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On May 16, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit reversed and remanded a district court’s summary judgment ruling in favor of a defendant furnisher, stating that it is up to a jury to decide whether the defendant’s “reasonable investigation” into the plaintiff’s dispute complied with the FCRA. After the plaintiff defaulted on both his first and second mortgages, the property was foreclosed and sold. Several years later, the plaintiff tried to purchase another home but was denied a mortgage due to a tradeline on his credit report that showed one of his mortgages as past due with accruing interest and late fees due to missed payments. The plaintiff disputed the debt through the consumer reporting agency (CRA) and provided a citation to the Arizona Anti-Deficiency Statute, which abolished his liability for the reported debt. The CRA then told the defendant about the dispute and provided information about the statutory citation. The defendant originally “updated” the plaintiff’s account to show that the debt was being disputed, but continued to report current and past due balances. Yet after the plaintiff again disputed the validity of his debt, the defendant marked the account as “paid, closed” and changed the balance to $0.
The plaintiff sued, claiming the defendant violated the FCRA by failing to reasonably investigate his dispute and for reporting inaccurate information. The district court granted the defendant’s motion for summary judgment, ruling that the reports it made were accurate as a matter of law and that the defendant had reasonably investigated the dispute. Moreover, “whether the Arizona anti-deficiency statute rendered [plaintiff’s] debt uncollectible is a legal question, not a factual one,” the district court stated, adding that “the FCRA does not impose on furnishers a duty to investigate legal disputes, only factual inaccuracies.”
The 9th Circuit disagreed, writing that Arizona law required that the plaintiff’s balance be “abolished,” so it was “patently incorrect” for the defendant to report otherwise. In applying Arizona law, the plaintiff had “more than satisfied his burden” of showing inaccurate reporting, the appellate court wrote, explaining that the “situation was no different than a discharge under bankruptcy law, which extinguishes ‘the personal liability of the debtor.’” The 9th Circuit also held that the FCRA does not “categorically exempt legal issues from the investigations that furnishers must conduct.” Pointing out that the “distinction between ‘legal’ and ‘factual’ issues is ambiguous, potentially unworkable, and could invite furnishers to ‘evade their investigation obligation by construing the relevant dispute as a ‘legal’ one,’” the panel referred to an April 2021 amicus brief filed in support of the plaintiff by the CFPB, which argued that the FCRA does not distinguish between legal and factual disputes when it comes to furnishers’ obligations to investigate disputes referred from CRAs. The CFPB recently made a similar argument in an amicus brief filed last month in the 11th Circuit (covered by InfoBytes here). There, the CFPB argued that importing this exemption would run counter to the purposes of FCRA, would create an unworkable standard that would be difficult to implement, and could encourage furnishers to evade their statutory obligations any time they construe the disputes as “legal.”
Holding that there was a “genuine factual dispute about the reasonableness” of the defendant’s investigation, the appellate court ultimately determined that it would “leave it to the jury” to decide whether the defendant’s investigation had been reasonable. “Unless ‘only one conclusion about the conduct’s reasonableness is possible,’ the question is normally inappropriate for resolution at the summary judgment stage,” the appellate court stated. “Here, as is ordinarily the case, this question is best left to the factfinder.”
On May 5, the CFPB and FTC filed a joint amicus brief with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, seeking the reversal of a district court’s decision which determined that a consumer reporting agency (CRA) was not liable under Section 1681e(b) of the FCRA for allegedly failing to investigate inaccurate information because the inaccuracy was “legal” and not “factual” in nature. The agencies countered that the FCRA, which requires credit reporting companies to follow reasonable procedures to assure maximum possible accuracy of the information included in consumer reports, “does not contain an exception for legal inaccuracies.”
