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On March 1, plaintiffs filed a proposed class action settlement agreement with a debt collection firm in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, which would potentially end litigation dating back to 2011 concerning alleged violations of state usury limitations. The proposed settlement would resolve claims originally brought by the plaintiffs alleging that the defendants violated the FDCPA and New York state usury law when it attempted to collect charged-off credit card debt, purchased from a national bank, from borrowers with interest rates above the state’s 25 percent cap. As previously covered by InfoBytes, in 2015, the 2nd Circuit reversed the district court’s 2013 decision, and held that a nonbank entity taking assignment of debts originated by a national bank is not entitled to protection under the National Bank Act from state-law usury claims. This ruling contradicted the “Valid-When-Made Doctrine,” which is a longstanding principle of usury law that if a loan is not usurious when made, then it does not become usurious when assigned to another party. Following the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to decline to hear the case, the district court issued a ruling in 2017 (covered by InfoBytes here) holding that New York’s fundamental public policy against usury overrides a Delaware choice-of-law clause in the plaintiff’s original credit card agreement. The court granted the plaintiff’s motion for class certification, and allowed the FDCPA and related state unfair or deceptive acts or practices claims to proceed. However, the court did not allow the plaintiff’s claims for violations of New York’s usury law to proceed, as it held that New York’s civil usury statute does not apply to defaulted debts and that the plaintiff cannot directly enforce the criminal usury statute.
Under the terms of the proposed settlement, the defendants are required to, among other things, (i) provide class members with $555,000 in monetary relief; (ii) provide $9.2 million in credit balance reductions; (iii) pay $550,000 in attorneys’ fees and costs; and (iv) agree to comply with all applicable laws, regulations, and case law regarding the collection of interest, including the collection of usurious interest.
On March 5, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Ohio denied a debt buyer’s motion to dismiss a consumer action alleging the company violated the FDCPA and the Ohio Consumer Sales Practices Act (OCSPA) by requesting a credit reporting agency account review after the alleged debt had been discharged in bankruptcy. According to the opinion, the consumer’s debts were discharged in November 2017 after a Chapter 7 bankruptcy, and in December 2017, the company requested an account review through a credit reporting agency for collection purposes. The consumer alleges the company violated the FDCPA and the OCSPA because the company could not legally collect on a debt that had already been discharged in bankruptcy. The company moved to dismiss the action arguing it was not a debt collector under the FDCPA nor was it a “supplier” under the OCSPA, but rather is merely a “passive debt purchaser” and only reviewed the report but took no further action, which does not qualify as collection conduct. The court disagreed, noting that it must accept the consumer’s allegations as true at this stage, and determined the allegations plausibly support her claim that the company is a debt collector under the FDCPA. Moreover, the court acknowledged that while the company only sought to receive information from the credit reporting agency, it did convey that the contact was for the purposes of collection. Therefore, the allegations by the consumer that the company violated the FDCPA for representing a debt was for collection when it was previously discharged were sufficient to survive the motion. As for the OCSPA, the court found that the company’s activities may effect consumer transactions, which makes it plausible that the company is a “supplier” under the statute.
On March 6, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit held that Congress did not waive sovereign immunity for lawsuits under the FCRA, affirming the lower court’s dismissal of a consumer action. According to the opinion, a consumer filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Education (the Department), a student loan company, and the three major credit reporting agencies, alleging numerous claims, including violations of the FCRA for failing to properly investigate disputes that federal student loans were fraudulently opened in his name. The Department filed a motion to dismiss to the FCRA claims against it arguing the court lacked subject matter jurisdiction based upon a claim of sovereign immunity. The lower court agreed, holding Congress had not affirmatively waived sovereign immunity for suits under the FCRA.
On appeal, the 4th Circuit agreed with the lower court. The appellate court noted that, although the FCRA includes a “government or governmental subdivision or agency” as part of the definition of “person” in the statute, there is a “longstanding interpretive presumption that ‘person’ does not include the sovereign,” and that waivers of sovereign immunity need to be “unambiguous and unequivocal.” The appellate court noted that Congress waived immunity in other sections of the FCRA, which were not at issue in this case and, had Congress waived immunity for enforcement purposes under the FCRA, it would raise a new host of “befuddling” and “bizarre” issues, such as the prospect of the government bringing criminal charges against itself. Therefore, the appellate court concluded that the federal government may be a “person” under the substantive provisions, but that without a clear waiver from Congress, the federal government is still immune from lawsuits under the FCRA’s enforcement provisions.
