By:Susan Misur | New Haven Register
WEST HAVEN — Ronni and George Mandell won’t go out with a whimper in the fight to keep their home. And they say because of that, Bank of America won’t modify their mortgage terms to a payment they can afford.
Bank of America offered the couple a chance to modify the loan on the Jones Street house they’ve owned for 10 years in order to make payments more manageable, but only with conditions that include essentially agreeing to a gag-order when it comes to the deal and the financial institution. That means keeping quiet about opinions of the bank on Facebook, blogs, websites and in the media, and taking down any existing postings — something that may be unexpected in a document relating to a financial matter.
The Mandells rejected the settlement.
“I cherish my rights to free speech,” George Mandell said. “We’re prepared to lose the house if we have to, but we’re going to fight it. We’re standing firm not just for ourselves, but hopefully for the rest of the people in the country. Because it’s gotta be cleaned up.”
The Mandells say people across the country are being presented with offers like this one from Bank of America and worry some aren’t reading the fine print. They’ve called or written to just about every agency out there that oversees banks and consumer affairs, as well as politicians, and expect the bank to begin foreclosure proceedings on their home in the next few weeks.
The Arizona attorney general’s office had filed a lawsuit on mortgage-related matters against Bank of America and said the bank’s gag-order provision would prevent borrowers from speaking to investigators about their experiences, according to published reports.
But the bank says the terms are offered only to people who do not qualify for extreme modifications and that the non-disparagement clause is not commonly offered.
“In cases … where Bank of America has offered extraordinary assistance to a customer that has a history of posting false, misleading and defamatory information about our company and employees, we believe it is in the best interest of all parties to consider including the clause to stop the continued posting of misinformation,” Jumana Bauwens, a media relations representative of Bank of America Home Loans, said in an emailed statement.
The Mandells said they fell behind on payments starting in 2010 after George Mandell was laid off and out of work for a few years,. Because they fell behind, they tried to adjust their monthly payments with Bank of America, but didn’t qualify for certain modifications. Mortgage documents say they owe $229,000 and bought the home for around $108,000 in 2000. They haven’t sent in a mortgage payment since 2010.
After various problems and complications, and posting stories of their experience and opinion pieces on social media and other websites, the Mandells received a settlement agreement and release this summer that included the little-publicized non-disparagement clause.
The item says that each borrower agrees to “not, directly or indirectly, in public or in private, defame, criticize, disparage or discredit Bank of America” or any affiliates or subsidies or employees. It goes on to say borrowers who take this particular modification will not “publish, create or participate in” books, TV or radio shows, social media or blogs, media articles, Internet postings or reviews mentioning the bank or its employees. It also says borrowers cannot pass around personal information of bank employees.
An attorney representing Bank of America also wrote in July to the Mandells, “Our client has told us that you have recently made statements and internet postings about your relationship with [Bank of America] and certain [Bank of America] executives, and that you may be making further statements of that kind. I would like the opportunity to discuss these matters with you at your earliest convenience.”
Bauwens said such non-disparagement clauses are not part of loan modifications for “customers in need of assistance” and that more than 1 million Bank of America clients have been helped by loan modifications. The Mandells have too much income to qualify for assistance under that type of program, she added.
“The bank has provided them several opportunities for home retention and they have defaulted on every modification. Despite our numerous attempts to assist the Mandells — most recently including a customized modification including principal reduction — the Mandells have not been responsive,” Bauwens said. “They have, however, continued to use the Internet to post misinformation about our company. While not a common practice, in this extraordinary case, we felt a non-disparagement clause in the Settlement Agreement was called for.”
Susan Kinsman, spokeswoman for Connecticut Attorney General George Jepsen, said the National Mortgage Foreclosure settlement took effect in April to protect borrowers, and its standards typically ban such waivers as a condition of a loan modification. However, banks can in certain circumstances make those requests sometimes for a borrower who otherwise might not qualify for a modification, Kinsman said. Borrowers who have questions and are at risk of foreclosure can call the state Department of Banking’s Foreclosure Assistance Hotline at 877-472-8313.
To educate people on such settlement conditions and continue fighting Bank of America, the Mandells are holding an event at their 135 Jones St. home called the Occupy New Haven Barbeque and Cookout today from 1 to 6 p.m. It’s open to the public, and the cost is $10 per person for food, or attendees must bring a food item or beverage of equal value.
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