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CFPB sues co-trustees for concealing assets to avoid fine
On April 5, the CFPB filed a complaint against two individuals, both individually and in their roles as co-trustees of two trusts, accusing them of concealing assets to avoid paying a fine owed to the Bureau. In 2015 the Bureau filed an administrative action alleging one of the co-trustees—the former president of a Delaware-based online payday lender (the “individual defendant”)—and the lender violated TILA and EFTA and engaged in unfair or deceptive acts or practices when making short-term loans. (Covered by InfoBytes here.) The Bureau’s administrative order required the payment of more than $38 million in both legal and equitable restitution, along with $7.5 million in civil penalties for the company and $5 million in civil penalties for the individual defendant.
As previously covered by InfoBytes, two different administrative law judges (ALJs) decided the present case years apart, with their recommendations separately appealed to the Bureau’s director. The director upheld the decision by the second ALJ and ordered the lender and the individual defendant to pay the restitution. A district court issued a final order upholding the award, which was appealed on the grounds that the enforcement action violated their due process rights by denying the individual defendant additional discovery concerning the statute of limitations. The lender and the individual defendant recently filed a petition for writ of certiorari challenging the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit’s affirmation of the CFPB administrative ruling, and asked the U.S. Supreme Court to review whether the high court’s ruling in Lucia v. SEC, which “instructed that an agency must hold a ‘new hearing’ before a new and properly appointed official in order to cure an Appointments Clause violation” (covered by InfoBytes here), meant that a CFPB ALJ could “conduct a cold review of the paper record of the first, tainted hearing, without any additional discovery or new testimony,” or whether the Court intended for the agency to actually conduct a new hearing.
The Bureau claimed in its announcement that to date, the defendants have not complied with the agency’s order, nor have they obtained a stay while their appeal was pending. The defendants have also made no payments to satisfy the judgment, the Bureau said. The complaint alleges that the co-trustee defendants transferred funds to hinder, delay, or defraud the Bureau, in violation of the FDCPA, in order to avoid paying the owed restitution and penalties. Specifically, the complaint alleges that between 2013 and 2015, after becoming aware of the Bureau’s investigation, the individual defendant transferred $12.3 million to his wife through their revocable trusts, for which his wife is the beneficiary. The complaint requests a declaration that the transactions were fraudulent, seeks to recover the value of the transferred assets via liens on the property in partial satisfaction of the Bureau’s judgment against the individual defendant, and seeks a monetary judgment against the wife and her trust for the value of the respective property and/or funds received as a transferee of fraudulent conveyances of the property belonging to the individual defendant.
Online lender asks Supreme Court to review ALJ ruling
A Delaware-based online payday lender and its founder and CEO (collectively, “petitioners”) recently submitted a petition for a writ of certiorari challenging the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit’s affirmation of a CFPB administrative ruling related to alleged violations of the Consumer Financial Protection Act (CFPA), TILA, and EFTA. The petitioners asked the Court to first review whether the high court’s ruling in Lucia v. SEC, which “instructed that an agency must hold a ‘new hearing’ before a new and properly appointed official in order to cure an Appointments Clause violation” (covered by InfoBytes here), meant that a CFPB administrative law judge (ALJ) could “conduct a cold review of the paper record of the first, tainted hearing, without any additional discovery or new testimony.” Or, the petitioners asked, did the Court intend for the agency to actually conduct a new hearing. The petitioners also asked the Court to consider whether an agency funding structure that circumvents the Constitution’s Appropriations Clause violates the separation of powers so as to invalidate prior agency actions promulgated at a time when the Bureau was receiving such funding.
The case involves a challenge to a 2015 administrative action that alleged the petitioners engaged in unfair or deceptive acts or practices when making short-term loans (covered by InfoBytes here). The Bureau’s order required the petitioners to pay $38.4 million as both legal and equitable restitution, along with $8.1 million in penalties for the company and $5.4 million in penalties for the CEO. As previously covered by InfoBytes, between 2018 and 2021, the Court issued four decisions, including Lucia, which “bore on the Bureau’s enforcement activity in this case” by “deciding fundamental issues related to the Bureau’s constitutional authority to act” and appoint ALJs. During this time, two different ALJs decided the present case years apart, with their recommendations separately appealed to the Bureau’s director. The director upheld the decision by the second ALJ and ordered the lender and its owner to pay the restitution. A district court issued a final order upholding the award, which the petitioners appealed, arguing, among other things, that the enforcement action violated their due-process rights by denying the CEO additional discovery concerning the statute of limitations. The petitioners claimed that they were entitled to a “new hearing” under Lucia, and that the second administrative hearing did not rise to the level of due process prescribed in that case.
