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On July 15, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit held that private student loans are not explicitly exempt from the discharge of debt granted to debtors in a Chapter 7 bankruptcy. According to the opinion, the plaintiff filed for Chapter 7, which led to an ambiguous discharge order as to how it applied to his roughly $12,000 direct-to-consumer student loans. After the plaintiff received the discharge in 2009, the student loan servicer started collection efforts. Because the plaintiff did not know whether the discharge applied to his student loans, he repaid the loans in full. In 2017, the plaintiff moved to reopen his bankruptcy case and filed an adversary proceeding against the student loan servicer and the servicer’s predecessor (collectively, “defendants”), seeking a determination that his student loans were in fact discharged during the original proceeding. The servicer moved for dismissal claiming the loans were exempt under 11 U.S.C. § 523(a)(8)(A)(ii), but the bankruptcy judge denied the motion, ruling that the bankruptcy code “does not sweep in all education-related debt.” The district court subsequently certified the bankruptcy court’s order for interlocutory appeal.
On appeal, the 2nd Circuit reviewed whether the plaintiff’s private student loans could be discharged under bankruptcy. Under § 523(a)(8), the following types of student loans are exempt from discharge: (i) government or nonprofit institution student loans; (ii) obligations “to repay funds received as an educational benefit, scholarship, or stipend”; and (iii) qualified education loans. The defendants argued that the plaintiff’s loans fell into the “educational benefit” category, but the appellate court disagreed, concluding that § 523(a)(8) does not provide a blanket exception to the applicability of bankruptcy discharge to private student loans. In affirming the bankruptcy court’s ruling, the appellate court wrote, “if Congress had intended to except all educational loans from discharge under § 523(a)(8)(A)(ii), it would not have done so in such stilted terms.” The 2nd Circuit further added that “[i]nterpreting ‘educational benefit’ to cover all private student loans when the two terms listed in tandem describe ‘specific and quite limited kinds of payments that. . .do not usually require repayment,’. . .would improperly broaden § 523(a)(8)(A)(ii)’s scope.”
On July 15, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit affirmed the rulings from a district court in a consolidated appeal finding that it is up to the court, not a consumer reporting agency, to decide if a creditor possesses the proper legal relationship to a debt. In each case, the plaintiff allegedly had a debt that was purchased by a debt buyer, who reported the unpaid debts to the credit reporting agencies. The plaintiffs contacted the debt buyers and disputed the information being furnished on the basis that the creditors did not actually own the debts. The plaintiffs also contacted the consumer reporting agencies to request that they reinvestigate the accuracy of their credit reports. The reporting agencies contacted the creditors, confirming that they were the legitimate owners of the debts but did not provide additional information. The plaintiffs sued, alleging that the defendants violated the FCRA by not fully investigating the disputes. The district court, relying on a 2020 decision in Denan v. TransUnion LLC (previously covered by Infobytes), held that determining ownership of a debt is a legal question, not a duty imposed on the furnishers under the FCRA.
On appeal, the 7th Circuit affirmed the district courts’ decisions, establishing that the key inquiry is “whether the alleged inaccuracy turns on applying law to facts or simply examining the facts alone.” because “consumer reporting agencies are competent to make factual determinations, but they do not make legal conclusion like courts and other tribunals do.” The appellate court further noted that “[b]ecause the plaintiffs in these cases asked the consumer reporting agencies to make primarily legal determinations, they have not stated claims under the [FCRA].”
On July 13, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit held 2-1 that, under 31 U.S.C. § 5321 as amended, the maximum penalty for failing to file a Foreign Bank and Financial Accounts Report (FBAR) is 50 percent of the aggregate balance in the accounts at the time of the failure. According to the opinion, after a now deceased individual willfully failed to file an FBAR in 2008 for two foreign bank accounts, the IRS assessed a “willful penalty” that amounted to 50 percent of the aggregate account balances (approximately $4.2 million). The individual passed away without paying the penalty, and the U.S. government filed a lawsuit against his estate’s co-executors (defendants). A 1987 regulation limited the penalties for willful violations to $100,000 per account, but a 2004 amendment to the statute increased the maximum penalty for willful violations, to the greater of $100,000 or 50 percent of the aggregate account balance at the time of the violation. The defendants argued that the 1987 $100,000 penalty cap should apply, but the district court granted summary judgment for the government, though it noted that, despite the 2004 amendment, Treasury did not amend the 1987 regulation’s “now-inconsistent FBAR penalty provision,” which remains codified in the Code of Federal Regulations.
