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On September 17, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit reversed and vacated a district court judgment awarding an “incentive payment” to a TCPA class action representative, concluding it violates a U.S. Supreme Court decision prohibiting such awards. Additionally, the 11th Circuit remanded the case so that the district court could adequately explain its findings on the fees and costs issues. According to the opinion, a consumer initiated a TCPA class action against a collection agency for allegedly calling phone numbers that had originally belonged to consenting debtors but were subsequently reassigned to non-debtors. The action quickly moved to settlement and one class member objected, challenging “the district court’s decision to set the objection deadline before the deadline for class counsel to file their attorneys’-fee petition.” Additionally, among other things, the objector argued that the proposed $6,000 incentive award to the class action representative violates the 1880s Supreme Court decisions in Trustees v. Greenough and Central Railroad & Banking Co. v. Pettus. The district court overruled the class member’s objections.
On appeal, the 11th Circuit concluded that the district court “repeated several errors” that “have become commonplace in everyday class-action practice.” Specifically, the appellate court held that the district court “violated the plain terms of Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 23(h)” by setting the settlement objection date more than two weeks before the date class counsel had to file their attorneys’ fee petition. The appellate court also concluded that the district court violated the Supreme Court’s rule from Greenough and Pettus, which provides that “[a] plaintiff suing on behalf of a class can be reimbursed for attorneys’ fees and expenses incurred in carrying on the litigation, but he cannot be paid a salary or be reimbursed for his personal expenses.” The 11th Circuit noted that modern day incentive awards pose even more risks than the concerns from Greenough, promoting “litigation by providing a prize to be won.” Thus, according to the appellate court, although incentive awards may be “commonplace” in class action litigation, they are not lawful and therefore, the district court’s decision must be reversed.
On August 28, two payday loan trade groups (plaintiffs) filed an amended complaint in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Texas in ongoing litigation challenging the CFPB’s 2017 final rule covering payday loans, vehicle title loans, and certain other installment loans (Rule). As previously covered by InfoBytes, the court granted the parties’ joint motion to lift the stay of litigation, which was on hold pending the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Seila Law LLC v. CFPB (covered by a Buckley Special Alert, holding that the director’s for-cause removal provision was unconstitutional but was severable from the statute establishing the Bureau). In light of the Supreme Court’s decision, the Bureau ratified the Rule’s payments provisions and issued a final rule revoking the Rule’s underwriting provisions (covered by InfoBytes here).
The amended complaint requests the court set aside the Rule and the Bureau’s ratification of the rule as unconstitutional and in violation of the Administrative Procedures Act (APA). Specifically, the amended complaint argues, among other things, that the Bureau’s ratification is “legally insufficient to cure the constitutional defects in the 2017 Rule,” asserting the ratification of the payment provisions should have been subject to a formal rulemaking process, including a notice and comment period. Moreover, the amended complaint asserts that the payment provisions are “fundamentally at odds” with the Bureau’s lack of authority to create usury limits because they “improperly target installment loans with a rate higher than 36%.” Finally, the amended complaint argues that the Bureau “arbitrarily and capriciously denied” a petition from a lender seeking to exempt debit-card payments from the payment provisions of the rules.
On August 10, the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of California agreed to reconsider a prior decision, which granted a bank’s motion to compel arbitration in connection with a lawsuit concerning the bank’s assessment of two types of fees. As previously covered by InfoBytes, the court compelled arbitration of a plaintiff’s lawsuit asserting claims for breach of contract and violation of California’s Unfair Competition Law due to the bank’s alleged practice of charging fees for out-of-network ATM use and overdraft fees related to debit card transaction timing. The court concluded that even if the California Supreme Court case McGill v. Citibank rule— which held that an arbitration agreement is unenforceable if it constitutes a waiver of the plaintiff’s substantive right to seek public injunctive relief (covered by a Buckley Special Alert here)—was applicable to a contract, it would not survive preemption as the U.S. Supreme Court has “consistently held that the Federal Arbitration Act (FAA) preempts states’ attempts to limit the scope of arbitration agreements,” and “the McGill rule is merely the latest ‘device or formula’ intended to achieve the result of rendering an arbitration agreement against public policy.”
