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Financial Services Law Insights and Observations

Michigan Supreme Court limits applicability of “usury savings clauses”

Courts State Issues Usury Consumer Finance Real Estate Mortgages Michigan Lending


On June 23, the Michigan Supreme Court reversed a circuit court’s decision on a case involving Michigan’s “longstanding prohibition on excessive interest rates for certain loans.” The case involved a “usury savings clause,” which is a term sometimes used in notes, which requires the borrower to pay the maximum legal interest rate if the contractual terms impose an illegal rate.  In the case, a nonbank investment group (plaintiff) lent a realty service company (defendant) $1 million to flip tax-foreclosed homes. Plaintiff sued for breach of contract and fraud after defendant discontinued payments after paying more than $140,000 in interest on the loan. Defendant argued that plaintiff violated the criminal usury statute by, “knowingly charging an effective interest rate exceeding 25%,” which it alleged barred plaintiff from recovering on the loan under the wrongful-conduct rule.

The circuit court determined that the fees and charges associated with the loan constituted disguised interest, making the total interest the plaintiff was seeking above the legal 25% limit and “criminally usurious.” However, the court agreed with the defendant that the usury savings clause was enforceable and the note was not facially usurious. Nevertheless, “the court agreed that the appropriate remedy is to relieve [defendant] of its obligation to pay the interest on the loan but not its obligation to repay the principal.”

The Michigan Supreme Court held that in determining whether a loan agreement imposes illegal rates of interest, a usury savings clause is ineffective if the loan agreement requires a borrower to pay an illegal interest rate, even if the interest is labeled as a “fee” or something else. Further, the court held that enforcing usury savings clauses would undermine the state’s usury laws because it would nullify the statutory remedies for usury, which would relieve lenders of their obligation to ensure that their loans have a legal interest rate. The court also held that a lender is not criminally liable for seeking to collect on an unlawful interest rate in a lawsuit. The court reasoned that seeking relief through the court of law is generally encouraged over extrajudicial means. According to the opinion, the court held that “[t]he appropriate remedy for a lender’s abusive lawsuit is success for the borrower in that lawsuit and appropriate civil sanctions, not a criminal conviction for usury.”