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On November 16, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit affirmed a Texas district court’s denial of attorney’s fees in an FDCPA action, concluding the district court did not abuse its discretion in denying the fees based on the “outrageous facts” in the case. The decision results from a lawsuit filed by a consumer against a debt collector, alleging the company violated the FDCPA and the Texas Debt Collection Act (TDCA) by using the words “credit bureau” in its name despite having ceased to function as a consumer reporting agency, and therefore misrepresented itself as a credit bureau in an attempt to collect a debt. The district court adopted a magistrate judge’s recommendation and found the company violated the FDCPA, granted summary judgment in part for the plaintiff (while denying the TDCA claims), and awarded her statutory damages of $1,000. The plaintiff then filed a motion for $130,410 in attorney’ fees, based on her attorney’s hourly rate of $450. The magistrate judge denied the attorney’s fees, noting that although violation of the FDCPA ordinarily justifies awards of attorneys’ fees, the amount claimed was “excessive by orders of magnitude,” and the lawsuit appeared to have been “created by counsel for the purpose of generating, in counsel’s own words, an ‘incredibly high fee request.’” The district court adopted the magistrate judge’s order.
On appeal, the 5th Circuit noted that other circuits have held there can be narrow exceptions to the FDCPA’s attorneys’ fees mandate, including the presence of bad faith conduct on the part of the plaintiff. In determining the “extreme facts” of the case justify the district court’s denial of attorney’s fees, the appeals court noted the almost 290 hours claimed to be worked by the attorneys are not reflected in the pleadings filed, which were “replete with grammatical errors, formatting issues, and improper citations.” The poor craftsmanship of the filings, the court noted, did not justify the $450 hourly rate charged.
On November 19, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to review the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit’s March decision, which held that a California law requiring banks to pay interest on mortgage escrow funds is not preempted by federal law. As previously covered by InfoBytes, a national bank petitioned for writ of certiorari in August, arguing the 9th Circuit’s decision—holding that the Dodd-Frank Act of 2011 codified the existing National Bank Act preemption standard from the 1996 Supreme Court decision in Barnett Bank of Marion County v. Nelson—warranted further review “because it creates significant uncertainty about whether national banks must comply with similar laws in other states” and whether other state banking laws also apply to national banks. Additionally, the petition argued the uncertainty is exacerbated by the fact that the appellate court “disregarded and refused to enforce longstanding OCC regulations” and that the court interpreted the Barnett decision incorrectly.
On October 30, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit denied a California gym’s petition for a rehearing en banc of the court’s September decision reviving a TCPA putative class action. As previously covered by InfoBytes, the appeals court vacated a district court order granting summary judgment in favor of the gym, concluding that there was a genuine issue of material fact as to whether the text system used by the gym—which stores numbers and dials them automatically to send the messages—qualified as an “autodialer” under the TCPA. Notably, in vacating the summary judgment order, the 9th Circuit performed its own review of the statutory definition of an autodialer in the TCPA, because the recent D.C. Circuit opinion in ACA International v. FCC (covered by a Buckley Sandler Special Alert) set aside the FCC’s definition. Through this review, the appeals court concluded that the TCPA defined an autodialer broadly as “equipment which has the capacity—(i) to store numbers to be called, or (ii) to produce numbers to be called, using a random or sequential number generator—and to dial such numbers automatically (even if the system must be turned on or triggered by a person).”
On October 22, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit held that the availability of class or collective arbitration within an employment agreement is a threshold “question of arbitrability” that must be decided by a court. According to the opinion, an employee filed class and collection action claims against her employer for wage and hour violations. The district court compelled arbitration pursuant to an agreement between the employee and her employer but struck as unlawful a waiver clause that forbid class or collective arbitration of any claim. The case proceeded to arbitration and the arbitrator issued an award of over $10 million in damages to the employee and the other 174 claimants who had opted-in to the arbitration proceeding. The employer appealed the award, arguing that the waiver of collective arbitration provision was valid, rendering the collective arbitration in violation of the employment agreement.
