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On May 26, the DOJ ended a False Claims Act case with a $23 million settlement. The case, brought by whistleblowers against a pharmacy goods provider (company), involved alleged fraudulent Medicaid claims and kickbacks to pharmacies that prescribed one of the company’s drugs. The qui tam action, originally filed in 2007, resulted in the company agreeing to pay nearly $13 million to the U.S. within seven business days of the settlement, of which the government will pay the whistleblowers $3.7 million. Additionally, the company will pay over $10 million toward state Medicaid settlements.
Payday Lenders Argue Case for Operation Choke Point Injunction, Claim Regulator Activities Violate Their Rights to Due Process
On May 19, a group of payday lenders filed a brief with the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia claiming a U.S. district court judge was wrong to deny their request for a preliminary injunction against regulator activities they claim violate their rights to due process. (See Advance America v. FDIC, et al, 2017 WL 2212168 (C.A.D.C.).) As previously discussed in InfoBytes, the lenders claim the DOJ’s “Operation Choke Point” initiative—designed to target fraud by investigating U.S. banks and the business they do with companies believed to be a higher risk for fraud and money laundering—is a threat to their survival. The lenders’ brief alleges that federal agencies, including the DOJ and the FDIC, began as early as June 2008 to expand the interpretation of “reputation risk.” According to the lenders, reputation risk originally referred to risk to a bank’s reputation that arose from its own actions; however, the regulators expanded that to apply to risks that could arise from activities of a bank’s customers, which meant “bank servicing businesses identified as ‘high risk’ would be required to incur significant additional regulatory compliance costs and face the risk of increased regulatory scrutiny.” This, the lenders assert, became a justification to pressure banks to sever their banking relationships with payday lenders.
Notably, the U.S. district court judge refused to issue a preliminary injunction and was not persuaded that the lenders would be able to prove that these regulatory actions caused banks to deny services the lenders needed to operate.
However, the lenders claim in their brief that they can show a violation of their procedural due process rights under three theories: “stigma-plus,” “reputation-plus,” and “broad preclusion.”
- The lenders describe the “stigma-plus” theory as requiring them to show they were stigmatized in connection with an “alteration of their background legal rights” without any due process protections. They believe they can prove this occurred because they were labeled as high-risk customers and denied access to the banking system with no legal protections.
- The “reputation-plus” theory would require a deprivation of banking services in connection with defamatory statements that harmed their reputation, the lenders claim. The lenders contend this can be proved because the “’stigmatizing charges certainly occurred in the course of the termination of the accounts, which is all that is required for a reputation-plus claim to succeed.” Each lender claims to have lost a relationship with at least one bank due to false regulator claims that the relationships could threaten the bank’s stability.
- The “broad preclusion” theory also applies, the lenders assert, because the regulators’ statements to banks have prevented them “pursuing their chosen line of business.”
Furthermore, the lenders take issue with the U.S. district court judge’s position that they are required to show they lost all access to banking services in order to show a due process violation. They also argue that a loss of their constitutional right to due process is a sufficient irreparable injury to justify a preliminary injunction.
On May 15, the City of Philadelphia filed a lawsuit against a national bank (Bank) alleging that it violated the Fair Housing Act by engaging in discriminatory lending practices that targeted minority borrowers. (See City of Phila. v. Wells Fargo & Co., Case No. 2:17-cv-02203-LDD, 2017 WL 2060317 (E.D. Pa.).) The complaint alleges that beginning in 2004 and continuing through the present, the Bank engaged in “a continuous and unbroken discriminatory pattern and practice of issuing higher cost or more onerous mortgage loans to minority borrowers” while offering better terms to similarly situated non-minority borrowers. The City’s complaint alleges discrimination under both disparate treatment and disparate impact theories. The City claims that the Bank has a long history of both redlining (the practice of refusing to make loans in minority neighborhoods) and reverse redlining (the practice of targeting higher cost loans or loans with less favorable terms to minority neighborhoods). The complaint further describes a pattern of knowing and intentional discrimination by the Bank, relying on statistical analyses finding, among others, that: (i) a loan for a home in a predominantly minority neighborhood was 4.7 times more likely to go into foreclosure than a loan on a home in a mainly white neighborhood; (ii) African American and Latino borrowers were more than twice as likely to receive a high-cost loan as white borrowers; and (iii) when credit scores were factored in for borrowers with FICO scores of more than 660, African American borrowers were more than 2.5 times more likely than white borrowers to receive a high cost loan, and Latino borrowers more than twice as likely. As a result of the foreclosures and vacant homes, the City says it suffered a suppression of property tax revenue and increased cost of providing services such as police, fire fighting, and other municipal services.
