By Elliot Njus, The Oregonian
on July 18, 2013 at 7:14 PM, updated July 19, 2013 at 7:18 AM
A house in the Bethany area, operated as an adult foster home, is at the center of a wrongful foreclosure trial in Washington County Circuit Court. Brent Hunsberger/The Oregonian
A Washington County jury on Thursday rebuked JPMorgan Chase‘s handling of a foreclosure case, ruling the nation’s second largest bank likely had broken promises it made to borrowers Bela and Eva Lengyel, resulting in the seizure of their home.
The case is believed to be the first wrongful foreclosure suit to go before a jury in Oregon since the beginning of the housing crash, though many cases have gone before judges in the state. It offers a glimpse into how juries may deal with fallout from the mortgage crisis and the way the nation’s leading banks reacted.
“If I were a transnational bank, I would be very concerned about facing juries in this state,” said attorney Terry Scannell, who represented the couple.
Bela Lengyel said he contacted the bank in November 2008 seeking to lower the monthly mortgage payments he and his wife, Eva, were making on the home where they also operate an adult foster care business. The bank told him it would help, but he had to first default on his payments, he said.
By January 2009 he had done just that, setting him on the road to an August 2010 foreclosure even though he contends he had the money to pay even the original, higher payments. Shortly thereafter, the Lengyels sued.
Attorneys for Chase, which serviced the loan owned by federally backed mortgage giant Freddie Mac, argued no such promise was made. They presented a form signed by Lengyel that said no modification agreements would be made verbally, only in writing. And the bank’s records didn’t show such a promise had been made.
Still, 10 jurors found that the bank had agreed to modify the loan after the Lengyels went into default and that they qualified for such a modification. (One juror was undecided on each point, and one fell ill and missed the final day’s testimony.)
The jury awarded $10,850 in damages, and presiding Judge Don Letourneau will rule later on whether the Lengyels may remain in the home.
“Every moment, I had faith in this country,” said Bela Lengyel, an immigrant who left Romania during its 1989 revolution and arrived in the United States in 1992. “I always believed in justice.”
Chase’s attorney, Philip Rush, said he intended to make an objection to the jury’s decision at a later date. He declined to comment further.
The bank argued it had tried to place Lengyel in a trial loan modification after the default, temporarily lowering his payments, but that he never made a payment. Several months later, the bank gave him another chance at a trial loan modification. He made seven payments, but the bank foreclosed anyway, saying the annual income he provided didn’t hold up to scrutiny and the mortgage debt was too big to be eligible for modification.
The jury did not find the Lengyels had been promised a modification if they made several trial payments, which could have resulted in awarding additional damages.
The Lengyels had refinanced their Bethany home in 2007, borrowing against it to build a $1 million house in Happy Valley. They planned to sell that home, but that dream collapsed with the housing market.
“He took a gamble, and he lost big, and he went underwater,” Rush said. Rush had on Wednesday presented evidence that Lengyel had reported income and losses from gambling at casinos during years he was fighting the foreclosure.
Scannell contended Chase had miscalculated the Lengyels’ income when they plugged the numbers into an algorithm used to evaluate their eligibility, a claim backed up by an expert witness in Wednesday’s testimony.
And at the same time, the bank was pursuing a foreclosure, Scannell said.
“Why would you be asking people to pay money at the same time you’re trying to foreclose?” he said in closing arguments. “That’s circumstantial evidence that they had no intention to give my client a loan modification.”
Scannell also called the gambling evidence a red herring, saying his client was only human.
“There is one side here that’s taken responsibility for anything,” he said, referring to Lengyel. “It is time in this nation, in this state, right now, to hold JPMorgan Chase responsible.”
— Elliot Njus
Brent Hunsberger contributed to this report