On appeal, the 7th Circuit reversed and remanded the case to the district court, pointing to the Supreme Court’s recent decision in Epic Systems Corp. v. Lewis, which upheld the validity of similar provisions. (Epic held that “an arbitration agreement does not violate the National Labor Relations Act when it requires plaintiffs to pursue employment-related claims in single claimant arbitrations.”). The plaintiff also argued, however, that despite the presence of the waiver, the arbitration agreement still permitted collective arbitration. This left open the question of who interprets the agreement to determine whether collection arbitration applies—the arbitrator or the court. The 7th Circuit found for the latter, concluding that the availability of class or collective arbitration is a threshold question of arbitrability and therefore a district court, and not the arbitrator should decide its permissibility.
CFPB urges 9th Circuit to reverse district court’s order and impose higher penalty in tribal lending action
On October 19, the CFPB filed its opening brief before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit in Consumer Financial Protection Bureau v. CashCall, Inc., an action brought by the CFPB to limit the reach of the so-called “tribal model” of online lending. In the original action, the court found that an online loan servicer that operated on tribal lands engaged in deceptive practices by collecting on loans that exceeded the usury limits in various states, and ordered it and its affiliates to pay a $10 million penalty, far short of the Bureau’s request. (Previously covered by InfoBtyes here and here.) The CFPB appealed, arguing that the district court erred by imposing a civil penalty that was “inappropriately low” and by refusing to order appropriate restitution. In its brief, the Bureau argued that the district court misapplied the law when finding that restitution was not “an appropriate remedy.” According to the Bureau, the district court believed it had discretionary power to deny restitution, based on the court’s view of the equities. But the district court had no such discretion, the Bureau asserted, claiming that if a plaintiff proves a violation and resulting harm, it is entitled to restitution under the CFPA. In addition, the Bureau argued that the district court should not have denied restitution on the grounds that the servicer had not acted in bad faith. The Bureau argued that allowing the servicer to earn $200 million in ill-gotten gains while paying a $10 million penalty leaves companies with “little incentive to follow the law.” The Bureau also argued that the loan servicer’s actions were reckless and warranted a higher civil penalty. The district court had concluded that the servicer did not act recklessly because its primary counsel opined that it could contract around state law. In response, the Bureau asserted that the servicer had “ample reason to know” its attempts to circumvent state usury laws posed an unjustifiably high risk that it was “collecting amounts consumers did not owe” after multiple lawyers warned the servicer that its attempts to avoid state law “likely” would not work.”
On October 18, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit held that an individual is a “qualified consumer” under the FDCPA, even when he is alleged by debt collectors to owe debts that he claims he does not owe. According to the opinion, a credit card was fraudulently opened in the plaintiff appellant’s name and was charged off, after default, to a debt collector who filed suit in an attempt to collect the debt. After the small-claims collection case was dismissed, the plaintiff appellant sued the debt collector for alleged violations of the FDCPA and the Illinois Collection Agency Act. The district court dismissed the action, holding that, to be a “consumer” under FDCPA, the individual must “allege he actually owed a debt.” On appeal, the 7th Circuit reversed. It held that the plain language of FDCPA covers individuals “allegedly obligated to pay” a debt, which includes “obligations alleged by the debt collector as well.” As a result, individuals who are alleged by debt collectors to owe debts are consumers under the FDCPA, even if they deny having any connection to the debt or any obligation to pay it.
On October 18, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit affirmed summary judgment for a mortgage servicer, holding that the plaintiff homeowners failed to show racial discrimination in violation of the Equal Credit Opportunity Act (ECOA) when the servicer required the homeowners to bring the prior loan current before assuming it. According to the opinion, the homeowners purchased a home from the previous homeowner with an existing mortgage. Soon after the purchase, the homeowners learned that the previous owner had stopped making his mortgage payments and that the bank had begun to foreclose on the home. After receiving notice of foreclosure, the homeowners tried repeatedly to assume the previous owner’s mortgage which the mortgage servicer conditioned on the homeowners bringing the loan current. Unable to do so, the homeowners sued, bringing various state and federal law claims, including under ECOA, after an employee of the servicer allegedly made a remark that implied that the homeowners were not being allowed to assume the loan because of their race. The district court rejected the claims and entered summary judgment for the mortgage servicer.