City of Miami Suit. As previously covered in InfoBytes, the Supreme Court recently ruled that municipal plaintiffs may be “aggrieved persons” authorized to bring suit under the Fair Housing Act (FHA) against lenders for injuries allegedly flowing from discriminatory lending practices, although the five-justice majority held that such injuries must be proximately caused by the FHA violations. The Supreme Court returned the City’s lawsuit to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit because, while the Court found that the City’s injuries appeared to be a foreseeable result of the lender’s practices, this was not enough to establish proximate cause. Therefore, it remains to be seen whether the City can show proximate cause.
Fourth Circuit States Violation of FCRA that Fails to Demonstrate a Concrete Injury Not Enough for Standing
On May 11, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit issued an opinion vacating a nearly $12 million judgment in a class action brought on behalf of a 69,000 member class, concluding that a credit reporting agency’s decision to list a defunct credit card company—rather than the name of its current servicer—on an individual’s credit report does not, without more, create a sufficient injury under the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA)for purposes of Article III standing. Furthermore, although the lead plaintiff alleged that he suffered a cognizable “informational injury,” in that he was denied the source of the adverse information on the report, the appeals court found that he failed to “demonstrate a concrete injury” as a result of the allegedly incorrect information listed on the credit report. (See Dreher v. Experian Info. Sols., Inc., No. 15-2119, 2017 WL 1948916 (4th Cir. May 11, 2017).)
The 2014 class action complaint against the credit reporting agency was filed by an individual who—when undergoing a background check for a security clearance—received a credit report that listed a delinquent credit card account with a creditor that had transferred the debt to a new servicer that was not listed as a source of information. When servicing the defunct company’s accounts, the new servicer had decided to do business using the creditor’s name, and directed the credit reporting agency to continue to reflect that name on the tradeline appearing for those specific accounts on its credit reports. The plaintiffs asserted that the credit reporting agency “deliberately [withheld] and inaccurately [stated] the identity of the source of reported credit information,” in violation of the FCRA. The credit reporting company sought summary judgment on the claims, arguing that the individual and the class lacked standing under the FCRA. However, the district court ruled in favor of the member class finding that the credit reporting company “committed a willful violation of . . . the [FCRA].”
In vacating the district court’s ruling, the Fourth Circuit opined that under the FCRA, a plaintiff “must have (1) suffered an injury in fact, (2) that is fairly traceable to the challenged conduct of the defendant, and (3) that is likely to be redressed by a favorable judicial decision.” The Fourth Circuit concluded that the individual could not clear the first hurdle. To establish “injury in fact,” the plaintiff must show that he or she suffered an invasion of a legally protected interest that is concrete and particularized. While the plaintiff alleged that the credit reporting agency had violated the FCRA by failing to “clearly and accurately disclose to the consumer . . . [t]he sources of the information [in the consumer’s file at the time of the request],” the Fourth Circuit concluded that the statutory violation alone did not create a concrete informational injury sufficient to support standing. “Rather, a constitutionally cognizable informational injury requires that a person lack access to information to which he is legally entitled and that the denial of that information creates a ‘real’ harm with an adverse effect.” In this instance, “the account had no legitimate effect on the [plaintiff’s] background check process, and [t]hus receiving a creditor’s name rather than a servicer’s name—without hindering the accuracy of the report of efficiency of the credit report resolution process—worked no real world harm.” Instead, the Fourth Circuit categorized the plaintiff’s allegations as chiefly “customer service complaints”—a type of harm unrelated to those Congress sought to prevent when enacting the FCRA.
