By: Kevin McDonald
The Pennsylvania Supreme Court, in Glover v. Udren Law Offices, P.C., recently determined that a law firm, representing a residential mortgage lender in connection with foreclosure proceeding, can be liable to a borrower for three times the amount of attorneys’ fees charged by the mortgage lender if said fees are in violation of the Pennsylvania Loan Interest and Protection Law, commonly known as “Act 6”. Section 406 of Act 6 limits the attorneys’ fees that a “residential mortgage lender” can contract for or receive from a borrower. Section 502 of Act 6 provides for recovery of treble damages against a “person” who has collected such excess interest or charges. “Person” is defined in Section 101 as “an individual, corporation, business trust, estate trust, partnership or association or any other legal entity, and shall include but not be limited to residential mortgage lenders.” Traditionally, law firms employed by residential mortgage lenders have been excluded from liability by the specific language of Section 406 as it applies only to “residential mortgage lenders.” The Glover decision could expose such law firms to new claims by mortgage debtors because the Court has, for the first time, held that law firms are included for liability purposes under Section 502 if they have collected excessive attorneys’ fees in connection with the foreclosure in violation of Section 406.
Mary E. Glover entered into a residential mortgage in 2002 with Washington Mutual Bank (later assigned to Wells Fargo Bank). Following Glover’s unsuccessful attempts to obtain a loan modification due to financial difficulty, the bank initiated foreclosure proceedings by hiring Udren Law Offices, P.C. (“Udren”). Udren took several actions on the bank’s behalf, including advising Glover of her unpaid debt and demanding missed payments and fees. Eventually, the parties entered into a loan modification agreement that increased Glover’s principal balance, monthly payment and repayment period. The increased principal included an amount of approximately $1,600 for escrow, attorney’s fees, and other charges. Glover then filed a putative class action law suit against Udren in the Court of Common Pleas of Allegheny County, alleging that Udren had violated Act 6 by charging unearned and excessive attorney’s fees. Because Udren was undisputedly not a residential mortgage lender under Act 6 (as the term is defined in Section 101), Udren filed preliminary objections asserting that Glover had failed to state an actionable claim and the Common Pleas Court agreed, finding that section 406 of Act 6 refers only to residential mortgage lenders and therefore, any violation of that provision did not give rise to a remedy against Udren under section 502.
Glover’s appeal to the Superior Court argued that, because Act 6 permits a borrower to recover treble damages from a “person” who collects excess fees in connection with the mortgage foreclosure process, and defines “person” broadly to “include but not be limited to” residential mortgage lenders, the lower court had improperly narrowed the scope of the statute’s protections. A divided panel of the Superior Court affirmed, holding that, because Section 406’s plain language regulates only the conduct of residential mortgage lenders, Section 502 does not authorize an action against a lender’s counsel for a Section 406 violation. The majority rejected Glover’s contention that “person,” in Section 502, evidenced a legislative intent to make a broad set of actors liable for Section 406 violations, because the term was necessary to address, throughout Act 6’s various provisions, conduct by actors other than residential mortgage lenders.
The Supreme Court analyzed Act 6 with the objective purpose of ascertaining the Legislature’s intent in enacting the statute. The Supreme Court read Sections 101, 406 and 502 together and determined that the plain and explicit terms permit a person who has paid charges prohibited or in excess of those allowed by Section 406 to recover treble damages in a suit at law against the person who has collected such excess charges. The Supreme Court further reasoned that the Legislature expressly defined “person” to “include but not be limited to residential mortgage lenders” and under a straightforward application of the statute, Section 406 restricts the circumstances under which residential mortgage lenders may contract for or receive fees, while Section 502 provides a broad remedy against anyone who has collected such fees.
The Supreme Court’s ruling focused solely on whether or not the term “person” as used in Section 502 of Act 6 provides for a remedy against any statutorily defined person collecting statutorily prohibited fees on behalf of residential mortgage lenders. Having determined that it does, the Supreme Court remanded that matter for further proceedings without addressing the meaning of the term “collected” in Section 502.
This ruling is a significant development regarding Act 6 liability as the Supreme Court has issued a warning to mortgage foreclosure firms that they will be held liable to borrowers, with the potential of treble damages, if they are determined to be charging or collecting attorneys’ fees in excess of those allowed under Section 406. Whether or not the remanded matter will address the law firm’s need to actually collect said fees before they can be found liable remains to be seen.