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On April 12, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California denied defendants’ motion to compel arbitration in a matter alleging a lender denied plaintiffs’ applications based on their immigration status. The plaintiffs filed a putative class action against the defendants, alleging the lender denied their loan applications based on one of the plaintiff’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) status and the other plaintiff’s status as a conditional permanent resident. The plaintiffs claimed that these practices constituted unlawful discrimination and “alienage discrimination” in violation of federal law and California state law. The plaintiffs also alleged that the lender violated the FCRA by accessing one of their credit reports without a permissible purpose. The defendants moved to compel arbitration and dismiss the claims.
With respect to the defendants’ motion to compel arbitration, the lender claimed that the DACA plaintiff “expressly consented to arbitration” when he was required to check a box labeled “I agree” in order to proceed with his online student loan refinancing application back in 2016. However, the DACA plaintiff argued the arbitration agreement “lacked adequate consideration” because he was ineligible for a loan as a DACA applicant, and that even if it were a valid agreement, it only applied to his 2016 application and not to his subsequent attempts to refinance his student loans. In denying the lender’s motion to compel arbitration, the court concluded that the DACA plaintiff did not claim that he was seeking to reopen or have the lender reconsider his 2016 application, but rather he asserted that these were “standalone attempted transactions,” and as such, did not fall within the scope of the 2016 arbitration agreement.
In reviewing whether the lender’s policies constitute alienage discrimination, the court determined, among other things, that while the lender “asserts that it does not discriminate against non-citizens because some non-citizens—namely [lawful permanent residents] and some visa-holders—are still eligible to contract for credit with [the lender],” the distinction “is not supported by the language of the statute,” noting that under 42 U.S.C. § 1981, protections “extend to ‘all persons within the jurisdiction of the United States.’” Additionally, the court ruled that the second class of conditional permanent residents whose credit reports were pulled by the lender and allegedly experienced a decrease in their credit scores—despite plaintiffs claiming the lender’s policy states that permanent residents are ineligible for loans if their green cards are valid for two years or less—may proceed with their FCRA claims.
On April 9, the Pennsylvania attorney general announced settlements with the former CEO of a since-dissolved lender and a debt collector to resolve claims that the collector charged borrowers interest rates as high as 448 percent on loans and lines of credit. The AG alleged that the former CEO “participated in, directed and controlled” business activities related to the allegedly illegal online payday lending scheme, while the debt collector collected more than $4 million related to Pennsylvania consumers’ loan accounts. The terms of the settlement require the individual defendant to comply with relevant consumer protection laws and limits the individual defendant’s ability to work in the consumer lending industry in Pennsylvania for the next nine years. Additionally, the individual defendant is required to pay the Commonwealth $3 million.
The AG’s office noted that the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania also approved a settlement with the debt collector, which requires the company to comply with relevant consumer protection laws and, among other things, undertake the following actions: (i) ensure that all acquired debts, for which it attempts to collect, comply with applicable laws and regulations; (ii) cancel all balances on applicable accounts, take no further action to collect debts allegedly owed by Pennsylvania consumers on these accounts, and notify consumers of the cancellations; (iii) “refrain from engaging in [c]ollections on any [d]ebts involving loans made over the internet by [n]on-bank lenders that violate Pennsylvania laws,” including its usury laws; and (iv) will not sell, re-sell, or assign debt related to applicable accounts, including accounts subject to a previously-negotiated nationwide class action settlement agreement and Chapter 11 bankruptcy plan. Previous InfoBytes coverage related to the payday lending scheme can be found here, here, and here.
On April 12, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit affirmed dismissal of an FDCPA action, concluding that itemized breakdowns in collection letters that include zero balances for interest and other fees would not confuse or mislead the reasonable “unsophisticated consumer” to believe that future interest or other charges would be incurred if the debt is not settled. The defendant management company sent a letter to the plaintiff claiming he owed amount $1,088.34 and offered to “resolve this debt in full” with a payment of $761.84. The plaintiff filed a putative class action against the defendant alleging that by itemizing interest and collection fees for his “static debt,” and by assigning “$0.00” interest, the letter falsely implied—in violation of § 1692e and § 1692f of the FDCPA—that “interest and fees could accrue and thereby increase the amount of his debt over time.” The defendants moved to dismiss for failure to state a claim. The district court dismissed the complaint with prejudice, declining “to require assurances by debt collectors that itemized amounts ‘will not change in the future,’ reasoning that doing so would lead to ‘complex and verbose debt collection letters’ that would confuse consumers.”
