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On September 27, the FTC announced a settlement with a Georgia-based debt collection company and its owners (collectively, “defendants”) for allegedly engaging in fraudulent debt collection practices. As previously covered by InfoBytes, the FTC filed a complaint against the defendants alleging that they violated the FTC Act and the FDCPA by, among other things: (i) posing as law enforcement officers, prosecutors, attorneys, mediators, investigators, or process servers when calling consumers to collect debts; (ii) using profane language and threatening consumers with arrest or serious legal consequences if debts were not immediately paid; (iii) threatening to garnish wages, suspend Social Security payments, revoke drivers’ licenses, or lower credit scores; (iv) attempting to collect debts that were either never owed or were no longer owed; (v) unlawfully contacting third parties, such as family members or employers; and (vi) adding unauthorized or impermissible charges or fees to consumers’ debts. The U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia granted a temporary restraining order against the defendants in September 2020. Under the terms of the stipulated final order, the FTC ordered that the defendants are banned from the debt collection industry, prohibited from misrepresenting that they are attorneys or affiliated with a law firm or whether a consumer owes any kind of debt, and are prohibited from making misleading claims while selling a product or service. The order also requires the defendants to pay more than $266,000 to the Commission. A $3 million monetary judgment will be partially suspended upon completion of asset transfers from all financial institutions holding accounts in the defendants’ names.
On September 9, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit determined that the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Barr v. American Association of Political Consultants Inc. (AAPC) (covered by InfoBytes here, which held that the government-debt exception in Section 227(b)(1)(A)(iii) of the TCPA is an unconstitutional content-based speech restriction and severed the provision from the statute) does not invalidate a plaintiff’s TCPA claims concerning robocalls he received prior to the Court issuing its decision. In the current matter, the plaintiff filed a proposed class action alleging violations of the TCPA’s robocall restriction after he received two robocalls from the defendant in late 2019 and early 2020 advertising its electricity services. Following the Court’s decision in AAPC, the district court granted the defendant’s motion to dismiss, ruling that because severance of the exception in AAPC only operates prospectively, “the robocall restriction was unconstitutional and therefore ‘void’ for the period the exception was on the books.” As such, the district court concluded that because the robocall restriction was void, it could not provide a basis for federal-question jurisdiction for alleged TCPA robocall violations arising before the Court severed the exception.
On appeal, the 6th Circuit conducted a severability analysis, holding that the district court erred in concluding that the court, in AAPC, offered “‘a remedy in the form of eliminating the content-based restriction' from the TCPA.” Rather, the appellate court pointed out that “the Court recognized only that the Constitution had ‘automatically displace[d]’ the government-debt-collector exception from the start, then interpreted what the statute has always meant in its absence,” adding that the legal determination in AAPC applied retroactively and did not render the entire TCPA robocall restriction void until the exception was severed by the court. A First Amendment defense presented by the defendant premised on the argument that “government-debt collectors have a due-process defense to liability because they did not have fair notice of their actions’ unlawfulness” for robocalls placed before AAPC was also rejected. The 6th Circuit opinion emphasized that “[w]hether a debt collector had fair notice that it faced punishment for making robocalls turns on whether it reasonably believed that the statute expressly permitted its conduct. That, in turn, will likely depend in part on whether the debt collector used robocalls to collect government debt or non-government debt. But applying the speech-neutral fair-notice defense in the speech context does not transform it into a speech restriction.”
On September 16, the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Alabama granted a defendant tribal payday lender’s motion to dismiss and compel arbitration, ruling that an arbitration agreement in a loan contract is still valid even if an arbitration panel found the contracts were void. The plaintiff initiated an arbitration proceeding against the defendant alleging that payday loan contracts carrying interest rates between 200 and 830 percent were void because the defendant was not licensed under the Alabama Small Loans Act to extend such loans. An American Arbitration Association panel determined, among other things, that the defendant had waived any tribal sovereign immunity, “the transactions involved off-reservation commercial activities to which sovereign immunity does not apply,” and that the loans were entirely void because each of the loans was extended without a license. The plaintiff filed suit in state court to confirm the arbitration award and pursue a class action on the premise that the loans are usurious and should be declared void. The defendant removed the case to federal court and asked the court to dismiss the proposed class action and compel arbitration. The district court agreed with the defendant that the arbitration agreement in the voided loan contract remained binding despite the arbitrator’s earlier determination in the plaintiff’s favor. Specifically, the court disagreed with the plaintiff’s argument that the arbitrator’s determination meant that “no aspect of the contact survives,” stating that the plaintiff “overlooks a central tenet in binding precedential arbitration law: severability.” According to the court, “‘[a]s a matter of substantive federal arbitration law, an arbitration provision is severable from the remainder of the contract.’”
