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On June 8, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 1st Circuit stated that Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac (GSEs) can continue non-judicial foreclosures in states that permit them, holding that the GSEs are not “government actors” despite being controlled by FHFA. According to the opinion, the plaintiffs obtained mortgages that were later sold to Fannie Mae. After the borrowers defaulted on their loans, Fannie Mae, consistent with Rhode Island law, conducted non-judicial foreclosure sales of the properties. The plaintiffs filed suit, arguing that Fannie Mae and FHFA (which acts as Fannie Mae’s conservator) are government actors and that the nonjudicial foreclosure sales violated their Fifth Amendment procedural due process rights. The district court disagreed, however, and granted the defendants’ motion to dismiss on the grounds that “because FHFA stepped into Fannie Mae’s shoes as its conservator and its ability to foreclose was a ‘contractual right inherited from Fannie Mae by virtue of its conservatorship,’ FHFA was not acting as the government when it foreclosed on the plaintiffs’ mortgages and was not subject to the plaintiffs’ Fifth Amendment claims.” The court further determined that FHFA’s conservatorship over Fannie Mae did not make Fannie Mae a government actor subject to the plaintiffs’ constitutional claims because FHFA “does not exercise sufficient control” over the GSE. The plaintiffs appealed, arguing, among other things, that the FHFA’s nearly 13-year conservatorship of the GSEs makes its control permanent and renders them governmental actors.
On appeal, the appellate court concluded that in its role as conservator, “FHFA is not a government actor because it has ‘stepped into the shoes’ of the private GSEs” and assumed all of their private contractual rights, including the right to perform non-judicial foreclosures. The appellate court also refuted the plaintiffs’ argument that FHFA’s 13-year conservatorship made its control permanent, pointing out that the “housing and mortgage financial markets are highly complex, as are the various indicators of their financial health, so the fact that FHFA has maintained the conservatorship for almost thirteen years does not mean that the government’s control is permanent.” As such, because the GSEs are not government actors they are also not subject to the plaintiffs’ due process claims, the appellate court concluded.
On June 8, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit overturned a district court’s finding that an obligation for a rental property cannot be “primarily consumer in nature” under the FDCPA. The plaintiff and his wife purchased two properties in the same community in Arizona. The plaintiff and his wife claimed that they initially purchased the first property as a retirement home and only decided to use it as a rental property later. The plaintiff also claimed that he and his wife purchased the two properties with the intent of having tenants occupy them until they moved into one of them upon retirement. The defendant homeowner’s association sued the plaintiff in state court for allegedly failing to pay assessments and late fees associated with one of the properties. The plaintiff sued the defendant in federal court, alleging the attempts to collect the money violated the FDCPA. The district court granted summary judgment in favor of the defendant concluding that, “because there is no genuine dispute that the [first property] was a rental property, the obligation associated with the property is commercial, not consumer, in nature.” Consequently, because the obligation was not consumer in nature, the district court determined that it does not qualify as a “debt” subject to the FDCPA.
On appeal, the 9th Circuit reversed the entry of judgment for the defendant and remanded to the district court with instructions that the court, “make a factual determination of the true purpose of the [plaintiff’s] acquisition of [both properties].” The 9th Circuit also noted that, “to determine whether the transaction was primarily consumer or commercial in nature, the court must ‘examine the transaction as a whole, paying particular attention to the purpose for which the credit was extended.’”
On June 8, the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Alabama granted a defendant auto finance company’s motion for judgment on the pleadings in an action concerning alleged violations of the FCRA. The plaintiff filed an action against the defendants (an auto finance company and a financial service company) alleging that her credit report included an inaccurate or misleading “Errant Tradeline” in violation of the FCRA because it identified a paid off loan as being “closed” with a “$0 balance,” but also indicated that the loan had a monthly payment amount of $669. The plaintiff argued that this created “the impression that she still ha[d] an outstanding loan” as well as upcoming payments and alleged that the inaccurate reporting caused her financial and emotional damages. The plaintiff also claimed that the auto finance company negligently or willfully violated the FCRA because it failed to conduct a proper investigation. Upon review, the court granted the motion by the auto finance company, finding that because the balance listed says “$0,” and the account is listed as “closed,” there is “little opportunity for confusion when the alleged Errant Tradeline is reviewed in context.” The court further noted that “the context of the report reveals that the monthly payment line is neither inaccurate nor misleading.”
On June 8, the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California preliminarily approved a class action settlement, resolving allegations that a national bank failed to properly refund payments made pursuant to guaranteed asset protection waiver (GAP Waiver) agreements entered into in connection with auto loans. As previously covered by InfoBytes, the plaintiffs claimed that the bank knowingly collected unearned fees for GAP Waivers and allegedly “concealed its obligation” to issue refunds on GAP Waiver fees for the portion of the GAP Waiver’s initial coverage that was cut short by early payoff. The bank sought dismissal of the suit, arguing, among other things, that—with the exception of one consumer’s claims—all of the plaintiffs’ contracts include “a condition precedent under which the [p]laintiffs must first submit a written refund request for unearned GAP fees before being entitled to a refund,” a condition, the bank argued, which was not fulfilled. The court dismissed breach of contract claims brought by the majority of the plaintiffs, noting that most of the plaintiffs were not excused from complying with the condition precedent in their contracts with the bank. The court did, however, allow claims filed by plaintiffs whose contracts did not contain condition precedent language to proceed.