On March 7, the FTC announced a new legal action and a final settlement issued against individuals and their operations for allegedly engaging in schemes that exploit elderly Americans. The actions are part of an enforcement sweep spearheaded by the DOJ in conjunction with, among others, the FBI, the FTC, Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Homeland Security Investigations, and the Louisiana Attorney General, which—according to a press release issued the same day by the DOJ—is the largest-ever coordinated nationwide elder fraud sweep, involving multiple cases, over 260 defendants, and more than two million allegedly victimized U.S. Citizens, most of whom are elderly.
According to the FTC’s complaint, the company used deceptive tactics to convince consumers, the majority of whom were older, that their computers were infected with viruses in order to sell expensive and unnecessary computer repair services in violation of the FTC Act, the Telemarketing Sales Rule, and the Restore Online Shoppers’ Confidence Act. Specifically, the company allegedly used internet ads to target consumers looking for email password assistance and once they contacted the consumers, the telemarketers would run phony “diagnostic” tests that falsely showed the consumer’s computer was in danger and needed software and services to be fixed. On February 27, the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Utah, granted a temporary restraining order against the company and its founder.
The FTC also announced a proposed settlement with a sweepstake operation that allegedly bilked consumers out of tens of millions of dollars through personalized mailers that falsely implied that the recipients had won or were likely to win a cash prize if they paid a fee. As previously covered by InfoBytes, the FTC announced the charges against the company in February 2018, alleging that consumers, most of whom were elderly, paid more than $110 million towards the scheme. The final settlement not only requires the operation to turn over $30 million in assets and cash to provide redress to the victims, but also permanently bans the operators from similar prize promotions in the future. The proposed settlement has not yet been approved by the court.
On February 27, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California granted a national bank’s request to certify for interlocutory appeal whether state law claims involving interest on escrow accounts were preempted by the Home Owners Loan Act (HOLA). As previously covered by InfoBytes, three plaintiffs filed suit against the bank, arguing that it must comply with a California law that requires mortgage lenders to pay interest on funds held in a consumer’s escrow account, following the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit’s decision in Lusnak v. Bank of America. The bank moved to dismiss the action, arguing, among other things, that the claims were preempted by HOLA. The court acknowledged that HOLA preempted the state interest law as to the originator of the mortgages, a now-defunct federal thrift, but disagreed with the bank’s assertion that the preemption attached throughout the life of the loan, including after the loan was transferred to a bank whose own lending is not covered by HOLA. Specifically, the court looked to the legislative intent of HOLA and noted it was unclear if Congress intended for preemption to attach through the life of the loan, but found a clear goal of consumer protection.
By granting the motion for interlocutory appeal, the court noted that the frequency with which the HOLA issue arises, “weighs in favor of allowing the Ninth Circuit to resolve this question.” Moreover, the court cited to a recent 9th Circuit case, in which the appellate court recognized HOLA preemption as a “novel legal issue.” The court also temporarily granted the bank’s request to stay the proceedings pending the resolution of the 9th Circuit action.
On March 5, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois denied defendants’ motion to dismiss a class action lawsuit alleging the defendants violated the FDCPA by failing to mention that payment on a settlement offer would restart the statute of limitations on the underlying “legally unenforceable debt.” According to the opinion, the defendants sent the plaintiff a letter outlining three discount program payment options, with a post-script stating that “[d]ue to the age of this debt, we will not sue you for it or report payment or non-payment of it to a credit bureau.” However, the plaintiff claimed that the letter’s failure to disclose that the statute of limitations could be restarted if a payment was made was a concrete information injury sufficient for Article III standing. The court rejected the defendants’ argument that the plaintiff alleged only a bare statutory violation and failed to identify a particularized injury in fact. Instead, the court ruled that even though the plaintiff has a complete defense because the statute of limitations had expired, the alleged injury is clear because the letter “seems to bait the consumer into paying money on a time-barred debt, either by settling for sixty cents on the dollar . . . or by unwittingly renewing the statute of limitations by making a new payment on the debt.”
