R.I.P. Judge Arthur Schack

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Arthur Schack, who passed away on May 2nd, aged 71,was nothing short of a mensch which, in Yiddish, is an honorific not bestowed lightly. His life was a testament to compassion; evidenced during his sixteen years on the bench in Brooklyn's State Supreme Court and, in particular, as crusader for the rights of homeowners facing foreclosure. Schack was among a minuscule number of judges who never bought into the notion of simply rubber-stamping evictions.

Quoted in the New York Times he expressed his conviction:

If you are going to take away someone's house, everything should be legal and correct... I'm a strange guy -- I don't want to put a family on the street unless it's legitimate.

Arthur Schack started calling the foreclosure industry's bluff back in 2007 when the eviction hammer began targeting homes in many of Brooklyn's working-class, largely minority, neighborhoods. Snooping around property data bases he noticed that what was needed to make an eviction case - the proper documents - simply were not there.

To plaintiff's lawyers his demands were simple: You want to evict this family? Show me the paperwork -- original mortgage and note, an unbroken title chain -- proof that you actually have an ownership interest in the home. When some defendants - dazed and confused homeowners - didn't bother to show up to defend themselves in court, Schack did it for them.

A particular nemesis came in the guise of Stephen J Baum whose notorious NY law firm, a/k/a "foreclosure mill," made regular appearances in Schack's Brooklyn courtroom. To say the proceedings were "contentious" was an understatement of titanic proportions. It was more like a cage match between legal/evil Jokers and a gavel-wielding Batman.

In one foreclosure case he called Baum's filings, "so incredible, outrageous, ludicrous and disingenuous that they should have been authored by the late Rod Serling," with an obvious nod to the classic, Twilight Zone. In another case involving an improper mortgage assignment Shack pointed out with obvious delight, "Steven J. Baum PC appears to be operating in a parallel mortgage universe, unrelated to the real universe."

It wasn't as if Schack had developed any new revolutionary theories of law, he simply applied those laws that were already on the books; overlooked by the courts in the wake of Wall Street's feeding frenzy that captured millions of mortgages, churned them around, then spit them out as securities to be peddled off to unwary investors. During the churning process critically important documents seemed to disappear or reemerge as fraudulent paper signed off by make-believe "robo-signers."

During the first seven months of 2008, Shack refused to allow 13 out of 14 foreclosures, dismissing twelve cases outright. By 2009, he had tossed nearly half of the foreclosures brought before his bench. By leveling the judicial playing field he earned the respect and approbation of struggling homeowners nationwide. For the already bailed-out Big Bankers looking for the double dip Shack was a pest who stood between them and the spoils of their scorched earth foreclosure war.

Unpretentious to a fault, Schack ducked and parried any criticisms from the Mega-Bankers and while some of his decisions were reversed on appeal, he stuck to his guns, telling the New York Times:

I'm the little guy in Brooklyn who doesn't belong to their country clubs, what can I tell you? I won't accept their comedy of errors.

Like the best of jurists Schack could turn a phrase or find an appropriate literary (or cinematic) allusion to sprinkle in with decisions. In a 2007 case involving Deutsche Bank and Goldman Sachs where both institutions had done an Abbott and Costello, losing track of documents they had passed back and forth, Schack took a cue from the Capra classic, It's A Wonderful Life.

Lenders should not lose sight that they are dealing with humanity, not with Mr. Potter's 'rabble' and 'cattle'. Multi-billion dollar corporations must follow the same rules in the foreclosure actions as the local banks, savings and loan associations or credit unions, or else they have become the Mr. Potters of the 21st century.

Arthur Schack was moved by the trials and tribulations of ordinary folk; views fired in the crucible of experience: first as a Social Studies teacher at Bay Ridge High School, then as a chapter head for United Federation of Teachers, walking the picket line in the 1970's; a period when city employees were under the gun by City Hall cost cutters.

Looking for some financial security he applied to Brooklyn Law School.

We're lucky he made that decision. Anyone who's gone through a foreclosure - or may face one in the future -- owes a debt of gratitude to the little judge from Brooklyn.

Arthur Schack was clearly on the side of the angels which, if you believe in this sort of thing, is probably where he's now holding court.

Footnote: 2011 was a bad year for the Baum law firm. The Department of Justice and NY Attorney General held the firm's feet to the fire to the tune of 6 million dollars in fines but the coup de grace was delivered by New York Times columnist, Joe Nocera, who revealed that firm employees had mocked the homeless at an annual Halloween soiree. The joke, however, was on Baum who was forced to shutter the firm.

Joel Sucher is a writer/producer with Pacific Street Films; currently completing a documentary, Foreclosure's Harvest of Shame. He's also written extensively on foreclosure issues for publications that include American Banker, In These Times,
and Huffington Post.