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On July 21, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit affirmed a district court’s denial of defendants’ motion to compel arbitration, holding that the arbitration agreements operated as prospective waivers of federal law and were thus unenforceable. According to the opinion, a group of Virginia borrowers filed suit against two online lenders owned by a sovereign Native American tribe and their investors (collectively, “defendants”). In the action, the plaintiffs contended that they obtained payday loans from the defendants, which included annual interest rates between 219 percent to 373 percent—an alleged violation of Virginia’s usury laws and the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO). The defendants moved to compel arbitration, which the district court denied, concluding that choice-of-law provisions—such as “‘[t]his agreement to arbitrate shall be governed by Tribal Law’; ‘[t]he arbitrator shall apply Tribal Law’; and the arbitration award ‘must be consistent with this Agreement and Tribal Law’”—prospectively excluded federal law, making them unenforceable.
On appeal, the 4th Circuit agreed with the district court despite a “strong federal policy in favor of enforcing arbitration agreements.” Most significantly, the appellate court rejected the defendants’ assertion that the choice-of-law provisions did not operate as a prospective waiver. The court noted that while the choice-of-law provisions “do not explicitly disclaim the application of federal law, the practical effect is the same,” as they limit an arbitrator’s award to “remedies available under Tribal Law,” effectively preempting “the application of any contrary law—including contrary federal law.” Moreover, the appellate court concluded that under the arbitration agreement, borrowers would be unable to effectively pursue RICO claims against the defendants, and more specifically, would be unable to “effectively vindicate a federal statutory claim for treble damages” under RICO. Thus, because federal statutory protections and remedies are unavailable to borrowers under the agreement, the appellate court concluded the entire agreement is unenforceable.
On July 14, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit affirmed a district court’s denial of defendants’ motion to compel arbitration, holding that an arbitration clause contained within an online tribal lender’s payday loan agreement impermissibly strips borrowers of their right to assert statutory claims and is therefore unenforceable. Specifically, because this “limitation constitutes a prospective waiver of statutory rights,” the lender’s arbitration agreement “violates public policy and is therefore unenforceable.” The plaintiffs filed a putative class action contending that they obtained payday loans from the lender, which included annual interest rates between 496.55 percent to 714.88 percent—an alleged violation of the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO) and various Pennsylvania consumer protection laws. The defendants moved to compel arbitration. The district court denied the defendants’ arbitration request, ruling that “the arbitration agreement was unenforceable because the arbitrator is permitted only to consider tribal law,” and, therefore, the arbitrator could not consider any of plaintiffs’ federal or state law claims. The 3rd Circuit agreed, rejecting, among other things, the defendants’ argument that the plaintiffs could bring RICO-like claims under tribal law and possibly receive “similar relief.” The appellate court noted: “The question is whether a party can bring and effectively pursue the federal claim—not whether some other law is a sufficient substitute.”
On June 5, the District of Columbia attorney general filed a complaint against an online lender for alleged violations of the District of Columbia Consumer Protection Procedures Act (CPPA) by marketing high-costs loans carrying interest rates exceeding D.C.’s interest rate caps. The complaint alleges that the lender offers two loan products to D.C. residents: (i) an installment loan with an annual percentage rate (APR) range of 99-149 percent; and (ii) a second loan product with an undisclosed APR that ranges between 129-251 percent. However, interest rates in D.C. 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 has allegedly never possessed a money lending license in D.C.—violated the CCPA by (i) unlawfully misrepresenting it is 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. In addition, the lender allegedly violated District of Columbia Municipal Regulations Title 16 by lending money in D.C. without being licensed. The complaint seeks a permanent injunction, restitution, and civil penalties. In addition, the complaint asks the court to order the lender’s loans unenforceable and void.
