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11th Circuit advances TILA suit weighing agency theory of liability
On February 6, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit reversed a district court’s finding of summary judgment in favor of a financing company concerning alleged violations of TILA. The plaintiff agreed to purchase air conditioning repairs by taking out a loan with a company that finances home-improvement loans for heating and air conditioning products. According to the plaintiff, the repair company lied about the price of the loan and prevented him from viewing the loan paperwork. The plaintiff sued the defendants for violations of TILA and various state consumer protection laws, claiming he was not provided certain required disclosures and maintaining that had he received the disclosures he would not have accepted the loan. The plaintiff eventually decided to cancel the order before the work was commenced and was told he would have to contact the financing company to cancel the loan. The plaintiff was not released from the unpaid loan for work that never happened, and the negative payment history was reported to the credit bureaus.
The financing company argued that the plaintiff’s injuries are not traceable to the disclosure paperwork because the repair company never showed him the paperwork. The plaintiff countered that the repair company was not independent of the financing company because it was acting as the financing company’s agency. Under the “agency theory of liability,” the plaintiff argued that the financing company is liable under TILA for the repair company’s failure to provide the required disclosures. The district court ruled, however that the plaintiff lacked standing based on the finding that his injuries were not traceable to the financing company’s TILA violation, and that the plaintiff had not alleged that the repair company was acting as the financing company’s agent to provide the required disclosures.
On appeal, the 11th Circuit concluded that the plaintiff had standing to raise his agency-based TILA claim against the financing company. As a threshold matter, the appellate court first recognized that the plaintiff suffered a concrete injury (e.g., time spent disputing his debt; the impact on his credit; money spent sending documents to his attorney; and feelings of anxiousness), noting that injury and traceability were separate analyses. With respect to traceability, the appellate court next reviewed whether there was “a causal connection” between the plaintiff’s injuries and the challenged action of the financing company. The 11th Circuit accepted one theory of traceability—a theory of agency. “TILA liability attaches not only to the provision of incorrect disclosures, but also to the failure to provide any disclosures at all,” the appellate court explained, stating that in this case, the plaintiff argued that the repair company was acting as an agent of the financing company for the purpose of providing the disclosures. While expressing no opinion on the merits of the claim, the 11th Circuit concluded that the plaintiff had adequately pled that the financing company contracted with the repair company “who at all times acted as its agent” and that the financing company “is vicariously liable for the harms and losses” caused by the repair company’s misconduct by virtue of this agency relationship.
8th Circuit affirms almost $20 million in damages and attorney’s fees in RMBS action
On February 2, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit affirmed a district court order requiring a mortgage lender to pay $5.4 million in damages and $14 million in attorney’s fees for selling mortgages that did not meet agreed-upon contractual representations and warranties to a now-defunct company that packaged and resold the loans to residential mortgage-back securities (RMBS) trusts. The now-defunct company was sued by the RMBS trusts after loans underlying the securitizations began defaulting at a high rate during the 2008 financial crisis. A liquidating trust was established to oversee wind-down measures after the company filed for bankruptcy. The liquidating trust later began suing originators for indemnification over the allegedly defective mortgages. In 2020, the district court ruled in favor of the liquidating trust and entered judgment for $5.4 million in damages, $10.6 million in attorney’s fees, $3.5 million is costs, $2 million in prejudgment interest, and $520,212 in “post-award prejudgment interest.” The district court found, among other things, that the lender had breached its client contracts, and that in doing so, contributed to the now-defunct company’s “losses, damages, or liabilities within the scope of the contractual indemnity.” The court also found the liquidating trust’s damages methodology to be reasonable and nonspeculative. The lender appealed, disagreeing with how the underlying contracts were interpreted, as well as the allocation of multi-party damages and the post-trial award of fees, costs, and interest.
On appeal, the 8th Circuit disagreed, concluding that the terms of the parties’ contract made the lender liable. The appellate court also rejected the lender’s contention that it should not be expected to pay the claims against the now-defunct company because they were extinguished in bankruptcy, and that the methodology used to calculate the damages was inaccurate. In awarding $5.4 million in indemnification damages, the appellate court held that the district court properly found that the expert’s “‘calculation of damages was reasonable and non-speculative,’ and that his methodology produced a reasonably certain measure of [the liquidating trust’s] indemnifiable damages.” The 8th Circuit further concluded that the fee award was fair and that the district court had accounted for the complexity of the case and the importance of conducting a detailed loan-by-loan analysis. The appellate court also accused the lender of relitigating already decided issues and driving up the costs. However, the 8th Circuit did order the district court to recalculate the post-judgment interest award using guidance under 28 U.S.C. § 1961(a) rather than the 10 percent prejudgment interest rate under Minnesota law.
