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  • 5th Circuit: Non-party plaintiff cannot bring action to enforce violation of CFPB consent order

    Courts

    On March 4, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit affirmed summary judgment in favor of a debt collector (defendant) accused of violating the FDCPA and the terms of a CFPB consent order. According to the opinion, the defendant attempted to collect a credit card debt from the plaintiff that the plaintiff did not recognize. In December 2014, the defendant filed suit to collect the past due debt. In the meantime, the CFPB issued a consent order against the defendant for violations of the FDCPA (covered by InfoBytes here) while the parties awaited trial. Thereafter, the plaintiff filed a complaint with the CFPB regarding the validity of the debt, but the Bureau closed that complaint after verifying the defendant’s ownership of the plaintiff’s debt. The plaintiff responded by filing his own lawsuit in March 2017, claiming the defendant violated the FDCPA by (i) “lacking validation of his debt prior to his January 2016 trial”; (ii) failing to timely validate his debt in violation of provisions of its consent order with the CFPB; and (iii) “misrepresenting that it intended to prove ownership of his debt if contested.” The district court granted summary judgment for the defendant based on the plaintiff’s failure to prove actual damages.

    On appeal, the appellate court determined that the district court erred in ruling that the plaintiff failed to plead actual damages, finding that “the FDCPA does not require proof of actual damages to ground statutory damages.” However, the appellate court did not reverse the district court’s decision. Instead, the appellate court affirmed, holding that the plaintiff’s debt validation claims were time-barred because he did not file suit within the FDCPA’s one-year statute of limitations. Regarding the other two claims, the appellate court stated that while the claims were not time-barred, the plaintiff lacked standing because “private persons may not bring actions to enforce violations of consent decrees to which they are not a party.” The CFPB’s consent order with the defendant specified that the CFPB was the enforcer of the order, and its text could not be read to invoke a private right of action permitting the plaintiff’s suit. Accordingly, the appellate court affirmed summary judgment against the plaintiff on these remaining two claims.

    Courts Appellate Fifth Circuit Debt Collection FDCPA CFPB Consent Order Statute of Limitations Time-Barred Debt

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  • 5th Circuit: CFPB structure is constitutional

    Courts

    On March 3, the same day the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments in Seila Law LLC v. CFPB (covered by InfoBytes here), a divided U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit 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. As previously covered by InfoBytes, the CFPB filed a complaint against two Mississippi-based payday loan and check cashing companies for allegedly violating the Consumer Financial Protection Act’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 CFPB is unconstitutional and that the CFPB’s claims violate due process. The 5th Circuit agreed to hear an interlocutory appeal on the constitutionality question, and subsequently, the payday lenders filed an unchallenged petition requesting an initial hearing en banc. (Covered by InfoBytes here.)

    On appeal, the majority upheld the district court’s decision that the Bureau is not unconstitutional based on its single-director structure. “The payday lenders argue that the structure of the CFPB denies the Executive Branch its due because the Bureau is led by a single director removable by the President only for cause,” the majority wrote. “We find no support for this argument in constitutional text or in Supreme Court decisions and uphold the constitutionality of the CFPB’s structure, as did the D.C. and Ninth [C]ircuits.” The majority compared the case to the D.C. Circuit’s en banc decision in PHH v. CFPB (covered by a Buckley Special Alert) and the 9th Circuit’s decision in CFPB v. Seila Law LLC (covered by InfoBytes here), both of which upheld the Bureau’s structure. The majority also distinguished a 2018 ruling from the 5th Circuit sitting en banc, which held the FHFA’s single-director structure unconstitutional (covered by InfoBytes here). This provoked a strong dissent charging that the majority had “suddenly discover[ed] that stare decisis is for suckers.”

    Courts U.S. Supreme Court CFPB Single-Director Structure Seila Law Appellate Fifth Circuit

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  • District Court’s reversal of jury verdict in FDCPA case overturned

    Courts

    On December 12, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit reversed the district court’s ruling overturning a jury verdict in favor of the consumer for a debt collection company’s (company) violation of the FDCPA and the Texas Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (Texas Act). The consumer sued the company claiming that after she sent the company a letter disputing a debt, the company failed to report to the credit bureaus that the debt was “disputed.” At trial, the jury awarded the consumer $61,000 for the company’s alleged FDCPA and Texas Act violations. Afterwards, the district court granted the company’s post-trial motion for judgment as a matter of law, overturned the jury’s verdict, and dismissed the case, ruling that the consumer failed to provide evidence that the disputed debt was a consumer debt.

    On appeal, the 5th Circuit held that it is within the jury’s discretion to make credibility determinations and that it was permissible for the jury to credit the consumer’s testimony about the consumer nature of the debt—a determination which cannot be disturbed unless it is impossible that the testimony is true. In addition, the appellate court noted that the jury has discretion to draw inferences and that it reasonably inferred that the disputed debt was, in fact, a consumer debt, as the consumer claimed.

