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On April 20, the CFPB filed an amicus brief in a case before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit arguing that the duty to investigate a consumer’s credit dispute applies not only to factual disputes but also to disputes that can be labeled as legal in nature. The plaintiffs entered into a timeshare agreement with the defendant hotel chain and made monthly payments for nearly two years but then stopped. The plaintiffs disputed the validity of, and attempted to rescind, the agreement. The defendant did not agree to the rescission and continued to record the deed under the plaintiffs’ names. The plaintiffs later obtained copies of their credit reports, which showed past-due balances with the defendant, and subsequently submitted letters to a credit reporting agency (CRA) disputing the credit reporting. After the defendant certified the information was accurate, the plaintiffs sued the defendant and the CRA alleging that the defendant violated the FCRA by failing to conduct a proper investigation. The defendant moved for summary judgment, arguing that the issue of whether the debt is owed—the basis of the plaintiffs’ FCRA claim—constitutes a legal dispute and is not a factual inaccuracy. The defendant further maintained that there was no legal error because the plaintiffs owed the money as a matter of law. Last December, the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida granted partial summary judgment in favor the defendant after concluding, among other things, that because the plaintiffs’ dispute centered on the legal validity of their debt, rather than a factual inaccuracy, the investigation requirement was not triggered and the claim was “not actionable under the FCRA.”
The Bureau argued in favor of the plaintiffs-appellants. According to the Bureau, the district court “unduly narrow[ed] the scope of a furnisher’s obligations by holding that furnishers categorically need not investigate indirect disputes involving ‘legal’ inaccuracies.” This position, the Bureau maintained, contradicts the purpose of the FCRA’s requirement to conduct a reasonable investigation of consumer disputes and “could reduce the incentive of furnishers to resolve ‘legal’ disputes, and, in turn, could increase the volume of consumer complaints about credit reporting issues that the Bureau receives and devotes resources to address.”
Explaining that the FCRA does not distinguish between legal and factual disputes, the Bureau stated that the district court’s conclusion “is not supported by the statute, risks exposing consumers to more inaccurate credit reporting, conflicts with the decision of another circuit, and undercuts the remedial purpose of the FCRA.” The Bureau presented several arguments to support its position, including that a reasonable investigation is required under the FCRA, and that while the reasonableness of an investigation is case specific, it “can be evaluated by how thoroughly the furnisher investigated the dispute (e.g., how well its conclusion is supported by the information it considered or reasonably could have considered).”
The Bureau also claimed that the Congress did not intend to exclude disputes that involve legal questions. “[M]any inaccurate representations pertaining to an individual’s debt obligations arguably could be characterized as legal inaccuracies, given that determining the truth or falsity of the representation could require the reading of a contract,” the Bureau wrote. Moreover, an “atextual exception for legal inaccuracies will create a loophole that could swallow the reasonable investigation rule,” the Bureau stressed. The agency urged the court to “reject a formal distinction between factual and legal investigations because it will likely prove unworkable in practice” and said that allowing such a distinction would “curtail the reach of the FCRA’s investigation requirement in a way that runs counter to the purpose of the provision to require meaningful investigation to ensure accuracy on credit reports.”
As previously covered by InfoBytes, the CFPB and the FTC filed an amicus brief presenting the same arguments last December in a different FCRA case on appeal to the 11th Circuit involving the same defendant.
On April 18, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit affirmed the dismissal of a putative FDCPA class action debt collection lawsuit concerning allegedly misleading dispute language. A letter the plaintiff received from the defendant debt collector included the following statement:
Unless you notify this office within 30 days after receiving this notice that you dispute the validity of this debt or any portion thereof, this office will assume this debt is valid. If you notify this office in writing within 30 days after receiving this notice that you dispute the validity of this debt or any portion thereof, this office will obtain verification of the debt or obtain a copy of a judgment and mail you a copy of such judgment or verification. If you request of this office in writing within 30 days after receiving this notice[,] this office will provide you with the name and address of the original creditor, if different from the current creditor.
If you dispute the debt, or any part thereof, or request the name and address of the original creditor in writing within the thirty-day period, the law requires our firm to suspend our efforts to collect the debt until we mail the requested information to you.