The plaintiff noticed that the CRA reported that she owed a balloon payment on an auto lease that she was not obligated to pay under the terms of the lease. After the plaintiff confirmed she did not owe a balloon payment, she filed a putative class action against the CRA contending that it violated the FCRA by inaccurately reporting the debt. The CRA countered that it could not be held liable because “it is not obligated to resolve a legal challenge to the validity of the balloon payment obligation reported by” the furnisher “and that it reasonably relied on [the furnisher] to report accurate information.” Moreover, the CRA argued that even if it did violate the FCRA, the plaintiff was not entitled to damages because the violation was neither willful nor negligent. The district court sided with the CRA, drawing a distinction between factual and legal inaccuracies and holding that whether the plaintiff actually owed the balloon payment was a “legal dispute” requiring “a legal interpretation of the loan’s terms.” According to the district court, “CRAs cannot be held liable when the accuracy at issue requires a legal determination as to the validity of the debt the agency reported.” The court further concluded that since the plaintiff had not met the “threshold showing” of inaccuracy, the information in the consumer report “was accurate,” and therefore the CRA was “entitled to summary judgment because ‘reporting accurate information absolves a CRA of liability.’”
In urging the appellate court to overturn the decision, the agencies argued that the exemption for legal inaccuracies created by the district court is unsupported by statutory text and is not workable in practice. This invited defense, the FTC warned in its press release, “invites [CRAs] and furnishers to skirt their legal obligations by arguing that inaccurate information is only legally, and not factually, inaccurate.” The FTC further cautioned that a CRA might begin manufacturing “some supposed legal interpretation to insulate itself from liability,” thus increasing the number of inaccurate credit reports.
Whether the plaintiff owed a balloon payment and how much she owed “are straightforward questions about the nature of her debt obligations,” the agencies stated, urging the appellate court to “clarify that any incorrect information in a consumer report, whether ‘legal’ or ‘factual’ in character, constitutes an inaccuracy that triggers reasonable-procedures liability under the FCRA.” The agencies also pressed the appellate court to “clarify that a CRA’s reliance on information provided by even a reputable furnisher does not categorically insulate the CRA from reasonable-procedures liability under the FCRA.”
The Bureau noted that it also filed an amicus brief on April 7 in an action in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit involving the responsibility of furnishers to reasonably investigate the accuracy of furnished information after it is disputed by a consumer. In this case, a district court found that the plaintiff, who reported several fraudulent credit card accounts, did not identify any particular procedural deficiencies in the bank’s investigation of her indirect disputes and granted summary judgment in favor of the bank on the grounds that the “investigation duties FCRA imposes on furnishers [are] ‘procedural’ and ‘far afield’ from legal ‘questions of liability under state-law principles of negligence, apparent authority, and related inquiries.’ Moreover, the district court concluded that there was no genuine dispute as to whether the bank conducted a reasonable investigation as statutorily required. The Bureau noted in its press release, however, that the bank “had the same duty to reasonably investigate the disputed information, regardless of whether the underlying dispute could be characterized as “legal” or “factual.” In its brief, the Bureau urged the appellate court to, among other things, reverse the district court’s ruling and clarify that the “FCRA does not categorically exempt disputes presenting legal questions from the investigation furnishers must conduct.” Importing this exemption would run counter to the purposes of FCRA, would create an unworkable standard that would be difficult to implement, and could encourage furnishers to evade their statutory obligations any time they construe the disputes as “legal.” The brief also argued that each time a furnisher fails to reasonably investigate a dispute results in a new statutory violation, with its own statute of limitations.
