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On June 14, the California Court of Appeal for the Second Appellate District reversed a trial court’s decision staying a suit against a lender and its loan payment processor (collectively, “defendants”) and enforcing a Delaware forum selection clause. The appeals court held that the plaintiff borrower’s unwaivable right to a jury trial under California law could be violated if the case proceeded in Delaware. According to the opinion, the plaintiff obtained $2.275 million in loans secured by bitcoin from the lender (a Delaware LLC that is licensed and regulated by California’s Department of Financial Protection and Innovation). When the value of bitcoin dropped, the lender sold the plaintiff’s bitcoin under the terms of the governing loan agreements. The plaintiff sued, “seeking, among other things, damages, return of his bitcoin, and cancellation of the loan agreements.” The defendants moved to stay the case because the Delaware forum selection clause required the case to be litigated in Delaware. The plaintiff countered that transferring the case to Delaware would “substantially diminish” his unwaivable rights under California law. The trial court eventually concluded that transferring the case to Delaware would not diminish the plaintiff’s rights and granted the stay pending litigation in Delaware. The trial court also stayed a second suit brought by the plaintiff alleging violations of California’s Unfair Competition Law and False Advertising Law, holding that the second suit involved the same primary rights as the first suit.
In reviewing the consolidated cases, the appeals court determined, among other things, that the Delaware forum selection clause in this case contains a predispute jury waiver. “Because California has a fundamental policy against such a waiver, Defendants carry the burden of proving that Delaware would not diminish this important right,” the appeals court wrote, adding that under Delaware law “contractual provisions that waive the contracting parties’ right to trial by jury have been upheld, and relevant case law provides insufficient assurance that Delaware courts will apply California’s important public policy to this dispute.” Additionally, the appeals court concluded that the defendants’ proposed “offer to stipulate that the Delaware court should apply California law” provides “little assurance that a Delaware court would enforce such a stipulation under the facts present here.”
On June 15, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit reversed and remanded a district court’s summary judgment ruling in favor of a defendant-appellee law firm, holding that it did not first exhaust all of its efforts to collect from the actual debtor. According to the opinion, the plaintiff’s husband was convicted of embezzlement and willful failure to pay taxes and was sent invoices for his legal fees by another law firm, which he did not pay. The law firm hired the defendant to collect on the debt. The defendant filed a lawsuit against the plaintiff and her husband, arguing under the Ohio Necessaries Statute that the husband was liable to third parties for necessaries, such as food, shelter, and clothing that were provided to his wife. An Ohio state court ruled in favor of the plaintiff, and an interlocutory appeal by the defendant was denied. The plaintiff then filed suit against the defendant, alleging that defendant’s underlying suit violated the FDCPA by attempting to collect under the claim that she was liable for her spouse’s debt. The district court granted the defendant’s summary judgment motion, which the plaintiff appealed.
On the appeal, the 6th Circuit found that the defendant did not follow the express commands of the Ohio Supreme Court's 2018 decision in Embassy Healthcare v. Bell, which held that spouses who are not debtors are liable only if the debtor does not have the assets to pay the debt themselves. The 6th Circuit found that the defendant did not satisfy those prerequisites to collect from the plaintiff when it filed a joint-liability suit against her and her husband. Thus, the collection efforts against the spouse who incurred the debt must be exhausted “before attempting to collect from a spouse.” The 6th Circuit reversed the district court’s judgment and remanded for further proceedings with instructions to enter judgment in favor of the plaintiff.
On June 16, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit reversed a district court’s summary judgment ruling in favor of a defendant lender, holding that a deadline accompanied by a grace period in a loan modification trial plan should be enforced. The plaintiff defaulted on his loan and sought a loan modification. The defendant provided the plaintiff an opportunity to participate in a trial period plan, which required three monthly payments due by January 1, February 1, and March 1, 2019. The trial period plan (TPP) also specified that a payment would be considered timely provided it was made within the month in which it was due. According to the opinion, even though the plaintiff “effectively accepted the terms of the TPP when he made the first trial period payment” within the grace period, the defendant informed him “he was ‘ineligible’ for the loan modification because he failed to comply with the terms of the TPP” and posted his property for foreclosure. The plaintiff sued the defendant for breach of contract, but the district court granted summary judgment to the defendant, declining to “give force to the grace period provisions” and concluding that the plaintiff did not comply with the payment deadlines.
