Nicholson NYS Foreclosure Bar

Yolande Nicholson, Foreclosure Defense Lawyer, Challenges Corruption in the Courts

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I recently met with Yolande Nicholson, a longtime lawyer and Brooklyn resident, who has been working as a lawyer in New York for almost thirty years and was a part of the first wave of black lawyers working on Wall Street. Yolande exudes warmth and kindness, and it was a pleasure to speak with her about her youth and time in college, which she thoroughly enjoyed, as well as the current state of foreclosure defense work, the area in which she now practices law.

Born in Grenada, Nicholson and her family moved to Brooklyn when she was a teenager. Being an immigrant is a significant part of Nicholson’s life. She brought up multiple times in our conversation the difference between the Grenada and the United States, where she believes racism is much more ingrained in the psyche of the nation. Once in Brooklyn she attended Wingate High School in the 70s, where she was ushered into honors classes and graduated early, at age 17. She then attended Southern Methodist University in Texas. She remembers her time at both Wingate and Southern Methodist University fondly due to her love of academic work. Southern Methodist University in particular was a dream come true for Nicholson. It had green lawns, citadels, and libraries that made it feel like an American college experience right out of the movies, and she found a mentor there in the head of the political science department, Dr. James Gerhardt. In addition to supporting her academically, Gerhardt was someone Nicholson felt she could go to for genuine care and support. Nicholson told me about one particular instance in which a car full of white teenagers drove past her and called her the n-word. The verbal assault was one of Nicholson’s first major experiences with racism, and it left her physically ill and unable to complete school work for a period of time. In the aftermath, she relayed the experience to Gerhardt, who she trusted. He granted her extensions on her schoolwork whereas other professors would have been less sympathetic.

Throughout high school and college, Nicholson planned on becoming a journalist. However, her parents had different plans and urged her to become a lawyer. She spent a year after college resisting her parents’ wishes, but eventually gave in and began law school in 1986 at Columbia University. After law school, Nicholson was hired as a corporate finance attorney at Cleary, Gottlieb, Steen & Hamilton as a part of the first wave of Wall Street associates of color, a result of pressure from the bar to diversify law practices on Wall Street. This was the start of a two decade-long stint as a corporate lawyer, during which she lived in Flatbush and raised her son. The neighborhood was a welcoming retreat from the offices where she worked, which were full of white men who condescended to Nicholson and called into question the quality of her work. A saving grace amid the racism and sexism were the few men who mentored Nicholson and stood up to her abusive co-workers.

Nicholson was not destined to stay on Wall Street forever. In the early 2000s she began working for the Bedford Stuyvesant Restoration Corporation, and then when the recession hit, she established her own practice specializing in foreclosure defense. In 2011, she helped to establish the New York State Foreclosure Defense Bar, a cooperative of attorneys who share cases and advocate for changes in foreclosure policy. This is the path Nicholson took to where she is now, fighting uphill battles to help people beat illegal, fraudulent, or at the very least, deceitful, foreclosure attempts. By her own account, the court itself is stacked against people of color facing foreclosure. “There is a Jim Crow standard in law,” she says. “Houses are considered a precious asset unless you are a black or brown person who has fallen into debt,” Nicholson says. This is the opposite of the attitude Nicholson observed in her years on Wall Street, where she saw Fortune 500 companies fall behind on their payments all the time. The response to these defaults? Always extra time to come up with the money, and lenience. Nicholson is clear on the color lines that foreclosure follows. “Foreclosure is a quiet backlash against black gains of ownership. It’s an attack on black ownership.” Looking back on the progression of attacks against black home ownership that Nicholson has lived through gives her significant pause. “When I was young I felt very optimistic. Work was being done to end redlining and I felt true advances were being made. Redlining was exclusion. Foreclosure, on the other hand, is taking. Stealing. It’s aggressive and sinister, like what happened to Native Americans.”

Nicholson says that in the past five years especially, the courts have become hostile towards defendants in foreclosure cases, causing a drastic decline in home ownership for people of color. By Nicholson’s account, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, two organizations founded to encourage home ownership, have had illegal, private meetings with administrators of the court to encourage the courts to change their practices. Special housing courts were set up with appointed judges favorable to the real estate industry. Before this happened there was discourse in foreclosure proceedings. Now the courts decide these cases in summary proceedings. And when it comes to homeowners who are facing fraudulent claims on their property, the courts have decided that there is no avenue for inquiring into the actions of those trying seize properties.

One of the reasons the courts’ behavior is especially infuriating is that it runs in opposition to standing legislation which calls for settlement conferences to restructure loans. While the the illegal meetings between Fannie, Freddie, and the court administrators explain some of the courts’ behavior in opposition to the bill, it doesn’t explain all of it. Nicholson observes that there is a code of silence and wishes she could know all of the reasons the special courts are undermining the law. Some of the housing court judges routinely violate the law.

Nicholson was also very concerned that this attitude to foreclosure is not only reducing home ownership among people of color, but killing the foreclosure defense practice itself. While Nicholson made it clear that she is not going anywhere, she says many of her fellow foreclosure defense lawyers have left the profession due to courts’ bias against foreclosure victims that has made it almost impossible to win cases. Furthermore, there is already a dearth of lawyers interested in taking on foreclosure cases because the majority of potential foreclosure victims are middle income people with financial problems, which makes for an unattractive payout for most lawyers. While there are some legal resources for low income people, the wealthy can pay their own way and wear down the defendants simply by persisting in legal proceedings; these middle class people facing foreclosure have a hard time finding an attorney who will represent them. It is telling that the New York State Foreclosure Defense Bar was founded in part to simply identify lawyers who do foreclosure defense work.

This dire state of affairs has not left Nicholson without the ability to dream. When asked what the next five years would be like if they were the best five years of her life, she responded that first, the United States would decide that home ownership is a constitutional right. Second, she would have grandchildren. Finally, the NAACP would take up the issue of foreclosure. For now, she continues her work in her downtown Brooklyn office, which looks out onto the Kings County Supreme Court, or what she refers to as “the crime scene.”

– Jessica Wachtler

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