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10th Circuit: Compliance employees must show they went beyond established protocols to obtain FCA whistleblower retaliation protection
On April 30, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit affirmed the dismissal of a former employee’s False Claims Act (FCA) whistleblower retaliation claims, holding that employees with compliance responsibilities bear the burden of showing that their alleged protected activities are not simply part of their job responsibilities. The case concerned a qui tam relator who alleged her former employer systemically violated the FCA when it knowingly and fraudulently billed the government for inadequately or improperly completed work, and then fired her in retaliation for trying to end the alleged fraud. According to the plaintiff—who was previously employed as a senior quality control analyst responsible for reviewing investigators’ work and documenting incomplete investigations—the company violated the FCA by: (i) “falsely certifying that it performed complete and accurate investigations”; (ii) “falsely certifying that it did proper case reviews and quality-control checks”; and (iii) “falsifying corrective action reports.” The district court, however, entered summary judgment for the company on all counts, determining that the plaintiff’s qui tam claims were “‘substantially the same’ as those that had been publically disclosed” in previous investigations and news reports, and dismissing her claims under the public disclosure bar. Her retaliation claim was dismissed after the district court determined that she had failed to properly plead that the company was on notice that she was engaging in protected activity.
On appeal, the 10th Circuit concluded that the district court erred in its legal determinations on the qui tam claims, vacated the order for summary judgment, and remanded those claims for further proceedings. However, the 10th Circuit agreed with the district court’s decision to dismiss the plaintiff’s whistleblower retaliation claim, stating that in order to establish FCA whistleblower liability, an employer must know that the employee’s actions were connected to a claimed FCA violation, and an employee “must overcome the presumption that her internal reports of fraud were part of her job.” The appellate court held that because the plaintiff’s allegations did not show that she went outside of established protocols or broke her chain of command, she failed to allege adequately that the company was on notice of her claimed FCA-protected activity.
On April 8, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit affirmed a lower court’s dismissal of a consumer’s suit arising out of overdraft fees charged by an Arkansas-based bank. The consumer alleged, among other things, that the bank breached its Electronic Fund Transfer Agreement (EFT Agreement) by failing to provide accurate, real-time account balance information online, which caused her to “incur unexpected overdraft fees.” According to the opinion, the consumer claimed that she frequently relied on her online account balance when making purchases, and that the bank’s alleged debiting practices—such as “batching by transaction type,” processing transactions out of chronological order, and “failing to show real-time balance information online [or] intra-bank transfers instantaneously”—sometimes caused her to pay insufficient funds and overdraft fees. The consumer filed suit asserting claims for “actual fraud; constructive fraud; false representation/deceit; breach of fiduciary duty; breach of contract (namely, the EFT Agreement) . . . breach of the implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing; and unjust enrichment.” The consumer appealed following a dismissal of all claims by the district court. In 2017, the 10th Circuit reversed and remanded the dismissal of the breach of contract claim, and affirmed the dismissal of the other claims. The district court granted summary judgment to the bank, determining that the EFT Agreement promised accuracy only to posted amounts and not to pending or unprocessed transactions.
On appeal, the 10th Circuit agreed with the district court, holding that the plain language of the EFT Agreement only promised accuracy of posted amounts, and authorized the bank to collect overdraft fees on insufficient funds items even if an ATM card or check card transaction “was preauthorized based on sufficient funds in the account at the time of withdrawal, transfer or purchase.” Moreover, the court noted that the EFT Agreement specifically stated that there was a 7:00 p.m. cut-off for transfers to be posted. Therefore, it was clear that the bank was not “contractually obligated to make intra-bank transfers instantaneously.” Furthermore, the court pointed out that the consumer failed to provide evidence demonstrating that the bank provided inaccurate balances.
