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On April 8, the Ohio Court of Appeals affirmed summary judgment for a bank, its employees, and the plaintiff’s former husband (collectively, “defendants”), concluding, among other things, that under the Ohio Consumer Sales Practices Act (OCSPA) the defendants could not be considered “suppliers,” transactions with national banks are not covered, and bank employees were not considered “loan officers.” According to the opinion, a homeowner filed a lawsuit alleging the defendants fraudulently opened a home equity line of credit by allowing the plaintiff’s former husband to sign the homeowner’s name with the bank employees’ assistance in notarizing the signature. The homeowner alleged various claims, including that the defendants violated the OCSPA’s provision prohibiting a “supplier” from committing “an unfair or deceptive act or practice in connection with a consumer transaction.” The lower court granted summary judgment in favor of the defendants. The homeowner appealed, arguing that the bank employees were acting as “loan officers” and therefore, they qualified as “suppliers” under the OCSPA. The appellate court noted that while the term “supplier” does include “loan officer,” the statute explicitly states that “loan officer” does not include “an employee of a bank…organized under the laws of this state, another state, or the United States.” Moreover, the OCSPA provides that consumer transactions do not include transactions with financial institutions, except in certain circumstances, which are not applicable to the action. Therefore, the lower court did not err in its summary judgment ruling.
On April 8, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit affirmed a lower court’s dismissal of a consumer’s suit arising out of overdraft fees charged by an Arkansas-based bank. The consumer alleged, among other things, that the bank breached its Electronic Fund Transfer Agreement (EFT Agreement) by failing to provide accurate, real-time account balance information online, which caused her to “incur unexpected overdraft fees.” According to the opinion, the consumer claimed that she frequently relied on her online account balance when making purchases, and that the bank’s alleged debiting practices—such as “batching by transaction type,” processing transactions out of chronological order, and “failing to show real-time balance information online [or] intra-bank transfers instantaneously”—sometimes caused her to pay insufficient funds and overdraft fees. The consumer filed suit asserting claims for “actual fraud; constructive fraud; false representation/deceit; breach of fiduciary duty; breach of contract (namely, the EFT Agreement) . . . breach of the implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing; and unjust enrichment.” The consumer appealed following a dismissal of all claims by the district court. In 2017, the 10th Circuit reversed and remanded the dismissal of the breach of contract claim, and affirmed the dismissal of the other claims. The district court granted summary judgment to the bank, determining that the EFT Agreement promised accuracy only to posted amounts and not to pending or unprocessed transactions.
On appeal, the 10th Circuit agreed with the district court, holding that the plain language of the EFT Agreement only promised accuracy of posted amounts, and authorized the bank to collect overdraft fees on insufficient funds items even if an ATM card or check card transaction “was preauthorized based on sufficient funds in the account at the time of withdrawal, transfer or purchase.” Moreover, the court noted that the EFT Agreement specifically stated that there was a 7:00 p.m. cut-off for transfers to be posted. Therefore, it was clear that the bank was not “contractually obligated to make intra-bank transfers instantaneously.” Furthermore, the court pointed out that the consumer failed to provide evidence demonstrating that the bank provided inaccurate balances.
On April 9, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit held that a consumer’s insurance repayment plan on her reverse mortgage did not qualify as an escrow account under RESPA’s Regulation X. According to the opinion, a consumer’s reverse mortgage required her to maintain hazard insurance on her property, which she elected to pay herself, and did not establish an escrow account with the mortgage servicer to pay her insurance and property taxes. After her insurance lapsed, the mortgage servicer advanced her over $5,000 in funds paid directly to her insurance carrier to ensure the property was covered, subject to a repayment agreement. After the consumer failed to make any payments under the agreement, the servicer initiated a foreclosure action against the consumer and obtained a forced-placed insurance policy when the insurance lapsed for a second time. Ultimately, a state-run forgivable loan program brought the consumer’s past due balance current and excess funds were placed in a trust to cover future insurance payments on the property. The consumer filed an action against the mortgage servicer alleging the servicer violated RESPA’s implementing Regulation X when it initiated forced-placed insurance, because the repayment agreement purportedly established an escrow account, which required the servicer to advance the funds for insurance. The district court entered judgment in favor of the servicer.
