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On July 6, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit overturned a district court’s decision, holding that a debt collector that sent an envelope with a quick reference (QR) code that when scanned, revealed an Internal Reference Number (IRN) with the first 10 characters of the plaintiff’s street address violated the FDCPA’s prohibition in 15 U.S.C. § 1692f(8) on “[u]sing any language or symbol, other than the debt collector’s address, on any envelope.” The district court, relying on the 3rd Circuit’s 2019 decision in DiNaples v. MRS BPO, dismissed the case, holding the plaintiff lacked standing under the FDCPA because the barcode on the envelope did not reveal enough protected information to rise to the level of a concrete injury, since numerous individuals could have an identical IRN.
The 3rd Circuit reversed and remanded, explaining that the plaintiff had standing to bring a claim because the envelope’s QR code made protected information available to the public. The court rejected the defendant’s arguments that the envelope did not violate the FDCPA because it did not reveal the account number, the plaintiff did not know how to use the bar code to unlock the private information, and that there was no material risk of harm. The appellate court explained that “[a]ccount numbers are but one type of protected information” and that the plaintiff “did not need to know how to use IRNs to access accounts” nor “did he need to show an increased risk of harm.”
On May 19, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit affirmed a district court’s dismissal of a proposed TCPA class action suit for lack of standing, finding that the named plaintiff did not claim anything other than a “bare procedural harm that resulted in no harm.” According to the opinion, the plaintiff—who worked as an investigator for an attorney who prepared TCPA lawsuits—received a prerecorded telemarketing call in 2005 from a marketing company on behalf of the defendant national bank. The plaintiff, using a false name and employer, then placed and recorded more than 20 investigative calls to the marketing company to determine the number and frequency of calls it made. He then provided the recordings to the bank and declined the marketing company’s offer to place him on their Do-Not-Call list. In 2011, the plaintiff sued the bank alleging a single count violation of the TCPA but did not allege that he suffered any annoyance or nuisance from the marketing company’s call. The bank moved for summary judgment, arguing that: (i) the plaintiff lacked Article III standing to sue; (ii) “the call was exempt from the TCPA under FCC rules because the parties had an established business relationship” because the plaintiff was a customer of the bank; and (iii) the recorded message’s content did not violate the TCPA. The district court agreed with the bank and granted summary judgment on all three grounds.
On appeal, the Third Circuit disagreed with the plaintiff’s assertion that all he had to do was allege a statutory violation in order to have standing to sue, declining “to adopt such an absolute rule of standing with respect to the TCPA.” Because “the TCPA is intended to prevent harm stemming from nuisance, invasions of privacy, and other such injuries,” the plaintiff must allege at least one of those injuries to show concrete harm necessary to demonstrate an injury-in-fact and establish standing to sue, the appellate court wrote.
On April 12, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit affirmed dismissal of an FDCPA action, concluding that itemized breakdowns in collection letters that include zero balances for interest and other fees would not confuse or mislead the reasonable “unsophisticated consumer” to believe that future interest or other charges would be incurred if the debt is not settled. The defendant management company sent a letter to the plaintiff claiming he owed amount $1,088.34 and offered to “resolve this debt in full” with a payment of $761.84. The plaintiff filed a putative class action against the defendant alleging that by itemizing interest and collection fees for his “static debt,” and by assigning “$0.00” interest, the letter falsely implied—in violation of § 1692e and § 1692f of the FDCPA—that “interest and fees could accrue and thereby increase the amount of his debt over time.” The defendants moved to dismiss for failure to state a claim. The district court dismissed the complaint with prejudice, declining “to require assurances by debt collectors that itemized amounts ‘will not change in the future,’ reasoning that doing so would lead to ‘complex and verbose debt collection letters’ that would confuse consumers.”
