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  • Washington Court of Appeals affirms dismissal of suit accusing bank of collecting debt under a different name

    Courts

    On May 3, the Washington Court of Appeals, Division Three, affirmed the dismissal of an action accusing a defendant bank of violating the FDCPA by attempting to collect a debt in a name that differed from its own. The plaintiff obtained a credit card from the bank in 2006. Following a merger between the bank holding company (a separate legal entity at the time) and a card services company, the defendant bank merged with and under the charter of the card services company and notified credit card customers that the new issuer and administrator of their accounts would be the card services company. In 2014, the card services company merged into and under the charter of the national bank of the same name, who subsequently became issuer and administrator of the credit card portfolio and the named creditor of the plaintiff’s account. By 2012, the plaintiff had stopped making payments on his credit card and was sued by the card services company. While this action was pending, the 2014 merger occurred but the collection action was not updated to reflect this development. Eventually, the collection action was dismissed without prejudice, and the plaintiff sued the defendant in Washington state court, claiming the defendant violated the FDCPA because it continued its collection suit under the name of the card services company after the merger had taken place. The state court dismissed the case, and the plaintiff appealed. At issue was whether the national bank “falls under the FDCPA despite its status as a creditor because it used a name other than its own ‘which would indicate that a third person is collecting or attempting to collect’ the debt owed by” the plaintiff.

    The Court of Appeals disagreed and held that even a least sophisticated consumer would not be confused and think that the debt had been transferred to a third-party collection agency. “Instead, a least sophisticated consumer (and even average-level consumer) might be led to believe that nothing had changed and [the card services company] was still collecting its credit card debt in its own right,” the Court of Appeals wrote. “There is no reason to think a least sophisticated consumer would be led to believe that [the bank] had acquired [the card services company’s] debt and then contracted with [it] to collect the debt.”

    Courts State Issues Washington Appellate Debt Collection FDCPA Credit Cards Consumer Finance

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  • 5th Circuit: CFPB enforcement may proceed but funding questions remain

    Courts

    On May 2, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit issued an en banc decision vacating a district court’s interlocutory decision denying the plaintiff payday lenders’ motion for judgment on the pleadings, and holding that the CFPB can continue its enforcement action against a Mississippi-based payday lending company subject to further order of the district court. As previously covered by InfoBytes, the CFPB filed a complaint against two Mississippi-based payday loan and check cashing companies for allegedly violating the CFPA’s prohibition on unfair, deceptive, or abusive acts or practices. In March 2018, a district court denied the payday lenders’ motion for judgment on the pleadings, rejecting the argument that the structure of the Bureau is unconstitutional and that the agency’s claims violate due process. The 5th Circuit agreed to hear an interlocutory appeal on the constitutionality question. And, prior to the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Seila Law LLC v. CFPB, a divided panel held that the CFPB’s single-director structure is constitutional, finding no constitutional defect with allowing the director of the Bureau to only be fired for cause (covered by InfoBytes here).

    The 5th Circuit voted sua sponte to rehear the case en banc and issued an opinion in which the majority vacated the district court’s opinion as contrary to Seila Law. The majority did not, however, direct the district court to enter judgment against the Bureau because, though the Supreme Court had found that the director’s for-cause removal provision was unconstitutional, it was severable from the statute establishing the Bureau (covered by a Buckley Special Alert). The majority determined that the “time has arrived for the district court to proceed” and stated it “place[s] no limitation on the matters that that court may consider, including, without limitation, any other constitutional challenges.”

