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Financial Services Law Insights and Observations

District Court rejects dismissal bid for California interest on escrow class action

Courts Mortgages Escrow National Bank Act HOLA Dodd-Frank Ninth Circuit Appellate

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On December 7, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California denied a bank’s motion to dismiss a putative class action alleging the bank violated the California Unfair Competition Law (UCL) by not paying interest to residential mortgagors on funds held in escrow accounts, as required by California law. The three plaintiffs filed the complaint against the bank after the March decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit in Lusnak v. Bank of America, which held that a national bank must comply with a California law that requires mortgage lenders to pay interest on the funds held in a consumer’s escrow account. (Previously covered by InfoBytes here.) The plaintiffs argued that the 9th Circuit decision requires the bank to comply with the California law requiring interest on funds held in escrow.

In response, the bank filed a motion to dismiss, or in the alternative to stay the case, on the basis that the plaintiffs failed to provide the bank with notice and an opportunity to cure alleged misconduct prior to judicial action as required by the mortgage deed, and that the plaintiff’s claims were preempted by the Home Owners Loan Act (HOLA). The court rejected these arguments, finding that the plaintiff’s failure to comply with the ambiguous provisions in the mortgage deed do not foreclosure their claims, concluding “[t]o deprive Plaintiffs of recourse to their statutory rights based on an ambiguous contractual provision would also frustrate the consumer protection purposes of those statutes.” As to the HOLA argument, the court acknowledged that HOLA preempted the state interest law as to the originator of the mortgages, a now-defunct federal thrift, but disagreed with the bank’s assertion that the preemption attached throughout the life of the loan, including after the loan is transferred to a bank whose own lending is not covered by HOLA. Specifically, the court looked to the legislative intent of HOLA and noted it was unclear if Congress intended for preemption to attach through the life of the loan, but found a clear goal of consumer protection. Therefore, the court concluded that “[a]llowing preemption may run contrary to HOLA's purpose and could result in a gross miscarriage of justice” by depriving homeowners of state law protections.

Additionally, the court rejected as moot the alternative request to stay the case pending the Supreme Court’s resolution of Lusnak, because the Supreme Court denied the petition of writ in that case in November (covered by InfoBytes here).

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