On appeal, the 3rd Circuit agreed with the district court. Specifically, the appellate court concluded that the “complaint fails to state a claim, whether our court’s ‘least sophisticated debtor’ standard is functionally the same as the ‘unsophisticated debtor’ standard applied by other Circuits or is instead an independent and less demanding framework.” Moreover, the appellate court noted even the least sophisticated debtor understands that “collection letters—as reflected by their fonts, formatting, content, and fields—often derive from templates and may contain information not relevant to his or her particular situation.” According to the 3rd Circuit, “FDCPA case law does not support attributing to the least sophisticated debtor simultaneous naïveté and heightened discernment. Were we for some reason constrained to consider only the law of Circuits that employ the word “least” in their FDCPA standards, we would still affirm.”
On April 9, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit held that a credit reporting agency’s (CRA) report that a judgment was “satisfied” was accurate and not misleading under the FCRA. According to the opinion, a debt collection action was brought and default judgment entered against the plaintiff. The parties ultimately filed a joint stipulation to resolve the action and discontinue all claims with prejudice. Afterwards, the CRA’s report showed the default judgment, but was later amended to read “judgment satisfied”—a statement that the plaintiff allegedly repeatedly disputed. The plaintiff ultimately filed a lawsuit against the CRA, alleging the agency “willfully and/or negligently violated various FCRA provisions by persisting in publishing [the] report and failing to follow certain of the FCRA’s procedural notice requirements.” Among other things, the plaintiff claimed that the CRA also violated the FCRA’s source-disclosure and reinvestigation provisions and should have disclosed that the information about the judgment came from a contractor-intermediary working for the CRA. The district court dismissed one of the FCRA claims and granted summary judgment to the CRA on the remaining FCRA claims.
On appeal, the 2nd Circuit agreed with the district court, concluding first that there was no FCRA reporting violation because the description of the judgment as “satisfied” was accurate. Moreover, the appellate court wrote, even if the CRA should have disclosed that the contractor was the source, the plaintiff “failed to present any evidentiary basis for concluding that he suffered actual damages” resulting from the CRA’s failure to not disclose or treat the contractor as a source or furnisher of the information about the judgment. The 2nd Circuit further rejected the plaintiff’s claims against the CRA for willful violations of sections 1681g and 1681i, concluding that the sections “can be reasonably interpreted not to require such a disclosure and no more need be shown.”
Massachusetts Appeals Court: Plaintiffs’ counterclaim under PHLPA filed after foreclosure sale is untimely
On April 7, the Massachusetts Appeals Court held that plaintiffs could not assert a violation of the Massachusetts Predatory Home Loan Practices Act (PHLPA) in connection with a foreclosure proceeding. In 2005, the plaintiffs obtained a loan to purchase a home but later defaulted on their mortgage. In 2016, the defendant loan servicer began foreclosure proceedings, and sent plaintiffs a right to cure letter followed by an acceleration notice more than 90 days later. Approximately a year later, the servicer sent the plaintiffs a notice of the foreclosure sale, purchased the property, and ultimately filed a summary process eviction action and motion for summary judgment, which the state housing court granted. The plaintiffs then filed a counterclaim alleging the servicer violated PHLPA § 15(b)(2). The servicer maintained, however, that it is “entitled to judgment as a matter of law because more than five years had passed between the time the [plaintiffs] closed on the loan and the time they brought their counterclaim for violation of the PHLPA,” and that, as such, “the five-year statute of limitations in § 15(b)(1) bars their counterclaim.”
On appeal, the Appeals Court majority determined that while the five-year statute of limitations under § 15(b)(1) did not apply to the borrowers’ counterclaim, § 15(b)(2)—under which the plaintiffs brought their counterclaim—“provides that a borrower may employ a defense, claim, or counterclaim ‘during the term of a high-cost home mortgage loan.’” However, because a foreclosure sale following acceleration of a note and mortgage “concludes the term of a mortgage loan,” the Appeals Court deemed the plaintiffs’ counterclaim was untimely.
