By Jim Radogna. Two recent actions for alleged dealer fee violations in South Carolina and Indiana are a potential cause for concern in other states due to the likelihood of copycat legal actions. While these states had no caps on dealer fees, a private lawsuit in South Carolina resulted in a $3.6 million verdict and an attorney general action in Indiana resulted in a $625K settlement. Both cases alleged that the dealers overcharged customers because their fees did not reflect expenses actually incurred by the dealers for services.
Although the state doesn’t offer guidance on what dealers can charge, the court in South Carolina interpreted “closing fee” to mean a “predetermined set fee for the reimbursement of closing costs, but only those actually incurred by the dealer and necessary to the closing transaction.” Under that interpretation, the court reasoned that the dealer had to provide evidence it calculated the cost comprising its closing fee, which it could not do. Further, a justice stated “Although we agree that the Closing Fee Statute is a disclosure statement and the department serves as a repository for the required filings, we find that the Closing Fee Statute does more than require disclosure of the ‘Closing Fee.’”
According to a press release from the office of Indiana attorney general “Under Indiana’s Motor Vehicle Dealer Unfair Practices Act, auto dealers cannot require a motor vehicle purchaser to pay a document preparation fee unless the fee reflects expenses actually incurred for the preparation of documents and was negotiated by and disclosed to the customer.” The dealer was found to have charged doc fees around $479, which the AG ruled was higher than could be justified to cover costs.
Indiana law is more specific than South Carolina as far as the requirement that actual expenses be calculated: “It is an unfair practice for a dealer to require a purchaser of a motor vehicle as a condition of the sale and delivery of the motor vehicle to pay a document preparation fee, unless the fee:
1. Reflects expenses actually incurred for the preparation of documents;
2. Was affirmatively disclosed by the dealer;
3. Was negotiated by the dealer and the purchaser;
4. Is not for the preparation, handling, or service of documents that are incidental to the extension of credit; and
5. Is set forth on a buyer’s order or similar agreement by a means other than preprinting.”
Other states, such as Connecticut, have regulations that are similar to South Carolina’s in that they primarily address disclosure of the dealer fee but do not offer guidance on the amount a dealer can charge: “A ‘dealer conveyance fee’ or ‘processing fee’ means a fee charged by a dealer to recover reasonable costs for processing all documentation and performing services related to the closing of a sale, including, but not limited to, the registration and transfer of ownership of the motor vehicle which is the subject of the sale.”
So, in a private lawsuit or AG action in a state like Connecticut, the questions may well be what amount is considered “reasonable” and how are the costs justified?
Although all cases are different, information from the South Carolina court may lend some insight on how to avoid or defend against dealer fee attacks. The following excerpts from the case would seem relevant:
• The dealership’s expert witness in the SC case testified that the dealership’s average closing costs, which were $506.96, greatly exceeded the $299 fee the plaintiff paid. But in calculating the average closing cost, he included expenses for the salaries of finance and sales managers, the building, utilities and outside services.” The court disagreed. “All of these are general operating expenses and not directly tied to the closing of motor vehicle sales. If a motor vehicle dealer wishes to be compensated for these expenses, it may include them as part of the overall purchase price of a vehicle.”
• The court further opined that the term “cost” in the context of the “Closing Fee” Statute “would refer to the amount of money a dealer is required to expend to perform the services it provides to a customer at closing, and to otherwise comply with the disclosure, documentation, and record retention requirements imposed under state and federal law. While we recognize the difficulty a dealer may face in determining the exact amount of a specific purchaser’s closing fee prior to closing, we agree with the trial judge’s interpretation that the amount charged must bear some relation to the actual expenses incurred for the closing.”
• The court emphasized that a “closing fee” is not limited to expenses incurred for document preparation, retrieval, and storage. However, any costs sought to be recovered by a dealer under a closing fee charge must be directly related to the services rendered and expenses incurred in closing the purchase of a vehicle. Given that each vehicle purchase is different, compliance with the “Closing Fee” Statute does not require that the dealer hit the “bull’s-eye” for each purchase. A dealer may comply with the statute by setting a closing fee in an amount that is an average of the costs actually incurred in all closings of the prior year.
