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On February 11, the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia dismissed a relator’s False Claims Act claims, which alleged that a group of prime private student loan debt collectors (defendants) defrauded the federal government of funds intended for small businesses in relation to contracts to service student loans with the Department of Education (Department). The 2015 lawsuit filed by the relator accused the defendants of, among other things, allegedly concealing that “the purportedly small business subcontractors were affiliated with ‘co-conspirator’ larger businesses, ‘making them ineligible to be claimed as small businesses by the prime contractors on the [Department’s private collection agency] task orders.’” The relator also claimed that the defendants convinced the Department to award contracts and provide bonuses they did not deserve. According to the relator, the defendants made claims that hinged “on the factual allegation of undisclosed affiliation and associated submission of false claims and/or misrepresentations concerning business size.”
In the order, the court determined, among other things, that the relator fell short of alleging the specific facts necessary to convince the court that the defendants engaged in fraudulent inducement and implied certification. The court held that “despite [the relator’s] contrary contentions, [the relator’s] pleading does not establish with the requisite particularity the time and place of the false misrepresentations, what constitutes the allegedly false claim for each discrete defendant, and what, precisely, ‘was retained or given up as a consequence of the fraud.’” Specifically, the court stated that the relator “fail[ed] to connect several critical dots in the alleged scheme, leaving the [c]ourt unclear as to what, precisely, was allegedly actionably false and/or fraudulent.” However, the court allowed the relator leave to file an amended complaint, stating that “because the allegation of further facts might cure the identified deficiencies (although the [c]ourt has its doubts, given the length of the investigation and [the relator’s] counsel’s central role in the investigation), the [c]ourt sees no reason to deviate from the general rule [allowing leave].”
On February 7, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit issued a split opinion holding that a student loan guaranty agency that mistakenly attempted to collect nonexistent student loans cannot be sued under the FDCPA because, as a guaranty agency operating on behalf of the Department of Education (Department), it does not qualify as a “debt collector” under the Act. According to the opinion, the plaintiff alleged that during a scheduled deferment period, the agency notified the plaintiff that it had paid a default claim on the loans and demanded full repayment. The plaintiff alleged that she called to dispute the demand and was told the agency had no record of her debt. Subsequently, the agency ordered the plaintiff’s employer to garnish her wages, and the plaintiff filed a complaint alleging, among other things, that the defendant violated the FDCPA by making false or misleading representations and failing to validate the debt. The plaintiff also alleged that the defendant engaged in fraudulent business practices. The district court granted summary judgment in favor of the defendant, ruling that the defendant was not a debt collector subject to the FDCPA because it was acting “incidental to a bona fide fiduciary obligation” to the Department. While the plaintiff conceded that a guaranty agency’s actions are incidental to a fiduciary obligation when it attempts to collect valid defaulted student loans, she argued that the exemption does not apply when the guaranty agency attempts to collect debts that do not exist.
On appeal, the majority agreed with the district court, holding that determining whether the defendant was a debt collector subject to the FDCPA did not depend on the validity of the claimed debt. The majority held that as long as the defendant was acting in good faith, its collection efforts would be incidental to its fiduciary obligation to the Department and exempted from the definition of “debt collector.” Specifically, the majority referenced language from the FDCPA establishing that the fiduciary obligation exemption applies when an agency attempts to collect a debt that is “owed or due or asserted to be owed or due another,” holding that such language must apply to efforts to collect debts that do not exist or that phrase would have no meaning. According to the majority, “Congress easily could have written the [FDCPA] to impose liability on persons who attempt to collection nonexistent debts pursuant to a fiduciary obligation,” but Congress chose not to.
On February 6, CFPB Director Kathy Kraninger testified at a House Financial Services Committee hearing on the CFPB’s Semi-Annual Report to Congress. (Covered by InfoBytes here.) The hearing covered the semi-annual report to Congress on the Bureau’s work from April 1, 2019, through September 30, 2019. In her opening remarks, Committee Chairwoman Maxine Waters argued, among other things, that the Bureau’s recent policy statement on the “abusiveness” standard in supervision and enforcement matters “undercuts” Dodd-Frank’s prohibition on unfair, deceptive, or abusive acts or practices. Waters also challenged Kraninger on her support for the joint notice of proposed rulemaking issued by the OCC and FDIC to strengthen and modernize Community Reinvestment Act regulations (covered by a Buckley Special Alert), arguing that the proposal would lead to disinvestment in communities, while emphasizing that Kraninger’s actions have not demonstrated the Bureau’s responsibility to meaningfully protect consumers. However, in her opening statement and written testimony, Kraninger highlighted several actions recently taken by the Bureau to protect consumers, and emphasized the Bureau’s commitment to preventing harm by “building a culture of compliance throughout the financial system while supporting free and competitive markets that provide for informed consumer choice.”
