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The U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia recently granted an installment lender’s motion to dismiss, ruling that most of the class members’ claims are time-barred by the Military Lending Act’s (MLA) two-year statute of limitations. Plaintiffs are active duty servicemembers who entered into installment loans with the defendant. Claiming four violations of the MLA, plaintiffs alleged the defendant (i) extended loans with interest rates exceeding the MLA’s 36 percent interest rate cap; (ii) extended loans that involved roll overs of prior loans; (iii) required plaintiffs to agree to repayment by allotment (with a backup preauthorized electronic fund transfer) as a condition to receiving a loan; and (iv) required plaintiffs to provide a security interest in their bank accounts as a condition for receiving a loan. Plaintiff sought to certify a class covering the five years preceding the date the complaint was filed. Defendant moved to dismiss, arguing that plaintiffs have only been harmed by technical violations of the MLA and did not suffer a concrete injury. Plaintiffs countered that the defendant’s MLA violations caused them to sustain injuries from making payments, including interest payments, “on loans that were ‘void from [their] inception’  due to their unlawful refinancing, allotment, and security interest requirements.”
The court reviewed a significant issue raised by the parties’ differing interpretations of the MLA’s statute of limitations and its applicability to plaintiffs’ loans. Specifically, the parties disagreed as to whether “discovery by the plaintiff of the violation,” which triggers the two-year limitations period, requires that a plaintiff only discover the facts constituting the basis for the violation, as argued by the defendant, or instead requires that a plaintiff also know that the MLA was violated, as the plaintiffs argued. While acknowledging that the text in question is inconclusive, the court stated that since the MLA “does not require ‘discovery’ of both the ‘violation’ and ‘liability’ but only the ‘violation that is the basis for such liability,’ the text appears to support the interpretation that only discovery of the violative conduct is required, and
not discovery of the actionability of that conduct.” The court also reviewed other federal statutory discovery rules where other courts “have consistently found that ‘discovery’ requires that a plaintiff have knowledge only of the facts constituting the violation and not the legal implications of those facts.” Relying on this, as well as other court interpretations, the court determined that “the two-year limitations period is triggered when a plaintiff discovers the facts
constituting the basis for the MLA violation and not when the plaintiff recognizes that these facts
support a legal claim.” Thus, the court found that most of the loans underlying the claims are time-barred.
However, for loans that fell within the applicable limitations period, the court granted defendant’s motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim, concluding, among other things, that a creditor is not prohibited from taking a security interest in a plaintiff’s bank account by way of a preauthorized electronic fund transfer provided the military annual percentage rate does not exceed the allowable 36 percent (a claim, the court noted, plaintiffs dismissed and did not otherwise address). Moreover, the court determined that plaintiffs failed to allege that the defendant was a “creditor” under the narrower definition used by the MLA in its refinancing and roll-over prohibition or that the defendant’s “characterization of the convenience of repayment by allotment amounted to a misrepresentation or concealment of facts giving rise to plaintiffs’ MLA claim.”
On June 6, the Colorado governor signed HB 23-1229 (the “Act”) to amend the state’s Uniform Consumer Credit Code (UCCC). Specifically, Colorado has invoked its right under the Depository Institutions Deregulation and Monetary Control Act (DIDMCA) to opt out of a provision that allows state-chartered banks to preempt state interest rates applicable to consumer credit transactions. Sections 521-523 of DIDMCA currently allow state-chartered banks to charge the interest allowed by the state where they are located, regardless of where the borrower is located and regardless of conflicting out-of-state law. Section 525, however, provides states with the authority to opt out of these sections.
Modifications to the UCCC impact requirements for alternative charges for loans not exceeding $1,000, and include the following changes:
- Reduces the permissible acquisition charge on the original loan or any refinanced loan from 10 to eight percent of the amount financed;
- Reduces permissible monthly installment account handling charges based on categories of the amount financed;
- Increases the minimum loan term from 90 days to six months;
- Removes the ability for a lender to charge a delinquency charge on a loan;
- Amends provisions relating to the conditions upon which an acquisition charge must be refunded to a consumer; and
- Limits the number of times a lender can refinance a consumer loan to once a year.
The amendments take effect July 1, 2024, and only apply to consumer credit transactions made after that date.
