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On April 15, the CFPB and the FTC released their annual report to Congress on the administration of the FDCPA (see announcements here and here). The agencies are delegated joint FDCPA enforcement responsibility and, pursuant to a 2019 memorandum of understanding, may share supervisory and consumer complaint information, as well as collaborate on education efforts (covered by InfoBytes here). Among other things, the annual report provided a broad overview of the debt collection industry during the Covid-19 pandemic and highlighted enforcement actions taken by, and education and outreach efforts, policy initiatives, and supervisory findings of, the CFPB and FTC. With respect to enforcement, the report noted that: (i) the FTC resolved three FDCPA cases against 17 defendants and banned all 17 companies and individuals who engaged in serious and repeated violations of law from engaging in debt collection; (ii) there was one new public enforcement action brought in 2021 related to unlawful debt collection conduct; (iii) the Bureau resolved two pending lawsuits with FDCPA claims and also filed an action to recover a fraudulent transfer to enforce a prior judgment that penalized a defendant’s FDCPA violations, which resulted in judgments for $2.26 million in consumer redress; and (iv) by the end of 2021, the Bureau had three FDCPA enforcement actions pending in federal court. The report also noted that the CFPB handled roughly 121,700 debt collection complaints in 2021, of which the Bureau sent approximately 73,600 (or 60 percent) to companies for their review and response. Finally, the report also noted that the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in AMG Capital Management v. FTC “made it much more difficult for the FTC to obtain monetary relief for unfair or deceptive debt collection practices that fall outside the scope of the FDCPA.” As previously covered by InfoBytes, in that decision the Court unanimously held that Section 13(b) of the FTC Act “does not authorize the Commission to seek, or a court to award, equitable monetary relief such as restitution or disgorgement.”
On April 15, the DOJ filed a complaint in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia against a Virginia-based towing company for allegedly auctioning vehicles owned by at least seven active duty servicemembers without first obtaining the required court orders. Under the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act (SCRA), a person holding a lien on property or effects of a servicemember may not enforce or foreclose on that lien during, or within 90 days after, a period of military service without a court order. According to the complaint, several factors should have alerted the towing company to the fact that the vehicles belonged to a servicemember, including that the vehicles were towed from a military base and one contained a duffel bag containing military uniforms and other evidence of the servicemember’s military service. Additionally, the DOJ contended, among other things, that the company’s policies and procedures “failed to include any mention at all of the SCRA or the protections it grants to servicemembers whose vehicles have been towed,” nor did these policies include the use of the Defense Manpower Data Center database “to determine a vehicle owner’s military status prior to selling, auctioning off, or otherwise disposing of a vehicle without a court order.” The DOJ seeks damages for the affected servicemembers and civil penalties, as well as a court order enjoining the company and all associated persons from engaging in the illegal conduct.
On April 14, the FTC filed a complaint against a Caribbean for-profit medical school and its Illinois-based operators alleging the defendants violated the Telemarketing Sales Rule, Holder Rule, and Credit Practices Rule (CPR) in connection with its marketing and credit practices. According to the complaint, the defendants improperly marketed the school’s medical license exam pass rate and residency match success. In addition, financing contracts omitted a legally-mandated Holder Rule notice in their credit agreements, among other things. Under the Holder Rule, “any seller that receives the proceeds of a purchase money loan [must] include, in the underlying credit contract, a specific notice informing the consumer of their right to assert claims against any holder of the credit contract.” In addition to omitting the required notice, the defendants also allegedly attempted to waive consumers’ legal rights by inserting language in the credit agreements stating, “ALL PARTIES, INCL[U]DING BOTH STUDENT BORROWER AND COSIGNER. . .WAIVE ANY CLAIM OR CAUSE OF ACTION OF ANY KIND WHATSOEVER THAT THEY MAY HAVE WITH RESPECT TO [DEFENDANT]…” The FTC also contended that the defendants included a notice informing cosigners of their liability in the middle of the contract, instead of providing a separate document containing specific language required by the CPR.
Under the terms of the proposed stipulated order, the defendants are required to pay a $1.2 million judgment that will go towards refunds and debt cancellation for affected consumers, and also cease collection of approximately $357,000 in consumer debt covered by the proposed order. Defendants are also required to notify each consumer that their debt is being cancelled and that consumer reporting agencies will be directed to delete the debt from the consumers’ credit reports. Additionally, defendants are prohibited from misrepresenting their pass rates and residency matches, and from making unsubstantiated claims or violating federal law. The order also provides Holder Rule protections, including prohibiting defendants from selling, transferring, or assigning any consumer credit contracts unless the recipient of such contract agrees, in writing, “that its rights are subject to the borrowers’ claims and defenses against [d]efendants” and requiring defendants to notify each borrower whose credit contract is sold.
