

The threat didn't work: The firm subsequently set two more hearings and didn't show for either one. So Dunnigan found the firm in "deliberate, willful and flagrant" contempt after an Aug. 30 hearing and issued a $49,000 fine, which the firm is contesting.

Legal observers said they believe Dunnigan’s act is the first time a Florida judge has sanctioned a so-called ‘foreclosure mill’ for its practices. But they said it also illustrates a growing effort by judges to regain control of the foreclosure process after years of chaos.

“The system’s overloaded and they’ve got to do something about it,” said Dawn Bates-Buchanan, managing attorney for Gulfcoast Legal Services’ Bradenton office. “The judges all are saying, ‘No more. We’ve had enough.’ ”

That frustration stems from a foreclosure crisis of historic proportions.

Mortgage lenders and servicers have initiated foreclosure proceedings against more than 1.33 million Florida homes and repossessed more than 197,300 since 2008, according to RealtyTrac, a foreclosure tracking service. Nearly 15,200 foreclosure suits have been filed in Manatee County, court records show.

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