On September 20, the DOJ announced a settlement with a New Jersey’s student lending authority, resolving allegations that the authority obtained unlawful court judgments in violation of the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act (SCRA) against two military servicemembers who co-signed student loans . According to the press release, the DOJ launched an investigation into the authority after receiving a report from the Coast Guard that the authority obtained a default judgment in 2019 against a Coast Guard petty officer who co-signed on behalf of the two student loans. The complaint, filed by the DOJ in the U.S. District Court for the District of New Jersey, states that the authority “obtained default judgments against two SCRA-protected servicemembers” by failing “to file true and accurate affidavits indicating the military status of [the two service servicemembers].” According to the DOJ, lenders can verify an individual’s military status by utilizing a defense data center’s free and public website, or by reviewing their files to confirm military status. The authority allegedly filed affidavits in state court that inaccurately stated that the servicemembers were not in military service, even though the authority had conducted searches in the defense data center’s website that confirmed that the individuals were active military servicemembers.
The settlement notes that the authority must pay $15,000 each to the two servicemembers who had default judgments entered against them, and must pay a $20,000 civil penalty. Among other things, the settlement also requires the authority to provide compliance training to its employees and to develop new policies and procedures consistent with the SCRA. The settlement also notes that the authority, since the opening of the investigation, has been fully cooperative and has “taken steps to improve its compliance with the SCRA.”
On September 17, the First District Appellate Court of Illinois held that different limitation periods should be applied to the Biometric Information Privacy Act (BIPA), concluding that while Section 15 imposes various duties that all concern privacy, “each duty is separate and distinct.” Specifically, the panel stated that claims related to “[a]ctions for slander, libel or for publication of matter violating the right of privacy” have a one-year limitation period, while “all civil actions not otherwise provided for” carry a five-year limit. Plaintiffs filed a class action complaint alleging violations of BIPA Sections 15(a), 15(b), and 15(d), claiming the defendant collected, stored, used, and disseminated individuals’ biometric data obtained through fingerprint scans without, among other things, (i) informing plaintiffs of the purpose and length of the storage and use of their data; (ii) receiving written release from plaintiffs; (iii) providing a retention schedule and guidelines for destroying the data; or (iv) obtaining consent from plaintiffs and other employees to disseminate their data to third parties. The defendant moved to dismiss, arguing that the claims were filed outside the limitation period, noting that while BIPA itself has no limitation provision, “the one-year limitation period for privacy actions under Code section 13-201 applies to causes of action under [BIPA] because [BIPA’s] purpose is privacy protection.” A state trial court denied the defendant’s motion to dismiss, ruling that the plaintiffs’ claims were subject to Illinois’ “catchall” five-year limitation provision rather than the state’s one-year privacy claim limitation period, since the plaintiffs were alleging specific BIPA violations rather than a general privacy invasion.
On appeal, the appellate court considered the limitations question and determined, among other things, that since Illinois’ one-year statute of limitations applies only to published privacy violations, it can only govern BIPA claims filed under section 15(c)’s profit restrictions and section 15(d)’s disclosure/dissemination prohibitions. As such, plaintiffs suing under BIPA’s section 15(a)’s retention requirements, section 15(b) informed consent, and section 15(e) data safeguarding requirements have five years to bring such claims since these duties “have absolutely no element of publication or dissemination.”
On September 16, a split U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit concluded that “an agreement delegating to an arbitrator the gateway question of whether the underlying arbitration agreement is enforceable must be upheld unless that specific delegation provision is itself unenforceable.” The appellate court’s decision reversed a district court’s ruling that an arbitration agreement entered between tribal lenders and borrowers was unenforceable because it impermissibly waived borrowers’ rights to pursue federal statutory claims. As previously covered by InfoBytes, in April the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California granted class certification to residents who received loans from an online lender, allowing them to pursue class Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO) claims based on allegations they were charged interest rates that exceeded state limits for lenders claiming tribal immunity. The class of borrowers include California residents who collected loans from an Oklahoma-based tribe, and California residents who received loans from a Montana-based tribe. The district court also ruled that the entire arbitration agreement, including provisions containing a class action waiver, was unenforceable. The lenders appealed.