The plaintiff argued that the suspended collection language in the second paragraph violated the FDCPA because it led her to believe “that she could suspend collection by disputing all or part of the debt orally outside of the 30-day window.” Doing so, the plaintiff maintained, would conflict with her rights under Section 1692g(b) of the statute, which “guarantees that, if a consumer invokes her § 1692g(a) right to request information about a debt, and the consumer invokes this right in writing and within the thirty-day period prescribed by statute, a debt collector must ‘cease collection of the debt’ until it has provided the requested information to the debtor.” While the defendant was not required to notify the plaintiff about her rights under 1692g(b), the plaintiff claimed that including inaccurate information about those rights gave her “contrary and inconsistent” information.
The district court dismissed the action for failure to state a claim on the premise that, when “read holistically,” the letter did not suggest that the plaintiff could have collection activity suspended by orally disputing the debt outside the 30-day window. On appeal, the 3rd Circuit agreed with the district court that the language that preceded the disputed statement “eliminates any ambiguity” because “it explains that a debtor who wishes to avail herself of her statutory right to validation of a debt must request validation in writing and within 30 days of receiving a collection notice.”
On April 10, the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania denied a credit reporting agency’s (CRA) motion for summary judgment in a certified class action suit accusing the CRA of willfully violating the reinvestigation provision in the FCRA. Plaintiff claimed that he disputed an alleged inaccurate hard inquiry on his credit report, and argued that not only did the CRA fail to remove the hard inquiry from his credit file, he was given a sales pitch for an identity theft product. The CRA conceded that it did not reinvestigate the dispute and argued, among other things, “that hard inquiries do not necessarily decrease a consumer’s credit score and, even if they did, such diminutions do not necessarily result in the denial of credit.” Experts for both parties debated the extent to which a hard inquiry affects a consumer’s credit score.
The court disagreed with the CRA’s position concerning the impact of hard inquiries on consumers’ credit scores, noting the conflict with federal regulators’ cautionary advice that “[t]hese inquiries will impact your credit score because most scoring models look at how recently and how frequently you apply for credit.” Moreover, the CRA’s own expert opined that hard inquiries usually do have a “minor impact” on consumers’ credit scores. Additionally, the court rejected the CRA’s argument that it did not willfully violate the FCRA because its process for handing hard-inquiry disputes was in line with industry-wide practices. The court cited Third Circuit precedent requiring CRAs to reinvestigate any information a consumer claims is inaccurate if the CRA does not deem the information frivolous or chooses not to delete it from the customer’s file. “When industry practices are contradicted by clear statutory language and case law giving force to that language, common practice does not save a defendant from a finding of willfulness,” the court wrote. With respect to the decertification request, the court said class members established that the time and resources spent trying to resolve disputes over inaccurate hard inquiries, and their lowered credit scores, amounted to concrete injury that can be fairly traceable to the CRA’s statutory violation.
The court denied summary judgment for two reasons. First, the court did not find that the CRA’s actions were “objectively reasonable” based on the CRA’s reliance on a “contorted and inconsistent” reading of the FCRA and its interpretation of § 1681i (which “requires a reasonable reinvestigation when consumers raise a dispute of inaccuracy”). The court also denied summary judgment “[b]ecause a jury could find that [the CRA’s] blanket policy of refusing to reinvestigate disputes of hard inquiries is not reasonable under the law.”
On March 10, the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Illinois ruled a defendant credit union failed to properly report an individual’s debt to a consumer reporting agency or investigate his dispute. Plaintiff obtained a credit card from the defendant but fell behind on his payments. After his account was later sent to a third-party collection agency, the plaintiff obtained a copy of his credit report where he noticed that his credit card debt was listed twice—once as a “individual” and “revolving” account with a balance of $10,145, and another time as an “open” collections account with a different balance. Plaintiff sent identical dispute letters to the three major credit reporting agencies (CRAs), acknowledging the delinquent credit card but expressing confusion as to why the account was listed twice. He submitted additional similar disputes with the CRAs, claiming that the error caused him to be denied the opportunity to rent an apartment and made it difficult for him to obtain a mortgage. During discovery, two corporate witnesses testified on behalf of the defendant—one of whom is responsible for reviewing consumer credit disputes and verified the information being reported was accurate. A second witness also testified that while the defendant understood that the plaintiff was alleging inaccuracies due to the debt being reported twice, it chose to focus its investigation on verifying that the information in the plaintiff’s credit report matched the information in its internal system.
