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11th Circuit reverses dismissal of EFTA action alleging inadequate overdraft notice, denies EFTA safe harbor defense
On August 27, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit reversed the dismissal of a consumer’s action against her credit union, in which the consumer alleged the credit union used the wrong balance calculation method to impose overdraft fees. According to the opinion, the consumer filed suit against the credit union for using an “available balance” calculation method to impose overdraft fees on her account when the credit union allegedly agreed to use the “ledger balance” method at the time of account opening, in violation of the Electronic Fund Transfer Act (EFTA) and various state law contract claims. The district court dismissed the action, concluding that the agreements “unambiguously permitted [the credit union] to assess overdraft fees using the available balance calculation.”
On appeal, the 11th Circuit disagreed with the district court’s interpretation of the agreements. The court noted that while the opt-in overdraft agreement used by the credit union is based on Regulation E’s (the EFTA’s implementing regulation) Model Form A-9, the model does not address which account balance calculation method is used to determine whether a transaction results in an overdraft. The language chosen by the credit union, according to the appellate court, is “ambiguous because it could describe either the available or the ledger balance calculation method for unsettled debits” and therefore, does not describe the calculation in a “clear and readily understandable way” as required by Regulation E. Because the language was ambiguous, the consumer did not have the opportunity to affirmatively consent to the overdraft service. Moreover, the appellate court concluded that the credit union was not protected under the EFTA’s safe harbor because it used the Model Form A-9 text. Specifically, the appellate court reasoned that the “safe-harbor provision insulates financial institutions from EFTA claims based on the means by which the institution has communicated its overdraft policy,” but does not provide a shield from allegations of inadequacy. Because the consumer argued that the credit union violated the EFTA due to its failure to prove enough information to allow for affirmative consent, the safe-harbor provision does not preclude liability.
On August 22, the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of California granted in part and denied in part a national bank’s motion to dismiss an action by the City of Sacramento (City) alleging violations of the Fair Housing Act (FHA) and California Fair Employment and Housing Act. In its complaint, the City alleged that the bank violated the FHA and the California Fair Employment and Housing Act by providing minority borrowers mortgage loans with less favorable terms than similarly situated non-minority borrowers, leading to disproportionate defaults and foreclosures causing reduced property tax revenue and increased costs for municipal services for the city. The bank moved to dismiss the action. In reviewing the motion, the court looked to the 2017 Supreme Court decision in Bank of America v. City of Miami (previously covered by a Buckley Special Alert), which held that municipal plaintiffs may be “aggrieved persons” authorized to bring suit under the FHA against lenders for injuries allegedly flowing from discriminatory lending practices. The court rejected the majority of the bank’s arguments, denying the motion as to the City’s tax revenue claims and non-economic claims. The court concluded that “there is ‘no reason to think as a general matter that the City’s [tax revenue] claims are out of step with the ‘nature of the statutory cause of action’ and the remedial scheme that Congress created’” in the FHA. Conversely, as for the claims for increased municipal services costs, such as police, fire fighting, and code enforcement, the court found that the claims “rely on conclusory allegations and a foreseeability-only theory without establishing proximate cause” and granted the bank’s motion to dismiss, but allowed the City leave to amend the complaint to establish proximate cause.
On August 22, a tribal nation issued a press release announcing a $6.5 million settlement with a national bank to resolve allegations related to the opening of deposit and credit card accounts for customers without consent. In 2018, the tribal nation’s suit was dismissed by a district court ruling (previously covered by InfoBytes here), which rejected the tribal nation’s claims under the Consumer Financial Protection Act, holding that the claims were barred by res judicata, as they had previously been litigated under the CFPB’s 2016 consent order and the tribal nation was in privity with the CFPB. (InfoBytes coverage of the CFPB action available here.) The tribal nation appealed the decision to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit, and on August 20, an order granting a stipulation to dismiss the appeal with prejudice was entered by the court. While the stipulation does not provide any details, the tribal nation’s press release notes that the “settlement compensates the Nation, as well as avoids the uncertainty and expense of continued litigation.”
On August 23, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California held that a portion of a class action suit alleging a bank improperly assessed overdraft fees must proceed to arbitration. According to the opinion, a consumer filed the class action complaint alleging the bank charged multiple non-sufficient funds fees for the same credit card payment transaction, in violation of the contract between the bank and the consumer. The class action alleged claims for breach of contract, or, in the alternative, unjust enrichment, as well as a claim for violating the California Business & Professions Code and a claim for violating the California Consumer Legal Remedies Act. The bank moved to compel arbitration of all the claims based on an arbitration clause contained in the customer deposit agreement. The court concluded that the claims for breach of contract and unjust enrichment are covered by the arbitration clause in the deposit agreement and therefore compelled arbitration. As for the injunctive relief the consumer sought under the California state statutory claims, the consumer argued that the court should apply the California Supreme Court decision in McGill v. Citibank, N.A (covered by a Buckley Special Alert here), which held that a waiver of the plaintiff’s substantive right to seek public injunctive relief is not enforceable, and that “Texas law is contrary to a fundamental policy of California.” The court determined that because Texas does not have a “rule comparable to McGill and because California has a materially greater interest than Texas,” California law applies to the injunctive relief claims and therefore, the claims “must be litigated and not arbitrated.” However, to the extent the consumer sought monetary relief under the state statutory claims, those claims must be arbitrated.
