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On February 12, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit held that a collection letter offering a settlement on a time-barred debt could violate the prohibition against "any false, deceptive, or misleading representation or means in connection with the collection of any debt” of the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA). According to the opinion, the plaintiff filed a class action complaint against the debt collector after receiving a letter stating that the debt collector would accept a partial “settlement” of the delinquency amount, which was past the New Jersey six-year statute of limitations. The lower court granted the debt collector’s motion to dismiss, finding that the letter did not contain a threat of legal action by the use of the word settlement and therefore, did not violate the FDCPA. In reversing the lower court’s decision, the 3rd Circuit concluded that the “least-sophisticated debtor could be misled into thinking that ‘settlement of the debt’ referred to the creditor’s ability to enforce the debt.” In its conclusion, the appellate court also noted that settlement offers of time-barred debts “do not necessarily constitute deceptive or misleading practices” under the FDCPA and remanded the case back to the lower court for review.
On February 12, following a four-day trial, the U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the Western District of Virginia entered a memorandum opinion to sanction and enjoin a national consumer bankruptcy law firm and its local partner attorneys (defendants) for “systematically engag[ing] in the unauthorized practice of law, provid[ing] inadequate representation to consumer debtor clients, and promot[ing] and participat[ing] in a scheme to convert auto lenders’ collateral and then misrepresent[ing] the nature of that scheme.” According to a DOJ press release, the combined order was entered in two actions consolidated for trial brought by the DOJ’s U.S. Trustee Program. The actions concern a Chicago-based law firm that offered legal services via its website to financially distressed consumers and allegedly had “non-attorney ‘client consultants’” engage in the unauthorized practice of law and employ “high-pressure sales tactics” when encouraging consumers to file for bankruptcy relief. Among other things, the defendants allegedly (i) refused to refund bankruptcy-related legal fees to clients for whom the firm failed to file bankruptcy cases; (ii) failed to have in place oversight and supervision procedures to prevent non-attorney salespeople from practicing law; and (iii) partnered with an Indiana-based towing company to implement a scheme that would allow clients to have their bankruptcy-related legal fees paid if they transferred vehicles “fully encumbered by auto lenders’ liens” to the towing company without lienholder consent. Under the “New Car Custody Program,” the towing company allegedly claimed rights to the vehicles, sold the vehicles at auction, paid the client’s bankruptcy fees to the defendants, and pocketed the proceeds. According to the release, this program “harmed auto lenders by converting collateral in which they had valid security interests,” and exposed clients to “undue risk by causing them to possibly violate the terms of their contracts with their auto lenders as well as state laws.”
Under the terms of the order, the court sanctioned the defendants $250,000, imposed additional sanctions totaling $60,000 against the firm’s managing partner and affiliated partner attorneys, ordered the defendants to disgorge all funds “collected from the consumer debtors in both bankruptcy cases,” and revoked the defendants’ privileges to practice in the Western District of Virginia for various specified periods of time. The court also sanctioned the towing company and “ordered the turnover of all funds it received in connection” with the program. The towing company did not respond to the filed complaints.
On February 12, a judge for the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Wisconsin held that a debt collection law firm could not compel a plaintiff to settle claims in arbitration because the law firm was not a party to the arbitration agreement it sought to enforce. According to the opinion, the plaintiff filed a proposed class action suit against the law firm and a credit card issuer for allegedly violating the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA) and the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA) by publishing the plaintiff’s credit score on a complaint to obtain payment filed with a local country circuit court. The plaintiff subsequently dismissed the claims against the credit card issuer after resolving the issues outside of the court. The law firm filed a motion to compel arbitration, arguing that it is a third party co-defendant of a claim subject to an arbitration provision, which covered the credit card issuer, cardholders, and third party co-defendants. In denying the motion to compel, the judge held that the law firm is not a co-defendant “at the only time that matters, which is when the court is deciding the motion to compel arbitration” because the credit card issuer is no longer a party to the lawsuit. The judge also noted that if the credit card issuer wanted an associated law firm to be covered by the arbitration provision, it could have used broader language in the agreement.
