By DON THOMPSON
SACRAMENTO, Calif. — California’s attorney general sued one of the nation’s largest banks Thursday, alleging that JPMorgan Chase used illegal tactics in its efforts to collect debts from more than 100,000 credit card holders.
It’s the first such lawsuit in the nation, said spokesmen for both the company and the attorney general.
The lawsuit filed in Los Angeles Superior Court says the company filed thousands of debt collection lawsuits each month between 2008 and April 2011 using improper practices that shortcut procedures required by California law.
JPMorgan Chase & Co. (JPM) spokesman Paul Hartwick said the company had no comment.
“At nearly every stage of the collection process, defendants cut corners in the name of speed, cost savings, and their own convenience, providing only the thinnest veneer of legitimacy to their lawsuits,” the complaint says. It alleges the company sued borrowers “based on patently insufficient evidence — betting that borrowers would lack the resources or legal sophistication to call defendants’ bluff.”
Attorney General Kamala Harris’ office said the company’s methods included “robo-signing” legal documents, a practice that was widely used in mortgage foreclosures until it was outlawed. JPMorgan Chase is one of five major banks that settled with California and other states after the housing market meltdown.
The lawsuit contends that in filing the debt-collection lawsuits, company officials similarly signed legal documents, including sworn declarations, without reviewing the related files and bank records or even reading the documents.
That and other practices let the company file 469 debt-recovery lawsuits in one day alone, according to the lawsuit. The company’s in-house lawyers filed an average of 100 lawsuits a day for each day the courts were open, the state says, while its outside counsel filed another 20,000 lawsuits.
The lawsuit says the company also failed to properly notify its customers that the lawsuits had been filed, even though it represented that they had been served with court papers as required by law.
The company also did a poor job of drafting the legal filings, including failing to remove consumers’ personal information from the public records, according to the lawsuit. That makes the customers vulnerable to identity theft and violates state law, the state says.
Company officials also routinely swore that its customers were not on active military duty, without actually checking if that was true. The omission deprived members of the military of proper legal protections, the complaint says.
The lawsuit also names the affiliated Chase Bank USA and Chase Bankcard Services Inc.
Harris is seeking a permanent ban on the allegedly illegal practices as well as damages for borrowers who were harmed as the company rushed to obtain court judgments and wage garnishment orders. The lawsuit says the company also should be fined $2,500 for each violation of state law, and an additional $2,500 for each violation that involves a senior citizen or disabled person.
“Chase abused the judicial process and engaged in serious misconduct against California credit card borrowers,” Harris said in a statement.