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  • California Supreme Court: FTC Holder Rule does not limit attorney’s fees

    Courts

    On May 26, the California Supreme Court affirmed a trial court’s ruling that the FTC’s Holder Rule does not limit liability for attorney’s fees. According to the opinion, the plaintiff bought a used vehicle from the dealership (defendant) pursuant to an installment sales contract, which was subsequently assigned to a bank that became the “holder” of the contract. The plaintiff filed suit against the defendant and the bank, alleging misconduct by the dealership in the sale of the car regarding advertised features she needed due to a disability. A jury found for the plaintiff on one of her causes of action — breach of the implied warranty of merchantability under the Song-Beverly Consumer Warranty Act and awarded her $21,957.25 in damages. The plaintiff filed a posttrial motion seeking attorney’s fees in the amount of $169,602 under the Song-Beverly Act. The bank argued that it could not be liable for attorney’s fees based on the provision of the Holder Rule limiting recovery to the “amount[] paid by the debtor.” The trial court disagreed and granted the plaintiff’s motion.

    The California Supreme Court granted review to resolve a split among the appellate courts on whether ‘“recovery’ under the Holder Rule includes attorney’s fees and limits the amount of fees plaintiffs can recover from holders to amounts paid under the contract.” The opinion noted the divide among the state’s appellate courts on this issue, citing on the one hand Pulliam v. HNL Automotive Inc. (holding that the Holder Rule does not limit the attorney’s fees a plaintiff may recover), and on the other hand, Lafferty v. Wells Fargo Bank, N.A. (stating that a debtor cannot recover damages and attorney fees for a Holder Rule claim that collectively exceed the amount paid by the debtor under the contract) and Spikener v. Ally Financial, Inc., (finding that the Holder Rule preempts California Civil Code section 1459.5, which authorizes a plaintiff to recover attorney fees on a Holder Rule claim even if it results in a total recovery that exceeds the amount the plaintiff paid under the contract, covered by InfoBytes here).

    On appeal, the California Supreme Court unanimously concluded that “the Holder Rule does not limit the award of attorney’s fees where, as here, a buyer seeks fees from a holder under a state prevailing party statute,” as opposed to seeking fees under the Holder Rule itself.  Specifically, “[t]he Holder Rule’s limitation extends only to ‘recovery hereunder.’” The California Supreme Court continued that “[t]his caps fees only where a debtor asserts a claim for fees against a seller and the claim is extended to lie against a holder by virtue of the Holder Rule. Where state law provides for recovery of fees from a holder, the [Holder] Rule’s history and purpose as well as the Federal Trade Commission’s repeated commentary make clear that nothing in the Rule limits the application of that law.”

    Courts State Issues Holder Rule FTC Attorney Fees

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  • Florida Court of Appeal: Bank may seek attorney’s fees as a condition of loan reinstatement

    Courts

    On May 4, the Florida Court of Appeal, Fourth District, held that a borrower cannot sue a law firm for sending a letter seeking to collect attorney’s fees because the mortgage contract gave the bank the right to seek attorney’s fees from a prior foreclosure action as a condition of reinstating the loan. Previously, a trial court had awarded the borrower attorney’s fees following dismissal of a prior foreclosure action. The bank later brought a new foreclosure action against the borrower concerning the same property, and the law firm representing the bank sent the borrower a reinstatement letter requiring payment of attorney’s fees incurred by the bank in the prior foreclosure action in order to reinstate the loan. The trial court, citing a 2019 decision in U.S. Bank Trust, N.A. v. Leigh, granted summary judgment in favor of the law firm on the grounds that “the law firm was entitled to immunity under the litigation privilege because the Florida Consumer Collection Practices Act (FCCPA) claim was based on the reinstatement letter the law firm sent during the foreclosure proceedings” and because the borrower lacked standing.

    On appeal, the Court of Appeal agreed with the law firm that it was entitled to collect attorney fees and costs and that the borrower lacked standing to bring his FCCPA claim. According to the Court of Appeal, a provision in the mortgage contact included language that “if the borrower defaulted and the lender accelerated the loan, the borrower would have the right to reinstate the loan if certain conditions were met.” Among these conditions was that the borrower would agree to “pay all expenses incurred in enforcing this Security Instrument, including, but not limited to, reasonable attorneys’ fees.” Applying the rationale of Leigh, the Court of Appeal found “that the law firm did not violate the FCCPA because it sought to recover a legitimate expense it was entitled to recover pursuant to a contract, that being the expense of attorney’s fees the lender incurred in the prior foreclosure action.”

