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Intro: "Oriane Rousseau says husband Norman's suicide was a result of the bank kicking off a process from which they couldn't escape."

In the first quarter of 2012, the foreclosure rate jumped in 26 out of the 50 largest American cities. (photo: Rick Wilking/Reuters)
In the first quarter of 2012, the foreclosure rate jumped in 26 out of the 50 largest American cities. (photo: Rick Wilking/Reuters)

Widow Sues Wells Fargo Over Wrongful Foreclosure Taking Devastating Toll

By Paul Harris, Guardian UK

25 May 12


or Oriane and Norman Rousseau, their hopes of keeping the modest California house that had been their dream home ended with a loud noise while Oriane was in the kitchen.

She rushed to the bedroom, unsure of what had happened. But when the part-time nurse smelled sulphur, she understood. Opening the door Oriane saw her husband on the bed with his head wrapped in a blanket. "I saw blood on the wall. I lifted up the comforter a little and then I lost it," Oriane told the Guardian in an interview.

Norman's suicide on May 13 was the worst possible end for the Rousseau's nightmarish experience of America's foreclosure crisis. But it was a long, surreal and twisted journey to get there. It began in May 2009, when Wachovia, now part of Wells Fargo, told the Rousseaus they had missed a mortgage payment on their home in Newbury Park, an hour outside Los Angeles.

Even though the Rousseaus had made the payment – and had the receipt to prove it – that kicked off a foreclosure process they were never able to escape, battling against the seemingly careless bureaucracy of a major American bank that eventually took their home.

But the Rousseau tragedy is not alone. In America the foreclosure crisis roils on, devastating lives via a banking industry marked by such fraud and incompetence that five major banks – including Wells Fargo – earlier this year agreed a $25bn compensation settlement.

The numbers tell a story of ongoing pain. In the first quarter of 2012, the foreclosure rate jumped in 26 out of the 50 largest American cities. There are still around 2m homes with foreclosure filings in America, meaning millions of people will still likely lose their homes in the months ahead.

Legal papers filed by the Rousseaus against Wells Fargo reveal their tortuous foreclosure experience and the devastating toll it had on their lives. Yet their story began in the most the ordinary way.

Oriane Rousseau

German-born Oriane, 61, had met Norman, 53, who worked as an ATM technician, 15 years ago at a nearby country and western bar. They both loved music and dancing. "It was love at first sight," Oriane said. "We got a house and we tried to make a little dream home." The pair eventually married, buying their house in March 2000, and paying a 30% downpayment. In October 2007, they were approached by a Wachovia loan officer to refinance, being assured they could reduce monthly payments and that house prices were rising. They agreed and continued to make their loan payments in person each month.

But in May, 2009, they received a statement saying April's payment had been missed. The Rousseaus faxed off repeated copies off the receipt they had got from the teller and continued to make payments of $1,615. But they started getting phone calls – as many eight a day – from Wachovia's collection arm. On August 8 they spoke to a Wachovia officer, called John Nickells, who apologised and said their account was current.

Two weeks later they received a letter now asking for a payment of $3,487. The Rousseaus hired a lawyer who examined their refinancing loan and found numerous irregularities, including a vastly inflated estimate of the Rousseau's earnings that had been made – not by the Rousseaus – but by the Wachovia loan salesman. Yet they continued to make their payments each month, even as the bank continued to send foreclosure warnings.

But in September, 2009, the local Wachovia branch refused to take their monthly payment in person as the Rousseaus had applied to have the loan terms adjusted. The Rousseaus insisted on sending a cheque by mail. They attempted to speak to officials from the bank but on the phone could only get "Ken" or "Mary" in bank call centres.

Each one always told a different story, or insisted certain information needed to renegotiate their loan had not been received, even though the Rousseaus' lawyers had sent it, often multiple times. "Every time we talk to someone they did not know what the person did before them. Or they did not care. It was like talking to a wall," Oriane said.

By December 1, 2009, the bank stopped accepting the Rousseau's payments by mail, saying their loan modification application was still under review. Repeated calls for a decision met with little reaction. Then on May 26, 2010, Wachovia said the Rousseaus were not eligible and in June demanded $17,000 to make up for payments owed: including payments the bank had earlier refused to accept. A new lawyer got the Rousseaus a reinstatement deal.

