Subscribe to our InfoBytes Blog weekly newsletter and other publications for news affecting the financial services industry.
District Court denies servicer’s claims that it never received QWR
The U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri recently considered whether a mortgage servicer received a borrower’s qualified written request (QWR) relating to a missed mortgage payment. The borrower sent a money order to cover two monthly mortgage payments, but the payments were not properly credited to her account. The borrower made several attempts to contact the mortgage servicer about the improperly credited payment. After receiving a formal notice of default, the borrower sent a “Request for Information and Notice of Error” (NOE) to the servicer explaining the situation and asking that her account be updated to reflect that all payments had been made and requesting the removal of late fees and charges. She also asked that her loan be removed from default status and sent letters to the credit reporting agencies formally disputing the delinquent payment reports. According to the court’s opinion, the borrower claimed that the servicer violated RESPA by failing to respond and violated the FCRA by failing to conduct a reasonable investigation into her credit disputes and verifying inaccurately furnished information.
In considering both parties’ motions for summary judgment, the court granted the borrower’s motion on liability with respect to her RESPA claim and denied the servicer’s motion for summary judgment on the FCRA claims on the basis that the borrower provided evidence of actual damages resulting from the servicer’s alleged FCRA violation. The court explained that RESPA requires mortgage servicers to respond to a QWR within five days to acknowledge receipt, and again within 30 days by either correcting the account, providing a written explanation as to why it believes the account is correct, or providing the information requested by the borrower or an explanation of why the information requested is unavailable. Failure to do so entitles a borrower to any actual damages suffered as result of the failure. Claiming the NOE was a QWR, the borrower presented evidence, including a certified mail receipt allegedly showing the NOE was signed for by one of the servicer’s representatives. The servicer countered that because it had no record of the correspondence, its RESPA duties were not triggered. The servicer further argued that the NOE did not qualify as a QWR because it failed to provide sufficient information for it to investigate or respond to the request, and that even if it was a QWR, the borrower had failed to show actual damages.
The court disagreed, determining (i) that the servicer failed to prove it did not receive the NOE, and (ii) that the NOE constituted a QWR. “The information in the letter alone is sufficient to qualify as a QWR,” the court wrote. “The letter quite specifically states the error [the borrower] believed to have occurred…. This is not an ‘overbroad’ and generalized statement of ‘bad servicing.’ It identifies an error specifically contemplated by RESPA’s regulations.” The court further added that “RESPA does not require that a lender’s violations be the sole cause of a borrower’s emotional distress. It merely requires that damages be causally related to a violation of the statute.” However, the court noted that the borrower still needs to prove at trial the extent of damages caused by the servicer's alleged violation.
Washington enacts credit repair regulation
On April 20, the Washington governor signed HB 1311 to enact provisions relating to credit repair services performed by a credit services organization. Among other things, the Act outlines new requirements, including that a credit services organization must provide consumers with a monthly statement that details the services performed, as well as “an accounting of any funds paid by a consumer and held or disbursed on the consumer’s behalf and copies of any letters sent by the credit services organization on the consumer’s behalf,” if applicable. Additionally, a credit services organization is prohibited from sending any communications to a consumer reporting agency, creditor, collection agency, or regulatory entity unless the consumer has provided prior written authorization. Credit services organizations must also comply with specified written communication requirements and provide disclosures addressing consumers’ rights to review their files. Modifications to certain provisions relating to notices of cancellation have also been made. The Act is effective July 23.