    Courts Consumer Finance Foreclosure Florida State Issues Appellate Attorney Fees

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  • FTC clarifies Holder Rule provision

    Federal Issues

    On January 20, the FTC issued an advisory opinion addressing the FTC’s Trade Regulation Rule Concerning Preservation of Consumers’ Claims and Defenses’ impact on consumers’ ability to recover costs and attorneys’ fees. Commonly known as the Holder Rule, the provisions protect “consumers who enter credit contracts by preserving their right to assert claims and defenses against any holder of certain loans and credit sales contracts, even if the loans or contracts are assigned to a third party.” Because a seller’s use of practices to foreclose these rights constitutes an unfair practice under Section 5 of the FTC Act, the Holder Rule requires sellers to include a notice in credit contracts of a consumer’s right to claims and defenses related to a seller’s misconduct. While courts have addressed the issue of whether consumers are able to recover costs and attorneys’ fees from the holder of a credit contract, the FTC noted that some courts and finance companies have misinterpreted previous FTC statements to suggest that the Holder Rule preempts state laws that authorize attorney fee awards against loan holders. According to the advisory opinion, the “Holder Rule does not eliminate any rights the consumer may have as a matter of separate state, local, or federal law. Consequently, whether costs and attorneys’ fees may be awarded against the holder of the credit contract is determined by the relevant law governing costs and fees.” Noting that “[n]othing in the Holder Rule states that application of such laws to holders is inconsistent with Section 5 of the FTC Act or that holders should be wholly or partially exempt from these laws,” the FTC added that “if the applicable law requires or allows costs or attorneys’ fee awards against a holder, the Holder Rule does not impose a cap on such an award.” While it is not clear how much deference courts would give to the advisory opinion, companies may choose to consider the Commission’s statement.

    Federal Issues FTC Holder Rule Attorney Fees Agency Rule-Making & Guidance FTC Act

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  • Pennsylvania Supreme Court says state mortgage law does not apply retroactively

    Courts

    On August 18, the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania affirmed a lower court’s decision, holding that 2008 amendments to the Pennsylvania Loan Interest and Protection Law (also known as “Act 6”), which raised the mortgage principle-amount ceiling from $50,000 to nearly $215,000, do not apply retroactively to loans executed prior to 2008. According to the opinion, in May 2002, homeowners executed a mortgage for $74,000. In 2008, the homeowners defaulted on their mortgage and in 2009, their bank—through its counsel—filed a mortgage foreclosure complaint, which included $1,300 in attorneys’ fees. In 2012, while their foreclosure was still pending, the homeowners filed a class action against the bank’s counsel, alleging the counsel violated Act 6’s limit on attorney’s fees. The trial court sustained the counsel’s demurrer, concluding that the homeowners’ mortgage was not “a ‘residential mortgage’ as Act 6 defined that term in 2002.” The superior court affirmed.

    On appeal, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court agreed with the superior court, noting not only the “presumption against finding statutes retroactive,” but the state’s General Assembly’s “explicit instruction that courts should avoid applying legislation retroactively unless the statute clearly and manifestly states otherwise.” Because Act 6 does not expressly state that the 2008 increased mortgage-ceiling should apply to mortgages executed prior to the amendment, the Court concluded there was “no basis allowing for application of the updated law to the [homeowners]’ mortgage,” and thus, the counsel was not subject to Act 6’s limitation on attorneys’ fees.

