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On January 24, the U.S. District Court for the District of South Carolina entered final judgment for the approval of a $43 million settlement between a national bank and consumers to resolve multidistrict litigation (MDL) concerning overdraft charges. According to the settlement, since 2013, several groups of consumers have filed putative class action complaints against the bank in multiple jurisdictions alleging improper assessment and collection of overdraft fees, including claims that class members incurred overdraft fees as a result of the bank’s alleged practice of assessing fees based on an account’s available balance rather than its ledger balance. Other claims include allegations that the bank assessed overdraft fees for an ATM or one-time debit card transaction, assessed sustained overdraft fees, or assessed overdraft fees on ride-sharing transactions. In 2015 the Judicial Panel for Multi-District Litigation consolidated the actions for pretrial purposes.
In 2018, as previously covered by InfoBytes, the court dismissed one of the complaints in the MDL action, which alleged that the bank’s $20 overdraft fee is an interest charge on credit and therefore exceeds usury limits under the National Bank Act (NBA). The court noted that it had previously rejected a materially identical usury claim in December 2015 and that no new evidence or authority had been brought to light that would change its decision. In addition, the court concluded that “the law is still clear that sustained overdraft fees are not interest, and that assessing such fees cannot violate the usury provision of the NBA.” In 2019, the parties agreed to settle the action in its entirety, without any admission of liability by the bank. Under the terms of the settlement agreement, six classes of consumers will receive payouts or overdraft fee forgiveness, which will include $27 million “in the form of reductions to the outstanding balances of [class members] whose accounts were closed with amounts owed to the [bank].”
11th Circuit reverses dismissal of EFTA action alleging inadequate overdraft notice, denies EFTA safe harbor defense
On August 27, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit reversed the dismissal of a consumer’s action against her credit union, in which the consumer alleged the credit union used the wrong balance calculation method to impose overdraft fees. According to the opinion, the consumer filed suit against the credit union for using an “available balance” calculation method to impose overdraft fees on her account when the credit union allegedly agreed to use the “ledger balance” method at the time of account opening, in violation of the Electronic Fund Transfer Act (EFTA) and various state law contract claims. The district court dismissed the action, concluding that the agreements “unambiguously permitted [the credit union] to assess overdraft fees using the available balance calculation.”
On appeal, the 11th Circuit disagreed with the district court’s interpretation of the agreements. The court noted that while the opt-in overdraft agreement used by the credit union is based on Regulation E’s (the EFTA’s implementing regulation) Model Form A-9, the model does not address which account balance calculation method is used to determine whether a transaction results in an overdraft. The language chosen by the credit union, according to the appellate court, is “ambiguous because it could describe either the available or the ledger balance calculation method for unsettled debits” and therefore, does not describe the calculation in a “clear and readily understandable way” as required by Regulation E. Because the language was ambiguous, the consumer did not have the opportunity to affirmatively consent to the overdraft service. Moreover, the appellate court concluded that the credit union was not protected under the EFTA’s safe harbor because it used the Model Form A-9 text. Specifically, the appellate court reasoned that the “safe-harbor provision insulates financial institutions from EFTA claims based on the means by which the institution has communicated its overdraft policy,” but does not provide a shield from allegations of inadequacy. Because the consumer argued that the credit union violated the EFTA due to its failure to prove enough information to allow for affirmative consent, the safe-harbor provision does not preclude liability.
On August 23, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California held that a portion of a class action suit alleging a bank improperly assessed overdraft fees must proceed to arbitration. According to the opinion, a consumer filed the class action complaint alleging the bank charged multiple non-sufficient funds fees for the same credit card payment transaction, in violation of the contract between the bank and the consumer. The class action alleged claims for breach of contract, or, in the alternative, unjust enrichment, as well as a claim for violating the California Business & Professions Code and a claim for violating the California Consumer Legal Remedies Act. The bank moved to compel arbitration of all the claims based on an arbitration clause contained in the customer deposit agreement. The court concluded that the claims for breach of contract and unjust enrichment are covered by the arbitration clause in the deposit agreement and therefore compelled arbitration. As for the injunctive relief the consumer sought under the California state statutory claims, the consumer argued that the court should apply the California Supreme Court decision in McGill v. Citibank, N.A (covered by a Buckley Special Alert here), which held that a waiver of the plaintiff’s substantive right to seek public injunctive relief is not enforceable, and that “Texas law is contrary to a fundamental policy of California.” The court determined that because Texas does not have a “rule comparable to McGill and because California has a materially greater interest than Texas,” California law applies to the injunctive relief claims and therefore, the claims “must be litigated and not arbitrated.” However, to the extent the consumer sought monetary relief under the state statutory claims, those claims must be arbitrated.
