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On January 8, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit affirmed a federal jury’s unanimous verdict clearing a Pennsylvania-based student loan servicing agency (defendant) accused of improper billing practices under the False Claims Act (FCA). As previously covered by InfoBytes, the plaintiff—a former Department of Education employee whistleblower—filed a qui tam suit in 2007, seeking treble damages and forfeitures under the FCA. The plaintiff alleged that multiple state-run student loan financing agencies overcharged the U.S. government through fraudulent claims to the Federal Family Education Loan Program in order to unlawfully obtain 9.5 percent special allowance interest payments. Over the course of several appeals, the case proceeded to trial against the student loan servicing agency after the 4th Circuit held that the entity was “an independent political subdivision, not an arm of the commonwealth,” and “therefore a ‘person’ subject to liability under the False Claims Act.” The plaintiff appealed the jury’s verdict, arguing the court erred by excluding evidence at trial and failed to give the jury several of his proposed instructions.
On appeal, the 4th Circuit disagreed with the plaintiff, finding that the court correctly excluded the state audit, which determined the student loan servicer “failed its mission” with lavish spending on unnecessary expenses. The appeal court noted the audit was irrelevant to the only issue in the case: “Did [the servicer] commit fraud and file a false claim?” The appeals court also rejected the plaintiff’s jury instruction arguments, concluding that the court’s instructions substantially covered the substance of the plaintiff’s proposal and “sufficiently explained that the jury had to consider whether [the servicer’s] claims were ‘false or fraudulent.’”
On December 21, the DOJ announced a $4.25 million settlement with a Michigan-based servicer in connection with alleged violations of the False Claims Act related to the servicing of federally-insured home equity conversion mortgages (reverse mortgages). According to the DOJ, for the period between November 2011 and May 2016, the servicer allegedly failed to meet eligibility requirements for receiving FHA insurance payments on interest that accrued after reverse mortgages became due and payable, including meeting deadlines for obtaining property appraisals, commencing foreclosure proceedings, and/or prosecuting the foreclosure proceedings to completion. As a result, mortgagees on relevant reverse mortgage loans obtained additional interest payments they were not entitled to receive. The claims were resolved by the settlement without a determination of liability.
On December 4, the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York announced that a New York foreclosure law firm and its wholly-owned affiliates—a process server and a title search company (defendants)—have agreed to pay $4.6 million to resolve False Claims Act allegations claiming that between 2009 and 2018 the defendants systematically generated false and inflated bills for foreclosure-related and eviction-related expenses and caused those expenses to be paid by Fannie Mae. The settlement also resolves claims arising from the same misconduct pertaining to eviction-related expenses that were submitted to and ultimately paid by the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). The DOJ alleges that the process server and title search company both added “additional charges to the costs charged by independent contractors and otherwise took actions that increased costs and expenses,” which were then submitted by the law firm for reimbursement. According to the DOJ, “[l]awyers are not above the law. For years, the [law firm] submitted bills to Fannie Mae and the VA that contained inflated and unnecessary charges. This Office will continue to hold accountable those who seek to achieve profits by fraudulent conduct.” The DOJ states that Fannie Mae’s Servicing Guide requires “all foreclosure costs and expenses be ‘actual, reasonable, and necessary,’ and that foreclosure law firms ‘must make every effort to reduce foreclosure-related costs and expenses in a manner that is consistent with all applicable laws.’”
The DOJ further notes that the defendants agreed to pay an additional $1,518,000 to resolve separate False Claims Act claims pursued by the whistleblower.
On October 19, the DOJ announced a $13.2 million settlement with a mortgage lender resolving allegations that the company violated the False Claims Act (FCA) by falsely certifying compliance with the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) mortgage insurance requirements in violation of the False Claims Act (FCA). Specifically, the government alleged that, between 2006 and 2011, the lender failed to follow proper mortgage underwriting and certification rules as a participant in the direct endorsement lender program and knowingly submitted loans for FHA insurance that did not qualify. Additionally, DOJ alleged that the lender “improperly incentivized underwriters and knowingly failed to perform quality control reviews.” Under the direct endorsement lender program, FHA does not review a loan for compliance with FHA requirements before it is endorsed for FHA insurance; accordingly lenders are required to follow rules designed to ensure that they are properly underwriting and certifying mortgages for FHA insurance. This settlement also resolves a related whistleblower lawsuit filed under the FCA, in which the former employee of a related entity will receive approximately $2 million.
On May 9, the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York dismissed a qui tam action brought under the False Claims Act (FCA) against a national bank and its predecessors-in-interest (defendants), which alleged that the defendants presented false information to Federal Reserve Banks (FRBanks) in connection with their applications for loans. The court held that allegations of false or fraudulent claims being presented to the FRBanks cannot form the basis of an FCA action because the FRBanks cannot be characterized as the federal government for purposes of the FCA.
The relators in the action originally brought a whistleblower lawsuit against the bank, alleging that the defendants inaccurately represented their financial condition in order to be eligible to borrow from the FRBanks’ discount window at lower interest rates. By way of background, in order for liability to incur under the FCA, a false or fraudulent claim must be made to the federal government or its agents. Therefore, the court needed to resolve two legal issues: (i) whether FRBanks should be characterized as the government or its agents for purposes of the FCA, and (ii) whether the federal government paid any portion of the loans the defendants received or reimbursed the FRBanks for issuing the loans.