Illinois Supreme Court sets five-year SOL for section 15 BIPA violations
On February 2, the Illinois Supreme Court held that under the state’s Biometric Information Privacy Act (BIPA), individuals have five years to assert violations of section 15 of the statute. The plaintiff sued his former employer claiming that by scanning his fingerprints, the company violated section 15(a) of BIPA (which provides for the retention and deletion of biometric data), as well as sections 15(b) and 15(d) (which provide for the consensual collection and disclosure of biometric identifiers and biometric information). According to the plaintiff, the defendant allegedly failed to implement and adhere to a publicly available biometric information retention and destruction policy, failed to obtain his consent to collection his biometric data, and disclosed his data to third parties without his consent. The defendant moved to dismiss the complaint as untimely, arguing that “claims brought under [BIPA] concern violations of privacy, and therefore, the one-year limitations period in section 13-201 of the [Code of Civil Procedure (Code)] should apply to such claims under [BIPA] because section 13-201 governs actions for the ‘publication of matter violating the right of privacy.’”
The circuit court disagreed, stating that the lawsuit was timely filed because the five-year limitations period codified in section 13-205 of the Code applied to violations of BIPA. While the circuit court agreed that BIPA is a privacy statute, it said section 13-201 of the Code applies to privacy claims where “publication” is an element of the complaint. Because the plaintiff’s complaint does not involve the publication of biometric data and does not assert invasions of privacy or defamation, the one-year limitations period should not apply, the circuit court said, further adding that BIPA is not intended “to regulate the publication of biometric data.” The circuit court also concluded that the five-year limitations period applied in this case because BIPA itself does not contain a limitations period.
The defendant amended his complaint and eventually appealed. The appellate court ultimately concluded that the one-year limitations period codified in section 13-201 of the Code applies to claims under section 15(c) and 15(d) of BIPA “where ‘publication or disclosure of biometric data is clearly an element’ of the claim,” and that the five-year limitations period codified in section 13-205 of the Code governs actions brought under section 15(a), 15(b), and 15(e) (which provides data safeguarding requirements) of BIPA “because ‘no element of publication or dissemination’ exists in those claims.” The defendant continued to argue that BIPA is a privacy statute and as such, claims brought under section 15 of BIPA should be governed by the one-year limitations period codified in section 13-201 of the Code.
In affirming in part and reversing in part the judgment of the appellate court, the Illinois Supreme Court applied the state’s “five-year catchall limitations period” to claims brought under BIPA. “[A]pplying two different time limitations periods or time-bar standards to different subsections of section 15 of [BIPA] would create an unclear, inconvenient, inconsistent, and potentially unworkable regime as it pertains to the administration of justice for claims under [BIPA],” the Illinois Supreme Court wrote.
District Court dismisses CFPB redlining action against nonbank lender
On February 3, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois dismissed with prejudice claims that a Chicago-based nonbank mortgage company and its owner violated ECOA by engaging in discriminatory marketing and applicant outreach practices. The CFPB sued the defendants in 2020 alleging fair lending violations, including violations of ECOA and the CFPA, predicated, in part, on statements made by the company’s owner and other employees during radio shows and podcasts from 2014 through 2017. (Covered by a Special Alert.) The complaint (which was later amended) marked the first time a federal regulator has taken a public enforcement action against a nondepository institution based on allegations of redlining.
The Bureau claimed that the defendants discouraged African Americans from applying for mortgage loans from the company and redlined African American neighborhoods in the Chicago area by (i) discouraging their residents from applying for mortgage loans from the company; and (ii) discouraging nonresidents from applying for loans from the company for homes in these neighborhoods. The defendants moved to dismiss with prejudice, arguing that the Bureau improperly attempted to expand ECOA’s reach “beyond the express and unambiguous language of the statute.” The defendants explained that while the statute “regulates behavior towards applicants for credit, it does not regulate any behavior relating to prospective applicants who have not yet applied for credit.” The Bureau countered that courts have consistently recognized Regulation B’s discouragement prohibition even when applied to prospective applicants.
