Subscribe to our InfoBytes Blog weekly newsletter and other publications for news affecting the financial services industry.
On March 6, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit held that Congress did not waive sovereign immunity for lawsuits under the FCRA, affirming the lower court’s dismissal of a consumer action. According to the opinion, a consumer filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Education (the Department), a student loan company, and the three major credit reporting agencies, alleging numerous claims, including violations of the FCRA for failing to properly investigate disputes that federal student loans were fraudulently opened in his name. The Department filed a motion to dismiss to the FCRA claims against it arguing the court lacked subject matter jurisdiction based upon a claim of sovereign immunity. The lower court agreed, holding Congress had not affirmatively waived sovereign immunity for suits under the FCRA.
On appeal, the 4th Circuit agreed with the lower court. The appellate court noted that, although the FCRA includes a “government or governmental subdivision or agency” as part of the definition of “person” in the statute, there is a “longstanding interpretive presumption that ‘person’ does not include the sovereign,” and that waivers of sovereign immunity need to be “unambiguous and unequivocal.” The appellate court noted that Congress waived immunity in other sections of the FCRA, which were not at issue in this case and, had Congress waived immunity for enforcement purposes under the FCRA, it would raise a new host of “befuddling” and “bizarre” issues, such as the prospect of the government bringing criminal charges against itself. Therefore, the appellate court concluded that the federal government may be a “person” under the substantive provisions, but that without a clear waiver from Congress, the federal government is still immune from lawsuits under the FCRA’s enforcement provisions.
On February 11, the DOJ announced a $2.5 million settlement with a South Carolina university to resolve allegations that the university violated the False Claims Act (FCA) by submitting false claims to the U.S. Department of Education. According to the announcement, between 2014 and 2016, the university hired a company, which was partially owned by the university, to recruit students to the university and paid the company based on the number of students who enrolled in university programs, in violation of the prohibition on paying incentive compensation in Title IV of the Higher Education Act. The co-owner of the company originally brought a qui tam lawsuit against the university and will receive $375,000 from the settlement.
Department of Education forgives roughly $150 million in student loans eligible for automatic closed school discharge
On December 13, the Department of Education announced it will automatically discharge approximately $150 million in student loans for roughly 15,000 eligible borrowers as part of implementing the Department’s Final Regulations (81 FR 75926) (also known as the “Borrower Defense Regulations” or “regulations”), which took effect in October following a decision by the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia that the Department’s move to delay the regulations—finalized in 2016 and originally set to take effect July 1, 2017—was procedurally invalid (see InfoBytes coverage on the ruling here.) The Borrower Defense Regulations are designed to protect student borrowers against misleading and predatory practices by postsecondary institutions and clarify a process for loan forgiveness in cases of institutional misconduct. Of the $150 million, approximately $80 million of the amount is attributable to loans taken out by students who attended now bankrupt, for-profit Corinthian schools. (See InfoBytes coverage on matters related to Corinthian schools here.) The announcement also provides information for loan holders, guaranty agencies in the Federal Family Education Loan program, and schools concerning new closed school discharge requirements.
District Court denies preliminary injunction; Department of Education’s Borrower Defense Regulations take effect
On October 17, the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia denied plaintiff California Association of Private Postsecondary Schools’ request for preliminary injunction to enjoin the implementation and enforcement of several provisions of the Department of Education’s Final Regulations (81 FR 75926) (also known as the “Borrower Defense Regulations” or “regulations”). The Borrower Defense Regulations—finalized in 2016 and originally set to take effect July 1, 2017—are designed to protect student borrowers against misleading and predatory practices by postsecondary institutions and clarify a process for loan forgiveness in cases of institutional misconduct. (See previous InfoBytes coverage here.) Under the regulations, the Department is required to create a “clear, fair, and transparent” process for handling borrowers’ loan discharge requests and to automatically forgive the loans of some students at schools that closed, without requiring borrowers to apply for that relief. However, according to the court, because the Department stayed the effective date of the majority of the regulations pending resolution of the case, the plaintiff’s motion was never fully briefed or decided. After hearing oral arguments, the court concluded that the plaintiff “failed to carry its burden of demonstrating that any one of its members is likely to suffer an irreparable injury in the absence of an injunction.” Moreover, the court stated that it was “not convinced that the [plaintiff] has shown a ‘substantial likelihood’ that it has standing to sue.”
Per the court’s decision, the Borrower Defense Regulations became effective immediately. As previously covered by InfoBytes, the court sided with a coalition of state Attorneys General last month, ruling that the Department’s decision to delay the regulations was procedurally invalid, but delayed implementation of the regulations pending a decision in the plaintiff’s lawsuit.
