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On October 10, the California governor signed AB 539, known as the “Fair Access to Credit Act,” which amends the California Financing Law (CFL) to limit the rate of interest on certain installment loans. Specifically, for installment loans with a principal amount between $2,500 and $10,000, lenders are prohibited from charging an annual simple interest rate exceeding 36 percent plus the federal funds rate, excluding an administrative fee (not to exceed $50). Moreover, for loans between $2,500 and $10,000, the bill establishes a minimum 12-month loan term. Among other things, the bill also (i) requires lenders to report each borrower’s payment performance of these installment loans to at least one national credit reporting agency; (ii) requires lenders to offer an approved credit education program or seminar approved by the Commissioner of Business Oversight before disbursing the proceeds to the borrower; and (iii) prohibits lenders from charging or receiving any penalty for prepayment for loans made pursuant to the CFL that are not secured by real property. The bill is effective January 1, 2020.
On September 19, 26 Republican members of the House Financial Services Committee wrote to the OCC, urging the agency to update its interpretation of the definition of “interest” under the National Bank Act (NBA) to limit the impact of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit’s 2015 decision in Madden v. Midland Funding, LLC (covered by a Buckley Special Alert here). The letter argues that Madden deviated from the longstanding valid-when-made doctrine—which provides that if a contract that is valid (not usurious) when it was made, it cannot be rendered usurious by later acts, including assignment—and has “caused significant uncertainty and disruption in many types of lending programs.” Specifically, the letter asserts that the decision “threatens bank-fintech partnerships” that may provide better access to capital and financing to small business and consumers. The letter acknowledges the recently filed amicus brief in the U.S. District Court for the District of Colorado by the OCC and the FDIC, which criticized the Madden decision for disregarding the valid-when-made doctrine and the “stand-in-the-shoes-rule” of contract law (previously covered by InfoBytes here), and requests that the OCC prioritize rulemaking to address the issue.
On September 10, the FDIC and the OCC filed an amicus brief in the U.S. District Court for the District of Colorado, supporting a bankruptcy judge’s ruling, which refused to disallow a claim for a business loan that carried a more than 120 percent annual interest rate, concluding the interest rate was permissible as a matter of federal law. After filing bankruptcy in 2017, a Denver-based business sought to reject the claim under Section 502 of the Bankruptcy Code, and sought equitable subordination under Section 510 of the Code, arguing that the original promissory note, executed by the debtor and a Wisconsin state chartered bank, and subsequently assigned to a nonbank lender, was invalid under Colorado’s usury law. The bankruptcy judge disagreed, declining to follow Madden v. Midland Funding, LLC (covered by a Buckley Special Alert here). The judge concluded that the promissory note was valid under Wisconsin law when executed as that state imposes no interest rate cap on business loans, and the assignment to the nonbank lender did not alter this, stating “[i]n the Court’s view, the ‘valid-when-made’ rule remains the law.” The debtor appealed the ruling to the district court.
In support of the bankruptcy judge’s opinion, the FDIC and the OCC argue that the valid-when-made rule is dispositive. Specifically, the agencies assert that the nonbank assignee may lawfully charge the 120 percent annual rate, because the interest rate was non-usurious at the time when the loan was made by the Wisconsin state chartered bank. Moreover, the agencies state that it is a fundamental rule of contract law that “an assignee succeeds to all the assignor’s rights in the contract, including the right to receive the consideration agreed upon in the contract—here, the interest rate agreed upon.” Hence, the nonbank lender inherited the same contractual right to charge the annual interest rate. The agencies also argue that the Federal Deposit Insurance Act’s provisions regarding interest rate exportation (specifically 12 U.S.C. § 1831d) requires the same result, noting that “Congress intended to confer on banks a meaningful right to make loans at the rates allowed by their home states, which necessarily includes the ability to transfer those rates.” The agencies conclude that the bankruptcy judge correctly rejected Madden, calling the 2nd Circuit’s decision “unfathomable” for disregarding the valid-when-made doctrine and the “stand-in-the-shoes-rule” of contract law.
