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Financial Services Law Insights and Observations

9th Circuit affirms ruling for CFPB in deceptive solicitations case

Courts CFPB Appellate Ninth Circuit Student Lending Enforcement Consumer Finance


On December 13, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit affirmed summary judgment in favor of the CFPB against a California-based student financial aid operation and its owner (collectively, “defendants”), which were sued for allegedly mailing deceptive solicitations to individuals that advertised help in applying for scholarships. As previously covered by InfoBytes, the defendants allegedly engaged in deceptive practices when they, among other things, represented that by paying a fee and sending in an application, consumers were applying for financial aid or the defendants would apply for aid on behalf the students. But, according to the Bureau, the consumers did not receive the promised services in exchange for their payment. The case was stayed in 2016 while the owner defendant faced a pending criminal investigation, until the court lifted the stay in 2019 after finding the possibility of the civil proceedings affecting the owner defendant’s ability to defend himself in the criminal proceeding “speculative and unripe.” In 2021, the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of California issued an order granting in part and denying in part the CFPB’s motion for partial summary judgment and granting the agency’s motion for default judgment (covered by InfoBytes here). The order required the defendants to pay a $10 million civil money penalty and more than $4.7 million in restitution. Additionally, default judgment was entered against the defendants on the merits of the Bureau’s claims, which included allegations that the defendants failed to provide privacy notices to consumers as required by Regulation P. The defendants appealed.

On appeal, the defendant-appellant argued that he was not subject to the Bureau’s authority because he provided nonfinancial advice on “free” scholarships and that the solicitations were not deceptive. The appellate court noted that the CFPA lists ten different categories of covered persons, one of which is “providing financial advisory services … to consumers on individual financial matters or relating to proprietary financial products or services ….” Because the solicitations dealt with the topic of financial aid and scholarships for college tuition, the 9th Circuit concluded that “[a]dvising students to exhaust scholarship opportunities before taking on debt is no less ‘financial’ than advising students to leverage their unique access to federally subsidized loans.” The appellate court noted that the defendant’s “advice covered the entire gamut of financial aid and was undoubtedly financial in nature.” The appellate court further noted that the defendant “is incorrect that scholarships are not financial in nature merely because they do not have to be repaid,” and that “the ordinary meaning of financial is broad and encompasses both cash financing and debt financing. Indeed, the definition of ‘finance’ specifically contemplates raising funds, regardless of their origin, for college tuition.”

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