Santander Consumer USA Inc. has agreed to pay at least $9.35 million to resolve a lawsuit by the Department of Justice alleging that the motor vehicle lender violated the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act (SCRA), the Justice Department announced today. The complaint and the settlement, which is subject to court approval, were filed today in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Texas.
The settlement covers the improper repossessions of 1,112 motor vehicles between January 2008 and February 2013. The proposed consent order represents the largest settlement for illegal automobile repossessions ever obtained by the United States under the SCRA.
“This is a just resolution that will provide service members with financial relief and help repair their bad credit caused by Santander’s improper repossessions and fee collections with respect to more than 1,100 cars,” said Acting Associate Attorney General Stuart Delery. “The Department of Justice will continue devoting time and resources to protect our service members and their families from such unjust actions and hold bad actors accountable."
“Those who answer this nation’s call to duty understandably have much on their minds while they are in military service,” said Acting Assistant Attorney General Vanita Gupta of the Civil Rights Division. “Whether their car will be seized and sold at auction should not be an additional worry. We will continue to vigorously pursue lenders who fail to take the simple steps necessary to determine, before repossessing a car, whether it is owned by a service member.”
The SCRA protects service members against certain civil proceedings that could affect their legal rights while they are in military service. It requires a court to review and approve any repossession if the service member took out the loan, and made a payment, before entering military service. 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 service member, require the lender to post a bond with the court and issue any other orders it deems necessary to protect the service member. By failing to obtain court orders before repossessing motor vehicles owned by protected service members, Santander prevented service members from obtaining a court’s review of whether their repossessions should be delayed or adjusted in light of their military service.
The lawsuit alleges that Santander initiated and completed 760 repossessions, without court orders, of motor vehicles owned by SCRA-protected service members. The agreement requires Santander to pay $10,000 plus compensation for any lost equity (with interest) to each of these service members. The lawsuit also alleges that Santander sought to collect fees arising from an additional 352 repossessions that unrelated motor vehicle lenders had conducted in violation of the SCRA before Santander acquired the loans. The agreement requires Santander to pay $5,000 to each of these service members. Santander also must repair the credit of all affected service members.
“The SCRA is an important protection for the men and women serving our country in the armed forces, and this settlement not only will rectify the past improper repossessions of service members’ vehicles, but will work to prevent such improper repossessions in the future,” said Acting U.S. Attorney John Parker of the Northern District of Texas.
For future repossessions, the settlement requires Santander to check the Defense Department’s automated database to see if a car’s owner is in military service prior to conducting a repossession.
The Department of Justice first learned of Santander’s repossession practices through a referral from the U.S. Army’s Legal Assistance Program. The referral involved a claim that Santander illegally repossessed the car of a service member, U.S. Army Specialist Joshua Davis, in the middle of the night, after having been informed that he was at basic training. The department also opened its investigation after learning that Santander used an arbitration clause included in its loan documents to prevent a second service member from pursuing systematic relief through a class action lawsuit he filed alleging that Santander had repossessed service members’ vehicles in violation of the SCRA.
As part of its investigation, the United States has already identified Santander’s illegal repossessions, and efforts to collect unlawful repossession fees, occurring between January 2008 and February 2013. Service members identified based on that investigation will be contacted by an independent settlement administrator later this year. The settlement also requires Santander to conduct a review and provide compensation for any additional unlawful repossessions that may have occurred since February 2013. All service members who are eligible for compensation from the settlement will be contacted by the administrator, and do not need to contact the Department of Justice.
The Justice Department’s enforcement of fair lending laws is conducted by the Fair Lending Unit of the Housing and Civil Enforcement Section in the Civil Right Division. Since the Fair Lending Unit was established in February 2010, it has filed or resolved 37 lending matters under the Fair Housing Act, the Equal Credit Opportunity Act, and the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act. The settlements in these matters provide for over $1.2 billion in monetary relief for impacted communities and individual borrowers. The Attorney General’s annual reports to Congress on ECOA highlight the department’s accomplishments in fair lending and are available at www.justice.gov/crt/publications.
The Civil Rights Division is a member of the Financial Fraud Enforcement Task Force. President Obama established this task force to wage an aggressive, coordinated and proactive effort to investigate and prosecute financial crimes. The task force includes representatives from a broad range of federal agencies, regulatory authorities, inspectors general and state and local law enforcement who, working together, bring to bear a powerful array of criminal and civil enforcement resources. The task force is working to improve efforts across the federal executive branch, and with state and local partners, to investigate and prosecute significant financial crimes, ensure just and effective punishment for those who perpetrate financial crimes, combat discrimination in the lending and financial markets and recover proceeds for victims of financial crimes. For more information on the task force, visit www.StopFraud.gov.
The Civil Rights Division is the component within the Department of Justice authorized to enforce the SCRA. This federal law provides protections for active duty service members in areas such as evictions, rental agreements, security deposits, prepaid rent, civil judicial proceedings, installment contracts, credit card interest rates, mortgage interest rates, mortgage foreclosures, automobile leases, life insurance, health insurance and income tax payments. For more information about SCRA enforcement by the Justice Department, please visit www.servicemembers.gov or call 1-800-896-7743, Mailbox 91.