After finishing a semester of college in another state, Alexandra Hlista and her husband, Anthony, returned to their home in Bethel Park in December only to find the place was not the way they left it: The windows were nailed shut and new locks were on the doors.
The changes occurred because their mortgage company believed the family had abandoned the property and it wanted to prepare the home for foreclosure.
The Hlistas, who had missed a couple of mortgage payments but were not in foreclosure when they left the home empty for several months, in June filed suit in the U.S. District Court claiming the company's agent trespassed and invaded their privacy.
Their case joins a long list of complaints about Safeguard Properties Inc., a Brooklyn Heights, Ohio-based company that is accused of entering homes, locking people out and sometimes removing items while securing the properties for lenders. In addition to the Hlistas, at least three other Pittsburgh-area residents have sued over the suburban Cleveland company's tactics.
Foreclosures nearly brought the U.S. economy to its knees during the height of the Great Recession, which officially ended three years ago. But families here and across the nation are still dealing with the aftermath of lost homes and damaged credit.
The Hlistas' mortgage company, Citimortgage Inc., moved forward as if the couple had abandoned the property when they left their home while Mrs. Hlista attended college in Charleston, S.C., from December 2011 to December 2012. It hired Safeguard Properties to enter the home repeatedly to prepare it for the foreclosure process.
According to a Safeguard spokeswoman, mortgage servicers have a right to enter a property when a homeowner falls behind on payments and vacates the house. That right stems from a common, but obscure, clause in mortgage contracts that allows banks to protect their collateral.
"When a loan is more than 45 days in default and the mortgage company has not been able to establish contact with the borrower, what we do is engage in what are called default inspections," said Safeguard spokeswoman Diana Fusco, who declined to comment specifically on the Hlistas' case. "If that property is occupied, we document that and we leave."
If not, Safeguard maintains that it can go to what it calls the "property preservation phase."
Mr. Hlista, 29, a maintenance worker at the Walmart in North Fayette, and Mrs. Hlista, 25, a stay-at-home mom and student, had lived for five years with their two children in the two-bedroom single family home they bought for $69,900 before the trouble began.
Their initial encounter with Safeguard occurred during a separate legal dispute in which the family sued Citimortgage Inc. in Allegheny County Common Pleas Court in 2011, claiming that they were treated unfairly after they missed two mortgage payments.
The Hlistas claimed that some $1,300 in fees tacked onto their debt were illegal, and that their efforts to pay the legally due amount were rebuffed. In September 2011, the defendants removed the case to federal court, where it continues.
During that dispute, Citimortgage hired Safeguard to secure the house. According to the lawsuit, Safeguard representatives entered the house through the back door, nailed the windows shut, broke the screen and storm windows, and added a new lock and door knob on the back door.
The suit alleges that Safeguard's actions have traumatized the family to the point where Mrs. Hlista said she was unable to focus on her college studies and did not enroll for the spring semester at Charleston Southern University, where she is studying nursing.
"It has destroyed my sense of security in my home," she said. Their lawsuit claims they sought help from the Bethel Park police and even lived with relatives for a while due to feeling unsafe.
The Hlistas' lawsuit is asking for triple damages and punitive damages.
"This case is about Americans being safe in their homes," said Pittsburgh attorney Michael Malakoff, who represents the Hlistas. "This case is about whether lenders who are too big to fail have the right to break into Americans' homes who are not even in foreclosure."
A key question in the case is whether Safeguard had reason to believe the Hlistas had abandoned the property. While they lived in Charleston, S.C., for several months, the plaintiffs claim Mrs. Hlista's mother and father visited the Bethel Park home regularly to pick up mail and cut the grass.
Safeguard says it uses a number of pieces of information to determine if a house is vacant.
"The grass isn't cut," said Ms. Fusco. "We might begin to see [advertisements] that are piling up on the front porch. We might see that the utilities are turned off. A neighbor might say that there hasn't been someone there in a number of weeks.
"We always put a sticker on the property," she said. That includes a phone number in case the homeowner returns.
The company sends a contractor to change one lock, secure other entries against thieves or squatters, remove food and explosive chemicals and cut the grass. The staff doesn't remove any other property at that stage, Ms. Fusco said.
"If you are a homeowner living next door to one of these properties, you'd appreciate that Safeguard is there," she said, noting that abandoned homes can become the sites for hazards, like meth labs.
The timing of a bank's intervention is generally what triggers such disputes.
Andrew Gross, an attorney at the Downtown law firm Gross & Patterson, said often when he represents debtors in Chapter 13 bankruptcy who are trying to save their homes, he will get telephone calls from banks who he described as "trigger happy" to go into his client's homes and protect the pipes and perform other tasks that would be done on vacant property.
But as long as a homeowner is making payments, banks have no right to enter the home, he said.
"If the bank enters a house before the homeowners have been lawfully removed, they are depriving the homeowners of their rights to the property," Mr. Gross said. "If the owners are still in the house, banks have to go through the process to remove them from the house."
In addition to the Hlistas, some other homeowners have not appreciated the way Safeguard handled their homes. The company has been named as a defendant in around 40 federal lawsuits since 2011, including four filed in Pittsburgh.
In 2011, Pamela A. Vukman accused Safeguard of entering her Shaler home despite a court-ordered halt to the foreclosure proceeding against her.
Also that year, attorney Jeffrey Suher sued Safeguard on behalf of the Windgap family of Ken Karpa. That lawsuit claimed a foreclosure filing against the Karpas had been stayed by their bankruptcy filing when Safeguard's agents broke the lock on their back door, damaged some possessions and took others, including a coin collection and a pet cat.
Both cases were transferred to Allegheny County court, where litigation continues.
In November, Shaler resident William J. Platek Jr. sued Safeguard, along with a lender and a debt-collecting law firm, claiming that he had been tricked into a fraudulent mortgage and was unable to make the payments.
During the 10 days after the lender bought the home at sheriff's sale -- while Mr. Platek was recovering from surgery -- Safeguard entered the home and removed and disposed of his 1983 Chevrolet Monte Carlo, a computer, a set of golf clubs, jewelry, a crossbow and a bow-and-arrow set, according to the lawsuit.
The complaint alleged that entering his house so soon after foreclosure, and taking property, violated state and federal laws.
All of the cases are pending.
Safeguard has said in court filings that it is not liable under state or federal law.
Ms. Fusco said the lawsuits pale in comparison to Safeguard's caseload. "In a given month, we inspect or perform work orders on over 2 million properties around the country," she said. "We aren't perfect, but our record is the best in the industry."