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3rd Circuit holds unpaid highway tolls are not “debts” under the FDCPA
On August 7, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit held that unpaid highway tolls are not “debts” under the FDCPA because they are not transactions primarily for a “personal, family, or household” purpose. According to the amended class action complaint at issue in the case, after a consumer’s electronic toll payment system account became delinquent, a debt collection agency sent notices containing the consumer’s account information in the viewable display of the notice envelope. The consumer filed suit alleging the collection agency violated the FDCPA. While the lower court held that the consumer had standing to bring the claim, it dismissed the action on the ground that the unpaid highway tolls fell outside the FDCPA’s definition of a debt. The 3rd Circuit affirmed the lower court’s decision. On the issue of standing, citing the Supreme Court’s 2016 ruling in Spokeo, Inc. v. Robins (covered by a Buckley Sandler Special Alert), the panel reasoned that the exposed account number “implicates a core concern animating the FDCPA—the invasion of privacy” and is a legally cognizable injury that confers standing. The panel agreed with the consumer that the obligation to pay the highway tolls arose out of a “transaction” for purposes of the FDCPA because he voluntarily chose to drive on the toll roads, but found the purpose of the transaction was “public benefit of highway maintenance and repair”—not the private benefit of a “personal, family, or household” service or good as required by the FDCPA. Moreover, the court concluded that while the consumer chose to drive on the roads for personal purposes, the money being rendered was primarily for public services, as required by the statute to collect tolls “to acquire, construct, maintain, improve, manage, repair and operate transportation projects.”
3rd Circuit says business meets “principal purpose” definition of collector under the FDCPA
On August 7, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit held that a company using the mail and wires to collect “any debts” meets the “principal purpose” definition under the FDCPA. According to the opinion, after homeowners defaulted on a home equity line of credit, the debt was sold and the mortgage assigned to a company whose sole business is the purchase of debts entered into by third parties and collecting on those debts. After several attempts to collect the debt, the company filed a foreclosure action in Pennsylvania. The homeowners contacted the company requesting loan statements to resolve the debt but the company refused to provide statements. The homeowners later received a collection email with an even higher amount than previously communicated and filed an action alleging the company violated the FDCPA. The lower court rejected the company’s arguments that it was not a debt collector under the FDCPA’s “principal purpose” definition—any person “who uses any instrumentality of interstate commerce or the mails in any business, the principal purpose of which is the collection of any debts”—and held that the company violated the act.
The company appealed, challenging the lower court’s determination that it met the definition of debt collector, instead arguing it was a “creditor.” The 3rd Circuit, following the plain text of the FDCPA, held that “an entity whose principal purpose of business is the collection of any debts is a debt collector regardless whether the entity owns the debts it collects.” Affirming the lower court’s determination, the appellate panel disagreed with the company, reasoning that the company admitted its sole business is collecting purchased debts and it uses “mails and wires for its business,” such that it could be “no plainer” that the company fits the “principal purpose” definition under the FDCPA.
3rd Circuit affirms summary judgment for internet company in TCPA action
On June 26, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit affirmed summary judgment for a global internet media company holding that the plaintiff failed to show the equipment the company used fell within the definition of “automatic telephone dialing system” (autodialer) based the recent holding by the D.C. Circuit in ACA International v. FCC. (Covered by a Buckley Sandler Special Alert.) The decision results from a lawsuit filed by a consumer alleging the company’s email SMS service, which sent a text message every time a user received an email, was an “autodialer” and violated the TCPA. The consumer had not signed up for the service, but had purchased a cellphone with a reassigned number and the previous owner had elected to use the SMS service. Ultimately, the consumer received almost 28,000 text messages over 17 months. In 2014, the district court granted summary judgment for the company concluding that the email service did not qualify as an autodialer. In light of the FCC’s 2015 Declaratory Ruling—which concluded that an autodialer is not limited to its current functions but also its potential functions—the 3rd Circuit vacated the lower court’s judgment. On remand, the lower court again granted summary judgment in favor of the company.
In reaching the latest decision, the 3rd Circuit interpreted the definition of an autodialer as it would prior to the 2015 Declaratory Ruling in light of the D.C. Circuit’s recent holding, which struck down the part of the FCC’s 2015 Ruling expanding the definition to potential capacity. The appellate court held that the consumer failed to show that the email SMS service had the present capacity to function as an autodialer.