On appeal, the 9th Circuit majority cited to the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Rent-A-Center, West, Inc. v. Jackson, which determined, among other things, that when a party challenges an entire agreement—not just an arbitration provision—deciding “gateway” issues such as enforceability must be delegated to an arbitrator. “We do not dispute that [b]orrowers have a reasonable argument that the arbitration agreement as written precludes them from asserting their RICO claims or other federal claims in arbitration. . . . And if that is true, the arbitration agreement is likely unenforceable as a prospective waiver,” the majority wrote. “But, when there is a clear delegation provision, that question is. . .for the arbitrator to decide so long as the delegation provision itself does not eliminate parties’ rights to purse their federal remedies,” the majority added.
The 9th Circuit’s opinion differs from decisions issued by other appellate courts, which found that certain delegation provisions were unenforceable for various reasons after reviewing whether an arbitration agreement as a whole was unenforceable due to prospective waiver of federal claims. (See InfoBytes coverage of the 3rd and 4th Circuit decisions here and here.) The majority stated that the other appellate courts “considered the wrong thing by ‘confus[ing] the question of who decides arbitrability with the separate question of who prevails on arbitrability.’” According to the majority, “[t]he proper question is not whether the entire arbitration agreement constitutes a prospective waiver, but whether the antecedent agreement delegating resolution of that question to the arbitrator constitutes prospective waiver.”
On September 15, the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of California denied a defendant tech company’s motion to compel arbitration, dismiss or stay a class action lawsuit alleging that it violated the California Invasion of Privacy Act, among other things, by monitoring certain contract employees’ social media activity. The complaint alleges that the named plaintiff, a contract delivery driver for the company, and other contract employees, utilized an online platform to “discuss ‘a myriad of issues surrounding their employment,’ including strikes, protests, pay, benefits, deliveries, working conditions, and unionizing efforts.” The plaintiff alleged that the company was secretly monitoring and wiretapping the employees’ social media groups and created a team “to ‘monitor and/or intercept’ posts to closed [online] groups ‘in real time . . . using automated monitoring tools,’” without obtaining consent.
With respect to the defendants’ motion to compel arbitration, the company argued that, under the applicable terms of service, the plaintiff was required to arbitrate his claims on an individual basis. The court, however, found that that the plaintiff met his burden to demonstrate that the claims alleged do not fall within the scope of the arbitration provision.
On September 13, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois reimposed a more than $5 million restitution award in an action dating back to 2018, this time under Section 19 of the FTC Act. The court originally granted the FTC’s motion for summary judgment against a credit monitoring service and its sole owner in an action filed under Section 13(b) of the FTC Act, after concluding that no reasonable jury would find that the defendants’ scheme of using false rental property ads to solicit consumer enrollment in credit monitoring services without their knowledge could occur without engaging in unfair or deceptive practices (covered by InfoBytes here). However, as previously covered by InfoBytes, in 2019, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit held that Section 13(b) does not grant the FTC authority to order restitution—a position that the U.S. Supreme Court ultimately agreed with when issuing its decision in AMG Capital Management, LLC v. FTC (which unanimously 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”—covered by InfoBytes here).
In its current ruling, the court agreed to reimpose the damages under the Restore Online Shopper Confidence Act (ROSCA) and Section 19. The court noted that because ROSCA incorporates all the enforcement tools of the FTC Act, the FTC could seek remedies using Section 19 of the FTC Act instead of relying on Section 18. Further, the court noted that the FTC indicated that the FTC may seek remedies under Section 19 when it brought the action under Section 5(a) of ROSCA, which the court ultimately agreed was correct. “The FTC has the better of this dispute,” the court wrote, adding, among other things, that “the court is unmoved by [the defendant’s] claims of unfair prejudice. Aside from the particular route to an award of restitution, nothing will materially change. The FTC seeks the same remedy, for the same reasons, and for the same victims under section 5(a) via section 19 as it did under section 13(b).”
On September 13, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit reversed a district court’s summary judgment ruling in favor of a defendant mortgage servicer, holding that a jury could find the defendant “willfully and negligently” violated the FCRA by incorrectly reporting a past due account status to consumer reporting agencies (CRAs) for over a year after the plaintiff’s mortgage loan was discharged in bankruptcy. The plaintiff discovered the loan was being mis-reported as past due when he checked his credit score in advance of buying a car and found it to be lower than expected. The plaintiff disputed the tradeline, and the CRAs forwarded his dispute to the mortgage servicer. In response to the dispute, the servicer changed the plaintiff’s account status from past due to “no status”—which meant the status had not changed from the prior month—and continued reporting it to the CRAs.
The plaintiff sued the servicer for violating the FCRA, claiming the defendant knew the loan had been discharged but still reported it as past due for more than a year. The defendant countered, among other things, that because the plaintiff “chose not to apply for a car loan” he could not prove that he was harmed by negligence due to the mis-reporting. The district court ultimately ruled that (i) the plaintiff did not have standing to allege a negligent violation of the FCRA, and (ii) no “reasonable jury” would find that the defendant had willfully violated the statute.
