United States District Court, District of Columbia
March 18, 2014
LATAWNYA S. BROWN, Plaintiff,
WELLS FARGO BANK, N.A., Defendant
For Latawnya S. Brown, Plaintiff: Ian Stumpf, LEAD ATTORNEY, JR HOWELL & ASSOCIATES, P.C., Washington, DC; Jimmy R. Howell, Jr., LEAD ATTORNEY, JR HOWELL & ASSOCIATES, Los Angeles, CA.
For Wells Fargo Bank, N.A., Defendant: Paul A. Kaplan, LEAD ATTORNEY, WOMBLE CARLYLE SANDRIDGE & RICE, LLP, Washington, DC.
BARBARA J. ROTHSTEIN, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.
Granting Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment
Plaintiff LaTawnya Brown (" Brown" ) brought suit against Defendant Wells Fargo Bank, N.A. (" Wells Fargo" ), alleging that Wells Fargo's predecessor, World Savings Bank, F.S.B. (" World Savings" ) committed common law fraud and violated the District of Columbia Consumer Protection Procedures Act (" CPPA" ). Wells Fargo moves for summary judgment on all counts. See Dkt. #40. Upon consideration of Wells Fargo's motion, Brown's opposition thereto, and the record in this case, this Court grants the motion.
I. FACTUAL BACKGROUND
In 2006, Brown sought to refinance the mortgage on a property she owns in Washington, D.C. (" the Property" ). Compl. ¶ 13, Ex. B at 1, 3. Brown contacted Landmark Funding, LLC (" Landmark" ), a mortgage broker. Pl's. Opp'n Am. Mot. Summ. J. ¶ 3b. On November 7, 2006, she signed a loan application to be submitted by Landmark to World Savings. Id. The application signed by Brown stated that Brown earned $25,000 per month and that the Property was worth $2,200,000. Id. ¶ ¶ 3d-g. Neither Landmark nor World Savings endeavored to verify Brown's income. Def's. Am. Mot. Summ. J. at 7; Statement of Undisputed Facts (" SUF" ) ¶ 37. On the basis of this application, as well as a credit inquiry and an independent appraisal of the property at issue, World Savings approved Brown's application. Def's. Am. Mot. Summ. J. at 7; SUF ¶ ¶ 40-41. The independent appraiser, acting on World Savings' behalf, opined in December 2006 that the Property was worth $1,100,000. Def's. Am. Mot. Summ. J. at 7; SUF ¶ 43. World Savings then offered Brown a $750,000 thirty-year Option Adjustable Rate Mortgage, also known as a " Pick-a-Payment" mortgage, with a payment cap. Def's. Am. Mot.
Summ. J. at Ex. 13. On January 3, 2007, Brown signed the note. Id. In March 2007, Brown received copies of her mortgage documents. Id. at Ex. 18. Within months of signing the note, Brown's mortgage was experiencing significant negative amortization and she was notified that she was in default in the loan statement dated August 2, 2007. Brown fell behind on her payments and was in and out of default until 2010 when she ceased making payments. Id. at Ex. 4.
Pick-a-Payment mortgages issued by World Savings were the subject of a class action lawsuit, which included 517,783 class members and resulted in a settlement. In re Wachovia Corp. " Pick-A-Payment" Mortgage Marketing and Sales Practices Litigation, Nos. 07-4497-JF and 09-2015-JF, 2011 WL 1877630 (N.D. Cal. May 17, 2011). Prior to the settlement, World Savings was acquired by Wachovia Mortgage Corporation. Def's. Am. Mot. Summ. J. at 1 n. 2. The settlement resolved all claims regarding the origination of Pick-a-Payment loans by Wachovia, its subsidiaries, and its predecessors between August 1, 2003 and December 31, 2008. In re Wachovia Corp., 2011 WL 1877630 at *3. Under the terms of a settlement in that lawsuit, Wachovia agreed to pay consumers $50,000,000 to settle their claims. Id. at *1-2. Brown admits she received a check from the settlement, although she never cashed it. Def's. Am. Mot. Summ. J. at Ex. 3. Wells Fargo acquired Wachovia Mortgage Corporation subsequent to the settlement. Id. at 1, n. 2.