On November 17 the Rousseaus were informed they would be foreclosed on unless they paid a debt the bank now said added up to $26,000, including $4,000 of late fees. They had two days to pay. Amazingly, the Rousseaus – by draining a retirement fund – tried to pay. But they could not do it quickly enough due to account limits on cash withdrawals. On November 22 Wells Fargo acquired the title of their house.

Throughout 2011 the Rousseaus fought on in the courts to reclaim ownership. By July, they got a injunction as long as they could make a monthly payment of $1,800. But by then, financially drained by legal fees and in the wake of Norman losing his job, they were struggling. They failed to make the December payment. Wells Fargo went to court and a lockout was set for May 15, 2012.

In order to keep a roof over their heads, Norman bought an old motor home on Saturday, May 12. But the vehicle's engine did not work. He struggled to fix it. Then, at midnight, he gave up and went to bed. That Sunday morning he shot himself dead. The Rousseaus' lawyer, Chris Gardas, believes that broke him. "Once he could not fix that thing, I have no doubt that was the last straw," Gardas said.

Oriane is in deep mourning. "He saw no way out," she said. But she is also angry, and her lawsuit is going on without her husband. She says she is doing it for the many other Americans caught in foreclosure hell battling gigantic financial institutions who seem keener on foreclosures than letting people stay in their homes. "This cannot happen to someone else. It cannot. These banks are greedy, they are money-hungry and they are lying," she said.

A local activists group, the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment, is helping her tell her story. Peggy Mears, an organiser for ACCE, said she was horrified at the case. "Can you imagine what he felt like? Norman had no more fight left in him. For him death was better than fighting that bank," Mears said.

Oriane is now starting to speaking out on California's plans for a Homeowners Bill of Rights, which would help homeowners renegotiate loans or establish a single point of contact for dealing with banks about their cases. These are things, Oriane believes, that could have saved her husband. "It does not bring my husband back but maybe I can do something for this country," she said.

For its part, Wells Fargo says it is not to blame. "Despite current reports, we tried repeatedly to find affordable options for the family," a bank spokeswoman said. Wells Fargo still intends to evict Oriane, though it has temporarily suspended proceedings. Not that she can face a night in the place she once thought a slice of the American dream. She is currently living in a motel paid for by a church. That money runs out on Friday.

"I have no idea where I am going to go. I have been left with nothing," she said.

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+20 # bluepilgrim 2012-05-25 09:01

"I want you to remember that no bastard ever won a war by dying for his country. He won it by making the other poor, dumb bastard die for his country."
+8 # John Locke 2012-05-25 12:12
Joe Pine also used to say that...and I agree, I expect that some one out there is going to go over the edge and take an automatic weapon into a bank and waste everyone working there...I am surprised it hasn't already happened!
+34 # Richard Raznikov 2012-05-25 09:59
These damned bankers are murderers. Where is justice? Where is the Justice Department? Where are the criminal prosecutions? Why are these monsters running loose when ordinary, decent people are being crushed by their felonies?

