A recent decision by no less than the California Supreme Court points once again to the difficulty of trying to sue National Banks under California law.

In Sheen v. Wells Fargo Bank (2002) 12 Cal.5th 905, 290 Cal. Rptr. 3d 834, Plaintiff Borrower refinanced his home, using the equity to acquire 2 loans from Wells Fargo. A few years later, borrower experienced financial problems, and sought to refinance. He asked the bank to renegotiate the loan.

Borrower sent in an application, to which Wells Fargo responded, without specifically addressing the modification question. Plaintiff understood the response to mean that Wells Fargo would not foreclose. Eventually, Wells Fargo sold the loan to a secondary lender, who foreclosed.

The California Supreme Court framed the basic question as follows:

“In this case, we address the issue dividing the lower courts: Does a lender owe the borrower a tort duty sounding in general negligence principles to (in plaintiff’s words) “process, review and respond carefully and completely to [a borrower’s] loan  modification application,” such that upon a breach of this duty the lender may be liable for the borrower’s economic losses — i.e., pecuniary losses unaccompanied by property damage or personal injury? (See, e.g., Southern California Gas Leak Cases (2019) 7 Cal.5th 391, 398, 247 Cal.Rptr.3d 632, 441 P.3d 881 (Gas Leak Cases).) We conclude that there is no such duty, and thus Wells Fargo’s demurrer to plaintiff’s negligence claim was properly sustained.” 12 Cal.5th at 915.

The California Supreme Court, by Chief Justice Cantil-Sakauye, pointed out that there was no contract to renegotiate, and thus no breach of contract. Wells Fargo had no duty, either under contract  or under common law, to grant the loan modification. Because there was no duty, failure to modify the loan meant that there was no negligence.

Furthermore, the Court held that plaintiff could only recover “economic damages,” i.e., no pain and suffering. Because there was no breach of a common law duty, Plaintiff’s damages would appear limited to the value of the home at the time of foreclosure.

The California Supreme Court did suggest that other causes of action, such as promissory estoppel or negligent misrepresentation, might proceed past demurrer, given sufficient allegations. But those causes of action were not part of Sheen’s complaint. 12 Cal.5th at 916.

Plaintiffs might consider looking to federal law, such as the Equal Credit Opportunity Act (“ECOA”), or the Truth in Lending laws, for greater protection with a national bank. Of course, the facts alleged must be adequate for such a complaint, which could also include state law claims. See, for example, 15 USC Sec. 1691; Taylor v. Accredited Home Lenders, Inc., 580 F.Supp.2d 1062, (D.C.S.D.CA, 2008) [each monthly mortgage payment constituted a continuing violation of Plaintiff’s rights under ECOA]; Schlegel v. Wells Fargo Bank, N.A., 720 F.3d 1204 (2013) [ECOA applies to mortgage loans]; Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, Examiner’s Handbook: Fair Lending, (2010); Schwemm & Taren, “Discretionary Pricing, Mortgage Discrimination, and the Fair Housing Act,” 45 Harvard Civil Rights-Civil Liberties Law Review 375, 417 (2010); Peterson, “Predatory Structured Finance,” 28 Cardozo Law Review 2185; Totten, “The Enforcers and the Great Recession,” 36 Cardozo Law Review 1611 (2015).

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