On May 24, the en banc U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit heard oral arguments in the matter of PHH Corp. v. CFPB. The parties and the Department of Justice generally presented their arguments as expected based on their briefs. However, questions from some members of the court indicated doubts about the conclusion by a panel of the court in October 2016 that the CFPB’s structure was unconstitutional. In particular, multiple members of the court repeatedly pressed PHH’s counsel on whether prior Supreme Court decisions upholding the constitutionality of the Federal Trade Commission and other independent agencies led by presidential appointees who could only be removed “for cause” prevented the D.C. Circuit from concluding that the president lacked sufficient authority over the CFPB’s Director.
Notably, however, in response to statements by PHH that current CFPB Director Richard Cordray could remain in his position after the expiration of his term in July 2018 until a successor was confirmed by the Senate, the CFPB’s counsel stated that, in the Bureau’s view, the “for cause” removal limitation no longer applied once the Director’s term expired, and the president could then remove the Director “at will.”
In contrast to the constitutional issue, the questioning on other aspects of the case was minimal and did not indicate that the en banc court was inclined to revisit the panel’s determination that the CFPB misinterpreted the Real Estate Settlement Procedures Act (RESPA) when applying it to PHH’s practices, violated due process by failing to give PHH proper notice of its interpretation, and improperly failed to apply RESPA’s statute of limitations in its administrative proceedings.
At the direction of the en banc court, the oral arguments in PHH followed those in Lucia v. SEC, a case addressing whether the SEC’s administrative law judges (ALJs) violate the appointments clause of the U.S. Constitution. Although this issue was not discussed during the PHH oral arguments, the CFPB originally brought its claims against PHH before an ALJ borrowed from the SEC and the court had previously suggested that a finding that the SEC ALJs were improperly appointed could also justify reversal of the CFPB’s decision against PHH. (See previous Special Alert here.)
A decision from the en banc court is not expected for months. Importantly, while questioning during oral argument is often used as a barometer of the potential outcome of a case, the questions asked by a judge do not necessarily indicate how that judge will vote on a particular issue. Judges often use oral argument to see how the parties and their colleagues will respond to hypotheticals, rather than to share their views of the case.
Company Accused of Bilking 9/11 First Responders Out of Millions of Dollars Says CFPB Action Unlawful
On May 15, a New Jersey-based finance company and its affiliated parties filed a motion to dismiss allegations that it scammed first responders to the World Trade Center attack and NFL retirees with high-cost loans. As previously covered in InfoBytes, the CFPB and the New York Attorney General’s office (NYAG) claimed the defendants engaged in deceptive and abusive acts by misleading consumers into selling expensive advances on benefits to which they were entitled by mischaracterizing extensions of credit as assignments of future payment rights, thereby causing the consumers to repay far more than they received. The defendants’ motion to dismiss was prompted, in part, by the recent PHH v. CFPB decision in which the court held that the CFPB’s single director leadership structure is unconstitutional and, thus, that the agency must operate as an executive agency supervised by the President. Here, the defendants argue, the complaint issued against them is a “prime example of how the unchecked authority granted to the CFPB leads to administrative overreach that has a profound effect on the businesses and individuals the agency targets.”
In response to the claims that they mischaracterized credit, the defendants assert that the complaint is “based on the erroneous theory that—despite clear contractual terms and the weight of legal authority to the contrary—these transactions are not true sales, but instead are ‘extensions of credit’ under the Consumer Financial Protection Act [(CFPA)], and therefore the [defendants] deceived consumers by labeling the agreements as sales.” The CFPA defines an extension of “credit” as “the right granted by a creditor to a debtor to defer payment of debt or to incur debt and defer its payment.” In this instance, the defendants contend, there is no debt, no repayment obligation, and no “right granted to defer payment of a debt” because the consumers are the sellers of the asset.
The defendants argue that (i)“the CFPB’s unprecedented structure violates fundamental constitutional principles of separation of powers, and the CFPB should be struck down as an unconstitutional administrative agency”; (ii) because these transactions do not fall into the CFPA’s definition of credit, the case lacks a federal cause of action; and (iii) “each cause of action in the [c]omplaint individually fails to state a claim for relief, including because the Government is flat out wrong in its contention that the underlying settlement proceeds are not assignable.”
