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  • 6th Circuit: Reversed conviction in alleged mortgage application fraud

    Courts

    On August 5, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit reversed the conviction of two individuals for bank fraud, holding that the government had failed to prove that the defendants intended to obtain bank property or defraud the financial institutions that owned the mortgage companies targeted by the scheme. The complaint alleged the defendants—a homebuilder and a mortgage broker—recruited straw buyers to purchase the homebuilder’s homes, in which they obtained more than $5 million from mortgage companies through fraudulent mortgage applications that made several misrepresentations, including overstating the buyers’ incomes and falsely claiming that the buyers planned to live in the homes. During the trial, the government argued that the jury could reasonably infer that the federally insured parent banks controlled the funds, since the mortgage companies were wholly owned subsidiaries of the banks. The government further asserted that the mortgage companies’ funds belonged to the banks because “any losses incurred by the mortgage companies would ‘flow directly up’ to the banks.”

    On appeal, the 6th Circuit reversed the defendants’ bank fraud convictions, holding that the mortgage companies held no federally insured deposits, and that while each mortgage company is a wholly owned subsidiary of a bank, the mortgage companies and the banks are distinct entities. As such, the mortgage companies did not qualify as “financial institutions,” as defined under 18 U.S.C. § 20(1). The appellate court also rejected the government’s arguments because Congress had amended § 20 after the events at issue in the case by adding language covering mortgage lenders to its “enumeration of ‘financial institutions,’” thereby demonstrating that mortgage lenders were not covered by the prior version of § 20. In addition, the court also indicated that the government offered no evidence proving that the defendants sought to obtain bank property “by means of” a misrepresentation, pointing out that no evidence was presented to show that any of the misrepresentations on the loan applications ever reached anyone at the parent banks. As such, “the scheme’s effect on the value of the banks’ ownership interests in the mortgage companies was merely ‘incidental’ to the scheme’s goal of defrauding the mortgage companies.”  Accordingly, the court held that the government failed to prove that the defendants committed bank fraud.

    Courts Sixth Circuit Appellate Mortgages Fraud

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  • District Court allows case exploring whether cryptocurrency acquisitions are “cash-like” to proceed

    Courts

    On August 1, the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York allowed breach of contract and clear and conspicuous disclosure claims brought by a proposed class of consumers against a national bank to proceed, finding that ambiguity exists over whether credit card cryptocurrency purchases are “cash-like transactions.” The plaintiffs claimed that the bank breached their cardholder agreements when it changed the classification of cryptocurrency acquisitions from “purchases” to “cash advances” between January 23 and February 2, 2018. Plaintiffs contended that this change subjected cardholders to higher interest rates and transaction fees in violation of their cardholder agreements. Moreover, the plaintiffs claimed that the bank’s failure to clearly and conspicuously disclose the different types of transactions and varying rates, as well as its failure to provide advance notice of significant changes in its account terms and accurate disclosures in periodic account statements, violated TILA and Regulation Z.

    The bank countered that no breach of contract occurred because cryptocurrency acquisitions are “cash-like transactions” that, under the cardholder agreement, are properly classified as cash advances. Specifically, the bank stated that because cryptocurrency can be a “medium of exchange, a measure of value, or a means of payment” under the definition of “cash,” it is therefore “cash-like.”

    The court concluded that the plaintiffs offered a reasonable argument that purchases of cryptocurrency did not constitute cash advances. Plaintiffs argued that the contractual term “cash-like”—which was used in the cardholder agreement to describe a cash advance—referred only to financial instruments formally tied to physical, government-issued “fiat” currency, such as checks, money orders, and wire transfers. “Because, as plaintiffs plausibly allege, cryptocurrency does not imbue its holder with a legal right to any government-issued currency, acquisitions of cryptocurrency could not be classified as a cash-like transaction,” the court stated. As such, “[b]ecause plaintiffs have identified a reasonable interpretation of ‘cash-like transactions’ that would exclude purchases of cryptocurrency, the breach of contract claim survives the motion to dismiss.” The court also allowed plaintiffs’ “clear and conspicuous” disclosure claim under TILA to survive because the contract was not clear that purchases of cryptocurrency would result in cash advance fees. However, the court dismissed the plaintiffs’ remaining TILA claims, finding that (i) the bank did not change the contract terms themselves, but rather their application; and (ii) the periodic account statements did not inaccurately convey what the plaintiffs owed to the bank for those particular periods of time.  

