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On March 19, the California Department of Business Oversight (DBO) filed an administrative action to revoke the license and void loans made by a Southern California auto title lender for allegedly violating state lending laws. According to the DBO announcement, the lender allegedly, among other things, (i) charged consumers more interest than permitted by state law; (ii) failed to consider the borrower’s ability-to-repay; and (iii) engaged in “false and misleading” advertising. Specifically, DBO alleges that, in two separate examinations, it determined the lender included DMV fees in borrowers’ principal loan amounts to bring the loans above $2,500. DBO alleges these loans carried interest rates over 100 percent, while the state law cap is 30 percent for loans under $2,500. DBO also alleges the lender violated state law by failing to report the profits it made from a “duplicate-key fee” and made loans from unlicensed locations.
In addition to the formal accusation, the DBO also has commenced an investigation to determine whether the more than 100 percent interest rates that the lender charges on most of its auto title loans may be unconscionable under the law.
On March 5, the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Arkansas denied a request for summary judgment by several defendant pawnbrokers and pawnshops concluding there exists “disputed general issues of material fact” concerning claims filed by two plaintiffs who entered into pawn-loan contracts with the defendants. Among other things, the plaintiffs alleged that the defendants violated Amendment 89 of the Arkansas Constitution (Amendment 89) and the Arkansas Deceptive Trade Practices Act (ADTPA) by charging usurious rates of interest, and violated ADTPA by making false statements on pawn loan contracts (pawn tickets). The plaintiffs additionally claimed that the defendants violated TILA by failing to identify creditors on the face of their pawn tickets.
In dismissing the defendants’ motion for summary judgment, the court determined that success of the claims hinged upon whether “the pawn transactions . . . are ‘loans’ charging usurious rates of interest under Arkansas law.” Specifically, genuine issues of material fact remained on: (i) whether the defendants knowingly entered into loans charging usurious interest because “the differences between traditional bank loans and pawn transactions . . . may not prevent the pawn transactions entered into by [the plaintiffs] from being classified as ‘loans’ under Arkansas law”; (ii) whether the plaintiffs were charged usurious interest or otherwise suffered damages under Amendment 89 or ADTPA as a result of the pawn transactions; (iii) whether the language on the pawn tickets stating that “the finance charge ‘is not interest for any purpose of the law,’” was a false statement in violation of the ADTPA; and (iv) whether the defendants’ failure to disclose the identity of the creditors on the pawn tickets is a violation of TILA, because, among other things, there remains a dispute as to whether the identified finance charges constitute as “credit,” and whether certain defendants qualify as “creditors” under TILA. Furthermore, the court rejected the defendants’ argument that they were entitled to summary judgment on the plaintiffs’ TILA claims “due to plaintiffs’ alleged failure to demonstrate detrimental reliance.”
On March 1, plaintiffs filed a proposed class action settlement agreement with a debt collection firm in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, which would potentially end litigation dating back to 2011 concerning alleged violations of state usury limitations. The proposed settlement would resolve claims originally brought by the plaintiffs alleging that the defendants violated the FDCPA and New York state usury law when it attempted to collect charged-off credit card debt, purchased from a national bank, from borrowers with interest rates above the state’s 25 percent cap. As previously covered by InfoBytes, in 2015, the 2nd Circuit reversed the district court’s 2013 decision, and held 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. This ruling contradicted the “Valid-When-Made Doctrine,” which is a longstanding principle of usury law that if a loan is not usurious when made, then it does not become usurious when assigned to another party. Following the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to decline to hear the case, the district court issued a ruling in 2017 (covered by InfoBytes here) holding that New York’s fundamental public policy against usury overrides a Delaware choice-of-law clause in the plaintiff’s original credit card agreement. The court granted the plaintiff’s motion for class certification, and allowed the FDCPA and related state unfair or deceptive acts or practices claims to proceed. However, the court did not allow the plaintiff’s claims for violations of New York’s usury law to proceed, as it held that New York’s civil usury statute does not apply to defaulted debts and that the plaintiff cannot directly enforce the criminal usury statute.
Under the terms of the proposed 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; and (iv) agree to comply with all applicable laws, regulations, and case law regarding the collection of interest, including the collection of usurious interest.
