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State AGs ask court to vacate Department of Education’s 2019 “Institutional Accountability” regulations
On July 15, a coalition of state attorneys general from 22 states and the District of Columbia filed a complaint in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California against Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos and the Department of Education, asking the court to vacate the Department’s 2019 final Institutional Accountability regulations (2019 Rule). As previously covered by InfoBytes, the 2019 Rule—which took effect July 1, 2020—revises protections for student borrowers who were significantly misled or defrauded by their higher education institutions, and establishes standards for “adjudicating borrower defenses to repayment claims for Federal student loans first disbursed on or after July 1, 2020.” Loans disbursed prior to July 1, 2020 remain subject to defenses under prior regulations issued in 2016 (2016 Rule). Earlier this year, H.J. Res. 76, which provided for congressional disapproval of the 2019 Rule (covered by InfoBytes here), was vetoed by President Trump.
The AGs allege in their complaint that the Department’s 2019 Rule, among other things, “completely eliminate[s] violations of applicable state consumer protection law as a viable defense to repayment of federal student loans” and “impose[s] additional requirements on a viable misrepresentation defense that are so onerous that they make this defense impossible for a student borrower to assert successfully.” Moreover, the AGs contend that the Department has “failed to meet its congressional mandate to specify actual borrower defenses” by promulgating a rule that serves only to prevent borrowers from obtaining relief. On these grounds, the AGs claim the 2019 Rule violates the Administrative Procedure Act (APA).
The AGs highlight several aspects of the 2019 Rule that support its claims, including that the elimination of the 2016 Rule’s limitations on the use of class action waivers and mandatory predispute arbitration agreements is arbitrary and capricious. According to the AGs, the Department’s “conclusion that requiring schools to disclose their use of mandatory predispute arbitration agreements and class action waivers will adequately protect borrowers is also contrary to substantial evidence and [the Department’s] own prior conclusions.”
On July 23, the DOJ and U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of New York filed a complaint and proposed settlement agreement with a national bank to settle charges that the bank engaged in a pattern or practice of discrimination against people with disabilities in violation of the Fair Housing Act. According to the complaint, policies put in place by the bank beginning in January 2010 allegedly denied mortgage and home equity loans to adults with disabilities living under guardianships or conservatorships. The complaint further claims that the bank, in certain circumstances, denied mortgage loans to applicants who “made explicit requests” for the bank to “reconsider its denial” and accept court orders specifically permitting the guardian or conservator to act on behalf of the disabled individual. These policies were changed in 2016 for mortgage loans and in 2017 for home equity loans, the DOJ noted. The bank, however, denied the allegations, asserting that it did not, and does not, unlawfully discriminate on any prohibited basis, and that during the time period in question, it made “mortgage loans to persons with handicaps and disabilities without restrictions, including some adult applicants who had legal guardians or conservatorships.” Under the terms of the proposed settlement, the bank has agreed to pay $4,000 to each affected loan applicant, with a total expected payout of approximately $300,000. The bank is also required to (i) maintain the revised loan underwriting policies; (ii) train employees on the new policies; and (iii) monitor loan processing and underwriting activities to ensure Fair Housing Act compliance.
On July 27, the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida entered a nearly $13.9 million partially suspended judgment against six corporate and three individual defendants (collectively, “defendants”) allegedly operating an illegal robocall scheme offering consumers credit card interest rate reduction services in violation of the FTC Act and the Telemarketing Sales Rule. The action is part of a 2019 FTC crackdown on illegal robocalls named “Operation Call it Quits,” which included 94 enforcement actions from around the country brought by the FTC and 25 other federal, state, and local agencies (covered by InfoBytes here). According to the complaint, the defendants made deceptive guarantees to consumers that, for a fee, they could lower their credit card interest rates to zero percent permanently for the life of the credit card debt. However, the FTC alleged that not only do consumers not see a permanent reduction on their credit card interest rates, in some instances, the defendants obtained new credit cards with promotional “teaser” zero percent interest rates that only lasted a limited time, after which the interest rates increased significantly. Moreover, the defendants allegedly failed to tell consumers that they would have to pay additional bank or transaction fees. In addition, the complaint contended that the defendants also (i) initiated illegal telemarketing calls to consumers, including many whose phone numbers appear in the National Do Not Call Registry; (ii) tricked consumers into providing personal financial information, including social security numbers and credit card numbers; and (iii) in many instances, applied for credit cards on behalf of consumers who did not agree to use the service without their knowledge, authorization, or express informed consent.