On February 26, the FTC released a staff perspective paper covering topics discussed during the Commission’s “Strictly Business” forum on small business financing held in 2019, as well as an online tool for small businesses to submit lending- or financing-related complaints. As previously covered by InfoBytes, the forum heard from members of the small business marketplace who discussed the recent uptick in online loans and alternative financing products, and analyzed the potential for unfair and deceptive marketing, sales, and collection practices in the industry. The staff paper provides an overview of key issues discussed during the forum, as well as enforcement information, recent small business financing marketplace trends, potential benefits and risks of newer online financing products, and consumer protection issues associated with merchant cash advances. Among other things, the staff paper emphasized that “small business finance providers should avoid the sorts of practices that the Commission has alleged to be deceptive” in its enforcement actions involving either small business consumers or individual consumers, such as actions charging lenders with making “misleading claims regarding fees, consumer savings, payment amounts, and interest rates” in connection with personal loans. The staff paper also stressed that finance providers should understand that using marketing intermediaries, such as brokers and lead generators, “does not immunize them from liability under the FTC Act,” and that finance providers “should take steps to ensure that their marketers do not engage in deceptive or other unlawful conduct.” Small business consumers, the staff paper noted, would also likely benefit from more uniform and easily understood financing disclosures in order to compare costs and product features in the small business marketplace.
On January 21, the Massachusetts attorney general announced a $1.25 million settlement with an online marketplace lender to resolve allegations that it violated the state’s Small Loan Statute by facilitating the origination of loans with excessive interest rates to Massachusetts borrowers. According to an assurance of discontinuance (AOD) filed in the Suffolk Superior Court, the company allegedly facilitated personal loans to Massachusetts residents with interest rates exceeding the statutory interest rate cap set by the Small Loan Statute, which regulates terms for consumer loans of $6,000 or less. “Small loans” are defined by the statute as those where the disbursed amount is $6,000 or less. To determine whether a loan is a “small loan,” the Small Loan Statute provides that if, after all deductions or payments (whether on account of interest, expenses, or principal made substantially contemporaneously with the making of the loan), the amount retained by the borrower is $6,000 or less, the transaction will be deemed to be a loan in the amount of the sum retained by the borrower after deductions or payments, notwithstanding that the loan was nominally for a greater sum (the “deduction provision”). Among other things, the AG’s office claimed the company facilitated “small loans” with interest rates above the maximum permitted rate for non-licensed small loan companies, and that after the company obtained a small loan company license, it allegedly facilitated loans that exceeded the maximum permitted rate for licensed small loan companies based in part on its reading of the Act’s “deduction provision.” The company admitted no liability, agreed to pay $1.25 million to the Commonwealth, comply with Massachusetts law, and stop facilitating small loans to state residents with interest rates that exceed the maximum permissible rate based on the AG’s reading.
On February 5, the CFPB announced a settlement with a Texas-based payday lender and six subsidiaries (defendants) for allegedly assisting in the collection of online installment loans and online lines of credit that consumers were not legally obligated to pay based on certain states’ usury laws or licensing requirements. As previously covered by InfoBytes, the Bureau filed a complaint in 2017—amended in 2018—against the defendants for allegedly violating the CFPA’s prohibitions on unfair, deceptive, and abusive acts and practices by, among other things, making deceptive demands and originating debit entries from consumers’ bank accounts for loans that the defendants knew were either partially or completely void because the loans were void under state licensing or usury laws. The defendants—who operated in conjunction with three tribal lenders engaged in the business of extending and collecting the online installment loans and lines of credit—also allegedly provided material services and substantial assistance to two debt collection companies that were also involved in the collection of these loans.
Under the stipulated final consent order, the defendants are prohibited from (i) extending, servicing, or collecting on loans made to consumers in any of the identified 17 states if the loans violate state usury limits or licensing requirements; and (ii) assisting others engaged in this type of conduct. Additionally, the settlement imposes a $1 civil money penalty against each of the seven defendants. The Bureau’s press release notes that the order “is a component of the global resolution of the [defendants’] bankruptcy proceeding in the Bankruptcy Court for the Northern District of Texas, which includes settlements with the Pennsylvania Attorney General’s Office and private litigants in a nationwide consumer class action.” The press release also states that “[c]onsumer redress will be disbursed from a fund created as part of the global resolution, which is anticipated to have over $39 million for distribution to consumers and may increase over time as a result of ongoing, related litigation and settlements.”
On August 6, NYDFS announced it is leading a multistate investigation into the payroll advance industry based on allegations of unlawful online lending. According to NYDFS, the investigation will focus on whether companies are violating state banking laws, including usury limits, licensing laws, and other applicable laws regulating payday lending. NYDFS alleges that some companies appear to collect unlawful interest rates disguised as “tips” as well as monthly membership and/or excessive additional fees, and may collect improper overdraft charges.