Additional highlights of Kraninger’s testimony include:
- Memoranda of Understanding (MOU) with the Department of Education (Department). Kraninger discussed the recently announced information sharing agreement (covered by InfoBytes here) between the Bureau and the Department, intended to protect student borrowers by clarifying the roles and responsibilities for each agency and permitting the sharing of student loan complaint data analysis, recommendations, and data analytic tools. Kraninger stated that the MOU will give the Department the same near real-time access to the Bureau’s complaint database enjoyed by other government partners, and also told the Committee that the Bureau and Department are currently discussing a second supervisory MOU.
- Payday, Vehicle Title, and Certain High-Cost Installment Loans. Kraninger told the Committee that a rewrite of the payday lending rule—which will eliminate requirements for lenders to assess a borrower’s ability to repay loans—is expected in April. (Covered by InfoBytes here.) Kraninger noted that the Bureau is currently reviewing an “extensive number of comments” and plans to address a petition on the rule’s payments provision. “[F]inancial institutions have argued that there were some products pulled into that that were, you know, unintended,” she stated. “[W]orking through all of that and. . .moving forward in a way that is transparent in. . .April is what I am planning to do.”
- Ability-to-Repay and Qualified Mortgages (QM). Kraninger discussed the Bureau’s advanced notice of proposed rulemaking that would modify the QM Rule by moving away from the 43 percent debt to income ratio requirement and adopt an alternative such as a pricing threshold to ensure responsible, affordable mortgage credit is available to consumers. (Covered by InfoBytes here.) She stated that the Bureau would welcome legislation from Congress in this area.
- Supervision and Enforcement. Kraninger repeatedly emphasized that supervision is an important tool for the Bureau, and stated in her written testimony that during the reporting period discussed, “the Bureau’s Fair Lending Supervision program initiated 16 supervisory events at financial services institutions under the Bureau’s jurisdiction to determine compliance with federal laws intended to ensure the fair, equitable, and nondiscriminatory access to credit for both individuals and communities, including the Equal Credit Opportunity Act  and HMDA.” In addition to discussing recent enforcement actions, Kraninger also highlighted three innovation policies: the Trial Disclosure Program Policy, No-Action Letter Policy, and the Compliance Assistance Sandbox Policy. (Covered by InfoBytes here.)
- Military Lending Act (MLA). Kraninger reiterated her position that she does not believe Dodd-Frank gives the Bureau the authority to supervise financial institutions for military lending compliance, and repeated her request for Congress to grant the Bureau clear authority to do so. (Covered by InfoBytes here.) Congressman Barr (R-KY) noted that while he introduced H.R. 442 last month in response to Kraninger’s request, the majority has denied the mark up.
- UDAAP. Kraninger fielded a number of questions on the Bureau’s recent abusiveness policy statement. (Covered by InfoBytes here.) Several Democrats told Kraninger the new policy will put unnecessary constraints on the Bureau’s enforcement powers, while some Republicans said the policy fails to define what constitutes an abusive act or practice. Kraninger informed the Committee that the policy statement is intended to “clarify abusiveness and separate it from deceptive and unfairness because Congress explicitly gave us those three authorities.” Kraninger reiterated that the Bureau will seek monetary relief only when the entity has failed to make a good faith effort to comply, and that “[r]estitution for consumers will be the priority in these cases.” She further emphasized that “in no way should that policy be read to say that we would not bring abusiveness claims.” Congresswoman Maloney (D-NY) argued, however, that a 2016 fine issued against a national bank for allegedly unfair and abusive conduct tied to the bank’s incentive compensation sales practices “would have been substantially lower if the [B]ureau hadn’t charged [the bank] with abus[ive] conduct also.” Kraninger replied that the Bureau could have gotten “the same amount of restitution and other penalties associated with unfairness alone.”
- Constitutionality Challenge. Kraninger reiterated that while she agrees with Seila Law on the Bureau’s single-director leadership structure, she differs on how the matter should be resolved. “Congress obviously provided a clear mission for this agency but there are some questions around. . .this and I want the uncertainty to be resolved,” Kraninger testified. “Congress will have the opportunity to make any changes or respond to that and I think that’s appropriate,” she continued. “I would very much like to see a resolution on this question because it has hampered the CFPB’s ability to carry out its mission, virtually since its inception.” (Continuing InfoBytes coverage on Seila Law LLC v. CFPB here.)