The court’s order enters a nearly $13.9 million judgment, which will be partially suspended due to inability to pay. The defendants are also prohibited from collecting or assigning any right to collect payments from consumers who purchased the service, and are permanently banned from, among other things, engaging in the illegal behaviors involved in the action and from using the information obtained from consumers during the robocall operation.
On July 21, the Massachusetts Appeals Court held that a 2018 Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court’s (SJC) decision in Williams v. American Honda Fin. Corp., which resolved a conflict in state law regarding the proper way for a creditor to calculate a consumer’s deficiency debt in an automobile repossession notice, should be applied retroactively. After a consumer defaulted on his car loan, his creditor sent him a presale repossession notice advising him that the amount owed would be reduced by the money received from the sale of the vehicle. This notice was insufficient under Williams, but the creditor argued that the decision should only apply prospectively, and the Superior Court agreed and dismissed the consumer’s complaint. The consumer appealed.
In Williams, the SJC resolved a conflict as to whether the Massachusetts Uniform Commercial Code (UCC), G. L. c. 106, §§ 9-600, or the Massachusetts Motor Vehicle Retail Installment Sales Act (RISA), G. L. c. 255B should be used to calculate a consumer’s deficiency debt in an automobile repossession notice. While both statutes contain similar elements, they also contain conflicting provisions, which the SJC resolved in Williams by holding that all automobile repossession notices are required to state that the consumer’s deficiency debt will be calculated, in accordance with RISA, based on the difference between the unpaid balance and the vehicle’s fair market value. The SJC further determined that the fair market value language in RISA displaces the UCC’s inconsistent safe harbor provision.
The Appeals Court first noted that decisions in Massachusetts construing a statute are presumptively given retroactive effect. The Appeals Court further held that Williams is intended “to give effect to the clear meaning of a statute designed to protect consumers,” which was “best accomplished through retroactive application.” In agreeing with the consumer, and noting that because Williams does not include a retroactive-prospective analysis, the Appeals Court stated that “there are no exceptional circumstances that would justify departure from the presumption of retroactivity.”
On July 20, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit affirmed (in a published and an unpublished opinion) a $142 million class action settlement between a nationwide class of consumers and a national bank, concluding the class was unified by a claim under federal law. The published opinion specifically affirmed the district court’s holding that the class satisfied the predominance requirement under Rule 23 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. In the unpublished memorandum disposition, the 9th Circuit affirmed the district court’s certification of the settlement class, approval of the settlement, award of attorneys’ fees, and approval of notice.
As previously covered by InfoBytes, the settlement covers a 2015 class action lawsuit regarding retail sales practices that involved bank employees creating deposit and credit card accounts without obtaining consent to do so. In April 2017, the bank agreed to expand the original settlement class to include claims dating back to May 2002, resulting in a settlement amount of $142 million. The district court certified the class and approved the settlement. Objectors appealed, arguing that the class did not satisfy the predominance requirement, because the court did not do a choice-of-law analysis.
On appeal, the 9th Circuit upheld the district court’s rulings on the settlement, concluding that the district court did not abuse its discretion in holding the class met the federal predominance requirements. Specifically, the appellate court held that the FCRA claim unified the class, allowing the class to “show that the FCRA’s elements were proven by a common course of conduct.” Moreover, the appellate court concluded that the “existence of potential state-law claims did not outweigh the FCRA claim’s importance.” In a separate unpublished memorandum opinion, the appellate court affirmed, among other things, the award of attorney’s fees, which were “well below the 25% benchmark.”