On May 17, CFPB Director Rohit Chopra announced that the agency is currently reviewing several of its rules and guidance documents in an effort to eliminate unnecessary complexities and create “more durable rules that don’t over-rely on single entities.” Chopra flagged issues related to the federal mortgage rules as an example of unnecessarily complex policies with a penchant for accommodating “dominant industry incumbents.” Last month, the Bureau announced a revised version of its methodology for calculating the average prime offer rates (APORs), which highlighted broader weaknesses resulting from single points of failure and a reliance on overly complicated benchmarks. As previously covered by InfoBytes, the methodology statement was revised to address the imminent unavailability of certain data that the Bureau previously relied on to calculate APORs, including changes made by Freddie Mac to its Primary Mortgage Market Survey used to calculate APORs for three types of loans. Noting that the Bureau has had other challenges relying on a single entity for calculating the APOR benchmark over the last decade, Chopra commented that “[n]o consumer protection rule should be designed so that its important protections are threatened by single points of failure or single sources.” He added that the revised APOR methodology further “highlighted the risks of relying on complicated reference rates that must be manually constructed rather than potentially more robust market-based measures that stand on their own.”
On May 4, the Colorado governor signed SB 23-093 to cap the interest rate on medical debt at three percent per year. The Act outlines numerous provisions, including that entities collecting on a medical debt must provide a consumer with a written copy of a payment plan within seven days for medical debt that is payable in four or more installments. The Act also outlines requirements for accelerating or declaring a payment plan longer operative, and lays out prohibited actions (such as collecting on a debt or reporting a debt to a consumer reporting agency within a certain timeframe) relating to medical debt that an entity knows, or reasonably should know, is under review or being appealed. An entity that files a legal action to collect a medical debt must provide to a consumer (upon written request) an itemized statement concerning the debt and must allow a consumer to dispute the debt’s validity after receiving the statement. Entities are prohibited from engaging in collection activities until the itemized statement is delivered. The Act outlines self-pay requirements and estimates, and further provides that it is a deceptive trade practice to violate outlined provisions relating to billing practices, surprise billing, and balance billing laws. The Act takes effect immediately and applies to contracts entered into after the effective date.
On May 4, the CFPB released a report examining high-cost alternative financing products targeted to patients as a way to cover medical expenses. Products offered by a growing number of financial institutions and fintech companies include medical credit cards and installment loans, which typically carry significantly higher interest rates than those associated with traditional consumer credit cards (26.99 percent annual percentage rate as compared to 16 percent), the Bureau found, adding that these products also often have deferred interest plans which can create significant financial burdens for patients. The report found that between 2018 and 2020, consumers used alternative financing products to pay for nearly $23 billion in healthcare expenses and paid $1 billion in deferred interest. The report further found that companies are primarily marketing their products directly to healthcare providers with promised incentives. While the companies service the credit cards and loans, the Bureau explained that the healthcare providers are responsible for offering the products to patients and disclosing terms and risks. Many of these healthcare providers are unable to adequately explain complex terms, such as deferred interest plans, leaving patients facing ballooned deferred interests and lawsuits, the Bureau warned. According to the Bureau’s announcement, “financing medical debt on a credit card may increase patients’ exposure to extraordinary credit actions that healthcare providers would typically not pursue,” as “there can be a greater incentive for creditors to pursue lawsuits because unlike many healthcare providers, creditors can pursue a debt’s principal plus interest and fees.”
On April 14, the CPFB announced a revised version of its Methodology for Determining Average Prime Offer Rates (APORs). APORs are a series of benchmark APRs derived from the average interest rates and other loan pricing terms currently offered to consumers by a representative sample of creditors for mortgage loans with low-risk pricing characteristics. APORs are used to determine whether a particular loan is a “Qualified Mortgage” or a “Higher-Priced Mortgage Loan,” which determines the treatment of that loan under various consumer protection laws.
The methodology statement has been revised to address the imminent unavailability of certain data the CFPB previously relied on to calculate APORs. Specifically, Freddie Mac recently made changes to its Primary Mortgage Market Survey (PMMS) used to calculate APORs for three types of loans. These changes make the PMMS unsuitable to be used in the APOR calculations. The CFPB is replacing data from the PMMS with data from ICE Mortgage Technology. This change also requires the CFPB to change certain of the product types for which APORs are produced. The CFPB will begin using ICE Mortgage Technology data and the revised methodology to calculate APORs on April 21, 2023.
We note that the CFPB is not changing the frequency of the APOR calculations, which will still be calculated on a weekly basis. These changes will therefore not address industry concerns that the APORs can be as much as seven days old, which can result in the APORs being significantly different than the actual market rates on a given day. This dissonance can lead to significant issues during periods where interest rates rise rapidly as we saw during much of 2022.
On January 27, the NCUA board unanimously voted to maintain the current temporary 18 percent interest rate ceiling for loans made by federal credit unions (FCUs) for another 18 months. The extension starts after the current period ends March 10. According to the announcement, the National Association of Federally-Insured Credit Unions (NAFCU) urged the NCUA to immediately raise the interest rate ceiling to 21 percent in order to help mitigate interest rate-related risks facing FCUs. Recognizing that the NAFCU “has consistently advocated for a floating permissible interest rate ceiling to address constraints of the 15 percent ceiling set by the FCU Act,” NCUA Chairman Todd Harper said the agency is conducting an analysis of a floating interest rate ceiling that should be completed by the April board meeting.