On March 5, the U.S. District Court for the District of South Carolina affirmed the recommendation of a Magistrate Judge and denied the motion of a law firm, one of its partners, and others’ (collectively, “defendants”) to dismiss an action alleging that the defendants violated the Federal Anti-Assignment Act (FAAA) and the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organization Act (RICO). These alleged violations were based on the advance purchase of future military pension and disability benefits in exchange for current lump sum payments. According to the report of the Magistrate Judge, five military veterans (collectively, “plaintiffs”) alleged that the defendants operated a coordinated scheme to generate leads from veterans seeking money, and connected veterans to brokers and purchasers in order for the veteran to sell future pension and disability payments for a lump sum wire transfer. The plaintiffs also alleged the operators required the veterans to execute an insurance policy or structured asset agreement to ensure the loan is fully repaid upon the veteran’s death. The Magistrate Judge recommended the motions be denied, concluding that the plaintiffs sufficiently pled the details of the alleged scheme and that the defendants violated the FAAA by inducing veterans to enter into contracts to sell their retirement or disability benefits in advance of the date they are due and payable. Moreover, the Magistrate Judge found that the plaintiffs sufficiently alleged the individual plaintiffs violated RICO by engaging in a criminal enterprise that “coordinated various corporations and websites to buy the plaintiffs’ and other veterans’ benefits and funnel the proceeds through [a defendant]’s account.” Upon review of the report, the district court found “no clear error” by the Magistrate Judge, agreed with the recommendations, and denied the motions to dismiss.
As previously covered by InfoBytes, one of the individual defendants was recently fined $1 in civil money penalties by the CFPB for allegedly violating the Consumer Financial Protection Act by operating a website that connected veterans with companies offering high-interest loans in exchange for the assignment of some or all of their military pension payments.
On March 5, the FTC announced the U.S. District Court for the District of Arizona entered three orders on February 26, settling the FTC’s case against the operators of a telemarketing grant scheme. As previously covered by InfoBytes, the FTC’s complaint alleged the operators charged consumers upfront fees ranging from $295 to $4,995 and promised to obtain $10,000 or more in government, corporate, or private grants that could help the consumers pay off personal expenses such as medical bills; however, “most, if not all,” of the consumers ultimately received nothing in return. The three stipulated orders (available here, here, and here) impose a suspended $3 million judgment, (based on the operators’ inability to pay) and: (i) require the operators to surrender significant assets; (ii) ban the operators from telemarketing or making misrepresentations or unsubstantiated claims about any product or services; and (iii) prohibit the operators from making false or misleading statements to financial entities, including misrepresenting businesses to payment processors and banks.
On March 1, the Superior Court of New Jersey Appellate Division affirmed a lower court’s order granting summary judgment to an auto finance company and dismissing with prejudice a plaintiff’s New Jersey Consumer Fraud Act (CFA) and Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA) claims. According to the opinion, the plaintiff entered into a lease agreement for a vehicle serviced by the defendant. The plaintiff, who incurred late charges on 35 of her 39 monthly payments of $300, returned the vehicle before the end of the lease and was required to pay a $495 vehicle return fee, along with wear and tear fees and late charges. The plaintiff subsequently entered into a new lease transaction, in which the dealership agreed to pay the defendant the outstanding payments on her old lease, but did not, according to the court, waive the vehicle return fee. The dealership paid the full balance to the defendant after the plaintiff received notification about an overdue lease payment, and the day after the dealership’s payment was applied, the plaintiff paid an additional $300—which was mistakenly applied to a $395 disposition fee, as opposed to the larger vehicle return fee. The plaintiff made a final payment of $655 to settle the balance of the disposition fee as well as wear and tear fees and late charges. A complaint was filed later by the plaintiff against the defendant alleging that it fraudulently procured an additional $300 lease payment and falsely reported that she was delinquent on payments.
Affirming the lower court, the appeals court concluded that the defendant’s representations regarding the outstanding $300 payment were accurate and, under the lease terms, the plaintiff remained responsible for the vehicle return and wear and tear fees. In addition, the appeals court held that the plaintiff’s FCRA claim failed because the record confirmed that within 30 days of being notified of a dispute with the plaintiff’s credit score, the defendant conducted an investigation and requested that the credit reporting agencies remove the “late marks.”
