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  • 4th Circuit says website does not qualify for Section 230 immunity

    Courts

    On November 3, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit reversed and remanded a district court’s summary judgment ruling that a public records website, its founder, and two affiliated entities (collectively, “defendants”) could use Section 230 liability protections under the Communications Decency Act (CDA) to shield themselves from credit reporting violations. As previously covered by InfoBytes, plaintiffs alleged, among other things, that because the defendants’ website collects, sorts, summarizes, and assembles public record information into reports that are available for third parties to purchase, it qualifies as a consumer reporting agency (CRA) under the FCRA, and as such, must follow process-oriented requirements that the FCRA imposes on CRAs. However, the district court determined that the immunity afforded by Section 230 of the Communication and Decency Act applied to the FCRA and that the defendants qualified for such immunity and could not be held liable for allegedly disseminating inaccurate information and failing to comply with the law’s disclosure requirements.

    On appeal, the 4th Circuit reviewed whether a consumer lawsuit alleging violations of the FCRA’s procedural and disclosure requirements and seeking to hold the defendants liable as the publisher or speaker of information provided by a third party is thereby preempted by Section 230. The appellate court agreed with an amicus brief filed in 2021 by the FTC, CFPB, and the North Carolina Department of Justice, which urged the appellate court to overturn the district court ruling on the basis that the court misconstrued Section 230—which they assert is unrelated to the FCRA—by extending immunity to “claims that do not seek to treat the defendant as the publisher or speaker of any third-party information.” According to the amicus brief, liability turns on the defendants’ alleged failure to comply with FCRA obligations to use reasonable procedures when preparing reports, to provide consumers with a copy of their files, and to obtain certifications and notify consumers when reports are furnished for employment purposes.

    The 4th Circuit held that Section 230(c)(1) of the CDA “extends only to bar certain claims, in specific circumstances, against particular types of parties,” and that the four claims raised in this case were not subject to those protections. “Section 230(c)(1) provides protection to interactive computer services,” the appellate court wrote, “[b]ut it does not insulate a company from liability for all conduct that happens to be transmitted through the internet.” Specifically, the appellate court said two of the counts—which allege that the defendants failed to give consumers a copy of their own report when requested and did not follow FCRA requirements when providing reports for employment purposes—do not seek to hold the defendants liable as a speaker or publisher, and therefore fall outside Section 230 protections. As for the remaining two counts related to claims that the defendant failed to ensure records for employment purposes were complete and up-to-date, or adopt procedures to assure maximum possible accuracy when preparing reports, the 4th Circuit concluded that the defendants “made substantive changes to the records’ content that materially contributed to the records’ unlawfulness. That makes [defendants] an information content provider, under the allegations, for the information relevant to Counts Two and Four, meaning that it is not entitled to § 230(c)(1) protection for those claims.”

    Courts Appellate Fourth Circuit FCRA Communications Decency Act Consumer Reporting Agency

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  • 4th Circuit vacates $10.6 million judgment, orders district court to reevaluate class standing

    Courts

    On October 28, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit remanded a $10.6 million damages award it had previously approved in light of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in TransUnion LLC v. Ramirez. As previously covered by InfoBytes, in January, the Supreme Court vacated the judgment against the defendants and ordered the 4th Circuit to reexamine its decision in light of TransUnion (which clarified the type of concrete injury necessary to establish Article III standing, and was covered by InfoBytes here). Previously, a divided 4th Circuit affirmed a district court’s award of $10.6 million in penalties and damages based on a summary judgment that an appraisal practice common before 2009 was unconscionable under the West Virginia Consumer Credit and Protection Act (covered by InfoBytes here). During the appeal, the defendants argued that summary judgment was wrongfully granted and that the class should not have been certified since individual issues predominated over common ones, but the appellate court majority determined, among other things, that there was not a large number of uninjured members within the plaintiffs’ class because plaintiffs paid for independent appraisals and “received appraisals that were tainted.” At the time, the 4th Circuit “concluded that the ‘financial harm’ involved in paying for a product that was ‘never received’ was ‘a classic and paradigmatic form of injury in fact.’” On remand, the 4th Circuit considered questions of standing and ultimately determined that TransUnion requires the district court to reevaluate the standing of class members.

