Disabled Hermosa Beach veteran dies in court fighting foreclosure
Larry Delassus, a 62-year-old disabled veteran, died in court last month while continuing a three-year battle against Wells Fargo for foreclosing on his Hermosa Beach home – a battle he had to fight even though court records show he paid his mortgage two months ahead of schedule and also paid his property taxes in advance.
He suffered heart failure Dec. 19 while his attorney argued against a tentative ruling issued by a Torrance Courthouse judge siding with Wells Fargo.
Wells Fargo called Delassus’s death “tragic,” but it was Wells Fargo that put Delassus into default when the bank mistakenly thought Delassus was behind in his property taxes. In fact, the bank was using an incorrect assessor’s parcel number that corresponded to Delassus’s neighbor’s home.
Delassus’s attorney and close friend, Anthony Trujillo of Hermosa Beach, working the case on contingency, discovered the bank error and informed the bank. Wells Fargo acknowledged the error, fixed Delassus’s credit history but still proceeded with selling Delassus’s home at auction, according to deposition testimony and court documents.
When both parties appeared in court Dec. 19 for a preliminary hearing, Delassus, suffering liver disease, was in a wheelchair in the back of the courtroom, incoherent and breathing loudly.
Judge Laura Ellison told Trujillo the facts of the case did not appear to justify Delassus’s claim of fraud and negligence.
In response, Trujillo spent most of an hour reviewing, out loud, bank documents that indicate Delassus was never late on a mortgage payment or property tax bill. He argued that putting him in default was an error originally created by the bank’s tax service subcontractor.
As the proceedings played out, Delassus went into cardiac arrest.
“He was sure that when a judge heard that he was never even late on a payment, that [the judge] would do something,” said Debbie Popovich, a friend who arrived in court with Delassus.
Wells Fargo did not respond to requests for comment on this story. The bank issued this statement after Delassus’ death:
“Mr. Delassus’ passing was a tragic event and our deepest sympathies go out to his family and friends. In a tentative ruling posted on the court’s Web site the night before the scheduled hearing, the judge indicated she was prepared to dismiss all the claims put forward by Mr. Delassus’ attorneys and rule in favor of our motion for summary judgment. Given that there was no testimony or evidence to be presented at the hearing, there was no reason for Mr. Delassus to attend and it is truly unfortunate that he was brought there.”
Trujillo said Delassus indeed needed to be in court because a hearing was requested by the bank to determine if Delassus needed an independent guardian appointed by the court.
“He was there to testify,” Trujillo said.
Judge Ellison declined comment for this story because the case remains pending before the court.
Larry Delassus grew up in St. Louis, according to his only sibling, his sister, who described him as “a sweet boy who could be shy. He loved animals.”
He served in the Navy from 1969 to 1973. He handled jet fuel, making sure it was free of sediment or water, according to his deposition. Delassus later worked as a production assistant in independent films and for U.S. Airways at LAX International Airport, loading and unloading baggage and washing airplanes.
Delassus suffered from Budd-Chiari syndrome, the cause of which was unknown for Delassus, as it is for many who are diagnosed with the liver disease.
He did not have disability through his former employer. In his deposition, he said he was “working” on getting that. He did not drink, smoke or take drugs, according to those who knew him. When the ammonia level in his blood rose, he went into a coma, which happened at least twice, friends said.
Delassus had no children and never married. He lived in the South Bay area, including Manhattan Beach. He owned a home in Hawthorne before buying his one-bedroom condominium in 1996 at 320 Hermosa Avenue.
Kelly Flynn made friends with her neighbor Delassus at their condominium complex. She watched his cat when he was hospitalized, which happened every now and then.
“He was a very good guy, a very simple man. He loved animals,” Flynn said.
Flynn said Delassus enjoyed hauling water out to her while she gardened in front of their 13-unit condominium building. He helped when he was feeling strong enough, Flynn said.
In 2003, Delassus wrote Easy Reader a letter to the editor expressing his disappointment at the dwindling number of trees in the city, including a prized pine and bamboo tree in his neighborhood.
