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On February 23, a U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia issued a Memorandum Opinion denying a request for injunctive relief sought by a group of payday lenders to stop “Operation Choke Point” – a DOJ initiative targeting fraud by investigating US banks and the business they do with companies believed to be a higher risk for fraud and money laundering including, but not limited to, payday lenders. Payday lenders have called the initiative a coordinated effort by federal regulators to stop banks from doing business with them, thereby threatening their survival. See Advance America v. FDIC, [Memorandum Opinion No. 134] No. 14-CV-00953-GK (D.D.C. Feb. 23, 2017). According to the lenders, the Fed, FDIC, and OCC have adopted DOJ guidance on bank reputation risk and then used that guidance to exert “backroom regulatory pressure seeking to coerce banks to terminate longstanding, mutually beneficial relationships with all payday lenders.” The government has rejected this characterization, asserting that banks can do business with payday lenders as long as the risks are managed properly.
Evaluating the request under the due process “stigma-plus rule,” the Court focused on whether the payday lenders could show they were likely to succeed on the merits of their case and whether or not they were likely to suffer irreparable harm without the injunction.
Ultimately, the payday lenders were unable to convince the Court that they were likely to suffer the harm central to a “stigma-plus” claim. The Court reasoned that (i) the closure of some bank accounts would not be enough to constitute the loss of banking services, and that the lenders needed (and failed) to show that the loss of banking services had effectively prevented them from offering payday loans; and (ii) nearly all of the lenders were still in operation; and (iii) because the lenders were still able to find banks to work with, evidence of the possibility of future loss of banking services was too speculative to support an injunction.
The Court was also not persuaded that the lenders would be able to prove that regulatory actions caused banks to deny services to petitioners. Specifically, the Court determined that the lenders were “unlikely” to be able to set forth evidence of the “campaign of backroom strong-arming” underlying petitioners’ request for injunctive relief. Specifically, the Court noted that the lenders relied on “scattered statements,” some of which the Court characterized as “anonymous double hearsay,” to support their claims. The only direct evidence, according to the Court, was actually just “evidence of a targeted enforcement action against a single scofflaw.”
Though the Court explained that the two other factors—the balance of equities and the public interest—were of less significance in this situation, it noted in closing that “enjoining an agency’s statutorily delegated enforcement authority is likely to harm the public interest, particularly where plaintiffs are unable to demonstrate a likelihood of success on the merits.”
On February 24, the FDIC released its list of administrative enforcement actions taken against banks and individuals in January. Several of the consent agreements included on the list seek the payment of civil money penalties for, among other things, violations of the Flood Disaster Protection Act of 1973 and its flood insurance requirements. Other violations cited in the enforcement actions relate to unsafe or unsound banking practices and breaches of fiduciary duty. The FDIC database containing all of its enforcement decisions and orders may be accessed here.
On February 24, the New Mexico Attorney General, along with 27 other states and the District of Columbia, announced that his office had joined in an amicus brief filed with the Supreme Court supporting the plaintiff in Henson v. Santander. As previously covered in Infobytes, the defendant argued below—and the Fourth Circuit agreed—that the FDCPA did not apply to a consumer finance company that purchased and then sought to collect a debt in default on its own behalf because it was not a debt collector as defined in the statute. In their amicus brief, the attorneys general oppose the Fourth Circuit holding and argue that any “company that regularly attempts to collect defaulted debt that it has purchased is a ‘debt collector’ as the FDCPA defines [the] term,” and therefore, the obligations and restrictions of the FDCPA should apply. The Supreme Court set oral arguments for April 18 of this year.
On February 27, the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN) announced that it had assessed a $7 million civil money penalty against a bank specializing in providing services for check-cashers and money transmitters, for alleged “willful violations” of several Bank Secrecy Act provisions. The OCC also identified deficiencies in the bank’s practices and assessed a $1 million civil money penalty for “violations of previous consent orders entered into by [the bank].” As noted in the release, the bank’s payment of the $1 million OCC penalty will go towards satisfying the FinCEN penalty. According to FinCEN, the bank allegedly failed to (i) “establish and implement an adequate anti-money laundering program;” (ii) “conduct required due diligence on its foreign correspondent accounts;” and (iii) “detect and report suspicious activity.” Furthermore, FinCEN claims $192 million in high-risk wire transfers were processed through some of these accounts.