The plaintiff moved for the court’s reconsideration after the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit issued opinions in Blair v. Rent-ACenter, Inc. et al and McArdle v. AT&T Mobility LLC). In Blair (and similarly in McArdle), the 9th Circuit concluded that McGill was not preempted by the FAA. The appellate court found that McGill does not interfere with the bilateral nature of a typical arbitration, stating “[t]he McGill rule leaves undisturbed an agreement that both requires bilateral arbitration and permits public injunctive claims.” (Covered by InfoBytes here.)
The court granted the plaintiff’s motion, concluding that the public injunction waiver in the account agreement is “encompassed by McGill” and therefore, the arbitration agreement is “invalid and unenforceable,” and because the arbitration agreement includes a non-severability clause, the “clause plainly invalidates the entire arbitration agreement section as a result of the invalidity and unenforceability of the public injunction waiver provision therein.”
On July 6, the U.S. Supreme Court held in Barr v. American Association of Political Consultants Inc. that the TCPA’s government-debt exception is an unconstitutional content-based speech restriction and severed the provision from the remainder of the statute. As previously covered by InfoBytes, several political consultant groups (plaintiffs) argued that the TCPA’s statutory exemption enacted by Congress as a means of allowing automated calls to be placed to individuals’ cell phones “that relate to the collection of debts owed to or guaranteed by the federal government” is “facially unconstitutional under the Free Speech Clause” of the First Amendment. The plaintiffs argued that the debt-collection exemption to the automated call ban contravenes their free speech rights. Moreover, the plaintiffs claimed that “the free speech infirmity of the debt-collection exemption is not severable from the automated call ban and renders the entire ban unconstitutional.” The FCC, however, argued that the applicability of the exemption depended on the relationship between the government and the debtor and not on the content. The district court awarded summary judgment in favor of the FCC, which the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit vacated, concluding the exemption violated the First Amendment’s Free Speech Clause.
In a plurality opinion, the Supreme Court agreed with the 4th Circuit. The Court noted that “a law is content-based if ‘a regulation of speech ‘on its face’ draws distinctions based on the message a speaker conveys’”; and a law that allows for robocalls asking for payment of government debt but does not allow robocalls for political donations, “is about as content-based as it gets.” The Court agreed with the government that the content-based restriction failed to satisfy strict scrutiny, as the government could not sufficiently justify the difference “between government-debt collection speech and other categories of robocall speech.” As for remedy, the Court applied “traditional severability principles,” with seven Justices concluding that the entire TCPA should not be invalidated but that the government-debt exception should be severed from the statute. The Court noted that its cases have “developed a strong presumption of severability,” and its “power and preference to partially invalidate a statute in that fashion has been firmly established since Marbury v. Madison.” Moreover, because the government-debt exception is “relatively narrow exception” to the TCPA’s broad robocall restriction, the Court concluded that severing the exception would “not raise any other constitutional problems.”
On July 7, the CFPB, “out of an abundance of caution,” ratified several previous actions, including the large majority of the Bureau’s existing regulations, following the U.S. Supreme Court’s opinion in Seila v. Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. As previously covered by a Buckley Special Alert, the Court held that, while the clause in the Consumer Financial Protection Act that requires cause to remove the director of the CFPB violates the constitutional separation of powers, the removal provision could—and should—be severed from the statute establishing the CFPB, rather than invalidating the entire statute. According to the Bureau’s announcement, the action ratifies most regulatory actions taken by the Bureau from January 4, 2012 through June 30, 2020, and “provides the financial marketplace with certainty that the rules are valid in light of the Supreme Court decision in Seila Law.” The Bureau noted, however, that the ratification does not include two actions: (i) the July 2017 “Arbitration Agreements” rule, which was disapproved following the approval by President Trump of a joint resolution under the Congressional Review Act that provides “the ‘rule shall have no force or effect’”; and (ii) the November 2017 “Payday, Vehicle Title, and Certain High-Cost Installment Loans” rule (Payday Rule), for which the Bureau previously revoked the rule’s mandatory underwriting provisions. Both of these actions are not within the scope of the ratification, the Bureau stated, noting, however, that it has separately ratified the Payday Lending Rule’s payment provisions.
The Bureau is also considering whether to ratify other legally significant actions, such as certain pending enforcement actions, and stated it will make separate ratifications, if appropriate. However, the Bureau stressed it “does not believe that it is necessary for this ratification to include various previous Bureau actions that have no legal consequences for the public, or enforcement actions that have finally been resolved.” Additionally, because the ratification is not a “rule” or “rule making” as defined by the Administrative Procedure Act (APA), since it is “not an ‘agency statement of general or particular applicability and future effect’” and is “not ‘formulating, amending, or repealing a rule,’” the Bureau contended it is not subject to the APA’s notice-and-comment procedures.
