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  • FTC settles first consumer protection case against a VoIP service provider

    Federal Issues

    On September 22, the FTC and the Ohio attorney general announced several proposed stipulated final orders against a Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) service provider, along with an affiliated company, the VoIP service provider’s former CEO and president, and a number of other subsidiaries and individuals, to settle allegations concerning their facilitation of a credit card interest rate reduction scheme. This marks the FTC’s first consumer protection case against a VoIP service provider. According to the FTC and the AG, the VoIP service provider provided one of the defendants with the ability to place illegal robocalls in order to market “phony credit card interest rate reduction services.” Both of these defendants were controlled by the VoIP service provider’s former CEO who was also named in the lawsuit. In addition, the defendant that placed the illegal calls, along with four additional defendants, are accused of managing the overseas call centers and other components used in the credit card interest rate reduction scheme.

    One of the settlements will prohibit the former CEO, along with two corporations under his control, from (i) participating in any telemarketing in the U.S.; (ii) marketing any debt relief products or services; and (iii) making misrepresentations when selling or marketing any products or services. These defendants will collectively be subject to a $7.5 million judgment, which is mostly suspended due to their inability to pay.

    The settlement with the VoIP service provider and the affiliated company will require a payment of $1.95 million. The VoIP service provider and its U.S.-based subsidiaries will also be prohibited from hiring the former CEO or any of his immediate family members, as well as from hiring two of the other defendants. These defendants will also be required to follow client screening and monitoring provisions, and are prohibited from providing VoIP and related services to clients who pay with stored value cards or cryptocurrency, or to clients who do not maintain public-facing websites or a social media presence. Additionally, the defendants will be required to block calls that may appear to come from certain suspicious phone numbers, block calls that use spoofing technology, and terminate certain high-risk relationships.

    The settlements (see here, here, and here) reached with the defendant that placed the illegal calls and four additional defendants include prohibitions similar to those issued against the former CEO, and will require the payment of a total combined judgment of $10.3 million, which will be largely suspended due to their inability to pay.

    All settlements are subject to court approval.

    Federal Issues FTC Enforcement Telemarketing Sales Rule VoIP State Attorney General Credit Cards Interest Rate Consumer Finance

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  • State AGs challenge FDIC’s “valid-when-made” rule

    Courts

    On August 20, eight state attorneys general—from California, Illinois, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, and the District of Columbia—filed an action in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California challenging the FDIC’s valid-when-made rule. As previously covered by InfoBytes, the FDIC’s final rule clarifies that, under the Federal Deposit Insurance Act (FDIA), whether interest on a loan is permissible is determined at the time the loan is made and is not affected by the sale, assignment, or other transfer of the loan (details on the effect of the rule can be found in Buckley’s Special Alert on the issuance of the OCC’s similar rule).

    In the complaint—which follows a similar action filed in July by three of the same attorneys general against the OCC for issuing a final rule designed to effectively reverse the Second Circuit’s 2015 Madden v. Midland Funding decision (previously covered here)—the attorneys general argue, among other things, that the FDIC does not have the power to issue the rule, asserting that the FDIC has the power to issue “‘regulations to carry out’ the provisions of the FDIA,” but not regulations that would apply to non-banks. Moreover, the attorneys general assert that the rule’s extension of state law preemption would “facilitate evasion of state law by enabling “rent-a-bank” schemes.” Finally, the complaint states that the FDIC failed to explain its consideration of evidence contrary to its assertions, including evidence demonstrating that “consumers and small businesses are harmed by high interest-rate loans, and thus that Madden is likely to have been beneficial rather than harmful.” The complaint requests the court to declare that the FDIC violated the Administrative Procedures Act in issuing the rule and hold the rule unlawful.

    Courts OCC Madden Interest Rate FDIC State Issues State Attorney General

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  • OCC approves bank to use host state interest rate for credit cards

    Federal Issues

    Recently, the OCC released Interpretive Letter 1171, which concludes that an interstate national bank may charge interest on credit cards consistent with the law of the state where the non-ministerial function of loan approval for credit cards occurs. According to the letter, after merging with an affiliate bank in another state, the core of the bank’s credit card business is now conducted from a branch in a state different than the state where the bank is headquartered. The credit card business operations include: (i) development of the bank’s credit risk policy; (ii) decision-making about credit approval communication content; and (iii) establishment of individual transaction credit risk rules.

