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On October 2, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit ruled that a collection agency who was acting as a furnisher of credit reporting information could not shirk its duty to investigate a dispute by labeling the dispute “frivolous” when the complaint was referred for investigation by a credit reporting agency (CRA). The decision overturned the lower court’s ruling which had sided with the furnisher.
According the ruling, the plaintiff in this action claimed that a fraudulent account had been opened in his name with a television service provider. Plaintiff was described as having first disputed the account directly with the television service provider, but failed to provide supporting documents which the television service provider had requested. Following the plaintiff’s failure to provide the requested documentation, the television service provider referred the disputed account to the collection agency, who in turn reported the delinquent account to the CRA.
The ruling states that when the disputed account appeared on the plaintiff’s consumer report, the plaintiff made an indirect dispute of the information with the CRA, who in turn forwarded the dispute to the collection agency for investigation. The ruling notes that the collection agency undertook no further investigation in response to the dispute, and instead merely confirmed the account information and updated the plaintiff’s address, which the court noted took only 13 seconds.
The court noted that although the FCRA does allow for the recipient of disputes “to preliminarily vet the dispute for frivolousness or irrelevance before investigating,” once a CRA has referred a dispute to a furnisher, “the furnisher does not have such discretion.” Because in this case the collection agency had been referred to it by a CRA, it “had a duty to investigate [plaintiff’s] indirect dispute when it received notice thereof from [the CRA].”
On August 15, the USDA filed a brief urging the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn a U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit decision to reverse its FCRA lawsuit brought by a plaintiff who alleged that the consumer credit reporting agency reported two loans as past due even though he claimed both were closed with a $0 balance. In August 2022, the 3rd Circuit reversed a district court’s decision to grant a student loan servicer, consumer credit reporting agency, and the USDA’s (defendants) motion to dismiss a case finding that Congress unambiguously waived the government’s sovereign immunity in enacting FCRA (covered by InfoBytes here). The USDA argues that the district court was wrong in its decision, and that the FCRA does not waive the U.S.’s sovereign immunity for claims under 15 U.S.C. 1681n and 1681o because, among other things, (i) a waiver of sovereign immunity requires “unmistakably clear” statutory language; (ii) the FCRA does not create a cause of action that “‘expressly authorizes suits against sovereigns,’ and ‘recognizing immunity’ would ‘negate’ that express authorization”; (iii) the FCRA uses “persons” in a way that does not distinguish between sovereign and non-sovereign senses; (iv) “inexplicable incongruencies” with the term “person” within the context of §§ 1681n and 1681o includes a sovereign entity, which would not only expose the federal government but also individual states to potential lawsuits seeking monetary damages; and (v) interpreting the FCRA to permit lawsuits against the U.S. would significantly broaden the scope of liability for federal agencies, creating “overlap” already provided by the Privacy Act.
On July 5, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit affirmed summary judgment in favor of a defendant data furnisher in an FCRA case, holding that the plaintiff failed to establish that the defendant provided “patently incorrect or materially misleading information” to a credit reporting agency (CRA). Defendant was the subservicer for plaintiff’s mortgage and was responsible for accepting and tracking payments and providing payment data to the CRAs. After plaintiff failed to make her monthly payments, she resolved the delinquency through a short sale of her home. Several years later, plaintiff noticed that the closed mortgage account appeared on her credit reports as delinquent. She disputed the information to several CRAs. To confirm the accuracy of its records on plaintiff’s mortgage, one of the CRAs sent the defendant data furnisher four automated consumer dispute verification (ACDV) forms. In the ACDV responses, the defendant amended or verified several contested data points, including the pay rate and account history. The CRA reported this amended data to indicate on plaintiff’s credit report that she was currently delinquent on the mortgage with missed payments in the months following the short sale. After plaintiff applied for and was denied a new mortgage based on the credit report, plaintiff sued the defendant data furnisher for alleged violations of the FCRA, alleging that the defendant failed to conduct a reasonable investigation of the disputed data and provided false and misleading information to CRAs. The district court granted summary judgment in favor of the defendant, finding that plaintiff failed to make a threshold showing that the defendant’s data was incomplete or inaccurate.