On appeal, the 3rd Circuit agreed with the district court. Specifically, the appellate court concluded that the “complaint fails to state a claim, whether our court’s ‘least sophisticated debtor’ standard is functionally the same as the ‘unsophisticated debtor’ standard applied by other Circuits or is instead an independent and less demanding framework.” Moreover, the appellate court noted even the least sophisticated debtor understands that “collection letters—as reflected by their fonts, formatting, content, and fields—often derive from templates and may contain information not relevant to his or her particular situation.” According to the 3rd Circuit, “FDCPA case law does not support attributing to the least sophisticated debtor simultaneous naïveté and heightened discernment. Were we for some reason constrained to consider only the law of Circuits that employ the word “least” in their FDCPA standards, we would still affirm.”
On March 24, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit determined that a plaintiff must arbitrate proposed class claims brought against a debt resolution law firm. The plaintiff alleged the law firm engaged in racketeering, consumer fraud, and unlawful debt adjustment practices in violation of various New Jersey laws. The district court denied the firm’s motion to compel arbitration, applied the law of the forum state, New Jersey, and ruled that the arbitration provision was invalid and unenforceable. The law firm appealed, arguing, among other things, that the arbitration provision would have been found valid if the district court had applied Delaware law in accordance with the parties’ 2013 professional legal services agreement. On appeal, the 3rd Circuit disagreed with the district court, holding that the arbitration provision demonstrated that the plaintiff gave up her right to litigate her claims in court, despite there appearing to be a true conflict between Delaware and New Jersey law. The appellate court concluded that the arbitration clause met the standard set forth in Atalese v. U.S. Legal Services Group, L.P., which held that an arbitration provision “will pass muster if it, ‘at least in some general and sufficiently broad way,. . .explain[s] that the plaintiff is giving up her right to bring claims in court or have a jury resolve the dispute.’” Moreover, the 3rd Circuit noted that the arbitration provision was also sufficiently broad enough to reasonably encompass the plaintiff’s statutory causes of action.
On March 16, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit held that because ECOA does not preempt New Jersey’s common-law doctrine of necessaries (where a spouse is jointly liable for necessary expenses incurred by the other spouse) a defendant debt collector was permitted to send medical debt collection letters to a deceased individual’s spouse without violating the FDCPA. The defendant was retained to collect the deceased spouse’s medical debt and sent collection letters to the plaintiff who maintained she was not responsible for the debt and subsequently filed suit alleging violations of the FDCPA. The defendant moved for dismissal, arguing that the plaintiff owed the debt under New Jersey’s doctrine of necessaries because her deceased spouse incurred the debt for medical treatment. The district court agreed and dismissed the case. The plaintiff appealed, arguing, among other things, that the doctrine of necessaries conflicts with the spousal-signature prohibition found in the ECOA.
In affirming the district court’s dismissal, the 3rd Circuit concluded that “ECOA does not preempt the doctrine of necessaries because the debt is ‘incidental credit’ exempt from the prohibition.” According to the 3rd Circuit, the Federal Reserve Board determined that incidental credit is exempt from the § 202.7(d) spousal-signature prohibition because it “refers to extensions of consumer credit. . .(i) [t]hat are not made pursuant to the terms of a credit card account; (ii) [t]hat are not subject to a finance charge. . .and (iii) [t]hat are not payable by agreement in more than four installments.” The 3rd Circuit determined that because the medical debt in question satisfied all three criteria, the spousal-signature prohibition did not apply, and therefore ECOA and its regulations did not conflict with the doctrine of necessaries. Further, the 3rd Circuit held that ECOA focuses “on ensuring the availability of credit rather than the allocation of liability between spouses.”
On March 16, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit affirmed a district court order granting summary judgment in favor of a defendant debt collection agency after concluding that a letter inviting recipients to call to “eliminate further collection action” did not deceive debtors. The plaintiff brought the putative class action lawsuit under the FDCPA claiming the defendant’s letter deceived debtors by making them think a phone call is a “legally effective” way of ending collection activity. The plaintiff also argued that the letter raised uncertainty about a debtor’s right to dispute a debt in writing. According to the plaintiff, because the letter placed the invitation to call above an acknowledgment that recipients can also respond in writing, debtors were left uncertain about which format to use. The district court disagreed and granted summary judgment to the defendant.
