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On April 7, the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia preliminarily approved a revised class action settlement concerning allegations that an operation used tribal sovereign immunity to evade state usury laws when charging unlawful interest on loans. The plaintiffs filed a class action complaint against the operation alleging, among other things, violations of the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, EFTA, and TILA. The preliminarily-approved revised settlement would cancel approximately 71,000 class member loans, including a group of loans sold by the operation to another investor. It would also require the operation to pay $86 million, including an additional $21 million payment from the individual defendant, and cap attorneys’ fees for class counsel at $15 million. The operation would also be required to comply with several non-monetary provisions, including (i) requesting that negative credit reporting information concerning the loans be deleted; and (ii) ensuring that key loan terms, including interest rates and payment schedules to borrowers, are disclosed in loan agreements in compliance with federal law.
On January 26, the U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland granted plaintiffs’ motion for reconsideration and relief stemming from a 2020 dismissal order, which previously dismissed RESPA claims in a kickback suit. The case originally alleged a mortgage lender entered into an arrangement with a settlement service company to trade referrals for kickbacks, which resulted in the plaintiffs being overcharged for their settlement services. In 2020, the court granted the defendant’s motion to dismiss, finding that the alleged payments fell under RESPA’s safe harbor provision permitting compensation to be paid for services performed. In re-opening the case, the court acknowledged that the dismissal of the case was premised on two “clear” errors with respect to RESPA’s safe harbor provision. First, the court noted that it previously misconstrued that the settlement service company was the recipient of the alleged kickbacks, when in actuality, the lender received the kickbacks. Second, the court determined that the plaintiffs were correct in asserting that the court failed to consider allegations in their amended complaint that the lender did not render any services to the settlement service company to warrant the payments it received. The court concluded it had made an error by “concluding that the alleged kickback payments were protected under RESPA’s safe harbor provision.” The court also revived the plaintiffs’ Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act claims after determining they were plausibly pled.
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.
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.”
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.
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).
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.
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.
Houston-based energy company sues former Venezuelan government officials for bribery related conduct related to national oil company
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.
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.
- Jonice Gray Tucker to discuss “How the new administration sets the tone for 2021” at the American Conference Institute Legal, Regulatory and Compliance Forum on Fintech & Emerging Payment Systems
- Sherry-Maria Safchuk to discuss UDAAP in consumer finance at an American Bar Association webinar
- Jeffrey P. Naimon to discuss "What to expect: The new administration and regulatory changes" at the Mortgage Bankers Association Legal Issues and Regulatory Compliance Conference
- Jonice Gray Tucker to discuss “The future of fair lending” at the Mortgage Bankers Association Legal Issues and Regulatory Compliance Conference
- Steven R. vonBerg to discuss "LO comp challenges" at the Mortgage Bankers Association Legal Issues and Regulatory Compliance Conference
- Michelle L. Rogers to discuss "Major litigation" at the Mortgage Bankers Association Legal Issues and Regulatory Compliance Conference
- Michelle L. Rogers to discuss “The False Claims Act today” at the Federal Bar Association Qui Tam Section Roundtable