District Court holds Department of Education stay of student loan regulations is procedurally invalid
On September 12, the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia granted a motion for summary judgment in favor of a consolidated action brought by a coalition of 19 state Attorneys General and the District of Columbia as well as two student borrowers (collectively, the plaintiffs), holding that the Department of Education’s (Department) decision to delay the enactment of Final Regulations (81 FR 75926) (also known as the “Borrower Defense Regulations” or “regulations”) was “procedurally invalid.” The Borrower Defense Regulations, published November 2016, afford students protections against misleading and predatory practices by postsecondary institutions (see previous InfoBytes coverage here), and were set to take effect July 1, 2017. However, the Department delayed the effective date pending the resolution of a lawsuit challenging certain portions of the regulations filed by the California Association of Private Postsecondary Schools; delayed the effective date further through an interim rule issued in October 2017; and last February, issued a final rule further delaying the effective date until July 1, 2019.
The Department argued it was entitled to a stay under Section 705 of the Administrative Procedure Act because the lawsuit “raised serious questions concerning the validity of certain provisions of the final regulations and ha[d] identified substantial injuries that could result if the final regulations [went] into effect before those questions [were] resolved.” The court disagreed with the Department’s argument, finding that in order to justify a Section 705 stay, “an agency must, in short, do more than simply assert—without elaboration—that the litigation raises unspecified ‘serious questions’ for resolution and that a stay will save regulated parties the cost of compliance.” Moreover, the court concluded that (i) plaintiffs have standing to challenge the Department’s delay actions; (ii) the Department’s 2017 interim final rule “is based on an unlawful construction of the Higher Education Act”; (iii) the February final rule is “procedurally invalid”; and (iv) the Section 705 stay is “judicially reviewable” and “arbitrary and capricious.”
District Court rules student loan servicer must turn over Department of Education borrower records to Bureau
On August 10, the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania ordered a loan servicer hired by the Department of Education (Department) to service loans it owns to turn over certain Department-owned student loan borrower documents to the CFPB, which relate to the servicer’s collection and management of its federal student loan borrowers’ payments. During the course of the ongoing litigation (see previous InfoBytes coverage here), the servicer withheld the documents in discovery on the grounds that they belonged to the Department and were therefore protected from disclosure by the Privacy Act. Moreover, the servicer asserted that the dispute was really between the Bureau and the Department because, in order to turn over the documents, the servicer would first have to obtain permission from the Department.
However, according to the opinion issued by the court, turning over the documents would not violate the defendants’ agreement with the Department or violate federal privacy law. Specifically, the court stated that “there is no dispute that the borrower documents at issue are in the possession of [d]efendants, even if, as [d]efendants assert, they are owned by the Department,” and as such, under the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, “requests can be made for production of documents, electronically stored information, and things in ‘the responding party’s possession, custody or control.’” Furthermore, the court stated that “the Privacy Act’s general prohibition on disclosure of records . . . does not create a qualified discovery privilege” and cannot be used as a means to “block the normal course of court proceedings, including court-ordered discovery.”
On July 25, the U.S. Department of Education (Department) issued a press release announcing a notice of proposed rulemaking that would apply to students who qualify for loan discharges in circumstances where a borrower was significantly misled or defrauded by the higher education institution they attended. Provisions under the proposed Institutional Accountability regulations include:
- instituting a “borrower defense to repayment adjudication process that is clear, consistent and fair to borrowers who were harmed by institutional misconduct”;
- replacing the existing state standard for adjudicating claims with a federal standard to provide a more expeditious review of student claims;
- encouraging students to seek remedies directly from institutions when misrepresentation has occurred;
- expanding the “closed school loan discharge” eligibility time period to 180 days from 120 days for students who have left an institution prior to its closure;
- ensuring that any mandatory arbitration requirements or class action lawsuits restrictions are explained in plain language to enable students to make informed enrollment decisions; and
- preventing guaranty agencies from charging borrowers a fee on defaulted loans if the loan goes into repayment within 60 days.
The Department also seeks public comment on whether borrower defense to repayment claims should be limited only to students in default instead of also allowing students to apply for forgiveness who remain in good financial standing. Additionally, the Department seeks comments on whether students should be held to a higher standard through the showing of “clear and convincing” evidence, rather than the lower legal “preponderance of the evidence” standard. The new plan would affect students who take out loans beginning July 1, 2019. Comments on the proposal are due 30 days after publication in the Federal Register.
New Jersey Attorney General seeks to partner with Department of Education on for-profit investigations
On May 17, the New Jersey Attorney General, Gurbir Grewal, sent a letter to the Secretary of Education, Betsy Devos, regarding concerns that the Department of Education (Department) is no longer investigating fraudulent activities at for-profit colleges. Grubir cited work that State Attorneys General did with the Department during the previous administration regarding these investigations and noted that the cooperation between his office and the Department has “ground to a halt.” The letter concludes with Grubir requesting the Department continue several investigations that are in progress and offers to assist in sharing information and supplementing resources or, if the Department chooses not to pursue the investigations, to allow the New Jersey Attorney General to “pick up where [the Department] leave[s] off.”