II. PROCEDURAL HISTORY
On June 22, 2011, Brown filed this action asserting three counts against Wells Fargo. First, Brown alleged that World Savings committed common law fraud by misrepresenting the payments she would owe, misrepresenting the likelihood of negative amortization, using prepayment penalties to keep her in a harmful loan, and steering her into a riskier loan despite her qualification for a safer option. Compl. ¶ ¶ 96-107. Second, Brown alleged that World Savings or its agents committed common law fraud by submitting a false loan application on her behalf which misrepresented her assets and income such that she would be approved for a loan product for which she would not otherwise qualify. Id. ¶ ¶ 108-21. Third, Brown alleged that World Savings violated several provisions of the CPPA, D.C. Code § 28-3904. Id. ¶ ¶ 122-28.
On June 22, 2012, this Court granted in part a motion by Wells Fargo to dismiss Brown's complaint for failure to state a claim upon which relief could be granted. Dkt. #16, Brown v. Wells Fargo Bank, N.A., 869 F.Supp.2d 51 (D.D.C. 2012). Brown's first count was dismissed on the grounds that District of Columbia common law was preempted by the federal Home Owners' Loan Act of 1933 (" HOLA" ), 12 U.S.C. § § 1461 et. seq.  Id. at 55-56.
Brown's second count of fraud and the CPPA claims were also preempted by HOLA, except as they relate to any alleged misrepresentation of Brown's assets and income by World Savings. Id. at 62-64. This Court determined that Wells Fargo was not entitled to a claim preclusion defense at that stage of the litigation because Wells Fargo failed to demonstrate that it had made the best practicable efforts to ensure Brown received notice of the class action settlement. Id. at 66.
Wells Fargo now moves for summary judgment on all remaining counts. See Dkt. #40. Wells Fargo renews its contention that all of Brown's claims are precluded by the previous class action settlement. Wells Fargo also argues that Brown filed her suit after the statute of limitations had expired on each of her claims. Finally, Wells Fargo claims Brown has not established sufficient evidence by which a reasonable trier of fact could find in her favor.
III. LEGAL STANDARD
" The court shall grant summary judgment if the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). " [A] complete failure of proof concerning an essential element of the nonmoving party's case necessarily renders all other facts immaterial." Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 325, 106 S.Ct. 2548, 91 L.Ed.2d 265 (1986); see also Paige v. Drug Enforcement Admin., 665 F.3d 1355, 1358, 398 U.S. App. D.C. 492 (D.C. Cir. 2012).
The Court finds that Brown's claims are precluded by the settlement of the previous class action. Under the doctrine of res judicata, once a claim is litigated and that litigation results in a final decision on the merits, be it by a motion for summary judgment, by a trial, or by a settlement between the parties resulting in a final judgment, the issue is decided permanently. Migra v. Warren City School Dist. Bd. of Educ., 465 U.S. 75, 77 n. 1, 104 S.Ct. 892, 79 L.Ed.2d 56 (1984). A class action settlement has the same preclusive effect as a prior individual action settlement if the moving party can show that the nonmoving party " was adequately represented by a party who actively participated in the litigation." Taylor v. Sturgell, 553 U.S. 880, 884, 128 S.Ct. 2161, 171 L.Ed.2d 155 (2008).
As set forth below, to establish that a plaintiff's claim is precluded under res judicata by a prior class action, a defendant must show that: (1) the plaintiff was a member of the class, (2) class members received the best notice of the proposed settlement practicable under the circumstances, (3) the plaintiff in the instant action did not opt out, and (4) the claims resolved by the class action included those the plaintiff seeks to assert.
1. Brown was a Member of the In re Wachovia Corp. Class
In order to show that Brown's claims are precluded by the In re Wachovia Corp. class settlement, Wells Fargo must first show that Brown was a member of that class. See Cooper v. Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond, 467 U.S. 867, 874, 104 S.Ct. 2794, 81 L.Ed.2d 718 (1984) (citing Supreme Tribe of Ben-Hur v. Cauble, 255 U.S. 356, 41 S.Ct. 338, 65 L.Ed. 673, (1921) (" There is of course no dispute that under elementary principles of prior adjudication a judgment in a properly entertained class action is binding on class members in any subsequent litigation." ). The Court is convinced that Brown was indeed a class member. See Def's. Am. Mot. Summ. J. at Ex. 13 (Brown's signed mortgage note dated
January 2, 2007); In re Wachovia Corp., 2011 WL 1877630 at *3 (certifying the settlement class as including all World Savings Pick-a-Pay mortgages originated between August 1, 2003 and December 31, 2008); Def's. Am. Mot. Summ. J. at Ex. 21 (affidavit of In re Wachovia Corp. settlement administrator Amy Lake attesting to Brown's name on the list of class members). Because Brown was a member of the In re Wachovia Corp. class, she can be bound by the terms of its settlement.