On February 8, a federal judge for the U.S. District Court of the Western District of Pennsylvania denied a debt collector’s motion to dismiss, concluding that the plaintiffs are not precluded from bringing the claims against the debt collector even though the plaintiffs previously settled similar claims with the lender and loan servicer for their maximum recovery amounts under the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA). According to the third amended complaint, a pair of named plaintiff homeowners, defaulted on their mortgages in 2010 and worked out a new payment plan with their lender; however, they continued to receive conflicting foreclosure communications from their lender, servicer, and an associated debt collector, which resulted in the payment of allegedly unauthorized fees and expenses. In 2011, the two homeowners filed class action claims against all three entities and in 2016, they settled one claim with the lender and three claims with the servicer.
In response to the third amended complaint, the debt collector filed a motion to dismiss the remaining class claim, which includes “all former or current homeowners” who received communications from the debt collector demanding foreclosure fees and costs that had not yet been incurred. The debt collector argued, among other things, in its dismissal motion that the plaintiffs are not entitled to any further damages for the alleged FDCPA violations because they previously exhausted the $1,000 maximum penalty per borrower permitted by the FDCPA by settling with the mortgage servicer. In denying the motion, the judge disagreed with the debt collector’s argument, noting that it cannot be assumed the settlement with the mortgage servicer was an admission of liability under the FDCPA; therefore, the judge reasoned, the court cannot credit the debt collector “with the full impact of the [servicer’s] settlement funds that maybe were (or maybe were not) allocated to that specific FDCPA claim.” The judge also noted that there is a “major split” on this issue among U.S. district courts.
On January 29, the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania granted a motion to compel arbitration, finding that an arbitration clause set forth under extension agreements with an automobile finance company to refinance and extend the plaintiff’s loan obligation is “valid and enforceable.” Additionally, the court ruled that alternative motions to dismiss filed by other defendants were moot, and then stayed and administratively closed the matter pending the resolution of the claims subject to arbitration. The plaintiff alleged violations of her Fourth and Fourteenth Amendment rights, the Fair Debt Collections Practices Act, and several other state and federal credit statutes, when defendants—including the automobile finance company—repossessed her vehicle despite having signed extension agreements. In response to the defendants’ assertion that her claims were subject to the arbitration clause, the plaintiff argued that the extension agreements were unenforceable due to the unavailability of the “designated arbitrators,” and that defendants were barred from trying to obtain “alternative relief” by relying on additional terms outlined in a second extension agreement that released defendants from liability. However, the court ruled that the plaintiff’s failure to dispute the scope of the arbitration clause meant that the defendants were “entitled to enforcement of the arbitration clause with respect to all claims and defenses asserted,” so long as the designated arbitrators are available.
On January 31, the Superior Court of New Jersey Appellate Division affirmed the lower court’s decision that a widower (plaintiff) should have raised improper foreclosure allegations during the final foreclosure action and cannot subsequently litigate the issues in a different forum. According to the opinion, in 2009, the bank initiated a foreclosure complaint against the plaintiff’s husband (borrower) and the borrower raised no defenses to the complaint. The borrower then initiated a modification request, which the bank ultimately denied due to title liens, and a final foreclosure judgment was entered at the end of 2010. The borrower filed an appeal to the foreclosure action but the plaintiff ultimately withdrew it after the borrower died. The current litigation was filed after the final foreclosure judgment was entered and asserted, among other things, that the foreclosure was improper due to the modification curing the default. The lower court dismissed two of the plaintiff’s claims because she was not a party to the original mortgage or modification attempt and granted summary judgment for the bank on the remaining claims because the “issue of the enforceability of the 2010 loan modification agreement is at the heart of plaintiff's claims and was directly related to the foreclosure action and should have been raised as part of that litigation.” The appeals court agreed with the lower court’s reasoning noting that the plaintiff “attempted to litigate the same issue in two forums.”
