By Noreen Marcus, FloridaBulldog.org
Broward foreclosure Judge Andrea Gundersen is running for reelection with the motto “experience matters.”
Primary voters just have to figure out if her experience is good or bad. On Aug. 23 they’ll decide whether they want Gundersen, 66, to continue presiding over Broward County residential mortgage foreclosures.
They have the choice of replacing her with Lauren Alperstein, 38, a well-connected divorce and family lawyer from the prominent Boies Schiller Flexner law firm. Low-key, earnest and devoted to pro bono work, she’s nothing like the scrappy, folksy Gundersen.
Alperstein won the endorsement of the Sun Sentinel, Broward County’s dominant newspaper, and of five past presidents of the Florida Bar. Gundersen has the police and teachers’ unions, reliable vote-wranglers in Democratic Broward. Early voting begins Saturday.
Incumbency is powerful, but it leaves a paper trail. Gundersen’s includes some revealing reversals by her supervisors on the Fourth District Court of Appeal and an unfavorable watchdog report.
GUNDERSEN AND ‘ROBO-SIGNED’ DOCS
After she has been in Broward Circuit Court for almost six years, Gundersen’s track record is grist for accusations that she’s so biased toward lenders’ lawyers, she lets them turn fraudulent papers into foreclosure judgments.
Recently FHL surveyed about a half-dozen foreclosed homeowners and learned that nothing about dealing with Judge Gundersen has changed.
“The borrowers were very upset, they felt like they didn’t get fair and impartial treatment in her courtroom,” said FHL executive director Laura Wagner. “They didn’t feel like they had a fair shake at presenting their evidence.”
Asked by Florida Bulldog to delegate someone to speak for her, Gundersen tapped Kathleen Angione, a Pompano Beach lawyer who represents clients in foreclosure court.
LAWYER: JUDGE FAVORS BORROWERS
Angione said she hasn’t seen Gundersen, a judge of “honor and integrity,” favor lenders.
“I would say if there’s a slant, it’s probably in favor of borrowers,” she said. The evidence: They’re entitled to only 30 days to move out of foreclosed properties, but Gundersen has a policy of giving them 60 days.
Angione was “disappointed” that borrowers and their lawyers wrongly target Gundersen, but said she understands the impulse. “It’s easier to blame someone else than to face the serious financial situation they’re in.”
She would not discuss the FHL report, except to imply that a different judge made some of the rulings ascribed to Gundersen.
Yet Wagner said that when the report was published last year, no one sought a correction. She said she stands by the report, which is based solely on foreclosure court filings in 2019 and 2020. Another judge might have started working on a foreclosure case in 2019, while Gundersen was still in family court, but her name was on the crucial ruling for the lender.
JUDGE’S FAMILY COURT PROBLEMS
During her first three years on the Broward Circuit Court bench, Gundersen handled divorce and child-custody cases. She was in familiar territory, having practiced family law for 23 years.
Yet her treatment of some individuals in divorce and child-custody matters, especially those representing themselves, raises concerns about Gundersen’s understanding of and respect for due process and simple fairness.
At a meeting with the Sun Sentinel editorial board, Gundersen said she always shows “compassion within the bounds of the law.”
Her record suggests otherwise.
In the case of Boucher v. Warren, Gundersen dismissed a domestic violence injunction against the husband in a pending divorce case. Representing herself, the wife presented evidence that the husband vowed “to put bullets in her head” and stalked her with his car, driving menacingly near her.
N0 PROTECTION FOR STALKED WIFE
At the time of the injunction hearing, the husband was on probation for domestic violence. Gundersen said the criminal case covered that incident and the other threats were too remote in time or did not show the wife was in “imminent” danger, as required to justify the injunction.
“He didn’t charge her, he didn’t go after her, he didn’t scream at her, he didn’t confront her,” Gundersen said about the car stalking incident.
In fact, the husband “did scream something as he sped away,” the Fourth District opinion said. The appellate judges not only reversed Gundersen, they told her exactly what to do: Grant the injunction.
Westlaw legal research shows that Gundersen was reversed in 10 of the 61 cases in which she was appealed.
Some of the other errors the Fourth District called her on were: misapplying a statute of limitations to favor a lender; granting an ex-husband’s petition “with prejudice” (no do-over allowed) and prohibiting a hearing to show he cheated his ex-wife out of her share of the marital home; granting changes to a parenting plan that no one asked for; and, not letting a mother present her side of a child-custody case before ruling against her.
JUDGE SHOWS PIQUE, NOT MERCY
The reversals reflect concerns about Gundersen’s judicial demeanor, a constant source of complaints – almost always off the record – from lawyers who rely on her good graces to serve their clients and make a living. The judge has been known to assess attorney fees against the side that displeases her.
So it’s surprising that many lawyers have attached their names publicly to Alperstein’s, either through joining her 181-person host committee or by openly funding her campaign. A fair number of support personnel at the court are also among Alperstein’s 600 or so financial backers.
Gundersen seems to have no host committee and has far fewer public supporters. Among her dozen biggest, $1,000 contributors, none is a borrower lawyer. “I think I would have predicted that,” Wagner said.
Her critics say a Broward resident who’s about to lose their home – and isn’t a deadbeat – can expect no show of mercy from Gundersen. She thunders at and cuts off lawyers and non-lawyers who exceed their five-minute time limit at her busy motion hearings.
“I’ve seen her on the bench and I was stunned at her behavior, at how she treated people. It was appalling,” said a campaign consultant who spoke on condition of anonymity because of working on another, non-judicial race. The consultant isn’t advising Alperstein or Gundersen.
‘SHE JUST FOLLOWS THE LAW’
The consultant observed a Zoom hearing when Gundersen yelled at a young black woman who was trying to represent herself and save her home. “It was some of the most undignified behavior I’ve ever seen,” this observer said. “There’s no decorum.”
Speaking for Gundersen, Angione said she hasn’t seen the judge exhibit rude behavior and cautioned against confusing style with substance. “I think she just follows the law and wherever that falls is where it falls,” Angione said.
Only two of Gundersen’s Fourth District reversals involve foreclosure cases. The reason may be unrelated to her job performance, however. In order to mount an appeal, a borrower must put up a bond that is supposed to protect the lender’s interest in the house until the appellate court rules.
The judge sets the bond, which may be as high as the outstanding mortgage debt. A borrower who could find the money to pay the mortgage probably wouldn’t be in foreclosure in the first place.
“Judges know they won’t be appealed because the parties don’t have the money to pay the bond,” said a foreclosure defense lawyer who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation.