Monday, December 19, 2005

The mortgage company is calling again

They call, like clockwork, twice a day when the monthly payment is more than two weeks late.

It is something I'd heard about, but never (thankfully) experienced in person until this year. But it only had to happen once for me to figure out the pattern. Now it's happening a second time.

What frosts me is the twice a day part: Do they think I get money in the morning and am debating, when the second call comes, whether to keep a roof over my family or go to the boats and play the slots? And why call on Sunday at all? It's not as if my bank is open (yes, I know some are experimenting with the idea, but mine is not); if I'd received money there would be no way to deposit it. Maybe the mortgage company is afraid that I'll drop their money in the collection basket at church.

I didn't come downtown this weekend to check the mail -- and it was just as well. Nothing came in. But that $100,000 check -- that I can't cash -- is still sitting in my desk.

It costs a lot to be broke in this country: The mortgage company will get an extra $45 from me as a late payment when the financial log jam finally breaks up. Late fees on credit cards are up to $39 a pop. And then there's interest -- the "finance charge." My finance charges this year could finance the family Christmas.

And there's nothing I am allowed to do about it except whine. You civilians out there, you may be wondering why I don't sue for overdue fees. My wife has asked, pointedly I think, though I may be oversensitive on the point, about this possibility. It's certainly not illegal: Abraham Lincoln did it.

But somewhere between Lincoln's time and the present defendants in fee cases figured out how to frustrate collections almost entirely: File a counterclaim for legal malpractice.

It does not matter that the claim for malpractice is not well-founded. It really may be a transparent litigation tactic. It may be entirely groundless. But it must be defended -- and that costs money. The lawyers suing for fees and hit with a malpractice counterclaim can either defend it personally -- and assume the (hopefully entirely theoretical) risk of a bad outcome and the very real costs of defense -- or tender it to the malpractice carrier. I pay thousands of dollars to obtain protection against malpractice claims, both for the benefit of clients -- for whom insurance provides a fund in the event I screw up -- and for the benefit of my family, who may as a result not be bankrupted by the costs of defense and indemnity.

But here's a secret about insurance companies you may not have picked up on while watching their commercials during the weekend football games: Insurance companies want to keep their premium dollars; they do not wish to pay them out to defend claims, even groundless ones. So legal malpractice carriers extract promises from lawyers that we will not sue for our fees. It's nothing quite as crude as that, of course, the questionnaire merely asks whether we do or do not sue for fees. There are two possible answers, but only one if you want the policy to actually issue.

Judging from the docket in the Chancery Court, the mortgage companies are not similarly restrained. Neither are the credit card companies. Isn't that a surprise? So, for now, the mortgage company will keep calling.... What a miserable business this is!

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