Jane Bowman has to turn away many Minnesotans who desperately need a lawyer to guide them through foreclosure hell. But if the court grants class-action status to one of her current cases involving jumbled foreclosure paperwork, Bowman could potentially help thousands of people nationwide.

Bowman, 31, has spent nearly three years working for the Foreclosure Relief Law Project, a St. Paul-based nonprofit formed by the Housing Preservation Project in 2007 after the foreclosure crisis showed signs of deepening.

The project's staff currently includes Bowman and fellow attorney Kari Rudd. Mark Ireland, the project's founding attorney, recently resigned to become a Ramsey County District Court Judge. The group's small stature means they must be very selective about which cases to take, focusing on the ones that are most likely to influence the legal landscape and help the greatest number of people.

Take the case of St. Cloud homeowners Steven and Tamara Gewecke, who have been fighting their foreclosure for three years. They assert that U.S. Bank doesn't have the right to foreclose because the legal authority to do so was not properly transferred to the bank. Bowman alleges that when the bank couldn't show the proper paperwork that should have accompanied the mortgage when it changed hands four times, it fabricated some. "They skipped over these middle steps," said Bowman, which is an issue "because you don't want somebody to show up with your mortgage and say 'You owe me the money.' You have to have proof.''

U.S. Bank disputes Bowman's argument. "Our role in this case is solely as trustee for a securitization trust that owned the mortgage at issue,'' U.S. Bank said in a statement. "As trustee, U.S. Bank has no responsibility for the terms of the underlying mortgage, foreclosure procedure, the conduct of the servicer, the process by which the mortgage is transferred to the trust, or the sufficiency of the mortgage."

Earlier this month, the Massachusetts Supreme Court voided two foreclosures involving U.S. Bank and Wells Fargo because the trustee didn't get the authority to foreclose until after the fact. While the Massachusetts case isn't exactly like Bowman's, the case's backbone -- that the trustee didn't have the authority to foreclose -- is the same. As more cases like these are ruled in favor of homeowners, chances are lenders will take the time to get their paper trail in order, buying more time for homeowners trying to avoid foreclosure.

"If we can raise this as an issue, maybe banks will be more willing to work with homeowners," Bowman said.

Bowman goes to court this month to request class-action status for her case. To this layperson, a class-action suit seems particularly appropriate. What homeowner do you know who can make sense of a paperwork puzzle that even the experts can't seem to figure out? And if you're dealing with foreclosure, I can't see how you could pay a lawyer. Very few lawyers can afford not to charge.

The Foreclosure Relief Law Project is funded by several sources, including Minnesota Housing and the Family Housing Fund as well as federal grants.

If you have questions about foreclosure, including documentation issues, head to the Minnesota Homeownership Center, the umbrella group for housing counselors in the state. While counselors don't give legal advice, they've seen a lot of mortgage documents and Bowman has trained them to spot potential problems.

Ed Nelson, the center's spokesman, said counselors also have lists of lawyers who specialize in foreclosure. If you don't get a referral from a trusted source, then tiptoe into this area with caution. A growing number of scammers are setting up websites that explain, in jumbled legalese, that they can spot foreclosure errors and win back homes for people mortgage-free. Many claim they work with attorneys, who will scour your paperwork. But many don't. Find a housing counselor by calling 1-866-462-6466 or heading to www.hocmn.org.

Kara McGuire • 612-673-7293