    Courts Appellate Fifth Circuit State Issues FDCPA Debt Collection Credit Ratings Credit Report Credit Scores

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  • Government says CFPB should have authority to continue enforcement actions even if declared unconstitutional

    Courts

    On November 6, the CFPB and the DOJ filed a brief with the U.S. Supreme Court arguing that the Bureau should still “have the authority to commence or continue enforcement proceedings” in the event that the Court declares the Bureau’s structure unconstitutional. The brief was filed in response to a petition for writ of certiorari by two Mississippi-based payday loan and check cashing companies (collectively, “petitioners”) urging the Court to grant certiorari before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit renders a decision on a challenge to the Bureau’s single-director structure. The petitioners are not only challenging the Bureau’s structure but also arguing that the asserted constitutional violation requires the dismissal of the underlying lawsuit brought by the Bureau.

    The government argues that dismissal of the underlying enforcement action is not the way to remedy a constitutional structure violation, at least in a situation where “an official fully accountable to the President determines that it should go forward.” The brief notes that, in this case, then-Acting Director Mulvaney, to whom the Bureau has argued the limitation to for-cause removal did not apply, had ratified the enforcement action against petitioners at issue. While the Bureau and the DOJ acknowledge that lower courts “have not yet addressed the particular issue here,” they make the case that “the few reasoned decisions that address related issues are in accord: A separation-of-powers problem with an agency does not compel invalidation of the agency’s actions if those actions are subsequently approved in compliance with separation-of-powers requirements.”

    In its brief, the Bureau and the DOJ also argue that questions presented to the Court do not warrant review of the case before the 5th Circuit has an opportunity to rule. The government emphasizes that the Court has already agreed to hear a different case, Seila Law LLC v. CFPB, to answer the question of whether an independent agency led by a single director violates the Constitution’s separation of powers under Article II (covered by InfoBytes here). In doing so the Court also directed the parties to that action to brief and argue whether 12 U.S.C. §5491(c)(3), which established removal of the Bureau’s single director only for cause, is severable from the rest of the Dodd-Frank Act, should it be found to be unconstitutional.

    Courts CFPB Single-Director Structure U.S. Supreme Court Fifth Circuit Appellate Seila Law

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  • Fifth Circuit affirms dismissal of reverse-false-claims action in benefits payment fraud matter

    Courts

    On October 7, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit affirmed the dismissal of a whistleblower’s reverse-false-claims action because it was barred by the False Claims Act’s (FCA) public-disclosure provision and the alleged scheme was not plead with sufficient detail. The relator, a former fraud investigator for the Department of Veterans Affairs Office of the Inspector General, alleged that the 15 financial institution defendants “avoided their regulatory obligation to return government-benefit payments they received for beneficiaries they knew to be deceased.” According to the relator, the defendants must have known of the beneficiary deaths because the Social Security Administration sends death notification entries to all receiving depository financial institutions. However, the district court determined that defendants provided documents showing the information had already been publicly disclosed and the relator was not the original source of the information (which would have been required to maintain a claim with respect to information that has already been publicly disclosed) because he obtained the information through his employment as a fraud investigator. As such, the court permanently dismissed the complaint on the grounds that the relator relied on public disclosures, and that the complaint failed to plead the allegations with sufficient detail.

    On appeal, the 5th Circuit agreed that the complaint could not survive the FCA’s public disclosure bar, explaining that the public-disclosure bar is met if the following elements apply: (i) the disclosure is public; (ii) the disclosure contains “‘substantially the same allegations’” as in the complaint; and (ii) the relator is not the “‘original source’” of the information. In addition, the appellate court agreed that the complaint lacked sufficient factual matter to satisfy federal rules of civil procedure, and concluded that further amendments would be futile because there are no claims left to amend.

    Courts Whistleblower Appellate Fifth Circuit False Claims Act / FIRREA

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  • En banc 5th Circuit declares FHFA structure unconstitutional, allows net worth sweep claims to proceed

    Courts

    On September 6, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit reaffirmed, in an en banc rehearing, that the Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA) structure violates constitutional separation of powers requirements and allowed “net worth sweep” claims brought by a group of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac (government-sponsored entities or GSEs) shareholders to proceed. As previously covered by InfoBytes, GSE shareholders brought an action against the U.S. Department of Treasury and FHFA arguing that (i) the FHFA acted outside its statutory authority when it adopted a dividend agreement that requires the GSEs to pay quarterly dividends equal to their entire net worth to the Treasury Department (known as “net worth sweep”); and (ii) the structure of the FHFA is unconstitutional because it violates separation of powers principles. The district court dismissed the shareholder’s statutory claims and granted summary judgment in favor of the Treasury Department and the FHFA on the separation of powers claim. On appeal, the 5th Circuit agreed with the lower court on the first claim, concluding that the net worth sweep payments were acceptable under the FHFA’s statutory authority and that the FHFA was lawfully established by Congress through the Housing and Economic Recovery Act of 2008 (HERA), which places restraints on judicial review. However, the appellate court reversed the lower court’s decision on the separation of powers claim, concluding that Congress went too far in insulating the FHFA’s single director from removal by the president for anything other than cause, ruling that the agency’s structure violates Article II of the Constitution. 