    In dissent, several judges issued an opinion arguing that the case should be dismissed because the agency’s funding structure violates the Constitution’s separation of powers and “is doubly removed from congressional review.” The dissenting judges explained that the Bureau is not subject to the Congressional appropriations process for its budget, unlike most federal agencies, but rather receives its funding directly from the Federal Reserve Board. This budgetary process was intended to ensure full independence from Congress and prevent future congresses from using budget cuts to influence the Bureau’s agenda and priorities. The dissenting judges argued, however, that such a structure violates the Appropriations Clause of the Constitution. “The CFPB’s double insulation from Article I appropriations oversight mocks the Constitution’s separation of powers by enabling an executive agency to live on its own in a kingly fashion,” the dissent stated. “The Framers warned that such an accumulation of powers in a single branch of government would inevitably lead to tyranny. Accordingly, I would reject the CFPB’s novel funding mechanism as contravening the Constitution’s separation of powers. And because the CFPB funds the instant prosecution using unconstitutional self-funding, I would dismiss the lawsuit.”

    Courts CFPB Enforcement Fifth Circuit Appellate Single-Director Structure Payday Lending CFPA UDAAP Seila Law

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  • 4th Circuit will not revive investors’ data breach case

    Privacy, Cyber Risk & Data Security

    On April 21, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit affirmed a district court’s dismissal of a securities suit against a hotel corporation (defendant) alleging that they misled the plaintiffs regarding data vulnerabilities connected to a major breach of customers’ personal information. According to the opinion, two years after merging with another hospitality corporation, the defendant “learned that malware had impacted approximately 500 million guest records in the [hospitality corporation’s] guest reservation database.” An investor filed a putative class action against the defendant and nine of its officers and directors, alleging that its failure to disclose severe vulnerabilities in the hospitality corporation’s IT systems rendered 73 different public statements false or misleading in violation of Section 10(b) of the Securities Exchange Act of 1934 (Exchange Act) and SEC Rule 10b-5. The district court granted the defendant’s motion to dismiss with prejudice and concluded that the plaintiffs “‘failed to adequately allege a false or misleading statement or omission, a strong inference of scienter, and loss causation,’ which doomed the claim under Section 10(b) and Rule 10b-5 as well as the secondary liability claim [under Section 20(a) of the Exchange Act].” The investor appealed, dropping its challenge to 55 of the statements but maintaining its challenge to the other 18.

    On appeal, the 4th Circuit agreed with the district court that the defendant’s statements about the importance of cybersecurity were not misleading with respect to the quality of its cybersecurity efforts. The appellate court found that “[t]he ‘basic problem’ with the complaint on this point is that ‘the facts it alleges do not contradict [the defendant’s] public disclosures,’” and that reiterating the “basic truth” that data integrity is important does not mislead investors or create a false impression. The appellate court also noted that the complaint “concedes that [the defendant] devoted resources and took steps to strengthen the security of hospitality corporation’s systems,” and that the company included “such sweeping caveats that no reasonable investor could have been misled by them.” The appellate court concluded that the defendant “certainly could have provided more information to the public about its experience with or vulnerability to cyberattacks, but the federal securities laws did not require it to do so.”

    Privacy/Cyber Risk & Data Security Courts Data Breach Appellate Fourth Circuit SEC Securities Exchange Act

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  • California Court of Appeal: Including extraneous language in FCRA disclosure may constitute willful violation

    Courts

    On April 19, the California Court of Appeal for the Fourth Appellate District reversed a trial court’s summary judgment order and held that the inclusion of extraneous language in an employer’s FCRA disclosures to job applicants may constitute willful violation of the FCRA. The plaintiff filed a putative class action against the defendant employer, contending that it willfully violated the FCRA by providing job applicants with a disclosure that included extraneous language unrelated to the topic of consumer reports. The plaintiff alleged that the disclosure violated the FCRA’s requirement for providing a standalone disclosure informing the applicant that the employer may obtain the applicant’s consumer report when making a hiring decision upon applicant’s consent. The defendant filed a motion for summary judgment arguing that no reasonable jury could find that the plaintiff’s FCRA violation was willful, because the erroneous disclosure form was the result of a drafting mistake that took place when the defendant modified a sample disclosure provided by a consumer reporting agency to ensure compliance with the FCRA. The trial court granted the defendant’s motion, finding that any non-compliance resulted from a drafting was an inadvertent error.

