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  • 4th Circuit affirms arbitration clause waiving statutory rights is unenforceable

    Courts

    On July 21, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit affirmed a district court’s denial of defendants’ motion to compel arbitration, holding that the arbitration agreements operated as prospective waivers of federal law and were thus unenforceable. According to the opinion, a group of Virginia borrowers filed suit against two online lenders owned by a sovereign Native American tribe and their investors (collectively, “defendants”). In the action, the plaintiffs contended that they obtained payday loans from the defendants, which included annual interest rates between 219 percent to 373 percent—an alleged violation of Virginia’s usury laws and the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO). The defendants moved to compel arbitration, which the district court denied, concluding that choice-of-law provisions—such as “‘[t]his agreement to arbitrate shall be governed by Tribal Law’; ‘[t]he arbitrator shall apply Tribal Law’; and the arbitration award ‘must be consistent with this Agreement and Tribal Law’”—prospectively excluded federal law, making them unenforceable.

    On appeal, the 4th Circuit agreed with the district court despite a “strong federal policy in favor of enforcing arbitration agreements.” Most significantly, the appellate court rejected the defendants’ assertion that the choice-of-law provisions did not operate as a prospective waiver. The court noted that while the choice-of-law provisions “do not explicitly disclaim the application of federal law, the practical effect is the same,” as they limit an arbitrator’s award to “remedies available under Tribal Law,” effectively preempting “the application of any contrary law—including contrary federal law.” Moreover, the appellate court concluded that under the arbitration agreement, borrowers would be unable to effectively pursue RICO claims against the defendants, and more specifically, would be unable to “effectively vindicate a federal statutory claim for treble damages” under RICO. Thus, because federal statutory protections and remedies are unavailable to borrowers under the agreement, the appellate court concluded the entire agreement is unenforceable.  

    Courts Payday Lending Tribal Lending Arbitration Interest Rate Fourth Circuit Appellate Online Lending State Issues Virginia RICO

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  • 3rd Circuit: Arbitration clause limiting borrowers’ statutory rights is unenforceable

    Courts

    On July 14, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit affirmed a district court’s denial of defendants’ motion to compel arbitration, holding that an arbitration clause contained within an online tribal lender’s payday loan agreement impermissibly strips borrowers of their right to assert statutory claims and is therefore unenforceable. Specifically, because this “limitation constitutes a prospective waiver of statutory rights,” the lender’s arbitration agreement “violates public policy and is therefore unenforceable.” The plaintiffs filed a putative class action contending that they obtained payday loans from the lender, which included annual interest rates between 496.55 percent to 714.88 percent—an alleged violation of the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO) and various Pennsylvania consumer protection laws. The defendants moved to compel arbitration. The district court denied the defendants’ arbitration request, ruling that “the arbitration agreement was unenforceable because the arbitrator is permitted only to consider tribal law,” and, therefore, the arbitrator could not consider any of plaintiffs’ federal or state law claims. The 3rd Circuit agreed, rejecting, among other things, the defendants’ argument that the plaintiffs could bring RICO-like claims under tribal law and possibly receive “similar relief.” The appellate court noted: “The question is whether a party can bring and effectively pursue the federal claim—not whether some other law is a sufficient substitute.”

    Courts Payday Lending Tribal Lending Arbitration Interest Rate Appellate Third Circuit Online Lending RICO State Issues Class Action

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  • 3rd Circuit: Filed-rate doctrine precludes borrowers’ fraud claims

    Courts

    On July 1, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit affirmed the dismissal of a class action challenging the lender placed insurance practices of a mortgage servicer, concluding that the filed-rate doctrine blocked the claims. According to the opinion, borrowers from North Carolina and New Jersey filed suit against their reverse mortgage lender and insurance company, alleging the lender and insurer colluded to overcharge consumers for lender placed insurance in violation of TILA, the federal Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO), and various state laws. Specifically, the plaintiffs asserted that the insurance company charged an insurance rate, which was appropriately filed with state regulators, that was higher than the mortgage lender paid. The plaintiffs asserted the insurer then returned a portion of the profits back to the lender in order to induce continued insurance business. The district court dismissed the action, holding that the filed-rate doctrine blocked the claims.