On June 22, in an 8-1 ruling, the U.S. Supreme Court vacated the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit’s judgment in Liu v. SEC, holding that the SEC may continue to collect disgorgement in civil proceedings in federal court as long as the award does not exceed a wrongdoer’s net profits, and that such awards for victims of the wrongdoing are equitable relief permissible under §78u(d)(5). The ruling impacts petitioners who were ordered by a California federal court to disgorge $26.7 million in money collected from investors for a cancer treatment center that was never built, with the related SEC investigation finding that more than $20 million was spent on ostensible marketing expenses and salaries, far in excess of what the offering memorandum permitted. As previously covered by InfoBytes, the Court examined whether the SEC’s statutory authority to seek “equitable relief” permits it to seek and obtain disgorgement orders in federal court. The petitioners asked the Court to bar the SEC from seeking court-ordered disgorgement (covered by InfoBytes here), arguing that Congress never authorized the SEC to seek disgorgement in civil suits for federal securities fraud as a form of equitable relief or otherwise. The petitioners pointed to the Court’s 2017 decision in Kokesh v. SEC, in which the Court reversed the ruling of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit when it unanimously held that disgorgement operates as a penalty under 28 U. S. C. §2462, which establishes a 5-year limitations period for “an action, suit or proceeding for the enforcement of any civil fine, penalty, or forfeiture.”
The Court rejected the petitioners’ argument, noting that equity practice has “long authorized courts to strip wrongdoers of their ill-gotten gains,” although “to avoid transforming an equitable remedy into a punitive sanction, courts restricted the remedy to an individual wrongdoer’s net profits to be awarded for victims.” As such, the Court determined that the SEC’s disgorgement remedy must be limited in various ways. The Court discussed three limits: (i) the “profits remedy” must return the defendant’s wrongful gains to those harmed by the defendant’s actions, as opposed to depositing them in the Treasury; (ii) disgorgement under the statute requires a factual determination of whether petitioners can, consistent with equitable principles, be found liable for profits as partners in wrongdoing or whether individual liability is required; and (iii) disgorgement must be limited to “net profits” and therefore “courts must deduct legitimate expenses before ordering disgorgement” under the statute. The Court vacated the judgment against the petitioners and remanded to the lower court to examine the disgorgement amount in light of its opinion.
Justice Clarence Thomas dissented, however, stating that he would have barred the SEC from seeking disgorgement in federal court under the statute rather than limiting the remedy, because while 15 U. S. C. §78u(d)(5) allows the SEC to seek equitable relief that may be appropriate or necessary for the benefit of investors, “disgorgement is not a traditional equitable remedy.”
6th Circuit holds condo company and law firm did not act as debt collectors in non-judicial foreclosure
On May 4, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit held that a condominium management company, condominium association, and its law firm (collectively, “defendants”) acted as “security-interest enforcers” and not debt collectors and therefore, did not violate the FDCPA. According to the opinion, the homeowners lost their condominium to a non-judicial foreclosure after they fell behind on condominium association dues. The homeowners filed suit against the defendants alleging various violations of the FDCPA during the foreclosure process. The homeowners did not assert a violation of Section 1692f(6), which applies to security-interest enforcers. The district court dismissed the action, concluding that the homeowners failed to allege facts that the defendants did more than act as security-interest enforcers.
On appeal, the 6th Circuit agreed, citing to the U.S. Supreme Court’s opinion in Obduskey v. McCarthy & Holthus LLP, which held that parties who assist creditors with the non-judicial foreclosure of a home fall within the separate definition under Section 1692f(6) as security-interest enforcers and not the general debt collector definition (previously covered by InfoBytes here). The appellate court noted that the homeowners’ complaint did not allege the defendants’ regular business activity was debt collection. Moreover, the appellate court rejected the homeowners’ argument that the defendants recording of a lien on their condo was a step beyond enforcing a security interest. According to the court, Michigan law requires the recording of the lien in order to enforce a security-interest and therefore, the action “falls squarely within Obduskey’s central holding.”
On April 28, the U.S. Supreme Court announced that on May 4-6 and 11-13, the Court will hear a number of the oral arguments that were previously postponed for March and April due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Counsel will present arguments to the Court via telephone conference as the Chief Justice prompts them, and the next case will follow immediately after the first ends.