On February 21, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit held that stockholders of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac (the Companies) could not challenge dividend-allocating terms that FHFA negotiated on behalf of the Companies because the Housing and Economic Recovery Act (HERA) strictly limits judicial review of actions authorized thereunder. Perry Capital LLC v. Mnuchin, No. 14-5243, 2017 WL 677589 (D.C. Cir. Feb. 21, 2017).
In 2008, Fannie and Freddie were placed into conservatorship with FHFA, which then entered into a stock purchase agreement with Treasury to obtain emergency capital for Fannie and Freddie. In exchange, Treasury received preferred shares of stock from Fannie and Freddie that provided for a quarterly dividend of 10 percent of the total funds drawn from Treasury. After Fannie and Freddie began routinely borrowing from Treasury to pay the dividends, FHFA and Treasury amended the stock purchase agreement in 2012 so that repayment would be based on the Companies’ profits rather than mandatory dividends. The stockholder-plaintiffs in this action sought to challenge the 2012 amendment–in particular, arguing that the 2012 amendment exceeded the authority granted to FHFA under HERA and constituted “arbitrary and capricious conduct” in violation of the Administrative Procedure Act. One class of stockholders also argued that the amendment constituted a breach of fiduciary duty and certain terms and covenants of the Companies’ stock certificates. The district court had dismissed both complaints on the motions of FHFA and Treasury.
The D.C. Circuit opinion noted that Section 4617(f) of HERA expressly states that “no court may take any action to restrain or affect the exercise of powers or functions of the Agency as a conservator or a receiver.” The court interpreted this language to prohibit any court from “wielding [its] equitable relief to second-guess either the dividend-allocating terms . . . or FHFA’s business judgment.” And although an exception to this bar on judicial review has been recognized where an agency is found to have exceeded or violated its statutory powers or functions, the court determined that FHFA’s actions were within its statutory powers or functions.
Although the majority of the stockholders’ claims were rejected, the stockholders’ contract-based claims regarding liquidation preferences and dividend rights were remanded to the district court for further proceedings.
On February 23, the FTC announced that it had reached a settlement with the final defendant facing charges originally brought against six mortgage relief operations in 2014. The FTC had alleged that the defendants preyed on distressed homeowners by claiming to be able to lower mortgage payments and interest rates or prevent foreclosures, while illegally charging advance fees. The stipulated order requires the defendant to pay $105,487, which represents the amount of money he received from the scam, and imposes a total judgment of more than $1.7 million which will become due immediately if it is found that the defendant misrepresented his finances. The defendant was also banned from the mortgage and debt relief business. Certain other defendants reached settlements in 2016, which, in addition to imposing a judgment of more than $1.7 million, also prohibited them from participating in the mortgage and debt relief business.
Appellate Court Holds Secondary Market Mortgage Investor Not Liable Under ECOA for Discriminatory Conduct of Unaffiliated Originator
On February 16, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit issued an opinion addressing whether Section 8 mortgage applicants may claim discrimination under the Equal Credit Opportunity Act (ECOA) by both a mortgage originator and a subsequent investor in the secondary mortgage market. See Alexander v. AmeriPro Funding, Inc. No. 15-20710, 2017 WL 650193 (5th Cir. Feb. 16, 2017). At issue before the Appellate Court were claims alleging that both the mortgage originator that interacted with borrowers, made credit decisions, and actually gave mortgages to home buyers, and the investor, engaged in the business of investing in or buying mortgages originated by the mortgage originator, were subject to liability for discriminatory conduct in violation of ECOA based upon plaintiffs’ allegations that “they applied for mortgages through [the mortgage originator] and that [the mortgage originator] did not consider their Section 8 income in processing the application because it intended to sell the mortgages to [the investor].”
