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The Forecloser

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  • | 7:19 a.m. November 30, 2012
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You've probably heard of Todd Allen.

He's the Naples attorney who helped his clients foreclose on a branch of Bank of America last year. It was the sort of “man bites dog” story that quickly spread all over the major television networks, in national newspapers and magazines and a lengthy segment on “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.”

But the events that led to the media frenzy didn't occur by happenstance. Allen laid the groundwork by cultivating newspaper and television reporters, and he made sure his case was airtight, anticipating every detail.

Just months out of law school, Allen also discounted his more experienced peers' advice that he avoid the media for fear of angering judges or being shunned by the legal community.

But the public relations coup brought Allen national fame and changed the young attorney's career forever. It provides great lessons for all entrepreneurs who seek to have anyone pay attention to their endeavors but don't have the PR budget of a Fortune 500 company.

In fact, Allen managed the entire public relations process by himself. “There's no entrepreneur that doesn't dream of the opportunity that Todd was given,” says Karl Gibbons, president and CEO of Third Eye Management, a consulting firm in Naples.

Gibbons is now advising Allen to hit the speaker's circuit, where he thinks he could command $10,000 a speech by giving advice to bankers and other financial professionals who have been the object of negative media scrutiny. “He made himself, in his world, the ultimate go-to expert,” Gibbons says.

For his part, the soft-spoken Allen still seems a bit taken aback by the furor he created. But he parlayed his success to a higher-paying job and he's now routinely quoted in national publications such as Forbes magazine whenever a foreclosure story appears.

The case
When Warren and Maureen Nyerges walked into Allen's office in May 2011, Allen was skeptical about their story. “I didn't believe them,” he says.

The Nyerges had bought a home in foreclosure from Bank of America in the Golden Gate area of Naples for $165,000 in cash in August 2009. But Allen says the bank forgot to clear a second mortgage on the home and foreclosed on the Nyergeses even though they held the home free and clear.

The Nyergeses tried to clear up the paperwork snafu themselves. “They went into the branches, but nobody would listen,” Allen says.

Neither would other attorneys in Naples. The Nyergeses spoke to about two-dozen lawyers about their predicament, but no one would take their case because it seemed so far-fetched. “Lawyers look for cases that fit in the box,” Allen explains.

So when the couple walked into Allen's office to work on estate planning issues, they casually mentioned the foreclosure problem they had. When Allen confirmed the details of their story, he knew they had a great case.

Cultivating the press
Allen had only been practicing law since September 2010, shortly after he graduated from Ave Maria School of Law in Naples. But he was outraged by what he saw as a legal process stacked in favor of the financial service industry.

“I was so mad at the way the courts were handling the process,” Allen recalls. During the heyday of the foreclosure crisis, he says courts rubber-stamped lenders' orders without scrutinizing them properly.

So he started calling and emailing newspaper and television reporters who covered the foreclosure process, giving them behind-the-scenes insights. “I wanted to draw attention to the foreclosure mess,” he says.

Allen, who was raised as a Mormon in Utah, says he was driven by moral outrage more than a desire for publicity. “I don't want to be the guy who's always on the news screaming injustice,” Allen says.

Allen had switched careers after a successful stint as a project manager for Intel and Microsoft in his home state. “I needed a different challenge,” he says.

He attended Ave Maria School of Law as an older student, married with two children at the time. “You learn how to work more efficiently,” he says. “Lots of late nights and time management.”

When he joined Naples-based Law Office of Conrad Willkomm out of law school, he made just $45,000. “I was making twice that in Utah,” he says, acknowledging he racked up $200,000 in student debt.

But Allen says he found foreclosure defense work hugely satisfying. “I love the law and serving people,” he says.

Get the moving vans
When Bank of America failed to compensate the Nyergeses even after Allen had taken their case, he decided to use a publicity stunt to make his clients whole.

Allen got the idea to foreclose on a branch after he'd heard about a similar case from an attorney whose luggage had been destroyed by an airline. When the airline failed to pay up as ordered, he got a judgment to seize an airplane after all the passengers had boarded.