Wells Fargo is a collection of the worst scum on the planet, and the other major banks are in the same category.
+1 # John Locke 2012-05-25 12:13
Richard Raznikov: you asked a very good question, I will tell you where they are...Having dinner with Obama at the white house and writing him another check for being such a good boy! and allowing them to do what ever they want!
+20 # Capn Canard 2012-05-25 10:11
Well this is just a story about the normal standard criminal behavior of the banking industry and the subsequent consequences.
+17 # Kootenay Coyote 2012-05-25 10:28
A colossal & outrageous injustice, including murder by proxy. & how many other cases?
+22 # humanmancalvin 2012-05-25 11:20
Ouch, this hit home. Same Wells Fargo runaround Sweetie & I have experienced. We have to be out of this foreclosed house July 1st courtesy of a judge that did not want to hear our lawyers plea to examine the paperwork that was obviously robo-signed. The rentals in this part of Southwest Florida all seem to demand a credit check. Our credit history is OK except for a big fat red mark placed there by W.F. so we do not get passing scores to get us into a suitable rental. We are both in our 60's, I am disabled, sweetie works & sees no retirement in sight. Our American dream exploded after our rates went sky high & made paying W.F. impossible. This is the same loan the salesman said he put his own mother & aunt into & that we could refie in 6 to 8 months so no problem. Complete lies, no refie just a payment for a small home that would be a payment for a beach mansion. Going to look at another place today & am trying hard not to be discouraged but it is not easy. Nope, no regulations are needed in the mortgage industry, they will police themselves according to the radical right insurgency. These people have worked hard to destroy my & Sweeties life & will stick it to a hell of a lot of other folks if ever in the White House again. I may be responding to RSN from a coffee shop or similar free wifi spot after July. USA..USA.
+14 # John Locke 2012-05-25 12:19
The problem with the judge may be that he is in the pocket of the banks, most run for office and receive campaign contributions from banks, so its hard the way the system is set up to really challenge this in court. it will take street action!
+17 # Regina 2012-05-25 12:25
This is what we can expect from "free enterprise." And with the jillions the banks get from the one-two punch of mortgage payments and foreclosures on top of them, plus the resale of stolen houses, they can, and do, buy Congress. I wish you better luck, Calvin & Sweetie.
+11 # cordleycoit 2012-05-25 13:53
This is the America of today.These toads are in charge and we just better pucker up, bend over do as we are told by the bankers. Wells Fargo is famous for their criminal behavior, yet Obama protects them. Romney is one of them. Yours and my Congress man is their accomplice.
+11 # BradFromSalem 2012-05-25 14:09
How can the lawyers have been doing any negotiating? The bank screwed up, the people had paid their bills continuously until the bank refused to take their money.

They lawyers should have demanded that by refusing the payments, Wells Fargo had abdicated ownership.

What I really think happened was that someone at the local office was stealing their payments.

This whole thing is just so disgusting I am totally outraged. Why hasn't Wells fargo been charged with multiple crimes, starting with unsubstantiated accusations, theft, and murder. Thev only settlement that would be just would be to make this woman CEO of Wells Fargo.
+9 # Michael_K 2012-05-25 15:51
I'm importing pitchforks and guillotines... A growth industry, sooner rather than later, methinks. Even Americans have to wake up and rebel, at some point.
+7 # badbenski 2012-05-25 16:46
The mistake these folks made was using faxes and relying on phone calls. Certified letters with copies of their counter receipts was the way to go and if the bank officer who said their account was current wouldn't put it in writing they needed to send an "as per our conversation with you on such & such date, our account #xxxxxxx is now current." Certified & Registered "recipient only" meaning the officer would have had to sign for it, which would have boxed them in legally because unless they replied to the contrary their unaswered letter would've stood as an affirmative statement of the truth. It's a shame to have to play a supposedly reputable institution that closely but evidently it has become necessary. Armed with just those two pieces of evidence, any legal action to foreclose should've been thwarted. If, for some reason, a judge were to attempt to ignore such evidence he'd have been set up for easily revearsable error.

Unfortunately the average Joe still assumes that their bank is to be trusted. However, a combination of incompetence at the bottom and criminality at the top makes this point of view naive at best.
+2 # John Locke 2012-05-26 09:34
Reversable error means nothing to a couple who are now living in a park!

This is a job for OWS and occupy foreclosures, several hundred or thousands of OWS standing up to the bank can make a pecially if the are armed like the Tparty...
+2 # mishanti2 2012-05-26 12:56
Problem now is this poor woman has no money to pay her lawyer or to go to Court so she is still screwed over.
+2 # mishanti2 2012-05-26 12:55
Don't blame Obama for this mess..this was started under Bush and the GOP controlled Congress is NEVER going to do anything to stop this madness. Even Willard Romney says let the forclosures happen and then rent out the homes for big bucks. They don't give a crap to make laws to prevent this crap from happening to people. The GOP is in the pocket of BIG BANKS and never forget that.
+1 # Street Level 2012-05-26 22:24
I am so glad that the Guardian picked up this story. As you can imagine, there was little coverage over this as these atrocities are becoming "routine".
ACCE is a fabulous organization and work tirelessly to aid foreclosure victims one at a time.
Vote with your wallet. Move your accounts to community banks or credit union. Stop paying these murderous banks anyway you can including changing credit cards. They obviously don't need our business, or us.
0 # megastew 2012-06-13 15:30
Corporations are people, my friends. This shouldn't be a civil lawsuit. Wells Fargo should be charged with murder.

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