In denying the defendant’s motion for summary judgment, the court noted that while the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit “has not decided whether double-reporting of a single debt on a credit report is an FCRA violation, district courts across the country have found that whether the practice is misleading and violates the FCRA is an issue of fact.” The court explained that an issue of fact exists as to whether double reporting the debt created a misleading impression that the plaintiff has two separate debts totaling $22,000 rather than a single debt of roughly $10,000. Moreover, even though the plaintiff’s dispute contained the message “duplicate,” the defendant did not address this issue nor did it request that a change be made to the plaintiff’s credit report. “A jury could reasonably conclude  that [defendant’s] investigation was inadequate under the FCRA,” the court wrote. “[W]hether [defendant’s] investigation or protocol may qualify as a willful violation giving rise to statutory or punitive damages is an issue for a jury as well.”
On December 16, the CFPB and FTC filed an amicus brief in a case on appeal to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit concerning two related FCRA cases in support of plaintiffs-appellants and reversal of their suits involving a defendant hotel chain’s summary judgments. Both cases involve the same defendant company. In one case, the plaintiff entered into a timeshare agreement with the defendant for a property and made monthly payments for approximately three years. When the plaintiff stopped making payments, the plaintiff mailed the defendant letters that disputed the validity of, and purported to rescind, the agreement, while permitting the defendant to retain all prior payments as liquidated damages. The plaintiff obtained a copy of his credit report from a credit reporting agency (CRA), which stated that he had an open account with the defendant with a past-due balance. In three letters to the CRA, the plaintiff disputed the credit reporting. The letters stated that the plaintiff had terminated his agreement with the defendant and that he did not owe a balance. After the CRA communicated each dispute to the defendant, the defendant certified that the information for the defendant’s account was accurate. The plaintiff sued alleging the defendant violated the FCRA when it verified the accuracy of his credit report without conducting reasonable investigations following receipt of his indirect disputes. The defendant moved for summary judgment, alleging, among other things, that the plaintiff’s claim that he was not contractually obligated to make the payments to the defendant that are reported on his credit report as being due “is inherently a legal dispute and is not actionable under the FCRA.” The district court granted the defendant’s motion for summary judgment, which the plaintiff appealed.
In the other case, the plaintiff entered into a timeshare agreement with the defendant. She made a down payment and the first three installment payments, but did not make any additional payments. The plaintiff sent letters to the defendant disputing the validity of, and attempted to cancel, the agreement. The defendant reported the plaintiff’s delinquency to the CRA. In three letters to the CRA, the plaintiff disputed the credit reporting. After the CRA communicated the disputes to the defendant, the defendant determined there was no inaccuracy in the reporting. The plaintiff sued alleging the defendant violated the FCRA when it verified the accuracy of her credit report without conducting reasonable investigations following receipt of her indirect disputes about credit reporting inaccuracies. The district court granted the defendant’s motion for summary judgment, which the plaintiff appealed.
The CFPB and FTC argued in favor of the plaintiffs-appellants. According to the agencies, furnishers’ duty under the FCRA to reasonably investigate applies not only to factual disputes, but also to disputes that can be labeled as legal in nature. The agencies made three arguments to support their contention. First, a reasonable investigation is required under the FCRA to comport with its goal to “protect consumers from the transmission of inaccurate information about them.” The agencies argued that reasonableness is case specific, but it can “be evaluated by how thoroughly the furnisher investigated the dispute (e.g., how well its conclusion is supported by the information it considered or reasonably could have considered).”
Second, the agencies argued that Congress did not intend to exclude disputes that involve legal questions. The FCRA describes the types of indirect disputes that furnishers need to investigate, which are “those that dispute ‘the completeness or accuracy of any item of information contained in a consumer’s file.’” The agencies said nothing suggests that Congress intended to exclude information that is inaccurate on account of legal issues. Furthermore, the agencies noted that a lot of “inaccuracies in consumer reports could be characterized as legal, which would create an exception that would swallow the rule.” Consumer reports generally include information regarding an individual’s debt obligations, which are generally creatures of contract. Therefore, “many inaccurate representations pertaining to an individual’s debt obligations arguably could be characterized as legal inaccuracies, given that determining the truth or falsity of the representation could require the reading of a contract.”
Lastly, the agencies argued that an “atextual exception for legal inaccuracies would create a loophole that could swallow the reasonable investigation rule.” The agencies urged that “[g]iven the difficulty in distinguishing ‘legal’ from ‘factual’ disputes,” the court “should hold that there is no exemption in the FCRA’s reasonable investigation requirement for legal questions” because it would “curtail the reach of the FCRA’s investigation requirement in a way that runs counter to the purpose of the provision to require meaningful investigation to ensure accuracy on credit reports.”
