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Cantrell v. Bank of America N.A.

United States District Court, W.D. Arkansas, Harrison Division

April 3, 2017

MITZI LEIGH CANTRELL PLAINTIFF
v.
BANK OF AMERICA, N.A.; and JOHN DOE DEFENDANTS 1-20 DEFENDANTS

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          Timothy L. Brooks Judge.

         Now pending before the Court are Defendant Bank of America, N.A.'s ("BOA") Motion to Dismiss (Doc. 15) and Brief in Support (Doc. 16), and Plaintiff Mitzi Leigh Cantrell's Response in Opposition (Doc. 20) and Brief in Support (Doc. 21). On March 2, 2017, the Court held a hearing on the Motion, during which time counsel for both parties presented oral argument. At the conclusion of the hearing, the Court orally granted the Motion from the bench, finding that the case should be dismissed due to the expiration of the statutes of limitation that are applicable to all four causes of action in the Amended Complaint. The following Opinion and Order sets forth in greater detail the reasons for the Court's decision. To the extent anything in this Order conflicts with statements made from the bench, the Order will control.

         I. BACKGROUND

         Ms. Cantrell filed a lawsuit in Boone County Circuit Court on October 24, 2016, against BOA and John Doe Defendants 1-20. See Doc. 2. The case was removed to this Court on December 1, 2016, (Doc. 1), and an Amended Complaint was filed on December 16, 2016, (Doc. 11).

         In the Amended Complaint, Ms. Cantrell alleges generally that BOA failed to live up to its end of the agreements it made to the federal government as a participating servicer in the "Home Affordable Modification Program, " better known by its acronym, "HAMP." As a participating servicer for HAMP, BOA agreed to gather information on homeowners who were more than 60 days delinquent in paying their loans, and who requested HAMP-based loan modifications. After the initial information-gathering process was complete, BOA would next decide whether to offer the homeowner a Trial Period Plan ("TPP"), which is an agreement that allows the homeowner to make reduced mortgage payments for a three-month period, based on the homeowner's disclosed financial information. Under HAMP guidelines, if the homeowner lived up to his or her end of the bargain during the TPP, then BOA would offer a permanent loan modification. Ms. Cantrell asserts that BOA engaged in a company-wide practice of willfully refusing to screen HAMP applications and failing to offer loan modification agreements to worthy applicants.

         In Ms. Cantrell's particular situation, she owned a home that was mortgaged with BOA. After she was divorced, she suffered a loss of income due to the lowering of her ex-husband's child support payments. She attempted to qualify for a loan modification by submitting HAMP paperwork to BOA. She claims she was asked to submit the same paperwork multiple times, and was assured it would be processed. Even after months of waiting, she never heard back from BOA as to whether or not her application would be approved for a TPP. She finally filed for bankruptcy on May 9, 2011. At around the same time she lost her home in the bankruptcy proceedings, she received written notification from BOA that she qualified for a loan modification. See Id. at 15.

         As a result of BOA's handling of her HAMP application, Ms. Cantrell now asserts state-law causes of action for deceit, negligence, unjust enrichment, and promissory estoppel. She includes factual allegations concerning BOA's alleged "fraudulent scheme" to avoid the requirements of HAMP and increase BOA's profits by dragging their feet on processing loan-modification paperwork, intentionally "losing" such paperwork, and following through on a business strategy to deprive customers of permanent loan modifications under HAMP. The Amended Complaint also states that the Department of Justice brought a case against BOA as a result of a whistleblower report, resulting in an August 2014 settlement that required BOA to "pay $7 billion in relief to struggling homeowners, borrowers and communities affected by the bank's conduct." Id. at 12. This alleged conduct also fueled a multidistrict litigation ("MDL") lawsuit, styled In re Bank of America Home Affordable Modification Program (HAMP) Contract Litigation, 2013 WL 475649 (D. Mass. Sept. 4, 2013). The MDL, which was opened in 2011, the same year Ms. Cantrell lost her home, asserted claims on behalf of a class of BOA customers who had entered into TPP agreements but had been denied permanent modifications. Id. at *2. The purported class in the MDL asserted that BOA had improperly processed their HAMP applications, and in doing so had committed breach of contract, breach of the implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing, and unfair and deceptive acts and practices. Id. at *1.[1]