On appeal, the majority agreed with the district court, holding that the 2004 statute amended the penalty provisions: “Given that,  Congress in 2004 raised the maximum penalty for such violations after being informed by the Secretary [of the Treasury] that perhaps as many as 800,000 persons required to file FBARs were noncompliant, a regulation purporting to nullify the statutory increase plainly does not ‘carry out’ Congress’s goal of encouraging compliance with the FBAR requirement.” The 2nd Circuit also rejected the defendants’ argument that the rule of lenity requires that any ambiguity be resolved in their favor, pointing out that “[t]here is no ambiguity or uncertainty as to what Congress intended in the 2004 Statute when it” increased the penalties. The dissenting judge stated that the majority’s decision “departs from basic administrative law and unjustifiably accommodates ‘the Treasury’s relaxed approach to amending its regulations.’”
On July 9, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit affirmed summary judgment in favor of a mortgage loan servicer (defendant), concluding that the defendant’s communications were not in connection with an attempt to collect a debt. The plaintiff had alleged that the defendant violated the FDCPA by engaging in misrepresentations and unfair conduct when processing the plaintiff’s application for loss mitigation assistance and selling the plaintiff’s home through a foreclosure sale. According to the 8th Circuit, “the district court applied the ‘animating purpose’ test, which considers the content of each communication individually, and determined that they were not made in connection with the collection of a debt.”
In affirming the district court’s recent order, the 8th Circuit agreed with the district court’s decision that the defendant did not violate the FDCPA because the substance of each of the communications indicates that none were made in connection with an attempt to collect on the underlying mortgage debt.
On July 6, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit overturned a district court’s decision, holding that a debt collector that sent an envelope with a quick reference (QR) code that when scanned, revealed an Internal Reference Number (IRN) with the first 10 characters of the plaintiff’s street address violated the FDCPA’s prohibition in 15 U.S.C. § 1692f(8) on “[u]sing any language or symbol, other than the debt collector’s address, on any envelope.” The district court, relying on the 3rd Circuit’s 2019 decision in DiNaples v. MRS BPO, dismissed the case, holding the plaintiff lacked standing under the FDCPA because the barcode on the envelope did not reveal enough protected information to rise to the level of a concrete injury, since numerous individuals could have an identical IRN.
The 3rd Circuit reversed and remanded, explaining that the plaintiff had standing to bring a claim because the envelope’s QR code made protected information available to the public. The court rejected the defendant’s arguments that the envelope did not violate the FDCPA because it did not reveal the account number, the plaintiff did not know how to use the bar code to unlock the private information, and that there was no material risk of harm. The appellate court explained that “[a]ccount numbers are but one type of protected information” and that the plaintiff “did not need to know how to use IRNs to access accounts” nor “did he need to show an increased risk of harm.”
On June 25, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a 5-4 decision in TransUnion LLC v. Ramirez, holding that only a plaintiff concretely harmed by a defendant’s violation of the FCRA has Article III standing to seek damages against a private defendant in federal court. In writing for the majority, Justice Brett Kavanaugh reversed and remanded a 2020 decision issued by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, which found that all 8,185 class members had standing to recover statutory damages due to, among other things, TransUnion’s alleged “reckless handling of information” from the U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), which, according to the appellate court, subjected class members to “a real risk of harm” when TransUnion erroneously linked class members to criminals and terrorists with similar names in a database maintained by OFAC. (Covered by InfoBytes here.) The 9th Circuit, however, did reduce punitive damages, explaining that, although TransUnion’s “conduct was reprehensible, it was not so egregious as to justify a punitive award of more than six times an already substantial compensatory award.” TransUnion filed a petition for writ of certiorari after the 9th Circuit denied its petition for rehearing.
The Court considered whether federal courts can certify consumer classes where the majority of class members have not alleged the type of concrete injury necessary to establish Article III standing, even if the named plaintiff suffered an injury meeting this bar. The parties stipulated prior to trial that only 1,853 members of the class had misleading credit reports containing OFAC alerts provided to third parties during the period specified in the class definition, whereas the remaining class members’ credit files were not provided to any potential creditors during that period. In applying the standing requirement of concrete harm, the majority concluded that the 6,332 class members whose credit reports were not provided to third parties did not suffer a concrete harm and thus did not have standing as to the reasonable-procedures claim. The majority further determined that even though all 8,185 class members complained about alleged formatting defects in certain mailings sent to them by TransUnion, only the lead plaintiff had demonstrated that the alleged defects caused him concrete harm, thus only he could move forward with those claims. According to the majority, the remaining class members failed to explain how the formatting error prevented them from requesting corrections to prevent future harm.
“The mere existence of inaccurate information, absent dissemination, traditionally has not provided the basis for a lawsuit in American courts,” the majority wrote, adding that while the Court “has recognized that material risk of future harm can satisfy the concrete-harm requirement in the context of a claim for injunctive relief to prevent the harm from occurring, at least so long as the risk of harm is sufficiently imminent and substantial,” in this instance the 6,332 class members have not demonstrated that the risk of future harm materialized.
