By Rhony Laigo
Viken Melkonian is an engineer of Armenian descent. Not only does he have a full time job, he used to own and operate a tire shop, selling and fixing tires in Grenada Hills. He also had a home in Northridge he bought in 2005 where he and his wife wouldâ€™ve nurtured their second child as she was on the way.
Then the U.S. housing crisis came crashing down. Melkonian â€˜s house that was worth $690,000 was reduced to $400,000. Despite that, however, he never missed a payment on his property, paying as much as $1,900 for his first and second mortgage. Not until he was introduced to a fellow Armenian, who was selling a loan litigation program for the Bander Law Firm.
He said he didnâ€™t know anything about loan litigation and how it would help him with his current mortgage. But the Armenian countryman was a â€œgood salesman,â€ Â Melkonian told Balita on Thursday by phone. Melkonian was a client of celebrity lawyer Atty. Mark Geragos, who instructed him to call the author and tell his story because we have been investigating Bander and his alleged malpractices for the past three years.
According to Melkonian , his countryman, who he remembers only by the name of Ara, told him that the Bander Law Firm has â€œdone so many settlementsâ€ and that the â€œBander Law Firm was a â€˜greatâ€™ law firm. Melkonian said he was told that the loan litigation program was â€œnot a scam.â€
That was in December 2008. â€œIn short, I was sold,â€ Melkonian said. â€œSo I went to the offices of the Bander Law Firm hoping for a principal reduction on my mortgage.â€
He said when he fi rst came to the offices of the Bander Law Firm (BLF), he was â€œseminaredâ€ with an hour-long Powerpoint presentation on the supposed â€œunfair lending practicesâ€ by the banks. He said that that was when he met Atty. Joel Bander, who in 2008, was supposedly the principal and 100% owner of the Bander Law Firm. Melkonian recalled Bander telling him â€œWeâ€™ll take care of you.â€
Melkonian said he signed up for the program and paid a down payment of $3,500. His retainer fee amounted to $8,500. â€œBut it was very clear that it was for mortgage litigation. They (BLF) said that theyâ€™re gonna sue the banks. It was for loan litigation, not loan modification.â€ Â He added that he was told by BLF attorneys that â€œwhen we sue them, the banks Â (Melkonian â€˜s lenders) will settle because theyâ€™ll lose as they have broken so many laws.â€ Melkonian also said that he was advised that he will soon have to â€œstop making payments to his lenders (HSBC for his first mortgage and Countrywide for the second)â€ when his case has been filed.
In the first week of January 2009, Â Melkonian said he received a copy of the firmâ€™s letter of demand to his lenders and was then told to stop making payments.
â€œI stopped making payments, but not after telling them (BLF) that I donâ€™t want this hurting my business .â€ Melkonian said that up to that point he had a credit rating of 790 and was doing good business with his newly-opened tire shop and did not want to ruin it.
A few weeks later, he said he received letters from his lenders about his non-payment, which he claimed to have forwarded it to the BLF. Another letter came but was instructed by the BLF to â€œjust send it to us.â€
In March 2009, he said he started getting worried. â€œI called their office and I demanded to speak to Bander to fi nd out whatâ€™s happening to my case.â€ Although he said that Bander didnâ€™t take his call, he was assured by someone that â€œtheyâ€™re working on my case.â€
In April, a Notice of Trustee Sale came in the mail. â€œThe banks were going to sell my house,â€ Melkonian said â€œso I called again and demanded a meeting with Bander.â€ He said by this time his lenders have already reported him to the credit bureaus.
Finally, he said he was given an appointment but went with a few others that caught Bander off guard. Melkonian recalled Bander telling him, â€œWhy are you here with a group? Are you going to attack me?â€ Melkonian said he and other family others were becoming suspicious but that the lawyer in Bander convinced Melkonian that everything was alright.
â€œHe told me not to worry and that they were working on it. I was thinking that since he is a lawyer, he knows what he was talking about. He was able to calm me down.â€ He added that Bander told him that the Trustee Sale was â€œnot validâ€ Â and that the boxes in the form â€œwere not checked properly and the Trustee Sale was not filed properly.â€
A few days later, Melkonian said he received a second Trustee Sale Notice, which he sent to the BLF. He said a certain William Geoghegan, said to be the new BLF director of client services at that time, told him that â€œwe know about itâ€ and that â€œI will talk to Joel to file the lawsuit.â€
By this time, all $8,500 due to the BLF have been paid for. He said that the notice said that in July, the actual process of Trustee Sale would take place.
Melkonian said that he was then asked to come to the BLF office for a â€œpredatory lending interviewâ€ conducted by a certain Ruth Garcia, who he said, â€œasked for all my financial information which they already have.â€ After the interview, Melkonian said he was told that his case will be filed in August. He said he then went to San Francisco for his anniversary even when the Trustee Sale Notice said that his house will be sold on August 6.
Much to his surprise, he said that on August 5, he said he got a call from BLF and told him that his lenders â€œdo not want to negotiate with us. What do you think about filing for bankruptcy?â€ His response was, â€œAbsolutely not,â€ and asked Â â€œWhatever happened to my case? Why not file the lawsuit?â€
He said he was told that there was not enough time to do that. He said he told them he couldnâ€™t file for bankruptcy because he was still in San Francisco. But what confused him more, Melkonian said, was when he was told â€œDonâ€™t worry. We will take care of that.â€
On August 6, he said the BLF called him back and that â€œwe ended up filing for an emergency bankruptcy for me. We already fi led the paper work.â€ This happened even while he was still in San Francisco, he said, that led him to now believe that he was duped.
â€œI knew it. Iâ€™ve been scammed,â€ Melkonian said. â€œSo, I started calling my lenders instead on August 7 only to be told that they never heard anything from my lawyers in the past six months. They told me that there was just one initial communication until the day of the Trustee Sale.â€
He recalled telling his lenders that â€œI was willing to pay what I owed them, which I think was $30,000. But that the
house had been soldâ€¦.so I went berserk.â€
Three days later, on August 10, Melkonian went back to the BLF office and met with yet another lawyer, Timothy Umbreit, who told him that was he was the one who filed for his emergency bankruptcy but â€œwho had the gall to tell me that I needed to pay $2,000 more to the firm.â€
Melkonian said he inquired how they were able to fi le for bankruptcy without his signature. He claimed that Umbreit told him â€œwe donâ€™t need your signature.â€
At this point, he said he demanded a refund as there was no litigation case filed on his behalf, but he still ended up signing a dismissal of his supposed bankruptcy petition on the advice of another lawyer.
Melkonian told Balita that not only did he lose all $8,500 paid to the BLF, he lost his house and had to sell his business as he could no longer get a line of credit because of the bankruptcy dismissal.
Melkonian then proceeded to report his ordeal to the California State Bar to file a complaint against Bander and that
he also reported the BLF to the California Consumer Affairs and to the Better Business Bureau.