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  • District Court Grants Preliminary Settlement Approval in SCRA Class Action Suit

    Courts

    On September 13, the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina granted preliminary approval to settle a class-action suit resolving allegations that a national bank overcharged military families on interest and fees related primarily to mortgage and credit card accounts in violation of the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act (SCRA). The order also, in the context of the proposed settlement only, preliminarily certifies the class, which is comprised of members who—after September 11, 2001—were entitled to “additional compensation related to military reduced interest rate benefits from [the bank].” The plaintiffs filed the complaint against the bank in 2015 claiming alleged violations of the SCRA, TILA, and the North Carolina Unfair and Deceptive Trade Practices Act. In May 2016, the court denied the defendants’ motion to dismiss the first amended complaint, and at the end of 2016, the parties agreed to mediation. A second amended complaint—now the operative complaint—was filed just prior to the motion for preliminary approval. While the bank has not admitted any wrongdoing, it has agreed to refrain from using an “interest subsidy method for interest benefits calculations for a five-year period,” which, plaintiffs pleaded, can lead to higher costs.

    According to the terms of the memorandum in support of the motion for preliminary approval, class members will receive payments based on the strength of their individual claims, considering such factors as: (i) loan type; (ii) whether they previously received remediation from the bank, and how much; and (iii) the eligible period for interest rate refunds. The memorandum further stipulates that approximately $15.4 million of the nearly $42 million overall settlement will be provide to class members who have not received or deposited any payments from the bank. Unclaimed amounts from the first round will be pooled with the remainder of the settlement to be allocated as outlined in the distribution plan. A final approval hearing is scheduled for February of next year.

    Courts SCRA TILA Servicemembers Mortgages Credit Cards Class Action Litigation Settlement

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  • Fourth Circuit Affirms SCRA Does Not Apply to Mortgage Loan Incurred During Service

    Courts

    In an opinion handed down on July 17, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit ruled that the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act (SCRA) does not apply to a mortgage loan obligation incurred during a borrower’s military service, even if the obligation was incurred during an earlier, distinct period of military service. At issue was the SCRA’s requirement that lenders obtain a court order before foreclosing on or selling property owned by a current or recent servicemember if the mortgage obligation “originated before the period of the servicemember’s military service.”

    The case concerned a borrower who had financed the purchase of a house while serving in the Navy. After his discharge from the Navy, he defaulted on his mortgage loan. The borrower then enlisted in the Army, and shortly thereafter, the bank sold the borrower’s house—without prior court approval—at a foreclosure sale. The borrower signed a move-out agreement and addendum that affirmatively waived “any rights and protections provided by [SCRA] with respect to” the deed and foreclosure sale.

    More than five years after the foreclosure sale, the borrower filed a lawsuit against the bank, alleging that the foreclosure sale was invalid under SCRA. The district court granted summary judgment for the bank, ruling that “[b]ecause it is undisputed that [the borrower’s] mortgage originated while he was in the military, that obligation does not qualify under [SCRA].” Specifically, the district court reasoned that the SCRA is “designed to ensure that servicemembers do not suffer financial or other disadvantages as a result of entering the service . . . by shielding servicemembers whose income changes as a result of their being called to active duty, and who therefore can no longer keep up with obligations negotiated on the basis of prior levels of income.” “Such a change in income and lifestyle,” the district court explained, “was not a factor in [the borrower’s] case, as the mortgage at issue here originated while he was already in the service.”

    The Fourth Circuit adopted the district court’s reasoning in a 2-1 decision. In dissent, Judge King contended that the majority’s ruling was contrary to the SCRA’s plain, unambiguous language. Judge King further reasoned that, even if the SCRA’s language was ambiguous, the borrower would still prevail because the SCRA must be liberally construed to protect servicemembers.

    Of note, because of its ruling, the district court did not address the bank’s alternative argument that the borrower had waived his rights under the SCRA by executing the addendum to his move-out agreement.

    Courts SCRA Appellate Fourth Circuit Litigation Mortgages

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  • FTC to Host Joint Conference on Protecting Military Consumers

    Consumer Finance

    On July 27, the FTC announced it is partnering with state and local authorities to host the Protecting Military Consumers: A Common Ground Conference on September 7 in Los Angeles to provide training on consumer fraud and other issues affecting servicemembers and their families. The conference is geared towards military attorneys, law enforcement personnel, and consumer protection officials, and will include the following topics:

    • student loans and for-profit colleges;
    • identity theft and imposter scams;
    • debt collections;
    • mortgage disputes; and
    • real estate fraud.

