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On December 18, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit affirmed the decision of the trial court in favor of a debt collector in an FDCPA action brought by a consumer claiming that the debt collector used false, deceptive, or misleading means in attempting to collect a debt. The consumer, in 2006, opened a credit card account with a bank, but stopped sending payments in December of 2008, without paying off the balance. The bank later sold the consumer’s unpaid account to a debt collector in 2009, after which the debt collector sent a letter to the consumer in 2017 in an effort to collect the past due balance. The consumer filed a complaint against the debt collector, claiming that the debt was “time-barred” as the six-year statute of limitations had run and that the debt collector violated the FDCPA by not disclosing this in the letter to him. The district court granted the debt collector’s summary judgment motion.
On appeal, the consumer again claimed that the debt collector’s language is “deceptive or misleading,” specifically in the debt collector’s disclosure in the letter that read, “[t]he law limits how long you can be sued on a debt and how long a debt can appear on your credit report. Due to the age of this debt, we will not sue you for it or report payment or non-payment of it to a credit bureau.” The court disagreed. According to the opinion, even though the six-year statute to sue in order to collect had expired, “nothing in the letter falsely implies that [the debt collector] could bring a legal action against [the consumer] to collect the debt.” Further, the court determined that the “least sophisticated debtor would [not] likely be misled” by the debt collector’s disclosure, because the “natural conclusion” that could be drawn from the collector’s language was that the debt was time-barred. Additionally, the court rejected the consumer’s contention that the debt collector’s letter was “deceptive or misleading” because it failed to warn the consumer that in some states, the statute of limitations to sue on a debt may be revived if the debtor promises to pay or makes a partial payment on the debt. The court stated that the FDCPA does not require a debt collector to “provide legal advice” about specific issues such as a revival provision in a state statute of limitations. The panel also pointed out that although the statute may have run for the debt collector to take legal action in order to recover the outstanding debt, as long as it complies with the law and does not use misleading, false, or deceptive means, the FDCPA allows it to continue its efforts to collect on a lawful debt.
On December 12, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit reversed the district court’s ruling overturning a jury verdict in favor of the consumer for a debt collection company’s (company) violation of the FDCPA and the Texas Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (Texas Act). The consumer sued the company claiming that after she sent the company a letter disputing a debt, the company failed to report to the credit bureaus that the debt was “disputed.” At trial, the jury awarded the consumer $61,000 for the company’s alleged FDCPA and Texas Act violations. Afterwards, the district court granted the company’s post-trial motion for judgment as a matter of law, overturned the jury’s verdict, and dismissed the case, ruling that the consumer failed to provide evidence that the disputed debt was a consumer debt.
On appeal, the 5th Circuit held that it is within the jury’s discretion to make credibility determinations and that it was permissible for the jury to credit the consumer’s testimony about the consumer nature of the debt—a determination which cannot be disturbed unless it is impossible that the testimony is true. In addition, the appellate court noted that the jury has discretion to draw inferences and that it reasonably inferred that the disputed debt was, in fact, a consumer debt, as the consumer claimed.
On December 9, the CFPB released a special edition of its fall 2019 Supervisory Highlights, focusing on recent supervisory findings in the areas of consumer reporting and information furnishing to consumer reporting companies (CRCs). This is the second special edition to focus on consumer reporting issues, and follows a report that the Bureau released in March 2017 covered by InfoBytes here. According to the Bureau, recent supervisory reviews of FCRA and Regulation V compliance have identified new violations as well as compliance management system (CMS) weaknesses at CFPB-supervised institutions. However, the Bureau noted that examiners have also observed significant improvements, such as continued investment in FCRA-related CMS.
Highlights of the supervisory findings include:
- Recent examples of CMS weaknesses and FCRA/Regulation V violations (where corrective action has either been taken or is currently being taken) in which one or more (i) mortgage loan furnishers did not maintain policies and procedures “appropriate to the nature, size, complexity, and scope of the furnisher’s activities”; (ii) auto loan furnishers’ policies and procedures failed to provide sufficient guidance for investigating indirect disputes containing allegations of identity theft; (iii) debt collection furnishers’ policies and procedures failed to differentiate between FCRA disputes, FDCPA disputes, or validation requests, leading to a lack of consideration for applicable regulatory requirements when handling these matters; and (iv) deposit account furnishers lacked written policies and procedures for furnishing or validating the information provided to specialty CRCs.
- Examiners found that one or more furnishers provided information they knew, or had reasonable cause to believe, was inaccurate. Examples include inaccurate derogatory status codes due to coding errors and unclear addresses for consumers to submit disputes.
