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On November 29, the Supreme Court heard oral argument in the SEC’s request to appeal the 5th Circuit’s decision in Securities and Exchange Commission v. Jarkesy. As previously covered by InfoBytes, the 5th Circuit held that the SEC’s in-house adjudication of a petitioners’ case violated their Seventh Amendment right to a jury trial and relied on unconstitutionally delegated legislative power. At oral argument, Justice Kavanaugh stated in his questioning of Principal Deputy Solicitor General Brian Fletcher (representing the SEC) that given the severity of the potential outcome of cases, the SEC’s decision-making process fully being carried out in-house could be “problematic,” and that it “doesn’t seem like a neutral process.” Meanwhile, Fletcher mentioned that the boundaries and “outer edges” of the public rights doctrine can be “fuzzy.” Justices’ questions also centered around Atlas Roofing v. Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission—a Supreme Court case that held that “Congress does not violate the Seventh Amendment when it authorizes an agency to impose civil penalties in administrative proceedings to enforce a federal statute.”
On October 30, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit affirmed a district court order dismissing a whistleblower lawsuit alleging violations of the False Claims Act (FCA). The three-judge panel concluded that they did not need to “address the public disclosure bar because the [second amended complaint]… fails to state a claim for a violation of the FCA.” According to the panel, the plaintiff did not allege that the defendant knowingly made a misrepresentation material to the government’s decision and that “failure to adequately plead either of these requirements is fatal to a relator's claim."
The original whistleblower complaint, filed in 2014, alleged that the defendant covered losses on loans that it acquired by taking advantage of a shared loss agreement with the FDIC. The complaint also stated that the defendant knowingly reported write-downs on loans already paid off, sold, or irrelevant to the portfolio. The FDIC declined to intervene, and the case was dismissed. The plaintiff appealed and oral arguments were heard on October 12; however, the order found that the plaintiff failed to identify a false claim or false record and did not establish scienter or motive to commit fraud.
On November 3, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit reversed and remanded a district court’s decision to deny a buy now pay later servicer’s (defendant) motion to compel arbitration in a class action. The plaintiffs alleged the defendant violated the Connecticut Unfair Trade Practices Act, among other things, after the defendant’s charges incurred overdraft fees on the plaintiff’s checking account. The defendant argued that the consumer agreed, on multiple occasions, to the mandatory arbitration provisions in the servicer’s terms and conditions when she used its services. The district court concluded that the plaintiff did not have “reasonably conspicuous notice of and unambiguously manifest assent to [defendant’s] terms” and therefore plaintiff was not bound by the mandatory arbitration provisions in the defendant’s terms.
The 2nd Circuit panel of three judges identified “several factors” in its finding that the plaintiff had reasonably conspicuous notice, including that defendant’s interface was “uncluttered” adding that “[a] reasonable internet user, therefore, could not avoid noticing the hyperlink to [defendant’s] terms when the user selects ‘confirm and continue’ on the [application].” Further, the court found that the plaintiff “unambiguously manifested her assent” to the defendant’s terms and conditions.
On October 23, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit affirmed the dismissal of a consumer’s putative class action lawsuit alleging that a collection agency violated the FDCPA by sharing the consumer’s debt information with a third-party vendor. The court ruled that the consumer lacked standing because she did not sustain an injury from the sharing of her information.
To collect a defaulted credit-card debt, the defendant collection agency used a third-party vendor to print and mail a collection letter to the consumer. The consumer alleged that the collection agency violated the FDCPA by disclosing to the vendor the consumer’s personal information, and the disclosure was analogous to the tort of invasion of privacy. The appeals court disagreed, reasoning that the sharing of a debtor’s data with a third-party mail vendor to populate and send a form collection letter that caused no cognizable harm, legally speaking. The court also noted that the U.S. Courts of Appeal for the Tenth and Eleventh Circuits have reached similar conclusions. “The transmission of information to a single ministerial intermediary does not remotely resemble the publicity element of the only possibly relevant variant of the privacy tort.”
The Utah Court of Appeals affirmed a lower court’s ruling against a debt buyer that acquired a portfolio of bad debts from borrowers all over the country, including residents of Utah. The debt buyer collected on the portfolio of debts by retaining third-party debt collectors or, in some instances, attorneys to recover such debts by filing lawsuits. The debt buyer was not licensed under the Utah Collection Agency Act (UCAA). As such, the plaintiffs argued that the debt buyer’s collection efforts were “deceptive” and “unconscionable” under the Utah Consumer Sales Practices Act.
