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On April 24, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit affirmed a district court’s ruling that an employer that obtained a consumer report for employment purposes did not violate the FCRA when it provided disclosure simultaneously with other documents and failed to use a standalone document for the FCRA authorization. The plaintiff, a former employee, alleged that during the hiring process, applicants were presented with employment documents and were required to sign two forms related to consumer reports: (i) a separate “disclosure” form that informed applicants that the employer could obtain reports pertaining to their employment record, drug tests, and driving record; and (ii) an “authorization” form appearing at the end of the application, which authorized the employer or its agent or subsidiary to investigate the applicant’s previous employment record. The plaintiff’s suit alleged that the forms violated the FCRA’s standalone disclosure requirement because the defendant presented the forms at the same time as other application materials and failed to place the authorization on a standalone document. The district court granted summary judgment to the defendant.
On appeal, the 9th Circuit rejected the plaintiff’s argument, concluding that there is nothing that prohibits an employer from “providing a standalone FCRA disclosure contemporaneously with other employment documents.” While the 9th Circuit acknowledged that the FCRA requires a disclosure form to contain nothing more than the disclosure itself, “no authority suggests that a disclosure must be distinct in time, as well.” With respect to the authorization, the appellate court rejected the argument that it violated the FCRA because “the authorization subsection of FCRA lacks the disclosure subsection’s standalone document requirement” and only requires that the authorization be in writing.
On April 22, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit affirmed a district court’s dismissal of an FCRA action, holding that the plaintiff failed to prove that his alleged injuries were the result of the defendants’ actions. According to the opinion, the plaintiff alleged that a financial institution wrongfully reported a payment delinquency on his retail credit card, which he claimed caused the subsequent denial of a loan application. Upon learning of the denial, the plaintiff disputed the late-payment notation with three credit reporting agencies (CRAs). Prior to the district court’s judgment, the plaintiff settled with the retailer, the financial institution, and one of the three CRAs. The remaining two defendant CRAs reinvestigated the delinquency with the financial institution, confirmed the information, and notified the plaintiff of the result of their investigation. The plaintiff argued that the CRAs “failed to conduct a reasonable investigation” because they never directly contacted the retailer about the disputed late payment. However, the district court held that that the CRAs’ reliance on the Automated Consumer Dispute Verification (ACDV) system to investigate the dispute and confirm the information was “generally acceptable.”
On appeal, the 5th Circuit agreed with the district court that the plaintiff “offered no reasonable factual basis” for why the CRAs “should have been on notice of a need to go beyond the ACDV system as to this dispute.” The appellate court further agreed that the plaintiff was unable to show that contacting the retailer would have changed the CRAs’ conclusions about the information they already possessed. Finally, the 5th Circuit held that the plaintiff had shown no evidence that the denial of his loan application was a direct result of the CRAs’ actions because, as the district court concluded, the loan application was denied because of a credit report from the CRA that had previously settled with the plaintiff and was no longer a party to the suit.
On April 17, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit affirmed a district court’s access-device fraud and aggravated identity theft convictions, finding that there was sufficient evidence to support the court’s factual findings on both charges. According to the opinion, the defendant applied for a debit card for his great-grandfather’s bank account without authorization and used the card to pay for his own expenses. The defendant was also seen multiple times on bank security cameras withdrawing money from an ATM using this card. The district court also heard testimony that the defendant opened accounts and applied for loans under his own name but used his great-grandfather’s social security number. The district convicted the defendant on one count of access-device fraud and two counts of aggravated identity theft. The defendant appealed, arguing that the district court failed to make adequate findings of fact and that the government failed to present sufficient evidence to support the charges for which he was convicted.
On appeal, the 6th Circuit reviewed the factual findings underlying the convictions, and first concluded that, with respect to the count of access-device fraud, the government proved each element: that the defendant (i) knowingly used an access device assigned to another individual; (ii) possessed an intent to defraud; (iii) obtained a thing or things with an aggregate value of $1,000 or more within a year using the access device; and (iv) affected interstate or foreign commerce in using the access device. The appellate court explained that there was ample circumstantial evidence to support lack of authorization from the proper owners of the accounts at issue, and that the card was issued in Kentucky and the bank issuing the card was headquartered in Minnesota. The appellate court next considered whether evidence supported the district court’s finding that the defendant committed aggravated identity theft under the bank-fraud statute by opening a checking account and applying for a loan using his great-grandfather’s social security number. The appellate court held that the defendant’s use of his great-grandfather’s social security number properly supported the district court’s finding that the defendant knowingly used, without lawful authority, another person’s means of identification and that the defendant committed a predicate felony under the bank-fraud statute.