CFPB says furnishers’ investigative duties include legal disputes
On April 20, the CFPB filed an amicus brief in a case before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit arguing that the duty to investigate a consumer’s credit dispute applies not only to factual disputes but also to disputes that can be labeled as legal in nature. The plaintiffs entered into a timeshare agreement with the defendant hotel chain and made monthly payments for nearly two years but then stopped. The plaintiffs disputed the validity of, and attempted to rescind, the agreement. The defendant did not agree to the rescission and continued to record the deed under the plaintiffs’ names. The plaintiffs later obtained copies of their credit reports, which showed past-due balances with the defendant, and subsequently submitted letters to a credit reporting agency (CRA) disputing the credit reporting. After the defendant certified the information was accurate, the plaintiffs sued the defendant and the CRA alleging that the defendant violated the FCRA by failing to conduct a proper investigation. The defendant moved for summary judgment, arguing that the issue of whether the debt is owed—the basis of the plaintiffs’ FCRA claim—constitutes a legal dispute and is not a factual inaccuracy. The defendant further maintained that there was no legal error because the plaintiffs owed the money as a matter of law. Last December, the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida granted partial summary judgment in favor the defendant after concluding, among other things, that because the plaintiffs’ dispute centered on the legal validity of their debt, rather than a factual inaccuracy, the investigation requirement was not triggered and the claim was “not actionable under the FCRA.”
The Bureau argued in favor of the plaintiffs-appellants. According to the Bureau, the district court “unduly narrow[ed] the scope of a furnisher’s obligations by holding that furnishers categorically need not investigate indirect disputes involving ‘legal’ inaccuracies.” This position, the Bureau maintained, contradicts the purpose of the FCRA’s requirement to conduct a reasonable investigation of consumer disputes and “could reduce the incentive of furnishers to resolve ‘legal’ disputes, and, in turn, could increase the volume of consumer complaints about credit reporting issues that the Bureau receives and devotes resources to address.”
Explaining that the FCRA does not distinguish between legal and factual disputes, the Bureau stated that the district court’s conclusion “is not supported by the statute, risks exposing consumers to more inaccurate credit reporting, conflicts with the decision of another circuit, and undercuts the remedial purpose of the FCRA.” The Bureau presented several arguments to support its position, including that a reasonable investigation is required under the FCRA, and that while the reasonableness of an investigation is case specific, it “can be evaluated by how thoroughly the furnisher investigated the dispute (e.g., how well its conclusion is supported by the information it considered or reasonably could have considered).”
The Bureau also claimed that the Congress did not intend to exclude disputes that involve legal questions. “[M]any inaccurate representations pertaining to an individual’s debt obligations arguably could be characterized as legal inaccuracies, given that determining the truth or falsity of the representation could require the reading of a contract,” the Bureau wrote. Moreover, an “atextual exception for legal inaccuracies will create a loophole that could swallow the reasonable investigation rule,” the Bureau stressed. The agency urged the court to “reject a formal distinction between factual and legal investigations because it will likely prove unworkable in practice” and said that allowing such a distinction would “curtail the reach of the FCRA’s investigation requirement in a way that runs counter to the purpose of the provision to require meaningful investigation to ensure accuracy on credit reports.”
As previously covered by InfoBytes, the CFPB and the FTC filed an amicus brief presenting the same arguments last December in a different FCRA case on appeal to the 11th Circuit involving the same defendant.
District Court won’t stay CFPB litigation with credit reporter
On April 13, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois denied a credit reporting agency’s (CRA) bid to stay litigation filed by the CFPB alleging deceptive practices related to the marketing and sale of credit scores, credit reports, and credit-monitoring products to consumers. The Bureau sued the CRA and one of its former senior executives last April (covered by InfoBytes here), claiming the defendants allegedly violated a 2017 consent order by continuing to engage in “digital dark patterns” that caused consumers seeking free credit scores to unknowingly sign up for a credit monitoring service with recurring monthly charges.
