Class Action Alleging Violations of Federal Real Estate Settlement Procedures Act (RESPA) and California’s Unfair Competition Law (UCL) Properly Dismissed by District Court because Class Action Claims were Preempted by National Bank Act Ninth Circuit Holds
Plaintiffs filed a putative class action against Wells Fargo alleging violations of the federal Real Estate Settlement Procedures Act (RESPA) and California’s Unfair Competition Law (UCL); specifically, the class action complaint alleged that Wells Fargo violated RESPA’s prohibition against “unearned fees” by “overcharging” its customers, and that “Wells Fargo’s conduct was ‘unfair,’ ‘fraudulent’ and ‘illegal,’ all in violation of the UCL.” Martinez v. Wells Fargo Home Mortgage, Inc., ___ F.3d ___ (9th Cir. March 9, 2010) [Slip Opn., at 3763, 3767]. According to the allegations underlying the class action complaint, Wells Fargo charged plaintiffs an $800 underwriting fee in connection with refinancing their home loan. Id., at 3767. The class action alleges that the fee violated was excessive “because it was not reasonably related to Wells Fargo’s actual costs of performing the underwriting,” id., at 3767-68. Plaintiffs earlier sought to intervene in a New York lawsuit that contained identical claims; but the federal court denied intervention and dismissed the class action, and “the Second Circuit affirmed in part and remanded, holding that RESPA Section 8(b) clearly and unambiguously does not apply to excessive fees charged by a lender.” Id., at 3768. The essence of the present class action complaint was that “Wells Fargo marked up certain charges and overcharged for services in connection with mortgage loans, in violation of federal and state law.” Id. Defense attorneys moved to dismiss the class action, and the district court granted the motion on the grounds that RESPA does not apply to “overcharge” claims and that the class action’s UCL claims were preempted by the National Bank Act and “failed to identify an underlying illegal predicate act.” Id., at 3768-69. Plaintiffs appealed, and the Ninth Circuit affirmed.
The Ninth Circuit first held that the district court properly dismissed the class action’s RESPA claim because the statute does not apply to overcharge claims: “The language of Section 8(b) prohibits only the practice of giving or accepting money where no service whatsoever is performed in exchange for that money: ‘No person shall give and no person shall accept . . . any charge made or received . . . other than for services actually performed.’ 12 U.S.C. § 2607(b) (emphasis added). By negative implication, Section 8(b) cannot be read to prohibit charging fees, excessive or otherwise, when those fees are for services that were actually performed.” Martinez, at 3770 (footnote omitted). This was a matter of first impression in the Ninth Circuit, but the Court followed the holdings of the Second, Third and Eleventh Circuits in reaching this conclusion. Id., at 3771-72 (citing Kruse v. Wells Fargo Home Mortgage, Inc., 383 F.3d 49 (2d Cir. 2004); Santiago v. GMAC Mortgage Group, Inc., 417 F.3d 384 (3d Cir. 2005); Friedman v. Mkt. St. Mortgage, 520 F.3d 1289 (11th Cir. 2008)).
With respect to the class action’s UCL claims, the Ninth Circuit held that the National Bank Act (NBA) preempted the claims. See Martinez, at 3172 et seq. First, the Circuit Court held that the OCC regulation codified in 12 C.F.R. § 7.4002(b)(2) preempts the “unfair conduct” claim because it states, “The establishment of non-interest charges and fees, their amounts, and the method of calculating them are business decisions to be made by each bank, in its discretion, according to sound banking judgment and safe and sound banking principles.” Id., at 3774. The class action complaint essentially alleged that the fees charged by the Bank “are too high,” and seeks a judicial determination as to “how much an appropriate fee would be.” Id., at 3774-75. This, the Court held, was preempted. Id., at 3775. Second, the Ninth Circuit held that the OCC regulation codified in 12 C.F.R. § 34.4(a), which concerns “Real Estate Lending and Appraisals,” also preempts the “unfair conduct” claim. See id., at 3775-76. Finally, the Ninth Circuit held that the class action complaint failed to state a claim for “fraudulent conduct.” See id., at 3776 et seq. Accordingly, it affirmed the judgment of the district court. Id., at 3778.