However, the 10th Circuit affirmed the district court’s $38.4 million restitution award, rejecting the petitioners’ various challenges and affirming the director’s order. The 10th Circuit determined that there was “no support for a bright-line rule against de novo review of a previous administrative hearing,” nor did it see a reason for a more extensive hearing. Moreover, the petitioners “had a full opportunity to present their case in the first proceeding,” the 10th Circuit wrote.
The petitioners maintained that “[d]espite the Court’s clear instruction to hold a ‘new hearing,’ ALJs and courts have reached divergent conclusions as to what Lucia requires, expressing confusion and frustration regarding the lack of guidance.” What it means to hold a “new hearing” runs “the gamut,” the petitioners wrote, pointing out that while some ALJs perform a full redo of the proceedings, others merely accept a prior decision based on a cold review of the paper record. The petitioners argued that they should have been provided a true de novo hearing with an opportunity for new testimony, evidence, discovery, and legal arguments. The rehearing from the new ALJ was little more than a perfunctory “paper review,” the petitioners wrote.
Petitioners asked the Court to grant the petition for three reasons: (i) “the scope of Lucia’s ‘new hearing’ remedy is an important and apparently unsettled question of federal law”; (ii) “the notion Lucia does not require a genuinely ‘new’ de novo proceeding is necessarily wrong because a sham ‘remedy’ provides parties no incentive to litigate Appointments Clause challenges”; and (iii) the case “is an ideal vehicle to provide guidance on Lucia’s ‘new hearing’ remedy.” The petitioners further argued that “Lucia’s remedy should provide parties an incentive to raise separation of powers arguments by providing them actual and meaningful relief.”
The petitioners’ second question involves whether Appropriations Clause violations that render an agency’s funding structure unconstitutional, if upheld, invalidate agency actions taken under such a structure. The petitioners called this “an important, unsettled question of federal law meriting the Court’s review,” citing splits between the Circuits over the constitutionality of the Bureau’s funding structure which has resulted in uncertainty for both regulators and regulated parties. Recently, the Court granted the Bureau’s request to review the 5th Circuit’s decision in CFSAA v. CFPB, which held that Congress violated the Appropriations Clause when it created what the 5th Circuit described as a “perpetual self-directed, double-insulated funding structure” for the agency (covered by InfoBytes here).
CFPB sues online lender to servicemembers
On September 29, the CFPB filed a complaint against a New York-based online lender and 38 of its subsidiaries for allegedly violating the Military Lending Act (MLA) and the Consumer Financial Protection Act by imposing excessive charges on loans to servicemembers and their dependents. The Bureau alleges that the defendants required consumers to join its membership program and pay monthly membership fees ranging from $19.99 to $29 to access certain “low-APR” installment loans. The complaint says that when the membership fees are combined with loan-interest-rate charges, the total fees exceed the MLA’s allowable rate cap, contending that the MLA serves to protect active duty servicemembers and their dependents by limiting the APR applicable to extensions of credit to 36 percent. The Bureau further claims that the defendants deceived consumers by representing that they owed loan payments and fees that were actually void under the MLA. In addition, the Bureau claims that the defendants refused to allow customers to cancel their memberships and stop paying monthly fees until their loans were paid, despite leading many consumers to believe they could cancel their memberships for any reason at any time, thereby “avoid[ing] such automatic renewals and associated membership fees.” In certain cases, the defendants refused to cancel memberships if a consumer had unpaid membership fees even if the loan was paid off, the Bureau says. The Bureau is seeking permanent injunctive relief, damages, restitution, disgorgement, civil money penalties, and other relief.
District Court grants final approval of a $500 million tribal lending settlement
On May 12, the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia granted final approval of a nearly $500 million class action settlement resolving allegations that tribal online lending companies charged usurious interest rates. Plaintiffs’ filings outline their class action against tribal entities, as well as several of the entities’ non-tribal business partners (individual defendants), for making and collecting on high-interest loans.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit previously upheld a district court’s denial of defendants’ bid to dismiss or compel arbitration in the case (covered by InfoBytes here). The 4th Circuit concluded that the arbitration clauses in the loan agreements impermissibly forced borrowers to waive their federal substantive rights under federal consumer protection laws, and contained an unenforceable tribal choice-of-law provision because Virginia law caps general interest rates at 12 percent. As such, the appellate court stated that the entire arbitration provision was unenforceable. “The [t]ribal [l]enders drafted an invalid contract that strips borrowers of their substantive federal statutory rights,” the appellate court wrote. “[W]e cannot save that contract by revising it on appeal.”
