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11th Circuit: Statements indicating accrual of debt balance following settlement are enough to state a claim
On July 1, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit overturned a district court’s dismissal of an FDCPA case, holding that statements sent to plaintiffs indicating that a debt balance was accruing after a settlement had been reached is enough to state a claim. According to the opinion, the plaintiffs defaulted on a mortgage and a servicer sued for foreclosure. While the foreclosure suit was pending, the defendant took over servicing of the loan. A “disagreement” arose, which led the plaintiffs to sue the defendant. A settlement was reached and it was agreed that the plaintiffs owed $85,790.99, which was to be paid in one year. However, four months later, the defendant sent a mortgage statement notifying the plaintiffs that their loan had “been accelerated” because they were “late on [their] monthly payments.” On the defendant’s “fast-tracked timetable,” the plaintiff owed $92,789.55 to be paid in a month, and if they did not pay, the defendant’s statement stated that they risked more fees and “the loss of [their] home to a foreclosure sale.” The plaintiffs continued to receive statements and the amount due increased monthly. The plaintiffs sued, saying the defendant violated the FDCPA by sending statements with incorrect balances. A district court ruled the periodic statements were unrelated to debt collection because the defendant was required to send monthly updates under TILA. The district court further determined that the plaintiffs failed to state an FDCPA claim, declined to exercise supplemental jurisdiction over the Florida law claims, and dismissed the complaint.
On appeal, the 11th Circuit ruled that statements must comply with the FDCPA, even if they are not required to be sent under the statute. The 11th Circuit reiterated that the respective requirements of TILA and the FDCPA can be approached in a “harmonized” fashion, stating that “a periodic statement mandated by [TILA] can also be a debt-collection communication covered by the FDCPA.” The appellate court reversed the district court’s dismissal because “the complaint here plausibly alleges that the periodic statements sent to the plaintiffs aimed to collect their debt.”
11th Circuit reversal emphasizes “harmonized” TILA, FDCPA statements
On June 7, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit held that an individual claiming to have acted as a custodian of an account and not in her personal capacity must arbitrate claims brought against a national bank (defendant). The plaintiff and her mother co-owned an investment account that was eventually transferred to the defendant. The plaintiff’s mother notified the bank that the plaintiff would remain co-owner of the account and signed a brokerage account application containing an arbitration clause. Several years later, after the plaintiff noticed that numerous withdrawals were being made from the account by another family member, she obtained legal guardianship of her mother and applied for another brokerage account in order to move the funds to a new account she could access and oversee. The application included a brokerage agreement (which listed her mother as the account owner and was signed by the plaintiff as a joint account owner/custodian and as the primary applicant). The agreement contained a clause requiring arbitration of “[a]ll controversies that may arise between you, us and [the broker] concerning any subject matter, issue or circumstance whatsoever (including, but not limited to, controversies concerning any Account, order or transaction, or the continuation, performance, interpretation or breach of this or any other agreement between you, us and [the broker], whether entered into or arising before, on or after the date this Account is opened).”
The plaintiff eventually sued the bank alleging theft, aiding and abetting theft and fraud, and negligence, among other claims. The plaintiff contended that she was not bound by the arbitration agreement because she signed the agreement “not in her personal capacity, but as her mother’s guardian,” and that there is no arbitrable issue because her personal claims did not arise from the agreement. The district court granted the defendant’s motion to compel arbitration after determining the plaintiff had not alleged that the defendant fraudulently obtained her signature.
On appeal, the 11th Circuit interpreted the word “you” in the arbitration clause as referring to the plaintiff “as the person who applied for the account and signed the application.” In determining that the plaintiff is a signatory to the defendant’s agreement, the appellate court concluded that the plaintiff “has not alleged that her signature was nonvoluntary or otherwise fraudulently obtained[,]” and thus is bound by the arbitration clause. Moreover, the 11th Circuit rejected the plaintiff’s argument that her claims are not covered by the arbitration clause, writing that the “clause explicitly contemplates disputes arising from other issues or agreements ‘whether entered into or arising before, on or after the date this Account is opened.’”
Special Alert: Eleventh Circuit upholds terms of arbitration agreement in challenge under Dodd-Frank
On May 26, 2022, the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit issued a published decision holding that the Dodd-Frank Act does not prohibit the enforceability of delegation clauses contained in consumer arbitration agreements “in any way.” This opinion is of potentially broad significance in the class action and arbitration space since it is one of the first appellate decisions in the country concerning Dodd-Frank’s arbitration provision and supports broad enforcement of delegation clauses even where a statute could allegedly prohibit arbitration of the underlying claim.