On August 6, NYDFS announced it is leading a multistate investigation into the payroll advance industry based on allegations of unlawful online lending. According to NYDFS, the investigation will focus on whether companies are violating state banking laws, including usury limits, licensing laws, and other applicable laws regulating payday lending. NYDFS alleges that some companies appear to collect unlawful interest rates disguised as “tips” as well as monthly membership and/or excessive additional fees, and may collect improper overdraft charges.
In addition to New York, other states in the investigation include: Connecticut, Illinois, Maryland, New Jersey, North Caroline, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Puerto Rico, South Carolina, South Dakota, and Texas.
On June 13, the FDIC released a new publication, Consumer Compliance Supervisory Highlights, intended to provide information and observations related to the FDIC’s consumer compliance supervision activities in 2018. Specifically, the report covers approximately 1,200 consumer compliance examinations conducted by the FDIC in 2018. Overall, the FDIC noted that, “supervised institutions demonstrated strong and effective management of consumer compliance responsibilities.” The report identifies some of the most salient compliance issues identified by the FDIC during 2018, including (i) overdraft programs, which were found to be potentially unfair or deceptive when an institution used an “available balance method,” sometimes resulting in more overdraft fees than were appropriate because the institution assessed a fee when the transaction did not overdraw the account; (ii) RESPA anti-kickback violations, which concerned payments “disguised as above-market payments for lead generation, marketing services, and office space or desk rentals” or as marketing and advertising agreements; and (iii) Regulation E, where certain institutions were found to have incorrectly calculated consumer liability for unauthorized transfers, failed to resolve errors properly, or discouraged consumers from filing error resolution requests. The report also covers issues with skip-a-payment loan programs and the calculation of finance charges and disclosures related to lines of credit.
District court approves final settlement resolving breach of contract and conversion claims related to debit card overdraft fees
On May 28, the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of California granted final approval to a roughly $24.5 million settlement resolving class action allegations that a credit union unfairly charged optional overdraft protection fees on certain debit card transactions. In 2017, the plaintiffs challenged the credit union’s practices, alleging breaches of contract, covenant of good faith and fair dealing, and conversion. Specifically, the plaintiffs challenged whether the language in the accountholder agreements prohibited the credit union from assessing and collecting optional overdraft protection fees on certain debit card transactions that were authorized against positive available account balances. In 2018, the court granted in part and denied in part the credit union’s motion to dismiss, allowing the plaintiffs’ breach of contract and conversion claims to proceed. The parties entered into settlement discussions, and reached an agreement. Under the terms of the settlement, the credit union will provide $24.5 million in relief to class members, along with approximately $6.1 million in attorneys’ fees. However, the court denied a request to reimburse plaintiffs’ expert witness for work completed after the settlement agreement was preliminary approved last year, stating “as a matter of awarding funds from the [s]ettlement [f]und, the [c]ourt cannot find reasonable the $109,100.00 price tag for an exercise that appears to post-date the preliminary approval order and which merely confirmed what the parties already understood to be the class’s potential recovery.”
On May 13, the CFPB announced a plan to review its regulations under Section 610 of the Regulatory Flexibility Act (RFA), which specifies that agencies should review certain rules within 10 years of their publication, consider the rules’ effect on small businesses, and invite public comment on each rule undergoing the review. The announcement notes that RFA requires an agency to consider multiple factors when reviewing a rule, including (i) whether there is a continued need for the rule; (ii) the complexity of the rule; (iii) whether the rule overlaps, duplicates, or conflicts with federal, state, or other rules; and (iv) the degree to which factors, such as technology and economic conditions, have changed the relevant market since the rule was evaluated. Comments will be due within 60 days of the plan’s publication in the Federal Register.
The CFPB also announced that its first RFA review will be of the 2009 Overdraft Rule (Rule), which was originally issued by the Federal Reserve Board and limits the ability of financial institutions to assess overdraft fees for ATM and one-time debit card transactions that overdraw consumers’ accounts. The Bureau is seeking public comment on the economic impact of the Rule on small entities, including requesting feedback on topics such as (i) the impacts of the reporting, recordkeeping, and other compliance requirements of the Rule; and (ii) how the Bureau could reduce the costs associated with the Rule for small entities. Comments on the economic impact of the Rule will be due within 45 days of publication in the Federal Register.