On March 20, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously affirmed a 2018 10th Circuit decision, holding that law firms performing nonjudicial foreclosures are not “debt collectors” under the FDCPA. Justice Breyer delivered the opinion, which resolves whether FDCPA protections apply to nonjudicial foreclosures conducted by law firms. (Covered by InfoBytes here.) Three considerations led to the Court’s conclusion. First, the Court held that a business pursuing nonjudicial foreclosures would be covered by the Act’s primary definition of a debt collector. However, the Act goes on to state that for the purpose of a specific section, the definition of debt collector “also includes” a business of which the principal purpose is the enforcement of security interests. The Court determined that this phrase only makes sense if such businesses were not covered by the primary definition. Second, the Court noted that Congress appeared to have chosen to differentiate between security-interest enforcers and ordinary debt collectors in order “to avoid conflicts with state nonjudicial foreclosure schemes.” Third, the Court noted that the legislative history of the FDCPA indicated that the final result was likely a compromise between two competing versions of the bill, one of which would have excluded security-interest enforcement entirely, and another that would have treated it as ordinary debt collection.
Justice Sotomayor, in a concurring opinion, wrote that the Court’s statutory interpretation was a “close case” and urged Congress to clarify the statute if the Court has “gotten it wrong.” She noted that making clear that the FDCPA fully encompasses entities pursuing nonjudicial foreclosures “would be consistent with the FDCPA’s broad, consumer-protective purposes.” Justice Sotomayor also stated that the Court’s ruling does not give license to those pursuing nonjudicial foreclosures “to engage in abusive debt collection practices like repetitive nighttime phone calls” and that enforcing a security interest does not grant an actor blanket immunity from the Act.”
On February 21, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit affirmed a district court’s decision that under Colorado law, an insurance company had no duty to indemnify and defend its insured against TCPA claims seeking statutory damages and injunctive relief. According to the appellate opinion, the FTC and the states of California, Illinois, North Carolina, and Ohio sued a satellite television company for violations of the TCPA, Telemarking Sales Rule (TSR), and various state laws for telephone calls made to numbers on the National Do Not Call Registry (FTC lawsuit). The FTC lawsuit sought statutory damages of up to $1,500 per alleged violation and injunctive relief. The defendant requested that its insurer defend and indemnify it for the claims pursuant to existing policies. The insurance company filed a complaint for declaratory judgment, seeking a declaration that it need not defend or indemnify the company in the FTC lawsuit. The district court determined that there was no coverage for several reasons, including: (i) that the statutory TCPA damages were a “penalty,” rendering them uninsurable under Colorado law; and (ii) that the injunctive relief sought did not qualify as damages under the policies’ definition. The 10th Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed both holdings, concluding that no coverage existed.
On January 26, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit affirmed a District Court’s decision dismissing a consumer’s claim that, under the Fair Credit Billing Act (FCBA), two credit card providers (collectively, defendants) must refund his accounts after a merchant failed to deliver goods purchased using credit cards issued by the defendants. The FCBA allows consumers to raise the same claims against credit card issuers that can be raised against merchants, but limits such claims to the “amount of credit outstanding with respect to [the disputed] transaction.” According to the opinion, the consumer ordered nearly $1 million in wine from a merchant and prior to delivery of the complete order, the merchant declared bankruptcy. The consumer filed lawsuits against each credit card provider in the U.S. District Court for the District of Colorado seeking a refund to his credit accounts for the amounts of the undelivered wine. The District Court dismissed the suits against both defendants because the consumer had fully paid the balance on his credit cards. In affirming the District Court’s decision, the 10th Circuit concluded that because “‘the amount of credit outstanding with respect to’ the undelivered wine is $0” the consumer had no claim against the defendants under the FCBA.