In supporting its conclusion that FRBanks are not government actors, the court reasoned that the Federal Reserve Act (FRA), which created the Federal Reserve districts and FRBanks, did not designate the FRBanks as part of an executive department or agency. The court also noted that although the Federal Reserve Board of Governors (Board) is a federal agency, each FRBank operates as a private corporation owned by private stockholders, receives no government appropriations, and generates its own income from interest earned on government securities. Furthermore, the court reasoned that the Board provides only general policy supervision, FRBank employees are not government employees, and FRBanks lack the ability to promulgate regulations and operate independently of the Board and the government.
In resolving the second issue, the court agreed with the defendants’ argument that the bank’s loan requests did not create FCA liability for claims, because the relators did not, and could not, “allege that the [g]overnment either provided any portion of the money loaned to the defendants, or reimbursed [FRBanks] for making the loans.”
On February 28, the DOJ announced a $149.5 million settlement with an independent auditor for potential False Claims Act (FCA) liability related to its auditing work of a failed mortgage origination company. According to the announcement, between 2002 and 2008, the company served as an independent auditor of a mortgage originator, which issued Fair Housing Administration (FHA) insured loans through HUD’s Direct Endorsement Lender program. The program requires mortgage companies to submit to HUD annual audit reports on financial statements and compliance with certain HUD requirements. The DOJ alleges that during that time, the now failed mortgage originator engaged in a fraudulent scheme, which, among other things, resulted in the originator’s financial distress to not be reflected in its financial statements. The DOJ alleges that the independent auditor “knowingly deviated from applicable auditing standards” and therefore, failed to detect the misleading financial statements and the originator’s allegedly fraudulent conduct, which allowed the originator to continue issuing FHA loans until it declared bankruptcy in 2009. The DOJ notes that the settlement relates to allegations only and there was no determination of actual liability against the independent auditor.
On February 16, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit denied a petition for an en banc rehearing of its December 2017 ruling affirming the dismissal of a False Claims Act suit against a national bank. The petition resulted from a 2013 lawsuit filed by a consumer against the bank, which alleged, among other things, that the bank falsely asserted that it had complied with certain obligations under the 2012 National Mortgage Settlement (the “Settlement”). The district court dismissed the suit, finding that the consumer lacked standing because he did not exhaust the required dispute resolution procedures contained in the Settlement. In December 2017, the D.C. Circuit affirmed the dismissal but disagreed with the lower court’s reasoning. According to the appellate opinion, the circuit court held that the consumer’s second amended complaint did not contain any allegedly false or deceptive statements made by the bank to the government-approved settlement monitor and that ultimately, “the decisive point is that the Monitor was aware of the practices and concluded that [the bank] was in compliance.”
On January 5, the U.S. Government reached a $5 million settlement with a national bank and its affiliates (together, the bank parties) to resolve a lawsuit concerning allegations that the bank parties violated the False Claims Act (FCA) by engaging in improper foreclosure-related practices. The settlement is not an admission of liability by the bank parties. Specifically, as previously covered in InfoBytes, the lawsuit primarily alleged that the bank parties knowingly used rubber-stamped surrogate signed endorsements and false mortgage assignments to support false claims for mortgage insurance from the Federal Housing Administration. The lawsuit also asserted a reverse FCA claim alleging that the bank parties made false statements when entering into the 2012 National Mortgage Settlement. The U.S. Government, the bank parties, and the relator who initially brought the suit stipulated to the dismissal with prejudice concerning 39 “Implied Certification and False Statement Claims,” along with all claims brought or that could have been brought by the relator, but without prejudice as to any other claims that could be brought by the U.S. Government. Under the terms of the settlement agreement, the bank parties are required to pay $3.4 million to the U.S. Government—$891,000 of which will be paid to the relator who originally brought the suit. In addition, the bank parties will pay the relator an additional $1.6 million in attorneys’ fees and litigation costs and expenses.
On January 3, the District Court for the Southern District of Florida granted the U.S. Government’s motion to intervene in a False Claims Act (FCA) lawsuit against a national bank. The lawsuit, filed by a foreclosure attorney and relator, alleges that the national bank submitted false claims in violation of the FCA in two ways. First, the lawsuit alleges that the national bank knowingly used rubber-stamped surrogate signed endorsements and false mortgage assignments to support false claims for mortgage insurance from FHA. Second, the lawsuit asserts a reverse FCA claim alleging that the national bank made false statements when entering into the 2012 National Mortgage Settlement. On December 21, the U.S. Government requested to intervene to assist in “effectuating and formalizing” a proposed settlement between the relator and the national bank that would resolve the matter.
The DOJ announced a $11.6 million settlement on December 8 with a Louisiana-based direct endorsement mortgage lender and certain affiliates to resolve allegations that the lender violated the False Claims Act by falsely certifying compliance with federal requirements in order to obtain insurance on mortgage loans from the Federal Housing Administration (FHA). According to the DOJ’s press release, between January 2005 and December 2014, the lender (i) certified loans that failed to meet HUD’s underwriting and origination requirements for FHA insurance; (ii) paid incentives to underwriters in violation of the “underwriter commission prohibition,” and continued to make incentive payments even after HUD notified the lender of commission prohibition noncompliance in 2010; and (iii) failed to, in a timely manner, “self-report material violations of HUD requirements” or perform quality reviews. The settlement also fully resolves a False Claims Act qui tam lawsuit that had been pending in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Arkansas.
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