Court orders Department of Education to cease collection efforts on student loans used for defunct for-profit school
On May 25, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California granted in part a preliminary injunction barring the U.S. Department of Education (Department) from continuing collection efforts on student loans used for programs at a now defunct for-profit college. The for-profit school closed in 2015 after a federal fraud investigation by the Department. The decision results from a December 2017 putative class action filed by former students of the school against the Department. The complaint alleged the Department violated the Administrative Procedures Act (APA) and the Privacy Act of 1974 by its December 2017 announcement that it would use an “average earnings” metric to determine what to charge students for the value of the education they received at the college. According to the former students, the previous policy—which measured the job placement rate of graduates—would have provided full loan forgiveness for the federal student loans used for the defunct school. In response to the students’ motion for a preliminary injunction, the court granted the students’ request to prevent the Department from using the “average earnings” metric, but denied the motion to require the Department to use the previous job placement metric. Additionally, among other things, the judge denied the students’ request to order the Department to remove all negative credit reporting but did order the Department to cease collection efforts on the loans.
Department of Education plans to use servicers, not private debt collectors, to assist delinquent borrowers
On May 23, the Department of Education (Department) affirmed plans to begin using “‘enhanced servicers’ to assist delinquent borrowers prior to default” instead of private debt collection agencies. The affirmation was made in a reply brief supporting the Department’s motion to dismiss an action filed by collection agencies in the U.S. Court of Federal Claims that challenged the Department’s decision to award contracts to two private debt collectors. The Department argues in the reply brief that the challenge is moot because the Department cancelled the solicitation under which the contracts were awarded to pursue a new collection plan using “enhanced servicers.” According to the brief, the new collection approach will “place a greater emphasis on customer service and early outreach to address delinquencies with a full range of early options for borrowers.”
- Heidi M. Bauer and Dan Ladd to discuss "'So you want to form a joint venture' — Licensing strategies for successful JVs" at RESPRO26
- Tim Lange to discuss "Update from 2019 NMLS Conference" at the California Mortgage Bankers Association Mortgage Quality & Compliance Committee webinar
- Jonice Gray Tucker to to discuss "DC policy: Everything but the kitchen sink" at CBA Live
- Jonice Gray Tucker to discuss "Small business & regulation: How fair lending has evolved & where are we heading?" at CBA Live
- Daniel P. Stipano to discuss "Lessons learned from ABLV and other major cases involving inadequate compliance oversight" at the ACAMS International AML & Financial Crime Conference
- Jon David D. Langlois to discuss "Transaction management-issues surrounding purchase & sale agreements, post acquisition integration & trailing docs" at the Investment Management Network Residential Mortgage Servicing Rights Forum
- Daniel P. Stipano to discuss "A year in the life of the CDD final rule: A first anniversary assessment" at the ACAMS International AML & Financial Crime Conference
- Moorari K. Shah to discuss "State regulatory and disclosures" at the Equipment Leasing and Finance Association Legal Forum
- Daniel P. Stipano to discuss "The state of the BSA 2019: What’s working, what’s not, and how to improve it" at the West Coast Anti Money-Laundering Forum
- Hank Asbill to discuss "Creative character evidence in criminal and civil trials" at the Litigation Counsel of America Spring Conference & Celebration of Fellows
- Brandy A. Hood to discuss "Flood NFIP in the age of extreme weather events" at the Mortgage Bankers Association Legal Issues and Regulatory Compliance Conference
- Michelle L. Rogers to discuss "UDAAP compliance" at the Mortgage Bankers Association Legal Issues and Regulatory Compliance Conference
- Kathryn L. Ryan to discuss "State examination/enforcement trends" at the Mortgage Bankers Association Legal Issues and Regulatory Compliance Conference
- Benjamin K. Olson to discuss "LO compensation" at the Mortgage Bankers Association Legal Issues and Regulatory Compliance Conference
- Kathryn L. Ryan to discuss "Major state law developments" at the Mortgage Bankers Association Legal Issues and Regulatory Compliance Conference
- Jonice Gray Tucker to discuss "Leveraging big data responsibly" at the Mortgage Bankers Association Legal Issues and Regulatory Compliance Conference
- Hank Asbill to discuss "Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain: Addressing prosecutions driven by hidden actors" at the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers West Coast White Collar Conference
- Daniel P. Stipano to discuss "Mid-year policy update" at the ACAMS AML Risk Management Conference
- Daniel P. Stipano to discuss "Keep off the grass: Mitigating the risks of banking marijuana-related businesses" at the ACAMS AML Risk Management Conference
- Benjamin W. Hutten to discuss "Requirements for banking inherently high-risk relationships" at the Georgia Bankers Association BSA Experience Program