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Financial Services Law Insights and Observations

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  • District Court denies debt collector’s arbitration request

    Courts

    On February 11, the U.S. District Court for the District of New Jersey denied a motion by a debt collector and its managers to compel arbitration, concluding that discovery was needed in order to determine whether an arbitration clause applied to the plaintiffs’ claims regarding FDCPA violations. According to the opinion, the plaintiffs filed a proposed class action alleging that the debt collection company’s collection letters violated the FDCPA because they did not “properly identify the name of the current creditor to whom the debt is owed.” The debt collectors moved to compel arbitration, arguing that the debts described in the plaintiffs’ amended complaint arose pursuant to credit card agreements that include an arbitration clause, and submitted a declaration from an employee of the servicing entity for the credit card issuer, with credit card account terms and conditions, including arbitration clauses, as an attachment. The court denied the motion, noting that the Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(b)(6) standard requires that the amended complaint “establish with clarity that the parties have agreed to arbitrate,” and in this instance, no arbitration clause was cited. The court denied the motion to compel pending further development of the factual record by plaintiffs conducting discovery on the issue.

    Courts Arbitration Civil Procedure FDCPA Debt Collection

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  • District Court orders ATM and overdraft fee case to arbitration

    Courts

    On January 25, the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of California granted a bank’s motion to compel arbitration in connection with a lawsuit concerning the bank’s assessment of two types of fees. According to the order, the plaintiff filed a lawsuit asserting claims for breach of contract and violation of California’s Unfair Competition Law due to the bank’s alleged practice of charging fees for out-of-network ATM use and overdraft fees related to debit card transaction timing. The bank moved to compel arbitration pursuant to the arbitration provision in the deposit account agreement executed between the bank and the plaintiff. The plaintiff argued against arbitration, citing a California Supreme Court case, McGill v. Citibank, which held that “waivers of the right to seek public injunctive relief in any forum are unenforceable.” In response, the bank argued that (i) McGill does not apply because the plaintiff is not seeking public injunctive relief; and (ii) McGill is preempted by the Federal Arbitration Act (FAA). The court agreed with the bank, determining that the relief sought by the plaintiff would primarily benefit her, stating “any public injunctive relief sought by [plaintiff] is merely incidental to her primary aim of gaining compensation for injury.” As for preemption, the court noted that even if the McGill rule was applicable to a contract, it would not survive preemption as the U.S. Supreme Court has “consistently held that the FAA preempts states’ attempts to limit the scope of arbitration agreements,” and “the McGill rule is merely the latest ‘device or formula’ intended to achieve the result of rendering an arbitration agreement against public policy.” 

    Courts State Issues Fees Arbitration Preemption U.S. Supreme Court Federal Arbitration Act

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  • User’s lawsuit against online digital currency exchange must be arbitrated

    Courts

    On January 24, the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York granted the motion of an online digital currency exchange to compel arbitration in connection with a lawsuit alleging that the exchange negligently failed to prevent a scam. According to the opinion, the plaintiff contacted what he thought was the online exchange’s customer support to inquire about a pending transaction, but actually spoke with a hacker who used the personal information he disclosed to steal more than $200,000 worth of digital currency from his account. In his complaint, the plaintiff claimed that “stronger security measures” by the exchange would have prevented the scam. The exchange moved to compel arbitration, citing the arbitration agreement in the user agreement. In order to establish an account with the exchange, the user is required to check a box which states, “I certify that I am 18 years of age or older, and I agree to the User Agreement and Privacy Policy,” both of which are hyperlinked in the statement. The court found that this “express acceptance” required by the exchange was a clear signal that a user account would be subject to terms and conditions and that the plaintiff had inquiry notice of those terms. The court concluded that the plaintiff also assented to the terms based on witness testimony from the exchange’s “dispute analyst,” who testified that an account cannot be created unless the user checks the box agreeing to the user agreement, and a log of the plaintiff’s visit to the site contains the note “accepted_user_ agreement.” Accordingly, the court granted the exchange’s motion to compel arbitration.

    Courts Virtual Currency Arbitration

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  • 3rd Circuit: Enrollment packet e-signature requires student to arbitrate claims

    Courts

    On January 10, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit held that a student (plaintiff) attending an online school (defendant) consented to an arbitration agreement and waiver of jury trial when she electronically signed an enrollment packet. According to the opinion, when the defendant moved to dismiss the plaintiff’s lawsuit and compel arbitration, the plaintiff argued that she did not realize the enrollment packet contained an arbitration agreement. She maintained that her e-signature was applied to the agreement without her permission. The lower court, however, granted the defendant’s motion to dismiss and entered an order to compel arbitration.

