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On October 12, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit affirmed a district court’s nearly $2.4 million disgorgement order in an SEC case involving alleged penny stock fraud, marking the first time an appellate court has been asked to decide the “awarded for victims” question that arose out of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Liu v. SEC. As previously covered by InfoBytes, in 2020, the Court held that the SEC may continue to collect disgorgement in civil proceedings in federal court as long as the award does not exceed a wrongdoer’s net profits, and that such awards for victims of the wrongdoing are equitable relief permissible under the Exchange Act, 15 U.S.C. §78u(d)(5). The Court’s decision discussed three limits: (i) the “profits remedy” must return the defendant’s wrongful gains to those harmed by the defendant’s actions, as opposed to depositing them in the Treasury; (ii) disgorgement under the statute requires a factual determination of whether petitioners can, consistent with equitable principles, be found liable for profits as partners in wrongdoing or whether individual liability is required; and (iii) disgorgement must be limited to “net profits” and therefore “courts must deduct legitimate expenses before ordering disgorgement” under the statute.
In the current action, the SEC brought a case against three individuals accused of allegedly selling unregistered securities and misleading investors during their operation of a penny stock company. The district court found the individuals liable on several of the claims and granted summary judgment in favor of the SEC. The district court also ordered (and later amended) disgorgement of the proceeds that the individuals obtained in the alleged fraud. The individuals appealed, challenging both the summary judgment decision (on the premise that “‘numerous’ disputed fact issues exist”) and the amended disgorgement remedy. Upon review, the 5th Circuit determined that that the district court’s disgorgement order satisfied the requirements laid out by the Court in Liu. The appellate court stated that the individuals’ appeal failed “to identify any disputed issues; nor does it sufficiently challenge the court’s analysis finding them liable based on undisputed facts.” Moreover, the 5th Circuit explained that the district court did not impose joint-and several liability, but rather individually assessed disgorgement amounts for each defendant based on the gains they received from the securities fraud, adding that the SEC has identified the victims of the fraud and created a process for the return of the disgorged funds. According to the 5th Circuit, “[u]nder the district court’s supervision, any funds recovered will go to the SEC, acting as a de facto trustee. The SEC will then disburse those funds to victims but only after district court approval.” “The disgorgement thus is being ‘awarded for victims.’”
On October 12, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois granted plaintiff’s motion to remand a debt collection class action lawsuit back to state court. The plaintiff claimed the defendants violated the Illinois Collection Agency Act and FDCPA Section 1692c(b) by using a third-party mailing vendor to print and mail collection letters to class members. According to the plaintiff’s complaint filed in state court, conveying the information to the vendor—an allegedly unauthorized party—served as a communication under the FDCPA. The defendants removed the case to federal court, but on review, the court determined the plaintiff did not have Article III standing to sue because Congress did not intend to prevent debt collectors from using mail vendors when the FDCPA was enacted. Specifically, the court disagreed with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit’s decision in Hunstein v. Preferred Collection & Management Services, which held that transmitting a consumer’s private data to a commercial mail vendor to generate debt collection letters violates Section 1692c(b) of the FDCPA because it is considered transmitting a consumer’s private data “in connection with the collection of any debt.” (Covered by InfoBytes here.) In this case, the court stated it “is difficult to imagine Congress intended for the FDCPA to extend so far as to prevent debt collectors from enlisting the assistance of mailing vendors to perform ministerial duties, such as printing and stuffing the debt collectors’ letters, in effectuating the task entrusted to them by the creditors—especially when so much of the process is presumably automated in this day and age.” According to the court, “such a scenario runs afoul of the FDCPA’s intended purpose to prevent debt collectors from utilizing truly offensive means to collect a debt.”
On October 7, the CFPB filed a petition for panel or en banc rehearing with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, asking the appellate court to reconsider its recent determination “that practicing attorneys are categorically exempt from Regulation O,” as it strips the CFPB “of the authority given it by Congress to hold attorneys to account for violations not just of Regulation O, but of a host of other federal laws as well.” (Covered by InfoBytes here.) In 2014, the CFPB, FTC, and 15 state authorities took action against several foreclosure relief companies and associated individuals, alleging that they made misrepresentations about their services, failed to make mandatory disclosures, and collected unlawful advance fees (covered by InfoBytes here). A ruling issued by the district court in 2019 (covered by InfoBytes here) ordered nearly $59 million in penalties and restitution against several of the defendants for violations of Regulation O, but was later vacated by the 7th Circuit based on the application of the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Liu v. SEC, which held that a disgorgement award cannot exceed a firm’s net profits—a ruling that is “applicable to all categories of equitable relief, including restitution.” (Covered by InfoBytes here.)
