NEW YORK (AP) - GMAC Mortgage LLC said Monday it halted certain evictions and sales of foreclosed homes as it corrects "a potential issue" in its foreclosure process.
The action highlights what is becoming a larger problem for lenders and servicers that may have illegally driven homeowners out of their houses. The issue is threatening to clog up an already overloaded foreclosure process.
Lenders took back more homes in August than in any month since the start of the U.S. mortgage crisis, foreclosure listing firm RealtyTrac Inc. said last week. Banks have been stepping up repossessions to clear out their backlog of bad loans.
GMAC, which is owned by Detroit-based Ally Financial Inc., did not identify the specific internal issue that prompted the moratorium in its statement, but it has been linked to lawsuits this year surrounding the alleged falsification of a key foreclosure document.
The Florida attorney general is investigating three law firms for allegedly providing fraudulent affidavits that identify who holds the original mortgage note in foreclosure cases. In Florida and in other states, this document allows lenders to bypass a costly trial and proceed with a foreclosure.
Two of the three firms being investigated - the Law Office of Marshall C. Watson and the Law Offices of David J. Stern PA - have represented GMAC in foreclosure proceedings. And the person who signed many of these allegedly false affidavits was an employee of GMAC.
In a deposition taken in December, GMAC employee Jeffrey Stephan said he signed 10,000 affidavits or similar documents a month without personally verifying who the mortgage holder was. That means many foreclosures could have taken place based on false documentation. Stephan could not be located for comment.
"That's hundreds of thousands of cases," said Ice Legal PA attorney Christopher Immel who took the deposition. "And there are other people at other places who sign these kinds of documents as well."
GMAC did not address how many homeowners would be affected by its suspension of evictions and foreclosure sales. It expects the issues to be resolved within a few weeks or, at latest, by year-end. The company didn't respond to questions beyond its statement.
The issue of documenting who holds the mortgage is not unique to GMAC. Judges and lawyers nationwide are taking a second look at foreclosure affidavits. Many mortgages have been sliced up and sold to many investors as securities and that makes it harder to determine who is the ultimate mortgage holder.
In August, a judge in Duval County, Fla., ruled that JPMorgan Chase could not foreclose upon two homeowners because Fannie Mae carried the mortgage on its books and JPMorgan Chase only serviced the loan. JPMorgan Chase had identified itself as the owner of the loan. Similar cases across the country are pending.
The law firm that represented JPMorgan Chase in that case - Shapiro & Fishman - is the third law firm being investigated by the Florida state attorney.