Chase Manhattan Corp.'s agreement to settle a class action filed by credit card customers who said they were improperly charged late fees is yet another sign of consumer backlash against credit card banks and may encourage consumer lawyers to try copycat suits against other banking companies.
Chase denied any liability in the case, which involved a dispute over the cutoff time for crediting card payments that were sent by mail, and said that it settled the case to avoid further legal costs. The episode will cost the fourth-largest bank card issuer up to $22.2 million for payments to cardholders, unearned late fees and interest, attorney fees, and cardholder notification.
Two other issuers chose to settle consumer suits recently, and the spoils were handsome enough to whet the appetites of class-action lawyers. In June, Providian Financial Corp. agreed to pay $300 million to settle a customer lawsuit that charged the San Francisco issuer with deceiving cardholders about rates and fees. In July Citigroup Inc. agreed to pay $45 million to settle a class action that accused its card unit of improperly imposing finance charges.
One issuer - the First USA division of Bank One Corp. - won a recent court battle with consumers. In June a Dallas federal judge dismissed a cardholder class action against First USA that charged the Wilmington, Del., issuer with wrongfully assessing late fees.
But that victory may have been short-lived: Last month, a federal judge in Washington granted class-action status to a suit against First USA alleging fraud and other violations in the way it fixed interest rates on individual accounts.
Chase said it will pay $6.6 million in cash to cardholders. This includes $2.3 million each for finance charge and late fee credits and a $2 million reserve for future reimbursement claims. Notifying cardholders about the settlement will cost Chase $1.5 million, the bank said, and attorneys' fees will come to about $4 million.
The lawyer who brought suit, a Dallas attorney named Britton D. Monts, estimated that Chase would forgo an additional $10 million in uncollected late fees and interest as a result of the changes it is making under the settlement.
The lawsuit centered on Chase's use of 9 a.m. Eastern Standard Time as a deadline for crediting mailed credit card payments. Under the settlement, Chase will reimburse cardholders for some charges and move the cut-off time for payments to noon Eastern time for at least two years.