Judge Mitchell Hoffman is a Lake County Circuit Judge, presently serving in the Chancery Court. One of the areas of law that he deals with in Chancery Court is mortgage foreclosures, which has been a matter of concern since the Great Recession. As the mortgage foreclosure crisis grew, it became apparent that additional resources would be needed to assist the growing number of homeowners facing a foreclosure. Two programs that were developed to help these litigants were the Mortgage Foreclosure Help Desk and the Foreclosure Mediation Program.

Before he became a lawyer, Judge Hoffman has long had an interest in the environment, having grown up spending time in northern Wisconsin, Minnesota and Canada. After finishing college with a liberal arts degree, he entered law school with the hope of becoming an environmental lawyer. Upon graduation, he found that such jobs were scarce and obtained a position with a Chicago law firm where he gained extensive courtroom experience. Judge Hoffman later found an opportunity to practice environmental law as an attorney with the Lake County States Attorney’s civil division.

As an attorney with the States Attorney’s civil division, Judge Hoffman handled many different environmental issues such as land use, zoning, natural resources and landfills. This was at a time when there was an increase of development in Lake County. Judge Hoffman participated in many hearings regarding landfill sites in the county. Eventually Lake County came up with SWALCO, a plan for solid waste management that became a model for other municipalities. One example of environmentally successful zoning in Lake County is the site of the headquarters for Grainger near Mettawa, which can be classified as performance zoning. Grainger’s site is not visible from the road and negotiations for its zoning also resulted in a donation of 250 acres to the Lake Forest Preserve District. Judge Hoffman also served as the Chief of the States Attorney’s civil division and enjoyed the variety of work in that office.

Judge Hoffman was appointed an Associate Judge in 2001. He started out in Traffic Court as do all new judges. There, he presided over traffic tickets as well as ordinance violations from municipalities. From there, Judge Hoffman moved to the Lake County Courthouse in Waukegan and heard PTR (petitions to revoke probation) and DUI cases. Judge Hoffman later moved to the Chancery court. Chancery is similar to the old equity courts, where cases such as mortgage foreclosure, land use, commercial and employment law and environmental enforcement cases are brought. Chancery court allows more flexibility and creativity in crafting legal solutions.

As part of his duties as a Chancery Court Judge, Judge Hoffman presided over mortgage foreclosure cases. At about the same time he came to Chancery Court, the Great Recession had not yet hit. In 2006, there were about 1,100 foreclosures pending in Lake County. As the recession spread, the foreclosures increased to about 10,500 cases in 2010. The numbers have subsequently declined to about 3,000 pending foreclosure cases in Lake County this year. It is interesting to note that when Judge Hoffman started in Chancery, he had one court call for half a morning per week for mortgage foreclosures. Because of the great increase in the number of mortgage foreclosures, there are now 3 judges handling foreclosure cases for numerous calls per week.

What is a mortgage foreclosure? This is an action on a debt. Specifically, someone borrowed money that they promised to pay back; this is the note. Additionally, the borrower signs a mortgage to buy a house that essentially states that the borrower promises to pay the debt and if he or she does not pay, the bank holding the mortgage can then ask the Court to determine money is owed to the bank and the house can then be sold to pay the debt. Judge Hoffman has found that many homeowners involved in a foreclosure action are intimidated and confused and do not know what to do. Many just bury their head in the sand and try to ignore what is happening until it is too late to fix the situation. It is better to be proactive when facing a foreclosure and try to get help from an attorney or a housing counselor.

As the number of mortgage foreclosures dramatically increased during the Great Recession, it was apparent to those familiar with the foreclosure process, that many of the homeowners were ”pro se” (represented themselves without an attorney) and were in need of some kind of help. A booklet entitled “A Guide to Mortgage Foreclosure” was given to such individuals. Additionally, a Help Desk for mortgage foreclosure homeowners was formed by approximately 50 volunteer Lake County Bar Association attorneys. These attorneys agreed to be trained and would volunteer to be present at the foreclosure court calls to be available to pro se homeowners to educate these litigants about the confusing and intimidating foreclosure process. These sessions are helpful so that people can understand their rights and what steps they can take in a foreclosure situation.

Another innovation in Lake County is the Mortgage Foreclosure Mediation Program. One difficulty that became evident as the number of foreclosure cases increased was that many people wanted to try and modify their mortgage so that they could stay in their home. Some people who might have initially been able to afford their original mortgage, might later find themselves in changed circumstances (losing a job and income or sustaining high medical debt) where they could no longer afford that mortgage payment, but desired to stay in their home and could make a lower payment. There are ways that banks can modify these mortgage loans such as reducing the interest rate, waiving fees or penalties or forgiving a portion of the principal. Moreover, some banks were required to make loan modifications as a condition of bail-out money received; other banks found it made good business sense to modify some of these mortgage loans. However, many individuals found it impossible to get a firm answer from their bank about a modification of their mortgage loan.

The Mediation Program was developed to help streamline and resolve the loan modification process. It is important to note that not everyone is eligible for a loan modification. The Mediation Program involves mandatory housing counseling for homeowners. Experienced housing counselors help homeowners seeking modification put together the “loss mitigation “packet required by the bank for a modification request. There are 24 trained attorney mediators available for this program who sit down with bank representatives and the homeowners to go over their case and obtain a clear answer from the bank regarding a modification. Such a process is invaluable to homeowners in crisis of losing their home in that homeowners can know with certainty whether they will be able to stay in their homes or will have to leave their home and move on.