On appeal, the 3rd Circuit reasoned that the letter was not deceptive. According to the appellate court, the defendant never said “explicitly or implicitly that the phone call would, by law” end collection efforts. Further the letter did not create any confusion about whether a debtor should call or write to exercise their rights. Finally, the court rejected the argument that the order of paragraphs in the letter created confusion.
On February 26, the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania granted a student loan servicer’s request for interlocutory appeal as to whether questions concerning the CFPB’s constitutionality stopped the clock on claims that it allegedly misled borrowers. The court’s order pauses a 2017 lawsuit in which the Bureau claimed the servicer violated the CFPA, FCRA, and FDCPA by allegedly creating obstacles for borrower repayment options (covered by InfoBytes here), and grants the servicer’s request to certify a January 13 ruling. As previously covered by InfoBytes, the servicer argued that the Supreme Court’s finding in Seila Law LLC v. CFPB (covered by a Buckley Special Alert—which held that that the director’s for-cause removal provision was unconstitutional but was severable from the statute establishing the CFPB)—meant that the Bureau “never had constitutional authority to bring this action and that the filing of [the] lawsuit was unauthorized and unlawful.” The servicer also claimed that the statute of limitations governing the CFPB’s claims prior to the decision in Seila had expired, arguing that Director Kathy Kraninger’s July 2020 ratification came too late. The court disagreed, ruling, among other things, that “[n]othing in Seila indicates that the Supreme Court intended that its holding should result in a finding that this lawsuit is void ab initio.”
The court’s order sends the ruling to the 3rd Circuit to review “[w]hether an act of ratification, performed after the statute of limitations has expired, is subject to equitable tolling, so as to permit the valid ratification of the original action which was filed within the statute of limitations but which was filed at a time when the structure of the federal agency was unconstitutional and where the legal determination of the presence of the structural defect came after the expiration of the statute of limitations.” Specifically, the court explained that this particular “question does not appear to have been addressed by any court in the United States. . . .Not only is there a lack of conflicting precedent, there is no supporting precedent; indeed, no party has identified any comparable precedent.” Further, “[i]f this court erred in applying the doctrine of equitable tolling, it would almost certainly lead to a reversal on appeal and dismissal of this action,” the court noted.
On September 30, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit reversed a district court’s order of $448 million in disgorgement, concluding that disgorgement is not a remedy available under Section 13(b) of the FTC Act. According to the opinion, the FTC brought an action against the owners of a testosterone treatment patent (defendants) for allegedly “trying to monopolize and restrain trade over [the treatment],” in violation of Section 13(b) of the FTC Act. The district court dismissed the FTC’s claims related to the reverse-payment agreement the defendants entered into with another pharmaceutical company but held the defendants liable for the FTC’s sham-litigation allegations and ordered the defendants to pay $448 in disgorgement of ill-gotten gains. The district court denied the FTC’s request for an injunction.
On appeal, the 3rd Circuit concluded, among other holdings, that the court erred by ordering disgorgement, as it lacked the authority to do so under Section 13(b) of the FTC Act. Specifically, the appellate court noted that Section 13(b) “authorizes a court to ‘enjoin’ antitrust violations,” but is silent on disgorgement. The appellate court rejected the FTC’s contention that Section 13(b) “impliedly empowers district courts” to order disgorgement as well as injunctive relief, concluding that “the context of Section 13(b) and the FTC Act’s broader statutory scheme both support ‘a necessary and inescapable inference’ that a district court’s jurisdiction in equity under Section 13(b) is limited to ordering injunctive relief.” Thus the appellate court reversed the order of $448 million in disgorgement.
