“The mirage of promised mortgage modification lured the plaintiff debtors into a kafkaesque nightmare of stay-violating foreclosure and unlawful detainer,” for which the court ordered over $1 million dollars in actual damages plus a significant punitive damage award. Sundquist v. Bank of America, No. 10-35624, Adv. Proc. No. 14-2278 (Bankr. E.D. Cal. March 23, 2017).
In the first 30 pages of the 109-page opinion, the court walked through the facts of the case illustrating Bank of America’s egregious conduct and including extensive quotes from Renee Sundquist’s journal. A few highlights include the following facts. Though struggling financially, Erik and Renee Sundquist were current on their home loan, defaulting only after Bank of America told them that the only way they could get loan modification would be if they were in default. After that began a series of abortive modification attempts during which Bank of America consistently lost paperwork, denied modification for no apparent reason, or otherwise dangled modification before the Sundquists without actually providing it, while at the same time going forward then retreating on foreclosure actions. At one point, a Bank of America employee told Renee that modifications were “not real” but were simply a way for Bank of America to make more money before foreclosure.
The Sundquists filed for chapter 13 bankruptcy under threat of imminent foreclosure. After foreclosing in violation of the stay, Bank of America sent thugs to stake out the residence and intimidate the family, and gave them a three-day notice of eviction causing the Sundquists and their children to find temporary housing. Upon learning that they were no longer the owners of the home, the Sundquists voluntarily dismissed their bankruptcy case thereby ending the automatic stay. Meanwhile, and without the Sundquists’s knowledge, Bank of America rescinded the foreclosure and returned title of the home to them. When they later returned to the house they found that major appliances had been removed. In keeping with its conduct throughout, Bank of America attempted to collect mortgage payments for the months the Sundquists had been without their home.
The court found Bank of America’s conduct to be willful and intentional and that it resulted in “emotional distress, lost income, apparent heart attack, suicide attempt, and post-traumatic stress disorder, for all of which Bank of America disclaim[ed] responsibility.”
Finding that state tort principles inform damage awards in bankruptcy, the court applied a “but for” analysis to the issue of damages: “If a consequence would not have occurred ‘but for’ the automatic stay violations, then courts make awards based on that consequence.” Actual damages including economic loss, emotional distress, attorney’s fees, and punitive damages are all recoverable under appropriate circumstances.
In detailed analysis of the evidence, the court concluded that actual damages, including $70,000.00 in fees to trial counsel, medical expenses, loss of employment income, HOA fees, and lost property, came to over $1 million.
Turning to punitive damages, the court balanced the desire to properly punish Bank of America beyond what it might consider “cost of doing business,” and a reluctance to award the Sundquists vastly more than would be reasonable. It concluded that it had the power to make a portion of the award payable to organizations devoted to the public purposes of education and consumer protection. To that end, the court ordered that a portion of the punitive damages be directed to seven entities: the National Consumer Bankruptcy Rights Center, the National Consumer Law Center and five University of California Law Schools.
The decision is likely to be appealed.Sanctions, automatic stay