On appeal, the 11th Circuit agreed with the district court, concluding that no escrow account existed between the consumer and the servicer, emphasizing that nothing in the repayment agreement set aside funds for the servicer to pay insurance or taxes on the property in the future. The 11th Circuit rejected the consumer’s characterization of the repayment agreement as an arrangement under Regulation X “where the servicer adds a portion of the borrower’s payment to principal and subsequently deducts from principal the disbursements for escrow account items.” The 11th Circuit reasoned that not only did the consumer never make a principal payment to the servicer, the consumer’s characterization is “entirely inconsistent” with the reverse mortgage security instrument. Because the servicer never deducted anything from the principal when it disbursed funds to pay the insurance, the repayment agreement did not qualify as an escrow agreement under Regulation X.
California Court of Appeal upholds return of $331 million to NMS Deposit Fund despite legislative efforts
On April 2, the California Third District Court of Appeal upheld its July 2018 ruling that the state is required to return $331 million to the National Mortgage Settlement Deposit Fund (NMS Deposit Fund), reaching the same conclusion as it did previously notwithstanding newly enacted legislation. As previously covered by InfoBytes, three groups filed a lawsuit in 2014 against California Governor Jerry Brown and the state’s director of finance and controller alleging they unlawfully diverted money from the NMS Deposit Fund to make bond payments and offset general fund expenditures. The groups sought a writ of mandate compelling the state government to pay back approximately $350 million in diverted funds. After the Superior Court denied the writ, the Third District Court of Appeal reversed, concluding that the money still belongs in the NMS Deposit Fund, and not in the state’s General Fund. The state petitioned to the State Supreme Court for review and while the petition was pending, the governor signed SB 861, which states, “It is the intent of the Legislature…to confirm that allocations and uses of funds made by the director of finance from the National Mortgage Special Deposit Fund pursuant to [section 12531] in the 2011-12, 2012-13, and 2013-14 fiscal years were consistent with legislative direction and intent and to abrogate the holding of the Court of Appeal in [this case]. The Legislature further declares that the allocations made by the director of finance pursuant to [section 12531] were made for purposes consistent with the National Mortgage Settlement.” The Supreme Court directed the Court of Appeal to vacate the July 2018 opinion and reconsider in light of SB 861.
The Court of Appeal, having considered the views of the legislature in SB 861, confirmed its original conclusion from July 2018. Specifically, the court stated that the defendants’ reading of SB 861, “would effectively defeat the purpose of creating a special deposit fund to house the money” and would disregard the former Attorney General’s instructions for use of the settlement money, which was part of the National Mortgage Settlement. The Court of Appeal noted that in SB 861, the legislature declared that “the allocations…were made consistent with the National Mortgage Settlement,” but emphasized that “such a ‘belief is not binding on a court. . . .’” and the interpretation is “an exercise of the judicial power the Constitution assigns to the courts.” Therefore, upon second review, the Court of Appeal again held that the trial court erred when it did not issue a writ of mandate ordering the diverted funds to be returned to the NMS Deposit Fund.
On April 5, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit reversed in part and affirmed in part a district court’s order dismissing a plaintiff’s action alleging a debt collector violated the FDCPA when attempting to collect on a time-barred debt. According to the opinion, the plaintiff brought a lawsuit asserting a debt collector (i) violated the FDCPA’s prohibition on “false, deceptive or misleading” practices under section 1692e; (ii) violated the FDCPA’s prohibition on “unfair or unconscionable” practices under section 1692f by attempting to collect on a time-barred debt; and (iii) violated Florida state collection laws. The district court dismissed the FDCPA claims, concluding that the law allows for collectors to seek “voluntary repayment of…time-barred debt so long as the debt collector does not initiate or threaten legal action,” and declined to exercise jurisdiction over the state law claims once it dismissed the FDCPA claims.
On appeal, the 11th Circuit affirmed the dismissal of the section 1692f claim, rejecting the argument that attempts to collect on time-barred debt are generally unconscionable or unfair under the law. As for the claim under section 1692e, the 11th Circuit concluded the collection letter could plausibly be misleading or deceptive to the “least sophisticated consumer.” Specifically, the 11th Circuit noted that, “as a general matter, a creditor can seek voluntary payment of a time-barred debt,” but the “right to seek repayment does not confer a right to mislead” and one must only “reasonably infer an implicit threat” of litigation to state a claim under section 1692e. The 11th Circuit concluded that the letter’s offer to “resolve” the debt at a discount—“combined with a deadline” to accept the offer—is a “warning” that the offer may not be renewed, and that a lack of disclosure that the debt is time barred could “plausibly deceive or mislead an unsophisticated consumer as to the legal status of the debt, even in the absence of an express threat of litigation.” In reversing the dismissal of the claim under section 1692e, the appellate court also reinstated the state law claim and remanded the case back to district court.