On September 10, the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York issued a final order and judgment to approve a class action settlement agreement, which ends litigation dating back to 2011 concerning alleged violations of state usury limitations. As previously covered by InfoBytes, the plaintiffs brought claims against a debt collection firm and its affiliate alleging violations of the FDCPA and New York state usury law when the defendants attempted to collect charged-off credit card debt with interest rates above the state’s 25 percent cap that was purchased from a national bank. In 2017, upon remand following the 2nd Circuit’s decision that a nonbank entity taking assignment of debts originated by a national bank is not entitled to protection under the National Bank Act from state-law usury claims (covered by a Buckley Special Alert here), the district court certified the class and allowed the FDCPA and related state unfair or deceptive acts or practices claims to proceed.
Following a fairness hearing, the court granted the parties’ joint motion for final approval, which divides the approximately 58,000 class members into two subclasses: claims alleging state-law violations, and claims alleging FDCPA violations. Under the terms of the settlement, the defendants are required to, among other things, (i) provide class members with $555,000 in monetary relief; (ii) provide $9.2 million in credit balance reductions; (iii) pay $550,000 in attorneys’ fees and costs; (iv) pay class representatives $5,000 each; and (v) agree to comply with all applicable laws, regulations, and case law regarding the collection of interest, including the collection of usurious interest.
On August 28, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit held that a district court did not err when it denied a group of lenders’ motion to dismiss class action claims alleging that their loan agreements violated Georgia’s Payday Lending Act (PLA), the Georgia Industrial Loan Act (GILA), and state usury laws. According to the opinion, the plaintiffs entered into agreements for loans generally amounting to less than $3,000 that were to be repaid from recoveries received by the plaintiffs in their individual personal injury lawsuits. The defendants moved to dismiss the complaint and strike the class allegations, arguing that the loan agreements’ forum-selection clause required the borrowers to bring their lawsuit in Illinois, and that the class action waiver provision in the agreements prevented the plaintiffs from being able to file any class action against them. The plaintiffs maintained, however, that these provisions in the loan agreements were unenforceable because they violated Georgia public policy, and the district court agreed.
On appeal, the 11th Circuit affirmed the district court because it also concluded that the loan agreements’ forum-selection and class action waiver provisions were unenforceable as against Georgia public policy. Regarding the forum-selection clause, the appellate court held that the PLA “establish[es] a clear public policy against out-of-state lenders using forum selection clauses to avoid litigation in Georgia courts.” Regarding the class action waiver, the appellate court noted that both the PLA and the GILA specifically authorize class action suits; that the district court did not consider whether the waivers were procedurally or substantively unconscionable did not matter because the fact that the waivers violate public policy is an independent and sufficient basis to hold them unenforceable. The defendants also noted that the statutes did not prohibit class action waivers or create a statutory right to pursue class actions, but a contractual provision “need not literally conflict with Georgia law to contravene public policy.” (Citing Langford v. Royal Indemnity Co.) Instead, the appellate court agreed with the district court that “enforcement of the class action waivers in this context would eliminate a remedy contemplated by the Georgia legislature and undermine the purpose of the PLA and the GILA.”
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 July 3, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit reversed the district court’s denial of two tribal lenders’ motion to dismiss a putative class action lawsuit brought by Virginia residents, concluding the lenders properly claimed tribal sovereign immunity. The complaint alleged that the tribal lenders violated Virginia’s usury laws by charging Virginia residents interest rates 50-times-higher than those permitted under Virginia law. The tribal lenders moved to dismiss the action in district court on the grounds that they are entitled to sovereign immunity as an arm of the tribe. The district court denied the motion, concluding the tribal lenders (i) bore the burden of proof of immunity; and (ii) failed to prove they were an “arm-of-the-tribe.”
On appeal, the 4th Circuit agreed with the district court that the burden of proof in the arm-of-the-tribe analysis should be placed on the defendant, stating “[u]nlike the tribe itself, an entity should not be given a presumption of immunity until it has demonstrated that it is in fact an extension of the tribe.” However, the appellate court rejected the district court’s conclusion that the tribal lenders failed to meet their burden, noting that while the tribal lenders were funded and controlled by a non-tribal company, ten percent of the tribe’s general fund comes from one of the lenders, and a judgment against either lender “could in fact significantly impact the tribal treasury.” Ultimately, the appellate court concluded that the lenders had “promoted ‘the Tribe’s self-determination through revenue generation and the funding of diversified economic development” and a finding of no immunity, “would weaken the Tribe’s ability to govern itself according to its own laws, become self-sufficient, and develop economic opportunities for its members.”
