Lawyer advises foreclosed clients to break back into their homes
The Earls, all 11 of them, had been evicted from their Simi Valley home. Attorney Michael T. Pines pleaded with a Ventura County Superior Court judge to let the family back in.
Jim and Danielle Earl had fallen behind on their mortgage payments after a business reversal. But the six-bedroom house that they shared with their brood had already been sold to an investment company, Judge Barbara A. Lane pointed out. The eviction would stand.
Incensed, Pines vowed to hire a locksmith and enter the vacant house illegally.
“I’m going back there,” Pines declared, gripping the lectern. “And I hope I get arrested.”
“I certainly hope not,” Lane shot back. “That is a blatant disregard of this court’s order.”
With Pines, the threat at the October hearing couldn’t be written off as courtroom theatrics. The 58-year-old attorney admits to breaking into homes at least half a dozen times, including one before with the Earls, leaving the clients to squat in their homes while he defends their legal right to possession. His unconventional methods have gotten him fined by a judge in San Diego, arrested in Newport Beach and threatened with contempt — and jail — in Ventura.
More foreclosure cases are headed for court, housing experts and legal analysts say, as troubled homeowners run out of options and lenders pick up the pace of evictions. But they also note that people who want to stay in their homes have limited options in states such as California, where a lender can seize a house without a court order. That has prompted Pines to pursue some radical tactics and might cause others to imitate him — if he ever manages to win.
“Homeowners have the right to seek relief in court,” said Boston lawyer Gary Klein, who has sued several banks over lending practices, but Pines’ break-in strategy “ups the ante considerably.”
Ventura lawyer Doug Michie said, “Most attorneys won’t admit it, but they admire his convictions.”
“I certainly don’t have the courage to do what he’s doing,” Michie said. “I’m afraid of getting arrested.”
Pines’ methods are provoking plenty of criticism.
“This attorney violates the canons of professional ethics in advising clients to break the law,” said George Lefcoe, a USC real estate law professor. “What [his clients] are doing on his advice is not only going to prove costly to them and completely futile, it could lead to dangerous altercations with the true owners and law enforcement officers.”
A spokeswoman for the State Bar of California declined to comment when asked whether it was looking into Pines’ actions, citing its policy of neither confirming nor denying pending investigations.
Pines has yet to wrest a house back. His most high-profile client, baseball legend Lenny Dykstra, took Pines’ advice last July to move back into his foreclosed Thousand Oaks mansion against a bankruptcy judge’s orders. That move, followed by a victory party at the estate, brought an order barring the former outfielder from the property. Dykstra fired Pines after one month and lost the house in a foreclosure sale in November.
Pines, who has been a lawyer for more than 30 years, said his path to foreclosure activism grew from his own troubles.
Several years ago, the Pennsylvania native abandoned his legal career to become a real estate broker specializing in distressed properties. Pines contends that he became a victim of mortgage rip-offs and the housing market crash, which led him to investigate what he describes as unethical lending practices. Pines said he was inspired by the tales that he heard to take on clients again in 2010.
Pines has at least six properties in foreclosure, owes banks more than $2 million and has filed for bankruptcy protection. The trustee is trying to sell Pines’ law offices in Encinitas, Calif., because the attorney hasn’t made loan payments in more than a year.
“I filed bankruptcy myself because I stopped paying,” Pines said. “I followed my own advice. I said I’m not going to let the banks steal from me.”
Danielle Earl said her lawyer’s financial struggles make him a perfect candidate to represent people facing foreclosure.
“If you’ve got someone going through the exact same thing that you’re going through, they would be doing more research and would be more knowledgeable because they’re going through it too,” Earl said.
Although Pines advises his clients not to pay their lenders, he wants to be paid.
“I tell my clients that if you’re living in a house for free, you should be able to afford to pay a lawyer,” Pines said, adding that he usually charges an hourly rate of $650. Pines said the Earls became his clients after they were referred to him by another attorney.
The Earls’ income came from a family-owned medical equipment firm and from taking in foster children. The family has adopted six of the 43 children they have taken in since 2001, Danielle Earl said, with Jim Earl staying at home to serve as their primary caregiver. They now live with those six children, ages 3 to 14, plus their three biological children, ages 18 to 23.
Danielle Earl said the family is no longer taking in foster children. In addition, the medical equipment company experienced financial difficulties. And refinancing to tap the home’s equity had left the couple with large mortgage bills. The Earls went 18 months without making regular mortgage payments, instead paying large sums every five to six months. The couple stopped making payments entirely in April 2009, when they said they could not get a proper accounting and decided they had overpaid.
Pines advised the Earls that their home loan was originated and serviced improperly, which made their eviction last July illegal, and it was within their rights to retake the home.
In early October, with news cameras recording the event, the family broke back into the home, on Pines’ advice. A week later, the new owner — investment firm Conejo Capital Partners — reclaimed the home while the family was away, putting their belongings in storage.
The family is now renting a home in the area. Pines didn’t follow through on his courtroom threat to break into the home again, although his office put out a media advisory claiming he would do so.
Conejo Capital said Pines’ legal antics were self-serving.
“It is extremely unfortunate that he is putting others in jeopardy as a way to create notoriety for himself,” the company said in a statement.
At a hearing Tuesday, Conejo asked Judge Lane to hold the Earls and Pines in contempt of court. Lane, who said she would rule within two weeks, has the option of fining them $1,000 apiece for each of three alleged acts of contempt and jailing them for up to five days. The judge also could order payment of Conejo’s attorney fees, which currently exceed $31,000.
Pines remains convinced that breaking the law is necessary to force courts to examine how banks do business with distressed homeowners.
“I felt like the kid with his finger in the dike saying, ‘There’s a hole here, there’s a problem, someone pay attention before the whole thing collapses,’ ” he said. “Nobody would listen. And now they’re listening, at least.”