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Attorney General Sessions Issues Memorandum Ending Payments to Third-Party Organizations as Part of Future Settlement Agreements
On June 7, Attorney General Jeff Sessions issued a memorandum entitled “Prohibition on Settlement Payments to Third Parties” instructing the Department of Justice (DOJ) to cease entering into settlement agreements that include payments to third-party organizations. Attorney General Sessions stated in a press release released by the DOJ, “[w]hen the federal government settles a case against a corporate wrongdoer, any settlement funds should go first to the victims and then to the American people—not to bankroll third-party special interest groups or the political friends of whoever is in power.”
Summary of Memorandum. The memorandum, which became effective immediately and applies to future settlements, notes that previous settlement agreements involving the DOJ required “payments to various non-governmental, third-party organizations . . . [that] were neither victims nor parties to the lawsuits.” The memorandum now states that DOJ “attorneys may not enter into any agreement on behalf of the United States in settlement of federal claims or charges . . . that directs or provides for a payment or loan to any non-governmental person or entity that is not a party to the dispute.” The following are “limited” exceptions:
- “the policy does not apply to an otherwise lawful payment or loan that provides restitution to a victim or that otherwise directly remedies the harm that is sought to be redressed, including, for example, harm to the environment or from official corruption”;
- “the policy does not apply to payments for legal or other professional services rendered in connection with the case”; and
- “the policy does not apply to payments expressly authorized by statute, including restitution and forfeiture.”
The memorandum states that it applies to “all civil and criminal cases litigated under the direction of the Attorney General and includes civil settlement agreements, cy pres agreements or provisions, plea agreements, non-prosecution agreements, and deferred prosecution agreements.”
On May 26, the Ninth Circuit issued decisions affirming the District Court’s decisions to grant summary judgments in two separate lawsuits brought against two different national banks by the city of Los Angeles (city). (View the district court’s summary judgments here and here). In separate appeals, the city alleged that each of the banks violated the Fair Housing Act by engaging in discriminatory mortgage lending to minority borrowers. The city also asserted that this practice resulted in risky loans and increased foreclosures, which lowered the city’s property tax revenues.
The appellate court disagreed with the city. In both decisions, the court observed that the city’s theory of liability was based on alleged “disparate impact,” which requires the city to demonstrate both the existence of a disparity and a facially neutral policy that caused the disparity.” The court noted that under established precedent a disparate impact claim, to succeed, must be supported by evidence of a robust causal connection between the disparity and the facially neutral policy. In the first case, the court held that the city failed to show such a robust causal connection, and in the second, it found “[t]he record does not reflect that the city raised a genuine issue of material fact as to a policy or policies with a robust casual connection to the racial disparity.” (View appellate memoranda for these cases here and here).
In a unanimous ruling handed down on June 5, the United States Supreme Court held that the SEC is bound by a five-year statute of limitations on civil penalties or the return of illegal profits, citing 28 U.S.C. §2462 of the U.S. Code, which “establishes a [five-year] limitations period for ‘an action, suit or proceeding for the enforcement of any civil fine, penalty, or forfeiture.’” Justice Sotomayor delivered the opinion.
The decision resolves a New Mexico case dating back to 2009, in which a jury found the defendant liable for misappropriating more than $34.9 million from 1995 through July 2007 from four SEC-registered investment companies under his control. See S.E.C. v. Kokesh, 834 F.3d 1158 (10th Cir. 2016). The district court judge ordered the defendant to pay a $2.4 million civil penalty, nearly $35 million in disgorgement, and more than $18 million in prejudgment interest after finding that §2462 did not apply because “disgorgement” is not a penalty within the meaning of the statute. The defendant appealed the ruling on the grounds that the disgorgement should be set aside because the claims accrued more than five years before the SEC brought its action against him and are consequently barred under the five-year statute of limitations. However, the 10th Circuit affirmed the ruling of the lower court, agreeing that disgorgement was not a penalty.
The Supreme Court reversed. Justice Sotomayor explained why the Court disagreed with the 10th Circuit panel’s conclusion that disgorgement was not a penalty under the statute. The Court held that disgorgement “bears all the hallmarks of a penalty” and “is imposed as a consequence of violating a public law and . . . is intended to deter, not to compensate.” Consequently, disgorgement represents a penalty, thus falling within the five-year statute of limitations of §2462.