         BOA argues that Ms. Cantrell's case should be dismissed, among other reasons, because the statute of limitations on the four state-law causes of action (deceit, negligence, unjust enrichment, and promissory estoppel) is only three years.[2] As her alleged damages accrued as of the date of her bankruptcy, May 9, 2011, the statute of limitations on her claims expired on May 9, 2014; yet her lawsuit was not filed in state court until October 24, 2016. Ms. Cantrell does not dispute that a three-year limitations period applies to all her claims. She argues that the Court should toll the limitations period due to BOA's fraudulent concealment of certain material facts that she claims were necessary for her to know prior to filing suit, and that she did not learn until after she consulted with an attorney in 2016. See Doc. 21, p. 4.

         The Court initially observes that the Amended Complaint does not clearly identify what material facts were allegedly concealed by BOA from Ms. Cantrell, so as to prevent her from filing suit prior to October of 2016. The Motion hearing was therefore an opportunity for the Court to engage with counsel in an attempt to ferret out the basis for Ms. Cantrell's fraudulent concealment argument. After an extensive period of back-and-forth questioning with counsel during the hearing, the record is clear that Ms. Cantrell's argument is as follows: she had no idea that BOA had processed her HAMP application incorrectly, negligently, or with deceitful motivation, until after her attorney advised her of such in 2016, and she blames the late filing of her lawsuit on BOA's concealment of what was allegedly going on "behind the scenes" at BOA, i.e., BOA's alleged business practice of delaying the processing and approval of its customers' HAMP applications.

         II. LEGAL STANDARD

         To survive a Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss, a complaint must provide "a short and plain statement of the claim that [the plaintiff] is entitled to relief." Fed.R.Civ.P. 8(a)(2). The purpose of this requirement is to "give the defendant fair notice of what the ... claim is and the grounds upon which it rests." Erickson v. Partus, 551 U.S. 89, 93 (2007) (quoting Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007)). The Court must accept all of a complaint's factual allegations as true, and construe them in the light most favorable to the plaintiff, drawing all reasonable inferences in the plaintiffs favor. See Ashley Cnty., Ark. v. Pfizer, Inc., 552 F.3d 659, 665 (8th Cir. 2009). However, the complaint "must contain sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to 'state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.'" Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009) (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 570). "A claim has facial plausibility when the plaintiff pleads factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged." Id. "A pleading that offers 'labels and conclusions' or 'a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action will not do.' Nor does a complaint suffice if it tenders 'naked assertion[s]' devoid of 'further factual enhancement."' Id. In other words, while "the pleading standard that Rule 8 announces does not require 'detailed factual allegations, '... it demands more than an unadorned, the defendant-unlawfully-harmed-me accusation." Id.

         III. DISCUSSION

         "Under Arkansas law, once it is clear from the face of the complaint that an action is barred by an applicable statute of limitations, the burden shifts to the plaintiff to prove that the limitation period was in fact tolled." Summerhill v. Terminix, Inc., 637 F.3d 877, 880 (8th Cir. 2011). Here, Ms. Cantrell's attorney conceded in open court that he was well aware at the time he filed the Amended Complaint that all four causes of action pleaded were filed after the three-year statute of limitations had expired. Nevertheless, he argued that these statutes of limitation should be tolled due to BOA's fraudulent concealment of certain material facts, namely, that BOA had a business scheme in place to intentionally deny meritorious HAMP loan modifications, delay HAMP loan modifications unnecessarily, and deceive its financially distressed clients into thinking that their loan applications would be processed appropriately.

         The law is clear that "[i]n order to toll a limitation period on the basis of fraudulent concealment, there must be: (1) a positive act of fraud (2) that is actively concealed, and (3) is not discoverable by reasonable diligence." Id. (internal citation and quotation marks omitted). Further, the Arkansas Supreme Court, quoting from its 1896 opinion in McKneelyv. ...


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