In dismissing the action with prejudice, the court applied step one of Chevron framework (which is to determine “whether Congress has directly spoken to the precise question at issue”) when reviewing whether the Bureau’s interpretation of ECOA in Regulation B is permissible. Explaining that ECOA’s plain text “clearly and unambiguously prohibits discrimination against applicants”—defined as a person who applies for credit—the court concluded (citing to case law in support of its decision) that Congress’s directive only prohibits discrimination against applicants and does not apply to prospective applicants. The court stressed that the agency’s authority to enact regulations is not limitless and that the statute’s use of the term “applicant” clearly marks the boundary of ECOA.
The court also rejected the Bureau’s argument that ECOA’s delegation of authority to the Bureau to adopt rules to prevent evasion means the anti-discouragement provision must be sustained provided it reasonably relates to ECOA’s objectives. The Bureau pointed to the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Mourning v. Fam. Publ’ns Serv., Inc. (upholding the “Four Installment Rule” under similar delegation language in TILA), but the court held that Mourning does not permit it to avoid Chevron’s two-step framework. Because the anti-discouragement provision does not survive the first step, the court did not reach whether the provision is reasonably related to ECOA’s objectives and dismissed the action with prejudice. The remaining claims, which depend on the ECOA claim, were also dismissed with prejudice.
The firm will be sending out a Special Alert in the next few business days providing additional thinking on this decision.
D.C. Circuit says CFPB’s Prepaid Rule does not mandate model disclosures for payment companies
On February 3, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit reversed a district court’s decision that had previously granted summary judgment in favor of a payment company and had vacated two provisions of the CFPB’s Prepaid Rule: (i) the short-form disclosure requirement “to the extent it provides mandatory disclosure clauses”; and (ii) the 30-day credit linking restriction. As previously covered by InfoBytes, the company sued the Bureau alleging, among other things, that the Bureau’s Prepaid Rule exceeded the agency’s statutory authority “because Congress only authorized the Bureau to adopt model, optional disclosure clauses—not mandatory disclosure clauses like the short-form disclosure requirement.” The Bureau countered that it had authority to enforce the mandates under federal regulations, including the EFTA, TILA, and Dodd-Frank, and argued that the “EFTA and [Dodd-Frank] authorize the Bureau to issue—or at least do not foreclose it from issuing—rules mandating the form of a disclosure.”
The district court concluded, among other things, that the Bureau acted outside of its statutory authority, and ruled that it could not presume that Congress delegated power to the agency to issue mandatory disclosure clauses just because Congress did not specifically prohibit it from doing so. Instead, the Bureau can only “‘issue model clauses for optional use by financial institutions’” since the EFTA’s plain text does not permit the Bureau to issue mandatory clauses, the district court said. The Bureau appealed, arguing that both the EFTA and Dodd-Frank authorize the Bureau to promulgate rules governing disclosures for prepaid accounts, and that the decision to adopt such rules is entitled to deference. (Covered by InfoBytes here.) However, the Bureau maintained that the Prepaid Rule “does not make any specific disclosure clauses mandatory,” and stressed that companies are permitted to use the provided sample disclosure wording or use their own “substantially similar” wording.
In reversing and remanding the ruling, the appellate court unanimously determined that because the Bureau’s Prepaid Rule does not mandate “specific copiable language,” it is not mandating a “model clause,” which the court assumed for purposes of the opinion that the Bureau was prohibited from doing. While the Prepaid Rule imposes formatting requirements and requires the disclosure of certain enumerated fees, the D.C. Circuit stressed that the Bureau “has not mandated that financial providers use specific, copiable language to describe those fees.” Moreover, formatting is not part of a “model clause,” the appellate court added. And because companies are allowed to provide “substantially similar” disclosures, the appellate court held that the Bureau has not mandated a “model clause” in contravention of the EFTA. The appellate court, however, did not address any of the procedural or constitutional challenges to the Bureau’s short-form disclosures that the district court had not addressed in its opinion, but instead directed the district court to address those questions in the first instance.