- Examiners discovered several instances where furnishers failed to send prompt notifications to CRCs after determining that information previously furnished was inaccurate, including situations where furnishers failed to promptly update or correct information after consumers paid charged-off balances in full or discharged them in bankruptcy.
- Examiners found that some furnishers reported the incorrect date of the first delinquency in connection with their responsibility to provide notice of delinquent accounts to CRCs.
- Examiners found several instances where furnishers failed to investigate disputes, complete investigations in a timely manner, or notify consumers of certain determinations related to “frivolous or irrelevant” disputes.
The Bureau also discussed supervisory observations concerning CRC compliance with FCRA provisions, and commented that CRCs continue to (i) improve procedures concerning the accuracy of information contained in consumer reports; (ii) implement improvements to prevent consumer reports from being furnished to users who lack a permissible purpose; (iii) strengthen procedures to “block information that a consumer has identified as resulting from an alleged identity theft”; and (iv) investigate and respond to consumer disputes.
On October 31, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, in a split panel decision, reversed the district court’s dismissal of a consumer’s FCRA action against a national bank alleging the bank obtained her credit report for an impermissible purpose. According to the opinion, the consumer filed the complaint against the bank after reviewing her credit report and noticing the bank had submitted “numerous credit report inquiries” in violation of the FCRA because she “did not have a credit relationship with [the bank]” as specified in the FCRA and, therefore, the inquiries were not for a permissible purpose. The bank moved to dismiss the action, arguing that the consumer did not suffer any injury from the credit inquiries. The district court agreed, and dismissed her claim with prejudice for lack of standing and failure to state a claim.
On appeal, the majority disagreed with the district court, concluding that (i) a consumer suffers a concrete injury in fact when a credit report is obtained for an impermissible purpose; and (ii) a consumer only needs to allege that her credit report was obtained for an impermissible purpose to survive a motion to dismiss. The appellate majority emphasized that the consumer does not have the burden of pleading the actual purpose behind the bank’s use of her credit report; the burden is on the defendant to prove the credit report was obtained for an authorized purpose. Moreover, the majority noted that the consumer alleges she only learned about the bank’s inquiry after reviewing her credit report and, therefore, it is implied “that she never received a firm offer of credit from [the bank],” and taken together with the fact that the bank actually obtained her credit report, she stated a plausible claim for relief.
One panel judge concurred in part and dissented in part, arguing that the consumer had standing but failed to state a plausible claim. Specifically, the judge argued that “the majority characterize[d] [the] plaintiff’s claim in terms of ‘possibility,’” but “mere possibility of liability does not plead a plausible claim.” Moreover, the judge disagreed with the majority’s conclusion that the defendant bears the burden of proof in these instances, stating “the Supreme Court has expressly placed the burden of pleading a plausible claim squarely on the plaintiff rather than on the defendant.”
On September 25, the CFPB filed a complaint in the U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland against a debt collection entity, its subsidiaries, and their owner (collectively, “defendants”) for allegedly violating the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA), Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA), and the Consumer Financial Protection Act (CFPA). In the complaint, the Bureau alleges that the defendants violated the FCRA and its implementing Regulation V by, among other things, failing to (i) establish or implement reasonable written policies and procedures to ensure accurate reporting to consumer-reporting agencies; (ii) incorporate appropriate guidelines for the handling of indirect disputes in its policies and procedures; (iii) conduct reasonable investigations and review relevant information when handling indirect disputes; and (iv) furnishing information about accounts after receiving identity theft reports about such accounts without conducting an investigation into the accuracy of the information. The Bureau separately alleges that the violations of the FCRA and Regulation V constitute violations of the CFPA. Additionally, the Bureau alleges that the defendants violated the FDCPA by attempting to collect on debts without a reasonable basis to believe that consumers owed those debts. The Bureau is seeking an injunction, damages, redress to consumers, disgorgement, the imposition of a civil money penalty, and costs.
On August 29, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit affirmed a district court’s ruling that a bank was not obligated under the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA) to investigate a credit reporting error because the consumers failed to ever notify a consumer reporting agency. According to the opinion, after plaintiffs paid off their line of credit, the bank (defendant) continued reporting the plaintiff as delinquent on the account. After plaintiffs contacted the bank regarding the reporting error, the bank employee ensured plaintiffs that the defendant submitted amendments to the credit reporting bureaus to correct the situation. However, the plaintiffs claimed the error was not corrected until almost a year later. Plaintiffs also alleged that they did not contact the credit reporting bureau in reliance on the bank employee’s statements. The district court granted summary judgment in favor of the bank, concluding that the FCRA requires that notification of a credit dispute be provided to a consumer reporting agency as a prerequisite for a claim that a furnisher failed to investigate the dispute. Since the plaintiffs failed to trigger the defendant’s FCRA obligations because they never filed a dispute with a consumer reporting agency, the defendant’s responsibility to investigate was never activated.