2. Notice to Brown
a. Efforts to Deliver Notice
It is incumbent upon Wells Fargo to show that it took the necessary steps to provide " the best notice practicable under the circumstances." Eisen v. Carlisle & Jacquelin, 417 U.S. 156, 173, 94 S.Ct. 2140, 40 L.Ed.2d 732 (1974). A first-class mailing to all class members is sufficient. Peters v. Nat'l R.R. Passenger Corp., 966 F.2d 1483, 1486, 296 U.S. App. D.C. 202 (D.C. Cir. 1992). Actual notice is not required. Id. " '[I]f the absent class members fail to opt out of the class action, [they] will be bound by the court's action, including settlement and judgment, even though those individuals never actually received notice.'" Pigford v. Veneman, 355 F.Supp.2d 148, 162 (D.D.C. 2005) (alteration in original) (quoting Reppert v. Marvin Lumber & Cedar Co., Inc., 359 F.3d 53, 56-57 (1st Cir. 2004); see also Hallman v. Pa. Life Ins. Co., 536 F.Supp. 745, 748-49 (N.D. Ala. 1982) (rejecting actual notice requirement and applying res judicate where defendant took steps to provide best practicable notice). The In re Wachovia Corp. settlement included a certification by the court that Wells Fargo had sent notices to all class members, and Brown was a member of the class at the time. Def's. Am. Mot. Summ. J. at Ex. 19.
This Court previously declined " to infer that because Brown is a class member and because the Wachovia court found that class members received notice by direct mail, notice to her was sufficient." Brown, 869 F.Supp.2d at 65. To buttress its earlier argument, Wells Fargo adds that the settlement check Brown eventually received was mailed using the same mailing list as the original notice to class members. Def's. Rep. Supp. Am. Mot. Summ. J. at 2, n. 2; SUF ¶ 66. . Wells Fargo also furnishes the affidavit of Amy Lake, the settlement administrator for the class action suit. Lake attested that Brown was on the list of recipients for notification of the settlement, that the address associated with Brown matches the property at issue in this case, that the letters were mailed out, and that the notice sent to Brown was not returned to the sender. Def's. Am. Mot. Summ. J. at Ex. 21. The additional information provided by Wells Fargo convinces the Court that the best practicable efforts were used to provide notice to Brown. Because a showing of actual notice is not required under Peters, 966 F.2d at 1486, and Wells Fargo has shown that the best practicable efforts were made to give notice to Brown, the delivery efforts were sufficient.
b. Contents of the Notice
Brown argues that even if notice was provided, its content was insufficient to
inform her of the legal effect of the class action. Pl's. Opp'n Am. Mot. Summ. at 31. Brown argues that the preclusive effect of a class action settlement is limited to such claims as were clearly noted as being included in the action within the notice sent to parties. Id. (citing Twigg v. Sears, Roebuck & Co., 153 F.3d 1222, 1228 (11th Cir. 1998)). The plaintiff in Twigg alleged that the defendant had billed for services never performed. 153 F.3d at 1228. The defendant argued that a prior class action barred the plaintiff's claim, but the court rejected the defendant's res judicata argument because the notice sent to class members in the prior action only mentioned billing for improper or unnecessary repairs. Id. This case is unlike Twigg. The notice sent out in In re Wachovia Corp. noted that the lawsuit addressed " claims that the Defendants violated various state and federal laws in connection with the Pick-a-Payment mortgage loan product." Def's. Rep. Supp. Am. Mot. Summ. J. at Ex. 1. The notice also directed class members to a website where the settlement agreement in full could be found and directed class members to the section involving release of claims. Id. The release states that class members not opting out release claims against Wachovia " arising out of...the origination of the Settlement Class Member's Pick-a-Payment mortgage loan." Def's. Am. Mot. Summ. J. at Ex. 19, p. 31-32. The notice gave recipients ample opportunity to review the website and find exactly what they stood to gain and to lose by remaining in or opting out of the class settlement. Thus, the notice given to class members was sufficient to preclude claims regarding the same issues.