    In the letter, the OCC notes that under an adopted framework interpreting 12 U.S.C. § 85 (known as “Section 85”), “an interstate national bank must or may elect to charge [interest] based on where a loan is ‘made.’” The letter states that “a loan is made where the three non-ministerial functions associated with making a loan occur”: (i) approving the loan; (ii) extending the credit; and (iii) disbursing the loan proceeds. Citing to Interpretive Letter 822, which was issued in March 1998, the OCC concluded that the bank may charge interest based on the law of the state where the affiliate bank is located if (i) “all three non-ministerial functions occur” in that state; or (ii) “at least one non-ministerial function occurs in [that state] and the bank’s credit card lending has a clear nexus to [that state].”

    Upon review, the OCC determined that the bank’s non-ministerial function of loan approval occurs in the state where its affiliate bank was located, because all of the credit decisions are based on the bank’s credit risk policy which was established in that state. Additionally, the OCC reasoned that there is a “clear nexus” between the bank’s credit card operations and that state because the bank established several credit card lending activities that occur in that state. Thus, the OCC concluded the bank is authorized to charge interest on credit cards consistent with that state’s law.

    Federal Issues OCC Interest Rate

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  • District Court dismisses usury claim against New York lender

    Courts

    On August 12, the U.S. District Court for the Western District of New York dismissed usury claims against a lender, concluding that lenders licensed in New York can charge interest rates up to 25 percent on loans under $25,000. According to the opinion, a consumer received a check in the mail in the amount of $2,539 from a licensed lender under Article IX of New York Banking Law, with terms requiring repayment at an annual interest rate of 24.99 percent, if the consumer cashed the check. The consumer cashed the check, agreeing to the loan terms. After failing to repay the debt in full, the consumer filed a complaint against the lender asserting various claims, including that the interest rate is unenforceable under New York General Obligations Law (GOL) § 5-511 because it exceeds 16 percent. The lender moved to dismiss the action.

    The court agreed with the lender on the usurious claim, concluding that as a licensed lender in New York, the lender is “authorized to extend loans of $25,000 or less with interest rates up to 25[percent]” which is “the limit set by New York’s criminal usury statute, New York Penal Law § 190.40.” The court cited to NYDFS interpretations, stating that unlicensed nonbank lenders may not charge more than a 16 percent annual interest rate, but lenders that “obtain an Article IX license [] may charge interest up to 25[percent] per annum on the small loans.” Because the lender was licensed under Article IX in the state of New York, the lender “was permitted to loan $2,539.00 to [the consumer] at an agreed-upon annual interest rate of 24.99[percent] without violating GOL § 5-511.”

    Courts State Issues Usury Interest Rate Licensing NYDFS

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  • District court applies OCC’s valid-when-made final rule but raises true lender question

    Courts

    On August 12, the U.S. District Court for the District of Colorado reversed in part a bankruptcy court judgment, concluding that the OCC’s valid-when-made rule applied but that discovery was needed to determine whether a nonbank entity was the true lender. According to the opinion, a debtor corporation commenced an adversary proceeding against a creditor in their bankruptcy, alleging, among other things, that the interest rate of the underlying debt’s promissory note is usurious under Colorado law. The promissory note was executed between a Wisconsin state-charted bank and a Colorado-based corporation, with an interest rate of nearly 121 percent. The note included a choice of law provision dictating that federal law and Wisconsin law govern. A deed of trust, dictating that Colorado law (the property’s location) governs, was pledged as security on the promissory note and incorporated by referencing the terms of the note. Subsequently, the Wisconsin bank assigned its rights under the note and deed of trust to a nonbank entity registered in New York with a principal place of business in New Jersey. The bankruptcy court denied the debtor’s claims, concluding that the Depository Institutions Deregulation and Monetary Control Act (DIDMCA) applied, which dictated the application of Wisconsin law, making the interest rate valid.

