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Financial Services Law Insights and Observations

9th Circuit concludes district attorneys can sue national banks in state court

Courts Appellate Ninth Circuit Debt Collection State Issues California National Bank Act Rosenthal Fair Debt Collection Practices Act


On February 27, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit affirmed a district court’s decision to abstain from enjoining a state action brought by a California county district attorney (DA) against a national bank, concluding that the enforcement action was not an exercise of “visitorial powers.” According to the opinion, the DA launched an investigation into the bank’s vendor and issued the bank an investigative subpoena seeking records of its banking activities. The bank objected, claiming the request “improperly infringes on the exclusive visitorial powers of the [OCC]” because it sought to inspect the bank’s books and records. The bank subsequently filed a complaint in the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California asking the court to enjoin the state action and requesting injunctive relief to prevent the DA from taking any action to enforce federal and state lending, debt collection, and consumer laws against the bank, or from exercising visitorial powers in violation of the National Bank Act (NBA). The DA withdrew his investigative subpoena and moved to dismiss for lack of subject matter jurisdiction on the ground that the case was now moot. The motion to dismiss was denied on the premise that the DA had not demonstrated that a “renewed investigative subpoena against [the bank] ‘could not be reasonably be expected.’”

The DA then filed a complaint in state court claiming the bank violated California law by hiring a third-party vendor to place “extensive harassing” debt collection phone calls to residents in the state. The complaint alleged violations of California’s Unfair Competition Law, the Rosenthal Fair Debt Collections Practices Act, and the right to privacy under the California Constitution. In federal court, the bank moved for summary judgment, arguing that the state action was an improper exercise of visitorial powers. The district court, however, ruled that the Younger v. Harris abstention (in which a federal court refrains from staying or enjoining pending state criminal prosecutions absent extraordinary circumstances or state civil enforcement actions when certain conditions are met) applied. The bank appealed.

The 9th Circuit considered two questions: (i) whether the Younger abstention was correctly applied, and (ii) whether the DA’s state court action “was an impermissible exercise of visitorial powers vested exclusively with the OCC.” The 9th Circuit held that the district court was correct in applying the Younger abstention doctrine because (i) “the state action qualified as an ‘ongoing’ judicial proceeding because no proceedings of substance on the merits had taken place in the federal action”; (ii) the state court action implicated an important state interest in consumer protection and nothing in federal law bars a DA from suing a national bank; (iii) the bank had the option to raise a federal defense under the NBA in the state court action; and (iv) the injunction the bank requested in the federal action would interfere with the state court proceeding.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                      The 9th Circuit also rejected the bank’s arguments that the state action constituted an illegal exercise of visitorial powers that only belongs to the OCC or state attorneys general. The 9th Circuit cited the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Cuomo v. Clearing House Ass’n, L.L.C., in which the high court “held that bringing a civil lawsuit to enforce a non-preempted state law is not an exercise of visitorial powers,” and that “a sovereign’s ‘visitorial powers’ and its power to enforce the law are two different things.” Relying on the Cuomo holding, the 9th Circuit found that accepting the bank’s position “would mean that actions brought against national banks by federal or state agencies or, for that matter, individuals would be forbidden as unlawful exercises of visitorial powers.” “Such a result is wrong. It contradicts established law and is unsupported by any legal authority cited by [the bank]” and would additionally “raise serious anti-commandeering concerns under the Tenth Amendment.”