    Courts State Issues Mortgages State Legislation Attorney Fees

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  • District court approves MDL data breach settlement

    Courts

    On July 21, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California issued an order approving a $117.5 million class action settlement, including $23 million in attorneys’ fees, with a global internet company to resolve multidistrict litigation concerning the exposure of class members’ sensitive information stemming from multiple data breaches. The settlement approval follows a fairness hearing, as the court originally denied preliminary approval due to several identified deficiencies (covered by InfoBytes here), including that the settlement inadequately disclosed the sizes of the settlement fund and class, as well as the scope of non-monetary relief, and “appear[ed] likely to result in an improper reverter of attorneys’ fees.” Last July, the court preliminarily signed off on a revised settlement, conditionally certifying a class of U.S. and Israeli residents and small businesses with accounts between 2012 and 2016 that were affected by the breaches. These class members have been certified in the final approved settlement, which requires the company to provide class members with either two years of credit monitoring services or alternative compensation for members who already have credit monitoring. Among other things, the company will allocate at least $66 million each year to its information security budget until 2022, will increase the number of full-time security employees from current levels, and will “align its information security program with the National Institute of Standards and Technology Cybersecurity Framework” and “undertake annual third-party assessments to ensure compliance” with the framework.

    Courts MDL Settlement Attorney Fees Class Action Data Breach Privacy/Cyber Risk & Data Security

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  • California Court of Appeal: FTC Holder Rule preempts state law authorizing recovery of certain attorney fees

    Courts

    On June 9, the California Court of Appeal for the First Appellate District affirmed a trial court’s judgment in favor of a bank (defendant), holding that the FTC’s Holder Rule preempts California Civil Code section 1459.5, which authorizes a plaintiff to recover attorney fees on a Holder Rule claim even if it results in a total recovery that exceeds the amount the plaintiff paid under the contract. According to the court, the plaintiff sued the defendant (who was assigned the vehicle credit sale contract) after he discovered that the seller failed to disclose that the vehicle had been in a major collision, thus reducing its value. The parties settled for a sum equal to the vehicle’s purchase price, and the plaintiff filed a motion for attorney fees. The trial court denied the motion, determining that the plaintiff was not entitled to fees under a holding in Lafferty v. Wells Fargo Bank, which stated that a debtor cannot recover damages and attorney fees for a Holder Rule claim that collectively exceed the amount paid by the debtor under the contract. The plaintiff appealed.

    The Court of Appeal agreed with the trial court, determining that it did not need to resolve the parties’ dispute as to whether Lafferty correctly construed the Holder Rule’s limitation on recovery because the FTC’s construction of the Holder Rule is entitled to deference. The Court of Appeal referenced the FTC’s 2019 confirmation of the Holder Rule (Rule Confirmation), after Lafferty issued, which addressed, among other things, several comments related to whether the Holder Rule’s “limitation on recovery to ‘amounts paid by the debtor’ allows or should allow consumers to recover attorneys’ fees above that cap.” The FTC provided the following statement within the Rule Confirmation: “We conclude that if a federal or state law separately provides for recovery of attorneys’ fees independent of claims or defenses arising from the seller’s misconduct, nothing in the Rule limits such recovery. Conversely, if the holder’s liability for fees is based on claims against the seller that are persevered by the Holder Rule Notice, the payment that the consumer may recover from the holder—including any recovery based on attorneys’ fees—cannot exceed the amount the consumer paid under the contract.”

    Courts State Issues Appellate FTC Holder Rule Attorney Fees

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  • 9th Circuit upholds TCPA liability for reassigned number

    Courts

    On June 2, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit affirmed a district court’s judgment in a TCPA action against a bank, concluding that consent from the person intended to call does not exempt the bank from liability under the TCPA. According to the opinion, the bank’s vendors made over 180 automated calls to a child’s cell phone in attempt to collect past-due payments from a customer who used to have the same cell phone number, which had since been reassigned to the child’s mother. The customer of the bank had given consent to be called, but the mother and child had not. After a three-day jury trial, the jury returned a verdict in favor of the plaintiff on the TCPA claim, concluding that the bank could not escape liability under the TCPA because the customer it intended to call had given consent, and awarding $500 in statutory damages for each of the 189 unwanted calls, for a total of $94,500.

    On appeal, the 9th Circuit affirmed the district court’s judgment after the jury trial. The appellate court noted it was “agreeing with other circuits,” on liability when it concluded that the district court “properly instructed the jury that consent from the intended recipient of the call was not sufficient.” Moreover, the appellate court held that the district court properly instructed the jury on the definition of “automatic telephone dialing system,” based on the panel’s decision in Marks v. Crunch San Diego, LLC (covered by InfoBytes here). Lastly, the appellate court also issued an opinion affirming the district court’s award of attorneys’ fees to the plaintiff.