    On appeal, the 3rd Circuit agreed with the lower court. The appellate court emphasized that under the filed-rate doctrine, there is no distinction between “challenging a filed rate as unreasonable and…challenging an overcharge fraudulently included in a filed rate.” Because the plaintiffs sought damages in connection with the alleged overcharge of insurance premiums, the appellate court concluded that the plaintiffs were “functionally challeng[ing] the reasonableness of rates filed with state regulators.” Moreover, the appellate court noted that if the court were to award damages to the plaintiffs, the court would essentially be “giving these borrowers a better price for [lender placed insurance] than other [] borrowers using a different lender,” but the same insurer. Thus, because the insurance rate was appropriately filed with the state regulators, the appellate court had no ability to decide whether the rate was “unreasonable or fraudulently inflated,” because the claims were precluded by the filed-rate doctrine.

    Courts Lender Placed Insurance Mortgages Reverse Mortgages Appellate Third Circuit TILA RICO

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  • District court rejects financing company’s dismissal bid in student loan debt relief scam

    Courts

    On March 11, the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York denied the motion of a Minnesota-based indirect finance company (defendant) to dismiss allegations that its participation in a student loan relief operation violated the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organization Act (RICO), ruling that the borrowers had properly alleged mail and wire fraud and had established a pattern of “open-ended continuity.” According to the named plaintiffs, the defendant contracted dealers who marketed “student loan assistance services” to federal student loan borrowers, who were then redirected to pay the defendant a fee of $1,300 to file applications on their behalf for adjustments such as loan consolidation or enrollment in an income-driven repayment plan. Because the dealers could not legally accept the payments directly, the defendant allegedly approved borrowers for financing and made upfront payments to dealers for each recruited borrower. In denying the dismissal bid, the court ruled that “these allegations, if assumed true, establish that, in devising the scheme, [the defendant] intended to deceive borrowers so that they would incur debts to it.” Moreover, “[g]iven these allegations, the Amended Complaint contains sufficient allegations that reveal ‘the threat of continuity,’. . . and sufficient support for the proposition that [the defendant] ‘ha[s] been trying to continue’ the alleged scheme with respect to individuals in addition to the [n]amed plaintiffs,” the court wrote.

    As previously covered by InfoBytes, last December the CFPB denied a petition by one of the defendants to modify or set aside a civil investigative demand (CID) issued by the Bureau, which seeks information as part of an investigation into the defendant’s promotion of student loan debt relief programs. Separately, the FTC and the Minnesota attorney general entered a stipulated order against the defendant for violations of TILA and the assisting and facilitating provision of the Telemarketing Sales Rule, which resulted in the defendant being permanently banned from engaging in transactions involving debt relief products and services or making misrepresentations regarding financial products and services (covered by InfoBytes here). 

    Courts Student Lending Debt Relief RICO

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  • District court approves $18.5 million “rent-a-tribe” payday loan settlement

    Courts

    On February 25, the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia granted preliminary approval of an $18.5 million class action settlement to resolve allegations including violations of the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, state usury and lending laws, and unjust enrichment against a financial technology company and a tribal corporation (defendants). According to the complaint, the company evaded state law usury limits by attempting to use the sovereignty of an Indian tribe (“rent-a-tribe”) in order to issue payday loans carrying annual percentage interest rates as high as 460 percent. While the defendants have denied any wrongdoing, they have agreed to, among other things, (i) cancel loans originated during the class period “on the basis that the debt is disputed”; (ii) no longer sell any outstanding loans and cease all collection activity; (iii) contact all consumer reporting agencies to request the permanent removal of any missed payment marks on loans originated during the class period; (iv) no longer sell class members’ personal identifying information to third parties; and (v) establish an $18.5 million fund to go towards costs, service awards, attorneys’ fees, and cash awards to class members.

