Steven Kenner came home to a nasty surprise after a two-week vacation in Florida. Papers were strewn about the house. Cabinets were left open. Cigarette butts were ground into the floor. A lock on the door to the laundry room had been tampered with. Kenner, 71, thought his East Hanover home had been burglarized. But what actually happened may have been worse.
It wasn't a burglar. Instead, Kenner's mortgage lender hired subcontractors to break into Kenner's home as part of efforts to see if the home was vacant or abandoned, according to a lawsuit filed by Kenner against Citizens Bank, Citizens One Home Mortgage, subsidiaries of the bank and its subcontractors. The suit was filed in May in Morris County Superior Court.
While subcontractors broke into his home, Kenner was in touch with the bank about a pending mortgage modification and no one reported anything was amiss, he said. And the bank even knew he was away on vacation, Kenner said. Citizens Bank said it doesn't comment on ongoing litigation.
Before it all happened, Kenner said, he broke a bone in his back and was unable to work. In January 2015, he fell behind on the mortgage payments for his home, which he had owned for nearly 40 years.
He contacted his lender to request a mortgage modification.
Kenner entered into a trial plan in December 2015. If he paid the agreed monthly payment on time and in full for January, February and March of 2016, he would enter a mortgage modification that would start in April.
Citizens took automatic monthly payments from Kenner's bank account, and payments were on time for the trial period, Kenner said.
While Kenner was on the two-week trip in late February and early March, he said, he called the lender to check on the status of the modification, and the lender said his payments were not received.
But that wasn't so, Kenner said, and he arranged for his bank to send the proof to Citizens.
When he next spoke to Citizens, Kenner said, he was told there had been an error and yes, his payments were on time. Kenner qualified for the modification, he said he was told, and he was instructed to look for packages with all the paperwork he needed to sign when he returned from vacation.
When Kenner got back to his East Hanover home on March 14, Kenner said he entered the way he usually does: through an unoccupied first floor apartment where his mom used to live.
"The lights were on. Cabinets were open and there were papers all over the place," Kenner said. "I didn't know if I was robbed or what. I didn't know what was happening."
He next entered the home proper through a laundry room that's next to the apartment.
The inside of the laundry room showing the removed lock and the messy floor as it was found when Steven Kenner came home from his vacation.
The laundry room has a door with two locks. Kenner said one of the locks was removed and a round cylinder was placed to cover the space where the lock was.
"They must have put their hand around the round opening to open the other lock to enter my home," Kenner said.
Next, Kenner entered the main house, he said.
More lights were on, more cabinets were open, and cigarette butts were all over, he said.
He called police.
When officers arrived, they proceeded as if there was a burglary, Kenner said. They dusted for fingerprints and took photos, and they asked Kenner to see if anything was missing.
As officers searched the home, Kenner opened the front door, looking for the packages he was expecting from the mortgage company.
That's when he saw a "6" -- Kenner's house number -- written on the outside of the door with some kind of marker. And then they saw a sticker affixed to the door.
"This property has been determined to be vacant/abandoned," the sticker said.
Police called the number on the sticker and learned it was all a mistake by Kenner's mortgage company, Kenner said.
That's some mistake.
"The police said they were told that the mortgage company more or less made a mistake," Kenner said. "The mortgage company had contracted with the company that broke into my home to see if the home was vacant."
But the home was not vacant, nor had the bank ever started any foreclosure proceedings, said Kenner's attorney, Philip Vinick.
Vinick said the New Jersey Supreme Court adopted amendments to court rules governing the foreclosure of vacant and abandoned residential properties in December 2012.
If a lender brings a foreclosure action and it believes a property is vacant or abandoned, the lender can ask for a quicker judgment from the court so it can take steps to maintain the property. For that to work, the lender must prove that at least two of 14 conditions must be present at the property, such as overgrown or neglected vegetation, disconnected utilities, the accumulation of mail or newspapers and the absence of window treatments.
None of the 14 conditions applied to Kenner's home, the attorney said.
"In Mr. Kenner's case the lender did not even institute a foreclosure action much less prove that Mr. Kenner's house was vacant, which it obviously was not," Vinick said.
Even after Citizens was made aware of the error, the bank's subcontractors continued to contact Kenner, the homeowner said. One wanted to come into the home. Another wanted to shut off his water.
And two days after Kenner returned home, Kenner's son passed the home and saw workers on property, according to a statement provided to Kenner's attorney. The son said he asked the workers what they were doing, and they said they were hired by the mortgage company to remove some shrubs. The workers then called the mortgage company, which in turn told them to leave the property, the statement said.
And, Kenner realized, the cylinder that replaced the lock on the laundry room door could be removed by anybody at any time.
At first he moved a washing machine in front of the door. Now a table blocks the passageway.
"I've been very upset," Kenner said, noting that he doesn't feel comfortable in his own home. "I'm thinking very seriously of selling because of what happened to me."
After the suit was filed, Citizens offered to settle, but Kenner's attorney called the amount "insufficient" to "compensate him for his physical and psychological damages, including being embarrassed and having to explain to his neighbors what happened."
"The laws were bypassed or disregarded. It will eventually be left up to jury to determine how much Mr. Kenner's nightmare is worth," Vinick said.