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Financial Services Law Insights and Observations


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  • 9th Circuit concludes district attorneys can sue national banks in state court


    On February 27, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit affirmed a district court’s decision to abstain from enjoining a state action brought by a California county district attorney (DA) against a national bank, concluding that the enforcement action was not an exercise of “visitorial powers.” According to the opinion, the DA launched an investigation into the bank’s vendor and issued the bank an investigative subpoena seeking records of its banking activities. The bank objected, claiming the request “improperly infringes on the exclusive visitorial powers of the [OCC]” because it sought to inspect the bank’s books and records. The bank subsequently filed a complaint in the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California asking the court to enjoin the state action and requesting injunctive relief to prevent the DA from taking any action to enforce federal and state lending, debt collection, and consumer laws against the bank, or from exercising visitorial powers in violation of the National Bank Act (NBA). The DA withdrew his investigative subpoena and moved to dismiss for lack of subject matter jurisdiction on the ground that the case was now moot. The motion to dismiss was denied on the premise that the DA had not demonstrated that a “renewed investigative subpoena against [the bank] ‘could not be reasonably be expected.’”

    The DA then filed a complaint in state court claiming the bank violated California law by hiring a third-party vendor to place “extensive harassing” debt collection phone calls to residents in the state. The complaint alleged violations of California’s Unfair Competition Law, the Rosenthal Fair Debt Collections Practices Act, and the right to privacy under the California Constitution. In federal court, the bank moved for summary judgment, arguing that the state action was an improper exercise of visitorial powers. The district court, however, ruled that the Younger v. Harris abstention (in which a federal court refrains from staying or enjoining pending state criminal prosecutions absent extraordinary circumstances or state civil enforcement actions when certain conditions are met) applied. The bank appealed.

    The 9th Circuit considered two questions: (i) whether the Younger abstention was correctly applied, and (ii) whether the DA’s state court action “was an impermissible exercise of visitorial powers vested exclusively with the OCC.” The 9th Circuit held that the district court was correct in applying the Younger abstention doctrine because (i) “the state action qualified as an ‘ongoing’ judicial proceeding because no proceedings of substance on the merits had taken place in the federal action”; (ii) the state court action implicated an important state interest in consumer protection and nothing in federal law bars a DA from suing a national bank; (iii) the bank had the option to raise a federal defense under the NBA in the state court action; and (iv) the injunction the bank requested in the federal action would interfere with the state court proceeding.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                      The 9th Circuit also rejected the bank’s arguments that the state action constituted an illegal exercise of visitorial powers that only belongs to the OCC or state attorneys general. The 9th Circuit cited the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Cuomo v. Clearing House Ass’n, L.L.C., in which the high court “held that bringing a civil lawsuit to enforce a non-preempted state law is not an exercise of visitorial powers,” and that “a sovereign’s ‘visitorial powers’ and its power to enforce the law are two different things.” Relying on the Cuomo holding, the 9th Circuit found that accepting the bank’s position “would mean that actions brought against national banks by federal or state agencies or, for that matter, individuals would be forbidden as unlawful exercises of visitorial powers.” “Such a result is wrong. It contradicts established law and is unsupported by any legal authority cited by [the bank]” and would additionally “raise serious anti-commandeering concerns under the Tenth Amendment.”

    Courts Appellate Ninth Circuit Debt Collection State Issues California National Bank Act Rosenthal Fair Debt Collection Practices Act

  • National bank to pay $2 million in mortgage fee violation class action


    On December 19, the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California granted final approval of a settlement in a $2 million class action resolving allegations that a national bank violated California’s Rosenthal Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (RFDCPA) and Unfair Competition Law (UCL). According to the order for preliminary approval, the plaintiff class alleged that the bank improperly charged and collected transaction fees when processing mortgage payments. The district court certified the class, which included “all persons who have or had a California address, and at any time between June 1, 2016 and the date of the Court’s order preliminarily approving the settlement, paid at least one transaction fee to [the defendant] for making a payment on a residential mortgage loan serviced by [the defendant] by telephone, IVR, or the internet.” The district court determined that the settlement agreement was “reasonable and adequate.” The two class representatives who filed the suit were awarded $1,500 each, and their attorneys were awarded $499,000 in fees.

    Courts State Issues California Rosenthal Fair Debt Collection Practices Act Debt Collection Mortgages Class Action Settlement Consumer Finance

  • Bank to pay $2 million in collection call suit


    On December 14, a Superior Court of California granted a stipulated final judgment resolving claims that a national bank (defendant) violated the Rosenthal Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (RDCPA) and the FDCPA by making “harassing and annoying” debt collection calls to its customers. According to the stipulated final judgment, since at least March 2015, the defendant allegedly violated California and federal law by making phone calls with “unreasonably excessive frequency,” while also persisting in calling wrong numbers in attempts to collect on unpaid debts. The defendant, which did not admit any liability or wrongdoing, agreed to, among other things: (i) adopt or maintain policies and procedures to avoid such harassing calls; (ii) limit the number of calls it will make as part of its future debt collection efforts; and (iii) cease calling those who ask orally or in writing that they not be contacted. Under the terms of the stipulated final judgment, the defendant must pay $1.45 million in civil penalties, $300,000 in investigative costs, and $250,000 in restitution.

