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On October 23, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit affirmed summary judgment for a debt collection law firm and attorney (collectively, “defendants”) in an action alleging the defendants violated the U.S. Bankruptcy Code and the FDCPA. According to the opinion, the plaintiffs had to make monthly payments to their condominium association as part of a special assessment to pay for an improvement project. The plaintiffs made payments until filing for bankruptcy in 2014. After the bankruptcy closed, the plaintiffs did not resume payments to the association for the improvement project. The balance continued to accrue and a lien was filed for the outstanding balance of $10,137.38. The association also created a “Certificate of Amount of Unpaid Assessments” that referenced the outstanding balance and explained over $8,000 of the total balance had been discharged in the 2014 bankruptcy. The plaintiffs sued the defendants, asserting that the bankruptcy discharged all the debt owed, including the post-discharge payments, and that the defendants’ collection efforts “were coercive and misleading.” The district court granted summary judgment in favor of the defendants.
On appeal, the 3rd Circuit affirmed. The court concluded that the payment owed to the condominium association was a “fee or assessment” under the Bankruptcy Code that was not discharged here because the plaintiffs retained ownership interest in the property and the assessment payment became due after the bankruptcy. The court also rejected the plaintiffs’ FDCPA claims against the defendants. The court explained that the defendants were not responsible for the amount listed in the condominium association’s certificate and, in any event, the amount the defendants’ attempted to collect did not include the discharged amount. The court concluded that the plaintiffs failed to provide any evidence that would create an issue of material fact on the FDCPA claim and affirmed the district court’s summary judgment ruling.
On September 12, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit held that the False Claims Act (FCA) does not guarantee relators an automatic in-person hearing before a case can be dismissed. According to the opinion, a relator filed a qui tam action against a Delaware non-profit organization, asserting claims on behalf of the United States and the State of Delaware under the FCA and the Delaware False Claims Act (DFCA), alleging the organization received funding from state and federal governments by misrepresenting material information. Delaware and the federal government declined to intervene and, three years later, both moved to dismiss the case. Both governments argued that the relator’s allegations were “factually incorrect and legally insufficient.” The district court granted the motions without conducting an in-person hearing. The relator appealed, arguing that the FCA guarantees an automatic in-person hearing before a case can be dismissed.
On appeal, the 3rd Circuit disagreed with the relator. The appellate court noted that the government “has an interest in minimizing unnecessary or burdensome litigation costs,” and, once the government moved to dismiss, the burden shifted to the relator to prove that dismissal would be “fraudulent, arbitrary and capricious, or illegal.” The appellate court concluded that the relator failed to do so, and rejected his argument that he should have been allowed to introduce evidence during a hearing to satisfy his burden. While the FCA and the DFCA state that a relator has an “‘opportunity for a hearing’ when the government moves to dismiss,” it is the relator’s responsibility to avail himself or herself of this opportunity, according to the appellate court. The court concluded that the FCA and DFCA do not guarantee an automatic in-person hearing and, because the relator failed to request a hearing and his motions failed to prove the dismissal was fraudulent, arbitrary, capricious, or illegal, the district court did not err in dismissing the action.
On August 29, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit affirmed the dismissal of a putative class action alleging that an NFL team’s season ticket sales practices had violated the implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing and the New Jersey Consumer Fraud Act (CFA). As previously covered by InfoBytes, the case was centered on the plaintiff’s purchase of a personal seat license (PSL) that “both allows and obligates” him to buy season tickets for particular seats at the team’s home games. The team later began selling seats in the same seating section without requiring PSLs, which the plaintiff alleged made his PSL “valueless” and “‘unsellable’ because defendants are currently giving away for free what cost him $8,000.” The district court dismissed the plaintiff’s claims with prejudice because the plaintiff had received the “reasonably expected fruits under the contract.”
On appeal, the 3rd Circuit agreed with the district court that the plaintiff had “received the fruits of his contract” because “[n]othing in the complaint suggests [the plaintiff] has lost the exclusive right to purchase season tickets for these seats” and the fact that the team “might now sell adjacent seats to members of the general public does not implicate [the plaintiff’s] rights and certainly does not strip him of the benefit for which he bargained.” Regarding the value of his PSA, the appellate court noted that when purchasing the PSL, the plaintiff represented that he was not acquiring it as an investment and had no expectation of profit. Finally, with regard to the CFA claim, the appellate court held that “simply changing the terms on which defendants sell other seats in the stadium is not misleading.”
On August 20, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit concluded that a plaintiff failed to adequately allege the existence of a written agreement for his deductible payment plan and therefore, his surgery institute did not violate TILA’s disclosure requirements. According to the opinion, the day before his surgery, the surgery institute orally agreed to accept a partial deductible payment and agreed to permit the plaintiff to pay the remaining deductible requirements in monthly installments. The plaintiff received two emails, one confirming the initial payment and the other confirming the payment plan and listing the plaintiff’s credit card. The institute performed the surgery, but the plaintiff failed to make any further payments on the deductible. Instead, the plaintiff filed an action against the institute alleging it violated TILA by extending credit and failing to provide the required disclosures. The district court granted judgment on the pleadings for the institute, concluding that the plaintiff' failed to establish a written agreement for the extension of credit. The court also issued sanctions, in the form of attorneys’ fees, against the plaintiff’s counsel, reasoning the counsel could have reasonably discovered the lack of written agreement and lack of payment before initiating the action.