The lower court ruled for the debt buyer on the grounds that failure to obtain a license, without more, did not rise to the level of “deceptive” or “unconscionable” conduct. Further, the UCAA does not have a private right of action.
Utah recently repealed the collection agency’s license, effective May 3, 2023 (covered by InfoBytes here).
Fifth Circuit affirms dismissal of Fannie, Freddie shareholders’ claims related to FHFA removal restriction and funding
On October 12, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit affirmed dismissal of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac shareholders’ claims that the FHFA’s unconstitutional removal restriction caused them harm and that the FHFA’s funding mechanism is inconsistent with the Appropriations Clause. After the Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA) placed Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac into conservatorship, it entered into several preferred stock purchase agreements with the U.S. Treasury. As a result of these agreements, any value the companies generated would go to the Treasury and not to junior preferred and common stockholders such as plaintiffs.
The plaintiff shareholders sued in 2016, arguing that the “for cause” removal protection for the director of the FHFA was unconstitutional. The district court granted summary judgment in favor of FHFA, but a panel of the 5th Circuit reversed. Sitting en banc, the 5th Circuit then determined that the removal provision violated the separation of powers, and held that the proper remedy was to sever the removal restriction from the rest of the authorizing statute. On further appeal, the Supreme Court held that for-cause restriction on the President’s removal authority violates the separation of powers, but it refused to hold that the relevant preferred stock purchase agreement must be undone.
The Supreme Court remanded the case for lower courts to resolve whether the unconstitutional removal provision caused harm to plaintiffs as shareholders, and the 5th Circuit, again sitting en banc, remanded that question to the district court. Plaintiffs filed an amended complaint on remand, bringing claims under the Administrative Procedure Act (“APA”) and directly under the Constitution. The amended complaint also alleged, for the first time, that the FHFA’s financing structure violates the Appropriations Clause. Defendants moved to dismiss, and the district court granted the motion in its entirety and dismissed all claims with prejudice.
The 5th Circuit determined that the removal claims were within the scope of the remand order, contrary to the district court’s conclusion, but that the plaintiff’s APA claim was barred by an anti-injunction clause in the authorizing statute. Turning to the Constitutional claim, the 5th Circuit concluded that judicial review was not precluded and proceeded to the merits of the claim.
To show compensable harm from the unconstitutional removal provision, plaintiffs had to allege, among other things, a “nexus between the desire to remove and the challenged actions taken by the insulated actor.” More specifically, they had to allege a connection between the Trump Administration’s desire to remove the director of the FHFA and the Administration’s failure to have FHFA exit the conservatorships and return Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to private control. The amended complaint, however, failed to plead facts demonstrating that the Trump Administration’s purported plan for re-privatization would have been completed if President Trump had been able to remove the existing FHFA director. Those allegations, the Fifth Circuit held, were insufficient.
The 5th Circuit agreed with the district court that the plaintiffs’ Appropriations Clause argument was outside the mandate of the earlier remand order. The appeals court reasoned that the remand order “[left] no opening for plaintiffs to bring a challenge under a completely different constitutional theory for the first time on remand,” nor was there an intervening change in the law such that the mandate rule would not apply.
On August 30, a California Appeals Court (Appeals Court) reversed a lower court’s ruling that a mere alleged debt, whether or not actually due or owing – as opposed to a debt that is, in fact, actually due or owing – is insufficient to state a claim under the Rosenthal Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (Rosenthal Act). Enacted in 1977, the Rosenthal Act aims “to prohibit debt collectors from engaging in unfair or deceptive acts or practices in the collection of consumer debts.” Plaintiff purchased a home with a previously-installed solar energy system. The previous homeowner and plaintiff reached an agreement whereby the prior homeowner would purchase the energy produced through the system through monthly payments. However, the defendant, the provider of the solar energy system, sent late payment notices to plaintiff demanding that he make monthly payments. Although plaintiff did not engage in a “consumer credit transaction” with the defendant, the Appeals Court found that the plaintiff’s receipt of statements and notices from the defendant constituted money “alleged to be due or owing,” as required to state a claim under the Rosenthal Act. In holding that the plaintiff’s claim “has merit,” the Appeals Court emphasized that the Rosenthal Act was specifically designed to “eliminate the recurring problem of debt collectors dunning the wrong person or attempting to collect debts which the consumer has already paid,” and “[i]t is difficult to conceive of a more unfair debt collection practice than dunning the wrong person”.
