Archive for July 21st, 2011

“Judge with Interest in Bank Shouldn’t Hear Foreclosure Cases”

I’ve made my views clear about Judge Cook presiding over foreclosure cases; Shannon Behnken of the Tampa Tribune gave her version here

I’m disappointed to see Judge Cook’s take on the story.  Respectfully, the issue isn’t whether she thinks she’s biased; it’s whether homeowners could reasonably think she’s biased.  As Henry Trawick appropriately notes, that is the standard for disqualification in Florida. 

Here’s the article. …


A Hillsborough County judge seeking to tame a backlog of thousands of foreclosure lawsuits is raising questions from critics who wonder whether she should be hearing foreclosure cases at all.

Judge Martha J. Cook has an ownership interest in Community Bank, where her husband, William H. Sedgeman Jr., serves as chairman and chief executive, public documents show.

The bank, known formally as Community Bank of Manatee, has 17 locations throughout the Tampa Bay area. The bank has been hard-hit by the foreclosure crisis and has struggled to shed troubled assets.

Like most banks, Community Bank often finds itself as a plaintiff against homeowners in foreclosure cases.

“It’s reasonable that a homeowner would fear they aren’t going to get a fair hearing before her,” said Mark Stopa, a foreclosure defense attorney. “There’s no way I could go into court before her without thinking about this.”

But Cook said she is not prejudiced.

“I don’t have bias,” Cook said. “I listed my connection, as required by the law. Beyond that, my personal life is my personal life.”

The state’s Judicial Qualifications commission’s code of conduct does not expressly prohibit judges from owning stock in companies they may see in the courtroom, but it does require disclosure.

The financial disclosures must be filed yearly with the Florida Commission on Ethics. On forms filed for 2007 and 2008, Cook checked a box indicating she had more than 5 percent interest in the bank. In 2009 and 2010, Cook indicated she still had an interest but that it was less than 5 percent.

Cook told the Tribune she disclosed this because of her husband’s interest in the bank. She said she doesn’t hear cases involving his bank and doesn’t feel she has a conflict of interest by overseeing foreclosures by other banks.

The 13th Judicial Circuit, which includes Hillsborough County, has nearly 30,000 foreclosure cases at some stage in the court system. Cook is one of 10 judges assigned those cases. This time last year, the state implemented a program to shed the backlog. Retired senior judges were brought back to hear foreclosure cases.

But the program was controversial, and judges were accused of rubber-stamping foreclosures and not checking documents. This came to a boil late last year when some banks admitted that employees fabricated documents and forged signatures. The legislature discontinued Florida’s foreclosure program, and starting this month, it’s now up to elected judges, such as Cook, to hear cases.

Mike Bridenback, court administrator for Hillsborough County, said Cook was the first to add foreclosure cases to her July calendar. Working through the backlog is important to the circuit, he said, but judges still want to give homeowners who chose to fight their foreclosure a chance to be heard.

Bridenback said he wasn’t aware of Cook’s relationship with the local bank. He said each judge has to decide whether they have a conflict of interest and that he’s not aware of any problems with her cases.

“Judges have lives beyond the bench,” Bridenback said.

Henry P. Trawick Jr., a Sarasota lawyer and author of Florida’s Practice and Procedure, a textbook used by lawyers, said it’s good that Cook disqualifies herself from hearing cases that involved her husband’s bank. But he said she should go a step further.

“I think she shouldn’t hear foreclosure cases,” Trawick said. “That’s what I would do if I had that close of a connection, but perhaps my ethical standards are higher.”

The problem, Trawick said, is whether or not Cook shows favor to the banks; those representing homeowners may feel like she might.

Hillsborough’s other nine judges have not owned bank stock over at least the past four years, according to state disclosure documents.

Stopa, the foreclosure defense attorney, said Cook once told him in court that she thought the “only way to improve the economy is to push through foreclosures as soon as possible.”

Cook said she was misquoted, but she declined to correct the statement.

Mike Wasylik, a foreclosure defense attorney, said he’s had few cases before Cook but is uncomfortable with her connection to a local bank.

“A judge has the duty to avoid even the appearance of bias,” Wasylik said. “She may have personal opinions about the need to push foreclosures through quickly.”

Phyllis Kotey, a professor at FIU School of Law, said the connections show an “appearance of personal and financial interest.”

“At the very least, parties before her should be put on notice and have the opportunity to object to her hearing their cases.”

Mark Stopa

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Thank You

Stopa Law Firm was flooded today with emails and phone calls thanking me for writing this letter to a local judge (asking her to remove herself from all foreclosure cases given her ties to the banking industry). 

I’m thankful and humbled at the support.  From the bottom of my heart, I really appreciate it.  Sticking my neck out there isn’t always easy, but it sure helps having so much support from so many good people.

Mark Stopa

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