WASHINGTON JPMorgan Chase employed illegal "robo-signing" tactics to sue thousands of credit card borrowers behind on their debt, failed to provide adequate notice to customers facing debt collection litigation and committed various types of filing errors when bringing suits against consumers, California Attorney General Kamala Harris said in a lawsuit filed against the bank Thursday.
The suit, filed in California's Superior Court, essentially alleges the company automated its system for bringing debt collection practices against consumers in a manner designed to preempt their ability to defend themselves. Harris' complaint estimates the bank filed over 100,000 lawsuits submitted by in-house attorneys between January 2008 and April 2011 against consumers in the state. On April 1, 2010, for example, 469 suits were filed.
"To maintain this breakneck pace, defendants have employed unlawful practices as shortcuts to obtain judgments against California consumers with speed and ease that could not have been possible if defendants had adhered to the minimum substantive and procedural protections required by law," the complaint said. "At the heart of defendants' unlawful conduct is the rampant use of 'robo-signing' a practice of signing declarations, affidavits, and other documents in mass quantities, typically hundreds at a time, without any knowledge of the facts alleged in the document and without regard to the truth or accuracy of those facts."
This latest action not only continues the string of public scrutiny against the nation's top banks still sorting out the aftermath of robo-signing tied to mortgage foreclosure documentation but also is another example of authorities targeting institutions' debt collection practices.
The core of the allegations stem from a familiar problem in the mortgage servicing industry: robosigning, missing documentation, and unverified affidavits.
Former Chase employees who spoke with American Banker for a series on credit card debt collection last year said that the bank blew off documentation procedures, with employees signing stacks of dubious affidavits in meetings.
"We did not verify a single one" of the affidavits attesting to the amounts Chase was seeking to collect, said Howard Hardin, who oversaw a team handling tens of thousands of Chase debt files in San Antonio. "We were told [by superiors] 'We're in a hurry. Go ahead and sign them."
Employees who objected to the bank's procedures faced retaliation, sources told American Banker last year. A lawsuit by Linda Almonte, a mid-level San Antonio executive, brought the problems to light though the shoddy procedures allegedly continued until a 2011 probe by the OCC.
The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau has also turned up the heat on banks' debt collection practices.
A spokesman for the bank declined to comment.
The California action may just be the tip of the iceberg, analysts said.
"States around the country are looking at credit card collections, as are federal agencies," said Peter Holland, who runs the University of Maryland law school's consumer debt defense clinic. "We can expect more of these" types of enforcement actions, he added.
The complaint names three defendants in the attorney general's action: the parent company, Chase Bank USA N.A. and Chase Bankcard Services. Harris' complaint did not affix an exact amount of damages sought from the California court, although the total amount of penalties could reach well into the hundreds of millions of dollars. The state is seeking $2,500 for each defendant for every time the debt collection practices violated California law. The lawsuit also seeks an additional $2,500 for each defendant every time a violation was committed against a senior citizen or disabled person.
"This enforcement action seeks to hold Chase accountable for systematically using illegal tactics to flood California's courts with specious lawsuits against consumers," Harris said in a press release. "My office will demand a permanent halt to these practices and redress for borrowers who have been harmed."
The complaint goes beyond alleging the robo-signing practices. Harris' office also claims the bank attested to properly serving borrowers with notice they were being sued even though Chase did not follow the proper legal channels for serving such notice.
"Defendants, through their agents for service of process, falsely state in proofs of service that the consumer was personally served, when, in fact, he or she was not served at all a practice known as 'sewer service,'" the complaint said. "Other times, Defendants falsely state in proofs of service that substitute service was properly effected, even though Defendants made no reasonable attempts to personally serve the consumer."
The state also alleges Chase failed to hide customers' personal information from legal filings. The bank also never verified whether consumers targeted in the suits were members of the military despite swearing under oath that they were not activity duty, Harris' office alleges.
"In fact, Defendants have made no inquiry and have no personal knowledge about whether or not the debtor is a service member and thus entitled to certain benefits under California Military and Veterans Code," Harris' lawsuit said.