    Courts State Issues Settlement Appellate Fourth Circuit U.S. Supreme Court Class Action West Virginia

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  • 4th Circuit says AMG Capital does not alter FTC’s $120.2 million judgment

    Courts

    On November 1, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit predominantly upheld a district court’s final judgment in an FTC action involving a Belizean real estate scheme. As previously covered by InfoBytes, the FTC initiated the action in 2018 against several individuals and corporate entities, along with a Belizean bank, asserting that the defendants violated the FTC Act and the Telemarketing Sales Rule (TSR) by advertising and selling parcels of land that were part of a luxury development in Belize through the use of deceptive tactics and claims. In 2019, a settlement was reached with the Belizean bank requiring payment of $23 million in equitable relief, and in 2020, the district court ordered the defaulted defendants to pay over $120.2 million in redress and granted the FTC’s request for permanent injunctions (covered by InfoBytes here and here). Later, in 2021, the district court denied a request to set aside the $120.2 million default judgment, disagreeing with the defendants’ argument that the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in AMG Capital Management, LLC v. FTC (which unanimously held that Section 13(b) of the FTC Act “does not authorize the Commission to seek, or a court to award, equitable monetary relief such as restitution or disgorgement”—covered by InfoBytes here) nullified the judgment. The district court stated that the AMG Capital decision does not render judgments in the case void, and that “[i]n its Opinion rendered before the Supreme Court reached its decision, the Court considered the effect that a decision in AMG Capital adverse to the FTC might have, reasoning that: ‘this Court’s findings of fact and determinations as to liability—including contempt of court and violations of the Telemarketing Services Rule []—would not be affected by a decision in AMG.’” (Covered by InfoBytes here.)

    On appeal, the 4th Circuit determined that the defendants advanced “a mixed bag of factual and legal challenges” to various contempt orders, equitable monetary judgments, permanent injunctions, and default judgments, finding that there was no abuse of discretion by the district court. While the appellate court reversed the $120.2 million judgment after finding it to be invalid under the Supreme Court’s decision in AMG Capital, it noted that because the defendants violated the FTC Act and the TSR they cannot escape the judgment. “The findings made by the district court show that [the defendant’s] Belizean business venture was dishonest to the core,” the 4th Circuit wrote. “The district court correctly surmised that this sort of deception lies at the heart of what the FTC is empowered to seek out and stop.” According to the appellate court, while “the FTC may seek injunctive relief under Section 13, the Supreme Court held in AMG Capital that it does not authorize the FTC to seek, or a court to award, ‘equitable monetary relief such as restitution or disgorgement.’” However, the defendant “latches onto this last point, claiming that the judgment in the [] case must be thrown out under AMG Capital. ... Vacating that judgment does not help [him], however, because he already has a $120.2 million judgment against him for contempt of the telemarketing injunction, and the FTC has conceded that it is not seeking $240.4 million against [him].” Essentially, AMG Capital “does not undercut the injunctive relief entered under Section 13(b), and the $120.2 million order can be upheld under the contempt judgment, so AMG does not in fact change the bottom line,” the 4th Circuit concluded.

    Courts Appellate Fourth Circuit FTC Enforcement FTC Act U.S. Supreme Court Telemarketing Sales Rule

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  • 4th Circuit: Borrower must return loans proceeds to rescind reverse mortgage

    Courts

    On July 14, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit held that a borrower has three years to rescind a reverse mortgage loan if a lender fails to provide required TILA disclosures, but that in order for the cancellation of the loan to be complete the proceeds must be returned. The borrower attempted to rescind a reverse mortgage she took out on her home after discovering the lender allegedly did not provide required TILA disclosures at closing. She notified the lender seeking to rescind the mortgage, but later sued after the lender failed to honor her rescission rights as required by Section 1635(b) of TILA. At trial, a jury sided with the lender, finding that it did not fail to honor the borrower’s attempt to rescind the loan. However, the district court issued judgment as a matter of law for the borrower, holding that the lender violated TILA’s requirements following the borrower’s notice of rescission, and ruling that because of this failure, the borrower was not required to return $60,000 in loan proceeds. The lender appealed.