    Additionally, the conference will discuss several federal, state, and local consumer protection laws, including the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act, the Military Lending Act, and FTC and CFPB rules and regulations.

    Earlier in July, the FTC held a Military Consumer Financial Workshop to educate consumers on financial issues and scams they may face. (See previous InfoBytes coverage here.)

    Consumer Finance Agency Rule-Making & Guidance FTC Servicemembers SCRA Military Lending Act CFPB Student Lending Mortgages Debt Collection Privacy/Cyber Risk & Data Security

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  • DOJ Announces Settlement with Michigan Credit Union over SCRA Violations

    Federal Issues

    On July 6, the DOJ announced a settlement with a Michigan-based credit union resolving allegations that the credit union illegally repossessed four servicemembers’ vehicles in violation of the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act (SCRA). As previously reported, the DOJ filed its complaint on July 26, 2016, alleging that the credit union violated the “SCRA’s prohibition against repossessing a motor vehicle from a servicemember during military service without a court order if the servicemember made a deposit or installment payment on the loan before entering military service.”

    Servicemember protections under the SCRA empower the court to (i) review and approve each repossession; (ii) delay a repossession or require the lender to refund the payments made by the servicemember prior to the repossession; (iii) appoint an attorney to represent the servicemember; and (iv) require the lender to post bond with the court.

    Under the settlement, the credit union agreed to a civil penalty of $5,000. In addition, the credit union agreed to pay up to $10,000 plus lost equity in the vehicle with interest and to repair the credit of each affected servicemember whose vehicle was repossessed. The credit union also agreed to obtain either a court order or a valid SCRA waiver before repossessing a servicemember’ s vehicle, and to develop policies and procedures for vehicle repossessions that comply with the SCRA as well as provisions to ensure that servicemembers may benefit from the 6 percent interest rate cap on vehicle loans.

    Federal Issues DOJ Credit Union SCRA Courts Settlement Servicemembers

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  • New York AG Announces Settlement with Virginia Developer for Violating Servicemembers Civil Relief Act

    Federal Issues

    On May 10, New York Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman announced that a Virginia-based company has agreed to pay $69,000 to settle allegations that, among other things, it violated the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act (SCRA) by unlawfully charging fees to servicemembers who terminated their residential leases early. Under the provisions of the SCRA, servicemembers and their families are allowed to terminate leases early without penalty if they are deployed, receive orders for permanent change of station, or their military service is honorably terminated. According to the Attorney General’s office, the company—which owns a community of townhomes in close proximity to Fort Drum and actively markets its housing to servicemembers and their families—also violated New York law by including “numerous unconscionable provisions” in its lease agreements, and advertising amenities that were either not included in the rent, or unavailable. Under the terms of the settlement, the company must pay more than $59,000 to over 125 servicemembers, reform its lease and other business practices to comply with New York law, and pay a civil money penalty of $10,000 to the State.

    Federal Issues Consumer Finance SCRA Servicemembers State AG

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  • GAO Issues Report on Compliance with the SCRA Interest Rate Cap by Student Loan Servicers

    Federal Issues

    On November 18, the GAO announced the release of its report and recommendations following the watchdog agency’s review of application of the SCRA’s rate cap by student loan servicers. According to the report, entitled Student Loans: Oversight of Servicemembers' Interest Rate Cap Could Be Strengthened, the number of servicemembers receiving the interest rate cap for their student loans has greatly increased since the Department of Education began requiring federal student loan servicers to automatically check the Department of Defense’s SCRA database to identify those who are eligible.

    The report also identified several challenges commonly encountered by servicemembers seeking to take advantage of the rate cap, including:  (i) inaccurate SCRA information from the database; (ii) lack of a requirement that private loan servicers use the automatic eligibility check to identify eligible servicemembers; and (iii) lack of routine oversight of SCRA compliance for nonbank private student loan lenders and servicers. The GAO recommended, among other things, that the DOJ require private loan servicers to use the automatic eligibility check to identify eligible borrowers. The report also highlighted an issue with the Department of Education’s new borrower complaint system, which lacks the ability to track SCRA complaints systematically.