In reaching this conclusion, the appellate court noted its determination was consistent with the 7th Circuit’s decision FTC v. Credit Bureau Center (covered by InfoBytes here), which also held that the FTC does not have the power to order restitution under Section 13(b). As previously covered by InfoBytes, the U.S. Supreme Court granted consolidated review in Credit Bureau Center and in the 9th Circuit’s decision in FTC v. AMG Capital Management (covered by InfoBytes here). The Court will decide whether the FTC can demand equitable monetary relief in civil enforcement actions under Section 13(b) of the FTC Act.
On July 27, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit determined that the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania may pursue claims against a student loan servicer under the Consumer Financial Protection Act (CFPA) despite a concurrent action brought against the servicer by the CFPB. The appellate court also held that the Commonwealth’s claims under the Pennsylvania Unfair Trade Practices and Consumer Protection Law are not preempted by the federal Higher Education Act (HEA). The decision results from a lawsuit filed by the Commonwealth claiming the servicer, among other things, originated risky, high-cost student loans, steered borrowers into forbearance, failed to properly inform borrowers about income-driven repayment options, made misrepresentations related to cosigner release, and misapplied borrower payments. Because the CFPB filed a lawsuit alleging similar claims against the servicer nearly nine months prior to the Commonwealth’s suit, the servicer argued that under the applicable provision of the CFPA, the Commonwealth could not file a concurrent suit. The district court disagreed and denied the servicer’s motion to dismiss.
In addressing whether a concurrent suit is permitted, the appellate court noted, “that the clear statutory language of the [CFPA] permits concurrent state claims, for nothing in the statutory framework suggests otherwise.” With respect to whether the applicable provision of the HEA expressly and impliedly preempts the Commonwealth’s suit, the 3rd Circuit stated that the statute only expressly preempts claims “based on failures to disclose information as required by the statute,” and not claims “based on affirmative misrepresentations.” Thus, because the Commonwealth’s claims were based on alleged affirmative misrepresentations and misconduct, it affirmed the district court’s ruling that the Commonwealth’s case may proceed. The 3rd Circuit highlighted, however, a circuit split over whether the HEA impliedly preempts state-law claims, pointing to the 9th Circuit’s holding that “allowing state law causes of action to proceed would conflict with the purpose of uniformity.” The 3rd Circuit’s decision joins those issued by the 7th and 11th Circuits, which both rejected the argument that uniformity was an intended purpose of the HEA.
The CFPB and the defendants filed with the district court in May dueling motions for summary judgment in the concurrent CFPB action, but the court has yet to issue a ruling on those motions.
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.”
- Buckley Webcast: Best practices for incident-response planning in a dangerous and regulated world
- Jonice Gray Tucker to discuss “Government investigations, and compliance 2021 trends” at the Corporate Counsel Women of Color Career Strategies Conference
- APPROVED Webcast: California debt collection license requirement: Overview and analysis
- Max Bonici to discuss “BSA/AML trends: What to expect with the implementation of the AML Act of 2020” at the American Bar Association Banking Law Fall Meeting
- Jeffrey P. Naimon to discuss “Regulators are gearing up: Are you ready?” at HousingWire Annual
- Amanda R. Lawrence and Elizabeth E. McGinn discuss “U.S. state privacy legislation – Are you compliant?” at the Privacy+Security Forum
- H Joshua Kotin to discuss “Modifications and exiting forbearance” at the National Association of Federal Credit Unions Regulatory Compliance Seminar
- Jonice Gray Tucker to discuss “Fintech trends” at the BIHC Network Elevating Black Excellence Regional Summit
- Jeffrey P. Naimon to discuss "Truth in lending” at the American Bar Association National Institute on Consumer Financial Services Basics
- John R. Coleman and Amanda R. Lawrence to discuss “Consumer financial services government enforcement actions – The CFPB and beyond” at the Government Investigations & Civil Litigation Institute Annual Meeting
- Jonice Gray Tucker to discuss "Consumer financial services" at the Practising Law Institute Banking Law Institute
- Jonice Gray Tucker to discuss “Regulators always ring twice: Responding to a government request” at ALM Legalweek