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On March 12, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit affirmed dismissal of a consumer’s action against a debt collector, holding that the collection letter complied with the FDCPA. According to the opinion, the consumer filed a putative class action alleging the letter he received from the debt collection company violated Sections 1692e and 1692g of the FDCPA because it failed to inform him of details about his debt, such as what portion is principal and if there is interest. Additionally, the consumer alleged the letter conveyed the “mistaken impression ‘that the debt could be satisfied by remitting the listed amount as of the date of the letter, at any time after receipt of the letter.’” The lower court dismissed the action, noting that the letter stated the debt owed as of its date and stated that the amount may increase because of interest and fees, as required by the FDCPA.
On appeal, the 2nd Circuit agreed with the lower court. The appellate court rejected the consumer’s arguments that the letter failed under Section 1692g because it didn’t specify what portion of the debt is principal and if interest applied when it stated, “[a]s of the date of this letter, you owe $5918.69.” The appellate court found that the letter adequately informed the consumer of the total quantity of his debt and emphasized that nothing in Section 1692g requires the debt collector to explain the components of the debt or “precise rates by which it might later increase.” Moreover, the appellate court concluded that nothing about the debt collection letter “could be fairly characterized as ‘false, deceptive, or misleading’” under Section 1692e, as the letter explicitly stated the consumer’s balance may increase based on the day he remitted payment.
On March 8, the CFPB and two payday loan trade groups filed a joint status report with the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Texas in the litigation over the Bureau’s final rule on payday loans, vehicle title loans, and certain other installment loans (Rule). As previously covered by InfoBytes, the two payday loan trade groups initiated the suit against the Bureau in April 2018, asking the court to set aside the Rule on the grounds that, among other reasons, the Bureau is unconstitutional and the rulemaking failed to comply with the Administrative Procedures Act. In June 2018 and November 2018, the court stayed the litigation and the compliance date of the Rule, after the Bureau’s announcement that it intended to issue a proposed rulemaking to reconsider parts of the Rule. In February 2019, the Bureau issued a proposal, which seeks to rescind certain provisions of the Rule related to the ability-to-repay underwriting standards and delay the compliance date of those affected provisions until August 2020. The proposal does not reconsider the payment-related provisions of the Rule, leaving the compliance date for those provisions at August 19, 2019. (Covered by InfoBytes here.)
In the joint status report, both parties agree that the court’s stay of compliance date and stay of litigation should remain with regard to the underwriting provisions until the Bureau concludes the rulemaking process. As for the payment-related provisions, the payday loan trade groups request the court maintain both the litigation stay and compliance stay of payment provisions until the Bureau completes the underwriting rulemaking process, because the Bureau acknowledged in the proposals that it intends to examine issues related to the payment provisions and “and if the Bureau determines that further action is warranted, the Bureau will commence a separate rulemaking initiative,” which may ultimately moot the litigation. Moreover, the trade groups believe lifting the stays would lead to “piecemeal and potentially wasteful litigation.”
The Bureau also does not seek a lift to the stay of the litigation or compliance date for the payment-related provisions, but for separate reasons. The Bureau argues that the stay of the litigation should be “more limited,” at least until the 5th Circuit issues a decision on the Bureau’s constitutionality in a pending action (covered by InfoBytes here). As for the compliance date stay for the payment-related provisions, the Bureau believes it is not an issue the court needs to decide at this time, but acknowledges that should it request the court lift the stay in the future, the trade groups and the Bureau would have an opportunity to address whether lifting the stay should be delayed to “allow companies to come into compliance with the payments provisions.”
In response to the joint status report, on March 19, the court entered an order continuing the stay of the litigation and the compliance date for both the Rule’s underwriting provisions and its payment-related provisions.