    On appeal, the 3rd Circuit agreed with the lower court in a non-precedential decision that her contentions that she was never presented with the agreement and that the defendant had applied an e-signature on file were insufficient to create an issue of material fact. It observed, “[t]he most reasonable inference we can draw from the evidence presented is that [the plaintiff] simply did not read or review the [e]nrollment [p]acket PDF closely before she e-signed it, which will not save her from her obligation to arbitrate.” The 3rd Circuit further noted that Pennsylvania allows electronic signatures as a valid way to register assent, and that a “physical pen and ink signature” is not required.

    Courts Third Circuit Appellate E-Signature Arbitration

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  • 3rd Circuit: Enrollment packet e-signature requires student to arbitrate claims

    Courts

    On January 10, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit held that a student (plaintiff) attending an online school (defendant) consented to an arbitration agreement and waiver of jury trial when she electronically signed an enrollment packet. According to the opinion, when the defendant moved to dismiss the plaintiff’s lawsuit and compel arbitration, the plaintiff argued that she did not realize the enrollment packet contained an arbitration agreement. She maintained that her e-signature was applied to the agreement without her permission. The lower court, however, granted the defendant’s motion to dismiss and entered an order to compel arbitration.

    On appeal, the 3rd Circuit agreed with the lower court in a non-precedential decision that her contentions that she was never presented with the agreement and that the defendant had applied an e-signature on file were insufficient to create an issue of material fact. It observed, “[t]he most reasonable inference we can draw from the evidence presented is that [the plaintiff] simply did not read or review the [e]nrollment [p]acket PDF closely before she e-signed it, which will not save her from her obligation to arbitrate.” The 3rd Circuit further noted that Pennsylvania allows electronic signatures as a valid way to register assent, and that a “physical pen and ink signature” is not required.

    Courts Third Circuit Appellate E-Signature Arbitration

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  • New Jersey appellate court finds arbitration provision ambiguous and unenforceable

    Courts

    On December 18, the Appellate Division of the Superior Court of New Jersey reversed a lower court’s order compelling arbitration, concluding the arbitration provision of the plaintiff’s auto lease agreement did not clearly and unambiguously inform the reader that arbitration was the exclusive dispute remedy. According to the opinion, the plaintiff filed a complaint against an auto dealer after allegedly being charged a $75 dollar fee associated with the loan payoff of his trade-in vehicle for which the plaintiff never received an explanation of its purpose, in violation of the New Jersey Consumer Fraud Act and Truth in Consumer Contract, Warranty and Notice Act. The auto dealer moved to compel arbitration under the lease contract’s arbitration notice, which included the statement, “[e]ither you or Lessor/Finance Company/Holder […] may choose at any time, including after a lawsuit is filed, to have any Claim related to this contract decided by arbitration.” The lower court determined that the arbitration provision was not “ambiguous or vague in any way” and ordered arbitration. The plaintiff appealed, arguing the clause is vague because it states the parties “may” arbitrate. On appeal, the appellate court concluded that the arbitration provision was not clear and unambiguous due to the use of a passive “may” when referring to the ability to opt into arbitration. Moreover, the appellate court determined the arbitration provision to be unenforceable because it lacked language that would affirmatively inform the plaintiff that “he could not pursue his statutory rights in court.”

    Courts State Issues Auto Finance Arbitration Appellate

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  • 5th Circuit finds company delay unfairly prejudiced plaintiff, reverses decision to compel arbitration

    Courts

    On November 28, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit reversed a lower court decision to grant a technology analytics company’s motion to compel arbitration, finding that the company substantially invoked the judicial system prior to moving to compel arbitration, and the individual plaintiff was prejudiced by such actions. According to the opinion, in 2015, the plaintiff filed a complaint against the company alleging various violations of Illinois law relating to deceptive practices and unjust enrichment. In response, the company filed a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim and, in the alternative, moved to transfer the case for forum non conveniens arguing that the plaintiff’s claims were subject to arbitration in Texas. After the case was transferred to Texas, the company filed a subsequent motion to dismiss and reply brief, both of which did not mention arbitration. In 2017, after receiving the plaintiff’s requests for production, the company filed with the district court its motion to compel arbitration. The district court granted the motion to compel, holding that while the company substantially invoked the judicial process, the plaintiff had only “suffered some prejudice” in the form of delay and delay alone is insufficient to deny arbitration.

    On appeal, the 5th Circuit agreed that the company substantially invoked the judicial system, but determined the lower court erred when it found the plaintiff had not been prejudiced unfairly. As a result, the company waived its right to arbitrate. The 5th Circuit noted that after the case was transferred from Illinois to Texas, the company waited 13 months before moving to compel arbitration, in order to first obtain a dismissal from the district court. Acknowledging the damage to the plaintiff’s legal position and additional litigation expenses incurred because of this tactic, the appellate court stated, “[a] party cannot keep its right to demand arbitration in reserve indefinitely while it pursues a decision on the merits before the district court.”