On February 3, the CFPB and the Department of Education (Department) announced a new agreement to share student loan complaint data. (See press releases here and here.) The newly signed Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) is the first information sharing agreement between the agencies since the Department terminated two MOUs in 2017. As previously covered by InfoBytes, the Department cancelled the “Memorandum of Understanding Between the Bureau of Consumer Financial Protection and the U.S. Department of Education Concerning the Sharing of Information” and the “Memorandum of Understanding Concerning Supervisory and Oversight Cooperation and Related Information Sharing Between the U.S. Department of Education and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau,” and at the time rebuked the Bureau for overreaching and undermining the Department’s mission to serve students and borrowers.
The new MOU clarifies the roles and responsibilities for each agency and permits the sharing of student loan complaint data analysis and other information and recommendations. Among other responsibilities, the Department will direct complaints related to private loans governed by TILA to the Bureau, and both agencies will discuss complaints regarding federal student loans with program issues that may have an impact on federal consumer financial laws. The agencies will also conduct quarterly meetings to discuss complaint observations and borrower characteristics, as well as complaint resolution information when available. Additionally, the MOU addresses permissible uses and confidentiality of exchanged information and the development of tools for sharing data analytics.
The MOU was released a few days after Senators Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) and Robert Menendez (D-NJ) sent a letter to CFPB Director Kathy Kraninger expressing frustration with the Bureau’s oversight of federal student loan servicers and delay in reestablishing an MOU with the Department that would allow the Bureau to resume examining federal student loan servicers.
On January 14, a coalition of attorneys general from 19 states and the District of Columbia sent a letter to Congress in support of H.J. Res. 76, which was passed by the House of Representatives on January 16, and provides for congressional disapproval of the Department of Education’s 2019 Borrower Defense Rule (covered by InfoBytes here). The Department’s 2019 Borrower Defense Rule, published last September and set to take effect July 1, revises protections for student borrowers that were significantly misled or defrauded by their higher education institution and establishes standards for loan forgiveness applicable for “adjudicating borrower defenses to repayment claims for Federal student loans first disbursed on or after July 1, 2020.”
The AGs claim, however, that the 2019 Borrower Defense Rule “provides no realistic prospect for borrowers to discharge their loans when they have been defrauded by predatory for-profit schools, and . . . eliminates financial responsibility requirements for those same institutions.” The AGs further argue that the new provisions require “student borrowers to prove intentional or reckless misconduct on the part of their schools,” which they claim is “an extraordinarily demanding standard not consistent with state laws governing liability for unfair and deceptive conduct.” Other standards, such as requiring student borrowers to “prove financial harm beyond the intrinsic harm caused by incurring federal student loan debt as a result of fraud” and establishing a three-year time bar on borrower defense claims, would further reduce protections for student borrowers. Citing to several state enforcement actions taken against for-profit schools for alleged deceptive and unlawful tactics, the AGs stress the need for a “robust and fair borrower defense rule.”
On December 18, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit held that a nonprofit guaranty agency that collected delinquent student loans was exempt from the FDCPA because its “collection activity was incidental to its fiduciary obligation to the Department of Education.” According to the opinion, the matter dates back decades, where a judgment on the borrower’s three defaulted student loans was eventually assigned to the defendant, which began collection efforts on behalf of the Department of Education (the Department had previously repaid the guarantor of the loans). The defendant sent the borrower a notice in 2009 that it would begin collecting the Department’s claim by having the Department of Treasury “offset ‘all payment streams authorized by law,’ including his Social Security benefits,” to which the borrower did not respond. The borrower eventually disputed the debt in 2012 once the offset took effect, and filed a lawsuit in 2015 claiming FDCPA and Fifth Amendment due process violations. The district court granted summary judgment in favor of the defendant, ruling that the defendant was not a debt collector subject to the FDCPA and was not subject to due process because it was not a state actor.
On appeal, the 9th Circuit agreed with the district court, concluding that while the defendant satisfied the general criteria for debt collectors because it regularly collected debts that were owed to someone else, the defendant qualified for an exception because its debt collection activities were “incidental to a bona fide fiduciary obligation.” Specifically, the appellate court held that “incidental to” a fiduciary obligation meant that debt collection could not be the “sole or primary” reason the judgment had been assigned to the defendant. The appellate court explained that the defendant had a broader role beyond the collection of debts, because it had also accepted recordkeeping and administrative duties. Finally, concerning the borrower’s argument that the defendant had “arbitrarily and maliciously” garnished his benefits in violation of his due process rights, the 9th Circuit concluded that there was no due process violation because the defendant (i) had provided the borrower with a notice of the debt and its intention to recover the claim from his Social Security benefits; (ii) the notice was sent to the correct address; and (iii) the defendant’s misstatement that the debt arose from one loan rather than the total of three loans was not a due process violation.
