Subscribe to our InfoBytes Blog weekly newsletter and other publications for news affecting the financial services industry.
On June 6, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit, in a consolidated appeal, affirmed summary judgment in favor of a debt collector in actions alleging that the debt collector violated the FDCPA by naming the “original creditor” and the “client” in its collection letters, but declining to identify the current owner of the debt. According to the opinion, two consumers received collection letters naming an online payment processor as the “client” and a bank as the “original creditor,” and stating that, “upon the debtor’s request, [the collector] will provide ‘the name and address of the original creditor, if different from the current creditor.’” The consumers filed class actions against the debt collector, alleging that it violated, among other things, Section 1692g(a)(2) of the FDCPA by failing to disclose the current creditor or owner of the debt in the initial collection letters. In both cases, the respective district court granted summary judgment for the debt collector, concluding that the letter not only includes the original creditor—the bank—but also provides additional information for the unsophisticated consumer by including the online payment processor so that the consumer could better recognize the debt.
On appeal, the 7th Circuit agreed with the lower courts and concluded that the letters did not violate the FDCPA. The appellate court noted that “the letter identifies a single ‘creditor,’ as well as the commercial name to which the debtors had been exposed, allowing the debtors to easily recognize the nature of the debt.” The appellate court rejected the consumers’ argument that calling the bank the “original creditor” instead of the “current creditor” creates confusion, because the letter contained language that notified consumers that the original and current creditors may be one and the same. Because the letter “provides a whole picture of the debt for the consumer,” the court concluded it is not abusive or unfair and does not violate Section 1692g(a)(2) of the FDCPA.
On June 6, twenty six Democratic Senators sent a letter to the CFPB requesting that the Bureau reconsider the recent debt collection rulemaking proposal to “pursue more meaningful reforms that put consumers . . . first.” As previously covered by InfoBytes, in May, the CFPB released its highly anticipated debt collection rulemaking, which regulates debt collection communications and disclosures and addresses related practices by debt collectors. Among other things, the proposed rule would (i) require debt collectors to provide consumers with a validation notice containing specific information regarding the debt; (ii) restrict debt collectors from calling consumers regarding a particular debt more than seven times within a seven-day-period and prohibit telephone contact for seven days after the debt collector has had a conversation with the consumer; (iii) allow for consumers to unsubscribe from various communication channels with debt collectors, including text or email; and (iv) prevent debt collectors from contacting consumers on their workplace email addresses or through public-facing social media platforms.
In the letter, the Senators argue that the proposed rule as currently written “will only exacerbate and increase troubling harassment tactics” by debt collectors. The Senators note that the Bureau received 81,500 consumer debt collection complaints, and the FTC received nearly 458,000 such complaints in 2018, and argue that the proposed rule does not do enough to address the particular abusive practices that those complaints raised. The Senators allege that the proposed rule “permits collectors to overwhelm consumers with intrusive communications” because it allows for unlimited text messages and emails and allows for collectors to call consumers seven times per week, per debt. Additionally, the Senators argue that the proposed rule “could encourage collectors to practice willful ignorance about the status of the debt they collect,” as it only “prohibits filing or threatening to file a lawsuit if the collector ‘knows or should know’ that the debt is not enforceable.” Lastly, the Senators assert that the Bureau should hold attorneys who engage in debt collection to a “higher standard, [they should] not be granted a safe harbor to engage in abusive and deceptive practices.”
District Court denies debt collector’s motion for summary judgment FDCPA action concerning a consumer who filed for bankruptcy
On May 29, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Ohio denied a debt collector’s motion for summary judgment in an action alleging the debt collector violated the FDCPA by sending a collection letter three days after the consumer filed for bankruptcy. According to the opinion, the debt collector confirmed that the consumer had not yet filed for bankruptcy following placement of the consumer’s account for collection and, thus, sent an initial communication to the consumer’s attorney. Thereafter, the consumer filed for bankruptcy, but before the collector learned of the bankruptcy, it sent a collection letter to the consumer’s counsel. As a result, the consumer filed a lawsuit claiming that the debt collector violated the FDCPA by sending a collection letter to the consumer’s attorney after the bankruptcy proceeding had been initiated. The debt collector moved for summary judgment, arguing that it could not be held liable under the FDCPA because, at the time it sent the collection letter, it had not yet received notice of the bankruptcy proceeding. The court, however, rejected this argument, citing to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit in stating that “‘[t]he FDCPA is a strict-liability statute: A plaintiff does not need to prove knowledge or intent . . . and does not have to have suffered actual damages.’” Because the debt collector did present arguments or evidence relating to FDCPA’s bona fide error provision, which provides an affirmative defense for a violation that is not intentional and is the result of a bona fide error, the court said that it was essentially being asked by the debt collector “to read an intent or knowledge requirement into the FDCPA,” something it could not do, and, thus, it denied the motion for summary judgment.