On April 10, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit vacated a district court’s dismissal of borrowers’ state law claims against a student loan servicer, holding that the claims were not preempted by the federal Higher Education Act (HEA). The decision results from a lawsuit filed by two federal student loan borrowers who alleged the servicer violated the Florida Consumer Collection Practices Act (FCCPA) and other state laws by making “affirmative misrepresentations to them and to other borrowers that they were on track to have their student loans forgiven based on their public-service employment when, in fact, their loans were ineligible for the forgiveness program.” The borrowers claimed that, after making years of payments, they discovered they were not eligible for the Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF) Program because most of their loans were not federal direct loans. Both borrowers contended that had they not been misinformed, they would have taken the necessary steps to ensure eligibility. The district court dismissed the borrowers’ claims on the grounds that they were expressly preempted under section 1098g of the HEA, which prohibits the application of state-law disclosure requirements to federal student loans.
On appeal, the 11th Circuit determined that the borrowers’ claims were not expressly preempted by the HEA, concluding that the precise language in section 1098g “preempts only state law that imposes disclosure requirements; state law causes of action arising out of affirmative misrepresentations a servicer voluntarily made that did not concern the subject matter of required disclosures imposes no ‘disclosure requirements.’” Among other things, the appellate court noted that the borrowers did not allege that the servicer failed to provide information it was legally obligated to disclose, but rather that the information provided to the borrowers concerning their eligibility for the PSLF program was false. “Holding [the servicer] liable for offering false information would therefore neither impose nor equate to imposing on servicers a duty to disclose information,” the appellate court wrote. In addition to dismissing the servicer’s field preemption argument, the appellate court reasoned that its decision “does no harm to standardization of disclosures for federal student loan programs.” The court vacated the district court’s dismissal, and remanded the case for further proceedings.
On April 15, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit granted a joint motion to stay a mandate pending a credit reporting agency’s (CRA) filing of a petition for writ of certiorari with the U.S. Supreme Court. If a petition is filed, the stay will continue until final disposition by the Court. As previously covered by InfoBytes, in February the 9th Circuit reduced punitive damages in a class action against the CRA for allegedly violating the FCRA by erroneously linking class members to criminals and terrorists with similar names in a database maintained by the U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC). The appellate court found that all class members had standing due to, among other things, the CRA’s alleged “reckless handling of information from OFAC,” which subjected class members to “a real risk of harm,” and rejected the CRA’s request for judgment as a matter of law or a new trial on the basis that the class had failed to provide sufficient evidence of injuries or to support the damages award. The appellate court concluded, however, that the $52 million punitive damages award was “unconstitutionally excessive,” explaining that, although the CRA’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.”
The CRA subsequently filed a petition for rehearing (which the appellate court denied), challenging, among other things, the 9th Circuit’s conclusion that the CRA’s decision to make the credit reports available to numerous potential creditors and employers was “sufficient to show a material risk of harm to the concrete interest of all class members.” The CRA argued that this was “exactly the sort of hypothetical risk of injury the Supreme Court has made clear does not cut it” to establish concrete injury, and that the decision was inconsistent with the 9th Circuit’s own precedent, in which the appellate court determined that “the risk of injury becomes material only when the document gets into third-party hands.” The CRA also argued that the 4 to 1 benchmark ratio between punitive damages and statutory damages was still too high, because it “conflicts not just with the Supreme Court’s commands, but with decisions from other circuits finding much lower compensatory-damages awards sufficiently ‘substantial’ to demand a 1:1 ceiling.”