On appeal, the 5th Circuit held that it will enforce a grace period included in a valid, binding contract. “If a lender sets a deadline for payment, but allows the borrower to make that payment anytime ‘in the month in which it is due,’ then the borrower may make that payment anytime in the month in which it is due,” the appellate court wrote. “That’s exactly what [the defendant] offered the borrower here—a deadline accompanied by a grace period. Yet [the defendant] nevertheless contends that we should ignore the grace period.” The 5th Circuit also rejected the defendant’s argument that the trial period plan was not a valid binding contract, pointing out that the text of the TPP made it clear that the defendant intended to be bound by its terms upon the plaintiff’s performance. Deadlines and grace periods co-exist by design, the appellate court explained, noting that “[g]race periods facilitate contractual relationships by making clear which deadlines are aspirational and which are mission-critical.”
On June 7, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit held that an individual claiming to have acted as a custodian of an account and not in her personal capacity must arbitrate claims brought against a national bank (defendant). The plaintiff and her mother co-owned an investment account that was eventually transferred to the defendant. The plaintiff’s mother notified the bank that the plaintiff would remain co-owner of the account and signed a brokerage account application containing an arbitration clause. Several years later, after the plaintiff noticed that numerous withdrawals were being made from the account by another family member, she obtained legal guardianship of her mother and applied for another brokerage account in order to move the funds to a new account she could access and oversee. The application included a brokerage agreement (which listed her mother as the account owner and was signed by the plaintiff as a joint account owner/custodian and as the primary applicant). The agreement contained a clause requiring arbitration of “[a]ll controversies that may arise between you, us and [the broker] concerning any subject matter, issue or circumstance whatsoever (including, but not limited to, controversies concerning any Account, order or transaction, or the continuation, performance, interpretation or breach of this or any other agreement between you, us and [the broker], whether entered into or arising before, on or after the date this Account is opened).”
The plaintiff eventually sued the bank alleging theft, aiding and abetting theft and fraud, and negligence, among other claims. The plaintiff contended that she was not bound by the arbitration agreement because she signed the agreement “not in her personal capacity, but as her mother’s guardian,” and that there is no arbitrable issue because her personal claims did not arise from the agreement. The district court granted the defendant’s motion to compel arbitration after determining the plaintiff had not alleged that the defendant fraudulently obtained her signature.
On appeal, the 11th Circuit interpreted the word “you” in the arbitration clause as referring to the plaintiff “as the person who applied for the account and signed the application.” In determining that the plaintiff is a signatory to the defendant’s agreement, the appellate court concluded that the plaintiff “has not alleged that her signature was nonvoluntary or otherwise fraudulently obtained[,]” and thus is bound by the arbitration clause. Moreover, the 11th Circuit rejected the plaintiff’s argument that her claims are not covered by the arbitration clause, writing that the “clause explicitly contemplates disputes arising from other issues or agreements ‘whether entered into or arising before, on or after the date this Account is opened.’”
On June 14, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit affirmed a district court’s ruling in favor of a defendant student loan servicer, holding that it is not enough for telecommunication equipment to be capable of using a random or sequential number generator to dial telephone numbers in order to meet the definition of an automatic telephone dialing system (autodialer). Instead, to constitute a violation of the TCPA, the telecommunication system must actually employ such random- or sequential-number generation when placing the actual call. The plaintiffs filed a putative class action complaint against the defendant alleging it used an autodialer to call class members’ cell phones without their prior express consent. The defendant countered that the TCPA claims fail because its calling system “lacked the capacity to generate random or sequential telephone numbers and then dial those numbers.” As such, it could not be an autodialer. The district court granted summary judgment in favor of the defendant, ruling that the defendant did not use an autodialer to place the calls at issue as the calling system did not have “the necessary present capacity to store or produce telephone numbers using a random or sequential number generator.”
