SAN LEANDRO, Calif. -- Donna Vieira sits in front of her laptop in her San Leandro home. She is on the phone with a Wells Fargo representative, the kind of phone call that has become routine in Vieira's life over the last six years. Her 6-year-old son Leo sits nearby, silently doing his homework, having learned to not disturb his mom at these moments.
Vieira and her husband, Nuno, started a successful real estate appraisal business at the peak of the housing market. Six years ago, the couple bought a second home in Reno, Nev., with plans to move their family and business there. According to Vieira, Wells Fargo fraudulently over-appraised the Reno property, leaving them stuck with a high adjustable rate mortgage on a property that is worth much less than their loan.
Now Vieira spends an average of five hours a day, seven days a week, in a legal fight with Wells Fargo over the mortgage fraud issue. Because of her commitment to the lawsuit, Vieira only works part-time in the family business.
"I am a really good researcher," she said. "The banks have lawyers who graduated from Stanford and other expensive schools, lawyers with decades of experience on similar cases. The only way I can fight them is to out-research them, to be two steps ahead of them every step of the way."
The case is still stuck in Nevada's court system. In the meantime, Wells Fargo foreclosed on their Reno home for nonpayment.
"Knowing the mortgage was fraudulent, we just couldn't keep on paying," Nuno said, adding that they stopped making mortgage payments in September of 2009.
The family still resides at their house in San Leandro, which they bought in 1997, but the foreclosure on the Reno property has made it harder to refinance and get a better mortgage interest rate on their current home.
"Despite the foreclosure, both of us still maintain near perfect credit scores," Vieira said, "but due to something that is completely not our fault, we can't take advantage of the low mortgage rates now and switch to a 30-year fixed. It just creates so much uncertainty in our life."
Vieira has become a fixture at Washoe County Courthouse in Reno, where she said? Or you observed? everyone recognizes the "Chinese lady" who comes twice a month. Her website, detailing her legal fight against Wells Fargo, gets 500 clicks per day. But at the moment, the mother would much rather put down the phone and read to her son.
Despite her preoccupation with the legal fight and occasional absence, Vieira's son, Leo, is a gifted student — a first-grader with a fourth-grade reading ability. The couple sends him to a private school, despite the good public schools in the area.
"We can't send Leo [to the public school], because I don't have the time to help him with his homework or to track his progress in school," she said.
Photos by Jospeh Rodriguez, Video by Cliff Parker