On January 24, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit concluded that a district court did not abuse its discretion when certifying a class action. The lawsuit alleges an individual who orchestrated an online payday lending scheme violated the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organization Act (RICO), engaged in unjust enrichment, and violated Virginia’s usury law by partnering with federally-recognized tribes to issue loans with allegedly usurious interest rates. (Covered by InfoBytes here.) The plaintiffs alleged the defendant partnered with the tribes to circumvent state usury laws even though the tribes did not control the lending operation. The district court stated that, as there was “no substantive involvement” by the tribes in the lending operation and that the evidence showed that the defendant was “functionally in charge,” the lending operation—which allegedly charged interest rates exceeding Virginia’s 12 percent interest cap—could not claim tribal immunity.
After the district court certified two borrower classes, the defendant appealed, arguing, among other things, that “[b]orrowers entered into enforceable loan agreements with lending entities in which they waived their right to bring class claims against him,” and that “common issues do not predominate so as to permit class treatment in this case.” Specifically, the defendant claimed that his role in the lending operations changed throughout the class period, and that individualized “proof” and “tracing” would be necessary to prove that he “participated in the direction of the affairs of the alleged enterprise” or that he received some portion of each borrower’s interest payments.
On appeal, the 4th Circuit disagreed with the defendant’s assertions. It found no reason to question the district court’s conclusion that the defendant was the “de facto” head of the lending operations throughout the class period. “And the fact that [the defendant] served as the ‘de facto head’ of the lending operations for the entire class period supports the district court’s determination that the Borrowers will be able to use common proof to show that [the defendant] ‘participated in the direction of the’ lending operations such that common questions predominate over individual questions[,]” the appellate court stated. The 4th Circuit further concluded that the “record supports the district court’s conclusion that [the defendant] lied when he said he was never involved in receiving or demanding payments on [the lending operation’s] loans.”
On January 3, the New Jersey attorney general announced a $27.4 million settlement with a private equity firm, its parent company, and six other associated companies (collectively, “respondents”) to resolve allegations related to violations of the New Jersey Consumer Fraud Act (CFA). According to the press release, the respondents targeted small businesses to enter into lending arrangements disguised as merchant cash advances (MCA) on future receivables. The AG claimed these loans effectively charged interest rates far exceeding the state’s usury caps. According to the attorney general’s press release, the respondents also allegedly engaged in deceptive servicing and collection practices against small businesses.
Under the terms of the consent order, the respondents are permanently enjoined from engaging in any acts or practices that violate the CFA and any applicable Advertising Regulations. The respondents have also agreed to forgive all outstanding balances for customers who entered MCAs (approximately $21.75 million) and pay $5.625 million to cover restitution, attorneys’ fees, costs of investigation and litigation and costs of administering restitution, and penalties not to exceed $250,000. The press release stated that the respondents will also (i) dismiss any pending debt collection actions against customers who had their balances forgiven as a result of the settlement; (ii) provide current customers with the ability to request modifications to their payment terms based on actual receivables; (iii) “[i]mprove internal business practices, be transparent in any terms of future MCA agreements regarding fees and reconciliation rights, and give notice to customers before taking legal action to collect on purported unpaid balances”; and (iv) ensure that all respondents, principals, and any future business entities that may result from a change in structure comply with the terms of the consent order.
On December 21, the CFPB reported that higher mortgage interest rates have led to increased monthly payments and higher debt-to-income ratios for borrowers. According to a recent Bureau analysis of quarterly HMDA data, some interest rates on 30-year fixed-rate mortgages have risen as high as seven percent and are at levels higher than what has been seen for nearly 20 years. The Bureau reported that in response to increasing interest rates, financial service providers are offering alternative financing options to provide opportunities for consumers to access lower rates, including adjustable-rate mortgages, temporary buydowns, home equity lines of credit and loans, and loan assumptions where a homebuyer assumes responsibility for the remaining balance of a home seller’s mortgage with the original loan terms. Explaining the various risks associated with these offerings, the Bureau warned consumers that they should understand the costs associated with cash-out refinances and risks related to alternative sales transactions (e.g., contract-for-deeds or land contracts, rent-to-own arrangements, and equity-sharing arrangements), which may sound appealing in a higher interest rate market but may “lack the protections of traditional mortgages, including the ability to build and access home equity, foreclosure protections, or even basic disclosures that allow for comparison shopping.”