On February 26, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California granted summary judgment in favor of Fannie Mae in an action brought by a consumer alleging that Fannie Mae violated the California Consumer Credit Reporting Agencies Act (CCCRA) and the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA) by prohibiting lenders from providing consumers a copy of Fannie Mae’s Desktop Underwriter (DU) report. According to the opinion, two years after completing a short sale on his previous home, a consumer sought a mortgage with three lenders. One lender used Fannie Mae’s DU program to determine if the loan would be eligible for purchase by the agency, but the DU report listed his prior mortgage loan as a foreclosure rather than a short sale. The lender ultimately denied the application, rather than manually underwrite it. Upon reviewing Fannie Mae’s motion for summary judgment, the court noted that in order for the consumer to succeed on his CCRA and FCRA claims, he must establish Fannie Mae is a credit reporting agency. The court rejected the consumer’s attempts to distinguish his case from the recent 9th Circuit decision in Zabriskie v. Fed. Nat’l Mortg. Ass’n, which held that Fannie Mae was not a credit reporting agency under the FCRA. (Covered by InfoBytes here.) The court acknowledged that even though Fannie Mae may have problems with its foreclosure recommendations in the DU system, it does not undercut the conclusion that Fannie Mae operates the DU system to assist lenders in making purchasing decisions, does not “regularly engage in . . . the practice of assembling or evaluating” consumer information, and therefore, is not a credit reporting agency.
- Moorari K. Shah to discuss "State regulatory and disclosures" at the Equipment Leasing and Finance Association Legal Forum
- Daniel P. Stipano to discuss "The state of the BSA 2019: What’s working, what’s not, and how to improve it" at the West Coast Anti Money-Laundering Forum
- Buckley Webcast: The future of the Community Reinvestment Act
- Hank Asbill to discuss "Creative character evidence in criminal and civil trials" at the Litigation Counsel of America Spring Conference & Celebration of Fellows
- Buckley Webcast: Amendments to the CFPB's proposed debt collection
- Brandy A. Hood to discuss "Flood NFIP in the age of extreme weather events" at the Mortgage Bankers Association Legal Issues and Regulatory Compliance Conference
- Michelle L. Rogers to discuss "UDAAP compliance" at the Mortgage Bankers Association Legal Issues and Regulatory Compliance Conference
- Kathryn L. Ryan to discuss "Major state law developments" at the Mortgage Bankers Association Legal Issues and Regulatory Compliance Conference
- Jonice Gray Tucker to discuss "Leveraging big data responsibly" at the Mortgage Bankers Association Legal Issues and Regulatory Compliance Conference
- Kathryn L. Ryan to discuss "State examination/enforcement trends" at the Mortgage Bankers Association Legal Issues and Regulatory Compliance Conference
- Benjamin K. Olson to discuss "LO compensation" at the Mortgage Bankers Association Legal Issues and Regulatory Compliance Conference
- APPROVED Webcast: State and SAFE Act licensing requirements for banks
- John C. Redding to discuss "TCPA compliance in the era of mobile" at the Auto Finance Risk Summit
- Buckley Webcast: The next consumer litigation frontier? Assessing the consumer privacy litigation and enforcement landscape in 2019 and beyond
- Buckley Webcast: Data breach litigation and biometric legislation
- Buckley Webcast: Trends in e-discovery technology and case law
- Hank Asbill to discuss "Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain: Addressing prosecutions driven by hidden actors" at the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers West Coast White Collar Conference
- Daniel P. Stipano to discuss "Keep off the grass: Mitigating the risks of banking marijuana-related businesses" at the ACAMS AML Risk Management Conference
- Daniel P. Stipano to discuss "Mid-year policy update" at the ACAMS AML Risk Management Conference
- Benjamin W. Hutten to discuss "Requirements for banking inherently high-risk relationships" at the Georgia Bankers Association BSA Experience Program
- Douglas F. Gansler to discuss "Role of state AGs in consumer protection" at a George Mason University Law & Economics Center symposium