On May 9, the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit granted a petition for rehearing en banc filed by the FTC in a case involving whether the Commission may regulate an internet service provider’s slowing down of data after a customer has used a specified amount of data under an “unlimited” plan.
The FTC’s 2014 complaint alleged that AT&T’s practice of “data throttling,” and its subsequent failure to adequately inform its customers of this practice, violated Section 45(a) of the FTC Act. A federal district court dismissed the complaint, rejecting AT&T’s argument that it was exempt from FTC Section 45(a) enforcement because it is a common carrier. Section 45(a) allows the Commission to “prevent persons, partnerships or corporations, except . . . common carriers . . . from using . . . unfair or deceptive acts or practices” (emphasis added). The court held, however, that the common carrier exception applies only when the entity has the status of a common carrier and is engaging in common carrier activity. The district court order also held that “[w]hen this suit was filed, AT&T’s mobile data service was not regulated as common carrier activity by the [FCC],” and that “[o]nce the Reclassification Order of the [FCC] (which now treats mobile data [service] as common carrier activity) goes into effect, that will not deprive the FTC of any jurisdiction over past alleged misconduct as asserted in this pending action.”
In 2016, a three-judge Ninth Circuit panel reversed, holding that AT&T is exempt from Section 45(a) as a common carrier. See Fed. Trade Comm'n v. AT&T Mobility LLC, 835 F.3d 993 (9th Cir. 2016). The en banc court’s order vacates that ruling pending review by the full Ninth Circuit. Per the Ninth Circuit’s May 10 order, en banc oral argument will occur the week of September 18, 2017. The exact date and time will be announced in a separate order. Notably, given the recent uncertainty over which regulatory agency will oversee common carriers—the FTC or the FCC—the timing of this ruling is important.
On May 10, the CFPB filed a brief and the DOJ filed a separate “Statement of Interest of the United States of America” opposing a request by the Attorneys General of Connecticut, Indiana, Kansas, and Vermont (State AGs) to intervene in a CFPB lawsuit to address the distribution of unclaimed settlement funds.
As previously reported in InfoBytes, in December 2014 the CFPB sued a telecommunications company over allegations that it violated Dodd-Frank and the Consumer Financial Protection Act by knowingly allowing third-party aggregators to bill unauthorized charges to its wireless telephone customers and failing to respond to consumer complaints for nearly a decade. Under the terms of the 2015 Stipulated Final Judgment and Order, the company was required to set aside $50 million for consumer redress. The consumer claims period expired with approximately $15 million remaining unclaimed, and the State AGs sought to have those funds deposited with the National Association of Attorneys General to be used for “consumer protection purposes.” Specifically, in their January 3 Memorandum in Support of Joint Motion to Intervene to Modify Stipulated Final Judgment and Order, the State AGs asked that, “[a]ny funds not used for such equitable relief will be deposited . . . with the National Association of Attorneys General”—instead of being deposited in the Treasury as disgorgement—to be used to “train, support and improve the coordination of the state consumer protection attorneys charged with enforcement of the laws prohibiting the type of unfair and deceptive practices alleged by the CFPB in this [a]ction.”
In its memorandum opposing the joint request to intervene, the CFPB countered that although the redress plan provides that the Bureau may, in consultation with certain states and the FCC, apply unused redress funds to “other equitable relief reasonably related to the Complaint’s allegations,” it has not proposed doing so and any undistributed amounts are to be directed to the Treasury. The DOJ supported the CFPB’s position, arguing that the State AGs’ motion is untimely because that the States were “well aware of this action” over 18 months before filing their motion. The DOJ further asserted that “beyond being consulted by the CFPB if remaining funds were to be devoted to further equitable relief, the Consent Order afforded the States no role with respect to distribution of the remaining Redress Amount funds.”
