WASHINGTON, D.C. — Wells Fargo Dealer Services has agreed to pay more than $4.1 million to settle charges that it violated the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act (SCRA) when it repossessed 413 vehicles owned by protected servicemembers without obtaining a court order, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) announced on Friday.
The settlement will cover repossessions that occurred between Jan. 1, 2008 and July 1, 2015. As part of the agreement, Wells Fargo will pay $10,000 to each of the affected servicemembers, along with any lost equity in the vehicle with interest. The finance source also agreed to change it reposession policies to ensure that a court order is obtained before reposessing a vehicle owned by an active duty servicemember.
Additionally, the settlement imposes a 6% cap on interest rates for any active duty servicemembers and requires that Wells Fargo repair the credit of all affected servicemembers.
“We all have an obligation to ensure that the women and men who serve our country in the Armed Forces are afforded all of the rights they are due,” said U.S. Attorney Eileen M. Decker of the Central District of California. “Wells Fargo failed in that obligation. The settlement announced today, however, vindicates the rights of our servicemembers and will help ensure better lending practices in the future by one of the nation's largest motor vehicle lenders.”
The SCRA requires a court to review and approve any repossession if the servicemember took out the loan and made a payment before entering military service. According to the Justice Department, the court may delay the repossession or require the lender to refund prior payments before repossessing.
“The court may also appoint an attorney to represent the servicemember, require the lender to post a bond with the court and issue any other orders it deems necessary to protect the servicemember," read a statement from the Justice Department. "By failing to obtain court orders before repossessing motor vehicles owned by protected servicemembers, Wells Fargo prevented servicemembers from obtaining a court’s review of whether their repossessions should be delayed or adjusted to account for their military service."
The justice department began investigating Wells Fargo Dealer Services in March 2015, after it received a complaint from the U.S. Army’s Legal Assistance Program. The complaint alleged that Wells Fargo had repossessed National Guardsman Dennis Singleton’s used car while he was preparing to deploy to Afghanistan to fight in Operation Enduring Freedom.
The Justice Department found that after Wells Fargo Repossessed the car, it sold it at a public auction and then attempted to collect a deficiency balance of more than $10,000 from the national guardsman and his family. After the vehicle was repossessed, Singleton met with a National Guard attorney while he was seeking help with debt consolidation. That's when he was informed of his rights under the SCRA.
That attorney later requested information from Wells Fargo about the original loan and repossession, and asked for copies of correspondence and payment history. According to the Department of Justice, Wells Fargo never provided the requested documents and information. A subsequent investigation by the Justice Department corroborated Singleton’s complaint, as well as a more-than-seven-year history of similar repossessions.
This is the second settlement this year the Justice Department has reached with a finance source to resolve similar charges. Just last month, the department reached settlement with HSBC Finance Corp., which agreed to $434,500 to resolve the Justice Department's charges that it violated the SCRA when it repossessed 75 cars owned by protected servicemembers without obtaining necessary court orders.
This Justice Department's announcement comes a few weeks after the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) ordered Wells Fargo to pay $100 million for secretly opening two million unauthorized, fee-generating deposit and credit accounts. Additionally, Wells Fargo was required to pay an additional $35 million to the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency and $50 million to the city and county of Los Angeles, and $5 million to customers for a total payout of $190 million.
“Wells Fargo employees secretly opened unauthorized accounts to hit sales targets and receive bonuses,” CFPB Director Richard Cordray said in a statement following the announced fine. “Because of the severity of these violations, Wells Fargo is paying the largest penalty the CFPB has ever imposed. Today’s action should serve notice to the entire industry that financial incentive programs, if not monitored carefully, carry serious risks that can have serious legal consequences.”
According to the Justice Department, Wells Fargo began sending payments to many of the affected servicemembers last month. In the upcoming months, Wells Fargo will locate additional servicemembers whose vehicles were repossessed and distribute payments through this settlement.
The settlement is still subject to court approval.