9th Circuit says CFPB can seek restitution in action against payday lender
On May 23, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit upheld a district court’s judgment finding an online loan servicer and its affiliates liable for a deceptive loan scheme. However, the appellate court vacated the district court’s order, which had imposed a $10 million civil penalty (rather than the requested penalty of over $50 million) and had declined the CFPB's request for $235 million in restitution. As previously covered by InfoBytes, in 2018, the district court ordered the defendants to pay the civil penalty for offering high-interest loans in states with usury laws barring the transactions after determining in September 2016 that the online loan servicer was the “true lender” of the loans that were issued through entities located on tribal land (covered by a Buckley Special Alert). At the time, the district court found that a lower statutory penalty was more appropriate than the CFPB’s requested amount because the Bureau failed to show the company “knowingly violated the CFPA” or acted “recklessly.” In rejecting the Bureau’s requested restitution amount, the district court found that the agency had not put forth any evidence that the defendants “intended to defraud consumers or that consumers did not receive the benefit of their bargain from the [program]” for restitution to be an appropriate remedy.
According to the 9th Circuit, the district court applied the wrong legal analysis in 2018 when it assessed only a $10 million civil money penalty against the defendants and no restitution payments to consumers harmed by the improper loans. By applying federal common law choice-of-law principles, the appellate court declined to apply tribal law, holding that state laws applied to the loans, thus rendering them invalid. The appellate court determined that the defendants acted recklessly when they attempted to collect on invalid debts after counsel advised in 2013 that such actions were likely illegal. While the defendants shut down the tribal lending program for new loans, the 9th Circuit said they continued to collect on existing loans. “We conclude that from September 2013 on, the danger that [defendants’] conduct violated the statute was ‘so obvious that [defendants] must have been aware of it,’” the appellate court wrote. Noting that penalties for “reckless” violations under tier two were appropriate beginning September 2013, the appellate court ordered the district court to recalculate the civil penalty on remand. The 9th Circuit also directed the district court on remand to reconsider the appropriate restitution without relying on irrelevant considerations that motivated its earlier decision, including (i) whether defendants acted in bad faith; and (ii) “whether consumers received the benefit of their bargain.” Moreover, the appellate court held that the district court erred by stating “that the ‘proposed restitution amount [should be] netted to account for expenses.’”
The 9th Circuit also concluded that the district court was correct in holding one of the individual defendants personally liable for the company’s conduct. Furthermore, the appellate court held that the defendants’ argument that the structure of the Bureau is unconstitutional did not affect the validity of the lawsuit (which was filed when the Bureau was headed by lawfully appointed former Director Richard Cordray), writing that, as in Collins v. Yellen (covered by InfoBytes here), “the unlawfulness of the removal provision does not strip the Director of the power to undertake the other responsibilities of his office.”