On January 23, the U.S. District Court for the District of Minnesota denied two financing companies’ (collectively, “defendants”) motions to dismiss an action alleging the defendants violated the Consumer Leasing Act (CLA), TILA, and a Minnesota law prohibiting usurious contracts through a transaction to purchase a puppy. According to the opinion, the plaintiff financed the purchase of a puppy through the defendants, which allowed her to take possession of the puppy in exchange for 24 monthly payments through an agreement styled as a “Consumer Pet Lease.” The agreement had an APR of 120 percent. The plaintiff filed suit against the defendants alleging the companies violated (i) the CLA by failing to disclose the number of payments owed under the agreement prior to execution; (ii) TILA by failing to adequately disclose the finance charge, the APR, and the “total of payments” as required under the Act; and (iii) the state’s usury law cap of 8 percent for personal debt. The defendants moved to dismiss the action challenging the plaintiff’s standing, among other things. The court, rejected the defendants arguments, finding that the consumer adequately alleged injury by stating she “would” have, not “might” have, pursued other funding had the defendants disclosed the actual interest rate. Additionally, the court determined the consumer plausibly alleged a CLA violation because the agreement contains information the plaintiff could view as “conflicting and confusing.” With respect to the TILA claims, the plaintiff argued that, although the agreement is styled as a lease, it is actually a credit sale, and the court rejected one of the defendant’s arguments that it was not a creditor, but rather a servicer not subject to TILA. Lastly, the court held the plaintiff adequately pleaded her state usury claim, but noted the claim’s viability would be better informed by discovery. Accordingly, the court denied the defendants’ motions to dismiss.
On January 4, the administrator of the Colorado Uniform Consumer Credit Code issued a memo providing introductory guidance on alternative charge loans in response to Proposition 111, which amends the state’s Deferred Deposit Loan Act (DDLA) and takes effect February 1. (See previous InfoBytes coverage here.) Among other things, Proposition 111 reduces the maximum annual percentage rate that may be charged on deferred deposits or payday loans to 36 percent, eliminates an alternative APR formula based on loan amount, prohibits lenders from charging origination and monthly maintenance fees, and amends the definition of an unfair or deceptive practice.
The memo—issued in response to creditors currently offering loans under the DDLA who have expressed an interest in offering loans imposing the alternative charges allowed by Colo. Rev. Stat. § 5-2-214—explains that such alternative charges may only be charged if (i) the financed amount is $1000 or less; (ii) the minimum loan term is at least 90 days but no more than 12 months; (iii) installment payments are scheduled in substantially equal periodic intervals; (iv) Truth-In-Lending disclosures show the loan is unsecured; (v) a creditor has not taken any collateral as security for the loan, including a post-dated check or certain ACH authorization; (vi) an ACH agreement reached with a consumer is voluntary and not required by the loan; and (vii) the loan has not been refinanced more than three times in one year.
Fifteen states urge the 4th Circuit against allowing non-tribal payday lenders to receive tribal immunity
On December 27, 2018, fifteen state Attorneys General filed an amici brief with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit opposing the use of structures in which non-tribal payday lenders affiliate with tribal lenders to benefit from their tribal immunity and avoid state usury caps. The brief was filed in an appeal from a district court ruling, which held that a Michigan-based payday lender could not claim tribal immunity in a consumer class action because it could not prove it was an actual tribal entity. The Attorneys General argue that granting tribal immunity to non-tribal lenders would “bar enforcement of state consumer protection laws as well as, potentially, investigations into their activities.” The brief rejects the payday lender’s arguments that the plaintiff should bear the burden of negating “arm-of-the-tribe immunity” and instead urges the court to place the burden on the entity seeking the immunity. Allowing a non-tribal entity to benefit from sovereign immunity without “rigorous demonstration”, the Attorneys General argue, “may well undermine the purpose for tribal immunity” and “would have serious consequences for States’ ability to protect consumers.”
The brief was filed by the District of Columbia and the States of Connecticut, Hawaii, Iowa, Illinois, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Vermont, and Virginia.
On November 6, Colorado voters approved a ballot initiative (officially referred to as Proposition 111) to reduce the maximum annual percentage rate that may be charged on deferred deposits or payday loans to 36 percent. In addition, Proposition 111 eliminates an alternative APR formula based on loan amount, prohibits lenders from charging origination and monthly maintenance fees, and amends the definition of an unfair or deceptive practice. The measure takes effect February 1, 2019.
