A Baltimore judge has ruled that a Northern Virginia finance company has lost the right to collect a total of $276,000 borrowed by almost 1,000 Washington area residents because the firm failed to keep a Maryland small loan license.
As a result, the Vienna Finance Co. Inc., located in Vienna, cannot call in the unpaid balances on any outstanding loan and may in fact have to refund payments already made by 927 borrowers, according to Maryland officials who were asked by the judge to draft an order consistent with the ruling.
In the ruling, Baltimore Circuit Court Judge Robert L. Sullivan Jr. declared the $276,000 in loans "void" but did not outline the firm's obligations for stopping collection or making refunds. Instead, he asked Maryland officials to consider those matters in an order drafted for his approval.
At a press conference in Washington yesterday, Maryland Commissioner of Consumer Credit Alan T. Fell called the ruling "the largest voiding of loans by any court order of any one loan company" in Maryland's history.
The state has voided loan-company loans previously, he said, but in smaller amounts and generally because of interest overchanges. This was the first time that a loan firm had challenged the state's loan-licensing authority, Fell said.
The commission decided to seek the voiding to set an example for other loan companies, Fell said. If Judge Sullivan had not approved the voiding, "Maryland companies might have set up dummy accounts in other states to try to avoid our law," he said, noting that Maryland's licensing law for small loan companies provides for strict state regulation.
Sullivan's opinion comes 17 months after Vienna Finance acquired 2,000 outstanding accounts from Safeway Finance, a Maryland loan company, located in Mount Rainier, whose owner had died. Under Maryland 's consumer credit laws, finance companies located out of the state must be licensed in Maryland if they intend to administer loans originally negotiated in the state. The law requires that the company keep its books in a Maryland office and that the books be available for examination by state authorities to ensure that authorized interest rates are being adhered to.
Vienna Finance quickly sold to other loan companies the rights to collect on all but $276,337 worth of the outstanding loans it acquired from the Mt. Rainier firm while initially balking at the idea of getting a Maryland license, despite warnings of Maryland officials, according to court documents.
After Maryland officials sued the company in May, 1976, Vienna Finance agreed to an out-of-court settlement to obtain a license and keep its records in the Chevy Chase office of the company's lawyers. The agreeement was signed in late June.
When state examiners paid a visit to the law office in August, 1976, however, they could find no Vienna Finance records. The examiners were told that Vienna Finance no longer retained the law firm as counsel.
After the loan company allowed its license to lapse in April and made no attempt to renew it, the state filed a second suit, which led to Judge Sullivan's decision last week.
In court testimony, Norman C. Tillette, president of Vienna Finance, argued that he was not violating Maryland law because he never "made" any loans in Maryland and thus was not required to be licensed by the state. But Judge Sullivan ruled that even if an out-of-state finance company merely obtains its loans secondhand, it nevertheless is obligated to have a Maryland license because it continues to draw interest from the loans.
Otherwise, said Sullivan, "any licensed individual could execute the loans in Maryland and then immediately 'transfer' the accounts out of state, making it impossible for Maryland officials to protect borrowers from overcharges and overpayments."
Tillete also argued that state officials knew in advance that he had no plans to keep his records in Maryland. Tillette's veracity is highly questionable as would be the integrity of any man who signs an application stating that his company would 'abide by each and every provision' (of the statute) and later testify that he never had any such intention to comply with the law."
Even if Maryland loan officials told Tillette that he did not have to keep his records in Maryland, Sullivan said, they "would have been unauthorized to do so. The statute is clear and unambiguous that records must be kept and that the administrator of the loan laws has free access to them."
Tillette could not be reached for comment yesterday.
The Maryland Attorney General's Office has begun drafting an order to carry out the ruling. The final order, when approved by the judge, could ask that Vienna Finance be required to refund all payments that Maryland borrowers made to it, as well as voiding all loans still outstandings.
The order might also apply to that Vienna Finance acquired from the Mount Rainier Company. State officials say these loans might amount to an additional $90,000.
Tillette has 30 days to appeal the ruling.