U.S. Court Sides with Bank to Stop Mortgage Loan Class Action

September 26, 2008

A lawsuit brought by a Wisconsin couple who accused a bank of deceptive lending practices and wanted to cancel their home loan has been stripped of class-action status in a victory for U.S. banks.

In a 2-to-1 decision, a panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit Wednesday overturned a lower court ruling that had allowed other borrowers to join Susan and Bryan Andrews as plaintiffs against Chevy Chase Bank FSB.

The case had been seen as having far-reaching implications for other banks if the appeals court had agreed that borrowers could join together in the lawsuit and get their loans rescinded under the federal Truth in Lending Act.

“This decision is a gift to certain members of the banking industry at the expense of the consumers who were misled,” the Andrews’ attorneys, from law firm Demet & Demet in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, said in a statement, adding they would ask for a rehearing by the full appeals court and for a U.S. Supreme Court review.

Accusations of deceptive lending have swirled in the wake of the housing downturn, with many struggling borrowers saying they were misled about loans with attractive teaser rates that later ballooned.

Banks have been accused in borrower lawsuits and by some government officials of luring customers into loans they could not afford that were then bundled into complex investment vehicles. Those investments have sunk in value as foreclosures have jumped, contributing to the current financial crisis.

National consumer groups had written amicus briefs for the plaintiffs in the case, saying that an adverse ruling for borrowers would hurt their ability to undo tainted mortgages and refinance into affordable loans.

They had sought class-action status for the case — meaning that borrowers in similar circumstances would be able to sue together rather than through individual lawsuits that could be much more time consuming and expensive. Courts must decide whether lawsuits can be certified as class-actions.

But industry groups, including the American Bankers Association and Mortgage Bankers Association, had argued that allowing the case to proceed as a class-action could have dire consequences for financial services firms.

Allowing the plaintiffs to sue collectively “would saddle the mortgage lending industry and secondary market with billions of dollars of class-action exposure,” the groups said in an amicus brief.

They contended that the consequences would also be felt by homeowners seeking mortgage financing because lenders would not be able to extend as much credit to borrowers.

The couple claimed in their 2005 lawsuit that Chevy Chase Bank had hidden the true terms of their loan, which they obtained in June 2004 to refinance their home in Cedarburg, Wisconsin.

They said the loan’s interest rate had more than doubled by their second monthly payment from the 1.95 percent rate they thought was locked in for five years.

U.S. District Judge Lynn Adelman, who sits in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Wisconsin, had said the Andrews could rescind their loan and have their attorneys’ fees paid by the bank. In a key decision, the judge also allowed about 8,000 other borrowers who had obtained adjustable-rate mortgages from Chevy Chase to join the case.

But the appeals court reversed that decision, saying that while the Andrews’ loan was complex and “a potential trap for the unwary,” that didn’t mean other borrowers could undo their mortgages en masse. It said that such class-actions were not spelled out through the Truth in Lending Act, a 1968 federal statute designed to protect consumers against fraud by requiring clear disclosure of loan terms and costs.

As a result of the ruling, the claims of the Andrews and those filed by any other individual borrowers would now proceed as individual lawsuits.

“We’re obviously very pleased” with the ruling, said Jeffrey Sarles, a partner at the law firm Mayer Brown, who represented the bank in the appeal.

(Editing by Phil Berlowitz and Brad Dorfman)

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