On April 8, the FTC used its Penalty Offense Authority against two national retailers for allegedly engaging in false labeling and marketing tactics by presenting rayon textile products as bamboo. According to the complaints (see here and here), which were filed by the DOJ on behalf of the FTC, since at least 2015, the companies allegedly made false or unsubstantiated representations in violation of the FTC Act by improperly labeling and marketing textile fiber products as “made of bamboo” in both product titles and descriptions. The companies also, among other things, falsely marketed some of the “bamboo-derived” products as providing general environment benefits, such as being produced “free of harmful chemicals, using clean, non-toxic materials,” also in violation of the FTC Act. Additionally, in connection with the advertising of textile fiber products containing rayon, the companies allegedly made representations regarding the products’ fiber content without disclosing the full fiber content, in violation of the Textile Act and Textile Rules.
According to the proposed settlements (see here and here), the companies are, among other things: (i) prohibited from making deceptive claims, including false and/or unsubstantiated claims, relating to bamboo fiber products; (ii) prohibited from future violations of the FTC Act and Textile Act and Textile Rules; and (iii) ordered to pay $5.5 million total in penalties.
On April 13, the Massachusetts attorney general announced a settlement with a California-based finance company (defendant) resolving allegations that it violated Massachusetts law by purchasing and collecting on dog leases – which are illegal in Massachusetts. The settlement also alleges that the company engaged in illegal debt collection practices such as calling debtors too frequently while attempting to collect on the leases. Under the terms of the settlement, the defendant must pay over $930,000, which includes $175,000 in restitution to approximately 200 consumers, and a $50,000 fine. The defendant is prohibited from collecting on any active leases involving dogs in Massachusetts and must transfer full ownerships of the dogs to the consumers. The defendant must also cancel any outstanding amount owed on the leases, totaling approximately $700,000.
The Massachusetts AG has been investigating financial companies who originate or purchase dog leases – calling the practice “exploitive” because it uses “dogs as emotional leverage” over debtors – and encouraged consumers who are victims of dog leases to call the AG’s office or to file a complaint online.
On April 13, the FDIC, OCC, Federal Reserve Board, and NCUA (collectively, “agencies”) announced they are issuing a notice of proposed rulemaking (NPRM) to modernize the agencies’ Uniform Rules of Practice and Procedure (Uniform Rules) applicable to formal administrative enforcement proceedings for insured depository institutions. As previously covered by InfoBytes, in March, the agencies issued an interagency proposal to update policies and procedures governing administrative proceedings for supervised financial institutions, which accounted for the routine use of electronic presentations in hearings and for use of technology in administrative proceedings, among other things. The proposed rule would recognize the use of electronic communications and technology in all aspects of administrative hearings to increase the accuracy and fairness of administrative adjudications. Among other things, the NPRM would (i) allow electronic signatures and filings; (ii) permit depositions to be held by remote means; (iii) modernize language and definitions; and (iv) extend certain filing time limits. Amended provisions also address additional topics including the authority of administrative law judges, adjudicatory proceedings, good faith certifications, ex parte communications, conflicts of interest, and expenses. The agencies also propose to modify their specific Local Rules of administrative practice and procedure applicable to enforcement actions brought by each agency. The OCC has already proposed to amend its rules on organization and functions to address service of process and to integrate its Uniform Rules and Local Rules so that a single set of rules applies to both national banks and federal savings associations Comments on both the interagency rulemaking and the OCC’s rulemaking are due 60 days after publication in the Federal Register.
On April 12, the CFPB sued a credit reporting agency (CRA), two of its subsidiaries (collectively, “corporate defendants"), and a former senior executive for allegedly violating a 2017 enforcement order in connection with alleged deceptive practices related to their marketing and sale of credit scores, credit reports, and credit-monitoring products to consumers. The 2017 consent order required the corporate defendants to pay a $3 million civil penalty and more than $13.9 million in restitution to affected consumers as well as abide by certain conduct provisions (covered by InfoBytes here). The Bureau’s announcement called the corporate defendants “repeat offender[s]” who continued to engage in “digital dark patterns” that caused consumers seeking free credit scores to unknowingly sign up for a credit monitoring service with recurring monthly charges. According to the Bureau’s complaint, the corporate defendants, under the individual defendant’s direction, allegedly violated the 2017 consent order from the day it went into effect instead of implementing agreed-upon policy changes intended to stop consumers from unknowingly signing up for credit monitoring services that charge monthly payments. The Bureau claimed that the corporate defendants’ practices continued even after examiners raised concerns several times. With respect to the individual defendant, the Bureau contended that he had both the “authority and obligation” to ensure compliance with the 2017 consent order but did not do so. Instead, he allowed the corporate defendants to “defy the law and continue engaging in misleading marketing, even in the face of thousands of consumer complaints and refund requests.” The complaint alleges violations of the CFPA, EFTA/ Regulation E, and the FCRA/Regulation V, and seeks a permanent injunction, damages, civil penalties, consumer refunds, restitution, disgorgement and the CFPB’s costs.
