Lending law struck down

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A Montgomery County judge yesterday struck down a predatory-lending law, saying it usurped state authority.

Circuit Court Judge Michael D. Mason said the law — which cites “abusive prepayment penalties” and “excessive points and fees” as two indicators of discriminatory lending against protected classes of individuals — is unconstitutionally broad.

“No matter how noble the purpose, a ‘general’ law is beyond the authority of the county to enact and is unconstitutional,” he concluded in a 29-page opinion. “As drawn, it has substantial territorial effect beyond the borders of Montgomery County.”

The law, approved by the County Council in November 2005, raised the maximum fine from $5,000 to $500,000 for discriminatory lending on the basis of race, national origin, gender or religion. Damages could be assigned for “humiliation and embarrassment, based on the nature of the humiliation and embarrassment, including its severity, duration, frequency, and breadth of observation by others.”

A group of mortgage lenders led by the American Financial Services Association subsequently filed a lawsuit against the county, saying the bill was overly vague. The companies obtained an injunction one day before the law was scheduled to take effect March 8.

“It looks like obviously we’ve prevailed,” said Larry Pendleton, president of the Maryland Association of Mortgage Brokers and owner of Legend Mortgage Corp. in Olney. “It’s a victory not only for us but all the homebuyers and homeowners in Montgomery County and all the related industries.”

More than 50 local and national mortgage lenders — including several Wall Street investment banks — said the law made it too risky to do business in the county and withdrew their services in the weeks leading up to March 8, disrupting home sales and loan refinancings.

The association said yesterday the ruling “resolves uncertainty that has surrounded Montgomery County’s mortgage market since last year and preserves borrowers’ access to mortgage credit.”

Clifford Royalty, the county attorney handling the case, said his office is reviewing the opinion and has not decided whether to appeal.

Council member Tom Perez, a Democrat representing Takoma Park, Wheaton, Kensington and parts of Silver Spring, sponsored the legislation, which he said was poisoned by “a campaign of misinformation.”

“The question presented in this case is: Do local governments have the authority to protect residents who are a victim of lending discrimination? I think they do,” he said. “That is the question that will ultimately have to get resolved.”

Mr. Perez, whose campaign for state attorney general ended after the Court of Appeals in August ruled he was ineligible, did not seek re-election to the council.

“There was certainly a broad campaign of misinformation surrounding this bill. That’s not the first time this has happened. That’s unfortunate,” he said.

The council approved the bill 7-2. The two lawmakers who opposed the measure, Republican Howard Denis and Democrat Mike Knapp, later called for its repeal.

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