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Lawyer advises foreclosed clients to break back into their homes

Michael T. Pines, who was baseball legend Lenny Dykstra's attorney, admits to breaking into homes at least half a dozen times, leaving clients to squat while he defends their legal right to possession.

January 14, 2011|By Nate Jackson, Los Angeles Times
  • Attorney Michael Pines, shown with client Danielle Earl, believes breaking the law is necessary to force courts to examine how banks do business with distressed homeowners.
Attorney Michael Pines, shown with client Danielle Earl, believes breaking… (Brian van der Brug, Los Angeles…)

The Earls, all 11 of them, had been evicted from their Simi Valley home. Attorney Michael T. Pines pleaded with a Ventura County Superior Court judge to let the family back in.

Jim and Danielle Earl had fallen behind on their mortgage payments after a business reversal. But the six-bedroom house that they shared with their brood had already been sold to an investment company, Judge Barbara A. Lane pointed out. The eviction would stand.

Incensed, Pines vowed to hire a locksmith and enter the vacant house illegally.

"I'm going back there," Pines declared, gripping the lectern. "And I hope I get arrested."

"I certainly hope not," Lane shot back. "That is a blatant disregard of this court's order."

With Pines, the threat at the October hearing couldn't be written off as courtroom theatrics. The 58-year-old attorney admits to breaking into homes at least half a dozen times, including one before with the Earls, leaving the clients to squat in their homes while he defends their legal right to possession. His unconventional methods have gotten him fined by a judge in San Diego, arrested in Newport Beach and threatened with contempt — and jail — in Ventura.

More foreclosure cases are headed for court, housing experts and legal analysts say, as troubled homeowners run out of options and lenders pick up the pace of evictions. But they also note that people who want to stay in their homes have limited options in states such as California, where a lender can seize a house without a court order. That has prompted Pines to pursue some radical tactics and might cause others to imitate him — if he ever manages to win.

"Homeowners have the right to seek relief in court," said Boston lawyer Gary Klein, who has sued several banks over lending practices, but Pines' break-in strategy "ups the ante considerably."

Ventura lawyer Doug Michie said, "Most attorneys won't admit it, but they admire his convictions."

"I certainly don't have the courage to do what he's doing," Michie said. "I'm afraid of getting arrested."

Pines' methods are provoking plenty of criticism.

"This attorney violates the canons of professional ethics in advising clients to break the law," said George Lefcoe, a USC real estate law professor. "What [his clients] are doing on his advice is not only going to prove costly to them and completely futile, it could lead to dangerous altercations with the true owners and law enforcement officers."

A spokeswoman for the State Bar of California declined to comment when asked whether it was looking into Pines' actions, citing its policy of neither confirming nor denying pending investigations.

Pines has yet to wrest a house back. His most high-profile client, baseball legend Lenny Dykstra, took Pines' advice last July to move back into his foreclosed Thousand Oaks mansion against a bankruptcy judge's orders. That move, followed by a victory party at the estate, brought an order barring the former outfielder from the property. Dykstra fired Pines after one month and lost the house in a foreclosure sale in November.

Pines, who has been a lawyer for more than 30 years, said his path to foreclosure activism grew from his own troubles.

Several years ago, the Pennsylvania native abandoned his legal career to become a real estate broker specializing in distressed properties. Pines contends that he became a victim of mortgage rip-offs and the housing market crash, which led him to investigate what he describes as unethical lending practices. Pines said he was inspired by the tales that he heard to take on clients again in 2010.

Pines has at least six properties in foreclosure, owes banks more than $2 million and has filed for bankruptcy protection. The trustee is trying to sell Pines' law offices in Encinitas, Calif., because the attorney hasn't made loan payments in more than a year.

"I filed bankruptcy myself because I stopped paying," Pines said. "I followed my own advice. I said I'm not going to let the banks steal from me."

Danielle Earl said her lawyer's financial struggles make him a perfect candidate to represent people facing foreclosure.

"If you've got someone going through the exact same thing that you're going through, they would be doing more research and would be more knowledgeable because they're going through it too," Earl said.

Although Pines advises his clients not to pay their lenders, he wants to be paid.

"I tell my clients that if you're living in a house for free, you should be able to afford to pay a lawyer," Pines said, adding that he usually charges an hourly rate of $650. Pines said the Earls became his clients after they were referred to him by another attorney.

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