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Probe of law firm can continue

Judge rules Coakley can investigate office in home foreclosures

By Jenifer B. McKim
Globe Staff / August 5, 2011

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State Attorney General Martha Coakley can continue her investigation into the practices of a Newton law firm that specializes in home foreclosures, a Suffolk Superior Court justice has ruled.

Justice Bonnie H. MacLeod denied a motion by Harmon Law Offices to set aside or alter a request for documents in the state’s investigation into allegations of “unfair and deceptive acts’’ related to the firm’s foreclosure and eviction work.

Coakley said the decision confirms her authority to investigate law firms of wrongdoing. “We are investigating this case to ensure that tenants were not unlawfully evicted and that Harmon followed proper procedures before foreclosing on certain homeowners,’’ she said.

Mark P. Harmon, president of the firm, said he is still reviewing the opinion before determining what action to take.

Coakley’s office began looking at Harmon Law last year in an effort to determine whether it failed to comply with a new Massachusetts law that protects tenants living in foreclosed homes from being evicted. The state also is investigating whether Harmon Law disregarded a court order requiring it to notify the state before initiating foreclosures on homeowners with mortgages that originated with Fremont Investment & Loan, a California firm Coakley sued for predatory lending practices.

The Harmon investigation is part of Coakley’s broader examination of allegations of shoddy and fraudulent foreclosure-related practices in Massachusetts. Last week, Coakley said she was targeting a small but powerful lender-created company in Virginia that claims to be the official owner of tens of millions of mortgages nationwide. She plans to investigate mortgage records in county registries of deeds to see if the company, Mortgage Electronic Registration Systems Inc., is violating Massachusetts laws related to property seizures.

The Harmon dispute began last year when Coakley asked to see mortgage-related and eviction documents from the law firm - a request it went to court to contest. Harmon Law argued that the judge should set aside the demand because it was “arbitrary and capricious,’’ contending, among other things, that the firm could not be held liable because it is the conduct of Harmon Law’s clients, not its attorneys, that is in question and that requested documents were not relevant.

MacLeod, in a ruling last week, denied the firm’s arguments, saying that Coakley needs to see the documents to determine if Harmon violated any laws. She also rejected Harmon’s claim that Coakley was overstepping her powers by attempting to discipline attorneys, a role carried out by the Board of Bar Overseers. MacLeod ruled that Coakley was simply exercising her authority to investigate potential wrongdoing.

In addition, MacLeod dismissed Harmon Law’s contention that it had not broken state law by serving eviction notices to tenants after Aug. 7, 2010, when a rule went into effect prohibiting the eviction of tenants in foreclosed homes without reason. Harmon Law argued it only sent eviction notices to tenants in homes that had been foreclosed upon before that date. But MacLeod ruled the law “applies to any eviction action taken as of August 7, 2010, irrespective of the date of the precursor foreclosure.’’

Jenifer B. McKim can be reached at jmckim@globe.com