A consumer advocacy group has sued Chevy Chase Bank, claiming the McLean, Va., thrift cheated credit card customers out of millions of dollars.
Washington-based Trial Lawyers for Public Justice filed suit against $6.7 billion-asset Chevy Chase last month in Circuit Court for Baltimore. The group, which is seeking class-action status for its suit, accuses Chevy Chase of breaching its contract with "hundreds of thousands of cardholders" by raising interest rates above a promised cap.
The privately held thrift sold its credit card portfolio to Bank One Corp. subsidiary First USA Bank last September. First USA is named as a co- defendant.
The suit claims that Chevy Chase promised cardholders that rates would never exceed 24%, the highest allowed under Maryland law. At the time, the thrift was based in Maryland.
But in 1996 Chevy Chase relocated its home office to Virginia, where there is no rate ceiling. Soon after, the thrift raised rates for some customers above 24% without notice, the suit alleges.
"Chevy Chase Bank broke its word," said Joseph A. Power Jr., a Chicago attorney with Trial Lawyers for Public Justice. "We intend to hold the bank accountable."
Chevy Chase is also accused of increasing late fees and penalties in violation of card agreement terms.
The plaintiffs are seeking refunds for customers who were charged more than 24%, and for those charged excess fees-sums Trial Lawyers said could total millions of dollars.
The thrift denies any wrongdoing. In a written statement, Leslie A. Nicholson, executive vice president and general counsel at Chevy Chase, said the thrift "complied with applicable federal and state laws" when it changed its rate policies in 1996. For that reason, he said, he believes "that this matter will be concluded in the bank's favor."
Trial Lawyers for Public Justice is not the first to protest Chevy Chase's credit card policies. In January 1998, Ralph Nader wrote a letter to thrift chairman B.F. Saul 2d urging him to "end anti-consumer practices."
The plaintiffs have turned to the Internet to find class members for their suit. A Web site called "Victims of Chevy Chase Bank" has been established, alerting customers to look at their statements and inviting them to share stories about the credit card issuer.