The 4th Circuit also declined to extend tribal sovereign immunity to the tribal officials, determining that while “the tribe itself retains sovereign immunity, it cannot shroud its officials with immunity in federal court when those officials violate applicable state law.” The appellate court further noted that the “Supreme Court has explicitly blessed suits against tribal officials to enjoin violations of federal and state law.”
Following more than three years of litigation, the parties eventually reached a settlement that will include tribal officials canceling approximately $450 million in debt. As part of the settlement, the tribal officials will eliminate the balance on any outstanding loans on the basis that the debts are disputed, cease all collection activity, and will not sell, transfer, or assign any outstanding loans for collection. Tribal officials will also request deletion of any negative tradelines for loans in the name of tribal officials or tribal corporations, and will pay an additional $1 million to cover the costs of notice and administration for the settlement and $75,000 to go towards service awards. Additionally, the individual defendants will create a $39 million common fund that will go to class members who repaid unlawful amounts on their loans. Class counsel is also seeking attorneys’ fees and costs totaling around $13 million.
District Court grants final approval in usury class action settlement
On August 16, the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia granted final approval of a class action settlement resolving a purported scheme to unlawfully use tribe-owned firms to make online short-term loans and charge triple-digit interest rates. According to the memorandum of law in support of plaintiffs’ motion for preliminary approval of class action settlement and the stipulation and agreement of settlement, the district court previously approved two class settlements related to the lending enterprise. The first resulted in the purported lender and others: (i) repaying over $53 million dollars in cash; and (ii) forgiving over $380 million dollars of debt owed by consumers who took out loans with three lending companies. However, these settlements did not resolve every claim surrounding the purported scheme, and did not resolve claims with the settling defendant. The plaintiffs claimed that the settling defendant assisted the purported lender’s operations despite a corporate spinoff in May 2014, alleging that “[b]ecause many [of the purported lender’s] employees with institutional knowledge of and involvement in the company’s rent-a-tribe lending business were quickly transferred to [the settling defendant], [the purported lender] required and depended on continued involvement by [the settling defendant] and its employees in operating its rent-a-tribe lending business, which involvement was freely and often provided.” Under the terms of the preliminarily approved settlement, the settling defendant must provide monetary relief to class members totaling approximately $45 million.
D.C. reaches nearly $4 million settlement with online lender to resolve usury allegations
On February 8, the District of Columbia attorney general announced a nearly $4 million settlement with an online lender to resolve allegations that lender marketed high-costs loans carrying interest rates exceeding D.C.’s interest rate cap. As previously covered by InfoBytes, the AG filed a complaint in 2020, claiming the lender violated the District of Columbia Consumer Protection Procedures Act (CPPA) by offering two loan products to D.C. residents carrying annual percentage rates (APR) ranging between 99-149 percent and 129-251 percent. Interest rates in D.C., however, are capped at 24 percent for loans with the rate expressed in the contract (loans that do not state an express interest rate in the contract are capped at six percent), and licensed money lenders that exceed these limits are in violation of the CPPA. According to the AG, the lender—who allegedly never possessed a money lending license in D.C.—violated the CPPA by (i) unlawfully misrepresenting it was allowed to offer loans in D.C. and failing to disclose or adequately disclose that its loans contain APRs in excess of D.C. usury limits; (ii) engaging in unfair and unconscionable practices through misleading marketing efforts; and (iii) violating D.C. usury laws.
Under the terms of the settlement, the company is required to (i) pay at least $3.3 million in restitution to refund alleged interest overcharges to D.C. borrowers; (ii) provide more than $300,000 in debt forgiveness to D.C. borrowers who would have paid future interest amounts in connection with an outstanding loan balance; and (iii) pay $450,000 to the District. According to the announcement, the company has also agreed that it “will not on its own, or working with third parties such as out of state banks, engage in any act or practice that violates the CPPA in its offer, servicing, advertisement, or provision of loans or lines of credit to District consumers.” The company is also prohibited from charging usurious interest rates, must delete negative credit information associated with its loans and lines of credit, and may not represent that it can offer loans or lines of credit in D.C. without first obtaining a D.C. money lender license.
CFPB reaches settlement with online lender
On December 30, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California approved the stipulated final judgment and order against a California-based online lender (defendant) for alleged violations of fair lending regulations and a 2016 consent order. As previously covered by InfoBytes, the CFPB filed a complaint against the defendant (the third action taken against the defendant by the CFPB) for allegedly violating the terms of a 2016 consent order related to false claims about its lending program. The 2016 consent order alleged that the defendant engaged in deceptive practices by misrepresenting, among other things, the fees it charged, the loan products that were available to consumers, and whether the loans would be reported to credit reporting companies, in violation of the CFPA, TILA, and Regulation Z (covered by InfoBytes here). According to the September 8 complaint, the defendants continued with much of the same illegal and deceptive marketing that was prohibited by the 2016 consent order. Among other things, the complaint alleged that the defendants violated the terms of the 2016 consent order and various laws by: (i) deceiving consumers about the benefits of repeat borrowing; and (ii) failing to provide timely and accurate adverse-action notices, which is in violation of ECOA and Regulation B.