Trujillo, the attorney, lived next door to Delassus in the condominium complex and they became friends. Trujillo helped him clean his home and they put many of Delassus’s items in storage. Trujillo also found contractors to remodel Delassus’s home while he was in the hospital.
“Anthony was his guardian angel. He was really good to Larry,” Flynn said. “Larry would definitely get frustrated [with the bank], but Anthony was his guy because it was overwhelming for Larry to handle the pressure.”
The pressure began when Delassus’s March 2009 payment of $1,237 wasn’t processed as he expected. Since Delassus had paid his mortgage two months early since 2007, he expected the payment to be applied to his May 1 bill. Instead, the bank informed him that his payment wasn’t sufficient, and Delassus was suddenly in behind on his mortgage payments. Delassus, while in the hospital in April 2009, asked Trujillo to look into it.
After graduating from Pepperdine Law, Trujillo, 32, originally went to work for a large law firm defending doctors from malpractice lawsuits. But after his first deposition, a gut-wrenching session of a woman with a colostomy bag, Trujillo quit the firm and began doing wrongful termination in Torrance. He has sued Disney and Walmart, but he said nothing compares to battling a bank.
Trujillo learned that Delassus’s minimum payment of $1,237 was nearly all of his $1,500 monthly disability income through Social Security at the time.
“So I knew there was a problem right away,” Trujillo said. “How did this guy end up with a loan payment that was nearly all of his income. Here’s an old man picking up bottles and cans for recycling because he has no money.”
Trujillo discovered that Delassus had refinanced his mortgage in September 2007 with World Savings Bank. Delassus refinanced it a second time because a representative on the phone promised no service charges on a second modification, but Delassus said he still had to pay the service charges, according to deposition testimony.
The attorney said Delassus had four loan modifications, and the new loans were the result of classic strong-armed tactics of the era, complete with a courier stopping by for a signature so Delassus didn’t even have to leave his home. Delassus’s disability made understanding others and expressing himself difficult. And that made him an easy target.
World Savings was bought by Wachovia, which Wells Fargo purchased for $15 billion in early 2009.
When the bank wouldn’t accept his March 2009 minimum payment, Delassus figured that because he had an adjustable-rate mortgage the rate simply went up higher than he could suddenly afford, he said in deposition. The bank put him in default.
In May 2010, the bank sent Delassus a letter informing him that he was behind in his property taxes, prompting the bank to set up an escrow account for $13,000 to pay the back taxes.
In the hospital once again, Delassus told Trujillo that the property taxes for his one-bedroom condominium weren’t as much as the bank was claiming.
Trujillo discovered Delassus was right. Using the L.A. County Assessor’s Office website, Trujillo found that Delassus’s property taxes were actually about $2,000 a year. The bank’s subcontracted tax service had mistakenly used a parcel number that belonged to Delassus’s neighbor’s larger condominium – and that neighbor was behind on her property taxes.
Wells Fargo had paid the neighbor’s taxes and set up an escrow account for Delassus to reimburse the bank.
The bank wouldn’t accept Delassus’s March 11, 2009 payment of $1,237 because his minimum payment of $1,237 was no longer enough, as the bank believed he owed a lot more in order to satisfy the tax situation.
“They basically defaulted him on their own entirely from their own paperwork screw-up,” Trujillo said.
After Trujillo informed the bank of the situation, the bank acknowledged the error and fixed Delsassus’s credit history between June 2009 and Aug. 2010 and adjusted his account. Still, Delassus remained in default, according to the bank.
Bank officials claim all relevant information was contained in a letter sent two days before the auction, bank officials claim in court documents and in deposition.
In that letter, the bank informed Delassus that he needed to come up with the value of the home, $337,250, in order to prevent the sale. Wells Fargo officials argue that if Trujillo simply subtracted the loan amount from the payoff number, he would have known that the amount needed to reinstate the account as of that date was about $42,000.
“And it turns out that amount isn’t right. It’s like twenty-some thousand,” said Trujillo, who had power of attorney related to Delassus’s bank account.
“We could have gotten the money, if they ever told us something. He had money in savings. He had cars. We could have made payments on it,” Trujillo said.