On April 8, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit affirmed a lower court’s dismissal of a consumer’s suit arising out of overdraft fees charged by an Arkansas-based bank. The consumer alleged, among other things, that the bank breached its Electronic Fund Transfer Agreement (EFT Agreement) by failing to provide accurate, real-time account balance information online, which caused her to “incur unexpected overdraft fees.” According to the opinion, the consumer claimed that she frequently relied on her online account balance when making purchases, and that the bank’s alleged debiting practices—such as “batching by transaction type,” processing transactions out of chronological order, and “failing to show real-time balance information online [or] intra-bank transfers instantaneously”—sometimes caused her to pay insufficient funds and overdraft fees. The consumer filed suit asserting claims for “actual fraud; constructive fraud; false representation/deceit; breach of fiduciary duty; breach of contract (namely, the EFT Agreement) . . . breach of the implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing; and unjust enrichment.” The consumer appealed following a dismissal of all claims by the district court. In 2017, the 10th Circuit reversed and remanded the dismissal of the breach of contract claim, and affirmed the dismissal of the other claims. The district court granted summary judgment to the bank, determining that the EFT Agreement promised accuracy only to posted amounts and not to pending or unprocessed transactions.
On appeal, the 10th Circuit agreed with the district court, holding that the plain language of the EFT Agreement only promised accuracy of posted amounts, and authorized the bank to collect overdraft fees on insufficient funds items even if an ATM card or check card transaction “was preauthorized based on sufficient funds in the account at the time of withdrawal, transfer or purchase.” Moreover, the court noted that the EFT Agreement specifically stated that there was a 7:00 p.m. cut-off for transfers to be posted. Therefore, it was clear that the bank was not “contractually obligated to make intra-bank transfers instantaneously.” Furthermore, the court pointed out that the consumer failed to provide evidence demonstrating that the bank provided inaccurate balances.
On March 26, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 1st Circuit affirmed a district court’s decision to dismiss putative class action allegations that a bank charged usurious interest rates on its overdraft products, finding that the bank’s “Sustained Overdraft Fees” are not interest under the National Bank Act (NBA). The plaintiff filed a lawsuit against the bank in 2017, alleging that sustained overdraft fees should be considered interest charges subject to Rhode Island’s interest rate cap of 21 percent, and that because the alleged annual interest rates exceeded the cap, the fees violated the NBA. The district court, however, dismissed the case, ruling that the sustained overdraft fees were service charges, not interest charges.
On appeal, the split three-judge panel held that, because the sustained overdraft fees did not constitute interest payments under the NBA and the OCC’s regulations interpreting the NBA, the class challenges cannot move forward. The panel stated that the agency’s interpretation in its 2007 Interpretive Letter is due “a measure of deference.” The panel found the agency’s interpretation persuasive because “[f]lat excess overdraft fees (1) arise from the terms of a bank’s deposit account agreement with its customers, (2) are connected to deposit account services, (3) lack the hallmarks of an extension of credit, and (4) do not operate like conventional interest charges.”
In dissent, Judge Lipez noted that, while the OCC interpretive letter laid out a clear case for overdraft fees as service, not interest charges, it was silent on the question of “Sustained Overdraft Fees.” He wrote that “[s]ilence, however, is not guidance, and we would thus need to infer a ruling on a debated issue from between the lines of the Letter.” Furthermore, he could “not see how we can defer to an interpretation that the OCC never clearly made on an issue that it previously described as complex and fact-specific.”
On January 31, the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York granted final approval and class certification to a $22 million settlement resolving class action allegations that a national bank improperly charged overdraft fees on “one-time, non-recurring” transactions made with a ride-sharing company. The court found that the bank mischaracterized these one-time charges as recurring transactions, which allowed the bank to charge overdraft fees of $35. Prior to the court’s approval of the settlement, 12 state Attorneys General sent a letter to the court arguing that the agreement’s release of liability to the ride-sharing company was inequitable. The court found, however, that the release “does not compromise the fairness, reasonableness, and adequacy of the settlement,” where, among other things, plaintiffs’ counsel investigated the viability of claims against the ride-sharing company and concluded that litigation against the company could present problems for the proposed class and for individual recovery. The $22 million settlement constitutes 80 percent of all revenues charged by the bank as a result of the overdraft fees. The court also approved $5.5 million in attorneys’ fees and $50,000 in costs.
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