The CRA requested a stay while the U.S. Supreme Court considers whether the Bureau’s funding mechanism is unconstitutional. Earlier this year, the Court agreed to review next term the 5th Circuit’s decision in Community Financial Services Association of America v. Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, where it found that the CFPB’s “perpetual self-directed, double-insulated funding structure” violated the Constitution’s Appropriations Clause. (Covered by InfoBytes here and a firm article here.) While acknowledging that a ruling against the Bureau may result in the dismissal of the action against the CRA, the court concurred with the Bureau that consumers may be exposed to harm during a stay. “Were I to grant the requested stay, it could last more than one year, depending on when the Supreme Court issues its opinion,” the court wrote. “In that time, if the Bureau’s allegations bear out, consumers will continue to suffer harm because of defendants’ unlawful conduct. That potential cost is too great to outweigh the resource preserving benefits a stay would confer.”
Credit reporter must face FCRA suit on hard-inquiry reinvestigation
On April 10, the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania denied a credit reporting agency’s (CRA) motion for summary judgment in a certified class action suit accusing the CRA of willfully violating the reinvestigation provision in the FCRA. Plaintiff claimed that he disputed an alleged inaccurate hard inquiry on his credit report, and argued that not only did the CRA fail to remove the hard inquiry from his credit file, he was given a sales pitch for an identity theft product. The CRA conceded that it did not reinvestigate the dispute and argued, among other things, “that hard inquiries do not necessarily decrease a consumer’s credit score and, even if they did, such diminutions do not necessarily result in the denial of credit.” Experts for both parties debated the extent to which a hard inquiry affects a consumer’s credit score.
The court disagreed with the CRA’s position concerning the impact of hard inquiries on consumers’ credit scores, noting the conflict with federal regulators’ cautionary advice that “[t]hese inquiries will impact your credit score because most scoring models look at how recently and how frequently you apply for credit.” Moreover, the CRA’s own expert opined that hard inquiries usually do have a “minor impact” on consumers’ credit scores. Additionally, the court rejected the CRA’s argument that it did not willfully violate the FCRA because its process for handing hard-inquiry disputes was in line with industry-wide practices. The court cited Third Circuit precedent requiring CRAs to reinvestigate any information a consumer claims is inaccurate if the CRA does not deem the information frivolous or chooses not to delete it from the customer’s file. “When industry practices are contradicted by clear statutory language and case law giving force to that language, common practice does not save a defendant from a finding of willfulness,” the court wrote. With respect to the decertification request, the court said class members established that the time and resources spent trying to resolve disputes over inaccurate hard inquiries, and their lowered credit scores, amounted to concrete injury that can be fairly traceable to the CRA’s statutory violation.
The court denied summary judgment for two reasons. First, the court did not find that the CRA’s actions were “objectively reasonable” based on the CRA’s reliance on a “contorted and inconsistent” reading of the FCRA and its interpretation of § 1681i (which “requires a reasonable reinvestigation when consumers raise a dispute of inaccuracy”). The court also denied summary judgment “[b]ecause a jury could find that [the CRA’s] blanket policy of refusing to reinvestigate disputes of hard inquiries is not reasonable under the law.”
District Court dismisses RESPA claims that servicer failed on QWRs
The U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington recently ruled on a loan servicer’s motion for summary judgment concerning claims that the servicer violated RESPA when it failed to respond to multiple qualified written requests (QWR) alleging account errors and improperly reported alleged delinquencies to credit reporting agencies (CRAs). Plaintiffs executed a promissory note and deed of trust, and later entered into a Chapter 11 bankruptcy plan to modify the terms of the loan. Plaintiffs sued, asserting violations of RESPA and various state laws, claiming, among other things, that the servicer failed to timely respond to their QWRs, provided false information to CRAs, and failed to adjust the loan to reflect the modified payment schedule from the bankruptcy plan.
The court granted summary judgment in favor of the servicer. On the QWR-related allegations, the court found that, “while the [plaintiffs] say that [the servicer] did not address the issues raised in the QWRs, their brief does not identify a single issue that went unaddressed. . . Their brief does not, for example, point to a request in any QWR that went unanswered in [the servicer’s] corresponding response. Merely providing a laundry list of documents—without specifically identifying how [the servicer’s] responses were incomplete—is insufficient.” The court also found that the plaintiffs failed to show that the servicer’s responses were misleading, confusing, or incorrect. Though the plaintiffs provided a list of statements made by the servicer when responding to the QWRs, plaintiffs failed to explain what exactly was inaccurate or confusing about the servicer’s responses, the court said.