On appeal, the 7th Circuit disagreed with plaintiff that “completeness or accuracy” under the FCRA “must be judged based, not on the ACDV response the data furnisher provided, but on the credit report generated from it.” The court reasoned that the text of the statute “says nothing about a credit report, let alone a duty of a data furnisher with respect to credit reports produced using its amended data. To the contrary, the statute sets out the data furnisher’s duties to investigate disputes, correct incomplete or inaccurate information, and report results from an investigation” to the CRA. Holding that “context can play a large role in determining completeness or accuracy” in this situation, the appellate court agreed with the district court that the data provided by the defendant to the CRA was “not materially misleading” and that “no reasonable jury could find” that the data meant that plaintiff was currently delinquent on her debt, particularly because of strong “contextual evidence”—specifically, that the disputed data appeared directly beside a status code showing that the account was closed. The appeals court affirmed summary judgment for the data furnisher.
On March 3, the CFPB received a rulemaking petition from the National Consumer Law Center (NCLC) in response to forthcoming FCRA rulemaking announced in the Bureau’s Fall 2022 regulatory agenda. As previously covered by InfoBytes, the Bureau announced it is considering pre-rulemaking activity in November to amend Regulation V, which implements the FCRA. In January, the Bureau issued its annual report covering information gathered by the Bureau regarding certain consumer complaints on the three largest nationwide consumer reporting agencies (CRAs). At the time, CFPB Director Rohit Chopra said that the Bureau “will be exploring new rules to ensure that [the CRAs] are following the law, rather than cutting corners to fuel their profit model.” (Covered by InfoBytes here.)
The NCLC presented several issues for consideration in the FCRA rulemaking process, including that the Bureau should (i) “establish strict requirements to regulate the furnishing of information regarding a debt in collections by third-party debt collectors and debt buyers”; (ii) “require translation of consumer reports by the [CRAs] into the eight languages most frequently used by limited English proficient consumers”; and (iii) “establish an Office of Ombudsperson to assist consumers who have been unable to fix errors in their consumer reports from the nationwide CRAs and other CRAs within the CFPB’s supervisory authority.”
“Given the level of errors, problems, and abuses by debt collectors in furnishing and resolving disputes, requiring an original creditor tradeline is a reasonable quality control mechanism,” the NCLC said. “Alternatively, if the CFPB continues to permit the furnishing of debt collection information without a pre-existing tradeline by the original creditor, the Bureau should require that the furnisher of debt collection activity (whether a debt collector, debt buyer, servicer or other) provide a complete account history in the tradeline, including positive payments,” the petition added, stressing that “such reporting must require adequate substantiation[.]”
On December 16, the CFPB and FTC filed an amicus brief in a case on appeal to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit concerning two related FCRA cases in support of plaintiffs-appellants and reversal of their suits involving a defendant hotel chain’s summary judgments. Both cases involve the same defendant company. In one case, the plaintiff entered into a timeshare agreement with the defendant for a property and made monthly payments for approximately three years. When the plaintiff stopped making payments, the plaintiff mailed the defendant letters that disputed the validity of, and purported to rescind, the agreement, while permitting the defendant to retain all prior payments as liquidated damages. The plaintiff obtained a copy of his credit report from a credit reporting agency (CRA), which stated that he had an open account with the defendant with a past-due balance. In three letters to the CRA, the plaintiff disputed the credit reporting. The letters stated that the plaintiff had terminated his agreement with the defendant and that he did not owe a balance. After the CRA communicated each dispute to the defendant, the defendant certified that the information for the defendant’s account was accurate. The plaintiff sued alleging the defendant violated the FCRA when it verified the accuracy of his credit report without conducting reasonable investigations following receipt of his indirect disputes. The defendant moved for summary judgment, alleging, among other things, that the plaintiff’s claim that he was not contractually obligated to make the payments to the defendant that are reported on his credit report as being due “is inherently a legal dispute and is not actionable under the FCRA.” The district court granted the defendant’s motion for summary judgment, which the plaintiff appealed.
In the other case, the plaintiff entered into a timeshare agreement with the defendant. She made a down payment and the first three installment payments, but did not make any additional payments. The plaintiff sent letters to the defendant disputing the validity of, and attempted to cancel, the agreement. The defendant reported the plaintiff’s delinquency to the CRA. In three letters to the CRA, the plaintiff disputed the credit reporting. After the CRA communicated the disputes to the defendant, the defendant determined there was no inaccuracy in the reporting. The plaintiff sued alleging the defendant violated the FCRA when it verified the accuracy of her credit report without conducting reasonable investigations following receipt of her indirect disputes about credit reporting inaccuracies. The district court granted the defendant’s motion for summary judgment, which the plaintiff appealed.
The CFPB and FTC argued in favor of the plaintiffs-appellants. According to the agencies, furnishers’ duty under the FCRA to reasonably investigate applies not only to factual disputes, but also to disputes that can be labeled as legal in nature. The agencies made three arguments to support their contention. First, a reasonable investigation is required under the FCRA to comport with its goal to “protect consumers from the transmission of inaccurate information about them.” The agencies argued that reasonableness is case specific, but it can “be evaluated by how thoroughly the furnisher investigated the dispute (e.g., how well its conclusion is supported by the information it considered or reasonably could have considered).”
Second, the agencies argued that Congress did not intend to exclude disputes that involve legal questions. The FCRA describes the types of indirect disputes that furnishers need to investigate, which are “those that dispute ‘the completeness or accuracy of any item of information contained in a consumer’s file.’” The agencies said nothing suggests that Congress intended to exclude information that is inaccurate on account of legal issues. Furthermore, the agencies noted that a lot of “inaccuracies in consumer reports could be characterized as legal, which would create an exception that would swallow the rule.” Consumer reports generally include information regarding an individual’s debt obligations, which are generally creatures of contract. Therefore, “many inaccurate representations pertaining to an individual’s debt obligations arguably could be characterized as legal inaccuracies, given that determining the truth or falsity of the representation could require the reading of a contract.”
Lastly, the agencies argued that an “atextual exception for legal inaccuracies would create a loophole that could swallow the reasonable investigation rule.” The agencies urged that “[g]iven the difficulty in distinguishing ‘legal’ from ‘factual’ disputes,” the court “should hold that there is no exemption in the FCRA’s reasonable investigation requirement for legal questions” because it would “curtail the reach of the FCRA’s investigation requirement in a way that runs counter to the purpose of the provision to require meaningful investigation to ensure accuracy on credit reports.”
On November 15, the CFPB released its fall 2022 Supervisory Highlights, which summarizes its supervisory and enforcement actions between January and June 2022 in the areas of auto servicing, consumer reporting, credit card account management, debt collection, deposits, mortgage origination, mortgage servicing, and payday lending. Highlights of the findings include:
- Auto Servicing. Bureau examiners identified instances of servicers engaging in unfair, deceptive, or abusive acts or practices connected to add-on product charges, loan modifications, double billing, use of devices that interfered with driving, collection tactics, and payment allocation. For instance, examiners identified occurrences where consumers paid off their loans early, but servicers failed to ensure consumers received refunds for unearned fees related to add-on products.
- Consumer Reporting. The Bureau found deficiencies in credit reporting companies’ (CRCs) compliance with FCRA dispute investigation requirements and furnishers’ compliance with FCRA and Regulation V accuracy and dispute investigation requirements. Examples include: (i) NCRCs that failed to report the outcome of complaint reviews to the Bureau; (ii) furnishers that failed to send updated information to CRCs following a determination that the information reported was not complete or accurate; and (iii) furnishers’ policies and procedures that contained deficiencies related to the accuracy and integrity of furnished information.
- Credit Card Account Management. Bureau examiners identified violations of Regulation Z related to billing error resolution, including instances where creditors failed to (i) resolve disputes within two complete billing cycles after receiving a billing error notice; (ii) conduct reasonable investigations into billing error notices due to human errors and system weaknesses; and (iii) provide explanations to consumers after determining that no billing error occurred or that a different billing error occurred from that asserted. Examiners also identified Regulation Z violations where credit card issuers improperly mixed original factors and acquisition factors when reevaluating accounts subject to a rate increase, and identified deceptive acts or practices related to credit card issuers’ advertising practices.
- Debt Collection. The Bureau found instances of FDCPA violations where debt collectors engaged in conduct that harassed, oppressed, or abused the person with whom they were communicating. The report findings also discussed instances where debt collectors communicated with a person other than the consumer about the consumer’s debt when the person had a name similar or identical to the consumer, in violation of the FDCPA.
- Deposits. The Bureau discussed how it conducted prioritized assessments to evaluate how financial institutions handled pandemic relief benefits deposited into consumer accounts. Examiners identified unfairness risks at multiple institutions due to policies and procedures that may have resulted in, among other things, (i) garnishing protected economic impact payments funds in violation of the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2021; or (ii) failing to apply the appropriate state exemptions to certain consumers’ deposit accounts after receiving garnishment notice.
- Mortgage Origination. Bureau examiners identified Regulation Z violations and deceptive acts or practices prohibited by the CFPA. An example of this is when the settlement service had been performed and the loan originator knew the actual costs of those service, but entered a cost that was completely unrelated to the actual charges that the loan originator knew had been incurred, resulting in information being entered that was not consistent with the best information reasonably available. The Bureau also found that the waiver language in some loan security agreements was misleading, and that a reasonable consumer could understand the provision to waive their right to bring a class action on any claim in federal court.
- Mortgage Servicing. Bureau examiners identified instances where servicers engaged in abusive acts or practices by charging sizable fees for phone payments when consumers were unaware of those fees. Examiners also identified unfair acts or practices and Regulation X policy and procedure violations regarding failure to provide consumers with CARES Act forbearances.
- Payday Lending. Examiners found lenders failed to maintain records of call recordings necessary to demonstrate full compliance with conduct provisions in consent orders generally prohibiting certain misrepresentations.
On November 10, the CFPB issued Circular 2022-07 to outline how federal and state consumer protection enforcers can bring claims against companies that fail to investigate and resolve consumer report disputes. According to the Bureau, consumer reporting agencies (CRAs) and some furnishers have failed to conduct reasonable investigations of consumer disputes. The Circular affirmed that CRAs and furnishers must reasonably investigate all disputes that they have not reasonably determined to be frivolous or irrelevant, and may be liable under the Fair Credit Reporting Act if they fail to do so. Additionally, the Circular noted that claims can be pursued by both state and federal consumer protection enforcers and regulators. The Circular also described that enforcers can “bring a claim if a consumer reporting agency fails to promptly provide to the furnisher ‘all relevant information’ regarding the dispute that the consumer reporting agency receives from the consumer.” On the topic of whether CRAs need to forward to furnishers consumer-provided documents attached to a dispute, the Circular noted that “[i]t depends.” The Circular then explained that even “[w]hile there is not an affirmative requirement to specifically provide original copies of documentation submitted by consumers, it would be difficult for a consumer reporting agency to prove they provided all relevant information if they fail to forward even an electronic image of documents that constitute a primary source of evidence.”
On October 20, the CFPB issued an advisory opinion, Fair Credit Reporting; Facially False Data, as part of a series of actions being taken by the Bureau to ensure consumer reporting companies comply with consumer financial protection laws. The advisory opinion emphasizes, among other things, that “a consumer reporting agency that does not implement reasonable internal controls to prevent the inclusion of facially false data, including logically inconsistent information, in consumer reports it prepares is not using reasonable procedures to assure maximum possible accuracy under section 607(b) of the [FCRA].” According to the Bureau, consumer reporting companies are legally required to follow reasonable procedures to assure maximum possible accuracy of information that they collect and report. As part of that requirement, companies must implement policies and procedures to screen for and eliminate junk data, including being able to detect and remove inconsistent account information and information that cannot be accurate. Additionally, companies’ internal controls must also be able to identify and prevent reporting of illegitimate credit transactions for a minor.
For more details on the CFPB’s advisory opinion program, please see InfoBytes coverage here.
On September 13, the FTC and CFPB (agencies) filed a joint amicus brief with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit, seeking the reversal of a district court decision that held furnishers of credit information are only obligated to investigate “bona fide” indirect disputes and may choose to decline to investigate other indirect disputes raised by consumers that are deemed frivolous. The agencies argued that this “atextual, judge-made exception” could undermine a key FCRA protection that allows consumers to dispute and correct inaccurate information in their credit reports, leading to a likely increase in consumer complaints related to credit reporting inaccuracies. Under the FCRA, consumers may file a direct dispute with a furnisher or file an indirect dispute with a consumer reporting agency (CRA), which may refer the dispute to the furnisher.
The case involves a direct dispute submitted by a plaintiff to a cable company, requesting an investigation into an allegedly fraudulent delinquent account listed on his credit report. The plaintiff informed the cable company that he was a victim of identity theft and that the account was opened in his name without his authorization. The cable company eventually referred the account to a debt collector (defendant) for collection after the plaintiff failed to provide requested information showing his account was opened due to fraud. An indirect dispute was later filed by the plaintiff with the CRA, which in turn sent the dispute to the defendant as the furnisher of the allegedly inaccurate information. After a second indirect dispute was filed noting the allegedly fraudulent account was the subject of litigation, the defendant removed the account from the plaintiff’s credit report and ceased collections. The plaintiff sued, asserting claims under the FCRA, FDCPA, and Pennsylvania law. The district court granted summary judgment in favor of the defendant, ruling that the plaintiff failed to provide evidence substantiating the basis of his dispute, and that “a furnisher is obligated to investigate only ‘bona fide’ indirect disputes and may therefore decline to investigate any indirect dispute it deems frivolous.”
In urging the appellate court to overturn the decision, the agencies countered in their amicus brief that the text of the FCRA is unambiguous—“furnishers must investigate all indirect disputes.” Nothing in the text suggests that a furnisher can choose not to investigate an indirect dispute if it determines it to be frivolous, the agencies stressed, further noting that if Congress intended to “create an exception for frivolous disputes, it knew how to do so,” and that in other parts of the statute Congress expressly provided that certain frivolous disputes do not need to be investigated.
The amicus brief also pointed out that under the FCRA, consumers are entitled to be notified about the outcome of their disputes, as well as given an opportunity to cure any deficiencies. The district court holding, the agencies said, would circumvent these requirements, thereby undercutting a central remedy under the FCRA that ensures consumers are able to dispute and correct inaccurate information in their credit reports. If furnishers were able to ignore disputes referred to them by CRAs, it could open an unintended loophole that would allow disputes to disappear “into a proverbial black hole,” the agencies asserted, emphasizing that if the district court’s interpretation is affirmed, consumers who submit an indirect dispute that is deemed frivolous by a furnisher may never receive any notice of that determination, and therefore, may never be able to cure any deficiencies or correct erroneous information in their credit reports.
The agencies also challenged whether the exception created by the district court’s ruling is necessary, as the FCRA already provides protections to furnishers from investigating frivolous disputes. Specifically, the statute allows CRAs to determine if a dispute a frivolous before forwarding a dispute to the furnisher. Moreover, furnishers “are not required to conduct an unreasonably onerous investigation into a conclusory or unsubstantiated dispute,” the agencies explained, stating that whether a furnisher has satisfied its obligation to conduct a reasonable investigation is normally a fact-intensive question for trial.
The Bureau noted in an accompanying blog post that it has also filed several other amicus briefs in other pending FCRA cases (previously covered by InfoBytes here) related to consumer reporting obligations.
On August 24, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit vacated the dismissal of an FCRA lawsuit, holding that the federal government does not have sovereign immunity under the statute and can be held liable for reporting requirement violations. The plaintiff sued the Department of Agriculture (USDA) and a student loan servicer for allegedly reporting two loans as past due even though he claimed both were closed with a $0 balance. The plaintiff notified the relevant consumer reporting agency who in turn notified the USDA and the servicer. When neither entity took action to investigate or correct the disputed information, the plaintiff sued all three parties for damages under Section 1681n and 1681o of the FCRA. The USDA moved to dismiss for lack of subject matter jurisdiction based on sovereign immunity claims, which the district court granted on the grounds that the United States and its agencies are not subject to liability under the FCRA—a decision in line with opinions issued by the 4th and 9th Circuits.
On appeal, the 3rd Circuit disagreed, instead siding with opinions issued by the D.C. and 7th Circuits that reached the opposite conclusion. According to the 3rd Circuit, the federal government and its agencies enjoy sovereign immunity from civil suits unless Congress unambiguously waives it within a statute. The FCRA provides that any “person” who either negligently or willfully violates the statute is liable to the consumer for civil damages, the appellate court wrote, noting that the term “person” is defined to include any “government or governmental subdivision or agency.” The appellate court stressed that Congress need not express its intent in any particular way, and that courts need only look at the statutory text to discern Congress’ intent. Where Congress wanted to use a narrower definition of “person” in the FCRA, it did so, the appellate court said, pointing to where the FCRA specifically excludes the federal government from the statutory obligations for persons who make adverse employment decisions based on credit reports. “We presume, therefore, that Congress’s failure to do so in §§ 1681n and 1681o was deliberate and intended to convey the full statutory definition,” the 3rd Circuit wrote, finding that Congress unambiguously waived the government’s sovereign immunity in enacting FCRA.