    Courts Settlement Payday Lending Class Action State Issues RICO Usury

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  • Court rejects dismissal bid in veteran pension case

    Courts

    On March 5, the U.S. District Court for the District of South Carolina affirmed the recommendation of a Magistrate Judge and denied the motion of a law firm, one of its partners, and others’ (collectively, “defendants”) to dismiss an action alleging that the defendants violated the Federal Anti-Assignment Act (FAAA) and the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organization Act (RICO). These alleged violations were based on the advance purchase of future military pension and disability benefits in exchange for current lump sum payments. According to the report of the Magistrate Judge, five military veterans (collectively, “plaintiffs”) alleged that the defendants operated a coordinated scheme to generate leads from veterans seeking money, and connected veterans to brokers and purchasers in order for the veteran to sell future pension and disability payments for a lump sum wire transfer. The plaintiffs also alleged the operators required the veterans to execute an insurance policy or structured asset agreement to ensure the loan is fully repaid upon the veteran’s death. The Magistrate Judge recommended the motions be denied, concluding that the plaintiffs sufficiently pled the details of the alleged scheme and that the defendants violated the FAAA by inducing veterans to enter into contracts to sell their retirement or disability benefits in advance of the date they are due and payable. Moreover, the Magistrate Judge found that the plaintiffs sufficiently alleged the individual plaintiffs violated RICO by engaging in a criminal enterprise that “coordinated various corporations and websites to buy the plaintiffs’ and other veterans’ benefits and funnel the proceeds through [a defendant]’s account.” Upon review of the report, the district court found “no clear error” by the Magistrate Judge, agreed with the recommendations, and denied the motions to dismiss.

    As previously covered by InfoBytes, one of the individual defendants was recently fined $1 in civil money penalties by the CFPB for allegedly violating the Consumer Financial Protection Act by operating a website that connected veterans with companies offering high-interest loans in exchange for the assignment of some or all of their military pension payments.

    Courts RICO Military Lending Consumer Finance CFPB CFPA

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  • Houston-based energy company sues former Venezuelan government officials for bribery related conduct related to national oil company

    Financial Crimes

    On February 16, 2018, a Houston-based energy corporation that formally dissolved in May 2017 filed suit in the Southern District of Texas against two former presidents of a Venezuelan national oil company and others who allegedly worked for them. According to the complaint filed by the energy company, Venezuela’s Ministerio del Poder Popular de Petroleo y Mineria twice refused to allow the company to sell energy assets co-owned with the oil company because the energy company refused to pay bribes requested by the defendants. According to the energy company, the denials forced the company to sell the same assets at a loss of $470 million. The energy company has sued the defendants alleging civil violations of the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (“RICO”), the Sherman Act, the Robinson-Patman Act, and the Texas Free Enterprise and Antitrust Act.

    This suit was filed days after the DOJ unsealed charges against five former Venezuelan government officials for their involvement in a money laundering scheme at the oil company. Previous FCPA Scorecard coverage of the ongoing DOJ and ICE-HIS investigation into bribery at the national oil company can be found here.

    Financial Crimes DOJ RICO Bribery

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  • Ukrainian Billionaire Files Motion to Dismiss Indictment

    Financial Crimes

    A Ukrainian billionaire indicted in 2013 for his alleged role in a conspiracy to bribe government officials in India to permit the mining of titanium minerals filed a motion to dismiss the indictment on May 9 in a federal district court in Illinois. The billionaire also faces money laundering and RICO charges along with five alleged coconspirators. In 2015, an Austrian court denied the United States’ extradition request, but that decision was eventually reversed and the billionaire was extradited earlier this year. See previous Scorecard coverage here.

    The billionaire’s motion to dismiss focuses on the lack of jurisdictional contact between the charged conduct and the United States. It vigorously challenges the jurisdictional basis alleged in the indictment, which was that the billionaire’s coconspirators, but not the billionaire himself, transferred money through United States correspondent banks, traveled to the United states, and used email accounts and cellular phones hosted on servers in the United States. However, the billionaire claims that the indictment fails to allege that any of these contacts have any connection to the alleged bribery scheme and that he never entered the United States in connection with the charged conduct, and never made or received any phone calls or sent or received any emails regarding the allegations in the indictment.