On May 22, the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs released the CFPB’s spring 2019 rulemaking agenda. According to a Bureau blog post, the information presented represents regulatory matters it “reasonably anticipates having under consideration during the period of May 1, 2019, to April 30, 2020.” The rulemaking activities include implementing statutory directives mandated in the Economic Growth, Regulatory Relief, and Consumer Protection Act (the Act), continuing certain other rulemakings previously outlined in the Bureau’s fall 2018 agenda (covered by InfoBytes here), as well as considering future projects and requests for information.
Key rulemaking initiatives include:
- Property Assessed Clean Energy Loans (PACE): On March 4, the Bureau published an advanced notice of proposed rulemaking (ANPR) and request for comments in response to Section 307 of the Act, which amended TILA to mandate the CFPB propose regulations related to PACE financing. The regulations must carry out the purposes of TILA’s ability-to-repay requirements, and apply TILA’s general civil liability provisions for violations. (InfoBytes coverage here.)
- Remittance Transfers: On April 25, the Bureau issued a request for information (RFI) on two aspects of the Remittance Rule that require financial companies handling international money transfers, or remittance transfers, to disclose to individuals transferring money the exact exchange rate, fees, and the amount expected to be delivered. The RFI seeks information related to the expiration of the temporary exception and whether to propose changing the number of remittance transfers a provider must make to be governed by the rule. (InfoBytes coverage here.)
- HMDA/Regulation C: On May 2, the Bureau issued a notice of proposed rulemaking (NPRM) to raise permanently coverage thresholds for collecting and reporting data about closed-end mortgage loans and open-end lines of credit under the HMDA rules. Specifically, the NPRM would raise permanently the reporting threshold for closed-end mortgage loans from 25 loans in each of the two preceding calendar years to either 50 or 100 closed-end loans in each of the preceding two calendar years. (InfoBytes coverage here.)
- Debt Collection Rule: On May 7, the Bureau issued a NPRM to amend Regulation F, which implements the FDCPA, covering debt collection communications and consumer disclosures and addressing related practices by debt collectors. The Bureau reports that the NPRM “builds on research and pre-rulemaking activities regarding the debt collection market, which remains a top source of complaints.” (InfoBytes coverage here.)
- Payday Rule/Delay of Compliance Date: On February 6, the Bureau released two NPRMs related to certain payday lending requirements under the CFPB’s 2017 final rule covering “Payday, Vehicle Title, and Certain High-Cost Installment Loans” (the Rule). The first proposal would rescind portions of the Rule related to ability-to-repay underwriting standards for payday loans and related products scheduled to take effect later this year, while the second proposal would delay the compliance date for those same provisions for fifteen months. The Bureau anticipates it will issue a final rule concerning the compliance date this summer and a final determination on reconsideration thereafter. (InfoBytes coverage here.)
Long term priorities include rulemaking addressing (i) consumer reporting; (ii) amendments to FIRREA concerning automated valuation models; (iii) disclosure of records and information; (iv) consumer access to financial records; (v) Regulation E modernization; (vi) rules to implement the Act, concerning various mortgage requirements, student lending, and consumer reporting; and (vii) clarity for the definition of abusive acts and practices.
On May 17, the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals vacated a state circuit court’s ruling to deny a motion to compel arbitration in a case related to bounced convenience checks drawn on a consumer’s credit card account, finding that the circuit court’s order failed to contain sufficient findings of fact or conclusions of law to allow the Supreme Court of Appeals to conduct a proper review. According to the opinion, the plaintiff-respondent sued the debt collector defendants for invasion of privacy and violations of the West Virginia Consumer Credit and Protection Act after the defendants attempted to collect debt arising from two convenience check transactions that were allegedly returned as unpaid. The defendants moved to compel arbitration and presented enrollment forms that contained arbitration clauses purportedly signed by the plaintiff-respondent. However, the plaintiff-respondent claimed the enrollment forms were never presented to her, that her signature was applied to the forms electronically after she used a card reader terminal to electronically cash her checks, and that the “signing process was ‘rushed’ and unfair.” Following a brief hearing on the motion to compel arbitration, the circuit court entered an order denying the motion to compel arbitration.