    Courts TCPA Appellate Ninth Circuit Attorney Fees Autodialer

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  • District court approves $2.3 million class settlement resolving violations of Massachusetts debt collection laws

    Courts

    On March 23, the U.S. District Court for the District of Massachusetts issued an order granting final approval to a nearly $2.3 million class action settlement, reached through mediation, to resolve allegations that a subsidiary of a large U.S. retailer (defendant) made excessive debt collection calls to Massachusetts consumers. The named plaintiff claimed that the defendant violated the Massachusetts Consumer Protection Act and state debt collection regulations by calling consumers more often than twice in a seven-day period. The order also lowered the plaintiff’s attorneys’ fees because, according to the court, the case was not as risky as the attorneys claimed and not complex enough to warrant taking approximately one-third of the settlement fund.

    Courts Class Action Settlement Debt Collection State Issues Attorney Fees Massachusetts

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  • District Court rejects law firm’s bona fide error defense in FDCPA action

    Courts

    On August 15, the U.S. District Court for the District of Connecticut held that a law firm violated the FDCPA, rejecting the law firm’s bona fide error defense, and awarded the consumer statutory damages. According to the opinion, the consumer alleged that the law firm violated the FDCPA in a 2016 debt collection letter sent to the consumer. Specifically, the consumer argued that the letter “‘ma[de] it impossible for a consumer to know how much is owed and if the debt will be considered paid if payment is made in full,’” because the letter contained two different balance amounts: (i) a “Charge-Off Balance” listed at $663.94 and (ii) a “Balance” or “Current Balance” listed as $565.46. The law firm acknowledged the existence of two different balance amounts, but asserted that the Current Balance was the correct amount and that the consumer “was not confused about what he owed.” The court rejected this argument, finding that under the “least sophisticated consumer standard,” a consumer would be confused by the two different balances, noting that the letter provided no explanation about the two different amounts. The law firm also argued that the inaccuracy was not material, and therefore it should not give rise to liability under the FDCPA. The court disagreed, finding that the difference between the two amounts was “more than trivial,” noting it almost exceeded one hundred dollars, and could induce a consumer to delay payment. Lastly, because the error in amounts was not a result of human judgment, but a failure in programming, the court rejected the law firm’s bona fide error defense. The court awarded the consumer statutory damages and authorized the consumer to seek reasonable costs and attorney’s fees.

    Courts FDCPA Debt Collection Least Sophisticated Consumer Attorney Fees Damages

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  • California Court of Appeal: Prejudgment interest accrual did not violate Rosenthal Fair Debt Collection Practices Act

    Courts

    On July 1, the California Court of Appeal for the Fourth Appellate District affirmed in part and reversed in part a previous superior court judgment in favor of a debt collector, holding that the debt collector did not violate the California Rosenthal Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (the Rosenthal Act) by adding prejudgment interest from the date of charge-off to a consumer’s account, and reporting the account, with such additional interest, to several credit bureaus.

    The lawsuit initially arose when the debt collector sued to collect the entire amount owed, and the consumer filed a cross-complaint alleging the debt collector had violated the Rosenthal Act, among other laws, by “‘falsely representing the character, amount, or legal status of the alleged debt,’ ‘failing to verify that the amount demanded was accurate,’ and ‘failing to provide an accurate accounting of the alleged debt.’” The superior court rejected the consumer’s claims and entered judgment in favor of the debt collector in the amount of the debt plus attorney’s fees.

    On appeal, the Court of Appeal concluded that the debt collector did not violate the Rosenthal Act because the consumer failed to show that the original creditor waived the right to accrue additional interest on the account by not accruing the interest after charge-off. Moreover, the Court of Appeal noted that the statutory prejudgment interest rate is only available when there is no specified contractual rate. However, the Court determined that the debt collector did not improperly accrue interest when it applied a seven percent interest rate, as seven percent is lower than the statutory interest rate and the contractual interest rate. With respect to attorney’s fees, the Court of Appeal concluded the superior court improperly awarded fees associated with the legal action to collect the debt and the cross-complaint, noting that the superior court, “should have limited the fee award to time spent on efforts necessary to prove the allegations in the complaint.” Therefore, the court reversed the fee judgment and remanded the case back to superior court for “further consideration of the fee award in accordance with our narrower interpretation of the contractual fee provision.”

    Courts State Issues Debt Collection Attorney Fees Interest

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