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Maryland eliminates separate licensing requirement for branches
On May 8, the Maryland governor signed HB 686 to eliminate a requirement that collection agencies and certain non-depository financial institutions must maintain separate licenses for branch locations. The Act now allows such entities to conduct business at multiple licensed locations under a single license. The Act also amends and clarifies other provisions relating to application requirements, licensee information listed in the Nationwide Multi-State Licensing System and Registry, requirements when using trade names, examinations, Commissioner of Financial Regulation assessments, and surety bond requirements. The Act is effective July 1.
Maryland amends student financing company registration
On May 8, the Maryland governor signed HB 913 to amend certain provisions relating to student financing company registration and reporting requirements. Among other things, the Act defines the term “student financing company” to mean “an entity engaged in the business of securing, making, or extending student financing products, or any purchaser, assignee, or holder of student financing products.” Student financing companies seeking to provide services in the state will be required to register with the Commissioner of Financial Regulation beginning March 15, 2024. Additionally, the Act provides that a student financing company seeking to renew its registration on an annual basis may be required to pay a fee at the time of renewal. The Act also authorizes the Commissioner to adopt registration procedures for student financing companies, including the use of the Nationwide Multi-State Licensing System and Registry, and may impose certain fees for using the registry. Additionally, the Act makes several technical clarifying provisions to the reporting requirements for student financing companies to be filed with the Commissioner annually on or before March 15. Furthermore, on or before June 15, 2024 (and each June 15 thereafter), information reported by the student financing companies will be available on a publicly accessible website to be developed and maintained by the Commissioner. The Act is effective October 1.
District Court preliminarily approves $2.75 million autodialer TCPA settlement
On January 31, the U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland preliminarily approved a class action settlement in which a cloud computing technology company agreed to pay $2.75 million to resolve alleged violations of the TCPA and the Maryland Telephone Consumer Protection Act. According to the plaintiff, the defendant violated the TCPA by, among other things, placing unsolicited telemarketing calls using an automated dialing system to class members on residential and cell phone numbers. Under the terms of the proposed settlement agreement, the defendant must establish a non-reversionary fund of $2.75 million to go to class members to whom the defendant (or a third party acting on its behalf) made (i) one or more phone calls to their cell phones; (ii) two or more calls while their numbers were on the National Do Not Call Registry; or (iii) one or more calls after the recipients asked the defendant or the third party to stop calling. “Plaintiff has also shown that a class action litigation is superior to other available methods for adjudicating this controversy,” the court wrote. “Plaintiff's counsel estimate that the average settlement payment to each Class Member would be approximately $30.00 to $60.00. Given this, the individual claims of each Class Member would be too small to justify individual lawsuits.” The court also approved proposed attorneys’ fees (not to exceed a third of the total settlement fund), as well as up to $60,000 for plaintiff’s out-of-pocket expenses and a $10,000 service fee award.
District Court grants partial summary judgment to debt collector in credit reporting and debt collection action
On September 21, the U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland partially granted a defendant debt collector’s motion for summary judgment in a credit reporting and debt collection action. The plaintiff disputed debt related to two electric bills for two different residences that were eventually combined into one account. After the plaintiff informed the electric company that she would not be paying the bill, the debt was eventually referred for collection to the defendant. The plaintiff disputed the debt, and the defendant conducted an investigation. The plaintiff continued to contend that the defendant was certifying the debt without proof and claimed the defendant’s agents called her a liar and incorrectly asserted that she had not made payments. The defendant argued that it was entitled to summary judgment on the plaintiff’s FCRA and FDCPA claims, contending, among other things, that FCRA 1681e(b) “expressly applies to [credit reporting agencies] and not to furnishers.”
