Friday, May 16, 2014

Escalation of interest rates in loan contracts void without written notice to and written consent of the borrower

Plain Language summary:

Case title:Spouses Ignacio F. Juico and Alice P. Juico, Petitioners, -versus- China Banking Corporation, Respondent,” G.R. No. 187678, April 10, 2013

Ruling: The escalation clause is void because it granted China Banking the power to impose an increased rate of interest without a written notice to the Juico couple and their written consent.  

Definition: “Escalation clauses refer to stipulations allowing an increase in the interest rate agreed upon by the contracting parties.  

Doctrine: “There is nothing inherently wrong with escalation clauses which are valid stipulations in commercial contracts to maintain fiscal stability and to retain the value of money in long term contracts.”

“But an escalation clause is void where the creditor unilaterally determines and imposes an increase in the stipulated rate of interest without the express conformity of the debtor.”

New Sampaguita Builders Construction, Inc. v. Philippine National Bank (July 30, 2004)

Note: The Supreme Court rulings on escalation clauses also apply to credit card agreements. Polotan, Sr. v. CA (Eleventh Div.), 357 Phil. 250 (1998)

Background facts


Spouses Ignacio and Alice Juico got a loan from China Banking Corporation as evidenced by 2 promissory notes. The loan was secured by a Real Estate Mortgage over the Juico couple’s property located at White Plains, Quezon City. The notes contained the following escalation clause stating that the interest rate would change every month based on the prevailing market rate:
“I/We hereby authorize the CHINA BANKING CORPORATION to increase or decrease as the case may be, the interest rate/service charge presently stipulated in this note without any advance notice to me/us in the event a law or Central Bank regulation is passed or promulgated by the Central Bank of the Philippines or appropriate government entities, increasing or decreasing such interest rate or service charge.”
The Juicos failed to pay the monthly amortizations due. As of February 23, 2001, the amount due on the two promissory notes totaled P19,201,776.63 representing the principal, interests, penalties and attorney’s fees. The mortgaged property was sold at public auction, with China Bank as the highest bidder for the amount of Php 10,300,000.

After the auction, China Bank filed a collection case with the Regional Trial Court (RTC) of Makati City for Php 8,901,776.63, the amount of deficiency after applying the proceeds of the foreclosure sale to the mortgage debt.

In their Answer, the Juicos admitted their debt but claimed that the principal of the loan was already paid when the mortgaged property was extrajudicially foreclosed and sold for Php 10,300,000. They contended that should they be held liable for any deficiency, it should be only for Php 55,000 representing the difference between the total outstanding obligation of Php 10,355,000 and the bid price of Php 10,300,000.

At the trial, China Bank presented Ms. Annabelle Cokai Yu, its Senior Loans Assistant, as witness. She testified that she handled the account of the Juicos and assisted them in processing their loan application. She called them monthly to inform them of the prevailing rates to be used in computing interest due on their loan.

On cross-examination, Ms. Yu reiterated that the interest rate changes every month based on the prevailing market rate and she notified the Juicos of the prevailing rate by calling them monthly before their account becomes past due. When asked if there was any written authority from the Juicos to increase the interest rate unilaterally, Ms. Yu answered that they signed a promissory note indicating that they agreed to pay interest at the prevailing rate.

In defense, Ignacio Juico testified that before the loan’s release, he was required to sign a blank promissory note and was informed that the interest rate on the loan will be based on prevailing market rates. On cross-examination, Ignacio testified that he is a Doctor of Medicine and also engaged in the business of distributing medical supplies. Ignacio admitted having read the promissory notes and that he is aware of his obligation under them before he signed them.

The RTC rules against the Juicos 


The trial court held that:

(1) Ignacio’s claim that he signed the promissory notes in blank cannot negate or mitigate his liability since he admitted reading the Promissory Notes before signing them.

(2) Considering the substantial amount involved, it is unbelievable that the Juicos threw all caution to the wind and simply signed the documents without reading and understanding the contents.

The Court of Appeals affirms RTC ruling 


The CA recognized China Bank’s right to claim the deficiency because the proceeds of the foreclosure sale were insufficient to cover the amount of the debt.

Also, the CA found as valid the stipulation in the promissory notes that interest will be based on the prevailing rate. It noted that the parties agreed on the interest rate which was not unilaterally imposed by the bank but was the rate offered daily by all commercial banks as approved by the Monetary Board. Having signed the promissory notes, the Juicos are bound by the stipulations.

Supreme Court rules partly for the Juicos and partly for China Bank 


The Juico couple appealed to the Supreme Court. According to the Juicos, the issues are:

(1) The interest rates imposed by China Bank are not valid as they were not by virtue of any law or Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas regulation or any regulation that was passed by an appropriate government entity. They insist that the interest rates were unilaterally imposed by the bank and thus violate the principle of mutuality of contracts.

(2) The escalation clause in the promissory notes does not give China Bank the unbridled authority to increase the interest rate unilaterally. Any change must be mutually agreed upon.

The Court’s ruling in favor of the Juicos: 

(1) Escalation clauses are not necessarily void. These clauses are valid stipulations in commercial contracts to maintain fiscal stability and to retain the value of money in long term contracts.