In its appeal, the Bureau did not challenge the vacated restitution award, but rather argued that a rehearing is necessary to ensure that the agency can bring enforcement actions against attorneys who violate federal consumer laws, including Regulation O. “The panel’s conclusion. . .threatens to disrupt the existing federal regulatory scheme for multiple consumer laws and expose ordinary people across the country to an increased risk of harm from illegal practices,” the Bureau stated, adding that 12 U.S.C. § 5517(e) does not limit the Bureau’s ability to pursue a civil enforcement action against practicing attorneys who are subject to Regulation O. According to the Bureau, Paragraph 3 of § 5517(e) states that the limitation on the Bureau’s authority “‘shall not be construed’ to limit the Bureau’s authority with respect to an attorney ‘to the extent that such attorney is otherwise subject’ to an enumerated consumer law or transferred authority.” The Bureau asked the 7th Circuit to reconsider its decision on this issue or, in the alternative, withdraw that portion as unnecessary to the outcome.
On October 8, counsel for the appellant in CFPB v. Seila Law LLC sent a letter to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit stating that, after further consideration, the law firm has decided not to seek further review from the U.S. Supreme Court in its long-running challenge with the Bureau. Seila Law’s last trip to the Court resulted in a decision that declared the director’s for-cause removal provision was unconstitutional but was severable from the statute establishing the Bureau (covered by a Buckley Special Alert). October 11 was the deadline for Seila Law to file a certiorari petition with the Court after the 9th Circuit granted the law firm’s request to stay a mandate ordering compliance with a 2017 civil investigative demand (CID) issued by the Bureau. As previously covered by InfoBytes, the order stayed the appellate court’s mandate (covered by InfoBytes here) for 150 days, or until final disposition by the Court if the law firm had filed its petition of certiorari. The letter did not explain Seila Law’s reasoning.
This announcement follows the Court’s recent decision not to hear a petition filed by a New Jersey-based finance company accused by the CFPB and the New York attorney general of misleading consumers about high-cost loans allegedly mischaracterized as assignments of future payment rights (covered by InfoBytes here), and may mark the beginning of the end of litigation over former Director Kraninger’s July 2020 ratifications of the Bureau’s private actions (covered by InfoBytes here). Since the Court’s decision in Seila, several courts have heard challenges from companies claiming the Bureau could not use ratification to avoid dismissal of their lawsuits.
On October 5, the Court of Chancery of the State of Delaware dismissed a stockholder derivative suit filed against directors of an international hotel corporation arising out of massive data breach. The court held that the plaintiff was not excused from making a demand on the board because he failed to show that the directors faced a substantial likelihood of liability on a non-exculpated claim.
The data breach, which exposed the personal information of approximately 500 million customers, took place via the reservation database of a property company that the corporation had acquired two years prior. The plaintiff alleged that the directors breached their fiduciary duties by failing to adequately conduct due diligence of cybersecurity technology for the property company in the pre-acquisition time period. For the post-acquisition period, the plaintiff alleged that the defendants continued to operate the property company’s deficient systems, failed to timely disclose the data breach, and that the directors breached their duty of loyalty under In re Caremark Int’l Inc. Derivative Litigation, a 1996 Delaware Chancery Court decision establishing a standard for oversight liability for board members.
With respect to the pre-acquisition time period, the court held that the plaintiff’s claims were time-barred and that was no basis for tolling. As to the post-acquisition claims, the court concluded that the directors do not face a substantial likelihood of liability under Caremark. Although the court noted that “[c]ybersecurity has increasingly become a central compliance risk deserving of board level monitoring at companies across sectors,” the allegations “do not meet the high bar required to state a Caremark claim. According to the court, the plaintiff has not shown that the directors completely failed to undertake their oversight responsibilities, turned a blind eye to known compliance violations, or consciously failed to remediate cybersecurity failures.” The court acknowledged that the data breach was “momentous in scale and put the data of hundreds of millions of people at risk,” but concluded that the actions were “at the hands of a hacker,” saying that “[the corporation] was the victim of an illegal act rather than the perpetrator.”
On October 5, a federal judge for the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania remanded a case back to state court, holding that the Federal Reserve’s regulation governing Fedwire transfers does not completely preempt state law claims. The elderly plaintiff alleged that bank employees helped her execute wire transfers totaling $4.3 million to an unknown scam artist, but never questioned whether she “intended, or knew, that the wire transfers were being made through a crypto currency bank to a crypto currency trust company.” The plaintiff sued the bank, claiming that it was negligent in not protecting her from the scheme, and that its advertising claims about keeping client information safe from scams were misleading and violated Pennsylvania’s Unfair Trade Practices and Consumer Protection Law. While recognizing that the plaintiff only asserted state law claims, the bank removed the case to federal court on the ground that the Fedwire system used to make the transfers was governed by the Fed’s Regulation J, and thus state law was preempted.