CFPB Director Rohit Chopra issued a statement the same day warning the Bureau will continue to bring cases against repeat offenders. Dedicated units within the Bureau’s enforcement and supervision teams will focus on repeat offenders, Chopra stated, adding that the Bureau will also work with other federal and state law enforcement agencies when repeat violations occur. “Agency and court orders are not suggestions, and we are taking steps to ensure that firms under our jurisdiction do not engage in repeat offenses,” Chopra stressed. He also explained that the charges against the individual defendant are appropriate, as he allegedly, among other things, impeded measures to prevent unintended subscription enrollments and failed to comply with the 2017 consent order, which bound company executives and board members to its terms.
The CRA issued a press release following the announcement, stating that it considers the Bureau’s claims to be “meritless” and that as required by the consent order, the CRA “submitted to the CFPB for approval a plan detailing how it would comply with the order. The CFPB ignored the compliance plan, despite being obligated to respond and trigger deadlines for implementation. In the absence of any sort of guidance from the CFPB, [the CRA] took affirmative actions to implement the consent order.” Moreover, the CRA noted that “[r]ather than providing any supervisory guidance on this matter and advising [the CRA] of its concerns – like a responsible regulator would – the CFPB stayed silent and saved their claims for inclusion in a lawsuit, including naming a former executive in the complaint,” and that “CFPB’s current leadership refused to meet with us and were determined to litigate and seek headlines through press releases and tweets.”
On April 7, the FTC finalized an order against a respondent business credit report provider to settle allegations that the respondent engaged in deceptive and unfair practices by failing to provide businesses with a clear, consistent, and reliable process to fix errors in their credit reports, even though the respondent was selling products to those businesses that purported to help the businesses improve their reports. The FTC’s administrative complaint also claimed that the respondent’s telemarketers deceptively pitched another service to businesses and falsely claimed that the businesses had to purchase the service in order for the respondent to complete the business’s credit profile. In addition, the respondent allegedly failed to disclose to businesses that the service’s subscription automatically renewed each year and that other renewal practices could lead to increasing costs (covered by InfoBytes here). Under the terms of the final order, the respondent is required to make substantial changes to its processes and provide refunds to harmed businesses. Measures include (i) deleting disputed information free of charge or conducting a reasonable reinvestigation to determine the accuracy of disputed information in a report of a business; (ii) complying with specific time periods within which to promptly investigate and correct errors; (iii) informing businesses of investigation results and providing businesses with free access to the revised information; (iv) making clear disclosures to businesses about the rate at which the firm accepts subscribers’ requests to add payment history information, as well as its limits for providing assistance in adding such information; (v) allowing current subscribers to cancel their services and obtain refunds; and (vi) placing restrictions on the respondent’s ability to automatically renew subscriptions or switch subscribers into a more expensive product.
On April 5, the FTC approved a final order settling charges arising from a 2017 FTC administrative complaint alleging that a Louisiana appraisal board unreasonably restrained price competition for real estate appraisal services provided to appraisal management companies in the state. Under the Dodd-Frank Act, appraisal management companies are required to pay “a rate that is customary and reasonable for appraisal services performed in the market area of the property being appraised.” The FTC alleged that the appraisal board exceeded Dodd-Frank’s mandate by requiring appraisal fees “to equal or exceed the median fees” identified in survey reports commissioned and published by the appraisal board, and then investigated and sanctioned companies that paid fees below the specified levels. Under the terms of the order, the appraisal board is prohibited from adopting a fee schedule for appraisal services or taking any other actions that may raise, fix, maintain, or stabilize prices, compensation levels, rates, or payment terms for real estate appraisal services. Additionally, the appraisal board must rescind Rule 31101 in the Louisiana Administrative Code, which effectively sets minimum fees for real estate appraisals.
On April 6, the CFPB issued its semi-annual report to Congress covering the Bureau’s work for the period beginning April 1, 2021 and ending September 30, 2021. The report, which is required by Dodd-Frank, addresses several issues, including difficulties faced by consumers in obtaining consumer financial products or services throughout the reporting period. The report highlighted that the Bureau, among other things, has: (i) taken steps to increase workforce and contracting diversity; (ii) carefully observed consumer reporting agencies’ and furnishers’ compliance with Fair Credit Reporting Act accuracy obligations relating to rental information, and outlined specific areas of focus and concern; (iii) hosted a roundtable examining racial bias in home appraisals; (vi) expanded housing efforts into a comprehensive, cross-federal campaign aimed at connecting homeowners and renters facing housing insecurity as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic with the resources available to help them stay in their homes; and (v) launched an initiative to reduce fees that consumers are charged by banks and financial companies. In regard to supervision, enforcement and fair lending, the report highlighted its public supervisory and enforcement actions and other significant initiatives during the reporting period. Additionally, the report noted rule-related work, including advisory opinions, advance notice of proposed rulemakings, requests for information and proposed and final rules.
- Buckley Webcast: Fifth Circuit muddles CFPB’s plans to use in-house judges in enforcement proceedings
- Steven vonBerg to discuss “Regulatory plenary” at the Information Management Network’s Non-QM Forum
- Jeffrey P. Naimon to discuss “Understanding the ESG impact on compliance” at the ABA’s Regulatory Compliance Conference