    Courts State Issues FDCPA California Debt Collection Rosenthal Fair Debt Collection Practices Act Consumer Finance

  • California appellate court upholds judgment in RFDCPA suit


    On November 23, the California Court of Appeal for the Fourth Appellate District upheld a summary judgment ruling for a creditor over allegations that it violated the Rosenthal Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (RFDCPA). The plaintiff, the widow of a former patient of the defendant doctor, asserted claims against the doctor and his professional corporation (collectively, “defendants”) alleging that they were debt collectors within the meaning of the RFDCPA. The plaintiff alleged that the defendants violated the RFDCPA by sending “multiple bills and making incessant” phone calls seeking payment for services provided to her husband before he died. The plaintiff requested that the defendants stop contacting her and seek payment through insurance and the hospital. The defendants used two different companies for its third-party billing services, and those companies sent invoices to the plaintiff, who responded that payment inquiries for her deceased husband should only be submitted to the insurance company and the medical center. The trial court granted the defendants’ motion for summary judgment, ruling they did not meet the statute’s definition of a debt collector.

    The appellate court affirmed, finding that “a medical service provider that exclusively uses an unaffiliated, third-party billing service to collect payment for services rendered to patients” is not a “debt collector” within the meaning of the RFDCPA. The court found that although the RFDCPA “applies to those who collect debts on behalf of themselves,” the law still requires that a defendant “must regularly and in the ordinary course of business ‘engage in’ debt collection” for liability to attach. The appellate court emphasized that it was not holding that “a creditor may never be vicariously liable for the actions of a debt collector on an agency theory.” Instead, the plaintiff carried “the burden to demonstrate a triable issue of material fact on the existence of such an agency relationship, and she failed to do so on this record.”

    Courts State Issues Appellate California Debt Collection Rosenthal Fair Debt Collection Practices Act

  • California appellate court affirms arbitration denial


    On November 8, the Sixth Appellate District Court in the Court of Appeal in California affirmed a lower court’s decision denying a defendant collection agency’s motion to compel arbitration in a California Rosenthal Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (RFDCPA) suit. According to the order, the defendant was hired to collect unpaid credit card debt from the plaintiff on behalf of a creditor. The plaintiff asserted that the defendant “engaged in a routine practice of sending initial communications that failed to provide notice as required by Civil Code section 1788.14, subdivision (d)(2), which governs attempts to collect ‘time-barred’ debts—those that are ‘past the date of obsolescence set forth in Section 605(a) of the federal Fair Credit Reporting Act.’” The defendant filed a motion to compel arbitration, submitting two cardholder agreements produced by the original creditor that did not reference the plaintiff’s name, account number, or the plaintiff’s signature. The plaintiff opposed the motion, arguing that the defendant failed to link the plaintiff to the “generic documents” and denied ever seeing or receiving the agreements before. The trial court ruled the documents were not admissible because there was no evidence that they were ever sent to the plaintiff. The trial court concluded that failing to show evidence of mutual assent, the defendant “could not show that the card agreements were enforceable binding arbitration agreements, and thus it denied the motion to compel arbitration.” The defendant appealed.

    The appellate court noted that while the custodian of records for the original creditor declared that the agreements submitted by the defendant were linked to the plaintiff’s account, the custodian did not declare how or if the agreements were provided to the plaintiff for his review and acceptance. The appellate court further found that since the plaintiff declared that he never received the agreements, the burden to prove the existence of a valid arbitration agreement shifted back to the defendant.

    Courts Debt Collection Arbitration State Issues California Rosenthal Fair Debt Collection Practices Act Appellate

  • California appellate court overturns ruling for collector that stapled note to summons


    On August 23, the California Sixth Appellate District overturned summary judgment in favor of a collector (defendant) that was sued for FDCPA and the Rosenthal Fair Debt Collection Practices Act violations. According to the court, the plaintiff incurred an unpaid medical debt, which was referred to the defendant for collection. The defendant sent the plaintiff eight letters; however, the plaintiff was allegedly not aware that the hospital assigned the debt to a debt collector and did not pay the debt. The defendant filed a collection suit against the plaintiff, seeking to recover the unpaid medical debt. The defendant stapled a typewritten note to the summons, which read, “If you have any questions regarding this matter, please contact: []” in English and Spanish. The plaintiff filed a complaint, accusing the defendant of violating the FDCPA and the Rosenthal Act, alleging that “it was unlawful for [the defendant] to send the attachment with the summons and the complaint because the attachment appeared to be a message from the court and did not contain language disclosing that it was sent by a debt collector.” The trial court granted the defendant’s motion for summary judgment, ruling that the communication was lawful, and denied the plaintiff’s cross-request for summary judgment.

    On the appeal, the defendant argued that "the attachment is not a ‘communication’ within the meaning of either statute, on the theory that the attachment itself says nothing about the debt." However, the appellate court wrote that the note was not sent “in a vacuum: The attachment, summons, and complaint comprised a collection of documents delivered by a process server—personally to [the plaintiff’s] girlfriend and then by mail to [the plaintiff].” The appellate court further noted that the reference to “this matter” in the note “unmistakably signified the litigation initiated by the accompanying complaint pleading [the plaintiff’s] indebtedness and the amount and source of indebtedness in a common count cause of action.” With regard to whether the note was a communication in connection with the collection of a debt, the appellate court noted that it “fail[ed] to conceive of any subject other than debt collection [the defendant] might think the communication was in connection with. The message in the attachment refers to the existence of a debt, conveys information regarding the debt, and serves the purpose of debt collection by enticing the recipient to contact the debt collector.” The appellate court concluded that “[b]y omitting the mandatory disclosure that this attachment was from [the defendant], a debt collector, [the defendant] made it reasonably likely that the least sophisticated consumer would believe the suggestion to call [the defendant] was from the court that issued the summons to which the suggestion was affixed. [The defendant’s] communication was therefore deceptive.”

    Courts State Issues California Appellate FDCPA Class Action Rosenthal Fair Debt Collection Practices Act Debt Collection

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