    On appeal, the Court of Appeal reversed and remanded with instructions that the trial court deny the motion for summary judgment. The appellate court found that “a reasonable jury could find that [the employer] acted willfully because it violated an unambiguous provision of the FCRA.” The Court of Appeal noted that that there’s evidence that at least one of the defendant’s employees was aware that the extraneous language would be included in the disclosure form. In addition, the continuous use of the allegedly problematic disclosure form for nearly two years could signify recklessness. The Court of Appeal reasoned further that the defendant’s “continued and prolonged use” of the “problematic” disclosure form “suggest[ed] that it had no proactive monitoring system in place to ensure its disclosure was FCRA-complaint.”

    Courts State Issues Appellate Class Action California FCRA Disclosures

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  • Michigan Court of Appeals affirms dismissal of post-judgment interest case, says state court rule precludes class actions

    Courts

    On April 21, the Michigan Court of Appeals affirmed a trial court’s dismissal of a post-judgment interest putative class action after concluding that a court rule that precludes “‘actions’ based on claimed violations of statutes that permit[ ] recovery of statutory damages in lieu of actual damages” necessitated the dismissal of the plaintiff’s class action claim. According to the opinion, after the plaintiff defaulted on her $900 credit card debt, the debt was assigned to the defendant debt collector who calculated the plaintiff’s unpaid balance to be $6,241.20. The defendant sought judgment against the plaintiff in that amount, plus interest, fees, and costs, and obtained a default judgment against the plaintiff after she did not respond. The defendant consequently obtained several writs of garnishment, all of which indicated that post-judgment interest had been added to the debt. Several years later, the plaintiff filed a putative class action alleging the defendant violated the FDCPA and the Michigan Regulation of Collection Practices Act (RCPA) by overstating how much she owed “and by impermissibly inflating [defendant’s] costs and the amount of interest it charged.” The state trial court dismissed the plaintiff’s class action claims with prejudice on the basis that Michigan Court Rules (MCR) preclude her from recovering statutory damages under the RCPA because the RCPA does not explicitly permit class actions. The court also dismissed her individual claims for lack of subject-matter jurisdiction.

    On appeal, the plaintiff argued that the trial court erred when it dismissed her class action claims under MCR because she also sought equitable relief and actual damages; however, the Michigan Court of Appeals pointed to a provision in the MCR that states “[a]n action for a penalty or minimum amount of recovery without regard to actual damages imposed or authorized by statute may not be maintained as a class action unless the statute specifically authorizes its recovery in a class action.” The Court of Appeals explained that the RCPA is implicated under this rule because (i) it permits the recovery of statutory damages; and (ii) does not contain a provision explicitly permitting class actions, and as such, “plaintiff’s class action claims must be dismissed irrespective of the fact that she also sought injunctive relief, declaratory relief, and actual damages.” The Court of Appeals further held that even if the plaintiff attempted to plead individual claims, the case would not be allowed to proceed because the actual damages in this case are not high enough to meet the jurisdictional minimum amount in Michigan.

    Courts State Issues Michigan Consumer Finance Appellate Debt Collection Class Action

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  • 9th Circuit affirms district court’s ruling in TCPA case

    Courts

    On April 5, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit affirmed a district court’s decision denying a defendants’ motion to compel arbitration in a putative class action under the TCPA. The defendants were a digital marketing company and a debt-relief service company. According to the opinion, the plaintiffs visited the defendants’ websites, but allegedly did not see a notice in fine print stating, “I understand and agree to the Terms & Conditions which includes mandatory arbitration.” The underlined phrases “Terms & Conditions” and “Privacy Policy” were hyperlinks, but they appeared in the same gray font as the rest of the sentence. The marketing company and one of the defendants allegedly used the consumer’s contact information to conduct a telemarketing campaign on behalf of the debt relief companies by allegedly placing unsolicited telephone calls and text messaging consumers. The plaintiffs filed a putative class action, alleging that the calls and text messages were made without their consent, and therefore violated the TCPA. The defendants moved to compel arbitration, arguing that, by clicking on the “continue” buttons, the plaintiffs had agreed to the mandatory arbitration provision hyperlinked in the terms and conditions. The district court denied the defendants’ motion, concluding “that the content and design of the webpages did not conspicuously indicate to users that, by clicking on the ‘continue’ button, they were agreeing to [the service company’s] terms and conditions.”