Based on the above, some ideas for what may constitute “reasonable costs for processing all documentation and performing services related to the closing of a sale” include:
• Processing and submission of credit applications to finance companies*
• Preparation of finance or lease documents*
• Preparation and submission of vehicle registrations both manually and electronically with the DMV
• Filing and releasing security liens on purchased and traded vehicles as contractually required by lending institutions
• Processing applications for new or duplicate title documents with the DMV
• Processing the pay-off of an existing lien on any vehicle offered in trade
• DMS (Dealer Management System) costs to process paperwork
• Software such as Dealertrack or RouteOne to investigate credit, print required disclosures, and run Red Flags and OFAC checks
• Forms, toner, etc.
• Compliance training and auditing costs
• Fees to attorneys for vetting documents
* Some states prohibit the inclusion of fees to process loan documents in the dealer fee.
OTHER DEALER FEE ISSUES
TILA Disclosures – Other lawsuits have claimed that the dealer fee is a finance charge for federal Truth in Lending Act (TILA) disclosure purposes. To avoid this, it’s important to also charge dealer fees on comparable cash transactions. Since you obviously wouldn’t incur credit-related costs listed above on cash transactions, the SC court’s suggested method of averaging the costs in all closings of the prior year would appear to be beneficial.
Negotiation of Dealer Fees – Although a number of state regulations indicate that dealer fees must be negotiated with customers, this raises concerns about potential discrimination claims. The reasoning is that if a dealership charges one customer a fee of any kind they have to charge everyone the same fee, or they open themselves up to a lawsuit.
Another fear is that charging a different dealer fee to different customers is “illegal”. This does not appear to be the case unless state law specifically prohibits dealerships from charging any customer a different doc fee amount than any other customer. The only state of which I’m aware that has such a prohibition is West Virginia. In a 2014 case brought by the West Virginia Automobile & Truck Dealers Association against Ford Motor Company, the court disagreed that charging different doc fees is prohibited by West Virginia Consumer Credit and Protection Act, but agreed that guidance from the West Virginia Motor Vehicle Dealers Advisory Board prohibits dealerships from charging any customer a higher doc fee than any other customer. (Arguably, this is not a violation of WV law and thus not “illegal” per se, but simply guidance from the WVMVDAB who’s “statutory purpose is to assist and to advise the Commissioner of the Division of Motor Vehicles on the administration of laws regulating the motor vehicle industry; to work with the commissioner in developing new laws, rules or policies regarding the motor vehicles industry; and to give the commissioner such further advice and assistance as he or she may from time to time require.” Regardless, WV dealers are bound to follow the Dealer Advisory Board’s directions).
So the easy answer is to just charge everyone the same doc fee, right? Perhaps. But here’s the rub: Conveyance/Processing fees are dealer-imposed charges and therefore not mandatory – only government fees are compulsory. So it is improper to tell a customer that you MUST charge them the fee – this could lead to a deceptive practices claim.
So how do you avoid potential discrimination claims? By being able to show proof that any downward deviations in fees are for valid business reasons. For example, if a manufacturer limits the doc fee for an employee purchase, that reason should be documented in writing and a copy kept in the deal jacket. Another example would be that a competitive dealer offered a lower doc fee that you needed to match to make the deal. Again, documentation is key. This follows the same line of reasoning as NADA’s Fair Credit Compliance Program for rate markups.
The information presented in this article is solely the opinion of Jim Radogna and is not intended to convey or constitute legal advice, and is not a substitute for obtaining legal advice from a qualified attorney. You should not act upon any such information without first seeking qualified professional counsel on your specific matter.
Jim Radogna is a nationally-recognized auto industry consultant specializing in dealership sales and regulatory compliance. He is the President of Dealer Compliance Consultants, Inc., based in San Diego, California and a frequent contributor to automotive publications including Dealer Magazine, Automotive News, WardsAuto, Auto Dealer Monthly, DrivingSales Dealership Innovation Guide, AutoSuccess, CBT News Magazine, and F&I Magazine. He can be reached at (858) 722-2726 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org