While the court flagged one possible inconsistency in at least one of the servicer’s responses (where the servicer incorrectly stated the monthly principal amount due but corrected the mistake less than a month later), the court determined that “this alone does not suffice under RESPA.”
With respect to plaintiffs’ allegations of false credit reporting, the court concluded that there was no evidence that the servicer submitted negative information about plaintiffs to a CRA, nor did the plaintiffs demonstrate how any such reports hurt their credit or identify whether the reports were filed within RESPA’s 60-day non-reporting period. Under RESPA, a servicer is prohibited from providing certain information regarding “any overdue payment, owed by such borrower and relating to such period or qualified written request, to any consumer reporting agency” during the 60-day period beginning on the date the servicer receives a QWR. The court further noted that the plaintiffs failed to show that they suffered actual damages “flowing from” the alleged RESPA violations, which is a requirement of the statute.
The court granted summary judgment on the RESPA claims in favor of the servicer and remanded the remaining state-law claims to state court.
FTC examines small business credit reporting
On March 16, the FTC launched an inquiry into the small business credit reporting industry, seeking information from firms on how information is collected and processed for business credit reports, how these reports are marketed, and firms’ approaches for addressing factual errors contained in the reports. Firms are also asked to provide information on the types of services provided to businesses for monitoring or enhancing their own credit reports. The FTC noted that currently there is no federal law that specifically outlines credit reporting processes and protections for small businesses, unlike individual consumer credit reports, which are governed by the FCRA.
District Court: Failure to investigate duplicate reporting dispute could violate the FCRA
On March 10, the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Illinois ruled a defendant credit union failed to properly report an individual’s debt to a consumer reporting agency or investigate his dispute. Plaintiff obtained a credit card from the defendant but fell behind on his payments. After his account was later sent to a third-party collection agency, the plaintiff obtained a copy of his credit report where he noticed that his credit card debt was listed twice—once as a “individual” and “revolving” account with a balance of $10,145, and another time as an “open” collections account with a different balance. Plaintiff sent identical dispute letters to the three major credit reporting agencies (CRAs), acknowledging the delinquent credit card but expressing confusion as to why the account was listed twice. He submitted additional similar disputes with the CRAs, claiming that the error caused him to be denied the opportunity to rent an apartment and made it difficult for him to obtain a mortgage. During discovery, two corporate witnesses testified on behalf of the defendant—one of whom is responsible for reviewing consumer credit disputes and verified the information being reported was accurate. A second witness also testified that while the defendant understood that the plaintiff was alleging inaccuracies due to the debt being reported twice, it chose to focus its investigation on verifying that the information in the plaintiff’s credit report matched the information in its internal system.
In denying the defendant’s motion for summary judgment, the court noted that while the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit “has not decided whether double-reporting of a single debt on a credit report is an FCRA violation, district courts across the country have found that whether the practice is misleading and violates the FCRA is an issue of fact.” The court explained that an issue of fact exists as to whether double reporting the debt created a misleading impression that the plaintiff has two separate debts totaling $22,000 rather than a single debt of roughly $10,000. Moreover, even though the plaintiff’s dispute contained the message “duplicate,” the defendant did not address this issue nor did it request that a change be made to the plaintiff’s credit report. “A jury could reasonably conclude  that [defendant’s] investigation was inadequate under the FCRA,” the court wrote. “[W]hether [defendant’s] investigation or protocol may qualify as a willful violation giving rise to statutory or punitive damages is an issue for a jury as well.”
