Ninth Circuit Holds Fixed APR in Credit Card Solicitation May Be Misleading To Consumers
On July 21, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit held that a plaintiff properly alleged claims under the Truth in Lending Act (TILA) and the California Unfair Competition Law (UCL) because the use of the term "fixed" to describe an annual percentage rate (APR) along with an enumeration of three specific exceptions may have been misleading to a consumer when the APR was also subject to change for other reasons. Rubio v. Capital One Bank, No. 08-56544, 2010 WL 2836994 (9th Cir. July 21, 2010). In Rubio, the plaintiff consumer applied for and received a credit card pursuant to a direct-mail solicitation from the defendant bank in 2004. The solicitation’s "Schumer Box," as required by federal law, described the credit card’s APR as a "fixed rate of 6.99%." A paragraph below the Schumer Box stated that the APR was subject to increase in the case of (i) a failure to make a payment when due, (ii) an overlimit account, and/or (iii) a returned payment. When the consumer received her credit card, she also received a Cardholder Agreement that contained a reservation of the right of the bank to "amend or change any part" of the agreement "at any time." While none of the three enumerated conditions occurred, three years later the consumer received notice from the bank that her APR would increase. The consumer subsequently filed suit against the bank, alleging violations of TILA and the UCL and asserting a breach of contract claim.
In concluding that the bank’s disclosure was misleading under TILA, the Ninth Circuit relied in part on a study conducted by the Federal Reserve Board, which found that consumers "frequently assume that a rate that is labeled ‘fixed’ cannot be changed for any reason." Based in part on the same study, the Federal Reserve Board recently promulgated revisions to Regulation Z, which, as of July 1, 2010, bar the use of the term "fixed" in the Schumer box in certain circumstances. While those regulations did not apply retroactively to this case, the Ninth Circuit found them persuasive in determining that the disclosure at issue should be viewed as misleading. The Ninth Circuit reasoned that a reasonable consumer could conclude that the APR was "’unchangeable’ except for the three exceptions" listed next to the Schumer box and that it was, thus, reasonable for a consumer to conclude that the three enumerated conditions tied to the Schumer box were identified "precisely because they were the only reasons that the APR could change." The Ninth Circuit further held that the misleading nature of the disclosure as measured under TILA’s standards was sufficient to state a claim under the UCL.