Ultimately, the Court denied all but a small subset of the various claims asserted by plaintiffs. Among other things, the Court held: (i) that the record did not support a claim that the investor—having purchased the mortgages at issue in the secondary market after execution—discriminated against and/or failed to consider Section 8 income in assessing the creditworthiness of any plaintiff; (ii) that plaintiffs’ allegations concerning their application with the mortgage originator could not also be applied to a subsequent secondary mortgage investor such as the investor; and (iii) that the record similarly did not support a finding that the investor was a “creditor” with respect to the plaintiffs and/or the mortgage agreements entered into with the mortgage originator.
The Appellate Court did, however, side with plaintiffs as to those claims against the mortgage originator that set forth facts plausibly alleging conduct on the part of the mortgage originator that might constitute improper discounting of Section 8 income in assessing their creditworthiness. The Appellate Court reversed the district court’s dismissal as to those claims and remanded for further proceedings.
Notably, the Court expressly disagreed with the CFPB’s argument (as amicus) for a broader definition of “creditor” under ECOA and Regulation B’s definition of the term because it determined that “a potential assignee who establishes underwriting guidelines for its purchases but does not influence individual credit it not a creditor,” and that Regulation B’s definition would not include “those who have no direct involvement whatsoever in an individual credit decision.”
On February 21, the FTC announced that, along with 10 state attorneys general, it has entered a Stipulated Order for Permanent Injunction and Civil Penalty Judgment against defendants who were allegedly part of an illegal robocall campaign that ran from October 2011 through July 2012. According to the joint complaint filed by the FTC and the states in 2015, the campaign averaged approximately 12 to 15 million illegal sales calls a day asking consumers to complete a political research survey and then connecting them to a live telemarketer who sold cruise packages. The FTC’s 2015 press release noted that while “do-not-call and robocall rules do not prohibit political survey robocalls, the defendants’ robocalls violated federal law because they incorporated a sales pitch.” The 2017 settlement order imposed a $1.35 million fine, to be suspended after they pay $2,500 based on ability to pay, and bars the defendants from: (i) “initiating, or causing anyone else to initiate, any robocalls or helping anyone else make robocalls”; and (ii) “engaging in illegal telemarketing practices.” Certain other defendants reached settlements in 2015, which, in addition to imposing various civil money penalties, prohibited them also from engaging in abusive telemarketing practices.
U.S. Companies Settle FTC Charges that They Deceived Consumers About International Privacy Program Participation
On February 22, the FTC announced that it had reached settlements with three U.S. companies over charges that the companies falsely represented their participation in the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Cross-Border Privacy Rules (APEC CBPR) system in their online privacy policies. Participation requires an official review and certification, a process none of the three companies underwent according to the three complaints. The complaints alleged violations of the FTC Act due to deceptive statements made by the companies that they participated in the APEC CBPR system. The settlement terms bar the defendants from “misrepresenting their participation, membership or certification in any privacy or security program sponsored by a government or self-regulatory or standard-setting organization.”
On February 17, the FTC announced that it is mailing checks to 2,031 consumers who lost money as part of a business opportunity scheme that cheated consumers out of more than $7 million. The compensation follows a 2013 complaint filed by the Commission focused on 20 individuals and eight companies who, according to the Commission’s allegations, “falsely claimed consumers would earn up to $3,000 per month by referring small businesses to the defendants to obtain an average loan or cash advance of $20,000, and that they could operate a profitable business from their home.” The defendants were charged with engaging in unlawful conduct by: (i) falsely claiming consumers would earn substantial income; (ii) repeatedly calling consumers who told them not to call, often times using obscenities and threats, as well as calling numbers listed on the National Do Not Call Registry; and (iii) failing “to provide specific information to help consumers evaluate a business opportunity…and making earnings claims without substantiation,” in violation of the FTC’s Business Opportunity Rule.
The FTC obtained judgments and settlements in 2015 totaling over $7.3 million, and banned 18 defendants from similar telemarketing activities.