On August 29, the D.C. Circuit overturned the SEC’s denial of a company’s application to convert its bitcoin trust into an exchange-traded fund (ETF). In October 2021, the company applied to convert its bitcoin trust to an ETF pursuant to Section 19(b)(1) of the Securities Exchange Act of 1934 (Exchange Act) and Rule 19b-4 thereunder, a proposed rule change to list and trade shares. In June 2022, the SEC denied the company’s application on the basis that the burden under the Exchange Act and the SEC’s Rules of Practice, which requires among other things, that the rules of national securities exchange be “designed to prevent fraudulent and manipulative acts and practices” and “to protect investors and the public interest.”
The company promptly appealed, alleging that the SEC “acted arbitrarily and capriciously by denying the listing of [the company]’s proposed bitcoin ET[F] and approving the listing of materially similar bitcoin futures ET[F]s”. The three-judge panel held that the SEC “failed to provide the necessary “reasonable and coherent explanation” for its inconsistent treatment of similar products” and “in the absence of a coherent explanation, this unlike regulatory treatment of like products is unlawful.”
This decision does not mean that the SEC must approve the company’s application. However, the SEC must review the application again.
On August 24, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit affirmed a district court’s order dismissing plaintiff’s claim that a national bank’s nearly $1.8 billion syndicated loan for a drug testing company were securities. The drug testing company filed for bankruptcy subsequent to a $256 million global settlement with the DOJ in qui tam litigation involving the company’s billing practices.
Plaintiff, a trustee of the drug testing company, brought claims to the New York Supreme Court in 2017 against defendant for violations of (i) state securities laws; (ii) negligent misrepresentation; (iii) breach of fiduciary duty; (iv) breach of contract; and (v) breach of the implied contractual duty of good faith and fair dealing. Defendant filed a notice of removal to the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, where the district court denied plaintiff’s motion to remand after concluding it had jurisdiction under the Edge Act, and later granted defendant’s motion to dismiss because plaintiff failed to plead facts plausibly suggesting the notes are securities.
The 2nd Circuit held that the district court had subject matter jurisdiction pursuant to the Edge Act. The court then applied a “family resemblance” test to determine whether a note is a security and examined four separate factors to help uncover the context of a note. In comparing the loan note to “judicially crafted” list of instruments that are not securities, the court found that the defendant’s note “‘bears a strong resemblance’” to one, therefore concluding that the note is not a security and affirming the district court’s earlier decision.
On August 21, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit upheld the dismissal of a whistleblower False Claims Act (FCA) case, holding that FCA qui tam relator complaints may be dismissed upon the government’s motion without a hearing, provided the district court consider the parties’ arguments. The plaintiff qui tam here alleged that a bank (defendant) failed to pay penalties to the government for violating economic sanctions. Plaintiff’s complaint specifically alleged that defendant facilitated illegal transactions violating economic sanctions and defrauded the government by concealing the extent of its illegal activities during negotiation of a deferred prosecution agreement. In a summary order without precedential effect, the 2nd Circuit upheld the dismissal of plaintiff’s complaint.
Plaintiff’s complaint was initially dismissed by the district court following a motion to dismiss by the government, which intervened in the action to argue that the complaint should be dismissed because it lacked merit and would waste government resources. Consideration of plaintiff’s appeal of the dismissal was delayed until after the Supreme Court issued a decision in Polansky v. Executive Health Resources, Inc., a different FCA case raising applicable issues regarding when the government has the authority to force the dismissal of an FCA case brought by a whistleblower.
Following the Supreme Court’s ruling in Polansky, the 2nd Circuit upheld the dismissal of plaintiff’s complaint, reasoning that district court properly dismissed the qui tam relator claim after the government’s intervention seeking dismissal, since the defendant bank had not yet answered the complaint or moved for summary judgment. The 2nd Circuit held that “the district met the hearing requirement” established by Polansky for dismissing qui tam relator cases through its careful consideration of the briefs and materials submitted by the parties. In reaching this conclusion, the 2nd Circuit noted that Polansky does “not mandate universal requirements” for an FCA hearing in every case. The 2nd Circuit also rejected plaintiff’s due process arguments, plaintiff’s claim that the court failed to evaluate defendant’s settlement with the government resolving related criminal and administrative violations, and plaintiff’s claim that the district court erred in denying its motion for an indicative ruling, based on new evidence published while the appeal was pending.