On appeal, the state’s highest court vacated the circuit court’s order, which it found to be “unclear and contradictory in its rulings,” in that the lower court appeared to determine that the plaintiff-respondent had not agreed to the terms of the arbitration agreement, but also appeared to determine that the contract was unconscionable and could not be enforced. The high court remanded the case for further proceedings, including determining whether an arbitration agreement existed, and if it did, whether the agreement was unconscionable.
On May 15, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit held a prevailing consumer’s request for $187,410 in attorney’s fees was unreasonable in a FDCPA action. In 2014, the consumer and a debt collector settled the consumer’s FDCPA related claims for $1,001 plus attorney’s fees of $4,500. Despite the settlement agreement, the debt collector continued to attempt to collect the debt, and the consumer sued a second time alleging violations of the FDCPA and FCRA. The consumer did not respond to multiple settlement offers from the debt collector, including one in March 2015 for $3,051, proceeding to trial on the FDCPA claim, and subsequently rejected a settlement offer from the debt collector of $25,000 and reasonable attorney’s fees. At trial, the jury only awarded the consumer the $1,000 in FDCPA statutory damages, after which he sought to recover $187,410 in attorney’s fees. The district court reduced his request to $10,875, concluding that the consumer’s rejection of “meaningful settlement offers precluded a fee award in such disproportion to his trial recovery.”
On appeal, the appellate court agreed with the district court that the March 2015 settlement offer of $3,051 was reasonable, rejecting the consumer’s argument that the settlement “was not substantial and therefore should have been disregarded by the district court in determining the fee award.” The appellate court also rejected the consumer’s argument that because the settlement offer disclaimed liability for the debt collector, his results at the jury trial were much better than the settlement as it yielded judgment on the merits. The appellate court noted that settlement offers regularly disclaim liability, and by operation, judgment against the debt collector would still have been entered under Rule 68. Therefore, the appellate court concluded the district court did not abuse its discretion when reducing the attorney’s fees to $10,875 based on 29 hours’ worth of work at an hourly rate of $375 prior to the March 2015 settlement offer.
On May 17, the CFPB announced it filed a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York against a New York debt-collection law firm. According to the Bureau’s complaint, between 2014 and 2016 the law firm allegedly initiated more than 99,000 collection lawsuits in an attempt to collect debts through reliance on “non-attorney support staff, automation, and both a cursory and deficient review of account files,” in violation of both the FDCPA and the Consumer Financial Protection Act. The Bureau alleges the lawsuits contained names and signatures of attorneys despite those attorneys “not being meaningfully involved in reviewing the merits of the lawsuits,” including not reviewing pertinent documentation related to the debts, such as account applications, billing statements, payment histories, and the terms and conditions governing an account. The law firm allegedly did not perform reviews of the contracts related to debt sales, despite filing lawsuits on behalf of debt buyers that have been accused of unlawful debt collection practices. The Bureau is seeking an injunction, damages, redress to consumers, and the imposition of a civil money penalty.
On May 13, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit held that the FDCPA’s statute of limitations period starts when the violation occurs, rather than when the plaintiff receives notice of the violation. According to the opinion, a law firm (defendant) seeking to collect a debt against a borrower sent a restraining notice to a national bank, which erroneously referenced the plaintiff’s social security number and address. The bank froze the plaintiff’s accounts on December 13, 2011. The bank lifted the freeze two days later after the plaintiff contacted the bank about the freeze. On December 14, 2012, the plaintiff filed a lawsuit against the debt collector, alleging FDCPA violations. The plaintiff claimed the action was filed within the one-year statute of limitations because he did not learn about the restraining notice until December 14, 2011. In 2016, the district court, however, held that the statute of limitation was triggered when the defendant mailed the restraining notice (December 6), and thus the complaint was time-barred. The plaintiff appealed, and the 2nd Circuit held that an FDCPA violation occurs when an individual is injured by unlawful conduct and not when the notice is mailed. On remand, the parties conducted limited discovery, which confirmed that the bank placed a freeze on the plaintiff’s accounts on December 13, which was also the date that the plaintiff learned about the freeze. The defendant then moved for summary judgment, arguing that the complaint is time barred given that it was filed one year and one day after the date of the account freeze. The district court agreed, and the plaintiff filed a second appeal.
