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On March 26, the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Ohio, in what appears to be the first significant decision on claims brought against a mortgage lender under the CFPB’s Ability-to-Repay/Qualified Mortgage Rule, granted summary judgment in favor of the lender. The court rejected plaintiff’s claims that his bank improperly relied on income under his spousal support agreement, stating that “[t]he fact that Plaintiff and [his spouse] did not keep the separation agreement and instead opted to divorce – a series of events which reduced Plaintiff’s income by an order of magnitude – was not an event that was reasonably foreseeable to the Bank.” The court also noted that, “[a]lthough Plaintiff is now in his eighties, he is a repeat player in the field of real estate and mortgages, and a consumer of above-average sophistication.” While this decision does not break new legal ground, it does provide useful insights into how courts may respond to inherently fact-specific claims about the underwriting of individual loans.
On April 16, the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania granted in part and denied in part a telemarketing company’s motion to dismiss, concluding that the plaintiff did not have standing to bring some of his claims under the TCPA. According to the opinion, the plaintiff filed a lawsuit against the company for various claims under the TCPA, alleging that he received ten calls from the company to a phone number he had listed on the “National Do Not Call Registry” (Registry), nine of which were allegedly placed using an automatic dialing system (autodialer). The plaintiff requested orally, and later in writing, that the company cease calling the number, but the company allegedly continued to do so. The company moved to dismiss the action, arguing that the plaintiff created a business model to “encourage telemarketers to call his cellphone number so that he can later sue the telemarketers under the TCPA,” and therefore, has not suffered an injury-in-fact that the TCPA was designed to protect. The court agreed with the company on two claims related to the Registry, holding that the plaintiff does not have standing to bring claims under the TCPA’s prohibition of contacting numbers on the Registry because the phone was for business use and “business numbers are not permitted to be registered on the [Registry].” The court denied the motion to dismiss as to the remaining TCPA claims and ordered the company to respond.
On April 16, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California granted final approval to a $7.5 million class action settlement resolving allegations that a payment processor and its sales representative violated the TCPA by using an autodialer for telemarketing purposes without first obtaining consumers’ prior express consent. The settlement terms also require the defendants to pay roughly $1.8 million in attorneys’ fees. According to the second amended complaint, the sales representative placed pre-recorded calls to potential clients on behalf of the payment processor through the use of an autodialer, including consumers who had not consented to receiving the calls. The plaintiff further alleged that the payment processor also violated the TCPA by sending facsimile advertisements that did not contain a “Compliant Opt Out Notice” to recipients. The parties reached a preliminary settlement last August following discovery and mediation.
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.
On March 30, the U.S. District Court for the District of Oregon granted a group of car dealerships’ (defendants) summary judgment motion in a putative class action involving claims that the dealership violated Oregon’s Unlawful Trade Practices Act (UTPA) as well as the state’s financial elder-abuse law. The plaintiffs, who all purchased vehicles along with other goods or services from one or more of the defendants, asserted that the defendants allegedly failed to “appropriately disclose [their] specific fees associated with arrangement of financing or the profit margins related to the sale of third-party products and services.” By failing to comply with these disclosure requirements, the plaintiffs alleged that the defendants “wrongfully appropriated money from elderly persons.” Concerning the alleged violations of UTPA, the defendants argued that its section titled “Undisclosed Fee Payments” only applies to referral fees greater than $100 paid to non-employee third-parties and not to other payments made by a dealership to a third party. The court agreed and stated that the defendants’ position was further supported by the state’s official commentary. With regard to the plaintiffs’ other claim concerning deficiencies in the disclosures, the court concluded that “strict recitation of the statute is not required to meet the clear and conspicuous standard,” and that the disclosures in question were clearly visible and easy to understand. Finally, the court granted summary dismissal on the plaintiffs’ claim of elder abuse because the claim was premised on the alleged violations of UTPA, which were dismissed.
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.
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- Kathryn L. Ryan to discuss "State examination/enforcement trends" at the Mortgage Bankers Association Legal Issues and Regulatory Compliance Conference
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