On appeal, the 6th Circuit agreed with the district court that direct notification to the furnisher of the inaccurate credit report does not meet the FCRA’s prerequisite. Additionally, the plaintiffs’ state common law claims for breach of the duty of good faith and fair dealing and tortious interference with contractual relationships were preempted by the FCRA, and their fraudulent misrepresentation claim was forfeited on appeal.
On August 15, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit affirmed summary judgment in favor of a credit reporting agency (CRA), concluding that the CRA did not violate the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA) by reporting past negative incidents. According to the opinion, after struggling financially, a married couple missed payments on at least five credit accounts. The consumers allegedly resolved the late payments and filed complaints with the CRA arguing the continued presence of the late payments misrepresented the “real status of their credit.” Additionally, the consumers argued some of the “key factors” the CRA discloses to credit providers, “such as ‘[s]erious delinquency’ or ‘[a]mount owed on revolving [a]ccounts is too high,’ are misleading.” The consumers filed suit against the CRA, alleging a variety of federal and state law claims, including violations of the FCRA for failing to maintain reasonable procedures and failing to conduct a reasonable investigation into disputes. The district court granted summary judgment in favor of the CRA and the consumers appealed their FCRA claims.
On appeal, the 3rd Circuit agreed with the district court, concluding the consumers must show their credit report contains inaccurate information to prevail on their claims, which the consumers failed to do. The panel noted the consumers admitted they made the late payments and did not allege the adverse information is more than seven years old. The panel concluded the consumers’ claim “is not that the information in their credit reports and disclosures is inaccurate, but rather that it is irrelevant,” which does not support their claims for a violation under the FCRA.
On May 6, the Indiana Attorney General announced a lawsuit filed against a national credit reporting agency in response to its 2017 data breach, alleging the company “chose increasing revenue over protecting the safety of consumers’ sensitive personal information.” According to the complaint, the state alleges the company violated the Indiana Deceptive Consumer Sales Act by failing to secure 3.9 million residents’ personal data while representing to consumers that its payment systems were compliant with Payment Card Industry (PCI) standards. The complaint alleges among other things that the company “knew the system was storing payment card information in clear text, which was a known violation of the [PCI standard]” and “[d]espite its knowledge, … made a conscious choice to break the rules.” Indiana is seeking civil penalties, consumer restitution, costs and injunctive relief.
On March 5, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Ohio denied a debt buyer’s motion to dismiss a consumer action alleging the company violated the FDCPA and the Ohio Consumer Sales Practices Act (OCSPA) by requesting a credit reporting agency account review after the alleged debt had been discharged in bankruptcy. According to the opinion, the consumer’s debts were discharged in November 2017 after a Chapter 7 bankruptcy, and in December 2017, the company requested an account review through a credit reporting agency for collection purposes. The consumer alleges the company violated the FDCPA and the OCSPA because the company could not legally collect on a debt that had already been discharged in bankruptcy. The company moved to dismiss the action arguing it was not a debt collector under the FDCPA nor was it a “supplier” under the OCSPA, but rather is merely a “passive debt purchaser” and only reviewed the report but took no further action, which does not qualify as collection conduct. The court disagreed, noting that it must accept the consumer’s allegations as true at this stage, and determined the allegations plausibly support her claim that the company is a debt collector under the FDCPA. Moreover, the court acknowledged that while the company only sought to receive information from the credit reporting agency, it did convey that the contact was for the purposes of collection. Therefore, the allegations by the consumer that the company violated the FDCPA for representing a debt was for collection when it was previously discharged were sufficient to survive the motion. As for the OCSPA, the court found that the company’s activities may effect consumer transactions, which makes it plausible that the company is a “supplier” under the statute.
On February 21, Maxine Waters released a discussion draft version of the “Comprehensive Consumer Credit Reporting Reform Act of 2019,” which would significantly amend the FCRA. The draft legislative proposal was released as supporting material for the February 26 House Financial Services Committee hearing titled, “Who's Keeping Score? Holding Credit Bureaus Accountable and Repairing a Broken System.” The CEOs of the three major credit reporting agencies and a panel of officials from major consumer groups testified at the hearing.
The draft bill— versions of which Waters has also introduced in previous Congressional sessions—includes (i) significant changes to the dispute process, such as allowing consumers to appeal determinations; (ii) banning the use of credit information for certain employment decisions; (iii) removing adverse information for certain private education loan borrowers who demonstrate positive payment history; (iv) shortening the time period that most adverse credit information stays on a credit report from seven to four years; and (v) establishing federal oversight over the development of credit scoring models.
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