RESPA Class Action Defense Cases–Hazewood v. Foundation Financial: Eighth Circuit Affirms Dismissal Of RESPA Class Action Holding Excess Title Premium Charged Not An Unearned Fee Under RESPA

Mar 24, 2009 | By: Michael J. Hassen

District Court Properly Dismissed RESPA Class Action Complaint because Title Insurers Provided Service (Title Insurance) for Fee Alleged Overcharged to Plaintiff, and Plaintiff cannot Manufacture RESPA Claim by Alleging “Portion” of Fee (Excess Premium) was “Unearned” Eighth Circuit Holds

Plaintiff filed a class action against her title insurer, Foundation Financial Group, and other title insurers and title insurance agents alleging inter alia violations of the Real Estate Settlement Procedures Act (RESPA) and Truth in Lending Act (TILA); the class action complaint asserted that defendants overcharged for title insurance in violation of Alabama law, and that they charged borrowers for “other than for services actually performed” in violation of RESPA. Hazewood v. Foundation Fin. Group, LLC, 551 F.3d 1223, 1224 (8th Cir. 2008). The theory of the class action is that the title insurer charged a premium in excess of that allowed by state law, and that the amount of the excess constituted a “portion, split, or percentage of any charge made or received for the rendering of a real estate settlement service … other than for services actually performed” in violation of RESPA. Id., at 1225 (quoting 12 U.S.C. § 2607(b)). Put another way, the class action was premised on the theory that “the overcharge was, as a matter of law, ‘other than for services actually performed.’” Id. The class action also alleged that the title insurance premium “was, or may have been, split” between two defendants, id., at 1224. Defense attorneys moved to dismiss the class action; they argued that RESPA is violated “only when fees are charged in exchange for no services at all, not for mere overcharges or excessive fees.” Id., at 1225. The district court agreed, dismissing the RESPA claim because plaintiff in fact received title insurance, and dismissing the state law claims as barred by Alabama law because a private right of action does not exist for charging an insurance rate in excess of the filed rate. Id. The Eighth Circuit affirmed.

The Eighth Circuit noted that Alabama law “requires title insurers to submit their rates to the Insurance Commissioner, who must then approve the ‘fairness and justness’ of this ‘filed rate.’” Hazewood, at 1224 (citation omitted). Title insurers may not charge a premium in excess of the filed rate, but plaintiff allegedly was charged such a rate which was allegedly split between the settlement agent and the title insurer. Id., at 1224-25. Plaintiff argued on appeal that the class action’s RESPA claim should not have been dismissed because “a portion of her title insurance premium was unearned.” Id., at 1225. The Circuit Court cited well-settled Eighth Circuit authority holding that “RESPA § 8(b) does not provide a cause of action for excessive fees – that is, charges where a service was performed, but the plaintiff feels she was overcharged by the service provider.” Id. (citing Friedman v. Market Street Mortg. Corp., 520 F.3d 1289, 1296 (11th Cir. 2008)). If the fee is charged for a service that is actually rendered, then RESPA is not violated; the RESPA claim must allege that “no services were rendered in exchange for a settlement fee.” Id. (citation omitted). Further, the plaintiff cannot avoid this limitation by arguing, as the present class action does, that a portion of the fee charged – the “excess” portion – was “unearned.” Id., at 1225-26. Accordingly, her RESPA class action claim was properly dismissed, id., at 1226. The Eighth Circuit also rejected plaintiff’s invitation to “overrule, modify, or distinguish” its prior case law so that her class action claim could survive, id., at 1227. Accordingly, the Circuit Court affirmed the judgment of the district court dismissing the class action, id.

NOTE: RESPA provides, “No person shall give and no person shall accept any portion, split, or percentage of any charge made or received for the rendering of a real estate settlement service in connection with a transaction involving a federally related mortgage loan other than for services actually performed.” 12 U.S.C. § 2607(b).

Download PDF file of Hazewood v. Foundation Financial Group

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