When Alvin Carr purchased a $276,000 home in Apopka six years ago, the retired civil servant thought he would live there a long time.
"This is what my wife always dreamed of," said Carr. "It was happiness."
But the couple soon fell behind on their mortgage payments, prompting their mortgage lender, Wells Fargo, to begin foreclosure proceedings.
The Carrs eventually sought help from The Hoffman Law Group, a North Palm Beach firm that specializes in "holding mortgage companies accountable," according to the firm’s website.
"The understanding we had was that they were going to file all the necessary papers through the courts to prolong the foreclosure until we could get things right," said Kathy Carr. "They were going to save the home. They were going to stop the foreclosure."
Every month for six months, Hoffman Law Group deducted $1200 from the Carr's checking account.
On May 5, the law firm took out another $600.
That very same day, Wells Fargo sold the Carr's home at auction to an investor.
"I was shocked. And when I called the attorney, they acted like they weren't aware of it," said Alvin Carr, who claims he had no idea the foreclosure had been finalized until the new owner of the house knocked on his front door. Within weeks, the couple was forced to move into a small motel room.
No attorneys from the Hoffman Law Group intervened in the Carr's foreclosure case, according to Orange County circuit court records. That's likely because the law firm’s retainer agreement does not promise to get involved with the foreclosure process.
Instead, the Hoffman Law Group files separate lawsuits against mortgage lenders in federal court. According to the company's website, "Our firm will demand a new mortgage loan to reflect positive equity, a lower fixed interest rate, a cash settlement for punitive damages, a reinstatement of credit rating, and a waiver of all delinquent payments/penalties/interest and other economic benefits for all plaintiffs."
"I believed it. And I communicated that to the clients. And they believed it. It sounded legitimate," said Michele Stephens, a lawyer who moved from Kentucky to Florida in 2013 to take a job at the Hoffman Law Group as a case management attorney. Stephens said she quit less than a year later, believing the law firm was scamming clients.
"My heart bleeds for them," said Stephens, who began to cry as she described clients on the verge of losing their homes while giving what little money they had to Hoffman Law Group. "I prayed for clients every night when I came home."
According to Stephens, salespeople who work in a "boiler room" call center located in the law firm's North Palm Beach office building sign up clients and collect money; typically a $6000 retainer fee followed by a $495 monthly charge.
"I know at one point there were 1,500 active clients," said Stephens.
Some of those clients' names would eventually end up on federal lawsuits alongside the names of numerous other plaintiffs on what are known as "mass joinder" lawsuits. That type of lawsuit is different from a class action case because all plaintiffs must pay legal fees in advance.
The Federal Trade Commission cautions homeowners against taking part in mass joinder lawsuits for mortgage issues. The consumer protection agency warns that clients are often left in even worse financial shape.
"It's a scam. It's a money scam," said Stephens. "I don't know how people can sleep at night knowing that you're scamming them. And these people and their little kids are going to be out on the streets."
Federal judges have expressed concerns about some of the 32 lawsuits filed by the Hoffman Law Group. At least one lawsuit has already been thrown out due to improper legal tactics. In several other cases, the law firm has been ordered to remove all but one plaintiff from the group lawsuit.
Sonja Shearer was among more than 100 plaintiffs listed on a lawsuit filed in a New York federal court suing 13 mortgage lenders. In March, after the case had been open for nearly a year, an attorney working on behalf of the Hoffman Law Group voluntarily withdrew the Jacksonville woman from that lawsuit without explanation. A new lawsuit was filed in June in a Florida federal court with Shearer listed as the only plaintiff.
Two days later, U.S. District Judge Marcia Morales Howard threatened to throw out Shearer's new lawsuit. The judge criticized the way the lawsuit was written, calling it "an impermissible 'shotgun pleading'" which contained "irrelevant factual allegations and legal conclusions." Such pleadings are "totally unacceptable", according to Howard's order.
Shearer said she had no idea her lawsuit was in jeopardy until Local 6 notified her of the judge's ruling.
"They were blowing smoke up my butt!" said Shearer, who claims she continues to pay Hoffman Law $495 a month, despite losing her home to foreclosure last year. Shearer said she has paid the firm more than $11,000 under the belief she might eventually recoup money from her former mortgage lender.
After Local 6 provided Shearer with a copy of the judge's order, she said she contacted her case management attorney at Hoffman Law Group. According to Shearer, the attorney claimed to have no knowledge that the lawsuit was in trouble and asked Shearer to fax him the judge's order she received from Local 6. Days later, the law firm filed an amended complaint with the court. The case remains open, despite Shearer telling Local 6 she no longer wished to be represented by the Hoffman Law Group.
"If this would have been properly handled to begin with, I would still be in my house," said Shearer.
Records show one of Hoffman Law’s clients was successful in saving their home. Four months after Nicholas D’Angelis was added to a mass joinder lawsuit, the New York man was dropped from the case because the bank gave him a permanent loan modification. However, D’Angelis’s wife tells Local 6 the Hoffman Law Group had little to do with their victory.