    On appeal, the 9th Circuit agreed with the district court, finding that the digital marketing company’s website did not contain a reasonably conspicuous notice of its terms and conditions. The 9th Circuit ruled that such notice must be expressly displayed in a font size and format where it can be deemed that a reasonable Internet visitor saw it and was aware of it. The appellate court noted that, on the websites at issue, “[t]he text disclosing the existence of the terms and conditions … is the antithesis of conspicuous,” and that “is printed in a tiny gray font considerably smaller than the font used in the surrounding website elements, and indeed in a font so small that it is barely legible to the naked eye. The comparatively larger font used in all of the surrounding text naturally directs the user's attention everywhere else.” The 9th Circuit also held that, “while it is permissible to disclose terms and conditions through a hyperlink, the fact that a hyperlink is present must be readily apparent. …[T]he design of the hyperlinks must put such a user on notice of their existence.”

    Courts Appellate Ninth Circuit TCPA Arbitration Class Action

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  • 9th Circuit: Networking site cannot deny data scraping access to publicly available profiles

    Privacy, Cyber Risk & Data Security

    On April 18, on remand from the U.S. Supreme Court, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit affirmed a district court’s order preliminarily enjoining a professional networking site from denying a data analytics company access to publicly available member profiles. At issue are allegations brought by the networking site claiming the data analytics company used automated bots to extract user data from the networking site’s website (a process known as “scraping”) for the purposes of selling its analytics services to businesses. The networking site sent the data analytics company a cease-and-desist letter, asserting violations of state and federal law, including the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA). The data analytics company responded that it had a right to access the public pages and later sought a preliminary injunction. In granting the preliminary injunction, the district court ordered the networking site to, among other things, “remove any existing technical barriers to [its] public profiles, and to refrain from putting in place any legal or technical measures” that would block access.

    The 9th Circuit previously affirmed the preliminary injunction, but was called to further consider whether the CFAA applies to the data analytics company’s data scraping after the U.S. Supreme Court vacated the appellate court’s judgment in light of its ruling in Van Buren v. United States.

    On remand, the appellate court reviewed whether the data analytics company accessed data “without authorization” in violation of the CFAA after it received the cease-and-desist letter. The 9th Circuit found that the ruling in Van Buren, in which the Supreme Court suggested that the CFAA only applies in cases where someone is accused of hacking into or exceeding their authorized access to a network that is protected, or in situations where the “gates are up,” narrowed the CFAA’s scope and most likely did not apply to cases involving data scraped in bulk by automated bots from public websites. “A defining feature of public websites is that their publicly available sections lack limitations on access; instead, those sections are open to anyone with a web browser,” the appellate court wrote. “In other words, applying the ‘gates’ analogy to a computer hosting publicly available webpages, that computer has erected no gates to lift or lower in the first place.” Therefore, the court held, the phrase “without authorization” does not apply to public websites.

    In determining that a preliminary injunction was appropriate, the appellate court held that the district court did not abuse its discretion in concluding that the data analytics company met the standard of establishing that the plaintiff is likely to succeed on the merits, is likely to suffer irreparable harm without such relief, that the “balance of equities” is in the favor of the plaintiff, and that the injunction would be in the public interest.  The court found that the data analytics company showed that it “currently has no viable way to remain in business other than using [the networking site’s] public profile data” for its analytic services and “demonstrated a likelihood of irreparable harm absent a preliminary injunction.” In considering the balance of hardships, the 9th Circuit agreed that the scales “tipped sharply” in favor of the data analytics company “when weighing the likelihood that [the data analytics company] would go out of business against [the networking site’s] assertion that an injunction threatened its members’ privacy” and therefore risked the goodwill it had developed with its members. Finally, the court rejected the networking site’s claims that the data analytics company violated the CFAA, which would have preempted the remaining state law claims.  
     