On June 16, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit partially revived a securities fraud action brought by the state of Rhode Island on behalf of its employees’ retirement system against a California-based technology company, its holding company, and several individuals (collectively, “defendants”), reversing a district court’s dismissal. In 2018, investors sued the defendants after the technology company discovered a security glitch that same year on its now-defunct social network site that exposed hundreds of thousands of users’ private data. The suits were consolidated, with the state of Rhode Island as lead plaintiff, alleging the defendants deceived investors and caused the company’s shares to be traded at artificially inflated prices between the discovery of the software glitch and its disclosure. According to the plaintiffs, the defendants omitted material facts on Form 10-Qs filed with the SEC in 2018 by including statements such as “[t]here have been no material changes to our risk factors since our Annual Report on Form 10-K for the year ended December 31, 2017.” The defendants moved to dismiss for failure to state a claim, which the district court granted, stating, among other things, that the plaintiffs failed to adequately allege “falsity, materiality, and scienter” in statements made by the defendants in their April 2018 and July 2018 10-Qs.
On appeal, the 9th Circuit reviewed the challenged statements, concluded that two statements made by the parent company in its 10-Qs were materially misleading or had omitted facts regarding the software issues, and vacated the dismissal of the plaintiffs’ falsity, materiality, and scienter claims. The appellate court also found that the defendants’ claim that the software problem had been patched by the time the challenged statements were made in their 10-Qs was not enough. “Given that [the company’s] business model is based on trust, the material implications of a bug that improperly exposed user data for three years were not eliminated merely by plugging the hole in [the social network site’s] security,” the appellate court wrote, further concluding that “[t]he market reaction, increased regulatory and governmental scrutiny, both in the United States and abroad, and media coverage alleged by the complaint to have occurred after disclosure all support the materiality of the misleading omission.” The 9th Circuit also referenced a so-called “Privacy Bug Memo” that was supposedly circulated among some of the defendants’ leadership team, which warned that disclosing these security issues “would likely trigger ‘immediate regulatory interest’ and result in the defendants ‘coming into the spotlight[.]’”
Concerning the remaining 10-Q statements identified in the complaint, the 9th Circuit affirmed the district court’s dismissal of claims based on these statements after concluding that the plaintiffs did not plausibly allege that they were “misleading material misrepresentations.”
On June 15, the OCC filed an amicus curiae brief in support of a defendant-appellant national bank in an appeal challenging a requirement under New York General Obligation Law § 5-601 that a defined interest rate be paid on mortgage escrow account balances. As previously covered by InfoBytes, the bank argued that the National Bank Act (NBA) preempts the state law, but the district court disagreed and issued a ruling in 2019 concluding that there is “clear evidence that Congress intended mortgage escrow accounts, even those administered by national banks, to be subject to some measure of consumer protection regulation.” The district court also determined that, with respect to the OCC’s 2004 real estate lending preemption regulation (2004 regulation), there is no evidence that “at this time, the agency gave any thought whatsoever to the specific question raised in this case, which is whether the NBA preempts escrow interest laws,” citing to and agreeing with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit’s decision in Lusnak v. Bank of America (which held that a national bank must comply with a California law that requires mortgage lenders to pay interest on mortgage escrow accounts, previously covered by InfoBytes here). The district court further applied the preemption standard from the 1996 Supreme Court decision in Barnett Bank of Marion County v. Nelson, and found that the law does not “significantly interfere” with the bank’s power to administer mortgage escrow accounts, noting that it only “requires the [b]ank to pay interest on the comparatively small sums” deposited into the accounts and does not “bar the creation of mortgage escrow accounts, or subject them to state visitorial control, or otherwise limit the terms of their use.”
In its amicus brief filed with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, the OCC wrote that it “respectfully submits that the [appellate court] should reverse the decision of the [d]istrict [c]ourt and find that application of Section 5-601 to [the bank] is preempted by federal law,” adding that the 2019 ruling “upsets…settled legal principles” and “creates uncertainty regarding national banks’ authority to fully exercise real estate lending powers under the [NBA].” In addressing the district court’s application of Barnett, the OCC argued that the district court had incorrectly concluded that state laws cannot be preempted unless they “practical[ly] abrogat[e] or nullif[y] a national bank’s exercise of a federal banking power—a “stark contrast to the preemption standard set forth in Barnett and the OCC’s—as well as many other federal courts’—interpretation of that standard.” The OCC urged the appellate court to “conclude that a state law that requires a national bank to pay even a nominal rate of interest on a particular category of account impermissibly conflicts with a national bank’s power by disincentivizing the bank from continuing to offer the product. This is sufficient to trigger preemption under Barnett.”
