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3rd Circuit: Applying Pennsylvania usury laws to out-of-state lender does not violate “Commerce Clause”
On January 24, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit held that applying Pennsylvania usury laws to an out-of-state lender is not a violation of the “dormant Commerce Clause” of the Constitution. According to the opinion, the lender provides motor vehicle loans with interest rates allegedly “as high as 180%” to consumers, including residents of Pennsylvania. The opinion noted that the “entire loan process—from the application to the disbursement of funds—takes place . . . at one of [the lender’s] brick-and-mortar locations” outside of Pennsylvania, and that under the lender’s motor vehicle loan terms, the borrower receives the applicable loan proceeds “in the form of ‘a check drawn on a bank outside of Pennsylvania.’” Pursuant to its enforcement authority under Pennsylvania’s Consumer Discount Company Act (CDCA) and the Loan Interest and Protection Law (LIPL), the Pennsylvania Department of Banking and Securities (Department) issued a subpoena asking the lender to provide documents related to its interactions with Pennsylvania residents. The lender stopped making loans to Pennsylvania residents after receiving the subpoena, and later filed a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the District of Delaware against the Department claiming it “lost revenue as a result” of the Department’s actions. The suit sought “injunctive and declaratory relief for, among other things, violations of the Commerce Clause.” The Department separately filed a petition in state court to enforce the subpoena.
While the lender did not dispute that before 2017, it engaged in loan servicing activities and vehicle repossessions in Pennsylvania, the lender maintained that it “does not have any offices, employees, agents, or brick-and-mortar stores in Pennsylvania and is not licensed as a lender in the Commonwealth.” Additionally, the lender claimed that while “it has never used employees or agents to solicit Pennsylvania business, and  does not run television ads within Pennsylvania,” advertisements may still reach Pennsylvania residents. The district court eventually determined that because the lender’s “loans are ‘completely made and executed outside Pennsylvania and inside. . .[brick-and-mortar] locations in Delaware, Ohio, or Virginia,’ the Department’s subpoena’s effect is to apply Pennsylvania’s usury laws extraterritorially in violation of the Commerce Clause.”
On appeal, the 3rd Circuit examined the “territorial scope” of the transactions the Department “has attempted to regulate” and considered whether these transactions occur “wholly outside” of Pennsylvania. The appellate court concluded that the lender’s “conduct does not occur wholly outside of Pennsylvania,” and that the transactions are “more than a simple conveyance of money,” but rather "create a creditor-debtor relationship that imposes obligations on both the borrower and lender until the debt is fully paid.” Moreover, even if the appellate court considered the local benefits with respect to interstate commerce, it “would conclude that they weigh in favor of applying Pennsylvania laws to [the lender].” The CDCA and LIPL “protect Pennsylvania consumers from usurious lending rates,” the 3rd Circuit wrote, adding that applying Pennsylvania’s usury laws to the lender’s loans furthers the state’s local interest in prohibiting usurious lending. “Pennsylvania may therefore investigate and apply its usury laws to [the lender] without violating the Commerce Clause,” the appellate court explained. “[A]ny burden on interstate commerce from doing so is, at most, incidental.”
On January 12, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit vacated an order granting summary judgment in favor of a mortgage lender (defendant) for alleged violations of TILA and RESPA, among other claims. The plaintiff, a retired disabled military veteran, contracted with a home builder to purchase a home and used the defendant to obtain mortgage financing, which was later transferred to a servicing company. The plaintiff contended that the defendant allegedly (i) provided outdated TILA and RESPA disclosures; (ii) misrepresented that the plaintiff would not have to pay property taxes; (iii) failed to make a reasonable and good faith determination of the plaintiff’s ability to pay; and (iv) failed to provide notice of the transfer of servicing rights. On appeal, the 3rd Circuit determined that the defendant did not meet the initial burden to show no genuine dispute as to any material fact related to the plaintiff’s claims, and remanded the action. Without assessing the evidentiary value of the testimonies and materials submitted by each party in support of their own version of events, the appellate court reasoned that “these materials do not foreclose a reasonable jury from crediting [the plaintiff’s] testimony over [the defendant’s] account and finding [the defendant] liable.”
On January 6, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit held that an unsolicited fax asking recipients to participate in a market research survey in exchange for money does not constitute as an “unsolicited advertisement” under the TCPA. According to the opinion, the plaintiff medical services company claimed the defendant sent two unsolicited faxes seeking participants for its market research surveys in exchange for an “honorarium of $150,” and filed a putative class action alleging violations of the TCPA, as amended by the Junk Fax Prevention Act of 2005 (JFPA). The district court agreed with the defendant that an unsolicited faxed invitation to participate in a market research survey is not an “unsolicited advertisement” under the TCPA and dismissed the case.
The TCPA, as amended by the JFPA, defines an “unsolicited advertisement” as “any material advertising the commercial availability or quality of any property, goods, or services which is transmitted to any person without that person’s prior express invitation or permission.” On appeal, the 2nd Circuit found that the defendant’s faxes asking participants to take part in a market survey “plainly do not advertise the availability of any of those three things, and therefore cannot be ‘advertisements’ under the TCPA.” The 2nd Circuit added that “[t]his is not to say that any communication that offers to pay the recipient money is thereby not an advertisement. One could imagine many examples of communications, including faxed surveys, offering the recipient both money and services, that might incur liability under the TCPA.” The 2nd Circuit recognized that its decision disagrees with the 3rd Circuit’s ruling in Fischbein v. Olson Research Group, which held that faxes such as the ones at issue are advertisements because “an offer of payment in exchange for participation in a market survey is a commercial transaction, so a fax highlighting the availability of that transaction is an advertisement under the TCPA.” The 2nd Circuit held that in Fischbein the 3rd Circuit mistakenly relied “on an encyclopedia definition of what constitutes a ‘commercial transaction’. . . rather than focusing on the definition of ‘advertisement’ that the TCPA and FCC regulations provide.”
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.