    Privacy/Cyber Risk & Data Security Courts Appellate Ninth Circuit Cyber Risk & Data Security Computer Fraud and Abuse Act Data Scraping

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  • 9th Circuit: Defendant is liable for third-party calls

    Courts

    Recently, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit affirmed in part and reversed in part a district court’s ruling that a defendant knew its third-party contractor was making pre-recorded calls to prospective consumers without consumers’ consent in violation of the TCPA. As previously covered by InfoBytes, in December 2017, consumers filed a consolidated class action against a cruise line, alleging violations of, among other things, the TCPA for marketing calls made to class members’ cell phones using an automatic telephone dialing system between November 2016 and December 2017. The suit alleged that the defendant hired a company to generate leads and initiate telephone calls to prospective consumers for cruise packages. The U.S. District Court for the Southern District of California denied dismissal of the TCPA action for lack of subject matter jurisdiction, concluding that the Court’s decision in Barr v. American Association of Political Consultants Inc., did not invalidate the TCPA in its entirety from 2015 until July 2020. In Barr the U.S. Supreme Court held that the TCPA’s government-debt exception is an unconstitutional content-based speech restriction and severed the provision from the remainder of the statute. (Covered previously by InfoBytes here.)

    On the appeal, the issue was whether the defendant is liable under the TCPA for prerecorded voice calls made by the third-party contractor to the plaintiffs, who had not given prior express consent to be called. The 9th Circuit agreed with the district court’s decision in granting summary judgment for the defendant where the TCPA did not require the defendant to ensure that the third-party contractor had prior express consent for each call that it made to the defendant’s customers, nor did the defendant have actual authority over the third-party contractor. However, the 9th Circuit concluded that the defendant may be vicariously liable for the third-party contractor’s calls because it might have ratified them. The appellate court noted that the defendant knew that it received 2.1 million warm-transferred calls from the company between January 2017 and June 2018, but only 80,081 of those transfers were from individuals who had allegedly consented to receiving the calls. The defendant also had knowledge that there was a slew of mismatched caller data, and that the third-party contractor placed calls using prerecorded voices. The appellate court wrote that, “[t]hese facts, in combination with the evidence of widespread TCPA violations in the cruise industry, would support a finding that [the defendant] knew facts that should have led it to investigate [the company’s] work for TCPA violations.”

    Courts TCPA Class Action Autodialer U.S. Supreme Court Appellate Ninth Circuit Third-Party

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  • 10th Circuit: Extended overdraft fees do not qualify as interest under the NBA

    Courts

    On April 8, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit concluded that extended overdraft fees do not legally qualify as interest under the National Bank Act (NBA). According to the opinion, after the plaintiff overdrew funds from his checking account, the bank covered the cost of the item and charged an initial overdraft fee. The bank later began imposing an extended overdraft fee each business day following the initial overdraft, ultimately assessing 36 separate overdraft fees. The plaintiff filed a putative class action, contending that the bank’s extended overdraft fees qualify as interest under the NBA, and that the amount charged (which he claimed translated to an effective annualized interest rate between 501 and 2,462 percent) violated the NBA’s anti-usury provisions because it exceeded Oklahoma’s maximum annualized interest rate of 6 percent. While the plaintiff recognized that the initial overdraft fee qualifies as a “deposit account service,” he argued that the extended overdraft fee “‘is an interest charge levied by [the bank] for the continued extension of credit made in covering a customer’s overdraft’ and therefore cannot be considered connected to the same banking services that [the bank] provides to its depositors.” The district court disagreed and dismissed the action for failure to state a claim after determining that the bank’s extended overdraft fees were fees for “deposit account services” and were not “interest” under the NBA.

