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Financial Services Law Insights and Observations

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  • District Court allows usurious interest and TILA violation claims to proceed

    Courts

    On March 5, the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Arkansas denied a request for summary judgment by several defendant pawnbrokers and pawnshops concluding there exists “disputed general issues of material fact” concerning claims filed by two plaintiffs who entered into pawn-loan contracts with the defendants. Among other things, the plaintiffs alleged that the defendants violated Amendment 89 of the Arkansas Constitution (Amendment 89) and the Arkansas Deceptive Trade Practices Act (ADTPA) by charging usurious rates of interest, and violated ADTPA by making false statements on pawn loan contracts (pawn tickets). The plaintiffs additionally claimed that the defendants violated TILA by failing to identify creditors on the face of their pawn tickets.

    In dismissing the defendants’ motion for summary judgment, the court determined that success of the claims hinged upon whether “the pawn transactions . . . are ‘loans’ charging usurious rates of interest under Arkansas law.” Specifically, genuine issues of material fact remained on: (i) whether the defendants knowingly entered into loans charging usurious interest because “the differences between traditional bank loans and pawn transactions . . . may not prevent the pawn transactions entered into by [the plaintiffs] from being classified as ‘loans’ under Arkansas law”; (ii) whether the plaintiffs were charged usurious interest or otherwise suffered damages under Amendment 89 or ADTPA as a result of the pawn transactions; (iii) whether the language on the pawn tickets stating that “the finance charge ‘is not interest for any purpose of the law,’” was a false statement in violation of the ADTPA; and (iv) whether the defendants’ failure to disclose the identity of the creditors on the pawn tickets is a violation of TILA, because, among other things, there remains a dispute as to whether the identified finance charges constitute as “credit,” and whether certain defendants qualify as “creditors” under TILA. Furthermore, the court rejected the defendants’ argument that they were entitled to summary judgment on the plaintiffs’ TILA claims “due to plaintiffs’ alleged failure to demonstrate detrimental reliance.”

    Courts Interest TILA Usury Deceptive Consumer Finance

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  • FTC files first action targeting paid reviews

    Federal Issues

    On February 26, the FTC announced its first action against a company for using fake paid reviews on an independent retail website in violation of the FTC Act. According to the complaint, the company—which advertised and sold a pill on a retail website as an appetite suppressant, fat blocker, and weight loss supplement—paid a website to create and post reviews of its supplement on the retail website in order to keep the supplement’s rating high. The FTC argues that paying for the fake reviews constitutes a deceptive act or practice and the making of false advertisements in violation of the FTC Act because the company represented the reviews as truthful comments by actual product purchasers. Moreover, the FTC alleges that the company made deceptive or false claims about the effectiveness of its supplement on the retail website because the claims were unsubstantiated at the time the representations were made. The proposed order imposes injunctive relief prohibiting the company from making similar claims related to similar dietary supplements unless there is reliable evidence from human clinical testing to support the claims, and from misrepresenting that an endorsement is truthful or from an actual purchaser. As part of the settlement, the company has agreed to a 12.8 million suspended judgment after the payment of $50,000 based on the company’s financial condition. The proposed order has not yet been approved by the district court.

    Federal Issues FTC Act Advertisement Deceptive

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  • NY AG sues jeweler for practices targeting servicemembers