On appeal, the 3rd Circuit disagreed with the district court’s finding that the defendant’s telecommunication system was not an autodialer, noting that the district court used too narrow a definition of the term “equipment” and holding that “an [autodialer] may include several devices that when combined have the capacity to store or produce telephone numbers using a random or sequential number generator and to dial those numbers.” Thus, the 3rd Circuit held that the district court erred in accepting defendant’s argument that the defendant’s telephone system was not an autodialer because the defendant’s SQL Server (which was capable of generating random and sequential numbers) was independent of the defendant’s dialing system.
Nonetheless, the 3rd Circuit affirmed the district court’s ruling on the basis that it did not matter whether the defendant’s calling system could be classified as an autodialer under the TCPA because the phone numbers were drawn from a contact list stored on the defendant’s SQL Server and not randomly generated. As such, the appellate court held that the plaintiffs’ claims fail because the defendant did not actually use random- or sequential-number generation when it placed the specific calls in question.
While agreeing with the decision to affirm, one of the judges argued that the majority focused on the wrong question. “In my view, the fundamental question is: what is an [autodialer] under Section 227(a)(1)? I would hold that a dialing system must actually use a random or sequential number generator to store or produce numbers in order to qualify as an [autodialer] under § 227(a)(1),” the concurring judge wrote. “Because [defendant’s] dialing system did not do so, it is not an [autodialer], and [defendant] is entitled to summary judgment.”
On June 14, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit affirmed a district court’s dismissal of a class action alleging a national bank (defendant) violated state laws in New Jersey by attempting to collect on a debt after it had issued a 1099-C notice to the plaintiff to cover the debt that was discharged. According to the opinion, the defendant obtained a judgment against the plaintiff and his wife for an unpaid debt, which the plaintiff did not satisfy. The defendant issued an IRS 1099-C form to the plaintiffs, indicating that $199,427.80 of the $244,248.49 was discharged. After issuing the 1099-C, the defendant notified the plaintiff that such filing had not caused the defendant to release the judgment and that the plaintiff needed to either pay the judgment or reach a settlement. The plaintiff sued, alleging the defendant violated the New Jersey Consumer Fraud Act and other state laws based on defendant’s issuance of a 1099-C IRS Form for cancellation of debt. The district court granted a motion to dismiss filed by the defendant, which the plaintiff appealed.
On appeal, the plaintiff argued the creditors should not send 1099-C notices unless the debt has actually been canceled, and that sending such a notice while still intending to collect on the debt constitutes an “unlawful practice.” The 3rd Circuit disagreed, holding that the text of the governing IRS regulation, 26 C.F.R. § 1.650P-1(a)(1), indicates that “the filing of a Form 1099-C is a reporting requirement that does not depend on whether the debt has been ‘actually discharged,’ or the debtor has actually been released from his obligations on the underlying debt.” The appellate court further noted that “[t]he satisfaction of this reporting requirement, additionally, does not operate to forgive or extinguish a debtor’s obligations to repay the debt at issue.”
On June 6, a majority of nonrecused active judges on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit vacated a previously issued opinion that said tribal lenders could arbitrate Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO) class action claims, saying it will rehear the case en banc. As previously covered by InfoBytes, last September the 9th Circuit panel majority concluded that “an agreement delegating to an arbitrator the gateway question of whether the underlying arbitration agreement is enforceable must be upheld unless that specific delegation provision is itself unenforceable.” The panel reviewed whether California residents who received loans from an online lender were allowed to pursue class RICO claims based on allegations that they were charged interest rates exceeding state limits from lenders claiming tribal immunity. The district court granted class certification and ruled that the entire arbitration agreement, including provisions containing a class action waiver, was unenforceable. On appeal, the panel majority cited to the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Rent-A-Center, West, Inc. v. Jackson, which determined, among other things, that when a party challenges an entire agreement—not just an arbitration provision—deciding “gateway” issues such as enforceability must be delegated to an arbitrator. “[W]hen there is a clear delegation provision, that question is . . . for the arbitrator to decide so long as the delegation provision itself does not eliminate parties’ rights to purse their federal remedies,” the majority wrote. The dissenting judge held, however, that the panel majority “misunderstood the effect of the choice-of-law provisions in the agreements,” arguing that the provisions curtail an arbitrator’s authority by allowing application of “only tribal law and a small and irrelevant subset of federal law,” thus preventing an arbitrator “from applying the law necessary to determine whether the delegation provisions and the arbitration agreements are valid.” He further contended that the panel majority’s decision diverged from decisions reached by several sister circuits, which “have consistently condemned the arbitration agreements embedded in tribal internet payday loan agreements, including those used by the very same lenders as in this case.”