On March 6, the Indiana Court of Appeals affirmed the lower court’s denial of an auto dealership’s motion to dismiss a proposed class action alleging the dealership violated the Indiana Deceptive Consumer Sales Act (the Consumer Act). According to the opinion, consumers filed the proposed class action alleging that the dealership charged document preparation fees that exceeded the actual costs incurred by the dealership for preparation and that the fees were not affirmatively disclosed or negotiated with the consumers. The proposed class action argued the charging of the fees was an “unfair, abusive, or deceptive act, omission, or practice in connection with a consumer transaction” under the Consumer Act and quoted a statutory provision from the Indiana Motor Vehicle Dealer Services Act (the Dealer Act). The dealership moved to dismiss the action, arguing there was no private right of action under the Dealer Act and that the consumers failed to state a claim for relief under the Consumer Act. The consumers conceded there was no private right under the Dealership Act, but noted the quoted reference was used to merely describe an unfair practice that is prohibited by the Consumer Act. The lower court denied the motion, concluding that the non-disclosure claim fell within the “catch-all” provision of the Consumer Act.
On appeal, the appellate court noted that in order to state a claim under the Consumer Act, the consumer must have alleged the dealership “committed an uncured or incurable deceptive act.” The appellate court acknowledged that the allegations that the dealership charged an unfair fee and “did not state its intention as part of the bargaining process” generally fell within the realm of the Consumer Act, and determined that, even without specifics, the complaint’s “general allegations of uncured and incurable acts are adequate to withstand dismissal.”
On March 6, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit held that Congress did not waive sovereign immunity for lawsuits under the FCRA, affirming the lower court’s dismissal of a consumer action. According to the opinion, a consumer filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Education (the Department), a student loan company, and the three major credit reporting agencies, alleging numerous claims, including violations of the FCRA for failing to properly investigate disputes that federal student loans were fraudulently opened in his name. The Department filed a motion to dismiss to the FCRA claims against it arguing the court lacked subject matter jurisdiction based upon a claim of sovereign immunity. The lower court agreed, holding Congress had not affirmatively waived sovereign immunity for suits under the FCRA.
On appeal, the 4th Circuit agreed with the lower court. The appellate court noted that, although the FCRA includes a “government or governmental subdivision or agency” as part of the definition of “person” in the statute, there is a “longstanding interpretive presumption that ‘person’ does not include the sovereign,” and that waivers of sovereign immunity need to be “unambiguous and unequivocal.” The appellate court noted that Congress waived immunity in other sections of the FCRA, which were not at issue in this case and, had Congress waived immunity for enforcement purposes under the FCRA, it would raise a new host of “befuddling” and “bizarre” issues, such as the prospect of the government bringing criminal charges against itself. Therefore, the appellate court concluded that the federal government may be a “person” under the substantive provisions, but that without a clear waiver from Congress, the federal government is still immune from lawsuits under the FCRA’s enforcement provisions.
On February 27, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California granted a national bank’s request to certify for interlocutory appeal whether state law claims involving interest on escrow accounts were preempted by the Home Owners Loan Act (HOLA). As previously covered by InfoBytes, three plaintiffs filed suit against the bank, arguing that it must comply with a California law that requires mortgage lenders to pay interest on funds held in a consumer’s escrow account, following the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit’s decision in Lusnak v. Bank of America. The bank moved to dismiss the action, arguing, among other things, that the claims were preempted by HOLA. The court acknowledged that HOLA preempted the state interest law as to the originator of the mortgages, a now-defunct federal thrift, but disagreed with the bank’s assertion that the preemption attached throughout the life of the loan, including after the loan was transferred to a bank whose own lending is not covered by HOLA. Specifically, the court looked to the legislative intent of HOLA and noted it was unclear if Congress intended for preemption to attach through the life of the loan, but found a clear goal of consumer protection.
By granting the motion for interlocutory appeal, the court noted that the frequency with which the HOLA issue arises, “weighs in favor of allowing the Ninth Circuit to resolve this question.” Moreover, the court cited to a recent 9th Circuit case, in which the appellate court recognized HOLA preemption as a “novel legal issue.” The court also temporarily granted the bank’s request to stay the proceedings pending the resolution of the 9th Circuit action.