On April 4, the Colorado Court of Appeals reversed the trial court’s ruling assessing civil penalties against a foreclosure law firm for allegedly failing to disclose that its principals had an ownership interest in one of its vendors. The appeals court found that the civil penalty was not warranted because the failure to disclose “did not significantly impact members of the public as actual or potential consumers.” According to the opinion, the State of Colorado brought an enforcement action against a foreclosure law firm and its affiliated vendors, alleging, among other things, that the law firm and its vendors violated the Colorado Consumer Protection Act (the Consumer Act) by making “false or misleading statements of fact concerning the price” of their foreclosure services. The State argued that the relationship between the law firm and its vendors allowed the vendors to charge for services in excess of the market rate, pass on those costs to the law firm’s customers, and share a portion of the inflated costs with the law firm. While the trial court rejected two of the State’s claims against the defendants, it concluded that the law firm committed a deceptive practice under the Consumer Act that, “significantly impact[ed] the public as actual or potential consumers,” by failing to disclose its affiliated relationship with one of the vendors.
On appeal, the appellate court rejected the trial court’s conclusion that the alleged deception significantly impacted the public, noting that the deception was confined to two clients, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, in the context of their private agreements with the firm. Because the misrepresentation was in the context of a private relationship, and the tax-paying public were not “consumers of the law firm’s services for purposes of the Consumer Act,” the appellate court found the trial court erred when awarding the civil penalties under the Act. Moreover, the appellate court affirmed the trial court’s rejection of the State’s other claims against the law firm.
5th Circuit: District courts lack jurisdiction over claims arising from FDIC enforcement proceedings
On March 28, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit held that federal district courts lacked subject matter jurisdiction over claims arising out of certain FDIC enforcement proceedings. According to the opinion, the FDIC brought two enforcement actions against the bank and its directors (plaintiffs), alleging violations of various banking laws and regulations, which resulted in civil money penalties and cease-and-desist orders. The plaintiffs petitioned the 5th Circuit for review. While the first appeal was pending, the plaintiffs filed a lawsuit in federal district court alleging the FDIC committed constitutional violations during the enforcement actions. Specifically, the plaintiffs alleged that the FDIC (i) targeted the bank due to the bank president’s age and denied it equal protection; and (ii) violated due process by preventing the plaintiffs from offering certain evidence and preventing the president’s ability to talk with his counsel at certain times. These allegations were raised and rejected during the FDIC’s second enforcement proceeding. The FDIC moved to dismiss the action for a lack of subject matter jurisdiction, asserting that the statutory review process precludes district court jurisdiction over actions arising from enforcement proceedings. The district court agreed and dismissed the action without prejudice, indicating that the bank could assert its claims in the district court on direct review of the agency’s final order. The bank appealed.
On appeal, the 5th Circuit noted that the language in the statute “virtually compels” it to concede that Congress intended to preclude district court jurisdiction over claims against the FDIC arising from enforcement proceedings. The appellate court then addressed whether the claims raised by the plaintiffs were the type of claims Congress intended to be reviewed within the statutory scheme. The appellate court determined that the Federal Deposit Insurance Act allows for “meaningful judicial review,” by authorizing review of challenges to a final agency order by a federal circuit court. Moreover, the court rejected the plaintiffs’ argument that its claims are “wholly collateral” to the administrative order because they did not challenge the merits of the order but rather, the claims “arise directly from alleged irregularities in the agency enforcement proceedings.” Lastly, the court found that the plaintiffs’ constitutional claims do not fall outside of the agency’s expertise. Based on the foregoing, the court found that the district court correctly dismissed the action.
On March 11, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit affirmed a lower court’s dismissal of a consumer’s FDCPA action. The consumer alleged that his mortgage servicer violated the FDCPA by attempting to collect overdue payments beyond Florida’s five-year statute of limitations for foreclosure actions. According to the opinion, the consumer “stopped paying his mortgage in 2008 and has not made payments since then.” In 2009, the servicer invoked an acceleration clause and attempted to foreclose on the property, but the foreclosure action was dismissed in 2011. In 2015, the servicer sent another notice of default, accelerated the debt once again, and filed a second foreclosure action seeking the entire debt, including all delinquent payments since 2008. The consumer filed suit, arguing that the servicer, by seeking pre-2010 debt in 2015, violated the FDCPA’s prohibition on the collection of time-barred debts. The lower court dismissed the action.