On the second appeal, the 2nd Circuit affirmed the district court’s decision. The appellate court reminded the plaintiff that a violation of the FDCPA occurs when an individual is injured by unlawful conduct—which in this case was the date the accounts were frozen—and emphasized that the panel’s earlier holding was not intended to “expand the FDCPA’s statute of limitations by requiring that individuals also receive ‘notice of the FDCPA violation.’” Because the plaintiff’s suit was filed one year and one day after the bank froze his accounts, his claim was time-barred.
On May 13, the U.S. District Court for the District of New Jersey denied a debt collector’s motion to compel arbitration in an FDCPA action, concluding that the existence of an arbitration agreement was not yet apparent based on the amended complaint. According to the opinion, a consumer brought a putative class action against a debt collector alleging the three collection letters it sent were “deceptive and misleading” under the FDCPA because the letters contained language regarding the possibility of IRS reporting, even though the debt was under the $600 threshold required for reporting. As previously covered by InfoBytes, the district court dismissed the action on its merits, without reaching the defendant’s motion to compel arbitration. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit reversed, finding “the least sophisticated debtor could be left with the impression that reporting could occur” and therefore the language could signal a potential FDCPA violation, notwithstanding the letter’s qualifying statement that reporting is not required every time a debt is canceled or settled.
On remand, the debt collector moved to compel arbitration of the claims arising from the three letters on an individual basis, arguing that the credit agreement between the consumer and the original creditor contained an arbitration provision and providing an example of the original creditor’s credit card agreement. The plaintiff rejected the example agreement, arguing that it was merely a generic exemplar that did not “demonstrate its applicability” to the consumer. In denying the debt collector’s motion, the court directed the parties to conduct limited discovery on the existence of an enforceable arbitration agreement between the parties. The court also denied the debt collector’s motion to dismiss new claims added to the amended complaint as time-barred because they “relate back” to the original complaint.
On May 6, the Indiana governor signed HB 1183, which amends the state statute concerning the release of an abandoned motor vehicle that has been towed to a storage yard or towing facility. Among other things, the bill revises notification requirements for towed vehicles, providing that a public agency or towing service must conduct a search of the National Motor Vehicle Title Information System or an equivalent database to attempt to obtain the name of the person who owns or holds a lien on the vehicle and contact that person within three days regarding charges and the potential to auction the vehicle if not claimed. The bill also provides inspection rights for owners and lienholders of vehicles and allows for a towing service or storage yard to charge an inspection fee for inspections or retrievals from the vehicle. The bill is effective July 1.
- APPROVED Webcast: Introducing Mogy — APPROVED’s licensing technology solution
- Hank Asbill to discuss "Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain: Addressing prosecutions driven by hidden actors" at the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers West Coast White Collar Conference
- Daniel P. Stipano to discuss "Mid-year policy update" at the ACAMS AML Risk Management Conference
- Daniel P. Stipano to discuss "Keep off the grass: Mitigating the risks of banking marijuana-related businesses" at the ACAMS AML Risk Management Conference
- Christopher M. Witeck and Moorari K. Shah to discuss "The latest in vendor management regulations" at a Mortgage Bankers Association webinar
- Buckley Webcast: Hot topics in debt collection — An analysis of recent federal FDCPA litigation
- Jonice Gray Tucker to discuss "How to succeed in law school" at the SEO Law DC Panel Discussions
- Amanda R. Lawrence to discuss "Navigating the challenges of the latest data protection regulations and proven protocols for breach prevention and response" at the ACI National Forum on Consumer Finance Class Actions and Government Enforcement
- Benjamin W. Hutten to discuss "Requirements for banking inherently high-risk relationships" at the Georgia Bankers Association BSA Experience Program
- Brandy A. Hood to discuss "RESPA Section 8/referrals: How do you stay compliant?" at the New England Mortgage Bankers Conference
- Daniel P. Stipano to discuss "Lessons learned from recent enforcement actions and CMPs" at the ACAMS AML & Financial Crime Conference
- Daniel P. Stipano to discuss "Assessing the CDD final rule: A year of transitions" at the ACAMS AML & Financial Crime Conference