7th Circuit vacates $59 million CFPB penalty against mortgage-assistance relief companies
On July 23, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit vacated a 2019 restitution award in an action brought by the CFPB against two former mortgage-assistance relief companies and their principals (collectively, “defendants”) for violations of Regulation O. As previously covered by InfoBytes, in 2014, the CFPB, FTC, and 15 state authorities took action against several foreclosure relief companies and associated individuals, including the defendants, alleging they made misrepresentations about their services, failed to make mandatory disclosures, and collected unlawful advance fees. The district court’s 2019 order (covered by InfoBytes here) held one company and its principals jointly and severally liable for over $18 million in restitution, while another company and its same principals were held jointly and severally liable for nearly $3 million in restitution. Additionally, the court ordered civil penalties totaling over $37 million against company two and four principals.
In 2021, the principals urged the 7th Circuit to vacate the judgment, arguing, among other things, that the restitution order used the company’s net revenues instead of net profits in determining restitution and that they were exempt from liability because Regulation O exempts properly licensed attorneys engaged in providing mortgage-assistance relief services as part of the practice of law, provided they comply with state law and regulations. The principals also disagreed with the district court’s finding that they acted recklessly in calculating the civil penalty amount, contending that “they were not aware of a risk that their conduct was illegal.”
The 7th Circuit reviewed the application of the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Liu v. SEC, which held that a disgorgement award cannot exceed a firm’s net profits (covered by InfoBytes here). While the Bureau argued that Liu focused on disgorgement and not restitution, the appellate court held that the Bureau’s interpretation was “too narrow a reading of Liu.” According to the appellate court, “Liu’s reasoning is not limited to disgorgement; instead, the opinion purports to set forth a rule applicable to all categories of equitable relief, including restitution.” The appellate court vacated the restitution award and remanded the suit for recalculation based on net profits.
With respect to the alleged violations of Regulation O, the appellate court affirmed the district court’s ruling, concluding that attorneys who are subject to liability for violating consumer laws “cannot escape liability simply by virtue of being an attorney.” However, the appellate court vacated the recklessness finding in the civil penalty calculation pertaining to certain of the defendants, writing that “[a]lthough we have found that they were not engaged in the practice of law, the question was a legitimate one. We consider it a step too far to say that they were reckless—that is, that they should have been aware of an unjustifiably high or obvious risk of violating Regulation O.” The appellate court ordered the district court to apply the penalty structure for strict-liability violations. Additionally, the 7th Circuit remanded an injunction which permanently banned the principals from providing “debt relief services,” finding that the injunction requires “some tailoring” as the violations at issue involved mortgage-relief services and not debt-relief services.