LAKEWOOD RANCH -- The Great Recession and the meltdown of the housing market in 2008 produced record-setting mortgage foreclosure rates and immeasurable human misery.
The misery continues today with an estimated 10 percent of mortgages in the Manatee-Sarasota in foreclosure.
In the 12th Judicial Circuit, covering Manatee, Sarasota, and DeSoto counties, a court-ordered program at Lakewood Ranch has tackled several thousand cases, and helped some homeowners stay in their homes, while expediting the foreclosure process in others.
"Any kind of resolution is helpful if the property owner is in litigation. It is helpful for the neighborhood, and it is helpful to the court in reducing the burden," said Greg Firestone, director of the USF Conflict Resolution Collaborative, which operates out of the Dooley Mack Building, 5804 Lakewood Ranch Blvd.
The Collaborative works in conjunction with the American Arbitration Association, and does not try to steer the outcome one way or the other, Firestone said.
"We don't track the result. We track only if there is an agreement," he said.
In 2011, the 12th Judicial Circuit Court referred 2,636 foreclosure cases to mediation.
When a foreclosure action is filed, the Collaborative is notified by the plaintiff.
"Then we reach out to the borrower. The borrower has only a limited time to opt for mediation," Firestone said.
The property owner can accept or decline going to mediation, but the opportunity to take the case before an impartial third party is limited.
A prior mediation program before USF came on the scene earlier this year was operated by the USF Conflict Resolution Collaborative in conjunction with the Collins Center for Public Policy.
In 2011, the program was able to successfully contact only 43 percent of borrowers, according to data provided by Firestone.
Of those contacted, 21 percent were scheduled for mediation. And of the foreclosures that went to mediation, 27 percent resulted in agreement.
"Our program had difficulty contacting borrowers as we often didn't get good contact information for borrowers from the plaintiffs. A large percentage of borrowers declined mediation, which was unfortunate as I believe mediation could have helped many of them," Firestone said.
The original mediation program grew out of a residential mortgage task force established by Florida Supreme Court Justice Peggy Quince.
Among those serving on the task force was Circuit Judge Lee Haworth of the 12th Judicial Circuit.
The outgrowth of the task force was that each of Florida's 20 judicial circuits was required to implement a managed mediation program, to help cope with the massive flood of foreclosures.
Justice Charles T. Canady subsequently shut downthe statewide program in December 2011, leaving it to each circuit to decide whether to offer a mediation program.
Officials in the 12th Judicial Circuit opted to keep a mediation program going, working through USF and the American Arbitration Association.
"The advantage of accepting mediation for the borrower is that it freezes the case. It stops the case from going into a summary judgment or final judgment. The property owner can delay transfer of title," Haworth said.
"That is an advantage for people who are serious about trying to save their homes," Haworth said.
With the change from The Collins Center to USF, the local mediation program was expanded to include any residential property, not just homesteaded property.
"We wanted to do whatever we could to save a property that could be saved and to process the others that couldn't," Haworth said.
Lakewood Ranch was chosen as the site for the mediation program because of its location, right on the Manatee-Sarasota county line off Interstate 75 and reasonably close to DeSoto County as well.
Even though Neal Communities recently purchased the Dooley Mack building and is moving its operation there this month, USF will remain a tenant on the ground floor.
Results of specific mediation cases are confidential, said Michael Belle, a Sarasota based attorney who has worked with many clients in foreclosure.
But he speaks highly of the local mediation program.
"The program that is set up here probably should be the benchmark for all of the mediation programs in the state," Belle said.
It provides an opportunity to resolve cases, and helped address a "complete overload of cases flooding in," Belle said.
"We are always happy when the homeowner can stay in their house," Firestone said. "The mediator promotes a confidential discussion between the parties. It would be a conflict to try to steer the results to an outcome one way or the other."
For more information, call 941-893-4944 or visit www.mediate.crc.usf.edu
James A. Jones Jr., East Manatee editor, can be contacted at 941-745-7021 or tweet @jajones1.