On October 18, the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington denied a motion to compel arbitration, holding that an arbitration clause was invalid under the “effective vindication” exception to the Federal Arbitration Act (FAA). According to the opinion, borrowers received several loans from an online payday lender, incorporated under tribal law, which charged usurious, triple-digit interest rates on the loans. Per the terms of the loan agreements, the borrowers consented to binding arbitration for any disputes and agreed per the choice-of-law provision that tribal law applied, effectively waiving any protections they might have enjoyed under federal and state law. The lender moved to arbitrate, which the borrowers opposed, arguing that the arbitration agreement was unenforceable under the “effective vindication” exception to arbitration because it implicitly waives a consumer’s state and federal statutory rights. The district court agreed, finding that the arbitration clause operated as a prospective waiver of most federal statutory remedies. The court found that while the FAA gives parties the freedom to structure arbitration agreements as they choose, that freedom does not extend to a substantive waiver of federally protected statutory rights. The lender also argued that the arbitrator, rather than the court, should decide if the agreement’s choice-of-law provision was invalid. The court disagreed, ruling that questions of arbitrability are for the courts to decide, not the arbitrators. Finally, the lender asked to sever the choice-of-law provision of the arbitration agreement. The court rejected such an approach, holding that when the “offending provisions” of an arbitration agreement “go to the essence of the contract,” they cannot be severed.
On October 22, the Georgia Supreme Court held that legal settlement cash advances are not “loans” under the state’s Payday Lending Act (PLA) and the Industrial Loan Act (ILA) when the obligation to repay is contingent upon the success of the underlying lawsuit. The decision results from a class action lawsuit bought by clients of a legal funding company. After being involved in automobile accidents, appellants signed financing agreements with a legal funding company, which advanced them funds while their personal injury lawsuit was pending. Per the terms of their financing agreements, appellants were required to repay the funds only if their personal injury lawsuits were successful. They were successful and the settlement company soon sought to recover funds pursuant to the terms of the agreement. The appellants objected and brought suit, alleging, among other things, that the financing agreements they executed violated the state’s PLA and ILA because they were usurious loans and a product of unlicensed activity. The state trial court concluded that the PLA applied to the agreements but that the ILA did not. The state appeals court concluded that neither statute applied, determining that because the repayment obligation was contingent on the success of the lawsuit, it was not a “loan” under either the PLA or the ILA. The state supreme court agreed, holding that “an agreement that involves . . . a contingent and limited obligation of repayment is not a ‘contract requiring repayment,’” as required by the ILA’s definition of “loan.” Similarly, the financing arrangement did not constitute an agreement pursuant to which “funds are advanced to be repaid,” which would make it a loan under the PLA. Appellants also argued that the contingent repayment obligation in the financing agreement was illusory, contending that the legal funding company agrees to such an arrangement only when the risk the lawsuit will fail is “close to null.” The court rejected this claim, however, noting that nothing in the pleadings suggested that the agreements were shams.
CFPB urges 9th Circuit to reverse district court’s order and impose higher penalty in tribal lending action
On October 19, the CFPB filed its opening brief before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit in Consumer Financial Protection Bureau v. CashCall, Inc., an action brought by the CFPB to limit the reach of the so-called “tribal model” of online lending. In the original action, the court found that an online loan servicer that operated on tribal lands engaged in deceptive practices by collecting on loans that exceeded the usury limits in various states, and ordered it and its affiliates to pay a $10 million penalty, far short of the Bureau’s request. (Previously covered by InfoBtyes here and here.) The CFPB appealed, arguing that the district court erred by imposing a civil penalty that was “inappropriately low” and by refusing to order appropriate restitution. In its brief, the Bureau argued that the district court misapplied the law when finding that restitution was not “an appropriate remedy.” According to the Bureau, the district court believed it had discretionary power to deny restitution, based on the court’s view of the equities. But the district court had no such discretion, the Bureau asserted, claiming that if a plaintiff proves a violation and resulting harm, it is entitled to restitution under the CFPA. In addition, the Bureau argued that the district court should not have denied restitution on the grounds that the servicer had not acted in bad faith. The Bureau argued that allowing the servicer to earn $200 million in ill-gotten gains while paying a $10 million penalty leaves companies with “little incentive to follow the law.” The Bureau also argued that the loan servicer’s actions were reckless and warranted a higher civil penalty. The district court had concluded that the servicer did not act recklessly because its primary counsel opined that it could contract around state law. In response, the Bureau asserted that the servicer had “ample reason to know” its attempts to circumvent state usury laws posed an unjustifiably high risk that it was “collecting amounts consumers did not owe” after multiple lawyers warned the servicer that its attempts to avoid state law “likely” would not work.”
- 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