Ford Motor Co. is being targeted by several of the same activists who successfully attacked Fleet Finance Inc. in the early 1990s. They are accusing Ford's financial services unit, Associates Corporation of America, and related companies of predatory second-mortgage lending practices.
A handful of lawsuits have so far been filed against Associates in Massachusetts and Alabama, and more suits are expected, according to lawyers for the financial services industry.
Bruce Marks, executive director of Union Neighborhood Acceptance Corp., said he is preparing an all-out blitz targeting Associates that will be on a par with his campaign against Fleet Finance.
In addition, some law firms that specialize in class actions and previously sued Fleet are preparing to file against Associates.
"It is a looming cloud," said Edward K. O'Brien, a Boston plaintiff's lawyer, referring to class actions against Associates and other mortgage companies over their lending practices.
Mr. O'Brien and other lawyers allege that Associates pays hidden commissions to mortgage brokers for charging interest rates far above normal. The commissions amount to an inducement for mortgage brokers to overcharge borrowers and break their contractual agreement to find the best loan possible for customers, these lawyers said.
A spokesman for Associates, Fred Stern, played down the charges.
"It appears that these activist groups and their plaintiff lawyers are attempting to create a pattern where one does not exist," he said in a prepared statement. "Nevertheless, if a group has specific questions, then we would be willing to entertain a dialogue with them in an appropriate setting."
Laurence E. Platt, a partner at Brownstein, Zeidman and Lore, Washington, D.C., said the class actions resulted from recent letters by the Federal Reserve and Federal Housing Administration discouraging the payment of so-called "overages," or above-market interest rates.
"The class-action lawyers swarm like bees on honey," he said.
Class actions related to rewarding mortgage brokers for overcharging borrowers are expected to multiply - targeted especially but not exclusively at Associates and Ford.
A class-action suit filed this year by Mr. O'Brien, the Boston lawyer, accused Ford Consumer Finance of illegally paying mortgage brokers to charge borrowers overages.
Mr. O'Brien said he expects the class to be certified within several weeks. "It is going to hit, and it is going to hit big," he said of the expected wave of class actions.
The Massachusetts action asserts: "In thousands of second-mortgage loan transactions, the defendant paid hidden commissions to plaintiffs' and class members' mortgage brokers.
"The defendant did so under a secret agreement it made with borrowers' mortgage brokers," according to the complaint. "Mortgage brokers who fraudulently induced their customers into signing for defendant's loans at artificially high interest rates received the hidden commissions from (the) defendant."
The Council on Aging, a not-for-profit group based in Ann Arbor, Mich., is also looking into the lending practices of Associates. Terrance A. Drent, executive director, said the group had found major, systematic predatory lending practices by Associates in Ohio and Michigan. He said the violations go back at least four years.
"They are targeting low-income homeowners and compelling people to take out mortgages with extraordinarily high rates and fees," he said.
Mr. Drent said some people he has contacted did not even know they were getting a mortgage from Associates. "They think they are getting their windows fixed, literally," he said.
"If you want me to pull up my crystal ball, I would say you are going to see class actions against Associates," he said.
Gary Klein, a staff lawyer at the National Consumer Law Center, a resource for lawyers in Boston, said Associates' practices are questionable enough to merit attention from lawyers and activists. But he said too many candidates for legal attack exist to single out Associates.