A federal class action claims that thousands of Maryland homeowners lost their homes because of the illegal robo-signing operation of the Shapiro & Burson law firm, with offices in Baltimore, Md., and Fairfax, Va., and six of its attorneys.  The suit also charges the firm charged excessive fees.

The suit notes that the State's Attorney in Prince George's County, Md., has opened a criminal inquiry into the firm's practices and has received statements from a former employee who said he was told to sign thousands of affidavits without seeing any evidence that the statements in the affidavits were true.

The plaintiffs, Charles Smalley and Pamela Ball, lost their homes in foreclosure actions involving the Shapiro & Burson firm, even though the firm allegedly did not have possession of the documents necessary to justify the actions.

Ms. Ball said that she lost her home in Bowie, Md., which she had purchased in November 2006 with an adjustable rate mortgage for $355,700. She lost her home in a foreclosure action little more than a year later, even though none of the defendants had possession of the note, although they swore in affidavits that they did, the suit alleges.

"Defendants sold Ms. Ball's home without ever seeing the promissory note," the suit alleges.

Jose Portillo, an employee of the law firm, signed the affidavits that resulted in the foreclosure and Ball's subsequent eviction. Portillo later exposed practices he said he was forced to undertake and described "an elaborate robo-signing operation whereby each Defendant financially benefitted from fees and commission in carrying out foreclosures tainted by fraud," the suit alleges.

Portillo also stated that he witnessed attorneys forging other attorneys' signatures to foreclosure documents.

Smalley bought his home in District Heights, Md., in June 2006 for $430,000, financed entirely with two mortgages. When he began falling behind in his payments in late 2007, he tried to modify the mortgages but was unsuccessful and in May 2009, Shapiro & Burson filed foreclosure motions against him.

The lawsuit charges that, "under penalty of perjury," employees of the law firm signed an affidavit certifying that Barclays Capital Real Estate was the holder of the note, even though the note was payable on its face to Fremont Investment & Loan.

Smalley's property was sold at auction in April 2010.

The lawsuit is filed on behalf of all Maryland residents whose residential property was foreclosed by Sharpiro & Burson during the last four years. It estimates there are at least 250 members of the class and "potentially thousands," based on Portillo's statements. It seeks an award of triple damages for each class member.