Servicer Violated RESPA but Caused no Damages: Eighth Circuit

By Stephen A. Fogdall

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit concluded earlier this month in Wirtz v. Specialized Loan Servicing, LLC, that a mortgage loan servicer violated Section 6 of the Real Estate Settlement Procedures Act (RESPA) by failing to obtain a borrower’s complete payment history from a previous servicer and to provide a copy of the history to the borrower in response to his qualified written requests.  However, the court concluded that the borrower nevertheless failed to state a claim under RESPA because there was no evidence that he suffered any actual damages as a result of the violation.

The main RESPA compliance lesson from Wirtz is that if the information a servicer needs to respond to a borrower’s qualified written request is in the possession of a prior servicer, the servicer itself should take reasonable steps to obtain that information from the prior servicer rather than tell the borrower to obtain it.

The servicer in Wirtz received a partial payment history (beginning in mid-2011) from the prior servicer when it acquired the servicing rights to the loan.  The first entry in the history appeared to show that the borrower was delinquent by one month.  Later entries suggested the borrower had missed other payments in 2012 and 2013.  The borrower believed all of these entries were in error and sent qualified written requests to the servicer in order to challenge them.  Among other things, the borrower requested that the servicer provide a complete payment history for the loan from origination to the present.

The servicer responded that if the borrower wanted to contest the missed payments, he himself would need to obtain the documents necessary to do so.  Thereafter, the borrower obtained the complete payment history to address the initial alleged missing payment, and obtained other bank records (for which he paid $80) to address the alleged missing payments in 2012 and 2013.  He then renewed his qualified written requests.  Unsatisfied with the servicer’s responses to these renewed requests, he brought suit under Section 6 of RESPA.

Section 6 of RESPA requires a servicer receiving a qualified written request to conduct “an investigation” and then to “provide the borrower with a written explanation or clarification that includes” the “information requested by the borrower or an explanation of why the information requested is unavailable or cannot be obtained by the servicer.”  Section 6 further provides that the borrower may recover from the servicer “any actual damages” the borrower suffered “as a result of” a violation of these obligations, as well as “any additional damages, as the court may allow, in the case of a pattern or practice of noncompliance,” not to exceed $2,000.00, plus costs and attorneys fees.

The district court found that the servicer did not violate Section 6 with respect to its handling of the borrower’s requests relating to the alleged missing payments in 2012 and 2013.  However, the district court concluded that the servicer “made minimal effort to investigate the error” relating to the initial alleged missing payment, and failed to provide the borrower with the payment history he requested.  The district court awarded as actual damages the $80 the borrower had spent to obtain the bank records relating to the alleged missing payments in 2012 and 2013 (for which the district court had found no violation), then awarded a further $2,000.00 in statutory damages, along with attorneys fees of over $45,000.00.

On appeal, the Eighth Circuit affirmed the district court’s conclusion that the servicer violated Section 6 by failing to obtain the borrower’s complete payment history.  The Eighth Circuit explained that Section 6 “imposes a substantive obligation on mortgage loan servicers to conduct a reasonably thorough examination before responding to a borrower’s qualified written request.”  In addition, the court held that the servicer could not claim that the borrower’s payment history was “unavailable” simply because the servicer itself did not possess it, when that history “could be obtained” by the servicer from the prior servicer “through reasonable investigation.”

Nevertheless, the Eighth Circuit reversed the district court’s finding of damages.  The court held that the only violation found by the district court related to the initial alleged missing payment, whereas the $80 the borrower spent to obtain bank records related to the alleged missing payments in 2012 and 2013.  The $80 expense was therefore not the “result of” the violation the district court found.  The court further held that the borrower could not recover statutory damages because such damages are characterized in the statute as “additional damages,” implying that they can only be awarded if the borrower can first establish actual damages.  Lastly, because damages are an “essential element” of a Section 6 claim, the court held that the borrower had failed to establish any claim for relief under Section 6 and directed entry of judgment in favor of the servicer on that claim.

Although the servicer in Wirtz ultimately escaped liability under RESPA, servicers should still carefully consider the court’s guidance that Section 6 imposes a substantive obligation to conduct a reasonably thorough investigation before responding to a qualified written request, as well as take heed that information cannot be considered “unavailable” merely because it is in the hands of a prior servicer.  Servicers should proceed on the assumption that courts will expect them to take reasonable steps to obtain needed information from a prior servicer rather than put the onus on borrowers to do so.

 

Plaintiffs fail to establish equitable tolling in another putative RESPA kickback case

By Monica C. Platt

In Riddle v. Bank of America, a judge in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania just granted summary judgment against the plaintiffs in a case alleging that banks and mortgage insurers participated in a “scheme” to pay purported kickbacks in violation of the Real Estate Settlement Procedures Act (RESPA). We have discussed other similar cases in prior posts on this blog.

RESPA prohibits giving or receiving “any fee, kickback, or thing of value” in exchange for a referral of settlement-service business. 12 U.S.C. § 2607(a). In Riddle, the plaintiffs alleged that their mortgage lender purchased mortgage insurance coverage on their loans in exchange for mortgage insurers’ agreement to reinsure that coverage with a reinsurance company affiliated with the bank.  The plaintiffs said that this agreement was a “thing of value” for the lender because the reinsurer supposedly was insulated from paying any real losses.

Plaintiffs brought their claims years after the statute of limitations had already run, but argued that the doctrine of equitable tolling saved their claims.

The Riddle court allowed the plaintiffs a limited period of discovery to try to establish a basis for equitable tolling, but the discovery was fruitless.  The plaintiffs could not show that they investigated their claims between the time their loans closed and the time their lawyers contacted them.  The court found that it was clear that plaintiffs were not diligent, and only elected to pursue litigation after they were solicited by their lawyers.  As the court put it, the plaintiffs did not proffer any evidence that they “did anything other than appear at their [loan] closings.”

The plaintiffs tried to argue that documents they received at their closings misled them about the reinsurance relationship between the mortgage insurers and the lender’s reinsurance company, but the court rejected that argument.  The court found that the plaintiffs’ real contention what that these documents “failed to disclose that [the Defendants supposedly] were violating RESPA.”  Thus, the plaintiffs, at bottom, were “trying to turn Defendants’ failure to inform them that they [allegedly] were running a scheme in violation of RESPA into an affirmative act of concealment.”  The court found that this argument was “circular and would eviscerate the statute of limitations.”

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