The court first reviewed the plaintiff’s FCRA claims as to whether the defendant conducted a reasonable investigation. The court stated that the plaintiff bore the burden to establish whether the defendant failed to conduct a reasonable investigation, and noted that because she failed to provide certain evidence to the defendant “there is no genuine dispute that the investigation conducted by [defendant] was not unreasonable” or that the defendant reported accurate information to the CRAs about the debt. With respect to some of the FDCPA claims, the court denied the defendant summary judgment on the basis that the plaintiff created a genuine dispute about whether the defendant violated § 1692d (the provision prohibiting a debt collector from engaging in harassment or abuse). According to the opinion, evidence suggests that the defendant’s agents incorrectly informed the plaintiff that she had never made a payment on one of the accounts, called her a liar when she protested this information, and used a “demeaning tone” in their communications. “[A] reasonable jury could conclude that the language would have the natural consequence of abusing a consumer relatively more susceptible to harassment, oppression, or abuse,” the court wrote.
Additionally, the court ruled on Maryland state law claims introduced in the plaintiff’s opposition to summary judgment. The court ruled against her Maryland Consumer Debt Collection Act claim regarding the alleged use of abusive language, writing that the agents were not “grossly abusive” and that the plaintiff failed to generate a genuine dispute on this issue. Nor did the plaintiff show a genuine dispute as to whether the debt was inaccurate or that the defendant knew the debt was invalid. The court also entered summary judgment in favor of the defendant on the plaintiff’s Maryland Consumer Protection Act and Maryland Collection Agency Licensing Act claims.
District Court says tech company not liable for app in crypto theft
On September 2, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California granted a defendant California tech company’s motion to dismiss a putative class action filed by users who claimed their cryptocurrency was stolen after they downloaded a “phishing” program that posed as a legitimate digital wallet. Plaintiffs alleged that the illegitimate app (developed by a third-party and not the defendant) caused them to lose thousands of dollars in cryptocurrency. Claiming that the app was a spoofing and phishing program that obtained consumers’ cryptocurrency account information and routed that information to hackers’ personal accounts, plaintiffs sued, asserting claims under the federal Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, Electronic Communications Privacy Act, California Consumer Privacy Act, California’s Unfair Competition Law, California Consumer Privacy Act, California Consumer Legal Remedies Act, Maryland Wiretap and Electronic Surveillance Act, Maryland Personal Information Protection Act, and Maryland Consumer Protection Act. The defendant moved to dismiss, arguing that it was immune from liability under § 230(c)(1) of the Communications Decency Act. The court agreed with the defendant, ruling that it is granted protection under the Act because it qualifies as an “interactive computer service provider” within the meaning of the statute, is treated as a publisher, and provides information from another information content provider. “Here, plaintiffs’ computer fraud and privacy claims are based on [defendant’s] reproduction of an app  intended for public consumption, via the App Store,” the court wrote. “But, as [defendant] notes, its review and authorization of the  app for distribution on the App Store is inherently publishing activity.” Moreover, the court concluded that, among other things, the defendant’s liability provision contained within its terms, which states that it is not liable for conduct of a third party, is valid and enforceable.
Maryland orders debt-consolidation operation to pay more than $2 million in penalties and restitution
On August 22, the Maryland attorney general issued a final order against a debt-consolidation operation, resolving allegations that the respondents collected hundreds of thousands of dollars from consumers to help them consolidate and pay off outstanding debt but failed to provide the promised services. According to the AG, the respondents deceptively promised that their services would save consumers money, allow consumers to pay off outstanding debts in a shorter timeframe than the original loan terms, and improve consumers’ credit scores. Consumers were charged upfront fees ranging from $11,000 to $118,000 for services plus additional amounts that were supposed to go toward paying off their outstanding debts. However, instead of providing the promised services, the respondents allegedly used most of the funds for their own personal use while consumers were threatened with foreclosure and had their cars repossessed. The final order permanently enjoins the respondents from violating the Maryland Consumer Protection Act, the Maryland Mortgage Assistance Relief Services Act, the Maryland Credit Services Business Act, and the Maryland Debt Management Services Act. The respondents are also required to pay a $1.2 million penalty and must refund all monies collected from consumers who did not receive the promised services. The AG estimates that total payments will exceed $2 million.
