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Imagine coming home from a hard day at work to find the locks changed on the front door of your home. You don’t know what’s happened. You missed a mortgage payment, yes, but does that give your lender the right to change the locks on your home? The Washington Supreme Court says no.

With a ruling this month, the Washington Supreme Court has cleared the way for a federal class-action case on behalf of at least 3,600 borrowers in the state who had the locks changed on their homes before foreclosure was officially declared. For some homeowners, lockboxes were set up requiring them to call a service and use a code every time they wanted to access their home. Without an advocate and in distress, many of these borrowers moved out of their homes prematurely.

Although provisions in many mortgage agreements state that lenders can change locks, winterize homes or take other steps to preserve the value of properties that are truly abandoned, the court ruled that the lender violates state law if the homeowner is still living in the home. Lenders argue that they are just taking the appropriate steps to make sure that an abandoned home doesn’t become a blight on the neighborhood. Opponents argue that lenders are quick to change locks to prompt people to move out — making it more likely that foreclosure can proceed uncontested.

Clay Gatens, a Wenatchee lawyer who represents the plaintiffs in the class-action suit, said that if properties are truly abandoned and at risk, Washington law does provide lenders a quicker alternative to foreclosure, which can take months. That’s to have a court appoint a receiver, The Seattle Times reported.

Gatens is seeking damages that include the fair rental value of the lawsuit members’ properties between the time the locks were changed and the time foreclosures were eventually completed. That period typically spanned eight to 10 months, meaning damages could easily reach into the tens of millions of dollars.

Washington is the first state in the nation that has invalidated the mortgage agreement provisions that have allowed lenders to take steps like changing locks. Consumer advocates say other states could now follow suit, or that the outcome of this ruling could inspire new class-action lawsuits.

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