Subscribe to our InfoBytes Blog weekly newsletter and other publications for news affecting the financial services industry.
5th Circuit: District courts lack jurisdiction over claims arising from FDIC enforcement proceedings
On March 28, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit held that federal district courts lacked subject matter jurisdiction over claims arising out of certain FDIC enforcement proceedings. According to the opinion, the FDIC brought two enforcement actions against the bank and its directors (plaintiffs), alleging violations of various banking laws and regulations, which resulted in civil money penalties and cease-and-desist orders. The plaintiffs petitioned the 5th Circuit for review. While the first appeal was pending, the plaintiffs filed a lawsuit in federal district court alleging the FDIC committed constitutional violations during the enforcement actions. Specifically, the plaintiffs alleged that the FDIC (i) targeted the bank due to the bank president’s age and denied it equal protection; and (ii) violated due process by preventing the plaintiffs from offering certain evidence and preventing the president’s ability to talk with his counsel at certain times. These allegations were raised and rejected during the FDIC’s second enforcement proceeding. The FDIC moved to dismiss the action for a lack of subject matter jurisdiction, asserting that the statutory review process precludes district court jurisdiction over actions arising from enforcement proceedings. The district court agreed and dismissed the action without prejudice, indicating that the bank could assert its claims in the district court on direct review of the agency’s final order. The bank appealed.
On appeal, the 5th Circuit noted that the language in the statute “virtually compels” it to concede that Congress intended to preclude district court jurisdiction over claims against the FDIC arising from enforcement proceedings. The appellate court then addressed whether the claims raised by the plaintiffs were the type of claims Congress intended to be reviewed within the statutory scheme. The appellate court determined that the Federal Deposit Insurance Act allows for “meaningful judicial review,” by authorizing review of challenges to a final agency order by a federal circuit court. Moreover, the court rejected the plaintiffs’ argument that its claims are “wholly collateral” to the administrative order because they did not challenge the merits of the order but rather, the claims “arise directly from alleged irregularities in the agency enforcement proceedings.” Lastly, the court found that the plaintiffs’ constitutional claims do not fall outside of the agency’s expertise. Based on the foregoing, the court found that the district court correctly dismissed the action.
On March 19, the California Department of Business Oversight (DBO) filed an administrative action to revoke the license and void loans made by a Southern California auto title lender for allegedly violating state lending laws. According to the DBO announcement, the lender allegedly, among other things, (i) charged consumers more interest than permitted by state law; (ii) failed to consider the borrower’s ability-to-repay; and (iii) engaged in “false and misleading” advertising. Specifically, DBO alleges that, in two separate examinations, it determined the lender included DMV fees in borrowers’ principal loan amounts to bring the loans above $2,500. DBO alleges these loans carried interest rates over 100 percent, while the state law cap is 30 percent for loans under $2,500. DBO also alleges the lender violated state law by failing to report the profits it made from a “duplicate-key fee” and made loans from unlicensed locations.
In addition to the formal accusation, the DBO also has commenced an investigation to determine whether the more than 100 percent interest rates that the lender charges on most of its auto title loans may be unconscionable under the law.
On March 19, the OCC announced that a national bank has agreed to pay a $25 million civil money penalty to resolve alleged violations of the Fair Housing Act. According to the OCC’s consent order, (i) from August 2011 to April 2015, the bank did not properly train loan officers about available mortgage discounts under its Relationship Loan Program (RLP); (ii) from August 2011 to November 2014, the bank failed to provide explicit instructions within their written guidelines that employees should offer those discounts to all eligible customers; and (iii) from August 2011 to November 2014, the bank did not require loan officers to document the reason for a customer’s rejection. Moreover, according to the OCC, the bank did not require loan officers to inform customers about potential mortgage discounts from August 2011 to January 2015. As a result, the OCC stated that certain borrowers allegedly did not receive RLP benefits for which they were eligible and were adversely affected on the basis of their race, color, national origin, and/or sex. The bank—which did not admit nor deny the allegations and self-reported the problems in 2015—initiated and has nearly completed a reimbursement plan, which will deliver roughly $24 million in restitution to the approximately 24,000 borrowers who may have missed out on the appropriate RLP benefit.
