Attorney Anthony Trujillo sits at his desk overlooking the Pacific Ocean, clicking through hundreds of files on his computer. Each relates to his late friend and client, Larry Delassus, who died of heart failure in a Torrance courtroom in December as he sat in a wheelchair watching Trujillo argue a negligence and discrimination case on his behalf against banking giant Wells Fargo.
Now, Trujillo and Delassus' close friend Debbie Popovich say they will file a wrongful death claim in April against Wells Fargo and its tax service provider, CoreLogic. (CoreLogic was listed as First American Real Estate Tax Service in court documents until recently.)
On March 21, Trujillo will request an extension in his discrimination case from Superior Court Judge Laura C. Ellison, who had tentatively sided with Wells Fargo the day before Delassus collapsed in her courtroom. The tragic events set off a storm of complaints against Wells Fargo and the judge when L.A. Weekly published its article “Wells Fargo Typo Victim Dies in Court.” On April 18, Popovich will ask a probate judge to name her the special administrator of Delassus' modest estate, so someone can act on his behalf.
Trujillo is not harboring any delusions about the difficulty he faces in pursuing a wrongful death suit against the banking giant. He'll need to prove that Wells Fargo's negligence exacerbated Delassus' illness — a rare blood disorder called Budd-Chiari syndrome — causing Delassus the stress that led to his December death in the courtroom.
“I know in reality it's gonna be hard as hell to get this wrongful death case through the court system,” Trujillo says. “They are gonna say, 'Causation isn't there, there's no way this caused him to die,' but that's for them to figure out and for me to go ahead and do.”
A disabled Navy veteran who was in and out of the hospital, Delassus began receiving notices in March of 2009 stating that he was delinquent on Los Angeles County property taxes on his home at 320 Hermosa Beach Avenue, unit 105.
The bank was wrong — Delassus was paid ahead by nearly six months. For nearly a year, Delassus fought Wells Fargo, unaware that the bank was relying on a typo and that his neighbor owed the back taxes.
According to court documents, First American Real Estate Tax Service had assigned an incorrect “parcel number” to Delassus' condo that was off by two digits — and was actually his neighbor's parcel number.
The typo was copied by Wells Fargo, which paid the property taxes to keep Delassus' mortgage afloat, then hounded him for a $13,361.90 reimbursement he didn't owe. The bank then wrongfully doubled Delassus' mortgage payments from $1,237.69 to $2,429.13, to recoup the $13,361.90. Delassus, living on a $1,655-a-month check, couldn't begin to meet the vastly increased mortgage. He stopped paying his mortgage while demanding answers.
In 2010, his friend and pro bono attorney Trujillo discovered the tiny typo that had upended Delassus' quiet life.
Under pressure from Trujillo, Wells Fargo finally admitted its error — yet foreclosed on Delassus in July of 2011 for falling behind on his mortgage. He was forced to move out of his condo and into an assisted-living facility, followed by a residential-care facility.
Trujillo and Delassus sued Wells Fargo just before it foreclosed, claiming fraud, negligence, discrimination and wrongful foreclosure. For nearly two years leading up to the foreclosure, Wells Fargo repeatedly failed to tell Delassus how much he owed in late mortgage payments and fees to stay in his home.
Wells Fargo finally informed him on January 25, 2011 that he'd have to pay the bank $337,250.40 to save his home — and that the huge sum was due the very next day.
Wells Fargo attorney Robert Bailey of law firm Anglin Flewelling Rasmussen Campbell and Trytten LLP requested that the suit be thrown out by Judge Ellison, arguing in court documents: “Plaintiff brings this damages action against Wells Fargo in an effort to recover money for fraud, negligence, breach of the implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing, unjust enrichment, and unfair business practices. None of these claims can withstand scrutiny and Wells Fargo is entitled to summary judgment.”[
Since the story of Delassus' collapse in Ellison's court went viral, many critics have vowed to close their accounts at Wells Fargo. A petition was created online at whitehouse.gov asking the Obama administration to “vindicate Wells Fargo victim Larry Delassus' death.”
Trujillo recalls how, at first, he believed that Wells Fargo and First American Real Estate Tax Service “were just stupid and had bad customer service.” Now, Trujillo says he believes that Wells Fargo and First American Real Estate Tax Service knowingly defrauded the chronically ill man.
“I wrote three letters to the president [of Wells Fargo] – long letters. Why in the world they were so intent on ignoring us? I don't think it was a typo. I've said in my pleadings that I think it was fraud.”
Trujillo says that his planned wrongful death lawsuit will claim that fraudulent behavior by the bank resulted both in Delassus' death and in a profit for Wells Fargo.
Popovich, who befriended Delassus after he moved to the assisted-living facility where she lives, spent many late nights talking to him about the loss of his home. She agrees with Trujillo. “There is no way that it was an accident,” Popovich says. “You just don't take advantage of people that have worked hard, and Larry had a lot invested in that house. It's pretty ruthless, you know.”
In a new statement provided to the Weekly, Wells Fargo pointed to First American Real Estate Tax Service/CoreLogic as having made the error that launched the tragic series of events: “Wells Fargo received inaccurate information that led to a tax overcharge.”
The bank stated, “When that mistake was discovered, we reversed all of the charges and as the court ruling stated 'put him in the same or better position prior to the error.'”
Other disabled homeowners are stepping forward to criticize Wells Fargo for its handling of their mortgages, including Harolyn Rhue of Altadena. Disabled decades ago by a head trauma, Rhue has difficulty speaking but is fighting to remain in her already-foreclosed home of ten years.
Carlos Marroquin, a representative from Occupy Fights Foreclosures — a branch of Occupy L.A. — claims that Rhue faced insurmountable red tape and bureaucracy after falling behind on her mortgage when her fixed income could not keep up with her ever-increasing adjustable-rate loan. He says Wells Fargo disregarded evidence from Rhue's doctor that her health would suffer greatly if she were kicked out.
“I can't leave,” Rhue haltingly tells the Weekly. “Where will I go? I have nowhere to go. I'm very scared.”
“Hopefully we can help other people out there,” says Popovich. “A lot of the people that have been taken advantage of are elderly and disabled, which is exactly what happened in Larry's case.”
Trujillo is now working on contingency for Delassus's estate, meaning that if he wins he will recoup his fees. But both he and Popovich say their driving motivation is to establish justice for Larry Delassus and others like him.
“I'm not gonna walk away,” says Trujillo. “I'm not letting them get away with it.”
See also: Wells Fargo Typo Victim Dies in Court
Reach the writer on Twitter at @jessicapauline.