Fourth Circuit States Violation of FCRA that Fails to Demonstrate a Concrete Injury Not Enough for Standing
On May 11, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit issued an opinion vacating a nearly $12 million judgment in a class action brought on behalf of a 69,000 member class, concluding that a credit reporting agency’s decision to list a defunct credit card company—rather than the name of its current servicer—on an individual’s credit report does not, without more, create a sufficient injury under the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA) for purposes of Article III standing. Furthermore, although the lead plaintiff alleged that he suffered a cognizable “informational injury,” in that he was denied the source of the adverse information on the report, the appeals court found that he failed to “demonstrate a concrete injury” as a result of the allegedly incorrect information listed on the credit report. (See Dreher v. Experian Info. Sols., Inc., No. 15-2119, 2017 WL 1948916 (4th Cir. May 11, 2017).)
The 2014 class action complaint against the credit reporting agency was filed by an individual who—when undergoing a background check for a security clearance—received a credit report that listed a delinquent credit card account with a creditor that had transferred the debt to a new servicer that was not listed as a source of information. When servicing the defunct company’s accounts, the new servicer had decided to do business using the creditor’s name, and directed the credit reporting agency to continue to reflect that name on the tradeline appearing for those specific accounts on its credit reports. The plaintiffs asserted that the credit reporting agency “deliberately [withheld] and inaccurately [stated] the identity of the source of reported credit information,” in violation of the FCRA. The credit reporting company sought summary judgment on the claims, arguing that the individual and the class lacked standing under the FCRA. However, the district court ruled in favor of the member class finding that the credit reporting company “committed a willful violation of . . . the [FCRA].”
In vacating the district court’s ruling, the Fourth Circuit opined that under the FCRA, a plaintiff “must have (1) suffered an injury in fact, (2) that is fairly traceable to the challenged conduct of the defendant, and (3) that is likely to be redressed by a favorable judicial decision.” The Fourth Circuit concluded that the individual could not clear the first hurdle. To establish “injury in fact,” the plaintiff must show that he or she suffered an invasion of a legally protected interest that is concrete and particularized. While the plaintiff alleged that the credit reporting agency had violated the FCRA by failing to “clearly and accurately disclose to the consumer . . . [t]he sources of the information [in the consumer’s file at the time of the request],” the Fourth Circuit concluded that the statutory violation alone did not create a concrete informational injury sufficient to support standing. “Rather, a constitutionally cognizable informational injury requires that a person lack access to information to which he is legally entitled and that the denial of that information creates a ‘real’ harm with an adverse effect.” In this instance, “the account had no legitimate effect on the [plaintiff’s] background check process, and [t]hus receiving a creditor’s name rather than a servicer’s name—without hindering the accuracy of the report of efficiency of the credit report resolution process—worked no real world harm.” Instead, the Fourth Circuit categorized the plaintiff’s allegations as chiefly “customer service complaints”—a type of harm unrelated to those Congress sought to prevent when enacting the FCRA.
On May 9, the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit granted a petition for rehearing en banc filed by the FTC in a case involving whether the Commission may regulate an internet service provider’s slowing down of data after a customer has used a specified amount of data under an “unlimited” plan.
The FTC’s 2014 complaint alleged that AT&T’s practice of “data throttling,” and its subsequent failure to adequately inform its customers of this practice, violated Section 45(a) of the FTC Act. A federal district court dismissed the complaint, rejecting AT&T’s argument that it was exempt from FTC Section 45(a) enforcement because it is a common carrier. Section 45(a) allows the Commission to “prevent persons, partnerships or corporations, except . . . common carriers . . . from using . . . unfair or deceptive acts or practices” (emphasis added). The court held, however, that the common carrier exception applies only when the entity has the status of a common carrier and is engaging in common carrier activity. The district court order also held that “[w]hen this suit was filed, AT&T’s mobile data service was not regulated as common carrier activity by the [FCC],” and that “[o]nce the Reclassification Order of the [FCC] (which now treats mobile data [service] as common carrier activity) goes into effect, that will not deprive the FTC of any jurisdiction over past alleged misconduct as asserted in this pending action.”
