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Supreme Court holds that creditor may be held in civil contempt for violation of bankruptcy discharge injunction
On June 3, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously held that a creditor may be held in civil contempt for violating a bankruptcy court’s discharge order “if there is no fair ground of doubt as to whether the order barred the creditor’s conduct.” At issue was Section 524(a)(2) of the Bankruptcy Code, which specifies that a discharge order triggers an automatic injunction against any creditor that attempts to collect a pre-bankruptcy discharged debt. In the case before the Court, a defendant to a lawsuit proceeding in state court filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy during the course of that litigation. After the bankruptcy court entered a discharge order, the state court ordered the debtor to pay the plaintiffs’ attorneys’ fees. While the monetary judgment would have ordinarily violated the discharge, the state court concluded that it was permissible under a lower-court doctrine holding that the discharge no longer applies when a debtor “return[s] to the fray” of litigation after filing for bankruptcy. The bankruptcy court appellate panel vacated the bankruptcy court’s decision and the 9th Circuit affirmed, concluding that a creditor may not be held in contempt for violating a discharge order if the creditor held a subjective good faith belief—even if “unreasonable”—that its actions did not violate the injunction.
Upon review, the Supreme Court reversed the 9th Circuit’s opinion, noting that the standard for civil contempt “is generally an objective one,” and nothing about a bankruptcy court discharge order should modify that principle. The Supreme Court emphasized that “a party’s subjective belief that [the party] was complying with an order ordinarily will not insulate [the party] from civil contempt if that belief was objectively unreasonable,” and that civil contempt “may be appropriate when the creditor violates a discharge order based on an objectively unreasonable understanding of the discharge order or the statutes that govern its scope.” The -debtor’s argument for a standard that would operate like a “strict-liability” standard—where creditors who are unsure of whether a debt has been discharged can obtain an advance determination from the bankruptcy court prior to attempting to collect the debt—was also rejected. The Supreme Court stated that because “there will often be at least some doubt as to the scope of such orders,” a preclearance requirement may “lead to frequent use of the advance determination procedure,” as well as additional costs and delays.
On May 13, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously held that a relator has up to 10 years to bring a qui tam suit under the False Claims Act (FCA) whether or not the government intervenes in the suit. According to the opinion, in November 2013, a relator brought a suit against two defense contractors alleging they defrauded the U.S. Government by submitting false payment claims for security services in Iraq through early 2007. The relator claimed he told federal officials about the allegedly fraudulent conduct in November 2010, but the Government declined to intervene. The defendants moved to dismiss the action as barred by the six year statute of limitations under 31 U. S. C. §3730(b)(1), while the relator claimed the action was timely under §3730(b)(2)— which states that a FCA civil action may not be brought “more than 3 years after the date when facts material to the right of action are known or reasonably should have been known by the official of the United States charged with responsibility to act in the circumstances, but in no event more than 10 years after the date on which the violation is committed.” The district court dismissed the action, while the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit reversed the decision, concluding that §3730(b)(2) applies in “nonintervened actions, and the limitations period begins when the Government official responsible for acting knew or should have known the relevant facts.”
Upon review, the Supreme Court rejected the defendants’ argument that the six year statute of limitations in §3731(b)(1) applies to all relator-initiated actions (whether the Government intervenes or not), while § 3731(b)(2) applies only to qui tam actions when the Government intervenes, arguing the interpretation is “at odds with fundamental rules of statutory interpretation.” Moreover, the Court concluded that the relator in a nonintervened suit is not “the official of the United States” whose knowledge triggers §3731(b)(2)’s three-year limitations period, as it was not what Congress intended, and a private relator is neither “appointed as an officer of the United States nor employed by the United States.”