On July 21, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California issued an order approving a $117.5 million class action settlement, including $23 million in attorneys’ fees, with a global internet company to resolve multidistrict litigation concerning the exposure of class members’ sensitive information stemming from multiple data breaches. The settlement approval follows a fairness hearing, as the court originally denied preliminary approval due to several identified deficiencies (covered by InfoBytes here), including that the settlement inadequately disclosed the sizes of the settlement fund and class, as well as the scope of non-monetary relief, and “appear[ed] likely to result in an improper reverter of attorneys’ fees.” Last July, the court preliminarily signed off on a revised settlement, conditionally certifying a class of U.S. and Israeli residents and small businesses with accounts between 2012 and 2016 that were affected by the breaches. These class members have been certified in the final approved settlement, which requires the company to provide class members with either two years of credit monitoring services or alternative compensation for members who already have credit monitoring. Among other things, the company will allocate at least $66 million each year to its information security budget until 2022, will increase the number of full-time security employees from current levels, and will “align its information security program with the National Institute of Standards and Technology Cybersecurity Framework” and “undertake annual third-party assessments to ensure compliance” with the framework.
On July 21, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit affirmed a district court’s denial of defendants’ motion to compel arbitration, holding that the arbitration agreements operated as prospective waivers of federal law and were thus unenforceable. According to the opinion, a group of Virginia borrowers filed suit against two online lenders owned by a sovereign Native American tribe and their investors (collectively, “defendants”). In the action, the plaintiffs contended that they obtained payday loans from the defendants, which included annual interest rates between 219 percent to 373 percent—an alleged violation of Virginia’s usury laws and the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO). The defendants moved to compel arbitration, which the district court denied, concluding that choice-of-law provisions—such as “‘[t]his agreement to arbitrate shall be governed by Tribal Law’; ‘[t]he arbitrator shall apply Tribal Law’; and the arbitration award ‘must be consistent with this Agreement and Tribal Law’”—prospectively excluded federal law, making them unenforceable.
On appeal, the 4th Circuit agreed with the district court despite a “strong federal policy in favor of enforcing arbitration agreements.” Most significantly, the appellate court rejected the defendants’ assertion that the choice-of-law provisions did not operate as a prospective waiver. The court noted that while the choice-of-law provisions “do not explicitly disclaim the application of federal law, the practical effect is the same,” as they limit an arbitrator’s award to “remedies available under Tribal Law,” effectively preempting “the application of any contrary law—including contrary federal law.” Moreover, the appellate court concluded that under the arbitration agreement, borrowers would be unable to effectively pursue RICO claims against the defendants, and more specifically, would be unable to “effectively vindicate a federal statutory claim for treble damages” under RICO. Thus, because federal statutory protections and remedies are unavailable to borrowers under the agreement, the appellate court concluded the entire agreement is unenforceable.
On July 23, the CFPB announced that the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California entered a stipulated final judgment and order against a foreclosure relief services company, along with the company’s president/CEO (defendants), resolving CFPB allegations that the defendants engaged in deceptive and abusive acts and practices in connection with the marketing and sale of purported financial-advisory and mortgage-assistance-relief services to consumers. As previously covered by InfoBytes, in September 2019, the CFPB filed a complaint alleging that since 2014, the defendants violated the Consumer Financial Protection Act (CFPA) and Regulation O by, among other things, making deceptive and unsubstantiated representations about the efficacy and material aspects of its mortgage assistance relief services, as well as making misleading or false claims about the experience and qualifications of its employees. The Bureau also alleged the defendants’ misrepresentations constituted abusive acts and practices because consumers “generally did not understand and were not in a position to evaluate the accuracy of [the defendants’] marketing representations or the quality of the mortgage-assistance-relief services that [the defendants] sold.” Moreover, the Bureau claimed the defendants further violated Regulation O by charging consumers advance fees before rendering services.