The OCC further stated, among other things, that the district court also incorrectly disregarded the agency’s 2004 regulation, which the OCC said “specifically authorizes national banks to exercise their powers to make real estate loans ‘without regard to state law limitations concerning…[e]scrow accounts, impound accounts, and similar accounts….’” The agency further cautioned that the district court’s determination that the OCC’s 2004 regulation was not entitled to any level of deference was done in error and warned that “[i]f the OCC’s regulation regarding escrow accounts is rendered ineffective, this result could cause disruption within the banking industry by upsetting long-settled law regarding the applicability of state laws to national bank powers.”
On June 11, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit affirmed a lower court’s ruling dismissing a plaintiff’s FDCPA lawsuit for lack of standing. According to the opinion, the plaintiff claimed a debt collector violated the FDCPA by engaging in deceptive debt collection practices. The defendants moved to dismiss, arguing the plaintiff lacked standing because the debts they sought to collect were owed by a company listed under a fictitious name that the plaintiff created with another person as co-owner and used to buy a condominium, and was registered under the Florida’s Fictitious Name Act, not the plaintiff himself. The plaintiff argued he established standing and that his complaint stated a claim on which relief may be granted. The district court ruled the plaintiff failed to state a claim because the company created by the plaintiff was not the same as the plaintiff himself, and in the alternative ruled that the debt owed by the fictitiously named company did not meet the definition of “consumer debt,” nor was the company a “consumer” under the FDCPA. The plaintiff appealed the decision, arguing that the fictitiously named company was not a legal entity; therefore, he should be permitted to continue with his lawsuit. The appellate court sided with the defendants, ruling that the plaintiff did not justify why he and the fictitiously named company should be treated “as the same party in light of the shared ownership of the fictitious name” with a second person who was not party to the suit. The appellate court wrote: “since [the plaintiff and the fictitiously named company] cannot be treated as an interchangeable entity, [the plaintiff’s] proceeding alone lacks standing to bring the FDCPA and related claims based on Defendants’ efforts to collect debts from [the fictitiously named company].”
On June 4, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit overturned a district court’s decision, holding that a debt collector’s offer to settle an outstanding debt did not require informing the consumer that the balance could increase as a result of interest and fees. The plaintiff allegedly incurred credit card debt, which was then placed with the defendant for collection. The defendant sent the plaintiff a collection letter offering to settle the account for less than what was owed. The plaintiff sued, alleging that the letter violated Section 1692e of the FDCPA because it did not specify that interest was accruing on the balance. The district court, relying on the 2nd Circuit’s 2016 decision in Avila v. Riexinger & Associates, held that the defendant violated the FDCPA because the letter did not indicate that the balance would increase as a result of interest and fees.
On appeal, the 2nd Circuit clarified that its Avila decision discussed two exceptions, or “safe harbors,” to the requirement for debt collectors to disclose the possibility of interest and fees accruing, which are if the collection notice: (i) “ accurately informs the consumer that the amount of the debt stated in the letter will increase over time”; or (ii) “clearly states that the holder of the debt will accept payment in the amount set forth in full satisfaction of the debt if payment is made by a specified date.” The 2nd Circuit pointed out that the “payment of an amount that the collector indicates will fully satisfy a debt excludes the possibility of further debt to pay.” The appellate court further held that “a settlement offer need not enumerate the consequences of failing to meet its deadline or rejecting it outright so long as it clearly and accurately informs a debtor that payment of a specified sum by a specified date will satisfy the debt.” Therefore, the appellate court concluded that the collection notice to the consumer did not violate FDCPA section 1692e “because it extended a settlement offer that, if accepted through payment of the specified amount(s) by the specified date(s), would have cleared [the plaintiff’s] account.”
- Jeffrey P. Naimon to provide “Fair lending update” at the Colorado Mortgage Lenders Association Operational and Compliance Forum
- Jonice Gray Tucker to discuss “Justice for all: Achieving racial equity through fair lending” at CBA Live
- Warren W. Traiger to discuss “On the horizon for CRA modernization” at CBA Live
- Jonice Gray Tucker to discuss "Fair lending" at the Mortgage Bankers Association Regulatory Compliance Conference
- Michelle L. Rogers to discuss “State law regulatory and enforcement trends” at the Mortgage Bankers Association Regulatory Compliance Conference
- Jonice Gray Tucker to discuss “Government investigations, and compliance 2021 trends” at the Corporate Counsel Women of Color Career Strategies Conference
- Max Bonici to discuss “BSA/AML trends: What to expect with the implementation of the AML Act of 2020” at the American Bar Association Banking Law Fall Meeting
- H Joshua Kotin to discuss “Modifications and exiting forbearance” at the National Association of Federal Credit Unions Regulatory Compliance Seminar
- Jonice Gray Tucker to discuss “Fintech trends” at the BIHC Network Elevating Black Excellence Regional Summit
- Jonice Gray Tucker to discuss "Consumer financial services" at the Practising Law Institute Banking Law Institute