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Damned if you do files: Chase Bank credit card class action

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Activists complaining about credit card debt often singled out the shift in the credit card industry from 5% minimum payments to minimum payments of 2% a month. (See, e.g., this Frontline documentary.) The smaller minimum payments give customers more financial flexibility, but some small percentage of irresponsible spenders will find that they are in long-term debt to the credit card company because they're barely paying off any principal. So, in response to such complaints, and to reduce the risk it was facing during the credit crunch, JP Morgan (who issues Chase credit cards these days) raised the minimum monthly payment back to 5%.

This resulted in a class action. You see, lawyers said, it was unfair to credit-card customers who were planning on paying only 2% a month, and now faced higher fees and interest rates because they couldn't meet the higher minimum payment. After the district court certified a class, the case settled for $100 million, with the class attorneys—including the usual suspects of Lieff Cabraser and Milberg—seeking an oversized $27 million fee plus "expenses" that have not yet been disclosed; a preliminary approval hearing is scheduled for August 3. Press coverage doesn't mention that the class will end up with likely less than $70 million; existing court filings do not indicate the lodestar crosscheck or the approximate hourly rate the attorneys will receive for an MDL with only 337 docket entries and 14 depositions of defendants. Administration expenses will be artificially inflated because class members will be getting checks, when the ones with current Chase accounts could easily get an electronic credit.

The proposed cy pres recipient is "Consumer Action," which already receives funding from JP Morgan. One of the plaintiffs' firms is The Sturdevant Firm, based in San Francisco; the president of Consumer Action, with offices in San Francisco, is Patricia Sturdevant, but that could be a coincidence. Or perhaps not.

The case is In re: Chase Bank USA NA "Check Loan" Contract Litigation, No. 09-md-02032 (N.D. Cal.). [Reuters; class website]

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What made the Chase "minimum payment" situation unique was:

1) The loans in question were sold as "fixed interest for the life of the loan," at what were at the time very low rates. In the mailings and advertising, the loans were very much sold as being a simpler form of something along the lines of an auto loan.

2) Chase changed the terms in three key ways: 1) They upped the minimum payment to the tune of 250% 2) They added a $10/month "service charge" to effectively bump up the interest rate 3) (VERY important) Unlike conventional industry practice at the time, consumers were given no "opt-out" -- the "change in terms" was a unilateral contract change.

3) Insidiously, Chase then used this more-than-doubled minimum payment (note: they specifically targeting cardholders who reliably paid on time) as as a means to put their "fixed interest for the life of the loan" customers over a barrel. To get their "for the life of the loan" minimum payment back, customers had to agree to MUCH higher interest rates, that Chase could then freely increase again in 11 months. This basically amounted to terms-change extortion, for those with fixed incomes and the like.


My wife and I had used Chase's initial offer as a means to consolidate considerable personal debt which had accumulated during a rough season with my business. Their "change in terms" took that $350 consolidated debt payment and made it $875, overnight.

Fortunately, we had the good fortune of being able to make fairly large payments and just paid off the balance in full over a relatively short period of time, which let us keep the lower interest rate. However, the experience radically changed my view of the banking industry as a whole, and Chase in particular. I don't trust them now, at all.

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Rafael Mangual
Project Manager,
Legal Policy

Manhattan Institute


Published by the Manhattan Institute

The Manhattan Insitute's Center for Legal Policy.