On April 7, the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia preliminarily approved a revised class action settlement concerning allegations that an operation used tribal sovereign immunity to evade state usury laws when charging unlawful interest on loans. The plaintiffs filed a class action complaint against the operation alleging, among other things, violations of the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, EFTA, and TILA. The preliminarily-approved revised settlement would cancel approximately 71,000 class member loans, including a group of loans sold by the operation to another investor. It would also require the operation to pay $86 million, including an additional $21 million payment from the individual defendant, and cap attorneys’ fees for class counsel at $15 million. The operation would also be required to comply with several non-monetary provisions, including (i) requesting that negative credit reporting information concerning the loans be deleted; and (ii) ensuring that key loan terms, including interest rates and payment schedules to borrowers, are disclosed in loan agreements in compliance with federal law.
2nd Circuit: Banking a known terrorist organization does not, by itself, establish Antiterrorism Act liability
On April 7, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit affirmed summary judgments (see here and here) dismissing amended complaints filed in two actions seeking to hold a U.K. bank and a French bank, respectively, liable under the Antiterrorism Act of 1990 (ATA) for allegedly “providing banking services to a charitable organization with alleged ties to Hamas, a designated Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO) alleged to have committed a series of terrorist attacks in Israel in 2001-2004.” The complaints alleged that the U.K. bank and the French bank knowingly provided banking services, including sending millions of dollars in wire transfers, to organizations previously designated by the U.S. as Specially Designated Global Terrorists. The district court referred to the 2nd Circuit’s decision in Linde v. Arab Bank PLC, in which the appellate court held that “a bank’s provision of material support to a known terrorist organization is not, by itself, sufficient to establish the bank’s liability under the ATA,” and that “in order to satisfy the ATA’s requirements for civil liability as a principal,” the bank’s act must “also involve violence or endanger human life.” Moreover, the Linde opinion held, among other things, that a bank’s act must be intended to intimidate or coerce the civilian population or influence or affect a government, and that the bank “ must have been ‘generally aware of [its] role as part of an overall illegal or tortious activity at the time’” the assistance was provided.
The plaintiffs argued in a consolidated appeal that the district court misapplied the Linde holding and erred in concluding that the evidence presented was “insufficient to permit an inference that the bank was generally aware that it was playing a role in terrorism.” The banks countered that if the appellate court reversed the judgments, the claims should be thrown out for lack of personal jurisdiction. On appeal, the 2nd Circuit agreed with the district court’s dismissal of claims “on the ground that plaintiffs failed to adduce sufficient evidence that the bank itself committed an act of international terrorism within the meaning of §§ 2333(a) and 2331(1)” of the ATA. The opinion noted, among other things, that the plaintiffs’ experts said the charities to which the banks transferred funds as instructed by one of the organizations actually performed charitable work and that there was no indication that they funded terrorist attacks. As such, the banks’ conditional cross-appeal was dismissed as moot.
On April 7, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit upheld a district court’s ruling compelling individual arbitration in five separate putative class action suits concerning allegations that a national bank’s overdraft practices violated the covenant of good faith and fair dealing. The opinion does not address plaintiffs’ claims concerning the bank’s alleged overdraft practices, but rather reviews the enforceability of arbitration clauses contained in account agreements between plaintiffs and the bank (or its predecessor), which require individual, non-class arbitration of consumer account-related disputes. The plaintiffs appealed a ruling by the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida that the account agreements “delegate to the arbitrator all questions of arbitrability, including Plaintiffs’ challenge to the enforceability of the arbitration clause,” and that it is up to the arbitrator, and not the court, to determine whether the parties are required to arbitrate. According to the plaintiffs, the arbitration clause is illusory and/or unconscionable and therefore unenforceable. They challenged, among other things, that “the incorporation of the [American Arbitration Association] (AAA) rules cannot overcome the plain language of the delegation clause,” which the plaintiffs argued limited delegation of gateway issues to those related to a disagreement about the meaning of the arbitration agreement or whether a disagreement is a “dispute” subject to binding arbitration.”