On April 15, the U.S. Supreme Court announced it will hear oral arguments via telephone conference on May 6 in a case concerning an exemption to the TCPA that allows debt collectors to use an autodialer to contact individuals on their cell phones without obtaining prior consent to do so when collecting debts guaranteed by the federal government. As previously covered by InfoBytes, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit held that the government-debt exemption contravenes the First Amendment’s Free Speech Clause, and found that the challenged exemption was a content-based restriction on free speech that did not hold up to strict scrutiny review. The petitioners—Attorney General William Barr and the FCC—ask the Court to review whether the government-debt exception to the TCPA’s automated-call restriction is a violation of the First Amendment, and if so, whether the proper remedy is to sever the exception from the remainder of the statute.
9th Circuit: Trustees’ loan transaction is entitled to state and federal consumer disclosure protections
On April 14, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit reversed a district court’s dismissal of claims under TILA, RESPA, and California’s Rosenthal Fair Debt Collection Act, holding that a loan transaction made by a borrower in her capacity as a trustee (appellant-borrower) remained a consumer credit transaction entitled to state and federal consumer disclosure protections. According to the opinion, the appellant-borrower obtained a loan to finance repairs to a personal residence that was occupied by her niece—the trust’s sole beneficiary. The appellant-borrower alleged that the lender’s (defendant-appellee) loan disclosures were materially inconsistent with the loan’s terms and filed a complaint alleging that “the due date disclosures did not accurately reflect the terms of the loan.” The complaint sought rescission of the loan under TILA, damages against the defendant-appellee under the Rosenthal Fair Debt Collection Act due to the alleged use of unfair means to collect her debt, and inaccurate disclosure damages and reimbursements for payments she claimed she was not obligated to make. Under TILA and RESPA, rescission and damage remedies are only available to consumer credit transactions, and the defendant-appellee moved to dismiss on the ground that a residential loan to a trust can only qualify as a consumer credit transaction where a trustee-borrower lives at the residence. The appellant-borrower countered that the CFPB’s Official Staff Commentary (Commentary) to Regulation Z, which implements TILA, explains “that ‘[c]redit extended for consumer purposes to certain trusts is considered to be credit extended to a natural person rather than credit extended to an organization.’” The district court agreed with the defendant-appellee’s position that the loan was not a consumer credit transaction and dismissed the complaint.
On appeal, the 9th Circuit noted that the Commentary states that “a loan for ‘personal, family, or household purposes’ of the beneficiary of this type of trust is a consumer credit transaction,” and that furthermore, “trusts should be considered natural persons under TILA, so long as the transaction was obtained for a consumer purpose, because, ‘in substance (if not form) consumer credit is being extended.” The appellate court rejected the defendant-appellee’s argument and concluded that the loan should be considered a consumer credit transaction under all three statutes. Holding that the district court erred in dismissing the complaint by construing the statutes too narrowly, it reversed and remanded for further proceedings.
On April 9, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit affirmed a district court’s dismissal of an FDCPA action, holding that a debt collection letter that stated interest, late charges, and other charges “may” vary from day to day is not deceptive or misleading. According to the opinion, the plaintiff co-signed a student loan that fell into default and was charged-off. The creditor purchased the debt and placed the account with a collection agency (collectively, defendants), and a letter was sent to the plaintiff that included a “‘time sensitive’ offer” to pay a slightly reduced amount, as well as the following language: “Because of interest, late charges, and other charges that may vary from day to day, the amount due on the day you pay may be greater.” The plaintiff filed a class action complaint against the defendants, claiming the letter violated the FDCPA because it suggested that late fees and other charges could accrue, even though “such charges are not legally or contractually available.” After the defendants filed a motion to dismiss, the plaintiff filed an amended complaint adding more allegations. However, the amended complaint was marked as “deficient,” and because the 21-day window had closed, the plaintiff was required to request leave from either the defendants or the district court to re-file. The defendants did not consent to re-filing, and the district court denied the plaintiff’s motion for leave and granted the defendants’ motion to dismiss.