    In vacating the district court’s order granting judgment as a matter of law, the appellate court held that the district court’s ruling violated TILA’s recission provisions, which are intended to return all parties to their status prior to the loan agreement. “To decide otherwise would bestow a remarkable windfall on a borrower and penalty on the lender divorced from the text of TILA and the entire purpose of rescission,” the Fourth Circuit wrote. Moreover, the appellate court concluded that while a lender’s obligations in response to a rescission notice are mandatory, nothing in Section 1635(b) “specifies that if the lender fails to take these actions, it loses its right to the monies it loaned to the borrower.”

    Courts Consumer Finance Reverse Mortgages Mortgages Appellate Fourth Circuit TILA Disclosures

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  • 4th Circuit says foreign debit fee contract language is ambiguous

    Courts

    On July 7, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit held that a class action breach of contract suit related to foreign debit card fees charged by a credit union may proceed. Class members claimed that the credit union’s contract allows fees only when customers make debit card purchases in a foreign country—not when customers make a purchase while they are physically in the U.S. even if the merchant is abroad. According to the contract’s disclosure agreement and fee schedule, debit card transactions “made in a foreign country” and non-credit union “Point-of-sale and ATM transactions made in a foreign country” will incur a one percent fee.

    In vacating the district court’s ruling that the card contracts clearly prohibited these fees, the 4th Circuit concluded that the contract’s language is ambiguous and subject to different interpretations. While class members and the credit union both cited dictionary definitions in support of their arguments, the appellate court said the contract’s language “simply does not clarify whether the location of the account holder or the seller determines whether the transactions are made in foreign countries.” In an online context, the 4th Circuit pointed to questions posed by the 7th Circuit: “Where is the point of sale for such a purchase—the consumer’s computer? the vendor’s headquarters? the vendor’s server? cyberspace generally?” The 4th Circuit further noted that the contracts could have been clearly drafted to explain whether online transactions were “made in foreign countries” if they were between account holders physically in the U.S. and foreign sellers but “were not.”

    Courts Appellate Fourth Circuit Seventh Circuit Fees Class Action Consumer Finance

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  • District Court grants final approval of a $500 million tribal lending settlement

    Courts

    On May 12, the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia granted final approval of a nearly $500 million class action settlement resolving allegations that tribal online lending companies charged usurious interest rates. Plaintiffs’ filings outline their class action against tribal entities, as well as several of the entities’ non-tribal business partners (individual defendants), for making and collecting on high-interest loans.

    The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit previously upheld a district court’s denial of defendants’ bid to dismiss or compel arbitration in the case (covered by InfoBytes here). The 4th Circuit concluded that the arbitration clauses in the loan agreements impermissibly forced borrowers to waive their federal substantive rights under federal consumer protection laws, and contained an unenforceable tribal choice-of-law provision because Virginia law caps general interest rates at 12 percent. As such, the appellate court stated that the entire arbitration provision was unenforceable. “The [t]ribal [l]enders drafted an invalid contract that strips borrowers of their substantive federal statutory rights,” the appellate court wrote. “[W]e cannot save that contract by revising it on appeal.”

    The 4th Circuit also declined to extend tribal sovereign immunity to the tribal officials, determining that while “the tribe itself retains sovereign immunity, it cannot shroud its officials with immunity in federal court when those officials violate applicable state law.” The appellate court further noted that the “Supreme Court has explicitly blessed suits against tribal officials to enjoin violations of federal and state law.”

    Following more than three years of litigation, the parties eventually reached a settlement that will include tribal officials canceling approximately $450 million in debt. As part of the settlement, the tribal officials will eliminate the balance on any outstanding loans on the basis that the debts are disputed, cease all collection activity, and will not sell, transfer, or assign any outstanding loans for collection. Tribal officials will also request deletion of any negative tradelines for loans in the name of tribal officials or tribal corporations, and will pay an additional $1 million to cover the costs of notice and administration for the settlement and $75,000 to go towards service awards. Additionally, the individual defendants will create a $39 million common fund that will go to class members who repaid unlawful amounts on their loans. Class counsel is also seeking attorneys’ fees and costs totaling around $13 million.

