TILA Class Action Defense Cases–Christ v. Beneficial: Eleventh Circuit Reverses Class Action Certification And Damage Award In Truth-In-Lending-Act Class Action Holding TILA Does Not Authorize Actions Seeking Private Injunctive Relief

Nov 4, 2008 | By: Michael J. Hassen

Private Injunctive Relief Unavailable Under Truth in Lending Act, so District Court in TILA Class Action Seeking such Relief Improperly Granted Class Action Treatment under Rule 23(b)(2) and Erred Further in Awarding $22 Million in Damages as “Restitution or Disgorgement” under Declaratory Judgment Act Eleventh Circuit Holds

Plaintiff filed a class action against Beneficial Florida, Inc. and numerous affiliates (the Bank) alleging violations of the federal Truth in Lending Act (TILA) in the disclosures made by the Bank in connection with a $2000 loan; the class action complaint alleged that the Bank violated TILA by listing the fee for non-filing insurance (NFI) in the wrong column on the disclosure form. Christ v. Beneficial Corp., ___ F.3d ___ (11th Cir. October 28, 2008) [Slip Opn., at 1-2]. Specifically, the class action alleged that the Bank disclosed the NFI as an “amount charged” when it should have been disclosed as a “finance charge,” id., at 4. In part, plaintiff’s class action complaint sought damages, injunctive relief, declaratory relief, and disgorgement, id., at 4-5. The Judicial Panel on Multi-District Litigation centralized the class action with other related class actions against the Bank in the Middle District of Alabama, and ultimately the Alabama federal court certified a nationwide class action against the Bank under Rule 23(b)(2), id., at 5-6, which authorizes class actions where a defendant acted “on grounds that apply generally to the class, so that injunctive relief or corresponding declaratory relief is appropriate respecting the class as a whole,” FRCP Rule 23(b)(2). In certifying the class action, the district court held that “[i]njunctive and declaratory relief are available under TILA,” id., at 6 (citation omitted). The district court later granted summary judgment in favor of the plaintiff class “and awarded injunctive relief and over $22 million in restitution and disgorgement pursuant to the Declaratory Judgment Act.” Id., at 3. The Eleventh Circuit reversed.

The Eleventh Circuit primarily addressed whether “private injunctive relief” is available under TILA: it noted that TILA is silent on the issue, neither expressly authorizing such relief nor prohibiting it, and that the district court “inferred from TILA’s silence that TILA provides private injunctive relief.” Christ, at 8. Based on its detailed analysis, the Circuit Court disagreed. See id., at 8-12. The Eleventh Circuit then held that certification of a Rule 23(b)(2) class action was inappropriate because the Declaratory Judgment Act, standing alone, would not support such an order. Id., at 12. The Court explained, “The relief sought under the Declaratory Judgment Act is essentially a declaration of liability under TILA, and can only ‘lay the basis for a damage award rather than injunctive relief.’” Id. (citation omitted). Accordingly, because it held that TILA did not authorize private injunctive relief, the Eleventh Circuit vacated the class action certification order. Id.

The Eleventh Circuit also held that the damage award similarly failed. “The district court…awarded the plaintiff class injunctive relief and $22 million in restitution or disgorgement under the Declaratory Judgment Act, characterizing such relief as ‘restitution or disgorgement of the illegal NFI premiums by which Beneficial was unjustly enriched.’” Christ, at 13 (citation omitted). Based on its analysis, the Circuit Court concluded, “Far from effectuating the declaration regarding the underlying TILA cause of action, [the award] circumvented the express remedies provided by Congress in this context: actual damages (which [plaintiff] conceded he could not prove) or statutory damages (which [plaintiff] waived).” Id., at 15. The Eleventh Circuit therefore not only reversed the district court order certifying a nationwide class action, but vacated the award in favor of the plaintiff class. Id.

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