On appeal, the 2nd Circuit first examined whether the plaintiff had timely filed her amended complaint. In concluding that the amended complaint was timely filed (notwithstanding the deficiency notice), the appellate court stated that “when a plaintiff properly amends her complaint after a defendant has filed a motion to dismiss that is still pending, the district court has the option of either denying the pending motion as moot or evaluating the motion in light of the facts alleged in the amended complaint.” However, the appellate court nevertheless concluded that the district court properly dismissed the plaintiff’s amended complaint on the merits because she failed to sufficiently state a plausible claim for relief. Furthermore, because the initial letter said that interest and late charges “may” be applied to the balance, the appellate court concluded that the letter was not inaccurate and therefore not deceptive or misleading under the FDCPA even though the debt collector had not previously charged interest and did not intend to do so in the future. Moreover, acknowledging that interest may accrue is not “threatening” language under the FDCPA, the appellate court wrote.
On April 7, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit vacated a district court’s order granting summary judgment in favor of a defendant in a TCPA action. The decision results from a lawsuit filed by a plaintiff who claimed to have received more than 300 unsolicited text messages from the defendant through the use of an autodialer after the plaintiff texted a code to receive free admission to a party. The defendant countered that the programs used to send the text messages were not autodialers because they “required too much human intervention when dialing,” and therefore did not fall under the TCPA. The district court granted the defendant’s motion for summary judgment, agreeing that the defendant’s programs were not autodialers because a human being determined when the text messages are sent.
On appeal, the 2nd Circuit concluded that while human beings do play some role in the defendant’s systems, “[c]licking ‘send’ does not require enough human intervention to turn an automatic dialing system into an non-automatic one.” According to the appellate court, “[a]s the FCC additionally clarified in 2012, the statutory definition of an [autodialer] ‘covers any equipment that has the specified capacity to generate numbers and dial them without human intervention regardless of whether the numbers called are randomly or sequentially generated or come from calling lists.’” (Emphasis in the original.) “The FCC’s interpretation of the statute is consistent with our own, for only an interpretation that permits an [autodialer] to store numbers—no matter how produced—will also allow for the [autodialer] to dial from non-random, non-sequential ‘calling lists.’ . . . What matters is that the system can store those numbers and make calls using them.”
The 2nd Circuit’s opinion is consistent with the 9th Circuit’s holding in Marks v. Crunch San Diego, LLC (covered by InfoBytes here). However, these two opinions conflict with holdings by the 3rd, 7th, and 11th Circuits, which have held that autodialers require the use of randomly or sequentially generated phone numbers, consistent with the D.C. Circuit’s holding that struck down the FCC’s definition of an autodialer in ACA International v. FCC (covered by a Buckley Special Alert).
On April 3, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit reversed and vacated the dismissal of an FDCPA action against a debt collector (defendant), holding that a collection letter failed to identify the correct creditor to whom a debt was owed. The consumer (plaintiff) alleged that the defendant sent him a collection letter concerning a private-label credit card account offered by a merchant. The defaulted debt originally was owned by one national bank and later acquired by a different national bank. The collection letter, however, identified the merchant (the servicer of the account) and the original credit grantor, but failed to disclose the current creditor. The plaintiff filed a class-action complaint alleging that the defendant violated Section 1692g of the FDCPA by not properly identifying the name of the creditor to whom the debt was owed, and violated Section 1692e by making a “false or misleading communication in connection with a debt.” The district court granted the defendant’s motion for judgment on the pleadings and dismissed the complaint, concluding that the merchant, as servicer, was the creditor to whom the debt is owed and that the failure to name the current creditor “would not have materially affected a consumer’s decision-making process.”
On appeal, the 2nd Circuit concluded that, because the cardmember agreements between the merchant, the current creditor, and the plaintiff clearly acknowledge that the national bank—and not the merchant—is the creditor, the defendant violated Section 1692g by not naming the correct creditor in the letter. With respect to the plaintiff’s Section 1692e claim, the appellate court determined that “it is far from clear that [the defendant’s] failure to identify [the current creditor] constituted a materially misleading statement under Section 1692e.” In fact, the appellate court stated that “it might be argued that if [the defendant] had identified [the current creditor] and not [the merchant], such an action ‘likely would have caused confusion.’” (Emphasis in the original.) However, the 2nd Circuit determined that the claim should not have been dismissed because the district court erroneously concluded that the merchant was the creditor to whom the debt was owned, and that the district court failed to address whether the defendant’s failure to identify the current creditor was a materially misleading statement under Section 1692e. The appellate court vacated the district court’s judgment and remanded the case for further proceedings.
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