    After an en banc rehearing, the appellate court issued two separate majority opinions. Both opinions concluded that (i) the GSE shareholders plausibly alleged that the net worth sweep exceed the powers of the FHFA when acting as a conservator under HERA; and (ii) the FHFA’s structure—which provides the director with “for cause” removal protection—violates the Constitution’s separation of powers requirements. However, the opinions differed on the appropriate remedy, with nine judges concluding that the remedy should be severance of the for-cause provision, not prospective relief invalidating the net worth sweep, stating that “the Shareholders’ ongoing injury, if indeed there is one, is remedied by a declaration that the “for cause” restriction is declared removed. We go no further.”

    Various dissenting opinions were issued, including one signed by seven judges concluding that the FHFA acted within its statutory powers under HERA when it adopted the net worth sweep, stating “the FHFA’s ‘powers are many and mostly discretionary.’” In another dissenting opinion, four judges argued that the majority opinions wrongly concluded that the FHFA’s structure is unconstitutional, arguing that there are “only reasons for caution and skepticism, and none for action” in the constitutional claim. “Neither the Constitution’s text, nor the Supreme Court’s constructions thereof, nor the adversary process in this litigation has given us much ground on which to declare the FHFA’s design unconstitutional,” the judges argued.

    Given the similarities of the FHFA’s single director structure with that of the CFPB, this case warrants close attention as it has the potential to create a vehicle for consideration by the Supreme Court of the constitutionality of single director agencies.

    Courts Appellate Fifth Circuit En Banc FHFA Fannie Mae Freddie Mac GSE Single-Director Structure HERA Congress

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  • 5th Circuit upholds $298 million fine in FCA/FIRREA mortgage fraud action

    Courts

    On August 8, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit affirmed a district court ruling that ordered two mortgage companies and their owner to pay nearly $300 million in a suit brought under the False Claims Act (FCA) and the Financial Institutions Reform, Recovery and Enforcement Act (FIRREA). The suit accused the defendants of allegedly making false certifications, which reportedly led to mortgages ending in default. The jury agreed that the defendants defrauded the Federal Housing Agency’s mortgage insurance program when a state audit revealed unregistered company branches were used to originate loans in violation of agency guidelines, and the court determined that there was ample evidence to find that the false certifications were a proximate cause of losses from loan defaults. As a result, the government trebled the damages and civil penalties under the FCA from $93 million to roughly $298 million. The defendants appealed the decision, challenging, among other things, the sufficiency of evidence, methodologies presented by the government’s expert witnesses, and the judge’s decision to not order a new trial after dismissing a disruptive juror.

    On appeal, the 5th Circuit opined that there was sufficient evidence to support the jury’s findings, and rejected the defendants’ expert witness challenges, holding first that the defendants had waived any argument about the loan default sampling methodology used by one of the witnesses, because their argument that the witness “failed to control for obvious causes of default” never came up “during the extensive negotiations over the sampling methodology that would be used.” The appellate court also concluded that nothing in the record supported the defendants’ argument that the second witness “did not apply the HUD underwriting standards” in his re-underwriting methodology. The appellate court further noted that it has declined to adopt a rule used by other circuit courts that prohibits jurors from being dismissed “unless there is no possibility” that the juror’s failure to deliberate stems from their view of the evidence. Rather, the 5th Circuit held that the district court had grounds to dismiss the juror who “failed to follow instructions, exhibited a lack of candor during questioning, and had engaged in threatening behavior towards other jurors.” 

    Courts Fifth Circuit Appellate Mortgages Fraud False Claims Act / FIRREA HUD

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  • 5th Circuit says Congress, not courts, is responsible for changing rules for discharging student loans in bankruptcy

    Courts

    On July 30, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit affirmed decisions by a bankruptcy court and a district court to dismiss a borrower’s student loan discharge request under the Bankruptcy Code, holding that Congress, not the courts, is responsible for changing the rules for discharging student loan debt in bankruptcy.