CFPB receives FCRA rulemaking petition on debt collection
On March 3, the CFPB received a rulemaking petition from the National Consumer Law Center (NCLC) in response to forthcoming FCRA rulemaking announced in the Bureau’s Fall 2022 regulatory agenda. As previously covered by InfoBytes, the Bureau announced it is considering pre-rulemaking activity in November to amend Regulation V, which implements the FCRA. In January, the Bureau issued its annual report covering information gathered by the Bureau regarding certain consumer complaints on the three largest nationwide consumer reporting agencies (CRAs). At the time, CFPB Director Rohit Chopra said that the Bureau “will be exploring new rules to ensure that [the CRAs] are following the law, rather than cutting corners to fuel their profit model.” (Covered by InfoBytes here.)
The NCLC presented several issues for consideration in the FCRA rulemaking process, including that the Bureau should (i) “establish strict requirements to regulate the furnishing of information regarding a debt in collections by third-party debt collectors and debt buyers”; (ii) “require translation of consumer reports by the [CRAs] into the eight languages most frequently used by limited English proficient consumers”; and (iii) “establish an Office of Ombudsperson to assist consumers who have been unable to fix errors in their consumer reports from the nationwide CRAs and other CRAs within the CFPB’s supervisory authority.”
“Given the level of errors, problems, and abuses by debt collectors in furnishing and resolving disputes, requiring an original creditor tradeline is a reasonable quality control mechanism,” the NCLC said. “Alternatively, if the CFPB continues to permit the furnishing of debt collection information without a pre-existing tradeline by the original creditor, the Bureau should require that the furnisher of debt collection activity (whether a debt collector, debt buyer, servicer or other) provide a complete account history in the tradeline, including positive payments,” the petition added, stressing that “such reporting must require adequate substantiation[.]”
4th Circuit remands privacy suit to state court
On February 21, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit held that a proposed class action over website login procedures belongs in state court. Plaintiff alleged that after a nonparty credit reporting agency experienced a data breach, it used the defendant subsidiary’s website to inform customers whether their personal data had been compromised. Because the defendant’s website required the plaintiff to enter six digits of his Social Security number to access the information, the plaintiff alleged violations of South Carolina’s Financial Identity Fraud and Identity Theft Protection Act and the state’s common-law right to privacy. Under the state statute, companies are prohibited from requiring consumers to use six digits or more of their Social Security number to access a website unless a password, a unique personal identification number, or another form of authentication is also required. According to the plaintiff, the defendant’s website did not include this requirement.
The defendant moved the case to federal court under the Class Action Fairness Act and requested that the case be dismissed. Plaintiff filed an amended complaint in federal court, as well as a motion asking the district court to first determine whether it had subject matter jurisdiction, given the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in TransUnion LLC v. Ramirez, which clarified the type of concrete injury necessary to establish Article III standing (covered by InfoBytes here). Although the district court held that the plaintiff had alleged “an intangible concrete harm in the manner of an invasion of privacy,” which it said was enough to give it subject-matter jurisdiction “at this early stage of the case,” it dismissed the case after determining the plaintiff had not plausibly stated a claim.
In reversing and remanding the action, the 4th Circuit found that the plaintiff alleged only a bare statutory violation and had not pled a concrete injury sufficient to confer Article III standing in federal court. The appellate court vacated the district court’s decision to dismiss the case and ordered the district court to remand the case to state court. The 4th Circuit took the position that an intangible harm, such as a plaintiff “enduring a statutory violation” is insufficient to confer standing unless there is a separate harm “or a materially increased risk of another harm” associated with the violation. “[Plaintiff] hasn’t alleged—even in a speculative or conclusory fashion—that entering six digits of his SSN on [defendant’s] website has somehow raised his risk of identity theft,” the 4th Circuit said. In conclusion, the 4th Circuit wrote: “We offer no opinion about whether the alleged facts state a claim under the Act. Absent Article III jurisdiction, that’s a question for [plaintiff] to take up in state court.”