On appeal, the 11th Circuit held that the pre-2010 debt sought in the 2015 foreclosure action “was not time-barred as a matter of law” and therefore did not violate the FDCPA. The 11th Circuit found that Florida’s five-year statute of limitations does not necessarily bar the recovery of payments that were originally due more than five years prior to the filing of the foreclosure action. Instead, any time a consumer defaults and the servicer invokes an acceleration clause, the entire debt “comes due” and the five-year clock starts to run.
On March 22, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit reversed a lower court’s decision to dismiss TCPA claims against a student loan administrator (defendant), finding that the administrator could be held vicariously liable for a contractor’s alleged debt collection attempts. The plaintiff claimed in her suit that the companies hired by the contracted student loan servicer violated the TCPA by using an autodialer when attempting to contact borrowers to collect payment. The plaintiff argued that the defendant was “vicariously liable” for the alleged TCPA violations of the companies that were hired to collect the plaintiff’s debts, and that the defendant was “similarly liable under the federal common law agency principles of ratification and implied actual authority.” The claims against the collectors and the servicer were dismissed for lack of personal jurisdiction, and the lower court ruled on summary judgment that a jury could not hold the defendant responsible for the actions of the servicer.
On appeal, the split three-judge panel held that a reasonable jury could find that the defendant knew of the alleged TCPA violations, and that because the defendant “ratified the debt collectors’ calling practices by remaining silent,” or alternatively, willfully ignored potential violations through its collections arrangement with the servicer, a jury could find a “principal-agent” relationship—even if one did not exist in the contract—and the court should hold it liable for the collectors’ TCPA violations. According to the panel, there was evidence in the record that the defendant “had actual knowledge” of the alleged violations through audit reports provided by the servicer and “did nothing” to ensure that the debt collectors complied with the law. However, the entire panel agreed that the defendant was not per se vicariously liable for the debt collectors’ alleged TCPA violations.
In dissent, Judge Bybee agreed with the panel that the defendant is not per se vicariously liable for the debt collectors’ practices, and noted in addition that there is not enough evidence to show that the defendant consented to practices that violate the TCPA or that it granted the debt collectors authority to violate the law. He wrote, “there is no evidence whatsoever that [the defendant] approved of such practices. In fact, the only evidence in the record is to the contrary: when [the defendant] learned of wrongful practices, it reported them to [the servicer] and asked [the servicer] to correct the problem.”
On March 26, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 1st Circuit affirmed a district court’s decision to dismiss putative class action allegations that a bank charged usurious interest rates on its overdraft products, finding that the bank’s “Sustained Overdraft Fees” are not interest under the National Bank Act (NBA). The plaintiff filed a lawsuit against the bank in 2017, alleging that sustained overdraft fees should be considered interest charges subject to Rhode Island’s interest rate cap of 21 percent, and that because the alleged annual interest rates exceeded the cap, the fees violated the NBA. The district court, however, dismissed the case, ruling that the sustained overdraft fees were service charges, not interest charges.
On appeal, the split three-judge panel held that, because the sustained overdraft fees did not constitute interest payments under the NBA and the OCC’s regulations interpreting the NBA, the class challenges cannot move forward. The panel stated that the agency’s interpretation in its 2007 Interpretive Letter is due “a measure of deference.” The panel found the agency’s interpretation persuasive because “[f]lat excess overdraft fees (1) arise from the terms of a bank’s deposit account agreement with its customers, (2) are connected to deposit account services, (3) lack the hallmarks of an extension of credit, and (4) do not operate like conventional interest charges.”
In dissent, Judge Lipez noted that, while the OCC interpretive letter laid out a clear case for overdraft fees as service, not interest charges, it was silent on the question of “Sustained Overdraft Fees.” He wrote that “[s]ilence, however, is not guidance, and we would thus need to infer a ruling on a debated issue from between the lines of the Letter.” Furthermore, he could “not see how we can defer to an interpretation that the OCC never clearly made on an issue that it previously described as complex and fact-specific.”
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