On appeal, the 3rd Circuit affirmed in part and reversed in part in the district court’s judgment. The appellate court agreed with the district court that the plaintiff failed to establish the existence of a written agreement for credit with the institute, noting “the requirement of a written agreement [under TILA] is not satisfied by a ‘letter that merely confirms an oral agreement.’” But the appellate court noted that the district court erred in relying on an admission to that effect by plaintiff’s counsel during a telephone conference. Nonetheless, the error was “harmless” because the plaintiff failed to establish a written agreement was executed and signed, stating “[n]owhere does he allege that he signed a written agreement, and the  email correspondence was merely ‘confirming’ the ‘previously discussed’ agreement." The appellate court then reversed the district court’s sanctions ruling, concluding it abused its discretion when it imposed them.
On August 15, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit affirmed summary judgment in favor of a credit reporting agency (CRA), concluding that the CRA did not violate the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA) by reporting past negative incidents. According to the opinion, after struggling financially, a married couple missed payments on at least five credit accounts. The consumers allegedly resolved the late payments and filed complaints with the CRA arguing the continued presence of the late payments misrepresented the “real status of their credit.” Additionally, the consumers argued some of the “key factors” the CRA discloses to credit providers, “such as ‘[s]erious delinquency’ or ‘[a]mount owed on revolving [a]ccounts is too high,’ are misleading.” The consumers filed suit against the CRA, alleging a variety of federal and state law claims, including violations of the FCRA for failing to maintain reasonable procedures and failing to conduct a reasonable investigation into disputes. The district court granted summary judgment in favor of the CRA and the consumers appealed their FCRA claims.
On appeal, the 3rd Circuit agreed with the district court, concluding the consumers must show their credit report contains inaccurate information to prevail on their claims, which the consumers failed to do. The panel noted the consumers admitted they made the late payments and did not allege the adverse information is more than seven years old. The panel concluded the consumers’ claim “is not that the information in their credit reports and disclosures is inaccurate, but rather that it is irrelevant,” which does not support their claims for a violation under the FCRA.
On August 12, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit affirmed a district court ruling that an envelope containing an unencrypted “quick response” (QR) code that revealed a consumer’s account number when scanned violated the FDCPA. The plaintiff in this case received an envelope containing a collection letter with a printed QR code that, when scanned, revealed the internal reference number associated with the plaintiff’s account. The plaintiff filed a class action lawsuit, and the district court granted summary judgment for the plaintiff, finding that printing the QR code was no different than printing the account number on the envelope, which is a violation of the FDCPA. The defendant appealed, arguing, among other things, that (i) the plaintiff had not suffered a concrete injury; (ii) the QR code would have to be unlawfully scanned in order to obtain the account information; and (iii) the defendant’s conduct was covered under the FDCPA’s bona fide error defense, because it “erred by using industry standards for processing return mail.”
On appeal, the 3rd Circuit affirmed the district court’s ruling. Specifically, the appellate court found that, with respect to injury, the plaintiff was not required to demonstrate that anyone actually intercepted the letter or scanned the QR code to determine that the contents related to debt collection—disclosure of the account number is itself the harm. The appellate court also rejected the defendant’s argument that someone needed to unlawfully scan the barcode, finding that there is no material difference between printing a QR code or printing an account number directly on an envelope because protected information was made available to the public. The appellate court also rejected the defendant’s bona fide effort defense, stating that the defendant misunderstood its FDCPA obligations and the printing of the QR code had not been the result of a clerical mistake or accident.
On August 12, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit vacated the dismissal of a relator’s qui tam action, concluding that the federal action was not barred by New Jersey’s equitable entire controversy doctrine. In the case, an employer brought a defamation and disparagement suit against a former employee, and while the suit was pending, the employee brought a qui tam action under the False Claims Act (FCA) against the employer on behalf of the United States and the state of New Jersey. The qui tam action remained under seal for over seven years while the government investigated the action. During this time, the employer’s state court action against the employee was dismissed after the parties entered into a settlement agreement. After the government chose not to intervene in the FCA action, and the district court unsealed the complaint, the employee chose to proceed. The district court granted summary judgment in favor of the employer, finding that New Jersey’s “entire controversy” doctrine requires claims arising from related facts or transactions to be adjudicated in one action.
On appeal, the 3rd Circuit concluded that New Jersey’s entire controversy doctrine did not apply to the employee’s qui tam action because, in FCA cases, the U.S. is the real party in interest. The appellate court noted that concluding otherwise would essentially allow the employee to “unilaterally negotiate, settle, and dismiss the qui tam claims during the Government’s investigatory period.” Moreover, the appellate court found that application of the doctrine “would incentivize potential [FCA] defendants to ‘smoke out’ qui tam actions by suing potential relators and then quickly settling those private claims,” in order to bar a potential qui tam action.