On April 24, the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania denied in part and granted in part a national bank’s motion to dismiss a complaint alleging violations of, among other things, the Pennsylvania Loan Interest and Protection Act (“Act 6”). The allegations stem from the bank’s servicing of the plaintiffs’ mortgage. Pursuant to a settlement agreement reached between the parties in a separate 2012 lawsuit over alleged misrepresentations made by the bank concerning whether the plaintiffs were in arrears in their mortgage and escrow payments, the mortgage principal was reset. The plaintiffs asserted that although they made timely monthly payments, a 2014 mortgage statement reflected an escrow shortage, including unpaid late charges and outstanding advance/fees. Arguing that because the loan servicers refused their allegedly timely payments, which increased the principal balance, the plaintiffs claimed that the bank breached the terms of the settlement agreement by adding the unauthorized charges without providing notice. However, the bank argued—and the court concurred—that the breach of contract claim was outside the applicable statute of limitations. The plaintiffs further alleged that the bank charged an interest rate that exceed the rate permitted under Act 6, and that the loan servicer charged the plaintiffs “undisclosed, excessive, and retaliatory attorney’s fees ‘from at least one if not two prior lawsuits,’ in violation of the [s]ettlement [a]greement and Act 6,” along with other “unwarranted charges.”
Concerning the bank’s motion to dismiss the Act 6 usurious interest rate claims based upon preemption, the court referred to the loan’s origination and rejected the bank’s argument that the usury claim was preempted by the National Bank Act, explaining that the homeowners’ mortgage was originated by a non-national bank even though a national bank was later assigned the note and mortgage. Additionally, the court rejected the bank’s argument that the Act 6 claim of unlawful attorney fees was barred by the applicable four-year statute of limitations. According to the court, “an Act 6 claim for excessive fees accrues upon payment of said fee; it does not accrue upon charge of the fee or upon the obligor’s knowledge of the fee.” However, the court determined that the plaintiffs failed to adequately allege that they made “the requisite unlawful payments of usurious interest or unlawful attorney’s fees” required to state valid Act 6 claims. As such, the court dismissed the Act 6 claims without prejudice.
On April 11, the Maryland Attorney General announced an administrative proceeding taken against a title company, its owner, and related businesses for allegedly making unlicensed and usurious title loans secured by consumers’ motor vehicles. According to the AG’s charges, the defendants, among other things, allegedly engaged in unfair or deceptive trade practices by offering consumers high-interest, short-term title loans with typical annual interest rates of 360 percent. The AG contends that the loans offered by the defendants qualify as consumer loans under Maryland law and therefore are subject to state interest rate caps. Furthermore, the AG alleges that the defendants were never licensed by the Maryland Commissioner of Financial Regulation to make consumer loans in the state. The AG seeks an order compelling the defendants “to permanently cease and desist from making unlicensed and usurious consumer loans in Maryland, to pay restitution to all affected consumers, and to pay civil penalties.”
On March 26, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 1st Circuit affirmed a district court’s decision to dismiss putative class action allegations that a bank charged usurious interest rates on its overdraft products, finding that the bank’s “Sustained Overdraft Fees” are not interest under the National Bank Act (NBA). The plaintiff filed a lawsuit against the bank in 2017, alleging that sustained overdraft fees should be considered interest charges subject to Rhode Island’s interest rate cap of 21 percent, and that because the alleged annual interest rates exceeded the cap, the fees violated the NBA. The district court, however, dismissed the case, ruling that the sustained overdraft fees were service charges, not interest charges.
On appeal, the split three-judge panel held that, because the sustained overdraft fees did not constitute interest payments under the NBA and the OCC’s regulations interpreting the NBA, the class challenges cannot move forward. The panel stated that the agency’s interpretation in its 2007 Interpretive Letter is due “a measure of deference.” The panel found the agency’s interpretation persuasive because “[f]lat excess overdraft fees (1) arise from the terms of a bank’s deposit account agreement with its customers, (2) are connected to deposit account services, (3) lack the hallmarks of an extension of credit, and (4) do not operate like conventional interest charges.”
In dissent, Judge Lipez noted that, while the OCC interpretive letter laid out a clear case for overdraft fees as service, not interest charges, it was silent on the question of “Sustained Overdraft Fees.” He wrote that “[s]ilence, however, is not guidance, and we would thus need to infer a ruling on a debated issue from between the lines of the Letter.” Furthermore, he could “not see how we can defer to an interpretation that the OCC never clearly made on an issue that it previously described as complex and fact-specific.”
- 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