On August 15, the U.S. District Court for the District of Connecticut held that a law firm violated the FDCPA, rejecting the law firm’s bona fide error defense, and awarded the consumer statutory damages. According to the opinion, the consumer alleged that the law firm violated the FDCPA in a 2016 debt collection letter sent to the consumer. Specifically, the consumer argued that the letter “‘ma[de] it impossible for a consumer to know how much is owed and if the debt will be considered paid if payment is made in full,’” because the letter contained two different balance amounts: (i) a “Charge-Off Balance” listed at $663.94 and (ii) a “Balance” or “Current Balance” listed as $565.46. The law firm acknowledged the existence of two different balance amounts, but asserted that the Current Balance was the correct amount and that the consumer “was not confused about what he owed.” The court rejected this argument, finding that under the “least sophisticated consumer standard,” a consumer would be confused by the two different balances, noting that the letter provided no explanation about the two different amounts. The law firm also argued that the inaccuracy was not material, and therefore it should not give rise to liability under the FDCPA. The court disagreed, finding that the difference between the two amounts was “more than trivial,” noting it almost exceeded one hundred dollars, and could induce a consumer to delay payment. Lastly, because the error in amounts was not a result of human judgment, but a failure in programming, the court rejected the law firm’s bona fide error defense. The court awarded the consumer statutory damages and authorized the consumer to seek reasonable costs and attorney’s fees.
On August 20, the U.S. District Court for the District of New Jersey dismissed without prejudice a proposed class action alleging consumer fraud claims. Specifically, in 2017, the plaintiffs filed a complaint alleging that smart televisions manufactured by the defendants surreptitiously collected consumer data such as programs viewed and when they were viewed, along with certain identifying information including IP addresses and zip codes. This information, the plaintiffs contended, was sold to third parties who used the data to advertise to the same consumers, in violation of the (i) New Jersey Consumer Fraud Act (NJCFA); (ii) Florida's Deceptive and Unfair Trade Practices Act (FDUTPA); (iii) the Video Privacy Protection Act; (iv) the Wiretap Act; and (v) common law negligent misrepresentation. In response to the defendants’ motion to dismiss, the court held that the claims were pled with sufficient particularity under the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure to withstand a motion to dismiss, but dismissed the state consumer fraud claims, reasoning that the plaintiffs failed to adequately allege their damages. The court ruled that the FDUTPA and NJCFA claims failed because the plaintiffs had not alleged actual damages, rejecting plaintiffs’ assertions that the invasion of their privacy counted as damages because there was no out-of-pocket loss. Additionally, the court dismissed the plaintiffs’ federal Video Privacy Protection Act, reasoning that the information allegedly collected did not constitute personally identifiable information under 3rd Circuit precedent. By contrast, the court allowed the Wiretap Act allegations to proceed after determining the plaintiffs “adequately alleged that their ‘content’ was intercepted.” Finally, with respect to the common law negligent misrepresentation claim, the court agreed with the defendants that the plaintiffs failed to allege that a special relationship existed between the plaintiffs and the defendants that could support a negligent misrepresentation claim.
On August 21, the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California issued an order granting final approval of a settlement reached between a class of California consumers and a mortgage company. The approval of the settlement resolves allegations that the company contacted delinquent borrowers and had conversations involving personal and confidential financial information without first informing the consumers that the conversations would be recorded. The plaintiffs filed a complaint in 2015 alleging that the company violated sections of the California Penal Code that prohibit the intentional recording of conversations without obtaining the knowledge or consent of the other party. According to the plaintiffs, the company used scripts that instructed its agents to carry on discussions with consumers prior to providing the call recording advisory. Among other provisions, the settlement terms award $1.6 million in attorneys’ fees, approximately $25,046 in reimbursement of litigation expenses, service awards of $10,000 to each class representative, and up to $200,000 to the settlement claims administrator for its work in distributing settlement money to class members (the company is required to establish a settlement fund in the amount of $6.5 million).