On January 23, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit reversed a District Court’s decision dismissing a borrower’s claims against a lender and mortgage loan servicer (collectively, “defendants”) under the Rooker-Feldman doctrine, which prohibits lower federal courts from reviewing state court civil judgments. Colorado maintains a unique procedure for non-judicial foreclosure. Specifically, under Rule 120 of the Colorado Rules of Civil Procedure (“Rule 120”) a trustee is required to obtain a trial court ruling that a “reasonable probability” of default exists before moving forward with a non-judicial foreclosure. According to the opinion, in 2014, the defendants initiated a non-judicial foreclosure proceeding against the borrower through the Rule 120 process. Prior to completing the sale, however, the borrower filed suit in the U.S. District Court for the District of Colorado seeking, among other things, an injunction against the sale, damages, and cancellation of the promissory note. Relying on the Rooker-Feldman doctrine, the District Court dismissed the borrower’s suit as an attempt to unwind the results of the Rule 120 proceedings. The 10th Circuit reversed this decision based on its finding that the borrower’s suit did not challenge the Rule 120 state court decision, but rather took issue with the defendant’s actions prior to the state court proceedings. In reaching this conclusion, the 10th Circuit noted that even if the borrower had filed suit after the Rule 120 judgment had been entered, unless the borrower was alleging the state court wrongfully entered the judgment, the suit would not be barred by Rooker-Feldman.
On January 19, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit affirmed a lower court decision that the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA) does not cover non-judicial foreclosures in Colorado. In affirming the District Court’s dismissal of the case, the 10th Circuit reasoned that non-judicial foreclosures in Colorado do not constitute an attempt to collect money from a debtor because the state only allows the trustee to obtain payment from the sale of the foreclosed property and a deficiency judgment must be sought through a separate action. According to the opinion, in 2014, a mortgage servicer hired a law firm to initiate a non-judicial foreclosure and the law firm sent the homeowner a letter indicating that it “may be considered to be a debt collector attempting to collect a debt.” The homeowner then filed a complaint in District Court against the firm and the mortgage servicer for FDCPA violations, which was subsequently dismissed. The 10th Circuit reasoned that the mortgage servicer was not considered a debt collector under the law because servicing initiated prior to the loan’s default and the law firm’s communications with the homeowner never attempted to induce payment. The opinion acknowledges that many courts are split on this topic and emphasizes that the holding does not apply to judicial foreclosures.
On December 11, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit affirmed dismissal of plaintiffs’ claims concerning AT&T’s U-Verse services, based on forum selection and arbitration clauses in the agreements between the parties. Hancock v. Am. Tel. & Tel. Co., Inc., 11-6233, 2012 WL 6132070 (10th Cir. Dec. 11, 2012). In support of the motion to dismiss, AT&T offered declarations from its employees concerning its standard practices for entering into agreements with customers obtaining U-Verse services. Under those practices, customers purchasing U-Verse TV and Voice services agreed to terms of service (TV Terms) that included a forum selection clause. The TV Terms were provided to customers in writing by the installation technician at the time the services were installed. The customers agreed to the TV Terms by clicking on an acknowledgement and acceptance box on the technician’s laptop after being given the printed terms – the acknowledgement and acceptance stated that the customer had received and reviewed the TV Terms. Details of each acceptance were captured and stored on AT&T’s servers at the time of acceptance. Also under AT&T’s standard practices, customers purchasing U-Verse Internet Services agreed to separate terms of service (Internet Terms) during the online registration process – to complete registration, customers had to click on an “I Agree” button underneath the Internet Terms. For two of the plaintiffs, the Internet Terms included a mandatory arbitration clause at the time of registration. For another plaintiff, the mandatory arbitration clause was added after a notice of amendment, describing the new arbitration clause, was provided to the plaintiff via email. On appeal, the court held that the declarations concerning AT&T’s standard practices were admissible in evidence, and since they were not contradicted by the plaintiffs’ affidavits, the district court did not abuse its discretion by accepting the declarations as true. The court went on to hold that under AT&T’s standard practices both the TV Terms and the Internet Terms were clearly presented, and that enforceable contracts were formed between the plaintiffs and AT&T. The court also concluded that the e-mail notification process used to add the arbitration clause to the Internet Terms was sufficient to make the amendment effective.
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