3rd Circuit reverses district court’s decision, rules TILA provisions misapplied to unauthorized-charge suit
On May 16, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit reversed a district court’s decision, holding that the lower court, among other things, misapplied a TILA provision under Regulation Z that requires cardholders to dispute charges within 60 days of the “first periodic statement that reflects the alleged billing error.” According to the opinion, the plaintiff-appellant filed a suit against the bank after he was allegedly rebilled for a $657 fraudulent money transfer charge that originally appeared on his statement in July 2015. The charge was originally removed from his account but reappeared in mid-September of that year after the bank claimed the charge was valid after verifying transaction details. The plaintiff-appellant challenged the decision in writing, and later filed a complaint against the bank, alleging he had “timely submitted a written notice of billing error,” and that the bank “had neither credited the charge nor conducted a reasonable investigation” and imposed liability of more than $50. The district court dismissed the complaint with prejudice for failure to state a claim, which the plaintiff appealed.
At issue, the three-judge panel determined, were two provisions under TILA: (i) the “Fair Credit Billing Act” (FCBA), which stipulates that creditors must “comply with particular obligations when a consumer has asserted that his billing statement contains an error,” and (ii) the “unauthorized-use provision,” which requires certain conditions to be met before a credit card issuer can hold the cardholder liable, up to a limit of $50, for any unauthorized use. The panel first addressed the district court’s finding that the bank’s obligations under FCBA were “never triggered” because his written notice came 63 days after the July statement first included the charge. The panel held that, because the plaintiff-appellant’s August billing statement showed a credit to his account for the charge and that “there was no longer anything to dispute” and no reason to believe his statement contained a billing error, the 60-day time limit should have started when the bank rebilled him in September. In addressing the second issue, the district court held that plaintiff-appellant was not entitled to “reimbursement” under the unauthorized-use claim. However, the panel opined that he was not seeking reimbursement but rather “actual damages,” for which the statute does provide relief. “We conclude that a cardholder incurs ‘liability’ for an allegedly unauthorized charge when the issuer, having reason to know the charge may be unauthorized, bills or rebills the cardholder for that charge,” the panel wrote.
3rd Circuit holds FDCPA statute of limitations begins to run on occurrence, not discovery, of violations, splitting from 4th and 9th Circuits
On May 15, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit issued an en banc ruling that the statute of limitations on the ability to sue for a violation of the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA) is one year from the date the Act is violated. The ruling is a departure from contrary decisions issued by the 4th and 9th Circuits, which both held that the statute of limitations begins to run when a violation is discovered, not when it occurs.
Citing the FDCPA’s provision that claims must be filed “within one year from the date on which a violation occurs,” the court found that intent of the FDCPA is that the statute of limitations should begin to run at the moment the alleged wrongdoing happens, and not when the cause of action is discovered. The Court found that the 4th and 9th Circuits’ decisions to the contrary failed to analyze the “violation occurs” language of the statute.
However, the court noted that its holding does not serve to undermine the doctrine of equitable tolling, and “should not be read to foreclose the possibility that equitable tolling might apply to FDCPA violations that involve fraudulent, misleading, or self-concealing conduct.” This question was not addressed, the court noted, because the plaintiff-appellant failed to preserve the issue on appeal.
Student loan servicer must comply with CFPB CID pending appeal
On April 17, the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania ordered a student loan servicer to comply with a CFPB Civil investigative Demand (CID), while the servicer awaits appeal. As previously covered by InfoBytes, in February the court enforced a CFPB CID issued against the student loan servicer in June 2017. In granting the Bureau’s petition to enforce the CID, the court found that the CID’s Notification of Purpose met the statutory notice requirements because nothing in the law bars the CFPB “from investigating the totality of a company’s business operations.” The court also found that the investigation was for a “legitimate purpose,” the information requested is relevant and not already known by the Bureau, and the request is not unreasonably broad or burdensome. On March 26, the servicer filed a motion to stay the court’s order pending appeal to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit. In denying the servicer’s motion, the court held that the servicer would not be irreparably harmed if it responded to the CID should the 3rd Circuit reverse the court’s decision as the Appeals Court could order all documents to be returned and prevent the CFPB from acting upon information learned through the CID. Additionally, the servicer argued that the CFPB would not be injured if the court granted the stay because the agency has not yet brought an enforcement action. The court disagreed with this argument, holding that the CFPB cannot bring an enforcement action without reviewing the relevant documents and granting the stay would only “further stall the CFPB’s efforts to obtain documents and information that it requested nine months ago.”