On appeal, the 7th Circuit affirmed, concluding that the homeowners failed to counter the servicer’s representation that they never produced a complete application. Moreover, the court held that the alleged statement, which attributed the servicer’s decision to a race, was vague and “require[d] too much speculation to conclude that their race” was a determining factor in the requirement to satisfy the outstanding loan payments, a requirement that was otherwise consistent with the loan agreement.
California state appeals court partially reverses proposed class action suit addressing arbitration terms
On October 2, a California state appeals court partially reversed a trial court’s denial of class certification in a putative class action alleging that a written cardmember agreement issued by a credit card company contained unconscionable and unenforceable arbitration terms. According to the opinion, after the cardmember and his company failed to make timely and sufficient payments on their accounts, the credit card company closed the accounts and filed a collection action. The cardmember subsequently filed a putative class action cross-complaint against the credit card company and two other card issuers, alleging the arbitration terms in the cardmember agreements he signed are unlawful under California’s Unfair Competition Law, and asserting, among other things, that the legally unenforceable contract terms prevented negotiations, prohibited injunctive relief, and failed to communicate to cardholders what the rules would be at the time of arbitration. The cardmember further alleged that cardholders were overcharged annual credit card fees or purchase fees “as consideration for the promises contained in the cardmember agreement.” During the course of the litigation, the credit card companies sent certain cardmembers modified contract terms, which allowed cardmembers the option to reject arbitration altogether if a written rejection notice was provided within a specific time period.
The trial court denied class certification, finding, among other things, that the cardmember was not an adequate class representative and did not have claims typical of the putative class because there was no evidence he paid annual fees and that individual issues would predominate with respect to procedural unconscionability and each individual class member’s entitlement to declaratory relief. On appeal, the court held that the trial court “used improper criteria and erroneous assumptions” when reaching its decision that “procedural unconscionability would involve predominantly individualized issues.” Moreover, the appellants and absent class members were linked by common questions, including whether it was unreasonable for the respondent to modify its arbitration terms during pending litigation, since this denied cardholders who opted out of arbitration the right to join the class.
FCC seeks comments on interpretation of TCPA definition of autodialer following 9th Circuit decision
On October 3, the FCC’s Consumer and Governmental Affairs Bureau released a notice seeking comment on the interpretation of the TCPA in light of a recent 9th Circuit decision, which broadened the definition of an automatic telephone dialing system (autodialer) under the TCPA. As previously covered in InfoBytes, on September 20, the 9th Circuit held that the TCPA’s definition of an autodialer includes equipment with the capacity to store numbers to be called and to automatically dial such numbers whether or not those numbers have been generated by a random or sequential number generator. The court, however, declared the statutory definition of an autodialer to be “ambiguous on its face” and, thus, it looked to the context and structure of the TCPA in reaching its conclusion regarding the scope of the definition.
The FCC issued the notice “to supplement the record developed in response” to a prior notice issued last May, which sought comments on the interpretation of the TCPA following the D.C. Circuit’s decision in ACA International v. FCC. (See previous InfoBytes coverage on the May 2018 notice here.) Specifically, the FCC seeks comments on the following issues relevant to developing an interpretation of the TCPA’s definition of autodialer: (i) To the extent the definition of an autodialer is ambiguous, how should the FCC exercise its discretion to interpret such ambiguities? (ii) Does the 9th Circuit’s interpretation mean that any device with the capacity to dial stored numbers automatically qualifies as an autodialer? (iii) What devices have the capacity to store numbers, and do smartphones have such capacity? and (iv) What devices that have the capacity to dial stored numbers also have the capacity to automatically dial such numbers and do smartphones have such capacity?
Comments are due October 17 with reply comments due October 24.
11th Circuit holds deaf plaintiff not required to file complaint with FCC before filing lawsuit under other federal disability rights laws
On September 28, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit vacated a district court’s decision to grant a Florida city’s (City) motion to dismiss for lack of subject matter jurisdiction, holding that (i) the Twenty-First Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act of 2010 (CVAA) did not require the appellant to exhaust his remedies before the FCC prior to commencing a lawsuit under other federal disability statutes; and (ii) the primary-jurisdiction doctrine does not apply to this case.
According to the opinion, the appellant, a deaf individual, alleged that none of the video content stored on the City’s four webpages provided closed captioning, in violation of the Rehabilitation Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act. The district court dismissed the action without prejudice, holding the CVAA requires exhaustion of remedies by the FCC as a prerequisite to the filing of a lawsuit.