On November 15, the CFPB issued two reports discussing issues related to the tenant background check industry. The Consumer Snapshot: Tenant Background Checks bulletin outlines difficulties that prospective renters encounter in connection with a landlord’s use of a tenant screening report, based on complaints submitted to the CFPB and CFPB-commissioned qualitative research. The Tenant Background Checks Market Report is based on data from industry research, legal cases, academic research, the CFPB’s market monitoring, and other third-party sources, and focuses on publicly available information from a sample of 17 tenant screening companies that offer services to landlords across the U.S. According to the Bureau, the reports describe how errors in these background checks contribute to rising costs and barriers to quality rental housing. The Bureau’s analysis of over 24,000 complaints highlights renter challenges associated with the industry’s failure to remove wrong, old, or misleading information or to conduct adequate investigations of disputed information.
Highlights of Consumer Snapshot: Tenant Background Checks include:
- More than 17,200 of the approximately 26,700 complaints related to tenant screening received by the Bureau from January 2019 through September 2022 were related to incorrect information appearing on a prospective renter's report.
- Renters who submitted complaints about tenant screening reports described difficulties finding stable and secure housing due to negative information that was inaccurate, misleading, or obsolete.
- The experiences of most applicants who encountered inaccurate or misleading information about evictions and rental debt in their reports indicate that the presence of eviction records has a high likelihood of leading to outright denials of rental housing.
- Inaccuracies in criminal records may have an outsized impact on Native American, Black, and Hispanic communities as they are disproportionally represented in the criminal justice system.
Highlights of the Tenant Background Checks Market Report include:
- The coverage of rental payment history in the consumer reporting system is estimated to range between 1.7 percent to 2.3 percent of U.S. renters.
- Approximately 68 percent of renters pay application fees when applying for rental housing, which are often used to cover the cost of tenant screening.
- Market incentives generally value comprehensiveness of derogatory information at the expense of accurate information.
- There may be a significant possibly that tenant screening reports overstate the risk of renting to any given applicant.
District Court rules FCRA allegation filed before expiration of 30-day investigation period is not ripe
On October 14, the U.S. District Court for the District of South Carolina adopted a magistrate judge’s report and recommendation to grant summary judgment in favor of a defendant accused of violating the FCRA. According to the plaintiff’s amended complaint, the plaintiff opened a loan with the defendant and later entered into a modified agreement that reduced his monthly payments and the future projected balance. He later noticed that his credit report showed (i) the reported balance for his account to be higher than it should have been under the terms of the modified agreement, and (ii) three months of late payments. The plaintiff filed a dispute with the credit reporting agency (CRA) arguing, among other things, that the balance was being misstated. The plaintiff filed another dispute with the CRA regarding the late payments. Plaintiff filed the instant action before the end of the 30-day investigation period for disputes regarding the late payments. The magistrate judge recommended summary judgment be granted to defendant related to claims alleging violation of Section1681s-2b for both (i) the claim predicated on the restated balance, and (ii) the claim predicted on the late payments, but for different reasons. The “late payment” claim “was not ripe when the action was filed” because the 30-day investigation period had not yet expired when the plaintiff filed his amended complaint. For the “restated balance” claim, the magistrate judge’s report found that the parties had a genuine legal dispute over their interpretations of the modified agreement—whether the balance due should be reduced at the time of the modification agreement or at the end of the modification term, which was not a factual inaccuracy: “the Report found violations of 15 U.S.C. 1681a-2(b) must be based on factual inaccuracies, not legal disputes, and as Plaintiff bases his claim on a legal dispute, he cannot prevail on his FCRA claim.” This district court agreed noting that the plaintiff did not appear to object to the legal determination that “as a matter of a law a violation of a §1681s-2(b) could not be based on a legal dispute over the terms of a contract[.]” The report also noted that the plaintiff failed to demonstrate that he is entitled to actual damages—a requirement for a negligent violation of the FCRA—nor did he show that the defendant willfully violated the FCRA in order to be entitled to statutory or punitive damages. The district court agreed with the report and recommendations and dismissed the case with prejudice.