Under the terms of the preliminary settlement reached between the parties, beginning in 2022 and continuing for four years, the bank is obligated to automatically refund unearned GAP fees to consumers who pay off their auto loans early, and will pay refunds along with compensation for the loss of the use of the funds to class members who have not yet received such payment. The bank will also add $45 million in a “supplemental” settlement fund to cover refunds, additional compensation payments, and other settlement-related costs and expenses. This amount is in addition to the more than $33 million in refunds the bank has already issued. The bank did not admit any wrongdoing and maintained that it did not breach the terms of any GAP agreements or otherwise fail to pay early payoff GAP refunds.
On June 7, the U.S. District Court for the District of Oregon partially granted a plaintiff’s motion for summary judgment, finding that a debt buyer who puts accounts with a debt collector can be held vicariously liable for the actions of the debt collector, since the debt buyer “bear[s] the responsibility of monitoring the activities of those it hires to collect debts on its behalf.” The case is on remand from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, which reversed the district court’s dismissal of the lawsuit and found that a company that purchases consumer debt is defined as a “debt collector” under the FDCPA, even if there is no direct interaction with consumers and the debt collection is outsourced to a third party (covered by InfoBytes here).
The plaintiff sued the debt buyer (defendant) claiming it was “vicariously and jointly liable” for alleged FDCPA violations by the third-party collector. The district court granted the defendant’s motion to dismiss, ruling that the plaintiff failed to state a claim because debt purchasing companies like the defendant “who have no interactions with debtors and merely contract with third parties to collect on the debts they have purchased simply do not have the principal purpose of collecting debts.” The district court reasoned that Congress intended the FDCPA to apply only to those who directly interact with customers, based on the court’s interpretation of the language used in the substantive provisions of the law.
On appeal, the 9th Circuit reversed the dismissal, determining that the FDCPA does not solely regulate entities that directly interact with consumers. The appellate court concluded that an entity that otherwise meets the “principal purpose” definition of debt collector—“any business the principal purpose of which is the collection of any debts”—cannot avoid liability under the FDCPA merely by hiring a third party to perform debt collection activities on its behalf.
On remand, the district court judge found that the debt buyer and debt collector were in a principal-agent relationship “because the undisputed facts demonstrate that [the debt buyer] had a right to control [the debt collector’s] debt collection activities to a significant degree.” According to the opinion, the agreement between the debt buyer and collector allowed the debt buyer to audit the accounts it placed with the debt collector. During an audit, the debt buyer pointed out that the debt collector’s “collection efforts needed much improvement with regard to consumer compliance” and that “simple guidelines were not being followed.” In addition, the audit found that the debt buyer had prior knowledge of phone scripts the debt collector used when contacting debtors on its behalf. The judge concluded that “[b]y its acquiescence, [the debt buyer] ‘impliedly authorized’ [the debt collector’s] use of the script ‘and thus is liable for any violations of law caused by the firm’s use of those practices.”
Following Supreme Court’s SEC disgorgement authority ruling, defendants required to repay nearly $20.8 million
On June 7, the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California ordered defendants to disgorge more than $20.8 million in net profits in an action concerning money that was collected from investors for a cancer treatment center that was never built. The order follows a 2020 U.S. Supreme Court ruling (covered by InfoBytes here), in which the high court examined whether the SEC’s statutory authority to seek “equitable relief” permits it to seek and obtain disgorgement orders in federal court. The Court ultimately held that the SEC may continue to collect disgorgement in civil proceedings in federal court as long as the award does not exceed a wrongdoer’s net profits, and that such awards for victims of the wrongdoing are equitable relief permissible under § 78u(d)(5). The Court vacated the original $26.7 million judgment and remanded to the lower court to examine the disgorgement amount in light of its opinion.
On remand, the district court held the defendants jointly and severally liable for the $20.8 million amount, noting that it “will not deduct one penny of the exorbitant salaries that [the defendants] paid themselves for perpetrating their fraud on investors.” Of approximately $26 million raised, the SEC alleged the defendants misappropriated approximately $20 million of the funds through payments to overseas marketing companies and to salaries. To calculate the final disgorgement award, the court subtracted legitimate expenses, including $2.2 million in administrative expenses and $3.1 million in business development expenses, from the $26 million raised. However, the court expressed doubt about the legitimacy of those expenses.
