A Ford Econoline owner in suburban Detroit has filed a lawsuit that accuses Ford Motor Credit Co. and a local dealership of altering loan documents.
The complaint, which seeks class action status, was filed in Oakland County (Mich.) Circuit Court. It alleges that Ford Credit or Mel Farr Ford Inc. in Oak Park, Mich., fraudulently changed the terms of the purchaser's late charges and forged her initials to the changes.
'Deborah Caldwell became concerned when the amount she was charged in her late fees was increased to an amount higher than allowed under her contract,' said her lawyer, Steven Lehto of Farmington Hills, Mich. 'She requested a copy of her contact and Ford Credit supplied her the forged document where someone had scribbled out the old terms and merely written in new terms.'
Della DiPietro, Ford Credit's public affairs manager, said the company had not been served with the lawsuit and had no information about the specific allegations. She said the company's litigation office is unaware of any similar complaints or lawsuits.
DiPietro said all Ford Credit branches and dealerships in Michigan were notified to amend their standard, preprinted loan forms when the state Legislature raised the late fee ceiling in March 1996.
'We told our branches - and our branches told the dealers - that until they got new contracts, to cross out the old terms and get their customers to sign it,' DiPietro said.
Caldwell bought her new van in April 1996 from Mel Farr Ford for $35,506.
The preprinted original signed contract, which Caldwell kept, specified a late payment fee of 2 percent or $50, whichever is less, according to Lehto. The copy she later received from Ford Credit has handwritten notations listing a late charge of 5 percent or $15, whichever is more.
Copies of both versions of the retail installment contract are attached to the lawsuit.
Lehto said Caldwell became concerned when the late fee she was assessed jumped between payments.
She then contacted Ford Credit for another copy of the loan agreement and compared it with her own. The discrepancy was then apparent, Lehto said.
The dealership was named as a defendant because that was the last place Caldwell saw the original papers, but the dealership 'wouldn't have profited' from the alleged alteration, Lehto said.
Derrick Mayes, Mel Farr Ford's chief financial officer, said the dealership had not received the legal papers, but has no indication any employees did anything improper.
During the transition period, he said, purchasers were advised of the change in the law 'before the contracts were signed and before the money was lent.'