Beaufort News

Beaufort Marine's lawsuit prompts Chase to refund $2M in mortgage overcharges

U.S. Marine Capt. Jonathon Rowles was tired and frustrated after more than a year of fending off phone calls from mortgage-collection agents.

Then, while preparing for intense training with live ordnance in late 2009, the 29-year-old Beaufort resident and fighter-jet pilot began receiving repeated collection calls between 4 and 6 a.m. The calls were a clear violation of a federal law designed to protect active-duty military personnel, he said.

After deciding he could not afford to be woken up so early with other Marines' lives in his hands, he began recording every phone number from representatives of Chase Home Finance so he could send those calls directly to voicemail.

That, in part, was how Rowles began to build a case against the nation's second-largest bank, prompting its officials this week to admit mistakes to him and thousands of other military members. Because of Rowles' efforts, Chase officials told NBC News they improperly foreclosed on the homes of 14 military families and might have overcharged 4,000 more.

"I had completely lost faith that anyone at Chase would be willing to help," Rowles said in an affidavit filed this month in federal court.

PREPARING TO FIGHT

Rowles' case, for which his lawyers seek class-action status, is based on the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act. The 2003 law allows active-duty troops to receive mortgage rate reductions, protects them from foreclosure and is designed to prevent worry about their finances while serving the country.

Shortly after his status was changed from reserve to active duty in 2006, Rowles says he wrote Chase to request the bank reduce the interest rate on his loan pursuant to the law. The bank told Rowles he qualified for a reduction and said it had adjusted his rate.

The bank failed to immediately make the change, however, and also violated the law by requiring him to verify his active-duty status every 90 days for more than two years, threatening to foreclose on him and aggressively seeking to collect more than he should have owed on a 2004 mortgage for a home in Colorado, according to his complaint.

Chase's computer system apparently continually showed Rowles' account as delinquent even though his payments were automatically sent each month from his bank account, according to his affidavit.

He says he couldn't reach anyone from Chase's department responsible for the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act, but the collectors always seemed to find him.

"I found that over the last two years, the collections department of Chase could find me any time of the day through numerous phone number -- they called my mother, called me at work, at home, during dinner, while I was sleeping, while my children were sleeping, and left many messages in order to try to collect on an account that had been improperly processed, and no one was looking to help or fix it," Rowles said in the affidavit. "But the (bank's) SCRA department, which should have been looking over my account and protecting me and my family from such insidious actions, never once tried to contact me in person to rectify the situation."

Rowles is stationed at Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort and in 2009 moved his family to the Shadow Moss neighborhood.

While readying for a deployment to the Pacific in mid-2010, Rowles feared he would have to leave his pregnant wife, Julia, with the situation unresolved and with a chance something could happen to him overseas.

That's when he sought counsel with Beaufort law firm Harvey & Battey.

At first, the couple assumed their case was isolated. Their attorney, Bill Harvey, discovered it wasn't.

"We have reason to believe this was a systemic problem," said Harvey, whose firm is bringing the case with the Columbia law firm of Richard Harpootlian, former chairman of the S.C. Democratic Party.

BANK ADMITS MISTAKE

Chase officials have admitted to mistakes and said they are "deeply appreciative" of military personnel. They have reviewed their servicing of home loans to troops and will return about $2 million to those who might have paid more than required, they said.

"While any customer mistake is regrettable, we feel particularly bad about the mistakes we made here," they said in a statement.

The bank has resolved all but one of the foreclosures.

Chase's troubles might not be finished, however.

Bill Nettles, U.S. Attorney for South Carolina, said his district "takes violations of this stature very seriously." He told Dow Jones Newswires he could neither confirm nor deny whether his office is investigating the matter.

Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., said he has asked U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder to examine the issue, Dow Jones reported.

The head of the new federal Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, Elizabeth Warren, said the bank's errors emphasize why the bureau is needed, according to the Dow Jones report.

Rowles' lawsuit seeks unspecified actual and punitive damages.

Harvey said he's not yet sure how many people might be involved or how much money might be at stake, but he said Chase's $2 million gesture isn't enough.

"The refunds they've claimed to make don't touch it," he said.

The case has thrust the family into the national spotlight this week.

It has been featured on CNN, MSNBC, NPR and elsewhere since NBC aired a report Monday that included a phone interview with Julia Rowles on the "Today Show."

Jonathon Rowles recently returned from his deployment, but Julia -- who gave birth to the couple's second child six weeks prematurely while her husband was away -- is acting as the family's spokeswoman.

She said the Rowles are renting out their house in Colorado because they haven't been able to sell it.

She's relieved an end to her family's struggle -- which followed them from Pensacola, Fla., to San Diego to Beaufort -- seems near.

She vowed, however, to keep representing others affected.

"I'm going to fight until all of the problems have been rectified," she said.

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