In Attix v. Carrington Mortgage Services, LLC, the Eleventh Circuit reversed a decision of the United States District Court for the Southern District of Florida denying Carrington’s motion to compel arbitration that was based on the plaintiff’s argument that the anti-waiver provision in the Dodd-Frank Act, prohibited enforcement of the arbitration agreement. The anti-waiver provision of the Dodd-Frank Act provides that “no other agreement between the consumer and the creditor relating to the residential mortgage loan or extension of credit . . . shall be applied or interpreted so as to bar a consumer from bringing an action in an appropriate district court of the United States.” The district court agreed with the plaintiff’s argument that the Dodd-Frank Act prohibited arbitration of the underlying dispute and in doing so, side-stepped the delegation clause that delegated such threshold determinations to an arbitrator.
In a 52-page published opinion, the Eleventh Circuit reversed the decision of the district court, holding that the Dodd-Frank Act does not prohibit enforcing delegation clauses, such as the clause at issue, which “clearly and unmistakably” delegates to the arbitrator “threshold arbitrability disputes.” The circuit court found that in such circumstances, all questions of arbitrability are delegated to an arbitrator “unless the law prohibits the delegation of threshold arbitrability issues itself.”
The court went on to broadly hold that the Dodd-Frank Act does not prohibit the enforceability of delegation clauses “in any way.” In doing so, the Eleventh Circuit explained that if Dodd-Frank had been intended to prohibit the enforcement of delegation clauses, then it could have been drafted that way, but instead, “the actual statute is silent as to who may decide whether a particular contract falls within the scope of its protections.” While the Dodd-Frank Act prohibits arbitration agreements from being applied or interpreted in a particular manner, it does not prohibit the enforcement of delegation clauses, and as a result, the court held that under the terms of Carrington and the plaintiff’s agreement, the arbitrator (and not the court) must determine the threshold question of whether the Dodd-Frank Act prohibits enforcement of Carrington’s arbitration agreement since it is a “quintessential arbitrability question.”
Significantly, the court also held that a challenge to an agreement to arbitrate on the basis that a statute precludes its enforcement is not a “specific challenge” to a delegation clause found within the arbitration agreement, such that the court lacks jurisdiction to review the enforceability of the delegation clause. In other words, where a challenge “is only about the enforceability of the parties’ primary arbitration agreement” and there is a delegation clause, “an arbitrator must resolve it.” As the Eleventh Circuit explained, “when an appeal presents a delegation agreement and a question of arbitrability, we stop. We do not pass go.”
This case has significance for anyone considering drafting an arbitration agreement particularly in a class action context. A threshold drafting question is whether or not to delegate issues of arbitrability to the arbitrator or allow a court to resolve the issue. Under this decision, a question of whether a statute bars arbitration of claims is for the arbitrator to decide when there is a delegation clause, unless the statute also explicitly bars delegation clauses. This decision reinforces that inclusion of a properly drafted delegation clause in an arbitration agreement can result in a case improperly filed in court being more quickly sent to arbitration, even where the dispute is whether a statute prohibits the claim from being arbitrated in the first instance.
Buckley represented Carrington on appeal with a team comprising Fredrick Levin, who argued the appeal, Scott Sakiyama, Brian Bartholomay, and Sarah Meehan. For questions regarding the case, please contact one of the team members or a Buckley attorney with whom you have worked in the past.
CFPB, FTC weigh in on consumer reporting obligations under the FCRA
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.
11th Circuit affirms $23 million judgment against founder of debt relief operation
On March 9, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit affirmed summary judgment in favor of the FTC and the Florida attorney general after finding that an individual defendant could be held liable for the actions of the entities he controlled. As previously covered by InfoBytes, the FTC and the Florida AG filed a complaint in 2016 against several interrelated companies and the individual defendant who founded the companies, alleging violations of the FTC Act, the Telemarketing Sales Rule, and the Florida Deceptive and Unfair Trade Practices Act. The complaint alleged that the defendants engaged in a scheme that targeted financially distressed consumers through illegal robocalls selling bogus credit card debt relief services and interest rate reductions. Among other things, the defendants also claimed to be “licensed enrollment center[s]” for major credit card networks with the ability to work with a consumer’s credit card company or bank to substantially and permanently lower credit card interest rates and charged up-front payments for debt relief and rate-reduction services. In 2018, the court granted the FTC and the Florida AG’s motion for summary judgment, finding there was no genuine dispute that the individual defendant controlled the defendant entities, that he knew his employees were making false representations, and that he failed to stop them. The court entered a permanent injunction, which ordered the individual defendant to pay over $23 million in equitable monetary relief and permanently restrained and enjoined the individual defendant from participating—whether directly or indirectly—in telemarketing; advertising, marketing, selling, or promoting any debt relief products or services; or misrepresenting material facts.
