A jury this month voted to slap Green Tree Financial Corp. with a $2 million judgment on charges it harassed a San Antonio postal worker and his wife who borrowed $60,000 to buy a manufactured home.
The Texas district court judge who would have to sign off on the punitive damage award-which would be the largest ever assessed on a lender for a single loan-has ordered the parties to mediate a settlement. Green Tree has vowed to appeal.
The dispute may have snowballed from a question over homeowners insurance, said the borrowers' attorney, John Castillo.
Feliciano and Sylvia Garcia took out a loan in 1993 from Minneapolis- based Green Tree, the leader in the prefab home lending business. Green Tree may have later added charges for such insurance to their debt, Mr. Castillo said. The Garcias were never notified of such an addition, and in any case already had homeowners insurance, he said.
Green Tree declined to discuss the case except to say its business practices were reputable and fair and it would fight the decision.
Mr. Castillo said that the Garcias made their monthly payments of $545 on time, but that from September 1995 to July 1996 they received three or four phone calls a day from a Green Tree collector. "These weren't just 'Hey, you owe me money' calls," Mr. Castillo said. "They were threatening."
The collection agent told the Garcias that he was going to "sue their ass" and made racial slurs and referred to them as "stupid," Mr. Castillo said.
Phone calls to Green Tree didn't resolve the issue, the attorney said, and the Garcias received conflicting information each time about why and how much they owed in back payments.
The couple hired Mr. Castillo's firm and asked for a summary of their account. Green Tree filed for foreclosure, and the Garcias filed a countersuit.
The jury's decision to award $2 million in punitive damages and over $30,000 for lost wages and damaged reputation, was unexpected, Mr. Castillo said.
The judgment may have been prompted by the demeanor of Green Tree's marketing director, Michael Tarte, on the witness stand, Mr. Castillo said.
"He said, 'No, we don't apologize, and we'd do it again,' and that incensed the jury," the lawyer said.
Green Tree has changed counsel and vows to fight the judgment, said a spokesman. "We firmly believe that the punitive damages will either be eliminated or substantially reduced if there is a retrial or an appeal," he said.
But "we're not going to give this away," said Roger Bresnahan, another attorney who worked on the Garcias' case. "We've got a solid verdict."
Since a local newspaper wrote about the suit, Mr. Castillo said, he has gotten several calls from other Green Tree borrowers who claim that they are being harassed.
"If a person falls behind just one month, they just hammer him," the lawyer said. "They even sent one lady 'for sale' signs to put on her house."