On April 15, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit granted a joint motion to stay a mandate pending a credit reporting agency’s (CRA) filing of a petition for writ of certiorari with the U.S. Supreme Court. If a petition is filed, the stay will continue until final disposition by the Court. As previously covered by InfoBytes, in February the 9th Circuit reduced punitive damages in a class action against the CRA for allegedly violating the FCRA by erroneously linking class members to criminals and terrorists with similar names in a database maintained by the U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC). The appellate court found that all class members had standing due to, among other things, the CRA’s alleged “reckless handling of information from OFAC,” which subjected class members to “a real risk of harm,” and rejected the CRA’s request for judgment as a matter of law or a new trial on the basis that the class had failed to provide sufficient evidence of injuries or to support the damages award. The appellate court concluded, however, that the $52 million punitive damages award was “unconstitutionally excessive,” explaining that, although the CRA’s “conduct was reprehensible, it was not so egregious as to justify a punitive award of more than six times an already substantial compensatory award.”
The CRA subsequently filed a petition for rehearing (which the appellate court denied), challenging, among other things, the 9th Circuit’s conclusion that the CRA’s decision to make the credit reports available to numerous potential creditors and employers was “sufficient to show a material risk of harm to the concrete interest of all class members.” The CRA argued that this was “exactly the sort of hypothetical risk of injury the Supreme Court has made clear does not cut it” to establish concrete injury, and that the decision was inconsistent with the 9th Circuit’s own precedent, in which the appellate court determined that “the risk of injury becomes material only when the document gets into third-party hands.” The CRA also argued that the 4 to 1 benchmark ratio between punitive damages and statutory damages was still too high, because it “conflicts not just with the Supreme Court’s commands, but with decisions from other circuits finding much lower compensatory-damages awards sufficiently ‘substantial’ to demand a 1:1 ceiling.”
On April 15, the U.S. Supreme Court announced it will hear oral arguments via telephone conference on May 6 in a case concerning an exemption to the TCPA that allows debt collectors to use an autodialer to contact individuals on their cell phones without obtaining prior consent to do so when collecting debts guaranteed by the federal government. As previously covered by InfoBytes, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit held that the government-debt exemption contravenes the First Amendment’s Free Speech Clause, and found that the challenged exemption was a content-based restriction on free speech that did not hold up to strict scrutiny review. The petitioners—Attorney General William Barr and the FCC—ask the Court to review whether the government-debt exception to the TCPA’s automated-call restriction is a violation of the First Amendment, and if so, whether the proper remedy is to sever the exception from the remainder of the statute.
- Daniel P. Stipano to discuss "High standards: Best practices for banking marijuana-related businesses" at the ACAMS AML & Anti-Financial Crime Conference
- Daniel P. Stipano to discuss "Wait wait ... do tell me! Where the panelists answer to you" at the ACAMS AML & Anti-Financial Crime Conference
- Matthew P. Previn and Walter E. Zalenski to discuss "Is valid when made ... valid?" at the Women in Housing & Finance Partner Series webinar
- Warren W. Traiger and Caroline K. Eisner to discuss "CRA modernization and the OCC final rule" at CBA Live
- Daniel R. Alonso to discuss "Transnational corruption: A chat with former U.S. federal prosecutors in New York" at Marval Live Talks
- Sherry-Maria Safchuk and Lauren Frank to discuss "New CFPB interpretation on UDAAP" at a California Mortgage Bankers Association Mortgage Quality and Compliance Committee webinar
- Thomas A. Sporkin to discuss "Managing internal investigations and advanced government defense" at the Securities Enforcement Forum
- H Joshua Kotin to discuss "Mortgage servicing in a recession: Early intervention, loss mitigation and more" at the NAFCU Virtual Regulatory Compliance Seminar
- Daniel R. Alonso to discuss "Independent monitoring in the United States" at the World Compliance Association Peru Chapter IV International Conference on Compliance and the Fight Against Corruption
- Jonice Gray Tucker to discuss "The future of fair lending" at the Mortgage Bankers Association Regulatory Compliance Conference
- Michelle L. Rogers to discuss "Major litigation" at the Mortgage Bankers Association Regulatory Compliance Conference
- Kathryn L. Ryan to discuss "Pandemic fallout – Navigating practical operational challenges" at the Mortgage Bankers Association Regulatory Compliance Conference
- Jonice Gray Tucker to discuss "Consumer financial services" at the Practising Law Institute Banking Law Institute