“I fight big banks” might be a winning phrase for politicians these days, but one San Leandro couple lives that fight every day — and has for the last six years.
Donna and Nuno Vieira, who live on Yaffe Drive with their 6-year-old son, Leo, purchased a home in Reno, Nevada in 2005. The purchase touched off a series of events that would see them take their legal battle to the Nevada Supreme Court, rally with other homeowners at a national conference and create a website that lets them network with others troubled by bank and mortgage lending practices.
According to the Vieiras, the mortgage loan they took out in 2005 with Wells Fargo was based on a fraudulent appraisal that inflated the property’s value by more than $200,000. The appraisal was ordered by the bank and determined the couple's mortgage, which they were eventually unable to pay, like tens of thousands of other homeowners across the country.
Two years later, and after a review appraisal determined that the original appraisal was inflated, the bank hadn’t taken any steps to help her family recover its losses, Donna said. So she took the issue to court.
“We were responsible homeowners,” she said. “We had no debts and were responsible spenders.” After what seemed like constant back and forth with Wells Fargo, and no progress to show for it, “We had to find a way to get back what we lost,” Donna said.
An investigation by the Nevada Attorney General’s Office followed the 2007 lawsuit and led to a complaint against the appraiser, Thomas J. Magee, by the Nevada Real Estate Division. The division alleged that Magee made "significant errors in the appraisal" and ordered Magee's license temporarily suspended as part of a settlement.
Nevertheless, a county court ruled against the Vieiras and dismissed the lawsuit in March 2009, citing lack of grounds.
The Vieiras said they were first late for their mortgage payment in September, 2009; Wells Fargo foreclosed on the home in June, 2010. Nuno, who is an appraiser himself, said the original home appraisal set him and his wife up for an unwieldy mortgage, and even though it was ruled fraudulent, the couple had no legal recourse.
Donna said she researched constantly to find ways to recover financial losses but was bounced from state regulators to federal regulators. They all said there were no rules they could enforce in the matter.
But Nuno and Donna were determined to carry on their fight and publicize it on their own (Nuno said they hired a lawyer at one point, but that the lawyer "dumped" them). Nuno set up a website, wellsfargomortgagefraud.com, chronicling the couple’s journey through foreclosure and court processes.
In March, Donna attended a homeowners’ rally in Washington, D.C., in hopes of expressing her family's concerns to attorneys general attending a national conference. A YouTube video captured Donna telling her story at the rally, surrounded by cheering supporters and cameramen.
Donna also made her presence known at the annual Wells Fargo Shareholders' Meeting on May 3 in San Francisco. She said she refused to leave the meeting and demanded that CEO John Stumpf admit to fraud and wrongful foreclosure in her case. Police eventually removed Donna from the meeting; she called it a “sad reality.”
“Instead of arresting homeowners who were trying to get the bank to do the right thing, [police] should be arresting the bank leadership for illegally foreclosing on so many families,” she said.
The couple also appealed the county court’s decision before taking their issue to the Nevada Supreme Court, where they are currently awaiting a ruling. Donna and Nuno said they are willing to take the issue all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court if necessary.
“Wells Fargo failed to detect that the mortgage loan was fraudulent, failed to notify us properly, and we feel, failed to work with us as we moved through the very confusing, very harsh legal process,” said Nuno. “Everything we’ve done we’ve had to do on our own, so when we see those commercials about big banks helping the common homeowner, we feel it’s pretty disingenuous.”
The Vieiras are hardly the only ones struggling to sort through problematic mortgage loans and foreclosures. Workshops hosted throughout the county, including one in Dublin last November, have been packed with attendees looking for free counseling.
Many homeowners can’t afford attorneys and, like the Vieiras, are wading through the morass alone. The website Nuno set up has been a useful way to connect with others in need of advice on navigating foreclosures, he said.
“We’ve had people from Florida, from Nevada, from California, from all over the U.S. visiting the site and emailing us to say the same thing about big banks wronging them or being outright unresponsive,” said Nuno. “It’s surprising to see all these people in need of support and no regulators able to help them.”
Besides losing their Nevada home, the appraisal the Vieiras say was fraudulent is still impacting the family. The couple says they cannot take advantage of lower interest rates or different mortgage structures on their San Leandro property because of a now tarnished credit history.
“Wells Fargo stripped away our financial safety,” said Nuno. “We are working longer hours and [will have] to work beyond our retirement ages to support our family and to rebuild our financial safety.”
Their legal fight put pressure not only on their finances but on the family itself, Donna said.
“Our son was less than 1 year old when Wells Fargo originated us a fraudulent mortgage loan; now, our son is 6 and a half years old,” said Donna. “We could have spent more time reading stories to our son, taking him to kids' soccer practices. Instead we have been spending a lot of our time researching cases and statutes to defend our rights.”
What little of the legal wrangling they have been able to share with their son, Donna said, has produced at least one small, beneficial side effect: “With all these documents and papers lying around for [our son], his reading comprehension has definitely gone up.”
Here are two housing rights agencies both for Alameda County and statewide: