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Maryland Court of Appeals reverses trial court approval of settlement for interfering with CPD action
On March 3, the Maryland Court of Appeals reversed a trial court’s approval of a proposed settlement in a class action based on fraudulently induced assignments of annuity payments. The class members were recipients of structured settlement annuities from lead paint exposure claims who responded to ads by a structured settlement factoring company (company). The class members then transferred the rights to their settlement annuity contracts to the company, which paid the class members lump sums for the rights at a discount. The class filed a lawsuit against the company in 2016, alleging that it had engaged in fraud in procuring the annuity contract transfers. Around the same time, the Consumer Protection Division of the Maryland AG’s Office (CPD) had filed suit against the company alleging violations of the State Consumer Protection Act. Several months after both actions were filed, the CFPB filed a similar suit against the company based on the same alleged misconduct. All three actions sought similar kids of relief with respect to the same individuals, though the bases for seeking relief and the nature and amount of relief sought differed among the actions.
The class and the company proceeded towards a negotiated settlement, to which the trial court signed a proposed final order, certifying the class and approving the settlement, despite CPD’s opposition to both issues. Following the court’s approval, the company moved for summary judgment in its case against the CPD, which the court granted because it held CPD’s claim for restitution for the same individuals was barred by res judicata; CPD’s claim for injunctive relief and civil penalties is still currently awaiting trial.
Following an appeal, the Court of Appeals granted the company’s petition to consider whether “class members [may] lawfully release and assign to others their right to receive money or property sought for their benefit by [CPD] or [CFPB] through those agencies’ separate enforcement actions” under state and federal consumer protection laws, respectively.
The Court of Appeals held that the lower court erred in approving the settlement, stating that consumers “have no authority, through a private settlement, whether or not approved by a court, to preclude CPD from pursuing its own remedies against those who violate . . . [Maryland’s] Consumer Protection Act, including a general request for disgorgement/restitution.” In particular, the Court of Appeals held that the parties cannot preclude CPD from pursuing the remedies of disgorgement and restitution, as that would directly contravene CPD’s statutory authority to sanction the company for wrongful conduct. For this reason, the Court of Appeals concluded that the trial court’s approval of the settlement must be reversed and remanded the case for further proceedings.
On January 30, a coalition of attorneys general from 22 states, the District of Columbia, and the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico filed an amicus brief in support of the FTC in a U.S. Supreme Court action that is currently awaiting the Court’s decision to grant certiorari. Last December, the FTC filed a petition for a writ of certiorari asking the Court to reverse an opinion issued by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit last August, which held that Section 13(b) of the FTC Act does not give the FTC power to order restitution when enforcing consumer protections under the FTC Act. (Covered by InfoBytes here.) The AGs assert, however, that restitution is a critical FTC enforcement tool that provides direct benefits to the amici states and their residents. Arguing that the 7th Circuit’s decision will impede federal-state collaborations to combat unfair and deceptive practices—citing recent FTC restitution amounts that directly benefited consumers in Illinois, Indiana, and Wisconsin—the AGs stress that without the authority to seek restitution, the states “may be forced to redirect resources to compensate for work that would have previously been performed by the FTC.” The AGs also discuss the states’ interest in the “uniform application of federal law.” The 7th Circuit’s decision “upends decades of settled practice and precedent,” the AGs contend, and may provide the opportunity for defendants to “forum shop” as they seek to transfer their cases to take advantage of a decision that may work in their favor. As a result, the decision has created confusion where none previously existed, the AGs claim.
As previously covered by InfoBytes, the FTC filed a brief in a separate action also pending the Court’s decision to grant certiorari that similarly addresses the question of whether the FTC is empowered by Section 13(b) to demand equitable monetary relief in civil enforcement actions. In this case, the petitioners are appealing a 9th Circuit decision, which upheld a $1.3 billion judgment against them for allegedly operating a deceptive payday lending scheme. The 9th Circuit rejected the petitioners’ argument that the FTC Act only allows the court to issue injunctions, concluding that a district court may grant any ancillary relief under the FTC Act, including restitution.
On January 13, the Illinois attorney general announced that he filed two separate suits in the Circuit Court of Cook County against two credit repair companies and three individuals who allegedly engaged in deceptive and fraudulent practices when promoting credit repair services to consumers and collecting debts in violation of the Consumer Fraud and Deceptive Business Practices Act, the Credit Services Organization Act, and the Collection Agency Act.
In the first complaint, the AG alleges a credit repair agency is not registered in Illinois as a credit services organization, and that it, along with its owner, a co-defendant, has not filed the statutorily required $100,000 surety bond with the Secretary of State’s office. The AG’s complaint alleges that the company charges unlawful upfront fees while making false promises that it will increase consumers’ credit scores. When the defendants fail to live up to these promises, they subsequently refuse to refund the money that consumers paid for the credit repair services they did not receive.
In the second complaint, the AG makes the same allegations against a different credit repair company, its owner, and a former employee. In addition, the second complaint also alleges that the company operates as a debt collection agency, but does not possess the requisite state license as a collection agency. Further, the complaint claims that, among other things, the defendants extract payments for “completely fabricated” payday loan debt from consumers who do not actually owe on the loans by using threats and other abusive and harassing collection tactics.
The AG seeks a number of remedies including injunctive relief prohibiting all defendants from engaging in any credit repair business, and prohibiting the second company and its owner and employee from engaging in any debt collection business; rescission of consumer contracts; and restitution to all affected consumers.