On October 13, Chairman of the Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis James E. Clyburn sent a letter to CFPB Director Rohit Chopra addressing reports that nationwide consumer reporting agencies (CRAs) were less responsive to consumer complaints and disputes related to credit report errors during the Covid-19 pandemic. According to Clyburn, investigative reports allegedly revealed that the CRAs, which are legally obligated to address errors contained in consumer credit reports, did not always investigate these disputes and purportedly used “broad and speculative criteria” to determine whether a dispute was submitted by an unauthorized third party. The letter also expressed concerns that the CRAs’ alleged “overreliance on data furnishers” raises questions about the sufficiency of the CRAs’ dispute investigations, and that, moreover, using different levels of automation to resolve disputes and complaints is creating variability in the quality and thoroughness of their investigations. Clyburn expressed concerns that by failing to investigate certain legitimate disputes, identify and correct erroneous information, or provide the Bureau with information on the outcomes of the complaint investigations, the CRAs may be failing to meet their obligations under the FCRA. He asked Chopra to review the CRAs for possible statutory violations and to “consider investigating whether the CRAs have made sufficient revisions to their procedures for identifying and taking corrective action against unreliable furnishers.”
On September 13, the FTC and CFPB (agencies) filed a joint amicus brief with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit, seeking the reversal of a district court decision that held furnishers of credit information are only obligated to investigate “bona fide” indirect disputes and may choose to decline to investigate other indirect disputes raised by consumers that are deemed frivolous. The agencies argued that this “atextual, judge-made exception” could undermine a key FCRA protection that allows consumers to dispute and correct inaccurate information in their credit reports, leading to a likely increase in consumer complaints related to credit reporting inaccuracies. Under the FCRA, consumers may file a direct dispute with a furnisher or file an indirect dispute with a consumer reporting agency (CRA), which may refer the dispute to the furnisher.
The case involves a direct dispute submitted by a plaintiff to a cable company, requesting an investigation into an allegedly fraudulent delinquent account listed on his credit report. The plaintiff informed the cable company that he was a victim of identity theft and that the account was opened in his name without his authorization. The cable company eventually referred the account to a debt collector (defendant) for collection after the plaintiff failed to provide requested information showing his account was opened due to fraud. An indirect dispute was later filed by the plaintiff with the CRA, which in turn sent the dispute to the defendant as the furnisher of the allegedly inaccurate information. After a second indirect dispute was filed noting the allegedly fraudulent account was the subject of litigation, the defendant removed the account from the plaintiff’s credit report and ceased collections. The plaintiff sued, asserting claims under the FCRA, FDCPA, and Pennsylvania law. The district court granted summary judgment in favor of the defendant, ruling that the plaintiff failed to provide evidence substantiating the basis of his dispute, and that “a furnisher is obligated to investigate only ‘bona fide’ indirect disputes and may therefore decline to investigate any indirect dispute it deems frivolous.”
In urging the appellate court to overturn the decision, the agencies countered in their amicus brief that the text of the FCRA is unambiguous—“furnishers must investigate all indirect disputes.” Nothing in the text suggests that a furnisher can choose not to investigate an indirect dispute if it determines it to be frivolous, the agencies stressed, further noting that if Congress intended to “create an exception for frivolous disputes, it knew how to do so,” and that in other parts of the statute Congress expressly provided that certain frivolous disputes do not need to be investigated.
The amicus brief also pointed out that under the FCRA, consumers are entitled to be notified about the outcome of their disputes, as well as given an opportunity to cure any deficiencies. The district court holding, the agencies said, would circumvent these requirements, thereby undercutting a central remedy under the FCRA that ensures consumers are able to dispute and correct inaccurate information in their credit reports. If furnishers were able to ignore disputes referred to them by CRAs, it could open an unintended loophole that would allow disputes to disappear “into a proverbial black hole,” the agencies asserted, emphasizing that if the district court’s interpretation is affirmed, consumers who submit an indirect dispute that is deemed frivolous by a furnisher may never receive any notice of that determination, and therefore, may never be able to cure any deficiencies or correct erroneous information in their credit reports.
The agencies also challenged whether the exception created by the district court’s ruling is necessary, as the FCRA already provides protections to furnishers from investigating frivolous disputes. Specifically, the statute allows CRAs to determine if a dispute a frivolous before forwarding a dispute to the furnisher. Moreover, furnishers “are not required to conduct an unreasonably onerous investigation into a conclusory or unsubstantiated dispute,” the agencies explained, stating that whether a furnisher has satisfied its obligation to conduct a reasonable investigation is normally a fact-intensive question for trial.
The Bureau noted in an accompanying blog post that it has also filed several other amicus briefs in other pending FCRA cases (previously covered by InfoBytes here) related to consumer reporting obligations.