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Financial Services Law Insights and Observations

4th Circuit: No waiver of sovereign immunity for lawsuits under the FCRA

Courts FCRA Congress Sovereign Immunity Student Lending Appellate Fourth Circuit Department of Education

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On March 6, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit held that Congress did not waive sovereign immunity for lawsuits under the FCRA, affirming the lower court’s dismissal of a consumer action. According to the opinion, a consumer filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Education (the Department), a student loan company, and the three major credit reporting agencies, alleging numerous claims, including violations of the FCRA for failing to properly investigate disputes that federal student loans were fraudulently opened in his name. The Department filed a motion to dismiss to the FCRA claims against it arguing the court lacked subject matter jurisdiction based upon a claim of sovereign immunity. The lower court agreed, holding Congress had not affirmatively waived sovereign immunity for suits under the FCRA.

On appeal, the 4th Circuit agreed with the lower court. The appellate court noted that, although the FCRA includes a “government or governmental subdivision or agency” as part of the definition of “person” in the statute, there is a “longstanding interpretive presumption that ‘person’ does not include the sovereign,” and that waivers of sovereign immunity need to be “unambiguous and unequivocal.” The appellate court noted that Congress waived immunity in other sections of the FCRA, which were not at issue in this case and, had Congress waived immunity for enforcement purposes under the FCRA, it would raise a new host of “befuddling” and “bizarre” issues, such as the prospect of the government bringing criminal charges against itself. Therefore, the appellate court concluded that the federal government may be a “person” under the substantive provisions, but that without a clear waiver from Congress, the federal government is still immune from lawsuits under the FCRA’s enforcement provisions.

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