On March 1, the Superior Court of New Jersey Appellate Division affirmed a lower court’s order granting summary judgment to an auto finance company and dismissing with prejudice a plaintiff’s New Jersey Consumer Fraud Act (CFA) and Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA) claims. According to the opinion, the plaintiff entered into a lease agreement for a vehicle serviced by the defendant. The plaintiff, who incurred late charges on 35 of her 39 monthly payments of $300, returned the vehicle before the end of the lease and was required to pay a $495 vehicle return fee, along with wear and tear fees and late charges. The plaintiff subsequently entered into a new lease transaction, in which the dealership agreed to pay the defendant the outstanding payments on her old lease, but did not, according to the court, waive the vehicle return fee. The dealership paid the full balance to the defendant after the plaintiff received notification about an overdue lease payment, and the day after the dealership’s payment was applied, the plaintiff paid an additional $300—which was mistakenly applied to a $395 disposition fee, as opposed to the larger vehicle return fee. The plaintiff made a final payment of $655 to settle the balance of the disposition fee as well as wear and tear fees and late charges. A complaint was filed later by the plaintiff against the defendant alleging that it fraudulently procured an additional $300 lease payment and falsely reported that she was delinquent on payments.
Affirming the lower court, the appeals court concluded that the defendant’s representations regarding the outstanding $300 payment were accurate and, under the lease terms, the plaintiff remained responsible for the vehicle return and wear and tear fees. In addition, the appeals court held that the plaintiff’s FCRA claim failed because the record confirmed that within 30 days of being notified of a dispute with the plaintiff’s credit score, the defendant conducted an investigation and requested that the credit reporting agencies remove the “late marks.”
On February 26, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California granted summary judgment in favor of Fannie Mae in an action brought by a consumer alleging that Fannie Mae violated the California Consumer Credit Reporting Agencies Act (CCCRA) and the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA) by prohibiting lenders from providing consumers a copy of Fannie Mae’s Desktop Underwriter (DU) report. According to the opinion, two years after completing a short sale on his previous home, a consumer sought a mortgage with three lenders. One lender used Fannie Mae’s DU program to determine if the loan would be eligible for purchase by the agency, but the DU report listed his prior mortgage loan as a foreclosure rather than a short sale. The lender ultimately denied the application, rather than manually underwrite it. Upon reviewing Fannie Mae’s motion for summary judgment, the court noted that in order for the consumer to succeed on his CCRA and FCRA claims, he must establish Fannie Mae is a credit reporting agency. The court rejected the consumer’s attempts to distinguish his case from the recent 9th Circuit decision in Zabriskie v. Fed. Nat’l Mortg. Ass’n, which held that Fannie Mae was not a credit reporting agency under the FCRA. (Covered by InfoBytes here.) The court acknowledged that even though Fannie Mae may have problems with its foreclosure recommendations in the DU system, it does not undercut the conclusion that Fannie Mae operates the DU system to assist lenders in making purchasing decisions, does not “regularly engage in . . . the practice of assembling or evaluating” consumer information, and therefore, is not a credit reporting agency.
On February 26, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit affirmed a former general counsel’s whistleblower retaliation claim, under California public policy, against a biopharmaceutical manufacturer and its CEO but vacated the jury’s Sarbanes-Oxley Act (SOX) and Dodd-Frank Act verdicts. According to the opinion, the general counsel sued the company and the CEO claiming whistleblower retaliation under SOX, the Dodd-Frank Act, and California wrongful termination case law, claiming the company fired him after he alleged the company may have violated the FCPA in China. The jury awarded the general counsel $11 million, including $2.96 million in lost wages, which was doubled under the Dodd-Frank Act’s whistleblower provision, and $5 million in punitive damages. The company appealed the verdict arguing the district court erred in the instructions to the jury when it stated that statutory provisions of the FCPA constitute “rules or regulations of the SEC for purposes of whether [the general counsel] engaged in protected activity under SOX.”
On appeal, the 9th Circuit concluded the district court’s instructional error was not harmless as to the SOX claim, finding that the statutory provisions of the FCPA are not “rules or regulations of the SEC under SOX” as instructed to the jury. While the error was not harmless, the appellate court rejected entering judgment in favor of the company and instead, remanded the case back for proper instruction. Additionally, the appellate court vacated the district court’s instructions for the jury to enter judgment in favor of the Dodd-Frank Act claim, citing to the Supreme Court decision in Digital Realty Trust Inc. v. Somers. The appellate court concluded that the whistleblower provision of the act does not apply to purely internal reports and entered judgment in favor of the company. As for the California public policy claim, the appellate court determined that the incorrect SOX jury instructions were harmless because his California claim did not depend on SOX and the jury “necessarily would have reached the same verdict under proper instruction.” The affirmation of the California claim and associated damages left the general counsel with an award of nearly $8 million.