    On appeal, the district court applied the OCC’s valid-when-made rule (which was finalized in June and covered by a Buckley Special Alert), concluding that “a promissory note with an interest rate that was valid when made under DIDMCA § 1831d remains valid upon assignment to a non-bank.” However, the district court noted that DIDMCA § 1831d does not apply to promissory notes “with a nonbank true lender” and the parties did not “conduct discovery on the factual question of whether [the nonbank entity] was the true lender.” Thus, the court reversed and remanded to the Bankruptcy Court to determine whether the nonbank entity was the true lender.

    Courts OCC Bankruptcy Madden True Lender Interest Rate State Issues

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  • Federal Reserve Board announces revised pricing for its Municipal Liquidity Facility

    Federal Issues

    On August 11, the Federal Reserve Board announced revised pricing for its Municipal Liquidity Facility. The revised pricing reduces the interest rate spread on tax-exempt notes for each credit rating category by 50 basis points and reduces the amount by which the interest rate for taxable notes is adjusted relative to tax-exempt notes. The MLF, originally covered here, was one of several facilities intended to support the flow of credit in the economy.

    Federal Issues Covid-19 Federal Reserve FRB Interest Rate Credit Ratings

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  • State AGs challenge OCC’s “valid-when-made” rule

    Courts

    On July 29, the California, Illinois, and New York attorneys general filed an action in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California challenging the OCC’s valid-when-made rule, arguing the rule “impermissibly preempts state law.” As previously covered by a Buckley Special Alert, on June 2 the OCC issued a final rule designed to effectively reverse the Second Circuit’s 2015 Madden v. Midland Funding decision. The “true lender” rule provides that “[i]nterest on a loan that is permissible under [12 U.S.C. 85 for national bank or 12 U.S.C 1463(g)(1) for federal thrifts] shall not be affected by the sale, assignment, or other transfer of the loan.”

    The attorneys general argue in their complaint that the rule is “contrary to the plain language” of section 85 (and section 1463(g)(1)) and “contravenes the judgment of Congress,” which declined to extend preemption to non-banks. Moreover, the complaint asserts that the OCC disregarded congressional procedures for preemption by failing to perform a case-by-case review of state laws and not consulting with the CFPB before “preempting such a state consumer-protection law.” The attorneys general further contend that the OCC “failed to give meaningful consideration” to the commentary received regarding the rule essentially enabling “‘rent-a-bank’ schemes.” The result of the OCC’s actions, according to the attorneys general, is a rule that would allow “predatory lenders to evade state law by partnering with a federally chartered bank to originate loans exempt from state interest-rate caps.” These structures “have long troubled state law-enforcement efforts,” according to the complaint, and the rule will exacerbate these issues by “decreas[ing] licensing fees received by the States and increase[ing] the cost and burden of future supervisory, investigative, and law-enforcement efforts by the States.”

    The complaint requests the court declare that the OCC violated the Administrative Procedures Act in issuing the rule and hold the rule unlawful.

    Courts State Issues State Attorney General OCC Madden Fintech Interest Rate New York California Illinois

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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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  • Online payday lender settles usury suit for $141 million

    Courts

    On June 26, the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia approved a preliminary settlement to resolve putative class allegations against an online payday lending company and related entities (defendants) accused of issuing high interest loans through a “rent-a-tribe” lending operation. According to the class’s second amended complaint, the defendants’ “rent-a-tribe” operation was an “attempt to circumvent state and federal law by issuing high interest loans in the name of a Native American tribal business entity that purports to be shielded by the principle of tribal sovereign immunity.” The class—which consists of borrowers from throughout the U.S.—alleged that the defendants provided “financing and various lending functions” carrying “extortionately high interest rates for short-term loans” that were “far beyond legal limits,” and that the unlawful interest rates were not disclosed to borrowers during the application process. Additionally, the class alleged that the defendants failed to provide key loan terms or misrepresented the loan terms, including repayment schedules, finance charges, and the total amount of payments due. Under the terms of the settlement, the defendants will pay a $65 million cash payment, cancel $76 million in high-interest loans, and provide other non-monetary relief.

    Courts Payday Lending Settlement Usury Interest Rate Sovereign Immunity

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