3. Brown's Failure to Opt Out
" '[I]f the absent class members fail to opt out of the class action, [they] will be bound by the court's action, including settlement and judgment.'" Pigford, 355 F.Supp.2d at 162 (alteration in original) (quoting Reppert, 359 F.3d at 56-57 (1st Cir. 2004)). It is undisputed that Brown admitted in her deposition that she did not opt out of the settlement agreement in In re Wachovia Corp. Def's. Am. Mot. Summ. J. at Ex. 3. The settlement administrator verified this. Id. at Ex. 21. Because Brown did not opt out of the settlement, she can be bound by its terms.
4. Similarity of the Class's Claims to Brown's
In order to have preclusive effect, the class action must have provided a sufficient forum to litigate the claims at issue. See Taylor, 553 U.S. at 884 (conditioning preclusive effect upon whether the plaintiff " was adequately represented by a party who actively participated in the [prior] litigation" ).
Brown argues that the class representatives in In re Wachovia Corp. lacked standing to bring a claim under the District of Columbia's CPPA, and so her CPPA claim cannot be precluded. See Pl's. Opp'n Am. Mot. Summ. J. at 33-34. In advancing this theory, Brown ignores the breadth of the claims released under the settlement. Even in the absence of a named plaintiff with a CPPA claim, a court may still approve a release that encompasses CPPA and other state law claims. See, e.g., In re Vitamins Antitrust Litig., No. 99-197(TFH), 2000 WL 1737867, at *5 (D.D.C. March 31, 2000) (" [I]t is well-settled that 'in order to achieve a comprehensive settlement that would prevent relitigation of settled questions,' in a class action, a court may permit a broad release of claims based on overlapping factual predicates" ) (quoting City P'ship Co. v. A. Acquisition Ltd. P'ship, 100 F.3d 1041, 1044 (1st Cir. 1996)); Class of Plaintiffs v. Seattle, 955 F.2d 1268, 1287 (9th Cir. 1992) (" The weight of authority holds that a federal court may release not only those
claims alleged in the complaint, but also a claim 'based on the identical factual predicate as that underlying the claims in the settled class action even though the claim was not presented and might not have been presentable in the class action.'" ) (quoting TBK Partners, Ltd. v. W. Union Corp., 675 F.2d 456, 460 (2d Cir. 1982)). Indeed, to deny a nationwide class action settlement the ability to release related state law claims, even on behalf of those class members not residing in the states with a named plaintiff, could undermine the efficiency of class actions. Furthermore, the laws of different states in the area of consumer protection will always vary to some degree, but federal policy favors class actions and settlements which resolve issues with as few separate actions as practicable.
Variations from state-to-state in the form of state law claims would always prevent a nationwide settlement, thereby defeating the efficiencies of the class action settlement mechanism. Such a position is plainly against the public policy favoring class action settlements and courts frequently and routinely approve nationwide class settlements, including consumer class actions involving state law claims.
In re Wireless Telephone Federal Cost Recovery Fees Litigation, No. MDL 1559, 4:03--MD--015, 2004 WL 3671053, at *15 (W.D. Mo. April 20, 2004).
In this case, the settlement agreement is dispositive. The release portion of the settlement agreement released Wachovia from any claim arising from the origination of class members' Pick-a-Pay mortgages in any court. Def's Am. Mot. Summ. J. at Ex. 19 ¶ V(A). That release includes any sort of claim that could be brought under state unfair competition and consumer protection laws, as well as claims of fraudulent misrepresentation. Id. at ¶ 1.6. Brown's surviving claims all relate to misrepresentations that she alleges occurred in the origination process for her mortgage. The surviving claims fall squarely within the confines of the claims litigated in the class action. Brown's claims are sufficiently congruent with those litigated, settled, and released in the In re Wachovia Corp. class action to be precluded.
Accordingly, Wells Fargo has established all elements of res judicata and Brown's claims regarding the origination of her mortgage are precluded. For the reasons stated herein, Wells Fargo's Motion for Summary Judgment is granted. An order consistent with this opinion will issue.
Pursuant to this Court's Memorandum Opinion dated today, it is hereby ordered:
(1) Defendant Wells Fargo Bank, N.A.'s amended motion for summary judgment (Dkt. #40) is GRANTED.