    The borrower, who became unable to make payments on her student loans and other debts, initiated an adversarial action against the Department of Education in bankruptcy court after receiving a general discharge of her debts, in an attempt to have two student loans discharged as well. While the borrower was able to prove that her monthly expenses exceed her income, the bankruptcy and district courts found that she failed the three-prong test for evaluating claims of “undue hardship” established by the 2nd Circuit in Brunner v. New York State Higher Education Services Corp. and adopted in the 5th Circuit in In re Gerhardt. Primarily, the courts stated that the borrower failed to (i) show that she was “completely incapable of employment now or in the future”; or (ii) prove that her present state of affairs was likely to persist through the bulk of the loan repayment period. The borrower appealed, arguing that the three-prong test “is inconsistent with the plain meaning of the term ‘undue hardship’” and urged the appellate court to adopt instead “a ‘totality of the circumstances’ test.”

    On appeal, the 5th Circuit agreed with the lower courts, stating that when Congress amended the bankruptcy law regarding the discharge of federal student loans, the intent was to limit it to cases of “undue hardship” in order to prevent the use of bankruptcy except in the most compelling circumstances. According to the appellate court, until an en banc panel or the Supreme Court reviews the standard, the panel finds no error in the lower courts’ decision. “Policy-based arguments do not change this interpretation; the role of this court is to interpret the laws passed by Congress, not to set bankruptcy policy,” the appellate court wrote. Moreover, reducing the test to a “totality of the circumstances” standard would create an “intolerable inconsistency” in decisions on loan discharges, and expand an area of bankruptcy law that Congress has sought to constrict.

    Courts Fifth Circuit Appellate Student Lending Bankruptcy

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  • FHFA now says agency structure is constitutional, under Calabria

    Courts

    On July 9, the FHFA sent a letter to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit notifying the court that the agency has a new Director, Mark Calabria, and that the FHFA has reconsidered its position regarding the constitutionality of its structure, presently concluding the Housing Economic Recovery Act’s (HERA) for-cause removal provision is constitutional. As previously covered by InfoBytes, in July 2018, the 5th Circuit concluded that the FHFA’s single-director structure violates Article II of the Constitution because the director is too insulated from removal by the president. In August 2018, while the agency was still under the leadership of Mel Watt, it petitioned the court for an en banc rehearing, challenging the constitutionality holding. Subsequently, in January, then acting Director, Joseph Otting, filed a supplemental brief stating the agency will no longer defend the constitutionality of the FHFA’s structure. Now, under the leadership of Director Calabria, the agency asserts that it reconsidered the issue, and respectfully requests that the appellate court uphold the agency’s structure as constitutional.

    Courts Appellate Fifth Circuit FHFA HERA Single-Director Structure

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  • 5th Circuit: District courts lack jurisdiction over claims arising from FDIC enforcement proceedings

    Courts

    On March 28, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit held that federal district courts lacked subject matter jurisdiction over claims arising out of certain FDIC enforcement proceedings. According to the opinion, the FDIC brought two enforcement actions against the bank and its directors (plaintiffs), alleging violations of various banking laws and regulations, which resulted in civil money penalties and cease-and-desist orders. The plaintiffs petitioned the 5th Circuit for review. While the first appeal was pending, the plaintiffs filed a lawsuit in federal district court alleging the FDIC committed constitutional violations during the enforcement actions. Specifically, the plaintiffs alleged that the FDIC (i) targeted the bank due to the bank president’s age and denied it equal protection; and (ii) violated due process by preventing the plaintiffs from offering certain evidence and preventing the president’s ability to talk with his counsel at certain times. These allegations were raised and rejected during the FDIC’s second enforcement proceeding. The FDIC moved to dismiss the action for a lack of subject matter jurisdiction, asserting that the statutory review process precludes district court jurisdiction over actions arising from enforcement proceedings. The district court agreed and dismissed the action without prejudice, indicating that the bank could assert its claims in the district court on direct review of the agency’s final order. The bank appealed.

    On appeal, the 5th Circuit noted that the language in the statute “virtually compels” it to concede that Congress intended to preclude district court jurisdiction over claims against the FDIC arising from enforcement proceedings. The appellate court then addressed whether the claims raised by the plaintiffs were the type of claims Congress intended to be reviewed within the statutory scheme. The appellate court determined that the Federal Deposit Insurance Act allows for “meaningful judicial review,” by authorizing review of challenges to a final agency order by a federal circuit court. Moreover, the court rejected the plaintiffs’ argument that its claims are “wholly collateral” to the administrative order because they did not challenge the merits of the order but rather, the claims “arise directly from alleged irregularities in the agency enforcement proceedings.” Lastly, the court found that the plaintiffs’ constitutional claims do not fall outside of the agency’s expertise. Based on the foregoing, the court found that the district court correctly dismissed the action.

    Courts Fifth Circuit FDIC Enforcement Federal Deposit Insurance Act Appellate

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