The Supreme Court agreed Friday to hear two key banking cases, including one that questions whether states can regulate fees charged by out-of-state credit card banks.
In the other case, the justices agreed to decide if the government is responsible for losses incurred when Congress eliminated supervisory goodwill. Lawyers have said the government may owe thrift owners as much as $15 billion for breaking its pledge to let them keep goodwill on their books for 40 years.
The court shortened the time parties in both cases have to file their briefs. Lawyers said they believe the court wants to hear the cases at the end of April, during the last week of the term. Normally cases granted in January are not heard until October.
In the credit card case, the court will decide if California can prevent Citibank South Dakota from assessing late fees and membership charges on its residents.
The California Supreme Court ruled in September in Smiley v. Citibank that the National Bank Act prevents states from regulating fees. The New Jersey Supreme Court, however, ruled in November that the act only prevents states from regulating the interest rates out-of-state banks can charge. States are free to limit fees, the New Jersey court ruled.
Only the Supreme Court can resolve this conflict. Any ruling by the high court also will affect banks that make home equity or car loans to out-of- state customers.
Alan Kaplinsky, a partner at Ballard, Spahr, Andrews & Ingersoll in Philadelphia, said an adverse decision could force banks to leave the interstate lending market. The conflicting state laws would raise compliance costs through the roof, he said.
"If the Supreme Court ends up finding against the banking industry, that will lead to less competition and more homogeneity in the way credit card products look," he said.
Michael Crotty, deputy general counsel for litigation at the American Bankers Association, said he expects the case to stop the scores of class- action fee suits that have been filed against banks across the country. "This will finally provide an opportunity to put an end to a rash of litigation that has been going on for five years now," he said.
The goodwill cases date back to the 1980s, when the Federal Savings and Loan Insurance Corp. was desperate to unload failing thrifts without depleting its insurance fund.
Its solution was to offer favorable accounting treatment to entice healthy thrifts into buying their ailing peers. The insurer said healthy thrifts could amortize over a 40-year period the difference between the fair-market value of the failed institution's assets and liabilities. This difference became known as supervisory goodwill.
Goodwill temporarily solved FSLIC's troubles. But it irked Congress, which saw it as another accounting gimmick. So lawmakers ordered regulators to eliminate goodwill within five years. The decision caused scores of thrifts to fail.
Glendale Federal chairman Stephen J. Trafton, whose thrift is one of the lead plaintiffs in United States v. Winstar Corp., said in an interview he was disappointed the justice's decided to review the victory his thrift won before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit.
But he said the thrift is "very comfortable" that it will prevail. A victory would allow Glendale to seek $1.5 billion in damages before the U.S. Court of Federal Claims.
The Supreme Court's decision will affect about 100 similar cases pending before various federal courts.
The California fee case began in 1992, when Barbara Smiley sued Citibank South Dakota for charging her a $15 late fee in violation of a state law. The California Supreme Court rejected her claim last September. The Colorado Supreme Court and the federal appeals courts in Philadelphia and Boston reached similar conclusions. But state courts in New Jersey and Pennsylvania didn't subscribe to that interpretation.