On February 22, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit issued a precedential order affirming a district court’s ruling that an entity that purchases charged-off receivables and outsources the collection activity to a third party still qualifies as a debt collector and, therefore, may be bound by the dictates of the FDCPA. According to the opinion, a consumer filed a lawsuit against the debt-buying company alleging voicemail messages she received from the company’s contractor failed to identify the contractor as a collection agency. The consumer further alleged that a letter the contractor sent did not inform her how to exercise her validation rights, in violation of the FDCPA. The district court ruled that the defendant, which identifies itself as a creditor, meets the “principal purpose” definition of a debt collection under the FDCPA and therefore must comply with its provisions. On appeal, the defendant argued that debt collection and purchasing are “mutually exclusive,” and that the district court's ruling should be reversed under the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Henson v. Santander Consumer USA, which held that the FDCPA does not necessarily apply to a company collecting debts in default that it purchased for its own account. (See previous Buckley Special Alert on the decision here.)
However, the 3rd Circuit agreed with the district court’s decision, and rejected the defendant’s arguments that the Henson decision renders it a creditor rather than a debt collector. “The Supreme Court went out of its way in Henson to say that it was not opining on whether debt buyers could also qualify as debt collectors” under certain provisions of the FDCPA, and moreover, “[a]n entity qualifies under the definition if the ‘principal purpose’ of its ‘business’ is the ‘collection of any debts,’” the panel wrote. “As long as a business’s raison d’etre is obtaining payment on the debts that it acquires, it is a debt collector. Who actually obtains the payment or how they do so is of no moment,” the 3rd Circuit wrote.
The appellate court’s opinion, however, did not address the actual question of liability asserted against the defendant, but rather remanded the case for consideration as to whether the defendant is vicariously liable for claims related to the contractor’s actions.
On February 19, the New York State Court of Appeals issued two rulings in cases brought by a trustee against a seller and sponsor of three residential mortgage-backed securities (RMBS) trusts.
The first action involved a lawsuit filed by the trustee more than six years after the execution of the relevant Pooling and Servicing Agreement (PSA). The seller/sponsor moved to dismiss the complaint asserting that it was time-barred because the trustee failed to comply with the sole remedy provision within the six-year statute of limitations. The trustee alleged that its claim was timely because it should relate back to a similar action a certificate holder had timely filed against the seller/sponsor. The lower court granted the motion to dismiss the action with prejudice and the appellate division affirmed. On review by the state’s highest court, the Court affirmed, noting that a complaint only can relate back to a prior action where a valid pre-existing action has been filed. In this instance, the Court found that the certificate holder’s action was not valid because, as lower courts concluded, the PSA’s no action clause prevented the certificate holder from bringing an action against the seller/sponsor on behalf of itself or the trustee. Thus, there was no valid claim for which the trustee’s claim could relate back.
The second case involved a different action brought by the same trustee against the same seller/sponsor related to a different RMBS trust. In that case, the lower court dismissed the action without prejudice, concluding the action was timely-filed, but the trustee failed to comply with the sole remedy provision of the PSA and other controlling agreements. Specifically, the lower court concluded the trustee failed to provide notice of the suspected breach, allowing the loan originator 90 days to cure or repurchase the allegedly non-compliant loans. The appellate division affirmed the dismissal without prejudice, allowing the trustee to refile. The seller/sponsor appealed, arguing the case should be dismissed with prejudice because the trustee did not comply with its obligations under the sole remedy provision within the six-year limitations period. The Court of Appeals disagreed, determining the sole remedy provision is “a procedural condition precedent that does not impact the running of the six-year statute of limitations,” and therefore, does not foreclose refiling of the action. Thus, the action was properly dismissed without prejudice as CPLR 205(a) states that if a timely-filed action that has been terminated for any reason other than those specified in the statute, a second action based on the same transactions or occurrences can be commenced within six months of dismissal of the first action.
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