Stender v. BAC Home Loans, 2013 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 30353 (N.D. Ind. 2013) (.pdf) provides a nice summary of how an Indiana federal court dealt with a lender’s efforts to promptly dismiss an assortment of causes of action brought by borrowers in connection with an alleged loan modification agreement.
Specifics. The plaintiff borrowers were mortgagors on two separate properties, and the defendant lender was an assignee of the loans. The plaintiffs had defaulted on the mortgages but claimed that the defendant had agreed to a loan modification agreement. The gravamen of the plaintiffs’ complaint was that the defendant refused to honor the modification agreement. The plaintiffs sought damages for breach of contract, negligence, intentional infliction of emotional distress.
Procedural maneuver. The procedural context in Stender was important. The defendant answered the complaint but promptly filed a motion for judgment on the pleadings under Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(c). A motion for judgment on the pleadings essentially is an effort to get the court to dismiss the case at the outset. A motion for judgment on the pleadings should not be confused with a motion for summary judgment, which as explained here deals with evidence, as opposed to mere allegations. In Stender, the defendant moving party relied solely upon the allegations outlined in the complaint and any exhibits attached thereto. Prevailing on such a motion normally is quite difficult because courts accept the factual allegations as true and look for “facial plausibility” of an alleged claim. On summary judgment or, certainly, a trial, courts dig much deeper into actual evidence (testimony and exhibits). In short, prevailing on Rule 12 motions is rare.
Breach of contract, statute of frauds. The defendant first asserted that the breach of contract count should be dismissed based upon Indiana’s statute of frauds, a subject I have discussed here previously. The statute of frauds basically provides that the party against whom the action is brought (the defendant) must sign the alleged agreement that has been breached. See, Ind. Code § 32-21-1-1(b). In Stender, the defendant did not sign the loan modification agreement but did sign a cover letter, which plaintiffs contended satisfied the signature requirement. The question was whether “the signature requirement of the statute of frauds must be satisfied with a pen-and-ink signature at the end of a contract.” If so, then defendant would be correct that the lack of such signature on the loan modification documents was fatal to plaintiffs’ contract claim. “But if the signature requirement can be satisfied in other ways, then the defendant’s argument fails.” The Court denied the defendant’s motion because the defendant failed to demonstrate that the signature requirement had not been satisfied. In other words, the Court wanted to see the evidence pertaining to the defense.
Negligence, economic loss doctrine. The defense associated with the negligence claim surrounded Indiana’s economic loss doctrine, which precludes liability based on certain theories, such as negligence, that seek purely economic loss (any pecuniary loss unaccompanied by any property damage or personal injury). The Court granted the defendant’s motion and rejected the plaintiff’s argument that intangible alleged harms, such as injuries to credit scores and reputations, could be remedied with a claim for negligence. The plaintiffs’ claims were purely economic in nature and, as such, Indiana law barred them.
Intentional infliction of emotional distress. The Court also dismissed the plaintiffs’ distress claims for similar reasons, namely that Indiana courts generally do not permit such claims based upon contractual or economic harm. Although the plaintiffs’ allegations that the defendant lured them into signing loan modification agreement suggested that perhaps defendant was dishonest or acted with selfish economic motivation, “plaintiffs’ allegations do not permit any plausible inference that defendant’s intention was to harm plaintiffs emotionally.”
In the end, the Court negated plaintiffs’ common law tort claims for negligence and emotional distress, which really have no place in a contract action such as Stender. As to the statute of frauds defense to the breach of contract claim, however, the Court felt it was premature to rule.