Maryland Court of Appeals says law firm collecting HOA debt is not engaged in the business of making loans
On August 11, a split Maryland Court of Appeals held that “a law firm that engages in debt collection activities on behalf of a client, including the preparation of a promissory note containing a confessed judgment clause and the filing of a confessed judgment complaint to collect a consumer debt, is not subject to the Maryland Consumer Loan Law [(MCLL)].” A putative class action challenging the law firm’s debt collection practices was filed in Maryland state court in 2018. According to the opinion, several homeowners associations and condominium regimes (collectively, “HOAs”) retained the law firm to help them draft and negotiate promissory notes memorializing repayment terms of delinquent assessments. These promissory notes, the opinion said, included confessed judgment clauses that were later used against homeowners who defaulted on their obligations. The suit was removed to federal court and was later stayed while the Maryland Court of Appeals weighed in on whether the law firm was subject to the MCLL. Loans made under the MCLL by an unlicensed entity render the loans void and unenforceable, the opinion said.
Class members claimed that the law firm is in the business of making loans and that the promissory notes are subject to the MCLL and “constitute ‘loans’ because they are an extension of credit enabling the homeowners to pay delinquent debt to the HOAs.” Because neither the law firm nor the HOAs are licensed to make loans the promissory notes are void and unenforceable, class members argued. The law firm countered that it (and the HOAs) are not obligated to be licensed because they are not lenders that “engage in the business of making loans” as provided in the MCLL.
On appeal, the majority concluded that there is no evidence that the state legislature intended to require HOAs to be licensed “in order to exercise their statutory right to collect delinquent assessments or charges, including entering into payment plans for the repayment of past-due assessments.” Moreover, in order to qualify for a license, an applicant “must demonstrate, among other things, that its ‘business will promote the convenience and advantage of the community in which the place of business will be located’”—criteria that does not apply to an HOA or a law firm, the opinion stated. Additionally, applying class members’ interpretation would lead to “illogical and unreasonable results that are inconsistent with common sense,” the opinion read, adding that “[t]o hold that the MCLL covers all transactions involving any small loan or extension of credit—without regard to whether the lender is ‘in the business of making loans’—would cast a broad net over businesses that are not currently licensed under the MCLL.”
The dissenting judge countered that the law firm should be subject to the MCC because to determine otherwise would allow law firms to engage in the business of making loans in the form of new extensions of credit with confessed judgment clauses and would “create a gap in the Maryland Consumer Loan Law that the General Assembly did not intend.”
Maryland amends security procedures standards
On May 29, Maryland HB 962 was enacted under Article II, Section 17(c) of the Maryland Constitution - Chapter 502, which amends the Maryland Personal Information Protection Act. The bill, among other things, expands the types of businesses that are required to implement and maintain reasonable security procedures and practices to protect personal information from unauthorized use. The bill also decreases the period within which certain businesses must provide required notifications to consumers after a data breach. Violation of the bill’s provisions are considered to be an unfair, abusive, or deceptive trade practice under the Maryland Consumer Protection Act (MCPA), subject to MCPA’s civil and criminal penalty provisions. The law is effective October 1.
Special Alert: Federal court says state bank, fintech partner must face Maryland’s allegation of unlicensed lending before state ALJ
A federal court late last month told a state-chartered bank and its fintech partner that they must return to a state administrative law proceeding to fight a Maryland enforcement action alleging that their failure to obtain a license to lend and collect on loans violated state law — potentially rendering the terms of certain loans unenforceable.
The Missouri-chartered bank and its partners attempted to remove an action brought by the Office of the Maryland Commissioner of Financial Regulation to the U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland, but the district court determined that removal was not proper and that Maryland’s Office of Administrative Hearings was the appropriate venue.
OCFR initially filed charges in January 2021 in Maryland’s Office of Administrative Hearings against the bank and its partner asserting the bank made installment and consumer loans and extended open-ended or revolving credit in the state without being licensed or qualifying for an exception to licensure. As a result, OCFR said they “‘may not receive or retain any principal, interest, or other compensation with respect to any loan that is unenforceable under this subsection.’” It said that not only are the bank’s loans to all Maryland consumers possibly unenforceable, but also that the bank, or its agents or assigns, could in the alternative be “prohibited from collecting the principal amount of those loans from any of these consumers or from collecting any other money related to those loans.”
