WASHINGTON - The recent settlement of an escrow account lawsuit in Florida could foreshadow the outcome of scores of similar disputes, according to banking lawyers.
In a deal with Florida's attorney general, Barnett Banks Inc. agreed to refund customers up to $10 each and to implement new federal escrow account rules more than two years before they become mandatory.
The dispute is one of at least 80 similar cases pending nationwide against mortgage lenders.
The suits charge that banks violated state consumer protection laws by requiring borrowers to hold more funds in escrow accounts than is needed to cover taxes and insurance.
Paul Schieber, a partner at Blank, Rome, Comisky & McCauley, said he expects other banks to reach similar settlements because they don't want to waste money defending an escrow system that is being replaced.
New federal escrow account rules will require lenders to use complex formulas to set specific escrow limits by 1998.
Still, banking attorneys are angry that the industry has to pay anything, noting that consumers barely benefit.
"Most (prior cases) have been settled under terms and conditions where the actual homeowners don't get squat," said Michael Crotty, the American Bankers Association's deputy general counsel for litigation.
"I'm not sure the customer gains a whole lot."
Florida's attorney general is the only person who benefited from the Barnett settlement, Mr. Schieber said.
"You've got to wonder if it doesn't have public relations value more than anything else," Mr. Schieber said. "You get the attorney general being able to say he got a multimillion-dollar settlement out of the big bad bank."
But consumer activists said these suits deter other banks from breaking the law.
"The law is not just to get financial damages to the consumer," said Janice Shields, a research analyst at the Center for the Study of Responsive Law, "but to discourage financial institutions from engaging in bad lending practices."