In 2016, a three-judge Ninth Circuit panel reversed, holding that AT&T is exempt from Section 45(a) as a common carrier. See Fed. Trade Comm'n v. AT&T Mobility LLC, 835 F.3d 993 (9th Cir. 2016). The en banc court’s order vacates that ruling pending review by the full Ninth Circuit. Per the Ninth Circuit’s May 10 order, en banc oral argument will occur the week of September 18, 2017. The exact date and time will be announced in a separate order. Notably, given the recent uncertainty over which regulatory agency will oversee common carriers—the FTC or the FCC—the timing of this ruling is important.
Fourth Circuit Permits DOJ to Reject FCA Settlement After Government Declined to Intervene; Declines to Reach Issue of Statistical Sampling
In an opinion handed down on February 22, the Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit decided that the DOJ retains an unreviewable right to object to a proposed settlement agreement between a relator and a defendant even after the Government has declined to intervene in the case. See United States ex rel. Michaels v. Agape Senior Community, Inc., No. 15-2147 (4th Cir. Feb 14, 2017). The case concerned a qui tam relator who had alleged that Agape Senior Community and associated entities violated the FCA by submitting false claims to federal health care programs for nursing home related services that were not provided or provided to patients that were not eligible for them. After the Government declined to intervene in the case, the relator agreed to settle with defendants. However, the DOJ objected to the proposed settlement under 31 U.S.C. § 3730(b)(1)—which provides that an FCA lawsuit “may be dismissed only if the court and the Attorney General give written consent to the dismissal and their reasons for consenting”—arguing, among other things, that “the settlement amount was “appreciably less than . . . the Government’s estimate of total damages.”
The Fourth Circuit concluded that, while a relator has the right to pursue his or her FCA claim after the United States declines to intervene, “the Attorney General possesses an absolute veto power over voluntary settlements in FCA qui tam actions.” In reaching this conclusion, the appellate panel emphasized the fact that, in an FCA case, the United States Government is a real party in interest, and, as such, it suffered damages as a result of the fraudulent conduct at issue. The holding largely aligns with existing Fifth and Sixth Circuit precedent, establishing an absolute veto power for the United States over settlements in declined FCA cases. However, the ruling stands at odds with the Ninth Circuit standard set forth in U.S. ex rel. Killingsworth v. Northrop Corp., 25 F.3d 715 (9th Cir. 1994), which ruled that, once it has declined to intervene, the Government can object to a proposed settlement only for “good cause,” and a settlement agreement may be invalidated only following a hearing to determine if the settlement is fair and reasonable.
On the issue of statistical sampling, the district court had determined that the use of statistical sampling evidence would be improper when a case turns on the medical necessity for individual patients. Though the issue was certified for interlocutory review, the Appellate panel declined to decide this issue because, among other reasons, the use of statistical sampling is not a pure question of law and, as such, interlocutory review had been “improvidently granted.”
Additional information and materials covering the FCA, the Financial Institutions Reform, Recovery, and Enforcement Act (FIRREA), and the Program Fraud Civil Remedies Act (PFCRA) can also be found in BuckleySandler’s False Claims Act and FIRREA Resource Center.
9th Circuit Panel Reverses and Remands Dismissal of Pro Se Plaintiff’s Breach of Contract Claim in Connection with Bank’s Trial Loan Modification Process
In an opinion filed on March 13, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit reversed and remanded a district court’s dismissal of a homeowner-plaintiff’s breach of contract claim against a major bank for damages allegedly suffered when she unsuccessfully attempted to modify her home loan over a two-year period. Oskoui v. J.P. Morgan Chase Bank, N.A., [Dkt No. 47-1] Case No. 15-55457 (9th Cir. Mar. 13, 2017) (Trott, S.). The court also remanded with instructions to permit the pro-se plaintiff to amend her complaint to allege a right to rescind in connection with her previously-dismissed TILA claim in light of the Supreme Court’s January 2015 decision in Jesinoski v. Countrywide Home Loans, Inc. And, finally, the panel affirmed the district court’s ruling that the facts alleged demonstrated a claim under California’s Unfair Competition Law (“UCL”) because, among other reasons, the factual record supported a determination that the bank knew or should have known that the homeowner was plainly ineligible for a loan modification; yet, the bank encouraged her to apply for modifications (which she did), and collected payments pursuant to trial modification plans.