    The amount and quality of contacts with the United States required to support jurisdiction under the FCPA is a frequently contested issue. The United States has repeatedly taken the position that jurisdiction is proper even where the wrongful conduct took place outside the United States and did not involve any United States companies or citizens, so long as there was some contact with the United States. For example, in the recent Hungarian telecommunications company cases, emails sent through servers hosted in the United States were held to be sufficient to support jurisdiction. See previous Scorecard coverage here. The outcome of the billionaire’s motion to dismiss will shed further light on the jurisdictional standard.

    Financial Crimes RICO Bribery Indictment

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  • DOJ Announces Racketeering Indictment Alleging Money Laundering Schemes

    Financial Crimes

    On December 10, the DOJ announced three unsealed indictments of a total of 20 defendants in connection with various money laundering schemes. Fifteen of the defendants were arrested and taken into custody, while the remaining individuals are still being sought by authorities.

    The first indictment alleges that the former president and CEO of an Orange County, California bank and five other individuals, as members of a narcotics trafficking and international money laundering organization, violated the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO) by participating in schemes to launder drug proceeds. According to the DOJ, the former bank official used his position, insider knowledge, and connections to “promote and facilitate money laundering transactions involving members and associates of the enterprise.” The DOJ alleges that the six defendants (i) arranged to convert purported drug proceeds, in the form of cash provided by an undercover informant, into cashier’s checks made out to a company the informant claimed to own; (ii) proposed to an informant that the informant and his boss purchase a controlling interest in the Orange County bank to more easily facilitate money laundering operations; and (iii) proposed to set up a foundation in Liechtenstein to be used, in part, to launder the informant’s drug sale proceeds. The DOJ also asserts that the bank official introduced the five other defendants to operatives of a drug cartel aspiring to launder millions of dollars monthly and discussed plans to purchase the bank with the drug cartel operatives. In addition to the RICO count, the indictment charges a total of 16 defendants with 27 additional counts, including conspiracy, money laundering, structuring transactions to avoid federal reporting requirements, and evidence tampering.

    The two additional unsealed indictments charge a total of four defendants with conspiring to launder money they believed to be proceeds from narcotics trafficking.

    Anti-Corruption DOJ RICO

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  • Federal District Court Dismisses Borrowers' Subprime Lending RICO Claims

    Lending

    On October 30, the U.S. District Court of the Northern District of California dismissed, without prejudice, claims brought by two borrowers alleging that their mortgage lender engaged in fraudulent loan practices which violated RICO. The court held that the claims were time-barred and that the complaint failed to allege facts about predicate acts and a pattern of activity necessary to sustain a civil RICO claim. Cabrera v. Countrywide Fin., No. 11-4869, 2012 WL 5372116 (N.D. Cal. Oct. 30, 2012). The court rejected the borrowers’ arguments that (i) the statute of limitations began to run not from the date they entered into their adjustable rate mortgage, but from the date the rate adjusted, and (ii) equitable tolling should apply because the borrowers’ could not have discovered their adjusted rate absent a forensic loan audit they obtained years into the contract. With regard to equitable tolling, the court held that the plain terms of the mortgage provide information about the rate at issue, which could have been uncovered by “a reasonably diligent investigation of the loan documents.” The court similarly dismissed the borrowers’ claims that the lender discriminated against minority borrowers in violation of the ECOA, as time-barred. It also held that the borrowers, who are Hispanic, failed to state a claim under ECOA in that, although they offered statistical evidence that Hispanics were given less favorable loans than white borrowers with the same risk characteristics, they failed to allege that they themselves qualified for better loans. The borrowers’ claim of unfair business practices under the state’s unfair competition law survived. The court held that the borrowers pled facts sufficient to support their claim that the lender’s effort to initiate a foreclosure while a loan modification was pending violated public policy reflected in the California Homeowner Bill of Rights, even though the specific provision of that statute that prohibits such practices was not codified until after the foreclosure occurred.

    Subprime ECOA RICO

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