On April 24, the U.S. Supreme Court in a 5-4 vote held that because an arbitration agreement did not explicitly permit class arbitrations, only individual arbitrations are allowed. The case began when an employee of a lighting retailer (petitioner) filed a class-action suit against the company after a hacker—who posed as a company official—persuaded an employee at the company to disclose the tax information of roughly 1,300 workers and then file a fraudulent tax report in the petitioner’s name. The company moved to dismiss the case, arguing that the petitioner was required to bring his claims in individual arbitration under the Supreme Court’s 2010 ruling in Stolt-Nielsen S.A. v. AnimalFeeds Int'l Corp., which bars class arbitration when there is no “contractual basis for concluding” that the parties agreed to it. The district court granted the motion to compel arbitration but rejected the company’s request for individual arbitration and authorized arbitration on a classwide basis. On appeal, the 9th Circuit affirmed the district court’s decision—agreeing that the ambiguous agreement permitted class arbitration—and “followed California law to construe the ambiguity against the drafter”—in this instance, the company who drafted the agreement.
The company petitioned the Supreme Court to consider, consistent with the Federal Arbitration Act (FAA), whether an ambiguous agreement can provide the “contractual basis” required for compelling class arbitration. The majority deferred to the 9th Circuit’s conclusion that the arbitration agreement in question was ambiguous as to whether class arbitration was an option, and wrote that the lack of clarity cannot provide the “contractual basis” required under Stolt-Nielsen to compel class arbitration. Notably, the majority highlighted that “shifting from individual to class arbitration is a ‘fundamental’ change. . .that ‘sacrifices the principal advantage of arbitration’ and ‘greatly increases risks to defendants.” Citing to “crucial differences” between individual and class arbitration, the majority wrote that “courts may not infer consent to participate in class arbitration absent an affirmative ‘contractual basis for concluding that the party agreed to do so.’” The majority also stated that the 9th Circuit's decision to rely upon California’s contra proferentem doctrine to interpret contractual ambiguities against the drafter is “flatly inconsistent with ‘the foundational FAA principle that arbitration is a matter of consent.’”
The four justices who voted against the decision all wrote dissents. Among other things, Justice Kagan wrote that the FAA stipulates that state law governs the interpretation of arbitration agreements, provided the law handles other types of contracts in the same way. “Today’s opinion is rooted instead in the majority’s belief that class arbitration ‘undermine[s] the central benefits of arbitration itself.  But that policy view—of a piece with the majority's ideas about class litigation—cannot justify displacing generally applicable state law about how to interpret ambiguous contracts,” Justice Kagan stated. Justice Breyer, who joined Justices Ginsburg’s and Kagan’s dissents in full, also wrote that the 9th Circuit lacked jurisdiction over the company’s appeal, and consequently, the Supreme Court lacks jurisdiction as well.
On March 20, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously affirmed a 2018 10th Circuit decision, holding that law firms performing nonjudicial foreclosures are not “debt collectors” under the FDCPA. Justice Breyer delivered the opinion, which resolves whether FDCPA protections apply to nonjudicial foreclosures conducted by law firms. (Covered by InfoBytes here.) Three considerations led to the Court’s conclusion. First, the Court held that a business pursuing nonjudicial foreclosures would be covered by the Act’s primary definition of a debt collector. However, the Act goes on to state that for the purpose of a specific section, the definition of debt collector “also includes” a business of which the principal purpose is the enforcement of security interests. The Court determined that this phrase only makes sense if such businesses were not covered by the primary definition. Second, the Court noted that Congress appeared to have chosen to differentiate between security-interest enforcers and ordinary debt collectors in order “to avoid conflicts with state nonjudicial foreclosure schemes.” Third, the Court noted that the legislative history of the FDCPA indicated that the final result was likely a compromise between two competing versions of the bill, one of which would have excluded security-interest enforcement entirely, and another that would have treated it as ordinary debt collection.