In reversing and remanding the district court’s ruling dismissing the breach of contract claim, the Ninth Circuit pointed to the styling on the first-page of the complaint—“BREACH OF CONTRACT”—along with allegations about the explicit offer language contained in the bank’s trial modification documents. The Ninth Circuit relied on the Seventh Circuit’s opinion in Wigod v. Wells Fargo, which it identified as the “leading federal appellate decision on this issue of contract,” to “illuminate the viability” of plaintiff’s breach of contract claim in connection with trial plan documents. 673 F.3d 547 (7th Cir. 2012). The Ninth Circuit remanded the claim with instructions to permit the plaintiff to amend if necessary in order to move forward with her breach of contract claim.
Special Alert: D.C. Circuit Grants Petition For Rehearing in PHH v. CFPB; Vacates Judgment Based on Bureau’s Unconstitutionality
Buckley Sandler Special Alert
On February 16, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit granted the CFPB’s petition for rehearing en banc of the October 2015 panel decision in CFPB v. PHH Corporation. Among other things, the panel decision declared the Bureau’s single-Director structure unconstitutional and would have allowed the President to remove the CFPB’s Director at will rather than “for cause” as set forth in the Dodd-Frank Act. As a result of the petition for rehearing being granted, the panel’s judgment is vacated and the full D.C. Circuit will hear PHH’s appeal of the $109 million penalty imposed by the CFPB under the anti-kickback provisions of the Real Estate Settlement Procedures Act (RESPA). Oral argument is scheduled for May 24, 2017.
As discussed in detail in our prior alert, the October panel decision unanimously concluded that the CFPB misinterpreted RESPA, violated due process by disregarding prior interpretations of the statute and applying its own interpretation retroactively, and failed to abide by RESPA’s three-year statute of limitations. However, only two of the three judges on the panel concluded that the CFPB’s status as an independent agency headed by a single Director violated the separation of powers under Article II of the U.S. Constitution. The third panel member, Judge Henderson, dissented from this portion of the opinion on the grounds that it was not necessary to reach the constitutional issue because the panel was already reversing the CFPB’s penalty on other grounds.
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If you have questions about the decision or other related issues, visit our Consumer Financial Protection Bureau practice for more information, or contact a BuckleySandler attorney with whom you have worked in the past.
Trevor McFadden, previously a partner with the law firm Baker McKenzie, was appointed Deputy Assistant Attorney General last month, with oversight over the Fraud and Criminal Appellate Sections. He takes over from Sung-Hee Suh, who was appointed to the role in September 2014.
D.C. Circuit Finds District Court Lacks Jurisdiction in Case Alleging Violations of D.C. Consumer Protection Laws
On July 26, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit vacated the district court’s ruling, opining that the plaintiffs in a putative class action failed to establish Article III standing to file suit in federal court. Hancock v. Urban Outfitters, Inc., No. 14-7047, WL 3996710 (D.C. Cir. July 26, 2016). In 2013, the consumer plaintiffs filed a complaint alleging that two D.C. retail stores violated the Identification Information Act, D.C. Code § 47-3151 et seq., and D.C. Consumer Protection Procedure Act, D.C. Code § 28-3901 et seq., by requesting the plaintiffs’ zip codes at the time of purchase. The district court dismissed the complaint, concluding that the plaintiffs had failed to state a claim. As such, the district court ruled that it was unnecessary to address the stores’ jurisdictional argument that the plaintiffs failed to plead an injury sufficient for Article III standing. Citing the recent Spokeo v. Robins Supreme Court ruling, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit disagreed: “The Supreme Court’s decision in Spokeo thus closes the door on [the plaintiffs’] claim that the Stores’ mere request for a zip code, standing alone, amounted to an Article III injury.” “Because the plaintiffs have not alleged any concrete injury in fact stemming from alleged violations of D.C. law,” the D.C. Circuit held that “the district court lacked jurisdiction to decide the merits of the case.” The D.C. Circuit vacated the district court’s judgment on the merits and remanded with instructions to dismiss the complaint.