The court ruled that, while the bank could invoke Regulation J as a defense, the regulation does not expressly provide a private right to seek redress in federal court, nor does the regulation itself allow the bank to remove the case to federal court. “[T]he court concludes that the more persuasive case law reflects that only Congress (not a federal agency in a regulation) can completely preempt a state law cause of action to create removal jurisdiction.” The plaintiff did not assert federal claims, and so “[t]he mere fact that [the bank] intends to assert Regulation J as a preemption defense does not create removal jurisdiction.” Furthermore, the court cited the Fed’s commentary to Regulation J, which said regulations “may pre-empt inconsistent provisions of state law” but do not affect state law where there was no conflict. Since there was no conflict between Regulation J and the Pennsylvania law, the federal regulation does not provide the exclusive cause of action, the court said.
On October 6, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit held that Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac shareholders have standing to seek retrospective, but not prospective, relief related to their claims that they suffered damages as a result of the FHFA’s leadership structure. The shareholders alleged FHFA’s leadership structure and appointments violated the appointments clause, the separation of powers, and the non-delegation doctrine. Among other things, the shareholders claimed that (i) the Housing and Economic Recovery Act (Recovery Act), which created the agency, violated separation of powers principles because it only allowed the president to fire the FHFA director “for cause,” and (ii) FHFA acted outside its statutory authority when it adopted a third amendment to the Senior Preferred Stock Purchase Agreements, which replaced a fixed-rate dividend formula with a variable one requiring the GSEs to pay quarterly dividends equal to their entire net worth minus a specified capital reserve amount to the Treasury Department (known as the “net worth sweep”). The district court dismissed the claims for lack of standing, and in the alternative, rejected them on the merits.
The 8th Circuit began by rejecting the district court’s holding that the shareholders lacked standing. Relying on the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent ruling in Collins v. Yellen (covered by InfoBytes here), the appellate court held that the shareholders’ alleged injury flowed from the adoption of the agreement containing the net worth sweep by FHFA’s acting director, who did not properly hold office. However, the shareholders were limited to seeking retrospective relief, because prospective relief was mooted by the adoption of subsequent amendments to the agreement by validly-appointed directors.
However, the appellate court went on to hold that the shareholders were not entitled to relief based on their argument that the acting director had been in office too long in an “acting” role when he adopted the agreement. Even if the shareholders were correct, the acting director’s decisions were valid under the de facto officer doctrine, which confers validity on the acts of persons operating “under the color of official title even though it is later discovered that the legality of that person’s appointment or election to office is deficient.” Moreover, even if the de facto officer doctrine did not control, “[a]ny defect was resolved when the subsequent FHFA directors—none of whose appointments were challenged—ratified the third amendment.”
The 8th Circuit also rejected the argument that Congress unlawfully delegated authority to FHFA in the Recovery Act, finding that the statute directs FHFA “to act as a ‘conservator,’ with clear and recognizable instructions.”
Finally, the 8th Circuit did agree with the shareholders that FHFA’s leadership structure was unconstitutional because, as the Court held in Collins, it limited the president’s ability to remove the director. But the appellate court rejected the shareholders’ request that it vacate the adoption of the agreement containing the net worth sweep as a result, noting that the acting director was always “removable at will,” and that there was no allegation that subsequent agency directors (who took actions to implement the agreement) were appointed improperly. Still, the appellate court noted that, in Collins, the Court had remanded the case for a determination whether the constitutional violation “caused compensable harm” to the plaintiffs, and it did the same here.
On October 4, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear a petition filed by a New Jersey-based finance company accused by the CFPB and the New York attorney general of misleading first responders to the World Trade Center attack and NFL retirees about high-cost loans mischaracterized as assignments of future payment rights (see entry #20-1758). In 2020, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit vacated a 2018 district court order, which had previously dismissed the case on the grounds that the Bureau’s single-director structure was unconstitutional, and that, as such, the agency lacked authority to bring claims alleging deceptive and abusive conduct by the company (covered by InfoBytes here). At the time, the district court also rejected an attempt by then-acting Director Mulvaney to salvage the Bureau’s claims, concluding that the “ratification of the CFPB’s enforcement action against defendants failed to cure the constitutional deficiencies in the CFPB’s structure or otherwise render defendants’ arguments moot.” The 2nd Circuit remanded the case to the district court, determining that the Court’s ruling in Seila Law LLC v. CPFB (which held that the director’s for-cause removal provision was unconstitutional but was severable from the statute establishing the Bureau, as covered by a Buckley Special Alert) superseded the 2018 ruling. The appellate court further noted that following Seila, former Director Kathy Kraninger ratified several prior regulatory actions (covered by InfoBytes here), including the enforcement action brought against the defendants, and as such, remanded the case to the district court to consider the validity of the ratification of the enforcement action.
