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Financial Services Law Insights and Observations

California Court of Appeal: FTC Holder Rule preempts state law authorizing recovery of certain attorney fees

Courts State Issues Appellate FTC Holder Rule Attorney Fees

Courts

On June 9, the California Court of Appeal for the First Appellate District affirmed a trial court’s judgment in favor of a bank (defendant), holding that the FTC’s Holder Rule preempts California Civil Code section 1459.5, which authorizes a plaintiff to recover attorney fees on a Holder Rule claim even if it results in a total recovery that exceeds the amount the plaintiff paid under the contract. According to the court, the plaintiff sued the defendant (who was assigned the vehicle credit sale contract) after he discovered that the seller failed to disclose that the vehicle had been in a major collision, thus reducing its value. The parties settled for a sum equal to the vehicle’s purchase price, and the plaintiff filed a motion for attorney fees. The trial court denied the motion, determining that the plaintiff was not entitled to fees under a holding in Lafferty v. Wells Fargo Bank, which stated that a debtor cannot recover damages and attorney fees for a Holder Rule claim that collectively exceed the amount paid by the debtor under the contract. The plaintiff appealed.

The Court of Appeal agreed with the trial court, determining that it did not need to resolve the parties’ dispute as to whether Lafferty correctly construed the Holder Rule’s limitation on recovery because the FTC’s construction of the Holder Rule is entitled to deference. The Court of Appeal referenced the FTC’s 2019 confirmation of the Holder Rule (Rule Confirmation), after Lafferty issued, which addressed, among other things, several comments related to whether the Holder Rule’s “limitation on recovery to ‘amounts paid by the debtor’ allows or should allow consumers to recover attorneys’ fees above that cap.” The FTC provided the following statement within the Rule Confirmation: “We conclude that if a federal or state law separately provides for recovery of attorneys’ fees independent of claims or defenses arising from the seller’s misconduct, nothing in the Rule limits such recovery. Conversely, if the holder’s liability for fees is based on claims against the seller that are persevered by the Holder Rule Notice, the payment that the consumer may recover from the holder—including any recovery based on attorneys’ fees—cannot exceed the amount the consumer paid under the contract.”

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