The stipulated final judgment suspends $3 million in consumer redress based upon the defendants’ sworn financial statements and disclosures of material assets that detailed their inability to pay, but orders the defendants to pay $40,000 in civil money penalties. Additionally, the judgment permanently restrains the defendants from offering mortgage relief and financial advisory services and subjects the defendants to certain reporting and recordkeeping requirements.
On July 20, the FTC announced that the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California issued a final judgment permanently banning defendants in a student loan debt relief operation from telemarketing or providing debt relief services. As previously covered by InfoBytes, in 2019 the FTC charged the defendants with violations of the FTC Act and the Telemarketing Sales Rule (TSR) for allegedly, among other things, (i) charging borrowers illegal advance fees; (ii) falsely claiming they would service and pay down borrowers’ student loans; and (iii) obtaining borrowers’ credentials in order to change consumers’ contact information and prevent communications from loan servicers.
The court’s order granted the FTC’s motion for summary judgment, finding that the defendants received revenues of at least $31.1 million derived unlawfully from payments received from borrowers due to the defendants’ violations of the FTC Act and TSR. Of these revenues, only about $3.1 million had been paid by the defendants to borrowers’ federal student loan servicers, the order stated, although the court noted that the defendants allegedly refunded about $408,089 to consumers. The court imposed a roughly $27.6 million judgment against the defendants as equitable monetary relief, and permanently banned the defendants from offering similar services in the future, including misrepresenting, or assisting others in misrepresenting, any facts materials to a consumer’s decision to purchase financial products or services.
On July 16, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit affirmed a district court’s order compelling arbitration in a lawsuit brought by consumers refuting their liability on a commercial loan, arguing that a Mississippi-based bank “violated numerous state and federal consumer protection laws throughout the loan process.” According to the opinion, the consumers allege a bank representative instructed them to form an LLC and purchase a large plot of land with a commercial loan, as opposed to a consumer loan, in order to receive a “lower interest rate and protection from personal liability[.]” As a part of the transaction, the consumers signed an arbitration agreement that covered “‘any dispute or controversy’ arising from the transaction.” The consumers subsequently filed suit, arguing, among other things, that the bank committed “an unfair, deceptive, abusive act, or practice…by coaxing the [consumers] into forming an LLC and taking out a less favorable commercial loan” rather than a consumer loan, which they originally sought. The bank moved to compel arbitration, and the district court granted the motion and dismissed the action with prejudice.
On appeal, the 5th Circuit agreed with the district court, rejecting the consumers’ argument that there was not a valid agreement to arbitrate. The appellate court concluded that the agreement was neither procedurally nor substantively unconscionable, noting that the consumers voluntarily entered into the agreement and the provision entitling “the victor in arbitration to recover fees from the losing party” was not “one-sided or oppressive.” Moreover, the appellate court concluded that the consumers failed to provide any federal policy or statute that would support their additional argument that the bank’s alleged UDAAP violation would void an otherwise valid arbitration agreement. Thus, the panel affirmed the district court’s order.
- APPROVED Webcast: Remote examinations and complaints — The “new normal”
- Sasha Leonhardt to discuss "Privacy laws clarified" at the National Settlement Services Summit (NS3)
- Amanda R. Lawrence to discuss "New privacy legislation: Preparing for a major source of class action and enforcement activity going forward" at the American Conference Institute Consumer Finance Class Actions, Litigation & Government Enforcement Actions
- Sherry-Maria Safchuk and Lauren Frank to discuss "New CFPB interpretation on UDAAP" at a California Mortgage Bankers Association Mortgage Quality and Compliance Committee webinar
- Daniel P. Stipano to discuss "High standards: Best practices for banking marijuana-related businesses" at the ACAMS AML & Anti-Financial Crime Conference
- Daniel P. Stipano to discuss "Wait wait ... do tell me! Where the panelists answer to you" at the ACAMS AML & Anti-Financial Crime Conference
- Jonice Gray Tucker to discuss "The future of fair lending" at the Mortgage Bankers Association Regulatory Compliance Conference
- Jonice Gray Tucker to discuss "Consumer financial services" at the Practising Law Institute Banking Law Institute