On December 17, eight Senate Democrats wrote to CFPB Director Kathy Kraninger urging the Bureau to fulfill its statutory obligations related to the oversight of student loan servicers who collect loans guaranteed by the federal government. In the letter, the Senators express concern over what they consider the Bureau’s “unacceptable” abandonment of its supervision and enforcement activities related to federal student loan servicers, and discuss the Department of Education’s termination of two Memoranda of Understanding (MOUs) in 2017 that previously permitted the sharing of information in connection with the oversight of federal student loans. (Previously covered by InfoBytes here.) According to the Senators, Kraninger’s testimony before the Senate Banking Committee in October (covered by InfoBytes here) reaffirmed the Bureau’s responsibility and ability to examine entities engaged in federal and private student loans. In addition, the Senators claim that Kraninger testified that the Bureau and the Department were “discussing how to move forward in an effective way” to ensure they were overseeing student loan servicers. However, the Senators note that “nearly two months later, the Bureau and Department still have not reestablished MOUs, and the Bureau still has not resumed examinations of federal student loan servicers.” In addition to calling on Kraninger to “take immediate steps, including seeking a court order” requiring the Department to provide access to borrower information so the Bureau can resume examinations of student loan servicers, the Senators request information concerning the MOUs as well as a timeline from the Bureau on when it will resume its examinations.
AG coalition calls on Department of Education to discharge loans for students who attended closed for-profit school
On November 13, a coalition of 22 state attorneys general led by the Massachusetts attorney general sent a letter to the Department of Education’s Federal Student Aid Chief Operating Officer to determine whether the Department has complied with federal regulations that allow student borrowers to qualify for automatic discharge relief if they attended a school within 120 days of its closure date and have not continued their education elsewhere. The letter referred to an estimate provided by the Department in May, which stated that approximately 52,000 former students of a now-closed for-profit college qualified for automatic closed-school discharge relief. The letter notes, however, that recent information obtained from Congress indicates that only 7,000 student borrowers have been granted automatic discharges. Among other things, the AGs ask the Department to clarify whether all eligible students are now receiving automatic discharges, and request that the 120-day window be expanded “due to the deeply compromised nature of the school and its offerings in the months before its national collapse.” In addition, the letter requests details about the number of students with discharged loans and the methodology the Department is using to implement the automatic closed-school discharge.
On October 30, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California certified a class of borrowers who allegedly applied for student loan relief based on their higher education institution’s misconduct but have yet to receive a decision from the Department of Education. The borrowers allege that the Department has arbitrarily and capriciously stonewalled its own process for adjudicating the borrowers’ defense claims under the Higher Education Act, which “allows the Department to cancel a student federal loan repayment based on a school’s misconduct.” The borrowers claim the Department has failed to decide a borrower defense claim since June 2018. According to the borrowers—former students of for-profit schools with claims dating back to 2015—“the Department’s inaction continues to cause putative class members ongoing harm.” The Department argued, however, that the class should not be certified because the borrowers’ claims rely too much on individual circumstances and fail to prove a “systemic policy of inaction[.]” The court disagreed and certified the class, stating that the borrowers “have identified a single uniform policy—namely, the Department’s alleged ‘blanket refusal’ to adjudicate borrower defenses—which ‘bridges all their claims.’” Moreover, the court noted that “this alleged uniform policy is supported by the undisputed fact that the Department has failed to adjudicate a single borrower defense claim in over a year.” The class does not include borrowers who are part of a separate action filed against the Department (covered by InfoBytes here).
On October 24, a magistrate judge for the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California held the Department of Education and Secretary Betsy DeVos in civil contempt and ordered them to pay $100,000 in sanctions for violating a May 2018 preliminary injunction that prohibited them from collecting on student loans used for programs at a now defunct for-profit college (previously covered by InfoBytes here). According to the October 24 order, the defendants allegedly showed “only minimal efforts to comply with the preliminary injunction.” Moreover, a compliance report filed in September was “silent as to the normal actions one would expect from an entity facing a binding court order: multiple in-person meetings or telephone calls to explain the preliminary injunction and to confirm that the contractors were complying with the preliminary injunction.” The court further stated that the defendants acknowledged in their compliance report, among other things, that (i) more than 16,000 former student were told they had payments due on their student loans after the court-ordered prohibition went into effect in May 2018; (ii) nearly 3,300 of the borrowers made one or more payments; and (iii) more than 1,800 other borrowers had wages or tax returns garnished to collect on unpaid student loans. In addition to the finding of contempt and the monetary penalty, the defendants are required to file monthly status reports on their compliance with the injunction and “submit a revised notice to be sent to the entire potential class regarding [d]efendants’ noncompliance with the preliminary injunction and their forthcoming efforts to fully comply.”
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