Californian couple's struggle against foreclosure ends in tragedy


Oriane Rousseau is suing Wells Fargo over bureaucratic errors that led to foreclosure and her husband’s suicide, writes PAUL HARRISin New York

FOR 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. Her husband had taken his own life.

Norman’s suicide on May 13th was the worst possible end to the Rousseaus’ nightmare experience of the US 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 they had made the payment – and had the receipt to prove it – that kicked off a foreclosure process they were unable to escape, battling against the seemingly careless bureaucracy of a major bank that eventually took their home.

Legal papers filed by the Rousseaus against Wells Fargo reveal their tortuous foreclosure experience and the devastating toll it had on their lives.

German-born Oriane (61) and Norman (53) bought their house in March 2000, and paid a 30 per cent 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 of the receipt they got from the teller and continued to make payments of $1,615 (€1,285).

But they started getting phone calls – as many as eight a day – from Wachovia’s collection arm. On August 8th they spoke to Wachovia officer John Nickells, who apologised and said their account was current.

Two weeks later they received a letter 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 their 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 post. 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.

By December 1st, 2009, the bank stopped accepting the Rousseaus’ payments by post, saying their loan modification application was still under review.

Repeated calls for a decision met with little reaction. Then on May 26th, 2010, Wachovia said the Rousseaus were not eligible and in June demanded $17,000 to make up for payments owed: including payments it had earlier refused to accept. A new lawyer got the Rousseaus a reinstatement deal.

On November 17th 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 in late fees. They had two days to pay.

They tried to pay by draining a retirement fund. But they could not do it quickly enough due to account limits on cash withdrawals. On November 22nd Wells Fargo acquired the title of their house.

Throughout 2011 the Rousseaus fought on in the courts to reclaim ownership. By July, they got an injunction as long as they could make a monthly payment of $1,800. But by then, financially drained by legal fees and with Norman losing his job, they were struggling.

They did not make the December payment. Wells Fargo went to court and a lockout was set for May 15th, 2012.

To keep a roof over their heads, Norman bought an old camper on Saturday, May 12th. But its engine did not work. He struggled to fix it. Then, at midnight, he gave up and went to bed. That Sunday morning he took his own life.

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,” he says.

Oriane is in deep mourning 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.

She is also 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, she believes, that could have saved her husband: “It does not bring my husband back but maybe I can do something for this country.”

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.