On January 13, fifteen Democratic Senators, led by Senators Catherine Cortez Masto (D-NV) and Sherrod Brown (D-OH) sent a letter to the Inspector General of the Federal Reserve Board calling for an investigation into the CFPB’s restitution penalties levied against companies accused of wrongdoing. The Senators claim that the Bureau’s restitution approach “creates a perverse incentive for companies to violate the law by allowing them to retain all or nearly all of the funds they illegally obtain from consumers.” The letter asks the Inspector General to investigate four recent settlements to examine how the Bureau determines restitution awards and whether the applied standard for restitution differs from the standard applied by courts and in prior CFPB settlements.
Included among the examples of actions for which consumers were provided limited to zero restitution is a recent settlement with a debt collector accused of engaging in improper debt collection tactics. As previously covered by InfoBytes, the company agreed to pay $36,878 in redress to harmed consumers, limiting the restitution to “only those consumers who affirmatively ‘complained about a false threat or misrepresentation’” by the company, the Senators wrote. Specifically, the Senators seek to determine the number of consumers who may have been excluded from the settlement because they did not affirmatively complain about the company’s behavior. A second example highlights an action taken against a group of payday lenders that allegedly, among other things, misrepresented to consumers an obligation to repay loan amounts that were voided because the loan violated state licensing or usury laws. (Previously covered by InfoBytes here.) According to the Senators, the settlement “dropped the requests for restitution and other relief for victimized consumers.” The letter also references a report released last October by the House Financial Services Committee (covered by InfoBytes here) following an investigation into these particular settlements, in which the Bureau responded “that it did not seek restitution in these cases because it could not determine ‘with certainty’ which consumers had been harmed or the amount of the harm.”
District Court orders millions in restitution and civil penalties against two foreclosure relief companies
On November 4, the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Wisconsin ordered restitution and disgorgement, civil penalties, and permanent injunctive relief in an action brought by the CFPB against two former foreclosure relief companies and their principals (collectively, “defendants”) for violations of Regulation O. As previously covered by InfoBytes, in 2014, the CFPB, FTC, and 15 state authorities took action against foreclosure relief companies and associated individuals, including the defendants, alleging the use of deceptive marketing tactics to obtain business from distressed borrowers. The CFPB filed three suits, the FTC filed six, and the state authorities collectively initiated 32 actions. Specifically, the CFPB alleged that the companies and individuals (i) collected fees before obtaining a loan modification; (ii) inflated success rates and likelihood of obtaining a modification; (iii) led borrowers to believe they would receive legal representation; and (iv) made false promises about loan modifications to consumers, in violation of Regulation O, formerly known as the Mortgage Assistance Relief Services (MARS) Rule. Among other things, the court order holds company one and its principals jointly and severally liable for over $18 million in restitution, while company two and its same principals are jointly and severally liable for nearly $3 million in restitution. Additionally, the court ordered civil penalties totaling over $37 million against company two and four principals.
On August 21, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit held that Section 13(b) of the FTC Act does not give the FTC power to order restitution, overruling that court’s 1989 decision in FTC v. Amy Travel Service, Inc. As previously covered by InfoBytes, in June 2018, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois granted the FTC’s motion for summary judgment against a credit monitoring service and its sole owner in an action filed under Section 13(b) of the FTC Act. The court concluded that no reasonable jury would find that the defendants’ scheme of using false rental property ads to solicit consumer enrollment in credit monitoring services without their knowledge could occur without engaging in unfair or deceptive practices. The FTC argued that the defendants’ scheme, which used the promise of a free credit report to enroll the consumers into a monthly credit monitoring program, violated the FTC Act’s ban on deceptive practices. The court agreed, holding that the ad campaign was “rife with material misrepresentations that were likely to deceive a reasonable consumer.” Additionally the court agreed with the FTC that the defendants’ website was materially misrepresentative because it did not give “the net impression that consumers were enrolling in a monthly credit monitoring service” for $29.94 a month, as opposed to defendants’ claim that consumers were obtaining a free credit report. The court also found that the defendants’ websites failed to meet certain disclosure requirements imposed by the Restore Online Shopper Confidence Act. The court entered a permanent injunction and ordered the defendants to pay over $5 million in “equitable monetary relief” to the FTC.
On appeal, the 7th Circuit affirmed the district court’s liability determination, and affirmed the issuance of the permanent injunction. However, the appellate court took issue with the restitution award ordered pursuant to Section 13(b) of the FTC Act. The appellate court noted that the FTC has long viewed Section 13(b) as authorizing awards of restitution, and even acknowledged that the 7th Circuit agreed with the FTC’s position in its decision in Amy Travel. However, subsequent to the Amy Travel decision, the Supreme Court, in Meghrig v. KFC W., Inc., clarified that “courts must consider whether an implied equitable remedy is compatible with a statute’s express remedial scheme.” Applying Meghrig, the 7th Circuit noted that “nothing in the text or structure of the [FTC Act] supports an implied right to restitution in section 13(b), which by its terms authorizes only injunctions.” The panel emphasized that the FTC Act has two other provisions that expressly authorize restitution if the FTC follows certain procedures, but the current reading of Section 13(b), based on Amy Travel, allows the FTC “to circumvent these elaborate enforcement provisions and seek restitution directly through an implied remedy.” Therefore, based on the Supreme Court precedent in Meghrig, the panel concluded that Section 13(b)’s grant of authority to order injunctive relief does not implicitly authorize an award of restitution, overturning its previous decision in Amy Travel and vacating the district court’s award of restitution.
- Daniel R. Alonso to discuss "The international compliance situation and new challenges" at the World Compliance Association Covid Compliance Conference
- Benjamin W. Hutten to discuss "Understanding OFAC sanctions" at a NAFCU webinar
- Garylene D. Javier to discuss "Navigating workplace culture in 2020" at the DC Bar Conference