On August 21, the U.S. District Court for the District of Oregon upheld a $925 million jury verdict against a direct sales company in a TCPA class action lawsuit, denying the company’s motion to decertify the class. According to the opinion, the named plaintiff brought the 2015 class action lawsuit alleging the company violated the TCPA by calling consumers using an artificial or prerecorded voice without their consent. In April 2019, a jury concluded that a total of 1,850,436 calls were made using an artificial or prerecorded voice to either cell phones or landlines. However, in June 2019, the FCC granted a request made by the company in September 2017 for a retroactive waiver of the agency’s 2012 new written consent requirements for telemarketing robocalls, but only as it applied to “calls for which the petitioner had obtained some form of written consent.” Based on the newly-obtained waiver from the FCC, the company moved to decertify the class arguing that, among other things, (i) the named plaintiff lacked standing, and (ii) consent is now an individualized issue that “predominates” over the class issues. The court rejected these arguments, concluding that the company waived the affirmative defense of consent by not raising the defense earlier in the litigation when it knew its FCC waiver was pending. Specifically, the court reasoned that the failure to raise the issue “given the likelihood that the FCC would grant its waiver petition was unreasonable.” The court also rejected the company’s predominance arguments, concluding that whether the calls were made to a landline or cellphone is irrelevant as TCPA liability “attaches to any call made [to] either” type. The court concluded that class certification was proper, upholding the jury’s verdict.
On August 21, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit held that Section 13(b) of the FTC Act does not give the FTC power to order restitution, overruling that court’s 1989 decision in FTC v. Amy Travel Service, Inc. As previously covered by InfoBytes, in June 2018, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois 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. The court concluded 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. The FTC argued that the defendants’ scheme, which used the promise of a free credit report to enroll the consumers into a monthly credit monitoring program, violated the FTC Act’s ban on deceptive practices. The court agreed, holding that the ad campaign was “rife with material misrepresentations that were likely to deceive a reasonable consumer.” Additionally the court agreed with the FTC that the defendants’ website was materially misrepresentative because it did not give “the net impression that consumers were enrolling in a monthly credit monitoring service” for $29.94 a month, as opposed to defendants’ claim that consumers were obtaining a free credit report. The court also found that the defendants’ websites failed to meet certain disclosure requirements imposed by the Restore Online Shopper Confidence Act. The court entered a permanent injunction and ordered the defendants to pay over $5 million in “equitable monetary relief” to the FTC.
On appeal, the 7th Circuit affirmed the district court’s liability determination, and affirmed the issuance of the permanent injunction. However, the appellate court took issue with the restitution award ordered pursuant to Section 13(b) of the FTC Act. The appellate court noted that the FTC has long viewed Section 13(b) as authorizing awards of restitution, and even acknowledged that the 7th Circuit agreed with the FTC’s position in its decision in Amy Travel. However, subsequent to the Amy Travel decision, the Supreme Court, in Meghrig v. KFC W., Inc., clarified that “courts must consider whether an implied equitable remedy is compatible with a statute’s express remedial scheme.” Applying Meghrig, the 7th Circuit noted that “nothing in the text or structure of the [FTC Act] supports an implied right to restitution in section 13(b), which by its terms authorizes only injunctions.” The panel emphasized that the FTC Act has two other provisions that expressly authorize restitution if the FTC follows certain procedures, but the current reading of Section 13(b), based on Amy Travel, allows the FTC “to circumvent these elaborate enforcement provisions and seek restitution directly through an implied remedy.” Therefore, based on the Supreme Court precedent in Meghrig, the panel concluded that Section 13(b)’s grant of authority to order injunctive relief does not implicitly authorize an award of restitution, overturning its previous decision in Amy Travel and vacating the district court’s award of restitution.
On August 14, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit held that TILA’s right of rescission does not apply when a borrower obtains a mortgage to reacquire residential property after having no ownership rights. According to the opinion, in 2003, a borrower quitclaimed his interest in residential property to his then wife; in 2007, he obtained a mortgage loan and took title to the property in accordance with a divorce judgment. The borrower sought rescission of the mortgage loan and the district court dismissed the action as untimely. On appeal, the 9th Circuit vacated the district court’s judgment, holding the borrower gave proper notice within the three year limit under TILA. On remand, the district court granted summary judgment in favor of the mortgage company, concluding the transaction was a residential mortgage transaction, in which no statutory right of rescission exists under TILA.
On appeal, the 9th Circuit affirmed summary judgment in favor of the mortgage company. The appellate court rejected the borrower’s arguments that (i) the mortgage documents showed he already owned an interest in the property before he took out the mortgage loan; and (ii) the mortgage was taken in accordance with a divorce judgment, not to finance the acquisition of the property. The appellate court concluded that under TILA, the mortgage loan was a “residential mortgage transaction,” the definition of which “includes both an initial acquisition and a reacquisition of a property.” The fact the mortgage company characterized the transaction as a refinance is not determinative, according to the panel, because the borrower did not acquire title to the property until the day after he signed the loan. Moreover, while the divorce judgment ordered the borrower to make a payment to his ex-wife in order to obtain title to the property, he obtained a residential mortgage loan “in order to carry out those conditions.”
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