On March 20, the CFPB and the FTC released (here and here) their annual report to Congress on the administration of the FDCPA, which highlights the 2018 efforts of the agencies. The agencies coordinate in enforcement; share supervisory and consumer complaint information; and collaborate on education under a memorandum of understanding that was reauthorized in February. (Covered by InfoBytes here.) In the report, the Bureau acknowledges its intent to release a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking on debt collection covering issues such as “communication practices and consumer disclosures” in spring 2019. In addition to highlighting the Bureau’s debt collection education efforts, the report also states that in 2018 the Bureau (i) received approximately 81,500 debt collection complaints related to first-party and third-party collections; (ii) initiated six public enforcement actions alleging violations of the FDCPA, one resulting in an $800,000 civil money penalty; and (iii) identified one or more violations of the FDCPA through supervisory examinations.
As for the FTC, in addition to education efforts, the report states that in 2018 the agency (i) initiated or resolved seven enforcement actions, three of which were related to phantom debt collection, obtaining more than $58.9 million in judgments; (ii) returned money to thousands of consumers who were targeted by phantom debt collection operations; and (iii) banned 32 companies and individuals from working in the debt collection market.
In March 2019, the DOJ amended its FCPA Corporate Enforcement Policy, including to clarify the agency’s position on the use of ephemeral messaging apps by companies seeking full cooperation credit under the policy. Ephemeral messaging apps such as Signal, WhatsApp, and Telegram, now common in many workplaces, allow users to send messages that may not be preserved and retrievable later in the same way as e-mails. To the DOJ, the impermanence of ephemeral messaging makes uncovering details about past events more difficult. Prior to the amendments, the DOJ’s initial Corporate Enforcement Policy had indicated that full cooperation credit would not be available to companies which allowed employees to use “software that generates but does not appropriately retain business records or communications.”
The updated policy softens this position and specifically addresses ephemeral messaging platforms. Companies using the platforms may now be eligible for full cooperation credit, provided that they “implement appropriate guidance and controls on the use of personal communications and ephemeral messaging platforms that undermine the company’s ability to appropriately retain business records or communications or otherwise comply with the company’s document retention policies or legal obligations.” While the amendment may allow companies to take advantage of the beneficial aspects of ephemeral messaging, it also begs new questions as to what constitutes “appropriate” guidance and controls.
The March 2019 amendments also provide additional clarification on de-confliction; add a new comment explaining how the DOJ will implement a presumption of a declination in cases where a company involved in a merger or acquisition “uncovers misconduct through thorough and timely due diligence . . . and voluntarily self-discloses,” with the potential for a declination for the acquiring company even where there are aggravating circumstances regarding the acquired company; and enlarge the voluntary self-disclosure of individuals category to include information not just about “all individuals involved in the violation,” but “all individuals substantially involved in or responsible for the violation.”
In his March 8, remarks to the American Bar Association’s National Institute on White Collar Crime, Assistant Attorney General Brian A. Benczkowski referenced the updates and emphasized the importance of reviewing the 12 previous case declinations made under the policy as supplemental guidance in understanding the policy.
On March 15, the FTC released its annual report highlighting the agency’s privacy and data security work in 2018. Among other items, the report highlights consumer-related enforcement activities in 2018, including:
- an expanded settlement with a global ride-sharing company over allegations that the company violated the FTC Act by deceiving consumers regarding the company’s privacy and data practices (covered by InfoBytes here).
- a settlement with a global online payments system company to resolve allegations that its payment and social networking service failed to adequately disclose to consumers that transfers to external bank accounts were subject to review and that funds could be frozen or removed based on a review of the underlying transaction (covered by InfoBytes here).
