Class Action Alleging Illegal Fee Splitting of Title Insurance Premiums in Violation of RESPA (Real Estate Settlement Procedure Act) did not Warrant Class Action Treatment because Individual Inquiries Predominate as to Whether Section 8(b) Violation Occurred Fifth Circuit Holds
Plaintiffs filed a putative class action against their title insurer, Stewart Title Guaranty, alleging inter alia violations of the federal Real Estate Settlement Procedure Act (RESPA); the class action complaint alleged that Stewart Title failed to provide certain discounts to class members and split with its agents “the illegal, unearned charges on the policies.” Mims v. Stewart Title Guaranty Co., 590 F.3d 298, 2009 WL 4642631, *1 (5th Cir. 2009). According to the allegations underlying the class action complaint, “consumers who refinanced their home mortgages…[were entitled ] to receive a mandatory discount on their premiums for new title insurance policies acquired from Stewart” provided that the new title insurance policy “is issued within seven years of the closing of the prior mortgage.” Id. The class action alleged that Stewart Title “consistently failed to provide the reissue insurance discount” but, instead, split the savings with its agents, and that this conduct constituted illegal splitting of unearned fees in violation of § 8(b) of RESPA. Id., at *1-*2. Plaintiffs filed a motion to certify the litigation as a class action, id., at *2; defense attorneys opposed class action treatment, but the district court granted the motion, see id., at *1. Stewart Title sought permission to appeal the class action certification order. Id., at *2. The Fifth Circuit reversed, holding that “individual factual issues predominate the RESPA claim.” Id.
The Circuit Court first addressed Stewart Title’s claim that plaintiffs lacked standing to prosecute the class action’s RESPA claim, and explained that the challenge was more accurately denominated an attack on the merits of the claim rather than an issue of standing. See Mims, at *2. The Fifth Circuit stated at page *2, “There is no serious question that the plaintiffs have standing to bring this claim.” The defense argument went to the merits of the RESPA claim which – in light of the limited scope of review under Rule 23(f) – “may only be considered in this case if relevant to the class certification question.” Id., at *3. After summarizing Section 8(b) of RESPA, see id., at *4, the Circuit Court explained that the question is whether Stewart Title’s alleged failure to give consumers discounts represented the retention of a fee for services that were not performed, id. In sum, “plaintiffs’ argument thus rests on the theory that the title insurance premium can be split between the amount allowed under Rule R-8 after the appropriate discount is applied and the amount in excess of that amount; they argue that this excess amount represents a charge for which no services were actually performed.” Id. In the Fifth Circuit’s view, the class action alleged: “Stewart charged excessive premiums. Stewart gave, and title agents accepted, a portion of the excessive premiums. The portion accepted by the title agents was excessive and not ‘for services actually performed,’ but instead were in the nature of kickbacks or referral fees.” Id., at *5. The district court had denied Stewart Title’s previous motion to dismiss the RESPA claim because it would that the splitting of such fees “may” violate Section 8(b), depending on the circumstances. Id. The Circuit Court held that class action treatment of the RESPA claim was therefore inappropriate, “because the district court’s liability model for violations of RESPA § 8(b) requires an inquiry into the facts of each individual class member’s title insurance transaction.” Id. In other words, “The only way the overall practice may be proven to violate RESPA, consistently with the HUD liability standard, is to examine the reasonableness of payments for goods and services. This inquiry must be performed on a transaction-by-transaction basis, because a single finding of liability on an unreasonable relationship between goods and services does not necessitate the conclusion that such unreasonableness exists on a class-wide basis.” Id., at *6. Accordingly, the district court abused its discretion in granting class action treatment to the RESPA claim, id., at *8.