The appellate court disagreed, concluding that nothing in the account agreement with the bank “explicitly excludes or contradicts” anything included in the AAA rules, and that it has repeatedly held that an agreement that incorporates “AAA rules with language providing that ‘the arbitrator shall have the power to rule on his or her own jurisdiction,’” shows “a clear and unmistakable intent that the arbitrator should decide all questions of arbitrability.” Moreover, the 11th Circuit found no inconsistency in the account agreement’s language, holding that when “[r]ead together, we view the incorporation and delegation clause as ‘mutually reinforcing methods of delegation.’” With respect to the predecessor bank’s agreement, which does not contain a delegation provision, the appellate court ultimately determined that the arbitration clause was neither illusory and/or unconscionable.
Industry group sues to stop Washington’s emergency rule banning credit scoring in insurance underwriting
According to sources, the American Property Casualty Insurance Association (APCIA) recently filed a lawsuit in Washington Superior Court in an attempt to stop an emergency rule issued last month by the Washington Insurance Commissioner, which bans the use of credit-based insurance scores in the rating and underwriting of insurance for a three-year period. The rule specifically prohibits insurers from “us[ing] credit history to place insurance coverage with a particular affiliated insurer or insurer within an overall group of affiliated insurance companies” and applies to all new policies effective, and existing policies processed for renewal, on or after June 20, 2021.
According to a press release issued by the Commissioner, the emergency rule is intended to prevent discriminatory pricing in private auto, renters, and homeowners insurance in anticipation of the end of the CARES Act, which will expire 120 days after President Biden declares an end to the national emergency caused by the Covid-19 pandemic. Under the CARES Act, Congress required furnishers of information to credit bureaus to modify credit reporting practices if and when they grant an “accommodation”—that is, an agreement to defer payments, modify a loan, or grant other relief—to borrowers impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic, irrespective of asset type to ensure that borrowers who sought and obtained forbearance or other relief were not credit reported as becoming delinquent or further delinquent as a result of the forbearance or other relief (see Buckley Special Alert), which the Commissioner believes has disrupted the credit reporting process and reportedly caused credit bureaus to collect inaccurate credit histories for some consumers. The Commissioner further contends that because “the predicative ability of current credit scoring models cannot be assumed,” scoring models used by insurers to set rates for policyholders have been degraded and will have a disparate impact on consumers with lower incomes and communities of color. Sources report that APCIA’s lawsuit—which seeks declaratory and injunctive relief (and asks the court to declare the Commissioner’s rule invalid and to enjoin its enforcement)—claims the Commissioner’s rule will harm insured consumers in the state who pay less for auto, homeowners, and renters insurance because of the use of credit-based insurance scores to predict risk and set rates.
On April 7, a split U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit concluded that a website is not a “public accommodation” under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The plaintiff sued a supermarket chain under Title III of the ADA, alleging its website was incompatible with screen reader software and caused him injury by denying him the “full and equal enjoyment” provided to sighted customers. The district court issued a judgment ordering the supermarket chain to bring its website into compliance with the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.0 standard after concluding that the plaintiff sufficiently demonstrated a sufficient “nexus” between the website and the supermarket chain’s physical premises. On appeal, the appellate court reviewed, among other things, the question of whether websites are public accommodations under the ADA. The majority vacated the district court’s ruling that the website was an intangible barrier to the supermarket chain’s physical stores and in violation of the ADA. Specifically, the majority reviewed the 12 types of locations listed as public accommodations under Title III, and found that none of them were “intangible places or spaces, such as websites.”
The majority further distinguished its conclusion from its holding in Rendon. v. Valleycrest Products, Ltd., in which it determined that the ADA covers both tangible, physical barriers as well as “intangible barriers, such as eligibility requirements and screening rules or discriminatory policies and procedures that restrict a disabled person’s ability to enjoy the defendant entity’s goods, services and privileges,” noting that the “limited use website, although inaccessible by individuals who are visually disabled, does not function as an intangible barrier to an individual with a visual disability accessing the goods, services, privileges or advantages of [the supermarket chain’s] physical stores.” Moreover, the majority rejected the plaintiff’s argument that Rendon established that a plaintiff only has to demonstrate a “nexus” between the service and the physical public accommodation, declining to adopt such a standard after finding no basis for it in the ADA or in previous precedent. This decision further divides the circuits over the scope of a “public accommodation.”
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