In addition to New York, other states in the investigation include: Connecticut, Illinois, Maryland, New Jersey, North Caroline, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Puerto Rico, South Carolina, South Dakota, and Texas.
On April 19, the SEC announced that an online lending platform will pay a $3 million penalty to resolve allegations it miscalculated and materially overstated annualized net returns (ANR) to investors. According to the order, between 2015 and 2017, the company allegedly excluded securities linked to certain charged-off consumer loans from its calculation of ANR and allegedly failed to identify and correct the error, despite knowing that employees misunderstood the code underlying the ANR calculation and despite alleged complaints by investors. As a result, the company allegedly materially overstated the ANR to a total of more than 30,000 investors. After a large institutional investor complained to the company in April 2017, it notified investors of the misstatements and corrected the ANR in May 2017. In agreeing to a settlement, the company did not admit or deny the SEC’s findings, and the order acknowledges that the company has since instituted “a number of controls designed to prevent and detect similar errors in the future,” including new management supervision, quarterly reviews, and semi-annual testing.
On July 11, the New York Department of Financial Services (NYDFS or the Department) released a study of online lending in New York, as required by AB 8938. (Previously covered by InfoBytes here.) In addition to reporting the results of its survey of institutions believed to be engaging in online lending activities in New York, NYDFS makes a series of recommendations that would expand the application of New York usury and other statutes and regulations to online loans made to New York residents, including loans made through partnerships between online lender and banks where, in the Department’s view, the online lender is the “true lender.”
In particular, NYDFS recommends, “[a]ll New York lenders should operate under the same set of rules and be subject to consistent enforcement of those rules to achieve a level playing field for all market participants….” Elsewhere in the report, the Department states that it “disagrees with [the] position” that online lenders are exempt from New York law if they partner with a federally-chartered or FDIC-insured bank that extends credit to New York residents. NYDFS criticizes these arrangements, stating its view that “the online lender is, in many cases, the true lender” because the online lender is “typically … the entity that is engaged in marketing, solicitation, and processing of applications, and dealing with the applicants” and may also purchase, resell, and/or service the loan.
NYDFS also noted that it opposed pending federal legislation that would reverse the Second Circuit’s decision in Madden v. Midland Funding, LLC, which held that federal preemption of New York’s usury laws ceased to apply when a loan was transferred from a national bank to a non-bank. The Department expressed concern that, if passed, the bill “could result in ‘rent-a-bank charter’ arrangements between banks and online lender that are designed to circumvent state licensing and usury laws.”
Noting that many online lenders remain unlicensed in New York, the Department states that “[d]irect supervision and oversight is the only way to ensure that New York’s consumers and small business owners receive the same protections irrespective of the channel of delivery….” To this end, NYDFS recommended lowering the interest rate threshold for licensure from 16 percent to 7 percent.
Although NYDFS stressed that its survey results may be unreliable due to uneven response rates, it reported that, for respondents, the average median APR for online loans to businesses was 25.9%, the average median APR for online loans to individuals for personal use was 14.8%, and the average median APR for the underbanked customers was 19.6% (New York currently caps interest for civil liability at 16% and at 25% for criminal liability).
Overall, the report appears to forecast a more difficult regulatory and enforcement environment in New York for online lenders, as has been the case in West Virginia and Colorado.
On June 1, the New York governor signed AB 8938, which authorizes and directs the New York Department of Financial Services (NYDFS) to study online lending institutions that conduct business in the state, and requires NYDFS to submit a report containing analysis, assessments, and recommendations pertaining to online lending institutions by July 1. As previously covered in InfoBytes, NYDFS announced plans on April 24 to issue a report, which would include an analysis of the differences between online lending products and services and those of traditional lending institutions, the risks/benefits of the products offered, and the availability of various credit products in the absence of online lending. With the enactment of AB 8938, NYDFS is also tasked with, among other things, surveying existing state and federal laws and regulations applicable to the online lending industry. The act is effective immediately and shall expire July 1—the report’s due date.
- Hank Asbill to discuss "The federal fraud sentencing guidelines: It's time to stop the madness" at a New York Criminal Bar Association webinar
- Daniel P Stipano to moderate "Digital identity: The next gen of CIP" at the American Bankers Association/American Bar Association Financial Crimes Enforcement Conference