On June 8, a majority of judges on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit denied a plaintiff-appellee’s petition for rehearing en banc in a case concerning the collection of time-barred debt. In April, the 7th Circuit vacated a $350,000 jury award against a debt collector in an FDCPA action, holding that the plaintiff lacked Article III standing. The defendant sent the plaintiff a letter offering to resolve her defaulted credit card debt at a discount. The letter included a disclosure stating that “because of the age of the debt” it would not sue or report the debt to a credit agency and that payment or nonpayment would not affect her credit score. The plaintiff sued, claiming the letter “surprised and confused” her and was in violation of Sections 1692e(2), 1692e(10), and 1692f of the FDCPA. The district court certified a class and granted summary judgment in favor of the plaintiff “reasoning that the misleading nature of the letter risked real harm to the interests that Congress sought to protect with the FDCPA.” A jury awarded the class $350,000 in damages. On appeal, the panel disagreed, explaining that the plaintiff never made a payment as a result of receiving the letter, nor did she “promise to do so or otherwise act to her detriment in response to anything in or omitted from the letter.” Calling the defendant to dispute the debt and contacting an attorney for legal advice “are not legally cognizable harms” and not enough to provide the “basis for a lawsuit,” the court wrote, adding that “[p]sychological states induced by a debt collector’s letter” are not enough to establish standing.
The majority of the 7th Circuit agreed with the panel’s ruling and voted not to hold an en banc rehearing. However, four judges dissented, arguing that the plaintiff’s claims “should easily satisfy” standing requirements established by the U.S. Supreme Court. “The emotional distress, confusion, and anxiety suffered by [plaintiff] in response to this zombie debt collection effort fit well within the harms that would be expected from many of the abusive practices,” the dissent said. “That’s true regardless of whether the debtor actually made a payment or took some other tangible action in response to them.” According to the dissent, the majority is “painting with too broad a brush” in finding that “[e]motional distress and other ‘psychological states’ can never support standing under the FDCPA.” This reasoning also overlooks close historical parallels in common and constitutional law that provide remedies for intangible injuries caused by many violations of the FDCPA and other consumer-protection statutes, the dissent added.
On June 10, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit affirmed a lower court’s ruling on summary judgment that an individual’s text messages sent to a financial institution provided the express consent required under the TCPA to be contacted via an autodialer system. According to the opinion, the plaintiff, who was not a customer of the defendant, sent 11 text messages to the defendant’s short code number. Ten of the messages were unrelated to the defendant’s business, and the plaintiff’s messages were replied to with an automated message providing instructions about how to stop receiving text messages and how to contact the defendant. The remaining text message from the plaintiff to the defendant consisted of the word “STOP” to which the defendant replied with the response that plaintiff is not subscribed and will not receive alerts. These reply texts were the only text messages the defendant sent to the plaintiff’s mobile phone. Based on these facts, the plaintiff filed suit in the District of Connecticut, alleging that the defendant violated the TCPA by replying to his text messages using an automatic call-generating capability without obtaining the plaintiff’s consent. The defendant filed a motion to dismiss on procedural grounds, and plaintiff voluntarily withdrew the suit and subsequently sued in the District of Hawaii under similar facts and claims. The court granted the defendant’s motion for summary judgment, ruling that each of the texts sent to the defendant by the plaintiff constituted prior express consent to receive reply texts. The court also awarded attorneys’ fees to defendant as “costs” under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 41(d).
The 9th Circuit agreed with the district court’s determination that the plaintiff “expressly consented to receive reply text messages.” With respect to the awarding of attorney’s fees, the appellate court recognized a circuit split on the issue of whether Rule 41(d) costs included attorney’s fees, and held that, (i) “costs” under Rule 41(d) does not include attorney’s fees as a matter of right and (ii) for purposes of the TCPA, “cost” does not include attorney’s fees because “it is undisputed that the TCPA does not provide for the award of attorney’s fees to the prevailing party.”
