ORANGE COUNTY–A subprime auto lending company based in Orange County, California, has agreed to enter into a court-enforceable consent order to resolve allegations that it illegally repossessed two servicemembers’ cars without court orders while they were on active duty, the Justice Department said Wednesday.
The Justice Department filed a lawsuit against California Auto Finance and a related entity called 3rd Generation Inc., on March 28, 2018, alleging that their repossession practices violated the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act (SCRA). Under the proposed consent order, which is still subject to approval by the United States District Court for the Central District of California, California Auto Finance must adopt new repossession policies, pay one servicemember $30,000, which is the highest amount ever recovered by the Department for a single servicemember in an automobile repossession case, and pay a $50,000 civil penalty to the United States.
“This case sends a message to financial institutions, large and small, that they must live up to their obligations to our servicemembers,” said Assistant Attorney General Eric Dreiband. “We will continue to vigorously pursue lenders who fail to take the simple steps necessary to determine, before repossessing a car, whether it belongs to a servicemember. Servicemembers who are going through basic training or another kind of military service should not have to worry that their cars will be repossessed with no court supervision during their time of service to our country.”
“Individuals who take up the call to protect our nation by serving in the armed forces make an enormous sacrifice for us all,” said United States Attorney Nicola Hanna. “We have a legal and moral duty to safeguard the rights of our men and women in uniform. California Auto Finance failed to uphold this duty through its repossession practices. Today’s consent order demonstrates that we will tolerate no abuses of servicemembers’ rights in our district.”
The Justice Department initiated its investigation of California Auto Finance after receiving a complaint in November 2016 from United States Army Private Andrea Starks. The United States alleges that in April 2016, Private Starks notified California Auto Finance that she would be entering the military the following month. Despite this advance notice, California Auto Finance repossessed Private Starks’ vehicle without a court order on May 9, 2016, her first day of military training duty at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri. At the time of repossession, the vehicle was parked at the home of Private Starks’ grandmother in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.
The Justice Department’s investigation corroborated Private Starks’ complaint, found that California Auto Finance had no policies related to SCRA compliance, and revealed that California Auto Finance had also violated the SCRA rights of U.S. Army Specialist Omar Martinez. The United States alleges that Specialist Martinez informed California Auto Finance that he would be entering the military, and that he would have limited means of communication during basic training. Nonetheless, California Auto Finance repossessed Specialist Martinez’s vehicle during his first month of military service. The repossession severely damaged Specialist Martinez’s credit, and, as a result, he was unable to purchase a new car. For over a year while living on base at Fort Benning, Georgia, Specialist Martinez had to rely on rideshares and taxis to buy groceries and take care of other personal needs. In March 2018, Specialist Martinez deployed to Afghanistan, where he served until November 2018.
The proposed consent order requires California Auto Finance to pay $30,000 in compensation to Specialist Martinez, and to take steps to repair his credit. In addition, the proposed consent order requires California Auto Finance to take steps to ensure it does not repossess servicemembers’ cars without court orders in the future. Private Starks reached a private settlement with California Auto Finance before the proposed consent order was filed.
The SCRA protects servicemembers 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 servicemember 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 servicemember, require the lender to post a bond with the court and issue any other orders it deems necessary to protect the servicemember. By failing to obtain court orders before repossessing motor vehicles owned by protected servicemembers, California Auto Finance prevented servicemembers from obtaining a court’s review of whether their repossessions should have been delayed or adjusted to account for their military service.
The Justice Department’s enforcement of the SCRA is conducted by the Civil Rights Division’s Housing and Civil Enforcement Section, often in partnership with United States Attorney’s Offices. Housing and Civil Enforcement Section attorneys worked jointly with the Civil Rights Section within the Civil Division of the United States Attorney’s Office in this action. Since 2011, the Justice Department has obtained over $469 million in monetary relief for over 119,000 servicemembers through its enforcement of the SCRA. The SCRA provides protections for servicemembers 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.