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Class Action Defense Cases–Hauk v. JP Morgan Chase: Ninth Circuit Affirms Summary Judgment On Class Action’s TILA Claim But Reverses As To Class Action’s UCL And False Advertising Claims

District Court Properly Granted Summary Judgment in Favor of Bank as to Claim Alleging Violation of Federal Truth In Lending Act (TILA) because Bank’s Disclosures were Accurate, but Genuine Issue of Material Fact Precluded Summary Judgment as to Unfair Competition Law (UCL) and False Advertising Law (FAL) Claims Ninth Circuit Holds

Plaintiff filed a class action against JP Morgan Chase alleging violations of the federal Truth in Lending Act (TILA), the federal Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA) and California’s Consumers Legal Remedies Act (CLRA); plaintiff’s amended class action complaint added claims for alleged violations of California’s Unfair Competition Law (UCL) and False Advertising Law (FAL). Hauk v. JP Morgan Chase Bank USA, ___ F.3d ___ (9th Cir. January 23, 2009) [Slip Opn., at 827]. The class action complaint asserted that plaintiff opened a Chase credit card, subject to a Cardmember Agreement (CMA), and later took advantage of a “balance transfer offer” that promised a promotional fixed 4.99% APR by transferring $10,000 to his Chase card. Id., at 825. According to the allegations underlying the class action, the CMA allowed Chase to increase the interest rate if plaintiff made a late payment to Chase or any other creditor, id. The class action centered on the allegation that Chase charged plaintiff an APR of 28.74% because it maintained that “he was no longer eligible to receive the promotional 4.99% APR,” id., at 825-26; specifically, Chase argued that plaintiff had made a late payment to another creditor three months before he accepted the balance transfer offer from Chase, id., at 826. While Chase would have automatically canceled the balance transfer offer to plaintiff had it discovered the late payment as part of its monthly cardmember account review, which includes reviewing Experian credit reports, Chase claimed that it did not discover the late payment until after plaintiff had accepted the offer to transfer a balance to his credit card. Id. Defense attorneys removed the class action to federal court, and moved for summary judgment on the grounds that the class action’s state law claims were preempted by federal law and that plaintiff’s TILA and CLRA claims were defeated by the disclosures in Chase’s CMA. Id., at 827. The district court rejected the preemption argument, but agreed with the defense that plaintiff could not prove Chase knew of the late payment before accepting the balance transfer offer and so plaintiff’s state law claims could not survive. Id. The Ninth Circuit reversed as to the UCL and FAL claims for relief.

The Ninth Circuit noted that plaintiff voluntarily withdrew his FCRA claim and did not appeal from the dismissal of the class action’s CLRA claim; accordingly, the appeal was directed to the grant of summary judgment as to plaintiff’s TILA, UCL and FAL claims. Hauk, at 827. The Circuit Court devoted most of its attention to the TILA claim. The Ninth Circuit summarized TILA and Regulation Z, see id., at 828-29, and the disclosures made by Chase in conjunction with the balance transfer offer, see id., at 830-31. In pertinent part, Chase may waive its right to increase a cardholder’s APR because of a late payment if it knows of, but does not promptly act on, that default, id., at 830-31; however, Chase does not waive its right to increase the APR “based on a late payment it discovered after it mailed the [balance transfer offer], even if that late payment occurred before it mailed the [balance transfer offer],” id., at 831 (citations omitted). The Circuit Court noted further that “TILA is only a ‘disclosure statute’ and ‘does not substantively regulate consumer credit,’” id. In this case, then, the district court properly granted summary judgment on the class action’s TILA claim because “the injury [plaintiff] suffered neither resulted from any lack of TILA disclosures nor gave rise to a claim under TILA.” Id. The Ninth Circuit explained that “while an inaccurate disclosure that itself breaches a credit agreement may also violate TILA…, the breach of a credit agreement based on conduct independent of the disclosures does not necessarily give rise to a TILA claim.” Id., at 832-33 (citation omitted). In affirming the dismissal of the TILA claim, the Ninth Circuit recognized contrary authority out of the Third Circuit, see id., at 833-34 (citing Rossman v. Fleet Bank (R.I.) Nat’l Ass’n, 280 F.3d 384, 399-400 (3d Cir. 2002)), but rejected that circuit’s “expansive reading of Regulation Z,” id., at 833. Rather, the Ninth Circuit concluded at page 835, “We hold that a creditor’s undisclosed intent to act inconsistent with its disclosures is irrelevant in determining the sufficiency of those disclosures under sections 226.5, 226.6, and 226.9 of Regulation Z.” And because defendant’s disclosures complied with TILA and Regulation Z, summary judgment was proper, id.

The Circuit Court reached a different conclusion, however, as to the class action’s state law claims. The Court began by summarizing the broad scope of California’s UCL, see Hauk, at 835-36, but noted that “conduct affirmatively authorized by another statute may provide a defendant with a safe harbor from UCL liability,” id., at 836. Nonetheless, the Ninth Circuit held that the safe harbor did not apply because TILA did not authorize Chase to permit plaintiff to accept the balance transfer offer while in default on a payment to a different creditor nor did TILA authorize Chase to make disclosures based on inadequate information, id., at 836-37: if Chase knew (or should have known) of plaintiff’s late payment before he accepted the balance transfer offer, “[then] Chase cannot rely on TILA to bring its conduct within the UCL’s safe harbor,” id., at 837 (footnote omitted). Because a genuine issue of material fact existed as to whether Chase knew or should have known about plaintiff’s late payment, see id., at 837-39, summary judgment was improper as to the UCL and FAL claims, id., at 839. Accordingly, the Ninth Circuit affirmed the dismissal of the TILA claim but reversed the district court’s order granting summary judgment as to the UCL and FAL claims. Id., at 840.

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