On April 7, the CFPB released a proposed rule and solicited comments on regulations implementing amendments to the FCRA intended to assist victims of trafficking. The proposed rule would establish a method for a trafficking victim to submit documentation to consumer reporting agencies (CRAs) establishing that they are a survivor of trafficking, and would require CRAs to block adverse information in consumer reports after receiving such documentation. The proposed rules would amend Regulation V to implement changes to FCRA enacted in the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2022, also referred to as the “Debt Bondage Repair Act,” which was signed into law in December 2021. (Covered by InfoBytes here). Under the law, CRAs are prohibited “from providing consumer reports that contain any negative item of information about a survivor of trafficking from any period the survivor was being trafficked.” In announcing the proposal, the CFPB noted that “Congress required the CFPB to utilize its rulemaking authorities to implement the Debt Bondage Repair Act through rule changes to Regulation V, which ensures consumers’ credit information is fairly reported by CRAs.” According to the CFPB, the proposal “would protect survivors of human trafficking by preventing CRAs from including negative information resulting from abuse.” Comments are due 30 days after publication in the Federal Register.
On March 31, the CFPB published its Consumer Response Annual Report for 2021, providing an overview of consumer complaints received by the agency between January 1 and December 31, 2021. According to the report, the Bureau handled approximately 994,000 consumer complaints last year. Among other trends, the agency found that complaints about credit or consumer reporting continue to increase, accounting for more than 70 percent of all complaints received last year. Debt collection complaints are also increasing, accounting for more than 10 percent of all complaints. Consumers also reported difficulties with financial institutions failing to adequately address consumer complaints, giving consumers the runaround, and described issues with reaching companies to raise concerns about digital assets, mobile wallets, and buy-now-pay-later credit. The Bureau noted that during the second year of the Covid-19 pandemic, complaint data showed that the volume of complaints from consumers struggling to pay their mortgages is increasing as borrower protections have expired. While complaints related to vehicle loans have also increased, the Bureau reported that student loan complaints remain lower than pre-Covid levels due to the implementation of temporary relief programs. The top products and services—representing approximately 94 percent of all complaints—were credit or consumer reporting, debt collection, credit cards, checking or savings accounts, and mortgages. The Bureau also received complaints related to money transfers and virtual currency; vehicle finance; prepaid cards; student, personal, and payday loans; credit repair; and title loans.
District Court: Failing to invoke the BFE defense does not entitle a plaintiff to judgment as a matter of law
On March 15, the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Washington denied a plaintiff’s motion for partial summary judgment, ruling that just because a defendant did not invoke the bona fide error (BFE) defense when accused of allegedly violating the FDCPA it does not mean the defendant has admitted to violating the statute. In 2018, the defendant debt collector attempted to collect unpaid debt in the amount of $786.68 from the plaintiff and began reporting the debt to the consumer reporting agencies (CRAs). In 2021, after the original creditor recalled the account from the defendant for an unspecified reason, the defendant submitted two requests to the CRAs to delete the item from the plaintiff’s credit report and took no further action on the account. Shortly thereafter, the plaintiff noticed a $787.00 debt on one of his credit reports. He contacted the original creditor and was told the company could not find an account in his name that was referred for collection. The plaintiff sued for violations of Section 1692e of the FDCPA and related violations of Washington state law, and later filed for a partial motion for summary judgment contending that the FDCPA “is a strict liability remedial statute that contains a single affirmative defense to liability—the bona fide error defense,” and that because the defendant did not plead the BFE defense “he is entitled to judgment as a matter of law as to Defendant’s liability under the statute.” While the defendant acknowledged that it did not plead the BFE defense, it countered that the plaintiff “cannot prove a prima facie case of liability.”
The court concluded that “[w]hile the statute is strict liability, ‘a debt collector’s false or misleading representation must be ‘material’ in order for it to be actionable under the FDCPA.” Noting that the alleged violation appeared to be based on the grounds that the defendant reported an inflated account balance ($787.00 versus $786.68), the court stated it “has little trouble in concluding that inflating an account balance by 32 cents is not a materially false representation. To the contrary, it is a ‘mere technical falsehood that mislead[s] no one.’” Moreover, the court stated that because the defendant immediately ceased reporting the account and sent deletion requests to the CRAs after the account was recalled, and that there was no evidence to suggest that the debt collector knew or should have known that it was communicating information that was false, the plaintiff could not show, at this stage of the proceeding, that Section 1692e was violated.