On July 12, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit affirmed the denial of a debt collector’s motion to compel arbitration, concluding the debt collector did not establish authority to enforce the arbitration agreement made between the consumer and the original creditor. According to the opinion, a consumer executed a credit card agreement with a creditor containing an arbitration clause. After the consumer fell behind on her payments, her account was referred to the debt collector for collection. The consumer filed suit against the debt collector, alleging that one of the collection letters violated the FDCPA by “failing to inform her whether interest would continue to accrue on her account.” The debt collector moved to compel arbitration based on the provision in the consumer’s credit card agreement with the original creditor, under a third-party beneficiary, agency, or equitable-estoppel theory. The district court rejected each theory and denied the motion, concluding that (i) the agreement did not “evince an intent to benefit” the debt collector; (ii) the FDCPA claim “did not bear a sufficient nexus to the credit-card agreement”; and (iii) the debt collector could not equitably estop the consumer from resisting arbitration under the 3rd Circuit’s previous interpretation of South Dakota law.
On appeal, the 3rd Circuit agreed with the district court. The appellate court noted that the debt collector failed the test to enforce an agreement as a third-party beneficiary under South Dakota law, because the debt collector failed to establish that the original creditor and its consumers “would not have entered the card agreement but for the intent to benefit debt collectors.” As for the debt collector’s agency theory, the appellate court stated that the debt collector did not cite, and the court did not find, “South Dakota authority adopting a freestanding ‘agency’ theory of third-party enforcement.” Further, the appellate court noted that the debt collector’s arguments would fail under the South Dakota test for equitable estoppel and, therefore, the appellate court had “no basis to conclude that South Dakota would allow [the debt collector], as a non-signatory, to enforce [the original creditor]’s arbitration agreement with its customers.”
On July 10, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit reversed the dismissal of a FDCPA action against a debt collector, holding that the collection letter failed to apprise the least sophisticated debtor of the creditor’s identity. The complaint alleges that the debt collector “failed to identify ‘the name of the creditor to whom the debt is owed’” as required by the FDCPA because the letter listed “at least four entities” that were connected in some way to the debt. The district court dismissed the complaint, concluding the debt collector sufficiently identified the creditor.
On appeal, the 3rd Circuit concluded that the letter failed to notify the least sophisticated debtor of the creditor’s identity for three reasons: (i) the letter did not expressly state that the bank was the creditor or the owner of the debt; (ii) the letter identified the bank as the “assignee of” three other financial entities and “assignee” is a legal term that does not assist a debtor in understanding the relationships between the parties; and (iii) the letter as a whole failed to sufficiently identify the bank as the creditor, as the reference to three other entities “‘overshadowed’ the creditor’s identity.” The appellate court concluded that the letter failed to properly disclose the creditor and therefore, violated the FDCPA, reversing the district court’s dismissal of the complaint.
On June 19, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit affirmed the dismissal of a RESPA class action against a national bank, concluding the suit was not timely filed. According to the opinion, two consumers took out mortgages with the bank in 2005 and 2006. In 2011, the consumers were part of the putative class in a separate class action, alleging the bank violated RESPA by referring homeowners to mortgage insurers that then obtained reinsurance from a subsidiary of the bank, which the consumers claimed amounted to a kickback. After the class action was dismissed as untimely in 2013 and while it was pending appeal, the consumers filed a new class action as the named plaintiffs, which alleged the same violation of RESPA. The consumers argued that, while RESPA has a one-year statute of limitations, (i) RESPA makes each kickback a separately accruing wrong and that the insurers paid a kickback for each insurance premium payment, therefore, the suit is timely up to one year after the last premium payment and kickback; and (ii) the filing of the first class action tolled the limitation period for their claims and because the class action continued until November 2013, tolling extended their limitations period until then.
The appeals court upheld the district court’s dismissal of the action, agreeing with the consumers’ separate-accrual theory, but noting that the consumers paid no premiums in the year before they filed their complaint, so the limitations period had expired before the consumers filed the new action. Specifically, the appellate court rejected the bank’s argument that RESPA’s statute of limitations runs only from the mortgage closing, not from each later premium payment, holding that under RESPA the limitations period accrues separately for each kickback, stating “[s]o a party violates the Act anew each time it takes the discrete act of giving or receiving a kickback under an agreement to make referrals.”
As for whether the 2011 class action tolled the consumers’ claims, the appellate court cited the Supreme Court’s 2018 opinion in China Agritech, Inc. v. Resh, noting that the Court in that case held that such tolling is only available for individual claims, not class claims. The appellate court rejected the consumers’ arguments that China Agritech does not apply to new class claims filed before the first action has officially ended, stating, “[t]olling new class actions filed while the first one was pending would encourage more plaintiffs to seek second bites at the apple.” Because the consumers’ action was not timely filed, the appellate court affirmed the district court’s dismissal.
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