District Court preliminarily approves $2.75 million autodialer TCPA settlement
On January 31, the U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland preliminarily approved a class action settlement in which a cloud computing technology company agreed to pay $2.75 million to resolve alleged violations of the TCPA and the Maryland Telephone Consumer Protection Act. According to the plaintiff, the defendant violated the TCPA by, among other things, placing unsolicited telemarketing calls using an automated dialing system to class members on residential and cell phone numbers. Under the terms of the proposed settlement agreement, the defendant must establish a non-reversionary fund of $2.75 million to go to class members to whom the defendant (or a third party acting on its behalf) made (i) one or more phone calls to their cell phones; (ii) two or more calls while their numbers were on the National Do Not Call Registry; or (iii) one or more calls after the recipients asked the defendant or the third party to stop calling. “Plaintiff has also shown that a class action litigation is superior to other available methods for adjudicating this controversy,” the court wrote. “Plaintiff's counsel estimate that the average settlement payment to each Class Member would be approximately $30.00 to $60.00. Given this, the individual claims of each Class Member would be too small to justify individual lawsuits.” The court also approved proposed attorneys’ fees (not to exceed a third of the total settlement fund), as well as up to $60,000 for plaintiff’s out-of-pocket expenses and a $10,000 service fee award.
9th Circuit orders district court to reassess $7.9 million civil penalty against payments company
On January 27, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ordered a district court to reassess its decision “under the changed legal landscape since its initial order and opinion” in an action concerning alleged misrepresentations made by a bi-weekly payments company. The Bureau filed a lawsuit against the company in 2015, alleging, among other things, that the company made misrepresentations to consumers about its bi-weekly payment program when it overstated the savings provided by the program and created the impression the company was affiliated with the consumers’ lender. In 2017, the district court granted a $7.9 million civil penalty proposed by the Bureau, as well as permanent injunctive relief, but denied restitution of almost $74 million sought by the agency. (Covered by InfoBytes here.) The company appealed the district court’s conclusion that it had engaged in deceptive practices in violation of the Consumer Financial Protection Act, while the Bureau cross-appealed the district court’s decision to deny restitution. The 9th Circuit consolidated the appeals for consideration.
During the pendency of the cross-appeals, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a decision in 2020 in Seila Law LLC v. CFPB, in which it determined that the director’s for-cause removal provision was unconstitutional but was severable from the statute establishing the Bureau (covered by a Buckley Special Alert). Following Seila, former Director Kathy Kraninger ratified several prior regulatory actions (covered by InfoBytes here), including the enforcement action brought against the company. At issue in the company’s appeal is whether the Bureau has authority to pursue its claims, including whether the agency’s funding mechanism is unconstitutional and whether its case is distinguishable from other actions and is entitled to dismissal for the Bureau director’s unconstitutional for-cause removal provision.
The appellate court declined to offer a position on these issues, and instead left them for the district court to consider. The 9th Circuit noted that since the district court’s 2017 order, “sister circuit courts have split” on the funding issue. “We vacate the district court’s order and remand, allowing it to reassess the case under the changed legal landscape since its initial order and opinion,” the appellate court wrote, directing the district court to “provide further consideration to [the company’s] argument on the constitutionality of the Bureau’s funding mechanism.” With respect to the Bureau’s appeal of the restitution denial, the 9th Circuit remanded the case to allow the district court to consider the effect CFPB v. CashCall and Liu v. SEC may have on the action (covered by InfoBytes here and here), as well as whether the agency “waived its claim to legal restitution by characterizing it only as a form of equitable relief before the district court.”
District Court denies certification and defendants’ motion for summary judgment in FDCPA class action
On January 26, the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington denied a plaintiff’s motion for class certification and denied motions for summary judgment from defendants in an FDCPA case stemming from a consent order between one of the defendants and the CFPB. As previously covered by InfoBytes, in September 2017, the CFPB announced it had filed a complaint in the U.S. District Court for the District of Delaware against a collection of 15 Delaware statutory trusts and their debt collector for, among other things, allegedly filing lawsuits against consumers for private student loan debt that they could not prove was owed or that was outside the applicable statute of limitations. According to the consent judgment, the trusts were required to pay at least $3.5 million in restitution to more than 2,000 consumers who made payments resulting from the improper collection suits, to pay $7.8 million in disgorgement to the Treasury Department, and to pay an additional $7.8 million civil money penalty to the CFPB. In addition, the trusts were required to: (i) hire an independent auditor, subject to the Bureau’s approval, to audit all 800,000 student loans in the portfolio to determine if collection efforts must be stopped on additional accounts; (ii) cease collection attempts on loans that lack proper documentation or that are time-barred; and (iii) ensure false or misleading documents are not filed and that documents requiring notarization are handled properly. A separate consent order issued against the debt collector orders the company to pay a $2.5 million civil money penalty to the CFPB.