    Courts Tribal Lending Usury Settlement Online Lending Consumer Finance Interest Rate Appellate Fourth Circuit

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  • 4th Circuit will not revive investors’ data breach case

    Privacy, Cyber Risk & Data Security

    On April 21, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit affirmed a district court’s dismissal of a securities suit against a hotel corporation (defendant) alleging that they misled the plaintiffs regarding data vulnerabilities connected to a major breach of customers’ personal information. According to the opinion, two years after merging with another hospitality corporation, the defendant “learned that malware had impacted approximately 500 million guest records in the [hospitality corporation’s] guest reservation database.” An investor filed a putative class action against the defendant and nine of its officers and directors, alleging that its failure to disclose severe vulnerabilities in the hospitality corporation’s IT systems rendered 73 different public statements false or misleading in violation of Section 10(b) of the Securities Exchange Act of 1934 (Exchange Act) and SEC Rule 10b-5. The district court granted the defendant’s motion to dismiss with prejudice and concluded that the plaintiffs “‘failed to adequately allege a false or misleading statement or omission, a strong inference of scienter, and loss causation,’ which doomed the claim under Section 10(b) and Rule 10b-5 as well as the secondary liability claim [under Section 20(a) of the Exchange Act].” The investor appealed, dropping its challenge to 55 of the statements but maintaining its challenge to the other 18.

    On appeal, the 4th Circuit agreed with the district court that the defendant’s statements about the importance of cybersecurity were not misleading with respect to the quality of its cybersecurity efforts. The appellate court found that “[t]he ‘basic problem’ with the complaint on this point is that ‘the facts it alleges do not contradict [the defendant’s] public disclosures,’” and that reiterating the “basic truth” that data integrity is important does not mislead investors or create a false impression. The appellate court also noted that the complaint “concedes that [the defendant] devoted resources and took steps to strengthen the security of hospitality corporation’s systems,” and that the company included “such sweeping caveats that no reasonable investor could have been misled by them.” The appellate court concluded that the defendant “certainly could have provided more information to the public about its experience with or vulnerability to cyberattacks, but the federal securities laws did not require it to do so.”

    Privacy/Cyber Risk & Data Security Courts Data Breach Appellate Fourth Circuit SEC Securities Exchange Act

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  • 4th Circuit reviews whether borrowers’ letters are QWRs under REPSA

    Courts

    On February 22, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit affirmed in part and reversed in part a district court’s dismissal of claims related to whether letters sent by plaintiff borrowers to a defendant loan servicer constituted qualified written requests (QWRs) under RESPA or Regulation X that would require the defendant to stop sending adverse information about accounts to credit reporting agencies. According to the opinion, one of the plaintiffs wrote to the defendant asking to have his records corrected after noticing his credit reports reflected purported overdue home loan payments that were allegedly affecting his employment after his employer expressed concerns about the credit report. The plaintiff noted a discrepancy between the amount he was allegedly behind on his mortgage payment and included a copy of the credit report his employer received, his account number, the ID number of the agent with whom he spoke on the phone, and requested that the error be corrected. However, the plaintiff alleged that the defendant continued to report adverse loan information. The other named plaintiff allegedly fell behind on her loan payments, and the defendant began reporting adverse information to the credit reporting agencies. She later applied for a loan modification, which was not finalized due to the existence of a lien by a solar panel company. The plaintiff sent a letter to the defendant challenging the existence of “title issues” and asked for her dispute to be investigated and corrected. The parties ultimately finalized a loan modification, but in the interim, the defendant continued reporting adverse information. The plaintiffs filed a putative class action alleging that despite sending QWRs, the defendant continued to report adverse information on their loans to credit reporting agencies; however, the district court dismissed the claims.

    On appeal, the 4th Circuit reversed the district court’s dismissal of the first plaintiff’s claim, holding that the plaintiff’s letter was a QWR subject to RESPA because it contained sufficient details to identify his account and indicate why he believed the credit reporting was in error. In particular, the court noted that the letter constituted a QWR because it did not rely solely on the alleged phone call “as the basis for the description of the problem,” but also detailed conflicting balance information received from the defendant and the credit reporting service. The dissenting judge wrote that this plaintiff’s letter was not a QWR because it failed to identify the possible error and did not provide a statement of reasons for believing the unidentified error existed.

    With respect to the other named plaintiff’s claim, the court affirmed dismissal because the letter did not qualify as a QWR. The court explained that the content of the plaintiff’s letter failed to satisfy the requirements of a valid QWR, finding that “correspondence limited to the dispute of contractual issues that do not relate to the servicing of the loan, such as loan modification applications, do not qualify as QWRs.”