Trujillo filed suit, and a judge granted him an injunction to delay the sale.
Two months later, in March 2011, Delassus was readmitted to the hospital. Trujillo said he informed bank officials that Delassus had fallen ill again.
The sale quietly proceeded after a motion by the bank attorneys prompted to Trujillo to re-file the lawsuit, which dissolved the injunction.
On May 13, 2011, the bank went ahead with the sale of Delassus’s condominium for $270,000. The buyer re-sold it a few months for $440,000, according to public documents.
Delassus met Debbie Popovich when he moved to the Carson Senior Assisted Living facility more than a year ago. He was walking with a walker at the time.
“He was my first friend here at Carson,” said Popovich, whom Delassus named trustee of his estate. “We got very close very fast.”
After the bank sold his house at auction, Delassus grew upset and declined mentally, Popovich said.
“Of course he thought he was going to get it back, but we knew that wasn’t going to happen. But we didn’t want to burst his bubble,” Popovich said. “The stress of knowing his home was taken away and he was really homeless – everyday he talked about how they took his condo, and I know that took its toll.”
Popovich said that Delassus had to be prescribed medicine for anxiety as he struggled to come to terms that he had lost his home.
Trujillo placed Delassus in hospice care about six months ago.
Delassus was deposed for five hours on Oct. 9, 2012, less than a week after another coma. Sitting in a wheelchair, his motor skills were slow and he spoke with a slur, according to a viewing of the deposition.
Delassus said he moved to California from the Midwest as a young man.
“I lived here a long time until it was all taken away from me, and I’m bitter about that,” Delassus said. “It’s not fair.”
At points, Delassus’s anger flashed.
“I was making my payments. I was paying my taxes!”
Delassus said he hoped to live out the rest of his life in his own home with a hired medical aide. At the elderly care home, Delassus testified that he didn’t play bingo and didn’t exercise. He enjoyed tending to the garden outside his room, which he brought to life with Popovich.
They spent $80 on plants at Home Depot.
“I’m quite proud of it,” Delassus said. “I’ve gotten a lot of compliments.”
Later in the deposition, as Delassus swooned in his wheelchair, Wells Fargo attorney Robert Bailey offered to continue to another time if Delassus wasn’t feeling well enough. But Delassus insisted on finishing his deposition, saying he nearly died a week earlier.
Trujillo deposed Wells Fargo Litigation Support Manager Michael Dolan, who said that Delassus did not qualify for a loan modification with principle-reduction because he had equity in his home. Delassus was rejected for a loan modification during default and told the reason was because his income wasn’t enough, according to court documents.
Dolan acknowledged that Wells Fargo placed a bid on Delassus’s Hermosa Beach condominium at the auction. Dolan said the bank bids a “commercially reasonable value,” which never exceeds the amount of loan debt, at all of its foreclosure sales.
“Usually, no one else bids and so the property reverts back to me,” Dolan said, according to a transcript of the deposition.
Later, Trujillo asked Dolan what his definition of “fair” was.
“Fair is a place where they have ponies and merry-go-rounds,” Dolan said.
Dec. 19 hearing
Trujillo realized Delassus was deteriorating, so the attorney brought a motion for a quick trial date that could not be postponed. Trujillo knew he would be facing a new judge, since Judge William Willett, who issued the temporary injunction to hold off the auction, had retired.
Trujillo said two days before the Dec. 19 court hearing, Delassus was feeling fine. Delassus and Popovich went to Carl’s Jr. for lunch.
Michelle Rogers, the owner and administrator for Tender Liv-in Care where Delassus was living most recently, said that Delassus wasn’t feeling so well in the evening following that fish sandwich and ice cream at Carl’s Jr.
In addition, Delassus’s medication was changed a couple days before the court hearing, Rogers said. The new medication was needed so Delassus didn’t have to ingest as much Lactulose, which he detested.
The morning of the Dec. 19 court hearing, Popovich arrived with Trujillo’s office assistant to pick up Delassus and bring him to the Torrance Courthouse.