According to the district court’s order, the plaintiffs, who were sued by the defendants for failing to pay their student loans, alleged that the defendants filed fraudulent, deceptive, and misleading affidavits in order to obtain default judgments. The plaintiffs sought to include a class of those residing in Washington for which the defendants sought to collect a debt allegedly owned by one of the trusts. The district court, however, was “unconvinced” that any of the questions would generate common answers on a class-wide basis. For example, the question of whether the defendants’ employees filed false or misleading affidavits “cannot be resolved in one stroke,” the district court said, because the plaintiffs “cannot show by a preponderance of the evidence that the documents Defendants used in every debt collection action suffered from the same alleged deficiencies.” With respect to the defendants’ summary judgment motion, the district court determined there were genuine issues of material fact regarding the alleged violations of the FDCPA and state law in Washington. The district court denied the defendants’ motion for summary judgment, noting noted that “[a]ttempts to collect debts with false affidavits and without the necessary documentation to prove the claims is unfair or unconscionable and involves false, deceptive, and/or misleading representations in violation of the FDCPA.”
4th Circuit affirms certification of class action in tribal lending case
On January 24, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit concluded that a district court did not abuse its discretion when certifying a class action. The lawsuit alleges an individual who orchestrated an online payday lending scheme violated the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organization Act (RICO), engaged in unjust enrichment, and violated Virginia’s usury law by partnering with federally-recognized tribes to issue loans with allegedly usurious interest rates. (Covered by InfoBytes here.) The plaintiffs alleged the defendant partnered with the tribes to circumvent state usury laws even though the tribes did not control the lending operation. The district court stated that, as there was “no substantive involvement” by the tribes in the lending operation and that the evidence showed that the defendant was “functionally in charge,” the lending operation—which allegedly charged interest rates exceeding Virginia’s 12 percent interest cap—could not claim tribal immunity.
After the district court certified two borrower classes, the defendant appealed, arguing, among other things, that “[b]orrowers entered into enforceable loan agreements with lending entities in which they waived their right to bring class claims against him,” and that “common issues do not predominate so as to permit class treatment in this case.” Specifically, the defendant claimed that his role in the lending operations changed throughout the class period, and that individualized “proof” and “tracing” would be necessary to prove that he “participated in the direction of the affairs of the alleged enterprise” or that he received some portion of each borrower’s interest payments.
On appeal, the 4th Circuit disagreed with the defendant’s assertions. It found no reason to question the district court’s conclusion that the defendant was the “de facto” head of the lending operations throughout the class period. “And the fact that [the defendant] served as the ‘de facto head’ of the lending operations for the entire class period supports the district court’s determination that the Borrowers will be able to use common proof to show that [the defendant] ‘participated in the direction of the’ lending operations such that common questions predominate over individual questions[,]” the appellate court stated. The 4th Circuit further concluded that the “record supports the district court’s conclusion that [the defendant] lied when he said he was never involved in receiving or demanding payments on [the lending operation’s] loans.”
2nd Circuit affirms dismissal of FDCPA, FCRA, RICO action
On January 19, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit affirmed the dismissal of a debt collection action related to alleged violations of the FCRA, FDCPA, and the Racketeer and Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act. Plaintiff filed a complaint against a telecommunications company and related entities concerning a disputed past-due charge and subsequent debt collection proceeding. The district court dismissed the action and denied the plaintiff’s motion for sanctions. In affirming the dismissal, the appellate court concluded that the district court correctly determined that the plaintiff failed to state a claim under the FCRA on the basis that (i) the plaintiff failed to allege cognizable damages caused by the alleged violations; and (ii) the credit reporting agencies corrected the allegedly inaccurate information within 30 days of being notified. The 2nd Circuit held that the plaintiff’s FDCPA claims also failed, pointing to the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Henson v. Santander Consumer USA Inc., which found that “you have to attempt to collect debts owed another before you can ever qualify as a debt collector” under the FDCPA. According to the appellate court, the plaintiff claimed that the relevant defendants are or were creditors seeking to collect on debts owed to them, and that, as such, they do not qualify as debt collectors under the statute. Finally, the 2nd Circuit concluded that the district court correctly determined that the plaintiff failed to demonstrate how the communications he received from the defendant qualified as mail or wire fraud under RICO.