On February 25, the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania denied in part and granted in part a defendant’s motion for summary judgment in an FCRA case. According to the opinion, the plaintiffs applied for a loan at a bank to refinance their home mortgage and the bank then engaged a service agency (defendant) to conduct a public records search and provide a report on the plaintiffs. To prepare the report, the defendant allegedly engaged an independent contractor to conduct a physical search of both the open judgment directory and the municipal lien directory. The plaintiffs claimed that the defendant’s report “erroneously” listed outstanding civil judgments against them and that defendant refused to investigate the alleged inaccuracies. The plaintiffs filed suit, alleging that the defendant violated the FCRA by failing to follow reasonable procedures to assure maximum possible accuracy when preparing a consumer report and by failing to conduct a reasonable reinvestigation of the plaintiffs’ dispute.
The defendant moved for summary judgment, asserting that it was not subject to the FCRA as a matter of law since it was not a consumer reporting agency and that it did not supply “consumer reports” within the meaning of the FCRA. Additionally, the defendant claimed that even if it was subject to the FCRA, no reasonable juror could find that it violated either of those FCRA provisions. The district court found that the defendant is a “consumer reporting agency” under FCRA because its operations met the statutory definition. The court partially granted the defendant’s summary judgment on the plaintiffs’ claims that it willfully violated the FCRA by failing to conduct a reasonable reinvestigation of the plaintiffs’ dispute.
On March 1, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit affirmed dismissal in favor of a consumer reporting agency (defendant). The suit accused the defendant of violating the FCRA by failing to disclose certain information about a consumer. The plaintiffs were originally part of a class action alleging FCRA disclosure violations against the defendant, but that case was dismissed. Instead of appealing the suit, three plaintiffs brought a separate proposed class action. The defendant removed the case to federal court and filed a motion to dismiss based on a failure to state a claim. Though the case was again dismissed, the plaintiffs were granted leave to amend their complaint. In their First Amended Complaint, the plaintiffs argued that under the FCRA, the disclosures they received from the defendant did not include, among other things: (i) behavioral data; (ii) “soft inquiries” not initiated by the consumer; (iii) the identity of parties procuring consumer reports; and (iv) the date on which employment data was reported. The district court found that the defendant was not obligated to include the behavioral data in its disclosure since the information alleged to have not been disclosed was not part of the consumer’s “file” under the FCRA and was not information that was or might be furnished in a consumer report.
On appeal, the 9th Circuit noted that “none of the information [the plaintiffs] contend [the defendant] failed to disclose is of the type that has been included in a consumer report in the past or is planned to be included in such a report in the future.” The appellate court also noted that “the date employment dates were reported can have no ‘bearing on a consumer’s credit worthiness, credit standing, credit capacity, character, general reputation, personal, characteristics, or mode of living.’” Since the district court found that the data that the consumers alleged the defendants failed to include in its disclosures is actually not subject to disclosure under the FCRA, the appellate court affirmed the district court’s dismissal.
On February 8, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit affirmed summary judgment in favor of a consumer reporting agency (defendant). The suit accused the defendant of violating the FCRA by willfully and negligently disclosing a 10-year-old criminal charge that had been dismissed six years prior to an inquiry made on the plaintiff’s credit report. The plaintiff allegedly submitted an application for housing in 2010, which was denied. In 2010, the defendant provided a tenant screening report, which included details of a criminal charge from 2000, which was outside the seven-year window of the FCRA. However, the plaintiff’s criminal charge was dismissed in 2004, which was within the seven-year reporting window. The plaintiff sued under the FCRA, alleging that the defendant reported criminal information older than seven years, failed to maintain procedures designed to avoid violating the FCRA and ensure the maximum possible accuracy of the information in the report, and failed to conduct a reasonable reinvestigation after receiving a consumer dispute.
