Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Modification of credit terms: interest rate hikes, higher fees, and other finance charges


Increases in Interest Rates (APR) and Fees as an Issue in Credit Card Actions 

This post discusses the issue of modification of credit terms in the context of debt collection litigation.
 

Federal law (TILA) requires written disclosure of initial terms of consumer credit as well as modification of such terms later. As a matter of state contract law, contract-modification has the same elements as contract-formation under state law, and as such requires proof of mutual assent. The creditor should accordingly be held to the burden of proving contractual authorization of interest rates actually shown as having been used to calculate and assess finance charges on monthly account statements or similar account history, especially when there was an interest rate hike and a very high rate was applied for an extended period of time prior to the lawsuit having been filed, with the result of augmenting the amount of the debt (damages pleaded for) considerably.

MODIFICATION OF TERMS FALLS UNDER TILA 

The federal Truth in Lending Act (TILA) requires disclosure in writing of changes in credit terms in additional to initial disclosure of terms when the consumer credit account is set up. -- > TILA Disclosures

CONTRACT LAW REGARDING MODS MIRRORS GENERAL CONTRACT-FORMATION PRINCIPLES 

State law governing modification of contracts requires the same essential elements to be satisfied that are required for valid formation of the initial contract: offer and acceptance with respect to the new terms, and a meeting of the mind on them.

The terms will typically be offered by the bank, but they will also have to be accepted by the customer. Therefore, when the bank sues to collect a debt that includes interest accrued at the modified rate, it should also be held to the burden of proving contractual assent to the modified rate, which -- at least in cases that end up in court -- is typically a higher rate, sometimes a much higher one.

REJECTION OF PROPOSED CHANGE IN TERMS (rarely seen in debt suit)

Rejection of new terms proposed by the bank - either via separate change-in-terms notices or notices included in the monthly statement ("bill stuffer") may result in the account being cancelled and not being available for future use. See sample opt-out instruction with announcement of consequences used by Capital One in 2007.


Sample Opt Out Provisions from Notice of Change in Terms
 issued by Capital One in 2007

 
Sample Citibank Notice of Interest Rate Increas
with opt out clause




Whether rejection will entail such adverse effect will depend on the terms of the existing contract and proposed changes, and whether the creditor follows through with the cancellation (which may not be in its economic interest in the case of a profitable customer) or lowers the credit limit to the existing balance as a functional equivalent of cancellation.

The issue of rejection of a modification of terms rarely arises in debt collection, not to mention documentary evidence thereof. What is commonly seen is evidence of an increase in the interest rates to very high levels (27.24% in the case of Amex cards or 29.99% APR in account issued by Chase Bank USA, N.A.) from a lower rate as reflected on copies of account statements produced by the bank or its assignee in support of a motion for summary judgment. The attorney for the creditor/plaintiff will typically argue that the cardholder did not complain until the lawsuit was filed, and that the finance charges are therefore legitimate. If the contractual basis is missing, however, this is a questionable argument under contract law.

IMPLICATIONS FOR LITIGATION 

If no signed modification agreement is offered, the plaintiff would have to prove offer and acceptance of the modified terms, such as an increase in the interest rate with proof that the defendant was given notice of the proposed changes, and that he/she accepted them by continuing to use account; or did not expressly utilize the out-out mechanism that may have been included in the notice of proposed changes in terms. Change-of-terms notices vary with regard to the specifics of opt-out provisions, if they contain them at all.

If the cardholder merely continued to make payments on the account, doing so should not be deemed acceptance of new terms because the cardholder would not have the option to discontinue making payments since the modification in terms would not cancel the preexisting repayment obligation as to a revolving balance. Stated differently, the card member did not have the option to cease making payments merely to express disapproval of the proposed changes. This would hardly be a viable excuse for not making payments in subsequent litigation predicated on Defendant's default. Therefore, the plaintiff should not be able to rely on that type of evidence to support the proposition that the Defendant consented to the rate hike.
   