The individual defendant appealed, arguing that there were genuine disputes over whether: (i) he controlled the entities; (ii) he had knowledge that employees were making misrepresentations and failed to prevent them; (iii) employee affidavits “attesting that they had saved customers money created an issue of fact about whether his programs did what he said they would do”; and (iv) he had knowledge of “rogue employees” violating the “do not call” registry to solicit customers.
On appeal, the 11th Circuit determined that the facts presented by the individual defendant did not create a genuine dispute about whether he controlled the entities, and further stated that the individual defendant is liable for the employees’ misrepresentations because of his control of the entities and his knowledge of those misrepresentations. The appellate court explained that while the individual defendant argued that he could not be liable because he did not participate in those representations, he failed to present any evidence in support of that argument and, even if he had, “it wouldn’t matter, because [the individual defendant’s] liability stems from his control of [the companies], not from his individual conduct.” Additionally, the appellate court held that whether the services were helpful to customers was immaterial and did not absolve him of liability, because liability for deceptive sales practices does not require worthlessness. As to the “do not call” registry violations, the appellate court disagreed with the individual defendant’s claim that an “outside dialer or lead generator”—not the company—placed the outbound calls, holding that this excuse also does not absolve him of liability.
11th Circuit affirms $7.5 million settlement on overdraft appeal
On February 16, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit affirmed a district court’s class certification and approval of a $7.5 million settlement, which resolved allegations that, after merging with another national bank, the former bank (defendant) improperly assessed and collected overdraft fees. According to the opinion, a customer accused the bank of “high-to-low” posting that restructured customers’ debit transactions so that high value debits posted before low value ones, increasing the chance of overdrafts. After the defendant merged with the national bank in 2012, the national bank agreed to the $7.5 million settlement to resolve the claims. A class member (interested party-appellant) appealed the order. The interested party-appellant claimed “that the court abused its discretion by finding that the settlement class’s representative … adequately represented her (and her proposed subclass’s) interests and that the settlement class’s claims were typical of hers (and her proposed subclass’s).”
The 11th Circuit disagreed and found that the district court did not abuse its discretion because the plaintiff classes “suffered identical injuries” based on the defendant’s alleged high-to-low restructuring practices. Additionally, the appellate court found that “[t]he district court didn’t abuse its discretion by finding [the settlement class’s representative’s] claims were typical of those of the class.” The court also found that “[t]he district court could reasonably conclude that any difference in the value of the plaintiffs’ claims was too speculative or too small to create a fundamental conflict of interest.”
District Court rules transmitting debtor information to third-party violates FDCPA
On February 2, the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania denied a defendant’s motion for judgment on the pleadings, ruling that transmitting a debtor’s personal information to a third-party mail vendor for the purposes of sending a debt collection letter constitutes a communication “in connection with the collection of any debt” under the FDCPA. As previously covered by InfoBytes, in Hunstein v. Preferred Collection & Management Services, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit held that transmitting a consumer’s private data to a commercial mail vendor to generate debt collection letters violates Section 1692c(b) of the FDCPA because it is considered transmitting a consumer’s private data “in connection with the collection of any debt.” The district court found this reasoning “persuasive,” ruling that the plain text of the statute encompasses communications with a third party mail vendor. The district court also rejected the defendant’s arguments that the CFPB and FTC had tacitly endorsed third-party mailers by not pursuing enforcement actions against them: “[B]ecause the agencies tasked with regulating and enforcing the FDCPA have not addressed the use of letter vendors by debt collectors in any legally significant way, and because the statutory language is not subject to a different reading, the Court will afford no deference to the indeterminate actions of the CFPB and FTC.”
