While wave after wave of foreclosures have hit the Valley in the last few years, law students at Arizona State University are working to help victims of foreclosure fraud and homeowners facing wrongful foreclosure.

In August, Arizona experienced the first upswing in home foreclosures this year, and also marked the first semester of the Homeowner Advocacy Unit in the Civil Justice Clinic at ASU’s Sandra Day O’Connor School of Law.

“The laws are so unclear and such a large group of people are going through foreclosure,” said April Sanchez, a third-year law student in the clinic. “Foreclosure has a big impact on Arizona.”

The cooperation between the Arizona Foreclosure Task Force, other community housing organizations and the law school provides essential services to Arizona homeowners while giving practical experience to law students, said Andrea Esquer, the assistant director of the homeowner advocacy unit. The task force screens potential clients and refers them to the law school.

“This is an excellent opportunity for the law school to provide a valuable public service while training up to 90 new attorneys over the next three years in the skills needed to become effective advocates on behalf of distressed homeowners,” said Douglas Sylvester, interim dean of the college, in a press release.

The school works as a small law office, where students work part-time hours, file their own briefs and consult with their clients, Esquer said. All of the work is provided to clients pro bono.

“If you’re close to foreclosure, you probably can’t afford to pay attorney’s fees,” Esquer said. Working with students for free will allow some clients to keep their homes.

One of the cases being handled by Sanchez and Sally Colton, another third-year law student in the clinic, involves a homeowner who received a trial mortgage modification from his bank.

The homeowner was able to meet all of the trial payments and was told it turned into a permanent modification, Colton said. However, when he went to make his first payment under the permanent modification, he was informed that his house had not only been foreclosed on, but had been sold as well.

“It’s typical with big banks that the right hand won’t know what the left is doing,” Esquer said.

Colton and Sanchez hope to rescind, or invalidate, the foreclosure, which would allow the homeowner to keep his house.

“There is a great need for this sort of investigation,” Esquer said. With so many foreclosures in the state, the training for the students and the help for homeowners is invaluable.

Foreclosure fraud is another type of case some of the clinic’s law students are working on, Esquer said.

There are some companies which pledge to work with banks to achieve a loan modification for homeowners, but end up swindling the customer, Esquer said. The mortgage modification promised to the customer is a scam where the fraudulent company takes the money the homeowner thought was going toward the modified loan.

However, there are some clients that students can’t help to save their homes. In this case, clients can still benefit from legal advice.

“Many people who are going through foreclosure don’t know their options,” Sanchez said. “Here, they’re given an informed decision, whether that is to try to rent the house from the bank, to see if a short sale is possible or to learn the legal ramifications of walking way.”

The clinic took 20 student applications and now has the maximum eleven students enrolled for the semester. Most students have more than one client and there is a waiting list of about 10 to 12 additional clients waiting for assistance.

“The clinic provides you (students) with a setting working with attorneys and real clients,” Colton said. After graduation, finding mentorship and advice like that wouldn’t happen in many firms, she said.

The goal of the program is to produce about 90 attorneys trained in foreclosure law over the next three years, including both semesters and the summer session.

Students earn six credits for the course, essentially half of their course load for the semester, Esquer said.

The program is funded by a three-year grant from the Arizona Attorney General’s Office.

If you are a homeowner with mortgage problems or are facing foreclosure, contact the Arizona Foreclosure Taskforce for assistance at (877) 448-1211 or visit the task force website at www.azforeclosureprevention.org.

• Contact writer: (480) 898-5645 or sspring@evtrib.com

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