    Courts Class Action Credit Cards Cryptocurrency Disclosures TILA Regulation Z

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  • District Court grants preliminary approval to national bank's auto lending settlement

    Courts

    On August 5, the U. S. District Court for the Central District of California granted preliminary approval and class certification to a settlement of at least $393.5 million to resolve multidistrict allegations that a national bank added force-placed auto insurance to auto loans that may have been unnecessary and without borrowers’ consent. Under the terms of the settlement, the auto insurance underwriter will pay an additional $7.5 million. The allegations stem from a 2017 lawsuit in which borrowers claimed the bank charged them for unnecessary collateral protection insurance. The settlement also requires the bank and the underwriter to pay up to $36 million in attorneys’ fees for the borrower class and up to $500,000 in litigation expenses. However, the court scheduled a settlement fairness hearing for October to examine the fees before granting final approval of the settlement. This settlement follows a 2018 settlement reached between the bank and the CFPB and the OCC concerning a similar set of allegations over the purported billing of force-placed insurance premiums that may not have been required. (See previous InfoBytes coverage here.)

    Courts Auto Finance Force-placed Insurance

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  • 11th Circuit rejects city’s FHA suit against bank

    Courts

    On July 30, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit dismissed the City of Miami Gardens (City) Fair Housing Act (FHA) suit against a national bank for lack of standing. This decision was the result of the appeal of a lower court decision previously covered by InfoBytes in June 2018. In the prior decision, the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida granted the national bank’s motion for summary judgment. This was a loss for the City, which had argued that the bank made loans that were more expensive for minority borrowers as compared to non-minority borrowers, resulting in greater rates of default and foreclosure and leading to reduced property values and tax revenue for the City. The district court granted the national bank summary judgment based on the City’s failure to present sufficient evidence of discriminatory lending.

    On appeal, the bank argued that the district court should have dismissed the claims for lack of standing because “‘the undisputed evidence confirmed that none of the 153 loans originated by [the bank] [within the limitation period] foreclosed,’ so the City could not have suffered an injury as a result of any of [the] loans.” The 11th Circuit agreed that the City lacked standing, concluding that the City’s evidence that certain loans may go into foreclosure at some point in the future “does not satisfy the requirement that a threatened injury be ‘imminent, not conjectural or hypothetical.’” Moreover, although the City referenced ten loans that had gone into foreclosure, the appellate court ruled that “the City did not produce any evidence of the effect of these foreclosures on property-tax revenues or municipal spending,” nor that the loans were issued on discriminatory terms.  Accordingly, the 11th Circuit vacated the district court’s award of summary judgment, and held that the district court should have dismissed the action on standing grounds.

    Courts Appellate Eleventh Circuit Fair Lending Disparate Impact Fair Housing Act

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  • 5th Circuit says Congress, not courts, is responsible for changing rules for discharging student loans in bankruptcy

    Courts

    On July 30, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit affirmed decisions by a bankruptcy court and a district court to dismiss a borrower’s student loan discharge request under the Bankruptcy Code, holding that Congress, not the courts, is responsible for changing the rules for discharging student loan debt in bankruptcy.

    The borrower, who became unable to make payments on her student loans and other debts, initiated an adversarial action against the Department of Education in bankruptcy court after receiving a general discharge of her debts, in an attempt to have two student loans discharged as well. While the borrower was able to prove that her monthly expenses exceed her income, the bankruptcy and district courts found that she failed the three-prong test for evaluating claims of “undue hardship” established by the 2nd Circuit in Brunner v. New York State Higher Education Services Corp. and adopted in the 5th Circuit in In re Gerhardt. Primarily, the courts stated that the borrower failed to (i) show that she was “completely incapable of employment now or in the future”; or (ii) prove that her present state of affairs was likely to persist through the bulk of the loan repayment period. The borrower appealed, arguing that the three-prong test “is inconsistent with the plain meaning of the term ‘undue hardship’” and urged the appellate court to adopt instead “a ‘totality of the circumstances’ test.”

    On appeal, the 5th Circuit agreed with the lower courts, stating that when Congress amended the bankruptcy law regarding the discharge of federal student loans, the intent was to limit it to cases of “undue hardship” in order to prevent the use of bankruptcy except in the most compelling circumstances. According to the appellate court, until an en banc panel or the Supreme Court reviews the standard, the panel finds no error in the lower courts’ decision. “Policy-based arguments do not change this interpretation; the role of this court is to interpret the laws passed by Congress, not to set bankruptcy policy,” the appellate court wrote. Moreover, reducing the test to a “totality of the circumstances” standard would create an “intolerable inconsistency” in decisions on loan discharges, and expand an area of bankruptcy law that Congress has sought to constrict.

