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Financial Services Law Insights and Observations

CFPB says furnishers’ investigative duties include legal disputes

Courts Appellate Eleventh Circuit CFPB FCRA Dispute Resolution Consumer Finance Credit Report Credit Reporting Agency


On April 20, the CFPB filed an amicus brief in a case before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit arguing that the duty to investigate a consumer’s credit dispute applies not only to factual disputes but also to disputes that can be labeled as legal in nature. The plaintiffs entered into a timeshare agreement with the defendant hotel chain and made monthly payments for nearly two years but then stopped. The plaintiffs disputed the validity of, and attempted to rescind, the agreement. The defendant did not agree to the rescission and continued to record the deed under the plaintiffs’ names. The plaintiffs later obtained copies of their credit reports, which showed past-due balances with the defendant, and subsequently submitted letters to a credit reporting agency (CRA) disputing the credit reporting. After the defendant certified the information was accurate, the plaintiffs sued the defendant and the CRA alleging that the defendant violated the FCRA by failing to conduct a proper investigation. The defendant moved for summary judgment, arguing that the issue of whether the debt is owed—the basis of the plaintiffs’ FCRA claim—constitutes a legal dispute and is not a factual inaccuracy. The defendant further maintained that there was no legal error because the plaintiffs owed the money as a matter of law. Last December, the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida granted partial summary judgment in favor the defendant after concluding, among other things, that because the plaintiffs’ dispute centered on the legal validity of their debt, rather than a factual inaccuracy, the investigation requirement was not triggered and the claim was “not actionable under the FCRA.”

The Bureau argued in favor of the plaintiffs-appellants. According to the Bureau, the district court “unduly narrow[ed] the scope of a furnisher’s obligations by holding that furnishers categorically need not investigate indirect disputes involving ‘legal’ inaccuracies.” This position, the Bureau maintained, contradicts the purpose of the FCRA’s requirement to conduct a reasonable investigation of consumer disputes and “could reduce the incentive of furnishers to resolve ‘legal’ disputes, and, in turn, could increase the volume of consumer complaints about credit reporting issues that the Bureau receives and devotes resources to address.”

Explaining that the FCRA does not distinguish between legal and factual disputes, the Bureau stated that the district court’s conclusion “is not supported by the statute, risks exposing consumers to more inaccurate credit reporting, conflicts with the decision of another circuit, and undercuts the remedial purpose of the FCRA.” The Bureau presented several arguments to support its position, including that a reasonable investigation is required under the FCRA, and that while the reasonableness of an investigation is case specific, it “can be evaluated by how thoroughly the furnisher investigated the dispute (e.g., how well its conclusion is supported by the information it considered or reasonably could have considered).”

The Bureau also claimed that the Congress did not intend to exclude disputes that involve legal questions. “[M]any inaccurate representations pertaining to an individual’s debt obligations arguably could be characterized as legal inaccuracies, given that determining the truth or falsity of the representation could require the reading of a contract,” the Bureau wrote. Moreover, an “atextual exception for legal inaccuracies will create a loophole that could swallow the reasonable investigation rule,” the Bureau stressed. The agency urged the court to “reject a formal distinction between factual and legal investigations because it will likely prove unworkable in practice” and said that allowing such a distinction would “curtail the reach of the FCRA’s investigation requirement in a way that runs counter to the purpose of the provision to require meaningful investigation to ensure accuracy on credit reports.”

As previously covered by InfoBytes, the CFPB and the FTC filed an amicus brief presenting the same arguments last December in a different FCRA case on appeal to the 11th Circuit involving the same defendant.