    In affirming the district court’s dismissal, the appellate majority (an issue of first impression in the 10th Circuit) agreed that the fees qualify as non-interest account fees rather than interest charges under the NBA. The majority deferred to the OCC’s 2007 Interpretive Letter, which addressed the legality of a similar overdraft program fee structure. The letter “represents OCC’s reasonable interpretation of genuinely ambiguous regulations, and OCC’s determination that fees like [the bank’s] extended overdraft fees are ‘non-interest charges’ is neither plainly erroneous nor inconsistent with the regulations it interprets,” the majority wrote. “As ‘non-interest charges’ under § 7.4002, [the bank’s] extended overdraft fees are not subject to the NBA’s usury limits, and [plaintiff] fails to state a claim,” the majority added.

    The dissenting judge countered that extended overdraft fees are interest, and that the OCC’s interpretation did not deserve deference because these fees “unambiguously” meet the definition of interest under 12 C.F.R. § 7.4001(a). According to the dissenting judge, this regulation provides that “‘interest’ ... includes any payment compensating a creditor ... for an extension of credit,” and that as such, the “definition maps onto extended overdraft fees like [the bank’s]” and thus the plaintiff had stated a claim.

    Courts Appellate Tenth Circuit Overdraft Interest National Bank Act Fees Consumer Finance OCC Class Action

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  • 8th Circuit: No standing in FCRA action following Spokeo

    Courts

    On May 3, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit vacated a district court’s approval of a class action settlement agreement in an FCRA action after determining that the plaintiff lacked Article III standing in light of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Spokeo, Inc. v. Robins. According to the opinion, after the plaintiff applied for employment with the defendant, the defendant made a conditional offer of employment to the plaintiff and also asked her to sign an authorization for release of information so that it could conduct a background investigation of the plaintiff, including a criminal background search. The plaintiff contended that, after the defendant reviewed the background screening report, it withdrew the conditional offer of employment and did not provide her an opportunity before the offer was withdrawn to correct or explain the results in the report. A follow-up letter, which included a copy of the report and a description of her rights under the FCRA, was sent to the plaintiff stating that if she planned to dispute the information she had to do so within seven days from receipt of the letter. The plaintiff commenced the action in February 2016, alleging the defendant violated the FCRA by: (i) “taking adverse employment action based on a consumer report without first providing the report to the applicant”; (ii) “obtaining a consumer report without providing a disclosure form that complied with the FCRA”; and (iii) “exceeding the scope of the authorization by obtaining more information than the disclosed in the authorization.” In May 2016, the parties reached a tentative settlement agreement, but four days later the Supreme Court issued its decision in Spokeo, which requires plaintiffs to show that they have suffered a concrete injury in fact that is fairly traceable to the challenged conduct of the defendant, and not just allege a statutory violation. Following Spokeo, the defendant moved to dismiss for lack of standing, but the district court approved the settlement.

    On appeal, the 8th Circuit concluded that the plaintiff lacked Article III standing to bring her FCRA claims, determining, among other things, that “the right to pre-action explanation to the employer is not unambiguously stated in the text of the statute,” and that “[n]either the text of the FCRA nor the legislative history provide support for [plaintiff’s] claim that she has a right under the FCRA to not only receive a copy of her consumer report, but also discuss directly with the employer accurate but negative information within the report prior to the employer taking adverse action.” The plaintiff “may have demonstrated an injury in law, but not an injury in fact,” the appellate court wrote. With respect to the plaintiff’s other two claims, the appellate court noted that she failed to show any claim of harm—tangible or intangible. Because Schumacher lacked standing to assert any of her claims, the appellate court vacated the district court’s order and remanded the case with instructions to return the case to the state court.

    Courts Appellate Eighth Circuit Spokeo FCRA Class Action

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