(2) The Juicos were not coerced into signing the promissory notes and they did not protest the new rates imposed on their loan. Nevertheless, an escalation clause “granting the creditor an unbridled right to adjust the interest independently and upwardly, completely depriving the debtor of the right to assent to an important modification in the agreement” is void. A stipulation of this nature violates the principle of mutuality of contracts under Article 1308 of the New Civil Code.

(3) An escalation clause is void where the creditor unilaterally determines and imposes an increase in the stipulated rate of interest without the express conformity of the debtor.

(4) Changes in the rate of interest for loans under an escalation clause must be the result of an agreement between the parties.

(5) China Bank should have given a detailed billing statement based on the new imposed interest with corresponding computation of the total debt. The statement would have enabled the Juicos to make an informed decision. China Bank should also have provided an appropriate form to be signed by the Juicos to indicate their conformity to the new rates.

The Court’s ruling in favor of China Bank: 

The Court ordered the Juicos to pay China Bank Php 4,761 ,865. 79 (instead of Php 8,901,776.63, the amount originally claimed) representing the amount of deficiency inclusive of interest, penalty charge and attorney’s fees.

Overview of Supreme Court rulings on escalation cases 


The controlling case and ruling on escalation clauses is New Sampaguita Builders Construction, Inc. v. Philippine National Bank. The Court ruled that “an escalation clause is void where the creditor unilaterally determines and imposes an increase in the stipulated rate of interest without the express conformity of the debtor.” The Court explained:
Courts have the authority to strike down or to modify provisions in promissory notes that grant the lenders unrestrained power to increase interest rates, penalties and other charges at the latter’s sole discretion and without giving prior notice to and securing the consent of the borrowers. This unilateral authority is anathema to the mutuality of contracts and enable lenders to take undue advantage of borrowers. Although the Usury Law has been effectively repealed, courts may still reduce iniquitous or unconscionable rates charged for the use of money. Furthermore, excessive interests, penalties and other charges not revealed in disclosure statements issued by banks, even if stipulated in the promissory notes, cannot be given effect under the Truth in Lending Act.
Posted below are some other cases on escalation clauses.

Banco Filipino Savings & Mortgage Bank v. Navarro, No. L-46591, July 28, 1987, 152 SCRA 346, 353

“I/We hereby authorize Banco Filipino to correspondingly increase the interest rate stipulated in this contract without advance notice to me/us in the event a law should be enacted increasing the lawful rates of interest that may be charged on this particular kind of loan.”
Ruling:

Escalation clause void because: Circular No. 494 issued by the Monetary Board on January 2,1976, because said circular is not a law although it has the force and effect of law Escalation clause has no provision for reducing the stipulated interest “in the event that the applicable maximum rate of interest is reduced by law or by the Monetary Board” (de-escalation clause).
Philippine National Bank v. Court of Appeals, G.R. No. 107569, November 8, 1994, 238 SCRA 20

The promissory notes authorized PNB to increase the stipulated interest per annum “within the limits allowed by law at any time depending on whatever policy [PNB] may adopt in the future; Provided, that, the interest rate on this note shall be correspondingly decreased in the event that the applicable maximum interest rate is reduced by law or by the Monetary Board.” Philippine National Bank v. Court of Appeals, 273 Phil. 789 (1991)
Ruling:

Although the contract included a de-escalation clause, increases unilaterally imposed by PNB violated the principle of mutuality essential in contracts.
Philippine National Bank v. Court of Appeals, 328 Phil. 54, 61-62 (1996)

Escalation clause authorized PNB to raise the stipulated interest rate at any time without notice, within the limits allowed by law.
Ruling:

PNB did not secure the conformity of the borrower to the successive increases in the interest rate. The borrower’s assent to the increases cannot be implied from lack of response to the letters sent by PNB, informing them of the increases.
Philippine Savings Bank v. Castillo, G.R. No. 193178, May 30, 2011, 649 SCRA 527

“The rate of interest and/or bank charges herein stipulated, during the terms of this promissory note, its extensions, renewals or other modifications, may be increased, decreased or otherwise changed from time to time within the rate of interest and charges allowed under present or future law(s) and/or government regulation(s) as the [PSBank] may prescribe for its debtors.”
Ruling:

Escalation clause void despite provision for de-escalation.

“The increase or decrease of interest rates under such clause hinges solely on the discretion of petitioner as it does not require the conformity of the maker before a new interest rate could be enforced. We also said that respondents’ assent to the modifications in the interest rates cannot be implied from their lack of response to the memos sent by petitioner, informing them of the amendments, nor from the letters requesting for reduction of the rates.”

Some observations: 

[1] The Juicos should have asked for the reduction of the attorney’s fees demanded by China Bank amounting to 10% or about Php 1.36 million. In New Sampaguita Builders Construction, Inc. v. Philippine National Bank, the Supreme Court equitably reduced the attorney’s fees to just 1%.

[2] The Supreme Court rulings on escalation clauses also apply to credit card agreements. See Polotan, Sr. v. CA (Eleventh Div.), 357 Phil. 250 (1998).

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