In its June petition for writ of certiorari, the company argued that the Bureau could not use ratification to avoid dismissal of the lawsuit. The company noted that while several courts, including the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit (covered by InfoBytes here) have “appl[ied] ratification to cure the structural problem,” other courts have rejected the Bureau’s ratification efforts, finding them to be untimely (see a dismissal by the U.S. District Court for the District of Delaware, as covered by InfoBytes here). As such, the company had asked the Supreme Court to clarify this contradictory “hopeless muddle” by clarifying the appropriate remedy for structural constitutional violations and addressing whether ratification is still effective if it comes after the statute of limitations has expired.
As is customary when denying a petition for certiorari, the Supreme Court did not explain its reasoning.
On September 29, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit held that the daily fees imposed on a consumer who failed to timely pay an overdraft were deposit-account service charges, not interest, and thus not subject to usury limits. The plaintiff allegedly overdrew her account and her bank paid the overdraft. The bank began charging a daily fee after the plaintiff did not repay the overdraft within five business days (called an “Extended Overdraft Charge”), which the plaintiff argued constituted interest on an extension of credit and was usurious in violation of the National Bank Act (NBA). In dismissing the plaintiff’s complaint for failure to state a claim, the district court reasoned that the bank does not make a loan to a customer when it covers the customer’s overdraft, and therefore the NBA’s limitations on interest charges do not apply. On appeal, the appellate court sided with the district court and deferred to the interpretation of the OCC that the fees at issue were not “interest” under the law. The court found the OCC’s interpretation to be reasonable and otherwise entitled to Auer deference, and on that basis affirmed.
On September 30, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois granted preliminary approval of a class action settlement, resolving claims that a China-based technology company and its subsidiaries (collectively, “defendants”) violated Illinois’ Biometric Information Privacy Act (BIPA), among other things, by defying state and federal privacy laws through a social media platform and entertainment application (app). The first of the 21 putative class actions comprising this multidistrict litigation were filed in 2019, and the other 20 putative class actions were filed in 2020 in separate federal districts. Class members, comprised of U.S. residents who used the app prior to preliminary approval, and an Illinois subclass of all Illinois residents who used the app to create videos before preliminary approval, filed a consolidated amended class action complaint in 2020, claiming that the defendants harvested and profited from users’ private information, including their biometric data, geolocation information, personally identifiable information, and unpublished digital recordings. The defendants argued, among other things, that the class members consented to the alleged misconduct by accepting the app’s terms of service.
Under the terms of the preliminarily approved settlement, the defendants must pay “$92 million in monetary relief and an array of injunctive relief for the putative settlement class.” The settlement also requires the defendants to, among other things: (i) refrain from using the app to collect or store certain U.S. user data, including biometric data and geolocation information, without making the necessary disclosures; (ii) delete all pre-uploaded user-generated content collected from U.S. users who did not “save” or “post” the content; and (iii) require a new, yearly training program for the defendants’ employees and contractors regarding compliance with data privacy laws.
- Daniel R. Alonso to moderate an interactive roundtable at the Latin Lawyer and GIR Connect: Anti-Corruption & Investigations Conference
- APPROVED Checkpoint Webcast: You have license renewal questions, we have answers
- Jonice Gray Tucker to discuss “Fintech trends” at the BIHC Network Elevating Black Excellence Regional Summit
- Jeffrey P. Naimon to discuss "Truth in lending” at the American Bar Association National Institute on Consumer Financial Services Basics
- Daniel R. Alonso to discuss anti-money-laundering at FELABAN Spanish-language webinar “Perspective for banks: LAFT, FINCEN, OFAC, Cryptocurrency”
- Daniel R. Alonso to discuss "What’s new in BSA/AML compliance?" at the Institute of International Bankers Regulatory Compliance Seminar
- Jon David D. Langlois to discuss "Regulatory update: What you need to know under the new boss; It won’t be the same as the old boss" at the IMN Residential Mortgage Service Rights Forum (East)
- Benjamin B. Klubes to discuss “Creating a Fantastic Workplace Culture”
- John R. Coleman and Amanda R. Lawrence to discuss “Consumer financial services government enforcement actions – The CFPB and beyond” at the Government Investigations & Civil Litigation Institute Annual Meeting
- Jonice Gray Tucker to discuss "Consumer financial services" at the Practising Law Institute Banking Law Institute
- Jonice Gray Tucker to discuss “Regulators always ring twice: Responding to a government request” at ALM Legalweek