    State Issues

    On October 29, the New York Attorney General announced the filing of a complaint against a national jewelry store, headquartered in New York, for allegedly engaging in fraudulent and deceptive conduct, deceptive credit repair services, and illegal lending in the financing of jewelry sales to active duty servicemembers. Specifically, the complaint alleges the company targets active duty servicemembers through a purported charitable program in which military-themed teddy bears are sold with a promise of a charitable donation by the company. The company also sells patriotic and military-themed jewelry and offers financing through a program exclusively available to servicemembers. The financing program is marketed as a credit repair or credit-establishing opportunity through a different entity, but according to the complaint, the separate entity is merely an “alter-ego” of the jewelry company, a relationship which is not disclosed to servicemembers. The company markets the financing program to active duty servicemembers as a way to build credit scores to purchase other consumer goods, such as a motor vehicle; however, once a servicemember agrees to the program, the Attorney General alleges the company’s employees are instructed to “’sell’ enough product to maximize the amount of credit [the company] is willing to advance.” The amount of credit is allegedly based on the amount of time the servicemember has left in active service, not on traditional underwriting standards such as credit history. Additionally, the complaint alleges the company marks up poor-quality jewelry between 600 and 1,000 percent over the wholesale price and advertises a “per payday” price on the merchandise, which bears “little resemblance to the total amount paid by a consumer at the end of the financing contract.” Of special interest to all creditors doing business in New York, the complaint appears to include in its civil and criminal usury claims the concept that the effective interest rate was higher because the good being purchased had “inflated retail prices.” The complaint seeks civil money penalties, restitution, and injunctive relief.

    State Issues Military Lending Deceptive Unfair Advertisement Servicemembers State Attorney General

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  • Colorado appeals court holds second collection letter violated state debt collection law

    Courts

    On October 18, the Colorado Court of Appeals held that a debt collector’s second collection letter violated the Colorado Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (CFDCPA) requirement for proper notification of the consumer’s right to dispute and request validation of the debt, reversing the lower court’s ruling. According to the opinion, a consumer filed a complaint against the debt collector alleging the two letters she received violated the CFDCPA, and the lower court disagreed, granting summary judgment in favor of the debt collector. Upon review, the appeals court determined that the first letter contained all the disclosures required under the CFDCPA but that the debt collector’s second letter, which prominently used the bold and capitalized phrase "we cannot help you unless you call," overshadowed or contradicted the statutorily required disclosures made by the company in the first letter. Specifically, the court concluded that the second letter, which arrived within the thirty-day statutory period initiated by the first letter, was “capable of being reasonably interpreted by the least sophisticated consumer as changing the manner in which the consumer was required by law to dispute the debt” and is therefore deceptive or misleading in violation of the CFDCPA.

    Courts State Issues Debt Collection Debt Verification Deceptive

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  • Pennsylvania appeals court upholds broad standard for “deception” under state consumer protection law

    Courts

    On September 12, the Superior Court of Pennsylvania held that Pennsylvania’s Uniform Trade Practices and Consumer Protection Law (UTPCPL) imposes strict liability on businesses who deceive consumers and does not require proof of fraud or negligent misrepresentation to state a claim. The plaintiffs brought common law claims of fraudulent and negligent misrepresentation and a statutory claim under the UTPCPL against insurance companies related to the sale of various insurance products. The common law claims of fraudulent and negligent misrepresentation went to a jury, which returned verdicts on both counts in favor of the insurance companies. The trial judge, however, found that the insurance companies violated the “deceptive” provision of the UTPCPL and awarded damages to the consumers. The insurance companies appealed, arguing that (i) the jury verdict on the common law claims required the court to dismiss the UTPCPL claim, and (ii) challenging the judge’s damages award calculation.

    The appellate court affirmed the trial court’s determination that the defendants acted deceptively under the UTPCPL. The insurance companies argued that the UTPCPL claim was barred by the doctrines of collateral estoppel and res judicata based on the jury’s determination that the defendants had not committed a negligent misrepresentation. The appellate court, however, explained that these doctrines do not apply because the UTPCPL raises distinct issues. The court rejected the argument that the consumer must prove common law negligent misrepresentation to bring a claim under the deceptive prong of the UTPCPL. The court concluded that “any deceptive conduct, ‘which creates a likelihood of confusion or of misunderstanding,’” is actionable under the UTPCPL “whether committed intentionally (as in a fraudulent misrepresentation), carelessly (as in a negligent misrepresentation), or with the upmost care (as in strict liability).” The court also upheld the trial court’s damages determination under the UTPCPL, finding that the judge’s calculation was appropriate and consistent with the statute.

    Courts State Issues Deceptive Insurance Consumer Protection

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