On appeal, the 6th Circuit disagreed, finding that the plaintiff had standing to assert a negligence claim under FCRA and that a reasonable jury could find a negligent and willful violation. The court pointed out that the plaintiff’s credit score increased by almost 100 points once the tradeline was removed, suggesting the servicer’s mis-reporting did harm the plaintiff and gave him standing to sue in negligence. The court also found the defendant “knew that [the plaintiff’s] loan had been discharged but for more than a year told the credit-reporting agencies that the loan was past due. A jury could therefore find that [the defendant] was either incompetent or willful in its failure to correct its reports sooner.” The 6th Circuit added that the defendant’s implementation of policies to guide its analysts through resolving credit disputes “hardly disproves as a matter of law that [the defendant] acted willfully.” The court held the defendant was not entitled to summary judgment and remanded the case for further proceedings.
On September 1, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois granted a defendant debt collector’s motion for summary judgment resolving FDCPA allegations. The defendant allegedly sent the plaintiff a debt collection letter, which the plaintiff disputed. Then, the plaintiff allegedly received another letter that included language regarding how to dispute the debt. Again, the plaintiff disputed the debt, requested validation of the debt, and filed a second dispute, which allegedly caused the plaintiff “stress and confusion” and “led her to unnecessarily expend time and money, as she went to the library to type and print the letter and spent money to mail it.” After the defendant filed a motion to dismiss, the court certified a class in the case. Since both sides had engaged in discovery, the court treated the defendants’ motion as one for summary judgment and concluded that the plaintiff did not demonstrate a concrete harm. The judge granted the defendant’s motion to dismiss, noting that the plaintiff’s “injury—spending time and money in an attempt to clear up her confusion concerning whether she had validly disputed the debt—is analogous to injuries arising from consultations with lawyers or filing suit, which the Seventh Circuit has held do not amount to concrete harm.”
As previously covered by Infobytes, the Seventh Circuit earlier this year held that a consumer’s alleged “stress and confusion” did not constitute a concrete and particularized injury under the FDCPA after the plaintiff alleged that the defendant debt collector violated the FDCPA when it directly communicated with her by sending a dunning letter related to unpaid debt even though she had previously notified the original lender that she was represented by counsel and requested that all debt communications cease. In that case, the Seventh Circuit held that the consumer’s allegations—that the dunning letter caused her “stress and confusion” and “made her think that ‘her demand had been futile’”—did not amount to a concrete and particularized “injury in fact” necessary to establish Article III standing under the FDCPA. The court further noted that “the state of confusion is not itself an injury”—rather, for the alleged confusion to be concrete, “a plaintiff must have acted ‘to her detriment, on that confusion.’”
- Daniel R. Alonso to moderate an interactive roundtable at the Latin Lawyer and GIR Connect: Anti-Corruption & Investigations Conference
- APPROVED Checkpoint Webcast: You have license renewal questions, we have answers
- Jonice Gray Tucker to discuss “Fintech trends” at the BIHC Network Elevating Black Excellence Regional Summit
- Jeffrey P. Naimon to discuss "Truth in lending” at the American Bar Association National Institute on Consumer Financial Services Basics
- Daniel R. Alonso to discuss anti-money-laundering at FELABAN Spanish-language webinar “Perspective for banks: LAFT, FINCEN, OFAC, Cryptocurrency”
- Daniel R. Alonso to discuss "What’s new in BSA/AML compliance?" at the Institute of International Bankers Regulatory Compliance Seminar
- Marshall T. Bell and John R. Coleman to speak at 2021 AFSA Annual Meeting
- Jon David D. Langlois to discuss "Regulatory update: What you need to know under the new boss; It won’t be the same as the old boss" at the IMN Residential Mortgage Service Rights Forum (East)
- Daniel R. Alonso to discuss internal investigations at the Institute of Internal Auditors of Argentina Spanish-language webinar
- Benjamin B. Klubes to discuss “Creating a Fantastic Workplace Culture”
- John R. Coleman and Amanda R. Lawrence to discuss “Consumer financial services government enforcement actions – The CFPB and beyond” at the Government Investigations & Civil Litigation Institute Annual Meeting
- Jonice Gray Tucker to discuss "Consumer financial services" at the Practising Law Institute Banking Law Institute
- Jonice Gray Tucker to discuss “Regulators always ring twice: Responding to a government request” at ALM Legalweek