    Courts Fifth Circuit Appellate Student Lending Bankruptcy

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  • 1st Circuit asks Massachusetts high court to resolve foreclosure question

    Courts

    On July 29, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 1st Circuit certified to the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court the question of whether a national bank’s foreclosure notice was valid under Massachusetts law. According to the order, the appellate court granted the bank an en banc rehearing of its February decision, which concluded that the bank’s foreclosure notice was defective and therefore, it could not properly foreclose the mortgage. The court had reasoned that the notice, which stated that the homeowners “could avoid foreclosure if, but only if, the [homeowners] paid the balance due on or before the specified foreclosure date,” was defective because the mortgage required the homeowners to pay the amount at least five days before the foreclosure date. In its petition for rehearing en banc, the bank argued that a Massachusetts state banking regulation required it to use the specific language it had in the notice and that the panel erred in its reading of existing state court precedent. The appellate court noted that the position is debatable and that in a diversity jurisdiction action the court “cannot properly overturn governing state precedent.” Therefore, the appellate court withdrew its earlier opinion, vacated the judgment, and certified to the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court the question of whether the statement in the foreclosure notice would render the notice inaccurate or deceptive, voiding the subsequent foreclosure sale under Massachusetts law.

    Courts State Issues First Circuit Appellate Mortgages Foreclosure

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  • 2nd Circuit: Consumer plausibly alleged discrepancies between collection letters and mortgage note

    Courts

    On July 22, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit affirmed in part and vacated in part a district court’s dismissal of a consumer’s FDCPA claims concerning communications received from a creditor and a collection firm (defendants) related to his defaulted mortgage. The consumer alleged that the letter he received in November 2015 listed an inaccurate amount of debt in violation of FDCPA section 1692g (concerning “initial communications”), and that subsequent letters received were inconsistent because they listed varying amounts of debt. Additionally, the consumer contended that the defendants violated sections 1692e (“false, deceptive, or misleading representations”) and 1692f (“unfair or unconscionable means to collect or attempt to collect any debt”). The district court ruled that the consumer failed to plausibly state a claim or provide factual support for his allegations.

    On review, the appellate court agreed that the consumer failed to state a claim under section 1692g, explaining that “the least sophisticated consumer” would not be misled by the various debt collection letters concerning the amount of the debt. The appellate court emphasized that the consumer ignored the creditor’s acceleration of the underlying mortgage loan—which accounted for the core differences in the communications about the outstanding debt—and rejected the consumer’s allegations that the letters were inaccurate and inconsistent. However, the 2nd Circuit disagreed with the district court, holding that the consumer’s claims under sections 1692e and 1692f survived the defendants’ motion to dismiss because the consumer plausibly alleged discrepancies between the collection letters and mortgage note concerning late fees and charges.

    Courts Second Circuit Appellate FDCPA Fees Debt Collection

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  • 9th Circuit upholds CFTC fraud enforcement power

    Courts

    On July 25, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit held that the Commodity Future Trading Commission (CFTC) had the enforcement authority to bring a $290 million fraud action against a trading platform, concluding that the district court improperly dismissed the action. According to the opinion, the CFTC brought an action against a trading platform alleging that it was an illegal and unregistered leveraged retail commodity transaction market for precious metals. The platform moved to dismiss the action, arguing that the Dodd-Frank Act did not give the CFTC the power to pursue stand-alone fraud claims without allegations of manipulation and that the Commodity Exchange Act’s “registration provisions do not apply to retail commodities dealers who ‘actual[ly] deliver[]’ the commodities to customers within twenty-eight days.” The district court agreed, and dismissed the action.

    On appeal, the 9th Circuit concluded the district court erred in dismissing the CFTC’s claims, holding that the CFTC had the authority under Section 6(c)(1) of the CEA to take action against the entity for fraudulently deceptive activity. Specifically, the appellate court held that the CFTC could bring an action for “fraudulently deceptive activity, regardless of whether it was also manipulative,” concluding the district court erred when it interpreted the use of the word “or” in the CEA’s prohibition of the use of “any manipulative or deceptive device or contrivance” to mean “and.” Moreover, the appellate court rejected the platform’s “actual delivery” argument, concluding that the platform’s practice of storing the goods in depositories,  and “maintain[ing] total control over accounts,” with the ability to liquidate at any time, amounts to “sham delivery, not actual delivery.” The appellate court looked to the legislative history of Dodd-Frank and observed that, “[i]f Congress wanted only to ensure enough inventory it could have said so. It did not; it required ‘actual delivery,’” which would require some “meaningful degree of possession or control by the customer.”