On June 8, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit issued an order vacating its December 2018 judgment, reversing a district court’s award of equitable monetary relief following the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent decision in FTC v. AMG Capital Management, and remanding the case to the district court for further proceedings consistent with the Supreme Court’s opinion. The decision impacts defendants—a Kansas-based operation and its owner—who were ordered in 2016 to pay an approximately $1.3 billion judgment for allegedly operating a deceptive payday lending scheme and violating Section 5(a) of the FTC Act by making false and misleading representations about loan costs and payments (covered by InfoBytes here). The 9th Circuit previously upheld the judgment (covered by InfoBytes here) by, among other things, rejecting the defendant owner’s challenge, which was based on an argument that the district court overestimated his “wrongful gain” and that the FTC Act only allows the court to issue injunctions. At the time, the 9th Circuit concluded that the defendant owner failed to provide evidence contradicting the wrongful gain calculation and that a district court may grant any ancillary relief under the FTC Act, including restitution. However, as previously covered by InfoBytes, the Supreme Court reversed the 9th Circuit and held that Section 13(b) of the FTC Act “does not authorize the Commission to seek, or a court to award, equitable monetary relief such as restitution or disgorgement.”
On June 3, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit affirmed a district court’s approval of a roughly $380.5 million settlement between a class of consumers (plaintiffs) and a large consumer reporting agency (CRA), which resolved allegations arising from a 2017 cyberattack that caused a data breach of the CRA. (Covered by InfoBytes here.) The 11th Circuit’s opinion resolves challenges brought by objectors to the settlement who argued that plaintiffs lacked Article III standing because they did not have their identities stolen, and challenged, among other things, certain procedural requirements, the appropriateness of class certification given the possibility that some class members may have been able to recover state statutory damages, and the district court’s adoption of an approval order “ghostwritten” by plaintiffs’ counsel. The objectors also argued that the settlement was inadequate given the “unique risks associated with stolen social security numbers,” and disagreed with the award of $77.5 million in attorneys’ fees, as well as the district court’s decision to impose appeal bonds of $2,000 on each objector.
On appeal, the 11th Circuit rejected almost all of the objectors’ arguments after determining that class members—even if they were not victims of identity theft—faced a material risk of harm. The appellate court also held that the procedural requirements were not particularly burdensome given the roughly 147 million class members involved. Moreover, the appellate court concluded that the fact that class members in a couple of states could have argued for statutory damages did not make the named plaintiffs inadequate class representatives. Furthermore, the appellate court noted that (i) the settlement addressed the seriousness of the stolen social security numbers; (ii) attorneys’ fees (equal to 20.36 percent of the common fund) were within the reasonable range; (iii) objectors failed to show any “practice of uncritically adopting counsel’s proposed orders”; and (iv) the district court did not “abuse its discretion when it imposed the appeal bonds based on its finding that there was a ‘substantial risk that the costs of appeal will not be paid unless a bond is required.’” Moreover, the 11th Circuit noted that “[a]bsent the settlement, the class action could have faced serious hurdles to recovery, and now the class is entitled to significant settlement benefits that may not have even been achieved at trial,” adding that the FTC, CFPB, and state attorneys general for 48 states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico all support the settlement.
The appellate court, however, did reverse the district court’s award of incentive payments to class representative and remanded the case solely for the purpose of vacating the awards.
On May 28, the Hawaii Supreme Court vacated summary judgment in favor of a national bank, ruling that the “bank seeking to foreclose on a mortgage and note” did not meet its “burden of establishing that the borrower defaulted under the terms of the agreements.” The bank sought a judicial foreclosure of the borrower’s residence and submitted a ledger in order to prove the borrower had defaulted. However, the state’s Supreme Court determined that the Intermediate Court of Appeals erred in affirming the lower court’s order because the bank failed to explain how to read the entries. According to the Supreme Court, the ledger was “ambiguous” and presented “genuine issues of material fact” as to whether the bank was entitled to bill the borrower for lender-placed insurance and whether the borrower “actually owed the amounts that forced her into the alleged default” when the bank “apparently redirected her payments to cover the cost of lender-placed insurance.”
On June 1, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit determined that a “global payment services company” does not qualify as a bank under U.S. tax code, 26 U.S.C. § 581. According to the opinion, the company described its activities to the IRS in 2008 as “banking” while referring to its products as “financial services” despite making no meaningful changes to its business from prior years when it described itself as a “nondepository credit intermediation” business and its services as “money/wire transfers.” Because companies who claim bank status receive certain significant tax benefits, the company—which had invested billions of dollars in asset-backed securities, including mortgage-backed securities—deducted losses it incurred during the Great Recession against ordinary income. However, according to the opinion, nonbanks are only permitted “to deduct losses on securities to the extent they offset capital gains, which [the company] did not have during the relevant years.” The IRS disagreed with the company’s deductions, determined it was not a bank, and assessed tens of millions of dollars in tax deficiencies. The company unsuccessfully challenged the IRS in tax court, and, following a first appeal resulting in a remand, the tax court again concluded that the company was not a bank “because it neither accepts deposits nor makes loans.”
On appeal, the 5th Circuit affirmed the tax court’s decision, stating that it only needed to address the “deposit” requirement and holding that because customers do not deposit money with the company for safekeeping “the most basic feature of a bank is missing.” The appellate court explained that therefore, under the tax code, the company was not entitled to deduct from its taxes “large losses it incurred in writing off mortgage-backed securities during the Great Recession.”