On March 28, the Department of Justice (DOJ) brought another lawsuit against an auto finance company alleging the company violated the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act (SCRA) by repossessing vehicles owned by servicemembers without obtaining necessary court orders.
The case, brought against California Auto Finance, was preceded by an investigation that DOJ launched after receiving a single complaint from a servicemember. According to DOJ, the servicemember whose car was repossessed complained that the company had no process to determine customers’ military status.
Notably, the lawsuit filed in federal court does not allege other specific instances of improper repossession beyond the one alleged by the individual servicemember who complained. Rather, DOJ argues that because the company “had, and still has, no policies or practices in place to verify the military status of borrowers before repossessing their vehicles,” the company “may have repossessed motor vehicles, without court orders, from other servicemembers who had made a deposit or installment payment to [California Auto Finance] prior to entering military service and were in military service at the time of the repossession.” Per the complaint, this amounts to “a pattern or practice of violating Section3952(a)(1) of the SCRA, 50 U.S.C. § 3952(a)(1).”
Allegations that a defendant failed to perform an SCRA scrub have become a recurring feature of DOJ complaints in this area, although it’s worth noting that the statute itself does not require checking the Department of Defense’s Defense Manpower Data Center database to verify military status, as opposed to using other methods to determine whether a borrower might be a servicemember. Rather, this apparent requirement has evolved over the course of various consent orders.
DOJ is seeking monetary damages, civil monetary penalties, and injunctive relief to “prevent future repossession that violate the SCRA.”
This suit follows several others filed by DOJ in the past year claiming SCRA violations related to vehicle repossession and disposition. In February, for example, DOJ settled with the City and County of Honolulu, Hawaii and its general contractor for towing services after alleging these entities violated the SCRA by auctioning or otherwise disposing of motor vehicles owned by servicemembers that were deemed abandoned without first obtaining court orders. Likewise, in October of last year, DOJ entered into a settlement with Westlake Services LLC over allegations that the company and a subsidiary had repossessed vehicles owned by SCRA-protected servicemembers without obtaining the required court orders. So, while military finance in general continues to be an active area of federal enforcement, repossession and disposition is emerging as a sphere of heightened regulatory risk. Here, DOJ bringing suit in response to a single servicemember complaint and a single alleged instance of wrongful repossession speaks for itself.