    Courts Appellate Ninth Circuit CFTC Enforcement Dodd-Frank Commodity Exchange Act Fraud

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  • 9th Circuit affirms district court’s ruling in FCRA dispute

    Courts

    On July 24, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit affirmed a district court’s ruling that the FCRA did not require a consumer reporting agency (defendant) to examine disputed items on an individual’s credit report because the credit repair company—and not the individual—submitted the request to the defendant. Under the FCRA, consumer reporting agencies are required to assess disputed credit file items when a consumer notifies the agency directly. However, the court stated that the plaintiff did not play a part in drafting, finalizing, or sending the letters that the credit repair company sent to the defendant on his behalf, and therefore granted summary judgment in favor of the defendant, ruling that the defendant’s duty to reinvestigate the claims relied upon the plaintiff himself submitting the dispute notifications.

    On appeal, the 9th Circuit agreed with the district court that the defendant “did not act unreasonably” and was correct in entering summary judgment. “This case does not involve a letter sent to a consumer reporting agency by a consumer’s attorney,” the appellate court wrote in clarifying that the holding was limited to the facts of the specific case. “Nor does it involve one family member assisting another by sending a letter on the other’s behalf. It does not even involve a letter sent by a credit repair agency that a consumer reviewed and approved before it was submitted. We do not decide whether, in any of these circumstances, a consumer reporting agency would have a duty to reinvestigate. We only hold that, in this case, where [the plaintiff] played no role in preparing the letters and did not review them before they were sent, the letters sent by [the credit repair company] did not come directly from [the plaintiff].”

    Courts Ninth Circuit Appellate FCRA Credit Reporting Agency

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  • HUD suspends downpayment assistance mortgagee letter following injunction

    Federal Issues

    On July 23, HUD issued Mortgagee Letter 2019-10, announcing the official suspension of the effective date of the agency’s April guidance (Mortgagee Letter 2019-06), which changed the downpayment assistance (DPA) guidelines. The suspension comes just a week after the U.S. District Court for the District of Utah granted an American Indian band and its mortgage company (collectively, “plaintiffs”) a preliminary injunction halting the enforcement of the April changes, and ordering that HUD “shall not deny insurance nor cause insurance to be denied based on non-compliance with Mortgagee Letter 19-06 and shall provide public notice that the effective date of Mortgagee Letter 19-06 is suspended until after a final determination on the merits of the case.” Buckley is co-counsel in the pending litigation.

    The suspended guidance, Mortgagee Letter 2019-06 (Mortgagee Letter), issued on April 18, imposed new documentation requirements purportedly aimed at confirming that Governmental Entities operate their DPA programs within the scope of their governmental capacity when providing any portion of a borrower’s Minimum Required Investment (MRI). The letter updated Handbook 4000.1 to specify that when any portion of a borrower’s MRI comes from a Governmental Entity, a mortgagee must obtain the following documentation: (i) proof that the Governmental Entity has authority to operate in the jurisdiction where the property is located; (ii) a legal opinion from the Governmental Entity’s attorneys, signed and dated within two years of closing, establishing the Governmental Entity’s authority to operate in the jurisdiction where the property is located, which in the case of a federally recognized Indian Tribe means the entity is operating on tribal land in which the property is located, or offering DPA to enrolled members of the tribe; and (iii) evidence that the Governmental Entity is providing DPA and is doing so in its governmental capacity. The Mortgagee Letter went on to require documentation indicating that the provision of DPA is not contingent upon the future transfer of the insured mortgage to a specific entity.

    The plaintiffs filed suit against HUD on April 22 arguing that the Mortgagee Letter was unlawful and discriminatory, and unfairly targeted American Indian tribes by “requiring them, for the first time, to confine their DPA programs to the geographic boundaries of their reservations and to enrolled members of the tribes, literally driving them out of the national marketplace and back onto the reservation.” Additionally, the complaint argued that HUD failed to execute these changes in accordance with the protections of the Administrative Procedures Act (APA) by providing a notice and comment period—purporting the Mortgagee Letter to be an “informal ‘guidance’ document that merely ‘clarifies’ existing law.” The decision to grant the preliminary injunction was announced by the court at the conclusion of a July 16 hearing. In the written order released the following week, the court concluded that the plaintiffs were likely to succeed on claims that the agency violated the APA because the Mortgagee Letter was actually a legislative rule with the force and effect of the law, not merely an interpretive rule. Moreover, the court rejected HUD’s argument that the Mortgagee Letter merely reiterates jurisdictional limitations that were already present, and stated the plaintiffs sufficiently demonstrated irreparable harm caused by the new jurisdictional limitations in the Mortgagee Letter.

    Federal Issues Courts Agency Rule-Making & Guidance HUD Downpayment Assistance Preliminary Injunction

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