“He was really weak. He was incoherent when we went to get him,” Popovich said. His blood pressure had dropped the night before. In the morning, Delassus couldn’t move out of his bed and he couldn’t speak.
Popovich said she phoned Trujillo, who told her the hearing was for guardianship, and Delassus needed to be there.
They hauled Delassus from the bed to the wheelchair and into the car. In the courthouse parking lot, they discovered that the wheelchair did not have leg rests. Delassus was so weak he couldn’t hold his feet up.
“One person was pushing him and I was holding his feet and running along,” said Popovich, who phoned Rogers and asked her to bring the leg rests to the courthouse.
L.A. County Sheriff’s Deputies manning the front door provided temporary leg rests for Delassus’s wheelchair, and he was wheeled to the elevator bank and then up to the third-floor civil courtroom. He arrived with Popovich and an expert foreclosure witness, Denise Wilhite-Thomas.
“He’s not doing too well today,” Trujillo said outside the courtroom.
Delassus’s skin was yellow from jaundice. He was wheeled inside the courtroom, while buckled over with a blanket, wheezing and moaning with every breath.
Trujillo cited bank statements, and Wells Fargo attorney Robert Bailey told the judge that Delassus never even saw the statements anyway. Judge Ellison appeared to stand by her tentative ruling, in which she sustained all 52 objections by bank attorneys.
Delassus became motionless. Those in attendance turned their attention from the give-and-take between Trujillo and Ellison to Delassus folded over in the wheelchair. Rogers arrived in the back of the courtroom with the leg rests.
Rogers said she immediately noticed Delassus’s posture, as had Popovich.
“I think he stopped breathing,” Popovich said to her.
They checked for a pulse.
“It’s weak,” Rogers said, quieting the courtroom.
Both attorneys and the judge turned their full attention to the back of the courtroom.
As people converged on Delassus, Judge Ellison walked away from the bench. As she left the courtroom, the judge asked who was supposed to be taking care of Delassus.
Delassus was hurriedly wheeled out of the courtroom and into the hallway where sheriff’s deputies lifted him from his wheelchair, placed him on the floor and performed CPR until Torrance paramedics arrived.
Paramedics told those watching he was in cardiac arrest. They continued with chest compressions while moving him into a waiting ambulance and to a local hospital where Delassus was pronounced dead.
Rogers said she believes Delassus would have died that day whether he went to court or stayed in bed.
“He was weak. I wouldn’t have recommended he get out of bed at that point to go to court, but it seemed that he was ordered in,” Rogers said. “He was probably going to pass away that day regardless, I believe, because he had a lot of blood in his feces for the last two days, and that was something new.”
Judge Ellison is scheduled to make a decision Jan. 17 whether the case will go to trial. Lawsuits to stop foreclosures are notoriously unsuccessful, according to legal experts. Banks do not have a legal duty to modify a loan, and plaintiffs don’t often have the money to retain an attorney. Trujillo estimates he put $150,000 worth of work into the case.
Delassus left money in his will to animal rescue groups. Popovich said she thinks of him everyday, especially in their garden outside Delassus’s unit.
Originally, the outdoor space was just a pile of junk left there for a couple years until Delassus moved in, said Popovich, a food server in the Gardena casinos for 28 years.
“Larry loved to feed the birds,” said Popovich, who worked in the Gardena casinos for 28 years as a food server. “I said, ‘Larry, why don’t we clean that up, put some flowers in there and then we can come out here and sit in the afternoon and feed the birds,’ and he said, ‘Oh, that would be great.’”
Popovich performed the manual labor, but Delassus put in his suggestions. Together, they cleaned up the area and enjoyed the peace and quiet, especially in the evenings and afternoon.
“It’s really a garden in memory of Larry,” Popovich said.
Residents in the Alzheimer’s unit at Carson Senior Assisted Living look out onto the garden, she added.
“They enjoy the flowers and seeing the birds. It’s a sign to them that life still exists,” Popovich said. “I think of Larry every day. There are reminders everywhere. It’s sad but in a way it’s a triumph. He went out the way he would like to. He was fighting for his cause. He didn’t die in some crappy old convalescent home all alone.”