On January 26, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit affirmed a District Court’s decision dismissing a consumer’s claim that, under the Fair Credit Billing Act (FCBA), two credit card providers (collectively, defendants) must refund his accounts after a merchant failed to deliver goods purchased using credit cards issued by the defendants. The FCBA allows consumers to raise the same claims against credit card issuers that can be raised against merchants, but limits such claims to the “amount of credit outstanding with respect to [the disputed] transaction.” According to the opinion, the consumer ordered nearly $1 million in wine from a merchant and prior to delivery of the complete order, the merchant declared bankruptcy. The consumer filed lawsuits against each credit card provider in the U.S. District Court for the District of Colorado seeking a refund to his credit accounts for the amounts of the undelivered wine. The District Court dismissed the suits against both defendants because the consumer had fully paid the balance on his credit cards. In affirming the District Court’s decision, the 10th Circuit concluded that because “‘the amount of credit outstanding with respect to’ the undelivered wine is $0” the consumer had no claim against the defendants under the FCBA.
Buckley Sandler Special Alert: D.C. Circuit upholds CFPB’s constitutionality but rejects its interpretation of RESPA
On January 31, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit issued its long-awaited en banc decision in CFPB v. PHH Corporation. In a 7-3 decision, the court concluded that the CFPB’s single-director structure is constitutional, even though the president can only remove the director for cause. Importantly, however, the court also reinstated the portion of t he October 2016 panel opinion concluding that the CFPB misinterpreted the Real Estate Settlement Procedures Act (RESPA) and its statute of limitations. As a result, the $109 million penalty imposed on PHH is vacated and the case will go back to the CFPB, where new leadership must decide whether to pursue the action. PHH has 90 days to seek review by the Supreme Court.
Ten judges issued seven separate opinions in this case, totaling 250 pages. The following is a summary of the key holdings.
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If you have questions about the decision or other related issues, please visit our Consumer Financial Protection Bureau practice page, or contact a Buckley Sandler attorney with whom you have worked in the past.
On January 22, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit affirmed a lower court’s decision that a loan-modification discussion between two borrowers and a mortgage servicer did not constitute a debt collection activity under the Texas Debt Collection Act (TDCA). After two borrowers defaulted on their home equity loan, they were encouraged by their mortgage servicer to apply for a modification under the Home Affordable Modification Program (HAMP). When the borrowers learned that they were, in fact, ineligible for a HAMP modification, due to state law restrictions, the borrowers filed suit against the creditor and the mortgage servicer (the “creditors”). Specifically, the borrowers alleged that the creditors violated the TDCA’s prohibition against using false representations or deceptive means to collect a debt by suggesting that the borrowers apply for a HAMP modification for which they did not qualify. The three-judge panel rejected this argument for two reasons. First, the court found that the borrower and creditors conversation about a modification did not “concern the collection of a debt” and thus the conduct was not subject to the TDCA. Second, even if the conduct were covered, the court found that the creditor had not affirmatively represented that the borrowers would qualify for a HAMP modification and, thus, under the TDCA’s prohibition against using false representations and deceptive means to collect a debt, no liability could ensue.
On January 23, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit dismissed an appeal by the Financial Stability Oversight Council (FSOC) after both parties filed a joint stipulated motion to voluntarily dismiss the case. The litigation began in 2015 when a national insurance firm sued FSOC over its designation of the firm as a nonbank systemically important financial institution (SIFI). In March 2016, the district court issued its opinion agreeing with the insurance firm and finding the FSOC determination arbitrary and capricious because it failed to consider the financial impact the SIFI designation would have on the firm. FSOC appealed the court’s ruling but after a change in FSOC leadership, agreed to jointly dismiss the appeal with the insurance firm.
For more InfoBytes coverage on SIFIs, click here.
- Daniel P. Stipano and Jonice Gray Tucker to discuss "The questioning begins: Potential liability under the Paycheck Protection Program" at an American Bar Association Banking Law Committee webinar
- Sherry-Maria Safchuk to discuss "Final CCPA regulations: Compliance considerations" at a CUCP virtual meeting
- Daniel R. Alonso to discuss "When can trial lawyers take their case to the public? The Harvey Weinstein case and beyond" at a New York City Bar Association webcast
- Daniel P. Stipano to discuss "Cram for the exam: Best prep strategies for a regulatory examination" at an ACAMS webinar
- Melissa Klimkiewicz to discuss "Flood insurance basics" at the NAFCU Virtual Regulatory Compliance School
- Sasha Leonhardt to discuss "Privacy laws clarified" at the National Settlement Services Summit (NS3)