    Courts Fifth Circuit Appellate Arbitration

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  • 7th Circuit: Courts, not arbiters, decide class arbitration questions

    Courts

    On October 22, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit held that the availability of class or collective arbitration within an employment agreement is a threshold “question of arbitrability” that must be decided by a court. According to the opinion, an employee filed class and collection action claims against her employer for wage and hour violations. The district court compelled arbitration pursuant to an agreement between the employee and her employer but struck as unlawful a waiver clause that forbid class or collective arbitration of any claim. The case proceeded to arbitration and the arbitrator issued an award of over $10 million in damages to the employee and the other 174 claimants who had opted-in to the arbitration proceeding. The employer appealed the award, arguing that the waiver of collective arbitration provision was valid, rendering the collective arbitration in violation of the employment agreement.

    On appeal, the 7th Circuit reversed and remanded the case to the district court, pointing to the Supreme Court’s recent decision in Epic Systems Corp. v. Lewis, which upheld the validity of similar provisions. (Epic held that “an arbitration agreement does not violate the National Labor Relations Act when it requires plaintiffs to pursue employment-related claims in single claimant arbitrations.”). The plaintiff also argued, however, that despite the presence of the waiver, the arbitration agreement still permitted collective arbitration. This left open the question of who interprets the agreement to determine whether collection arbitration applies—the arbitrator or the court. The 7th Circuit found for the latter, concluding that the availability of class or collective arbitration is a threshold question of arbitrability and therefore a district court, and not the arbitrator should decide its permissibility.

    Courts Seventh Circuit Appellate Arbitration Class Action

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  • District Court denies arbitration bid, rules clauses signed by borrowers are invalid

    Courts

    On October 18, the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington denied a motion to compel arbitration, holding that an arbitration clause was invalid under the “effective vindication” exception to the Federal Arbitration Act (FAA). According to the opinion, borrowers received several loans from an online payday lender, incorporated under tribal law, which charged usurious, triple-digit interest rates on the loans. Per the terms of the loan agreements, the borrowers consented to binding arbitration for any disputes and agreed per the choice-of-law provision that tribal law applied, effectively waiving any protections they might have enjoyed under federal and state law. The lender moved to arbitrate, which the borrowers opposed, arguing that the arbitration agreement was unenforceable under the “effective vindication” exception to arbitration because it implicitly waives a consumer’s state and federal statutory rights. The district court agreed, finding that the arbitration clause operated as a prospective waiver of most federal statutory remedies. The court found that while the FAA gives parties the freedom to structure arbitration agreements as they choose, that freedom does not extend to a substantive waiver of federally protected statutory rights. The lender also argued that the arbitrator, rather than the court, should decide if the agreement’s choice-of-law provision was invalid. The court disagreed, ruling that questions of arbitrability are for the courts to decide, not the arbitrators. Finally, the lender asked to sever the choice-of-law provision of the arbitration agreement. The court rejected such an approach, holding that when the “offending provisions” of an arbitration agreement “go to the essence of the contract,” they cannot be severed.

    Courts Payday Lending Arbitration Interest Rate Usury

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  • California state appeals court partially reverses proposed class action suit addressing arbitration terms

    Courts

    On October 2, a California state appeals court partially reversed a trial court’s denial of class certification in a putative class action alleging that a written cardmember agreement issued by a credit card company contained unconscionable and unenforceable arbitration terms. According to the opinion, after the cardmember and his company failed to make timely and sufficient payments on their accounts, the credit card company closed the accounts and filed a collection action. The cardmember subsequently filed a putative class action cross-complaint against the credit card company and two other card issuers, alleging the arbitration terms in the cardmember agreements he signed are unlawful under California’s Unfair Competition Law, and asserting, among other things, that the legally unenforceable contract terms prevented negotiations, prohibited injunctive relief, and failed to communicate to cardholders what the rules would be at the time of arbitration. The cardmember further alleged that cardholders were overcharged annual credit card fees or purchase fees “as consideration for the promises contained in the cardmember agreement.” During the course of the litigation, the credit card companies sent certain cardmembers modified contract terms, which allowed cardmembers the option to reject arbitration altogether if a written rejection notice was provided within a specific time period.

    The trial court denied class certification, finding, among other things, that the cardmember was not an adequate class representative and did not have claims typical of the putative class because there was no evidence he paid annual fees and that individual issues would predominate with respect to procedural unconscionability and each individual class member’s entitlement to declaratory relief. On appeal, the court held that the trial court “used improper criteria and erroneous assumptions” when reaching its decision that “procedural unconscionability would involve predominantly individualized issues.” Moreover, the appellants and absent class members were linked by common questions, including whether it was unreasonable for the respondent to modify its arbitration terms during pending litigation, since this denied cardholders who opted out of arbitration the right to join the class.

    Courts Appellate Arbitration State Issues Credit Cards Class Action

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