    Federal Issues Consumer Finance Servicemembers Student Lending SCRA GAO Department of Education DoD

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  • DOJ Announces SCRA Pilot Program Offering Dedicated Legal Support to Military Communities

    Federal Issues

    On November 2, the DOJ announced a new pilot program to provide military communities across the country with dedicated legal support as part of a broader effort by federal prosecutors to enforce the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act (SCRA). Under the program, the DOJ will fund assistant U.S. Attorney and trial attorney positions devoted to providing targeted support on SCRA-related cases in districts with major military bases. In addition, military judge advocate officers serving as legal assistance attorneys will be eligible for designation as “Special Assistant U.S. Attorney” for purposes of handling SCRA litigation matters.

    Federal Issues Consumer Finance SCRA DOJ

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  • DOJ and OCC Reach Consent Agreement With Bank Over Alleged SCRA Violations

    Federal Issues

    On September 29, the DOJ and OCC announced separate settlement agreements with a major U.S. bank regarding alleged violations of the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act (SCRA). The DOJ’s complaint alleged that the bank repossessed vehicles owned by active duty servicemembers without the required court orders. Under the DOJ consent order, the bank agreed to pay $10,000 to each affected servicemembers whose vehicles were repossessed between from January 2008 to July 2015 not in compliance with SCRA, plus any lost equity in the repossessed vehicle, with interest. The DOJ identified 413 affected servicemembers and the bank agreed to set aside $4,130,000 (or more if needed) to pay the required compensation. The bank also agreed to pay a $60,000 civil penalty. The DOJ acknowledged that the bank had in 2014, prior to the investigation, taken steps to ensure SCRA compliance with a full-scale review of its portfolio to identify servicemembers for SCRA protection, and had previously and voluntarily commenced efforts to compensate any affected borrowers. In the OCC consent order, the OCC found errors and deficiencies by the bank in four areas:  (i) applying the 6% interest rate cap; (ii) filing accurate military status affidavits; (iii) repossessing servicemembers automobiles while they were on active duty; and (iv) implementing its SCRA compliance program. Under the consent order for a civil money penalty, the bank agreed to pay a civil money penalty of $20 million, to create a remediation plan for affected servicemembers, and to bolster its SCRA-related policies and procedures.

    Federal Issues Banking Consumer Finance OCC SCRA DOJ

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  • OCC Senior Deputy Comptroller Highlights the Importance of SCRA and MLA Compliance

    Consumer Finance

    On August 29, OCC Senior Deputy Comptroller Grovetta Gardineer delivered remarks at the 2016 Association of Military Banks of America Workshop, emphasizing the significance of banks’ compliance with the Servicemember Civil Relief Act (SCRA) and the Military Lending Act (MLA). Although Gardineer noted that SCRA-related issues have decreased since making SCRA compliance an examination focus, she stressed that room for improvement remains. Gardineer advised banks to perform due diligence with third-party vendors, noting that banks “will be held accountable for failures” by their third-party vendors. Gardineer further cautioned that, in light of the new MLA requirements taking effect on October 3, banks must ensure that they properly identify military borrowers entitled to the MLA’s expanded coverage, which will include “nearly all consumer credit covered under the Truth in Lending Act.”

    TILA OCC SCRA Military Lending Act Vendor Management

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  • DOJ Files Suit Against Military Housing Provider for Alleged SCRA Violations

    Consumer Finance

    On August 10, the DOJ announced that a private military housing provider agreed to pay $200,000 to settle allegations that it violated the SCRA by obtaining default judgments against active-duty servicemembers and their families and subsequently evicting them. According to the DOJ, the company violated the SCRA when it requested default judgments against active-duty servicemembers without filing the appropriate affidavits “to alert the court of the tenants’ military status.” Under the terms of the proposed consent order, the company must (i) pay each servicemember affected by its actions $35,000 and vacate the judgment; (ii) forgive deficiency balances and request that the credit bureau remove evictions from effected credit reports; and (iii) pay a civil penalty of $60,000 to the United States. The consent order is pending approval by the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of California. The DOJ noted that this is the first case it has filed alleging illicit eviction of servicemembers from their homes.

    California AG Harris filed a parallel suit against the defendants, arguing that the evictions violated the California Military and Veterans Code, the SCRA, state debt collection laws, and state privacy laws.

    SCRA DOJ State AG

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