Shannon Behnken, Tampa Tribune

United States Coast Guardsman Keith A. Johnson returned last year from serving in a defense role overseas to find his bank had foreclosed on his home. It was set to be auctioned off at the courthouse the next day.

It was a shock, Johnson said. He never was served legal notice of the foreclosure lawsuit against him, court documents show.

The lender, Wells Fargo Bank, also failed to serve his wife, though court records show it had sent her numerous letters about a modification request – up until a few weeks before a judge granted the foreclosure.

Johnson’s case is particularly troubling, military law experts say, because the federal Servicemembers Civil Relief Act is intended to protect military members from losing their homes while away. The act has received national attention in recent months as service members have come forward to complain about foreclosures, and some lenders have admitted to foreclosing in error.

In this case, Wells Fargo told the court it couldn’t find Johnson to serve him the suit. So the lender’s attorney, in accordance with the Servicemember Act, asked the judge to appoint a guardian ad litem to represent Johnson. The St. Petersburg firm representing Wells Fargo, the Law Office of Douglas C. Zahm, recommended Tampa attorney Jay D. Passer, and the court approved the appointment.

“It’s almost like playing cards against two opposing people and you’re by yourself,” Johnson said. “On one hand you’re playing against this guy, while this guy’s over there setting the deck against you.”

Three months later, Passer said he also couldn’t locate Johnson. He told the court the plaintiff’s pleadings “appear to be in compliance” with state law, court records show. That report was key to allowing the foreclosure to proceed.

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