In ruling for the defendant, the 9th Circuit stated that “to prove a negligent violation [of the FCRA], a plaintiff must show that the defendant acted pursuant to an objectively unreasonable interpretation of the statute.” The 9th Circuit held that Section 1681c(a)(5) of the FCRA “does not specifically state the date that triggers the reporting window.” Further, the appellate court looked to guidance from the FTC and the CFPB, which “appeared to permit reporting the charge” at the time.
As the appellate court explained, whether the consumer reporting agency correctly interpreted § 1681c(a)(5) to permit the reporting of a criminal charge that was filed outside of, but dismissed within, the statute’s seven-year window, arose as a matter of first impression. However, the consumer reporting agency introduced evidence that its interpretation was consistent with industry norms and standards. Likewise, FTC guidance on the question, at the time, appeared to permit reporting the charge. The appellate court noted, therefore, that it “cannot say, nor could any other reasonable fact finder, that on this record defendant’s violation of [the FCRA] was negligent, much less willful.” As a result, the 9th Circuit affirmed summary judgment in favor of the defendant.
On February 4, the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida granted a defendant creditor’s motion for judgment on the pleadings in a case alleging FCRA violations. The plaintiff alleged that the payment status for a tradeline appearing on her credit report incorrectly showed it as “90 days past due” despite the account being paid and closed. She filed suit against the defendant and two consumer reporting agencies (CRAs) claiming the information furnished by the defendant to the CRAs was inaccurate and that the CRAs prepared and issued credit reports containing “inaccurate and misleading information.” Under the FCRA, entities that furnish information to CRAs are required to ensure the accuracy of the information. If an entity receives a notice of dispute from a consumer it is required to conduct an investigation and report the results to the CRAs—actions, the plaintiff claimed, the defendant failed to do. She further contended that the “pay status” field—which she claimed “is ‘specifically designed to be understood as the current status of the account’”—was causing her credit score to be lower than if it was marked as closed. However, upon review, the court determined that when objectively viewing the plaintiff’s credit reports in their entirety, it is apparent that the account is accurate and not misleading. According to the court, “the only reasonable reading of the [disputed] account is that the account was past due in September 2020, at which time the account was updated one last time and closed—zeroing out the balance. It does not indicate, as [the plaintiff] argues, that she is currently 60 days (or 90 days) past due.” Moreover, no reasonable creditor would look at the report and be misled into believing that the plaintiff had a present pending amount due, the court added.
On February 2, the Department of Veterans Affairs published a final rule in the Federal Register amending its regulations around the conditions by which VA benefits debts or medical debts are reported to consumer reporting agencies (CRAs), and creating a methodology for determining a minimum threshold for debts reported to the CRAs. According to the VA, approximately 5,000 delinquent accounts are reported monthly to credit bureaus, and, in many cases, veterans complained about the loss of security clearance or an inability to obtain credit or rental housing. In amending the rule, the VA acknowledged that certain debts, such as medical debts, “are fundamentally different than consumer debt.” Under the new rule, debts are to be reported to a credit bureau if (i) they are considered to be “currently not collectible,” meaning the VA has exhausted available debt collection efforts; (ii) the debt is not owed by someone who has been determined to be catastrophically disabled or has a gross household income below a certain amount; and (iii) the debt owed is over $25. The rule is effective March 4.
On February 7, the CFPB published a blog highlighting the changes that the VA made in its final rule. Among other things, the blog discussed changes to VA’s debt collection practices, protections against surprise medical bills, and getting help with medical bills.
- Steven vonBerg to speak at closing “super session“ on compliance topics at MBA Legal Issues and Regulatory Compliance Conference
- Buckley Webcast: Fifth Circuit muddles CFPB’s plans to use in-house judges in enforcement proceedings
- Jeffrey P. Naimon to discuss “Understanding the ESG impact on compliance” at the ABA’s Regulatory Compliance Conference