Special Alert: Eleventh Circuit upholds terms of arbitration agreement in challenge under Dodd-Frank
On May 26, 2022, the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit issued a published decision holding that the Dodd-Frank Act does not prohibit the enforceability of delegation clauses contained in consumer arbitration agreements “in any way.” This opinion is of potentially broad significance in the class action and arbitration space since it is one of the first appellate decisions in the country concerning Dodd-Frank’s arbitration provision and supports broad enforcement of delegation clauses even where a statute could allegedly prohibit arbitration of the underlying claim.
In Attix v. Carrington Mortgage Services, LLC, the Eleventh Circuit reversed a decision of the United States District Court for the Southern District of Florida denying Carrington’s motion to compel arbitration that was based on the plaintiff’s argument that the anti-waiver provision in the Dodd-Frank Act, prohibited enforcement of the arbitration agreement. The anti-waiver provision of the Dodd-Frank Act provides that “no other agreement between the consumer and the creditor relating to the residential mortgage loan or extension of credit . . . shall be applied or interpreted so as to bar a consumer from bringing an action in an appropriate district court of the United States.” The district court agreed with the plaintiff’s argument that the Dodd-Frank Act prohibited arbitration of the underlying dispute and in doing so, side-stepped the delegation clause that delegated such threshold determinations to an arbitrator.
In a 52-page published opinion, the Eleventh Circuit reversed the decision of the district court, holding that the Dodd-Frank Act does not prohibit enforcing delegation clauses, such as the clause at issue, which “clearly and unmistakably” delegates to the arbitrator “threshold arbitrability disputes.” The circuit court found that in such circumstances, all questions of arbitrability are delegated to an arbitrator “unless the law prohibits the delegation of threshold arbitrability issues itself.”
The court went on to broadly hold that the Dodd-Frank Act does not prohibit the enforceability of delegation clauses “in any way.” In doing so, the Eleventh Circuit explained that if Dodd-Frank had been intended to prohibit the enforcement of delegation clauses, then it could have been drafted that way, but instead, “the actual statute is silent as to who may decide whether a particular contract falls within the scope of its protections.” While the Dodd-Frank Act prohibits arbitration agreements from being applied or interpreted in a particular manner, it does not prohibit the enforcement of delegation clauses, and as a result, the court held that under the terms of Carrington and the plaintiff’s agreement, the arbitrator (and not the court) must determine the threshold question of whether the Dodd-Frank Act prohibits enforcement of Carrington’s arbitration agreement since it is a “quintessential arbitrability question.”
Significantly, the court also held that a challenge to an agreement to arbitrate on the basis that a statute precludes its enforcement is not a “specific challenge” to a delegation clause found within the arbitration agreement, such that the court lacks jurisdiction to review the enforceability of the delegation clause. In other words, where a challenge “is only about the enforceability of the parties’ primary arbitration agreement” and there is a delegation clause, “an arbitrator must resolve it.” As the Eleventh Circuit explained, “when an appeal presents a delegation agreement and a question of arbitrability, we stop. We do not pass go.”
This case has significance for anyone considering drafting an arbitration agreement particularly in a class action context. A threshold drafting question is whether or not to delegate issues of arbitrability to the arbitrator or allow a court to resolve the issue. Under this decision, a question of whether a statute bars arbitration of claims is for the arbitrator to decide when there is a delegation clause, unless the statute also explicitly bars delegation clauses. This decision reinforces that inclusion of a properly drafted delegation clause in an arbitration agreement can result in a case improperly filed in court being more quickly sent to arbitration, even where the dispute is whether a statute prohibits the claim from being arbitrated in the first instance.
Buckley represented Carrington on appeal with a team comprising Fredrick Levin, who argued the appeal, Scott Sakiyama, Brian Bartholomay, and Sarah Meehan. For questions regarding the case, please contact one of the team members or a Buckley attorney with whom you have worked in the past.
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