    Courts Appellate Fourth Circuit Mortgages Qualified Written Request RESPA Regulation X Consumer Finance

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  • 4th Circuit affirms district court’s decision in lone class member's appeal

    Courts

    On February 10, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit affirmed a district court’s approval of a $3 million class action settlement between a class of consumers (plaintiffs) and a national mortgage lender (defendant), resolving allegations arising from a foreclosure suit. In 2014, the lead plaintiffs alleged that the defendants violated federal and Maryland state law by failing to; (i) timely acknowledge receipt of class members’ loss mitigation applications; (ii) respond to the applications; and (iii) obtain proper documentation. After the case was litigated for six years, a settlement was reached that required the defendant to pay $3 million towards a relief fund. The district court approved the settlement and class counsel’s request for $1.3 million in attorneys’ fees and costs, but an absent class member objected to the settlement, arguing that “the class notice was insufficient; the settlement was unfair, unreasonable, and inadequate; the release was unconstitutionally overbroad; and the attorneys’ fee award was improper.” A magistrate judge overruled the plaintiff’s objections, finding that “both the distribution and content of the notice were sufficient because over 97% of the nearly 350,000 class members received notice,” and that “class members ‘had information to make the necessary decisions and . . . the ability to even get more information if they so desired.’”

    On the appeal, the 4th Circuit rejected the class member’s argument that the magistrate judge lacked jurisdiction to approve the settlement where she had not consented to have the magistrate hear the case. The 4th Circuit noted that only “parties” are required to consent to have a magistrate hear a case and held that absent class members are not “parties,” noting that “every other circuit to address the issue has concluded that absent class members aren’t parties.” The appellate court also upheld the adequacy of the class notice, and held that the magistrate judge did not abuse his discretion in finding that the settlement agreement was fair, reasonable, and adequate.

    Courts Class Action Mortgages Fourth Circuit State Issues Maryland Loss Mitigation Appellate Consumer Finance

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  • Agencies file amicus brief on “hybrid” loan MLA protections

    Courts

    On January 6, the CFPB, DOJ, and DOD filed an amicus brief on behalf of the United States in support of a consumer servicemember plaintiff’s appeal in Jerry Davidson v. United Auto Credit Corp, arguing that the hybrid loan at issue in the case, which was used for both an MLA-exempt and non-exempt purpose, must comply with the MLA. The loan included an amount used to purchase Guaranteed Auto Protection (GAP) insurance coverage, and the plaintiff alleged that, among other things, the auto lender (defendant) violated the MLA by forcing the plaintiff to waive important legal rights as a condition of accepting the loan and by requiring him to agree to mandatory arbitration should any dispute arise related to the loan. The plaintiff also alleged that the defendant failed to accurately communicate his repayment obligations by failing to disclose the correct annual percentage rate. The case is before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit after a district court held that the plaintiff’s GAP insurance fell within the car-loan exception to the MLA as “inextricably tied to” and “directly related” to the vehicle purchase.

    Arguing that GAP coverage “is not needed to buy a car and does not advance the purchase or use of the car,” the agencies’ brief noted that GAP coverage is identified as “debt-related product that addresses a financial contingency arising from a total loss of the car” and that the coverage can be purchased as a standalone product. According to the brief, the plaintiff’s loan is a “hybrid loan—that is, a loan that finances a product bundle including both an exempt product (such as a car) and a distinct non-exempt product (such as optional GAP coverage),” and the district court erred in failing to interpret the MLA consistent with guidance issued in 2016 and 2017 by the DOD suggesting that such “hybrid loans” are consumer credit subject to the protections in the MLA. The 2017 guidance explained that “a credit transaction that includes financing for Guaranteed Auto Protection insurance … would not qualify for the exception,” and the agencies argued that although the 2017 guidance was withdrawn in 2020, the “withdrawal did not offer a substantive interpretation of the statute that would alter the conclusion” that the plaintiff’s loan was not exempt from the MLA.

    Courts CFPB Department of Defense DOJ Amicus Brief Appellate Fourth Circuit Servicemembers Military Lending Act Military Lending GAP Fees

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