Judge orders student loan servicer to comply with CFPB CID
On February 28, the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania granted the CFPB’s petition to enforce a Civil Investigative Demand (CID) issued against a student loan servicer. According to the opinion, the student loan servicer filed a petition with the CFPB to set aside a June 2017 CID because the statutorily-mandated Notification of Purpose did not comply with the Bureau’s notice requirements under 12 U.S.C. § 5562(c)(2). The loan servicer argued that the CID’s list of activities under investigation—i.e., processing payments, charging fees, transferring loans, maintaining accounts, and credit reporting—failed to provide the servicer with fair notice as to the nature of the investigation because it “merely categorize[s] all aspects of a student loan servicing operation.” The CFPB denied the petition, and in November 2017, filed a petition in court to enforce the CID. In granting the Bureau’s petition, the court found that the Notification of Purpose met the statutory notice requirements because nothing in the law bars the CFPB “from investigating the totality of a company’s business operations.” Moreover, the court also found that the CID’s Notification of Purpose met the necessary requirements regarding administrative subpoenas set forth by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit, concluding that the investigation is for a “legitimate purpose,” the information requested is relevant and not already known by the Bureau, and the request is not unreasonably broad or burdensome.
3rd Circuit holds payday lender’s arbitration clause unenforceable
On February 27, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit held that an arbitration clause is unenforceable if the corresponding forum selection provision designates a forum that does not actually exist. According to the opinion, in 2012 the plaintiff obtained a $5,000 loan from the defendant, an online loan servicer. An arbitration provision accompanying the loan agreement stated that arbitration would be conducted by an authorized representative of a specific tribal nation. The plaintiff subsequently sued the defendants for allegedly violating the federal Racketeering Influenced and Corrupt Organization Act, and various New Jersey state laws. The defendants filed a motion to compel arbitration, which the lower court denied. In affirming the lower court’s decision, the 3rd Circuit concluded that the tribal arbitration forum referenced in the loan agreement does not actually exist and “because the loan agreement’s forum selection clause is an integral, non-severable part of the arbitration agreement,” the entire arbitration agreement is unenforceable.
As previously covered by InfoBytes, in January, a district court judge ordered the same online loan servicer and its affiliates to pay a $10 million penalty for offering high-interest loans in states with usury laws barring the transactions. The penalty was based on a September 2016 finding that online loan servicer was the “true lender” of the loans issued through entities located on tribal lands. The penalty was significantly reduced from the CFPB’s request of over $50 million.
3rd Circuit rules settlement offer for time-barred debt could violate FDCPA
On February 12, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit held that a collection letter offering a settlement on a time-barred debt could violate the prohibition against "any false, deceptive, or misleading representation or means in connection with the collection of any debt” of the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA). According to the opinion, the plaintiff filed a class action complaint against the debt collector after receiving a letter stating that the debt collector would accept a partial “settlement” of the delinquency amount, which was past the New Jersey six-year statute of limitations. The lower court granted the debt collector’s motion to dismiss, finding that the letter did not contain a threat of legal action by the use of the word settlement and therefore, did not violate the FDCPA. In reversing the lower court’s decision, the 3rd Circuit concluded that the “least-sophisticated debtor could be misled into thinking that ‘settlement of the debt’ referred to the creditor’s ability to enforce the debt.” In its conclusion, the appellate court also noted that settlement offers of time-barred debts “do not necessarily constitute deceptive or misleading practices” under the FDCPA and remanded the case back to the lower court for review.
District Court Order Dismissing TCPA Claim Reversed on Appeal
On July 10, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit held that a single telemarketing call to a consumer established a concrete injury sufficient to support a Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA) suit against a New Jersey-based fitness company. The appellate court reversed the District Court’s dismissal of the suit “because the TCPA provides [the consumer] with a cause of action, and her alleged injury is concrete.”
The appellate court considered two questions in the appeal: (i) was the alleged robocall a violation of the TCPA? If so, (ii) is the alleged injury concrete enough to provide Article III standing to sue under the United States Constitution? The court answered the first question by noting that the TCPA prohibits robocalls and prerecorded messages to cellular phones and that it “does not limit—either expressly or by implication—the statute's application to cell phone calls.” In answering the second question, the court determined that the alleged injury is exactly the kind of injury the TCPA was created to prevent: a nuisance or invasion of privacy.
The Third Circuit remanded the case for further proceedings consistent with their findings.