On appeal, the 11th Circuit rejected as “an overbroad reading of the statute” the City’s argument that the CVAA contains an exhaustion requirement for claims brought under other disability rights statutes. In support of its position that the FCC only has exclusive jurisdiction over closed captioning complaints brought under the relevant section of the CVAA, the Court cited a 9th Circuit decision, which concluded “the FCC’s exclusive jurisdiction over complaints under the CVAA does nothing to extinguish [the plaintiff’s] right to pursue broader relief for online captioning under [California state law].” In rejecting the City’s primary-jurisdiction argument, the 11th Circuit first cited instances where the FCC—in a report to Congress and in a communication to this plaintiff in an unrelated action—took the position that the CVAA does not require plaintiffs to exhaust administrative remedies as a prerequisite to bringing lawsuits under other federal statutes. The Court also applied the two-factor primary jurisdiction doctrine test, concluding that (i) the FCC has no expertise with respect to the claims under the other federal disability rights statutes before the lower court; and (ii) “this case presents no special need for uniformity.”
- Sasha Leonhardt and John B. Williams to discuss "Privacy" at the National Association of Federally-Insured Credit Unions Spring Regulatory Compliance School
- Aaron C. Mahler to discuss "Regulation B/fair lending" at the National Association of Federally-Insured Credit Unions Spring Regulatory Compliance School
- Heidi M. Bauer and Dan Ladd to discuss "'So you want to form a joint venture' — Licensing strategies for successful JVs" at RESPRO26
- Tim Lange to discuss "Update from 2019 NMLS Conference" at the California Mortgage Bankers Association Mortgage Quality & Compliance Committee webinar
- Jonice Gray Tucker to discuss "Small business & regulation: How fair lending has evolved & where are we heading?" at CBA Live
- Jonice Gray Tucker to to discuss "DC policy: Everything but the kitchen sink" at CBA Live
- Jon David D. Langlois to discuss "Transaction management-issues surrounding purchase & sale agreements, post acquisition integration & trailing docs" at the Investment Management Network Residential Mortgage Servicing Rights Forum
- Daniel P. Stipano to discuss "Lessons learned from ABLV and other major cases involving inadequate compliance oversight" at the ACAMS International AML & Financial Crime Conference
- Daniel P. Stipano to discuss "A year in the life of the CDD final rule: A first anniversary assessment" at the ACAMS International AML & Financial Crime Conference
- Moorari K. Shah to discuss "State regulatory and disclosures" at the Equipment Leasing and Finance Association Legal Forum
- Hank Asbill to discuss "Creative character evidence in criminal and civil trials" at the Litigation Counsel of America Spring Conference & Celebration of Fellows
- Brandy A. Hood to discuss "Flood NFIP in the age of extreme weather events" at the Mortgage Bankers Association Legal Issues and Regulatory Compliance Conference
- Michelle L. Rogers to discuss "UDAAP compliance" at the Mortgage Bankers Association Legal Issues and Regulatory Compliance Conference
- Kathryn L. Ryan to discuss "State examination/enforcement trends" at the Mortgage Bankers Association Legal Issues and Regulatory Compliance Conference
- Benjamin K. Olson to discuss "LO compensation" at the Mortgage Bankers Association Legal Issues and Regulatory Compliance Conference
- Kathryn L. Ryan to discuss "Major state law developments" at the Mortgage Bankers Association Legal Issues and Regulatory Compliance Conference
- Jonice Gray Tucker to discuss "Leveraging big data responsibly" at the Mortgage Bankers Association Legal Issues and Regulatory Compliance Conference
- Hank Asbill to discuss "Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain: Addressing prosecutions driven by hidden actors" at the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers West Coast White Collar Conference
- Daniel P. Stipano to discuss "Keep off the grass: Mitigating the risks of banking marijuana-related businesses" at the ACAMS AML Risk Management Conference
- Daniel P. Stipano to discuss "Mid-year policy update" at the ACAMS AML Risk Management Conference
- Benjamin W. Hutten to discuss "Requirements for banking inherently high-risk relationships" at the Georgia Bankers Association BSA Experience Program