11th Circuit affirms FCRA suit dismissal
On December 23, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit affirmed a lower court’s dismissal of an FCRA case where a furnisher (defendant) allegedly failed to conduct a reasonable investigation in response to materials that the plaintiff had sent to two credit reporting agencies (CRAs), which was then forwarded to the furnisher. According to the opinion, the plaintiff had submitted a letter to each CRA requesting they remove a dispute notation on her credit report with respect to her account with the furnisher because the account in question was no longer being disputed. The CRAs forwarded the plaintiff’s request to the furnisher, who then investigated and notified the CRAs that the account was still being disputed. The plaintiff did not otherwise directly tell the furnisher that she no longer disputed the tradeline. After discovering that the account was still reported as disputed, the plaintiff filed suit under the FCRA against the furnisher for failing to investigate the dispute and failing to direct the CRAs to remove the notation of account in dispute. The district court granted the defendant’s motion to dismiss for the plaintiff’s failure to state a claim.
On appeal, the 11th Circuit found that the letter sent by the plaintiff to the CRAs failed “to make anything clear” to the furnisher. The appellate court explained that the plaintiff “could have written a better letter: one that made clear that she was attempting to revoke her dispute for the first time or, better yet, one addressed to the bank itself. But that is not the letter on which she premised her lawsuit.” The appellate court also noted that, although the furnisher could have contacted the plaintiff directly, the FCRA does not require the furnisher to do so. In effect, “[w]hat [the plaintiff] wants [the bank] to do — either (1) to intuit that she no longer disputed the tradeline from her report to the CRAs or (2) to reach out to her directly to clarify and confirm that she no longer wished to dispute the tradeline — goes beyond what FCRA reasonableness requires,” the appellate court explained in its ruling. The appellate court therefore found that it was reasonable for the furnisher to review its official records, which indicated that the tradeline was still in dispute, and retain the dispute notation on the plaintiff’s credit report.
11th Circuit to rehear Hunstein v. Preferred Collection & Management Services
On November 17, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit vacated an opinion in Hunstein v. Preferred Collection & Management Services, ordering an en banc rehearing of the case. The order vacates an 11th Circuit decision to revive claims that the defendant’s use of a third-party mail vendor to write, print, and send requests for medical debt repayment violated privacy rights established in the FDCPA. As previously covered by InfoBytes, in April, the 11th Circuit held that transmitting a consumer’s private data to a commercial mail vendor to generate debt collection letters violates Section 1692c(b) of the FDCPA because it is considered transmitting a consumer’s private data “in connection with the collection of any debt.” According to the order issued sua sponte by the 11th Circuit, an en banc panel of appellate judges will convene at a later date to rehear the case.
11th Circuit lifts a receivership and asset freeze of $85 million
On November 4, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit affirmed in part and vacated in part a district court’s order, finding that portions of the district court’s decision could not stand under the U.S. Supreme Court’s April ruling in AMG Capital Management v. FTC. The Court held in that case 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). According to the 11th Circuit’s opinion, in 2019, the FTC alleged that individuals associated with multiple limited liability companies engaged in unfair or deceptive business practices in violation of 15 U.S.C. § 45(a). The FTC also filed a motion for a temporary restraining order the same day against the corporate defendants, seeking to freeze their assets, place the entities into a receivership, and enjoin all the parties from materially misrepresenting their services or from releasing consumer information obtained through the limited liability company. The district court granted the motion for a temporary restraining order in full in December 2019, and in January 2020, the district court granted a preliminary injunction against the limited liability company, extending the asset freeze, receivership, and injunction for the duration of the lawsuit.
On appeal, the 11th Circuit affirmed those parts of the preliminary injunction enjoining the appellants from misrepresenting their services and releasing consumer information. The panel upheld the portion of the order that enjoined one of the investor entities and its principal, who was the former chairman of the corporate defendant’s board, from misrepresenting services on allegedly deceptive websites or releasing any customer information allegedly gathered through the websites. While the appeal was pending, however, the Court held in AMG Capital Management that 15 U.S.C. § 53(b) does not allow an award of “equitable monetary relief such as restitution or disgorgement,” leading the 11th Circuit to reverse the asset freeze and receivership aspects of the preliminary injunction. Additionally, the 11th Circuit noted that the principal from one of the entities “was individually responsible for the actions of [the corporate defendants],” and “likely knew that [the corporate defendants] made over eighty million dollars in two years selling 'guides' on government services, and it almost beggars belief that he would be completely unaware of how [the corporate defendants’] websites were raising that quantity of money.”