Before Allen proceeded, he made sure his clients were agreeable to the idea and warned the bank by notifying Bank of America's general counsel by certified mail. “I told them I was going to show up with a moving van,” he says.

Allen also had to convince his colleagues he was making the right move. In an office poll, they voted against Allen's idea. “There were a lot of senior attorneys who cautioned me against it,” he says. “I had to roll the dice.”

When the bank failed to compensate the Nyergeses, Allen obtained an order to seize a branch with the assistance of the Collier County Sheriff's Office. Allen was required to put up a $10,000 security deposit and the deputies ordered the moving vans to show up in early June 2011.

Meanwhile, Allen had built a good rapport with his media contacts at local newspapers and television stations and urged them to be at the branch that morning. He didn't tell them why, but by that time the reporters trusted Allen and were certain they'd get a good story.

But the sheriff's deputies arrived in unmarked cars and in civilian dress, unwilling to make a show in the bank-branch parking lot. In fact, Allen says he didn't realize deputies were in the branch until he went inside.

Allen says he had given the bank ample opportunity to pay up, but the sheriff's deputies were discussing the matter with the branch manager while the moving trucks waited outside. “Why aren't we moving stuff?” Allen asked. “I didn't do this to get a check. They were in the bank for an hour.”

The bank manager delivered a check to Allen to compensate the Nyerges, but by then the television stations and newspapers had reported the event. “I thought that was it,” Allen says.

The Drudge Report
The day after, Allen's story made the Drudge Report, an online political blog that's widely followed, and calls from reporters started pouring in from all over the country. Allen says he got at least 60 to 70 phone calls and triple that number in text messages. “My cell phone just blew up,” he says.

Starting the following Monday, Allen says he was whisked by private car to a Naples production studio where make-up artists prepared him for television interviews on many of the major networks. He estimates he did hundreds of interviews in the week that followed the Drudge posting.

Even as the interview requests came flooding in, Allen says he managed to maintain his heavy caseload of clients. “I felt like we could manage,” Allen says. He turned down offers of help from public relations firms. “I was leery of them,” he says.

Allen says Microsoft Outlook helped him manage the flow of work. “I use Outlook for everything you can imagine,” he says, enlisting a friend to manage his Facebook page.

The crowning event was an interview with John Oliver for “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.” Initially, when a Daily Show producer called him, Allen didn't believe it. “I didn't tell anybody about it,” he says.

Still, the grueling schedule took its toll on Allen. A week after the news broke, he collapsed in a Naples parking lot because of a slipped disk in his back. Still, he managed to do an interview by phone from the ambulance that was driving him to the hospital.

New business
Not surprisingly, the publicity was a boon to Allen's business. “We probably picked up 200 to 300 new clients in the weeks after it happened,” Allen says.

Lenders' attorneys were much more likely to settle with Allen, too. Allen estimates lenders have forgiven client deficiencies of as much as $5 million to $6 million in total.

Allen changed law firms, joining GoedeAdamczyk in Naples and doubling his salary. No corporate firm tried to recruit him, but several other foreclosure-defense firms did.

Allen says he also was concerned about the possibility of a smear campaign against him. “I pulled my credit report after that,” he says. “I was worried about my career.”

But after the news broke, Bank of America hired a Washington, D.C.-based attorney to work directly with Allen on any subsequent case. Allen won't say who the attorney is, but says he routinely calls on him when he has a strong case, and it's quickly resolved.

Allen is sensitive about what's been written and said about him, but so far he says it's all been positive. He was concerned that some of the business publications and television stations might be more critical, but he says so far that hasn't happened.

Allen monitors search engines such as Google. “I try to keep a close eye on my name,” he says. “You're protecting your brand.”

Indeed, Gibbons says the next step for Allen is to leverage the brand identity he's developed. “The world beat a path to his doorstep,” he says. “He's now created a brand and reputation for himself.”

Allen speaks to various organizations around Naples, but Gibbons says Allen could charge for that. “Todd's challenge now is coping with all of this,” Gibbons says. “Todd doesn't have an ego; Todd loves being an attorney.”

Gibbons envisions branding The Forecloser with a website, books and even a movie deal. “This guy's a hero,” Gibbons says. “It's a terrific case study from any angle you look at it.”

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