This article has been updated
WASHINGTON -- Deutsche Bank appears to have retaliated against a high-profile foreclosure fraud expert, whose years-long battle against her own foreclosure helped reveal a wave of apparent malfeasance, by suing her son.
The expert, Lynn Szymoniak, an attorney who specializes in white-collar crime, is widely considered on Capitol Hill to be one of the nation's top experts on foreclosure law. When Deutsche Bank attempted to jack up the interest rate on the mortgage for her Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., home in May 2008, she contested the move, setting off an investigation which unveiled mountains of forged signatures and fraudulent bank paperwork associated with the foreclosure process.
Szymoniak alerted other attorneys, neighborhood advocates, lawmakers and the media about the apparent rampant fraud. She appeared on "60 Minutes" in April to discuss the broader foreclosure scandal [video appended below].
Her own home has been in foreclosure since June 2008. A month earlier, she had been notified that the interest rate on her adjustable-rate mortgage was being raised, increasing her monthly payments by about $1,000. But the terms of her mortgage only allowed interest-rate hikes at certain dates.
In an interview with The Huffington Post, Szymoniak noted that Deutsche Bank was not acting within the allowed timeframe.
"They missed my adjustment date, and then when they figured it out, they just slapped that higher payment on anyway," she said. "I paid one payment at the higher rate and then I said, 'This is ridiculous.' And I stopped paying and then they sued me in June '08."
After she'd been sued, Szymoniak said, she began investigating the documentation on Florida foreclosures, uncovering alarming irregularities, including signatures that were apparently forged. If so, those signatures allowed banks to push foreclosures through overly quickly, charge improper fees and assert improperly inflated borrower debts.
Shortly after appearing on "60 Minutes" Szymoniak won a major victory in her own foreclosure case. The court found that Deutsche Bank was unable to demonstrate ownership of her mortgage, which had originally been issued by the defunct subprime mortgage lender Option One, and threw the case out.
Deutsche Bank was permitted to refile their case if the bank could obtain proper documentation, however. And on Friday, May 6, Szymoniak received a notification from the bank's lawyers that she was again being sued for foreclosure.
But Deutsche Bank wasn't just going after her. The bank was also attempting to sue her son, Mark Cullen, who is currently pursuing a graduate degree in poetry at the New School in New York. Cullen hasn't lived in Szymoniak's house for seven years and is not a party to any aspect of her mortgage -- he has no interest in either the property or the loan, and never has had any such interest, according to Szymoniak.
"It is just absolute harassment," Szymoniak said. "He doesn't own anything, for god's sake! He's getting a masters in poetry. He not only doesn't have any money, he's never going to have any money."
And other Florida foreclosure experts say it's difficult to interpret Deutsche Bank's move as anything other than retaliation for Szymoniak's media presence. If it is not, in fact, retaliation, they argue, then Deutsche Bank's lawyers have demonstrated rank incompetence.
"It sounds crazy," said Margery Golant, a principal with the foreclosure defense law firm of Golant & Golant PA in Florida. "I can think of no legitimate reason, if he doesn't have some connection to the property or to the mortgage, to include him in an action to foreclosure."
"It's an intimidation tool," said Matt Englett, a partner at the Florida law firm Kaufman Englett Lynd PLLC. "Most people, they get scared and they get nervous and I think that's the effect that they're trying to have on him and his mother."
"If he's not an owner of the house, it's pretty clearly just vindictive," said Joshua Rosner, the managing director of Graham Fisher & Co., a mortgage investment firm. "If they're doing it intentionally, that's one hell of a statement. If they're doing it randomly, that's still pretty incredible."
The experts said the lawsuit against Szymoniak's son could also have negative implications for him beyond the immediate costs of fighting the foreclosure case, even though he has no financial interest in anything related to it.
"He's going to have a lawsuit out there against him," Englett said, "so if someone were to do some kind of background check against him, that would come up."
Watch Szymoniak's "60 Minutes" interview:
Deutsche Bank maintains that it is not to blame, and notes that while it is legally listed as the plaintiff in the Szymoniak foreclosure case, another company directs the actual legal maneuvering.
"Pursuant to the aforementioned contracts for securitization trusts, loan servicers, and not the trustee, are responsible for foreclosure-related legal proceedings. The attorneys and law firms who oversee foreclosure proceedings on behalf of the trusts are engaged by loan servicers rather than the trustee. Loan servicers are obligated to adhere to all legal requirements, and Deutsche Bank, as trustee, has consistently informed servicers that they are required to execute these actions in a proper and timely manner," said Deutsche Bank spokesman John Gallagher.