The OCFR’s charge letter also said the fintech company that provided services to the bank violated the Maryland Credit Services Business Act by providing advice and/or assistance to consumers in the state “with regard to obtaining an extension of credit for the consumer when accepting and/or processing credit applications on behalf of the Bank without a credit services business license.” Additionally, the OCFR alleged violations of the Maryland Collection Agency Licensing Act related to whether the fintech company engaged in unlicensed collection activities, thus subjecting it to the imposition of fines, restitutions, and other non-monetary remedial action.
The defendants filed a notice of removal to federal court last year while the enforcement action was still pending before the OAH; OCFR moved to remand the case back to the agency.
In granting the OCFR’s motion to remand, the court concluded that the OCFR persuasively argued that the defendants have not properly removed this case from the OAH for several reasons, including that the OAH does not function as a state court. “Pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1441, a defendant may remove to federal court ‘any civil action brought in a State court of which the district courts of the United States have original jurisdiction.’” However, the court determined that, while defendants correctly observed that the OAH possesses certain “court-like” attributes, its limitations clearly showed that it does not function as a state court.
In reaching this conclusion, the court considered several undisputed facts, including that the OCFR is a unit of the Maryland Department of Labor “responsible for, among other things, issuing licenses to entities wishing to issue loans to consumers in Maryland and investigating violations of Maryland’s consumer loan laws.” The court also said that, while OCFR has authority under Maryland law to investigate potential violations of law or regulation and has the ability to issue cease and desist orders, revoke an individual’s license, or issue fines, it cannot enforce its own subpoenas or orders — and that its decisions are not final and may be appealed to a state circuit court.
The defendants had argued that the case involved a federal question as a result of the complete preemption of state usury laws by Section 27 of the FDI Act. The court said licensure, not state usury law claims, was the issue at hand.
During a status conference held last month to discuss OCFR’s motion to remand, defendants requested an opportunity to file a motion certifying the case for appeal. The court will hold in abeyance its remand order pending resolution of that motion. Parties’ briefings are due by the end of May.
If you have any questions regarding the ruling or its ramifications, please contact a Buckley attorney with whom you have worked in the past.
4th Circuit affirms district court’s decision in lone class member's appeal
On February 10, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit affirmed a district court’s approval of a $3 million class action settlement between a class of consumers (plaintiffs) and a national mortgage lender (defendant), resolving allegations arising from a foreclosure suit. In 2014, the lead plaintiffs alleged that the defendants violated federal and Maryland state law by failing to; (i) timely acknowledge receipt of class members’ loss mitigation applications; (ii) respond to the applications; and (iii) obtain proper documentation. After the case was litigated for six years, a settlement was reached that required the defendant to pay $3 million towards a relief fund. The district court approved the settlement and class counsel’s request for $1.3 million in attorneys’ fees and costs, but an absent class member objected to the settlement, arguing that “the class notice was insufficient; the settlement was unfair, unreasonable, and inadequate; the release was unconstitutionally overbroad; and the attorneys’ fee award was improper.” A magistrate judge overruled the plaintiff’s objections, finding that “both the distribution and content of the notice were sufficient because over 97% of the nearly 350,000 class members received notice,” and that “class members ‘had information to make the necessary decisions and . . . the ability to even get more information if they so desired.’”
On the appeal, the 4th Circuit rejected the class member’s argument that the magistrate judge lacked jurisdiction to approve the settlement where she had not consented to have the magistrate hear the case. The 4th Circuit noted that only “parties” are required to consent to have a magistrate hear a case and held that absent class members are not “parties,” noting that “every other circuit to address the issue has concluded that absent class members aren’t parties.” The appellate court also upheld the adequacy of the class notice, and held that the magistrate judge did not abuse his discretion in finding that the settlement agreement was fair, reasonable, and adequate.