But the caselaw regarding the effectiveness of interest rate changes, and the associated evidentiary burdens for the plaintiff to enforce finance charges accrued at a different (usually higher) rate is murky, perhaps because the argument was not clearly made in the trial court and/or on appeal. At least one case is on point in finding that account statements that did not show any card use subsequent to an interest rate hike could not furnish evidence of acceptance by the customer, and therefor could not relieve plaintiff from proving mutual agreement on altered terms.  

VARIATION OF FINANCE CHARGES OVER TIME AS SHOWN ON MONTHLY STATEMENTS

The documentary record is not consistent across debt collection cases that involve increases in the interest rate(s) applied to revolving balance(s), not to mention those that led to an opinion on appeal. In some cases, the only evidence of a change in terms are found on the account statements themselves. But differing interest rates shown at different times on monthly account statements does not prove that those interest rates were set and applied in conformity with the applicable contract.

If interest rates vary on different statements over time, the interest rate must have been defined as a variable interest rate (pegged on the prime rate or similar index), or there must have been a change in terms of the original interest rate. Either way, proof of the underlying contract provisions is needed.

What complicates the matter is that the underlying contract, or some supplement, may have defined contingencies that would trigger an interest rate hike (penalty or default rate). Another scenario is that the bank offered a lower interest rate for a limited time (lower relative to the regular rate).

The same applies, analogously, to fees. If, for example, different amounts of late fees appear on monthly statements at different times, this suggests are change in terms, unless the underlying contract set different monthly flat fees based on the amount of the revolving balance, or the amount required to be paid as a minimum monthly payment amount.

But variations in interest rates and fees over a series of monthly statements merely supplies evidence that different finance charges were imposed as a matter of fact; it does not prove that the applicable contract authorized them. But such proof forms part of the Plaintiff's burden of proof.

PROOF OF CONTRACTUAL AUTHORIZATION FOR HIGHER FEES AND APR 

To establish that the finance charges were correctly assessed based on the underlying TILA disclosures/contract terms, the plaintiff would have to prove up the underlying contract and its term AND the modifications in such terms by change notice(s) or by a superseding agreement.

In the case of an expiration of a special (low) rate offer, written evidence of the terms of the offer would have to be adduced, including the duration of the preferential rate and/or definition of events that precipitate a reversion to the normal rate (regardless of whether the special rate offer falls under TILA).  

Although the law would seem to be clear in requiring a showing of contractual authorization for the interest actually charged as evidenced by monthly statements, courts do not always hold the Plaintiff to this component of its burden of proof, but instead want to know if the Defendant disputed the rate, or if there is any evidence that the rate was incorrect (i.e., not authorized), thus shifting the burden of proof to the defendant.

Additionally, creditors and their attorneys may attempt to circumvent the proof requirements as it relates to contractual authorization of finance charges by resorting to the alternative theory of account stated. The account stated theory as a vehicle to avoid having to prove up the terms of the contract is addressed in another post. Also see -- > account stated and contractual choice of law.

EXAMPLES OF CHANGE IN TERMS NOTICES BY CREDIT CARD ISSUERS 

US Bank Reservation of Right to Change Credit Terms:



[more forthcoming]

LACK OF PROOF OF ORIGINAL APR AND/OR CHANGES IN RATES OVER TIME

In Tully v. Citibank the Texarkana court of appeals held that Citibank was not entitled to summary judgment on its breach of contract claim (or either of the other two causes of action, which were nonviable for legal reasons) because it had not proven the defendant’s agreement to the interest rates shown on monthly statements. The court noted that the interest rate was not specified on the cardmember agreement; that there were no notices of changes in terms announcing an increase in the interest rate; and that the variable APRs appearing on monthly statements could not qualify as notices in change of terms retroactively even if they were otherwise deemed a satisfactory substitute for formal notices of changes in terms.

RELATED TOPICS AND BLOG POSTS 

Elements of contract formation involving a written contract without both parties' signatures
Contractual authorization of APR and account fees (finance charges)
Requirement of proof of the terms of a loan contract under Texas law
The relevance of the Truth in Lending Act (TILA) to debt collection litigation
Interest rate hikes


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