- a settlement with a Texas-based company over allegations that it violated the FCRA by failing to take reasonable steps to ensure the accuracy of tenant-screening information furnished to landlords and property managers (covered by InfoBytes here).
The report also highlighted the FTC’s hearings on big data, privacy, and competition conducted through its Hearings on Competition and Consumer Protection in the 21st Century initiative. (Covered by InfoBytes here and here.)
DOJ announces $1.59 million settlement with real estate management company for alleged SCRA violations
On March 15, the DOJ announced a $1.59 million settlement with a real estate management company resolving allegations that the company and its entities violated the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act (SCRA) by obtaining unlawful court judgments and charging unlawful lease termination fees. According to the complaint, from 2006 to 2017, the company obtained at least 152 default judgments against 127 “SCRA-protected servicemembers” by failing to accurately disclose their military status in affidavits filed with the court. Additionally, the DOJ alleged that the company wrongfully withheld security deposits and imposed early lease termination fees on servicemembers who sought termination due to qualifying military orders under the SCRA. Under the terms of the settlement, the company will pay (i) nearly $1.5 million to compensate 127 servicemembers who had allegedly unlawful default judgments entered against them; (ii) nearly $35,000 to compensate 10 servicemembers who were charged early lease termination fees; and (iii) a civil money penalty of $62,000. The settlement also requires the company to develop policies and procedures related to SCRA lease terminations and default judgments, conduct SCRA compliance training for employees involved with lease issues, and request that major credit reporting agencies delete trade lines and negative credit information for the affected servicemembers.
On March 6, the FTC’s Office of Legal Counsel warned recipients that subpoenas and civil investigative demands (CID) issued by the agency are legally enforceable demands and should be taken seriously. The FTC stated it is willing “to work with parties and their counsel to determine the scope of the agency’s subpoena or CID and a timeframe for compliance” and issued a reminder that under the FTC’s Rules of Practice, parties are required to meet and confer to identify issues or concerns that may affect a party’s ability to comply. The FTC additionally discussed measures the Office of Legal Counsel may undertake in order to compel compliance, including the possibility of federal court action.
CFTC, SEC settle with foreign trading platform conducting Bitcoin transactions without proper registration
On March 4, the CFTC resolved an action taken against a foreign trading platform and its CEO (defendants) for allegedly offering and selling security-based swaps to U.S. customers without registering as a futures commission merchant or designated contract market with the CFTC. The CFTC alleged that the platform permitted customers to transact in “contracts for difference,” which were transactions to exchange the difference in value of an underlying asset between the time at which the trading position was established and the time at which it was terminated. The transactions were initiated through, and settled in, Bitcoin. The CFTC alleged that these transactions constituted “retail commodity transactions,” which would have required the platform to receive the proper registration.
According to the CFTC, the defendants, among other things, (i) neglected to register as a futures commission merchant with the CFTC; and (ii) failed to comply with required anti-money laundering procedures, including implementing an adequate know-your-customer/customer identification program. The consent order entered by the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia imposes a civil monetary penalty of $175,000 and requires the disgorgement of $246,000 of gains. The consent order also requires the defendants to certify to the CFTC the liquidation of all U.S. customer accounts and the repayment of approximately $570,000 worth of Bitcoins to U.S. customers.
In a parallel action, the SEC entered into a final judgment the same day to resolve claims that, among other things, the defendants failed to properly register as a security-based swaps dealer. The defendants are permanently restrained and enjoined from future violations of the Securities Act of 1933 and are required to pay disgorgement of approximately $53,393. This action demonstrates the potential application of CFTC and SEC registration requirements to non-U.S. companies engaging in covered transactions with U.S. customers.
On March 5, FTC Chairman Joseph Simons spoke at the National Association of Attorneys General (NAAG) Winter Meeting to advocate for increased collaboration with state Attorneys General. Noting that such collaboration is critical to the agency’s mission, Simons highlighted FTC consumer protection goals as well as several collaborative efforts, including joint task forces and investigation and enforcement initiatives.