In a ruling handed down on May 15, the United States Supreme Court held that a debt collector’s filing of a proof of claim on time-barred debt in a consumer bankruptcy proceeding is not a “false, deceptive, misleading, unfair, or unconscionable” debt collection practice within the meaning of the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA). See Midland Funding, LLC v. Johnson, Case No. 16-348, 581 U.S. ___ (2017). Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Kennedy, Thomas, and Alito joined in Justice Breyer’s decision. Justice Gorsuch took no part in the consideration or decision of the case.
The Midland case arises out of a 2014 Chapter 13 petition, in response to which the defendant debt-collector filed a proof of claim for the payment of decades-old unpaid credit card debt the company had acquired. After the bankruptcy court dismissed the time-barred claim, the debtor filed a separate civil action in District Court alleging that the debt collector had violated the FDCPA. Finding that application of the FDCPA was precluded by the Bankruptcy Code, the District Court dismissed the suit. However, the Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit reversed, finding “no irreconcilable conflict between the FDCPA and the [Bankruptcy] Code.” See Johnson v. Midland Funding, LLC, 823 F.3d 1334, 1336 (11th Cir. 2016).
The Supreme Court reversed. Writing for a 5-3 majority, Justice Breyer explained why the Court disagreed with the Eleventh Circuit panel’s conclusion that Midland was potentially liable for damages under the FDCPA for attempting to collect in bankruptcy on decade-old credit card debt. The Court held that the filing of a time-barred claim in a bankruptcy proceeding is not “false, deceptive, or misleading” because, among other reasons, “[t]he law has long treated unenforceability of a claim (due to the expiration of the limitations period) as an affirmative defense” and therefore “we see nothing misleading or deceptive in the filing of a proof of claim that, in effect, follows the Code’s similar system.” The ruling also noted several differences between bankruptcy proceedings and a civil action to collect a debt—including that the “audience in [consumer] bankruptcy cases includes a trustee . . . likely to understand” the nature of a proof of claim and the necessity of objecting where appropriate.
Justice Sotomayor filed a dissenting opinion—joined by Justice Ginsburg and Justice Kagan—arguing that attempting to collect time-barred debt is both “unfair” and “unconscionable” because, among other reasons, the business model adopted by “professional debt collectors” depends on the hope “that no one notices that the debt is too old to be enforced by the courts.” Justice Sotomayor’s dissent also took issue with the majority’s claim that “structural features of the bankruptcy process reduce the risk that state debt will go unnoticed and thus be allowed,” agreeing with the Government’s amicus brief that trustees “cannot realistically be expected to identify every time-barred . . . claim filed in every bankruptcy.”
In a per curiam opinion issued on March 1, 2017, the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the dismissal of a complaint alleging that a mortgage servicer had violated Regulation X of the Real Estate Settlement Procedures Act (“RESPA”) by failing to “correctly or timely acknowledge receipt of his [written request for information (“RFI”)].” See Meeks v. Ocwen Loan Servicing LLC, [Order] No. 16-15536 (11th Cir. Mar. 1, 2017). Regulation X requires that, within five days of receiving an RFI, mortgage servicers must “provide to the borrower a written response acknowledging receipt of the information request.” 12 C.F.R. § 1024.36(c). Plaintiff alleged that the mortgage servicer violated 12 C.F.R. § 1024.36(c) when it signed and sent a Certified Receipt on the same day as receiving the RFI and when it sent a substantive response nine days later. Plaintiff sought actual damages of less than $100 and attorneys’ fees and costs.
The Eleventh Circuit ruled, as a matter of first impression, that the mortgage servicer’s return of the Certified Receipt , which the plaintiff’s attorney “unquestionably received,” satisfied Regulation X. Alternatively, the Court affirmed the district court’s decision because the plaintiff “did not suffer any compensable damages from [the] alleged violation” and plaintiff’s counsel’s notice of error “falsely question[ed] the servicer’s receipt in order to create a claim for damages.” As to the claim for statutory damages, the Eleventh Circuit held that the plaintiff lacked Article III standing because he did not suffer a concrete injury-in-fact. Rather, because the plaintiff (and his attorney) “had undisputed actual knowledge of receipt of the RFI,” plaintiff “suffered at most ‘a bare procedural violation.’”