The settlement prohibits the defendant from: (i) making new loans; (ii) collecting on outstanding loans to harmed consumers; (iii) selling consumer information; and (iv) making misrepresentations when providing loans or collecting debt or helping others that are doing so. The order also imposes a $100,000 civil money penalty based on the defendant’s inability to pay.
4th Circuit: Tribal lenders must face usury claims
On November 16, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit upheld a district court’s ruling denying defendants’ bid to dismiss or compel arbitration of a class action concerning alleged usury law violations. The plaintiffs—Virginia consumers who defaulted on short-term loans received from online lenders affiliated with a federally-recognized tribe—filed a putative class action against tribal officials as well as two non-members affiliated with the tribal lenders, alleging the lenders violated the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO) and Virginia usury laws by charging interest rates between 544 and 920 percent. The defendants moved to compel arbitration under a clause in the loan agreements and moved to dismiss on various grounds, including that they were exempt from Virginia usury laws. The district court denied the motions to compel arbitration and to dismiss, ruling that the arbitration provision was unenforceable as a prospective waiver of the borrowers’ federal rights and that the defendants could not claim tribal sovereign immunity. The district court also “held the loan agreements’ choice of tribal law unenforceable as a violation of Virginia’s strong public policy against unregulated lending of usurious loans.” However, the district court dismissed the RICO claim against the tribal officials, ruling that RICO only authorizes private plaintiffs to sue for money damages and not injunctive or declaratory relief.
On appeal, the 4th Circuit concluded that the arbitration clauses in the loan agreements impermissibly force borrowers to waive their federal substantive rights under federal consumer protection laws, and contained an unenforceable tribal choice-of-law provision because Virginia law caps general interest rates at 12 percent. As such, the appellate court stated that the entire arbitration provision is unenforceable. “The [t]ribal [l]enders drafted an invalid contract that strips borrowers of their substantive federal statutory rights,” the appellate court wrote. “[W]e cannot save that contract by revising it on appeal.” The 4th Circuit also declined to extend tribal sovereign immunity to the tribal officials, determining that while “the tribe itself retains sovereign immunity, it cannot shroud its officials with immunity in federal court when those officials violate applicable state law.” The appellate court further noted that the “Supreme Court has explicitly blessed suits against tribal officials to enjoin violations of federal and state law.” The 4th Circuit ultimately affirmed the district court’s judgment, noting that the loan agreement provisions were unenforceable because “tribal law’s authorization of triple-digit interest rates on low-dollar, short-term loans violates Virginia’s compelling public policy against unregulated usurious lending.”
The appellate court also agreed with the district court that RICO does not permit private plaintiffs to seek an injunction. “Congress’s use of significantly different language” to define the scope of governmental and private claims under RICO “compels us to conclude” that “private plaintiffs may sue only for treble damages and costs,” the appellate court stated. While plaintiffs “urge us to consider by analogy the antitrust statutes,” provisions outlined in the Clayton Act (which explicitly authorize injunction-seeking private suits) have “no analogue in the RICO statute,” the appellate court wrote, adding that “nowhere in the RICO statute has Congress explicitly authorized private actions for injunctive relief.”
CFPB alleges online lender violated 2016 consent order
On September 8, the CFPB filed a complaint against a California-based online lender (defendant) for allegedly violating the terms of a 2016 consent order related to false claims about their lending program. As previously covered by InfoBytes, the 2016 consent order alleged the defendant engaged in deceptive practices by misrepresenting, among other things, the fees charged, the loan products that were available to consumers, and whether the loans would be reported to credit reporting companies in violation of the CFPA, TILA, and Regulation Z. According to the September 8 complaint, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California, the defendants continued with much of the same illegal and deceptive marketing that was prohibited by the 2016 consent order. Among other things, the complaint alleges that the defendants violated the terms of the consent order and various laws by: (i) deceiving consumers regarding the benefits of repeat borrowing; and (ii) failing to provide timely and accurate adverse-action notices. The Bureau seeks injunctive relief, damages, consumer restitution, disgorgement, and civil money penalties. In addition, the Bureau asks the court to permanently enjoin the defendants from committing future violations of the CFPA, the Bureau’s 2016 Consent Order, ECOA, or any provision of “Federal consumer financial law.”