Process server Michael Root says that he knows how angry foreclosure notices can make homeowners -- because one property owner almost killed him and members of his family.
As it turned out, Root wasn't even bringing a foreclosure notice when, he said, he was attacked in June by a homeowner in Wingdale, N.Y.; it was a notice about a credit card bill. But according to Root, the man didn't know that and he'd already been served notice of foreclosure on his home by another process server that day.
The man became so enraged at another legal notice, Root said, that he jumped on a nearby backhoe and drove it into Root's car. "He raised the bucket and pushed it through the back window and almost cut my kid's head off," added Root, who said that he happened to have his wife and daughter with him that day. (Root is pictured above, on the job.)
That alleged attack -- which resulted in criminal charges against the homeowner -- is the kind of mayhem that process servers say they commonly confront as the messengers in our legal system. Although violence toward process servers has always been a problem, because they so often bring gloom to people's doorsteps, those in the industry claim that the risks of their profession have only gotten worse as the housing crisis has pushed 4 million mortgage-holders out of their homes.
Although there's no hard data on the rate of violent incidents between process servers who deliver foreclosure notices and homeowners who receive them, some who represent the servers say there's a strong consensus that the housing crisis has aggravated the situation. It's "an effect of this foreclosure environment that we're in right now," said Eric Vennes, second vice president of the National Association of Process Servers.
Foreclosure filings more than quadrupled between 2006 and 2010, skyrocketing from 718,000 to 2.88 million nationwide, according to online foreclosure marketplace RealtyTrac.
"With the housing meltdown, the amount of process served has greatly increased," said Lance Randall, president of the Florida Association of Professional Process Servers. "It would be safe to associate the increase of attacks with the service processing on the foreclosure market."
'It was Like He had Rabies'
One process server who's observed an increase is William Greenberg, who's delivered foreclosure paperwork for 25 years. He reports being physically attacked by an angry homeowner this year -- in Florida, a state especially hard-hit by the housing downtown. The property owner, an attorney, knocked him to the ground, grabbed his neck and ripped off his server badge after he tried to present him with foreclosure documents, Greenberg said.
"It scared the hell out of me," the 60-year-old added. "I didn't know what he was going to do. It was like he had rabies."
Greenberg, who serves documents in the counties of Palm Beach, Broward and Miami-Dade, said that because of the foreclosure epidemic such incidents are much more common than they used to be. He said that he serves "10 times" as much foreclosure paperwork now than he used to.
When Florida foreclosure filings reached their peak in 2009 they were close to seven times as high as they had been in 2006, rising from 75,000 to 517,000, according to RealtyTrac. It reports that the rate in Florida is still three times as high as it was six years ago.
But Greenburg said that the sky-high number of foreclosures isn't the sole reason behind the rising aggression that he sees toward process servers. He thinks that borrowers are also generally more hostile than they used to be.
"Now it's different. Now they are pissed off," he said. "They're looking at us as if we're the ones that are the problem."
Indeed, borrowers are more likely to push back now, suggests research by Michael J. Seiler, chairman of Real Estate and Economic Development at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Va. He co-authored two studies that explore borrower sentiment in the wake of the housing collapse and they found that Wall Street bailouts, lenders' unwillingness to modify distressed loans, and overall mistrust stemming from the financial crisis have made borrowers more resistant to foreclosure. Seiler said that he could "definitely understand why" that might have an impact on process servers.
"As the economy continues to tank, unemployment remains high and the housing market fails to recover, homeowners' patience will continue to wane," said Seiler. "Mortgage default is a major psychological event for a homeowner."
A 'Noble Profession'
While many might view process servers as tools of an unscrupulous and uncaring mortgage industry, process servers see themselves as integral to a fair legal system. They argue that the notices they serve -- while not good news -- are often necessary to provide people with information they need to defend themselves.
"It's a noble profession," said Vennes. "We're protecting citizens' constitutional rights."
In a foreclosure, the paperwork that servers deliver include a notice of default, a notice of trustee sale (describing when a home is scheduled for auction) and a notice of eviction. In states where judges rule on a foreclosure case, process servers also deliver summonses and foreclosure complaints which inform borrowers when they may appear in court to defend themselves.
Noble or not, some "are not angels" when it comes to the way they serve a legal notice, observed Jim Angleton, owner of Florida lender AEGIS FinServ Corp. "Some of them will just drive by a house and throw it at the front door." Such shoddy service has prompted some borrowers to sue process servers because, depending on state law, servers are required to either post a notice on a recipient's door or personally hand-deliver paperwork. But Angleton agreed with others in the industry that there's been a "tremendous spike in violent, adverse actions" against process servers in Florida since the financial meltdown.
'I've Only had a Gun Pulled on Me Twice'
Crystal Pilant, a process server in southern Idaho, says that she often visits farms that have been in families for generations. Though she said "I've only had a gun pulled on me twice," she estimated that dogs are set upon her "three to four times a month." Pilant (pictured above) carries dog treats in defense.
Process server Steve Yahnke (pictured below) took a less conciliatory approach when, he said, a burly homeowner being served with foreclosure paperwork in DuPage County, Ill., charged him with a tire iron in 2008.
"I produced my gun, and I started backing down the driveway, and he kept coming. But he was swinging," Yahnke said. The homeowner didn't stop, Yahnke said, until he pointed at the ground and told the property owner: "That's where you're going to die."
In some states, process servers may obtain a permit to carry a concealed weapon, but unlike law officers, most states don't regard the threat of violence against a process server as a felony. Florida, Illinois and California are the only exceptions, said Kimberly Faber, a spokeswoman for ServeNow, an advocacy group for process servers.
But to avoid interrupting their workdays, many servers don't even bother reporting such incidents, industry leaders say, while those who do often don't press charges.
Greenberg said that he didn't press charges against his assailant because he "didn't want to make the [borrower's] day any worse." Yahnke said he didn't take his assailant to court because he felt pity for the man, who, according to Yahnke, said he wanted to die at the time of the incident.
In fact, the only process server interviewed by AOL Real Estate who has actually pressed charges against a purported attacker is Root, in the backhoe incident.
"They think we're taking their house," Root said of homeowners who get angry when they are served. "We have nothing to do with it."
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