Justice Sotomayor, in a concurring opinion, wrote that the Court’s statutory interpretation was a “close case” and urged Congress to clarify the statute if the Court has “gotten it wrong.” She noted that making clear that the FDCPA fully encompasses entities pursuing nonjudicial foreclosures “would be consistent with the FDCPA’s broad, consumer-protective purposes.” Justice Sotomayor also stated that the Court’s ruling does not give license to those pursuing nonjudicial foreclosures “to engage in abusive debt collection practices like repetitive nighttime phone calls” and that enforcing a security interest does not grant an actor blanket immunity from the Act.”
On January 25, the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of California granted a bank’s motion to compel arbitration in connection with a lawsuit concerning the bank’s assessment of two types of fees. According to the order, the plaintiff filed a 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 bank moved to compel arbitration pursuant to the arbitration provision in the deposit account agreement executed between the bank and the plaintiff. The plaintiff argued against arbitration, citing a California Supreme Court case, McGill v. Citibank, which held that “waivers of the right to seek public injunctive relief in any forum are unenforceable.” In response, the bank argued that (i) McGill does not apply because the plaintiff is not seeking public injunctive relief; and (ii) McGill is preempted by the Federal Arbitration Act (FAA). The court agreed with the bank, determining that the relief sought by the plaintiff would primarily benefit her, stating “any public injunctive relief sought by [plaintiff] is merely incidental to her primary aim of gaining compensation for injury.” As for preemption, the court noted that even if the McGill rule was applicable to a contract, it would not survive preemption as the U.S. Supreme Court has “consistently held that the 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.”
DOJ says CFPB structure is unconstitutional, but urges Supreme Court to deny writ since case is a “poor vehicle”
On December 10, the DOJ filed a brief in response to a Texas bank and two associations’ (petitioners) petition for writ of certiorari with the U.S. Supreme Court, challenging the constitutionality of the CFPB’s structure, with the DOJ arguing that the Bureau’s structure infringes on the president’s responsibility to ensure that federal laws are faithfully executed, but urging the court to deny the writ as the case is a “poor vehicle” for the constitutionality consideration. Specifically, the DOJ argues that the decision would warrant review by the full court, which would be unlikely due to newly appointed Judge Kavanaugh’s involvement in the January 2018 D.C. Circuit en banc decision in PHH v. CFPB (covered by a Buckley Sandler Special Alert). Additionally, the DOJ acknowledges that the petitioners’ standing to sue “is sufficiently questionable to present a significant vehicle problem,” as the Texas bank is supervised by the OCC and the two associations are not regulated by the Bureau. On the merits, however, the DOJ agrees with the petitioners that statutory restriction on the president’s authority to remove the Bureau’s director violates the constitution. Citing to Judge Kavanaugh’s dissent opinion in the PHH en banc decision, the DOJ asserts that not only does the for-cause removal restrict the president’s powers to ensure the laws are faithfully executed, a single-director lacks the attributes of a multi-member commission that would warrant a for-cause removal provision. The DOJ concludes that the proper remedy would be to sever the for-cause provision while leaving the remaining applicable portions of the Dodd-Frank Act intact. Lastly, the DOJ notes that since it would not argue in favor of constitutionality, it recommends that if the Court were to grant certiorari, it should wait until the Bureau’s new director, Kathy Kraninger, has an opportunity to decide if the Bureau would defend the judgment before appointing an amicus curiae.
As previously covered by InfoBytes, the petitioners asked the Court (i) whether the CFPB as an independent agency headed by a single director that can only be removed from office for cause violates the Constitution’s separation of powers; (ii) whether a 1935 Supreme Court case upholding removal restrictions on members of the FTC should be overturned; and (iii) whether the CFPB’s “perpetual, on-demand funding streams” are permitted under the Appropriations Clause. The petition for writ resulted from a June decision by the D.C. Circuit upholding summary judgment against the petitioners, based on the D.C. Circuit en banc decision in PHH v. CFPB, which concluded the Bureau’s single-director structure is constitutional.
On September 19, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit remanded an SEC case against an investment adviser and his company for a new hearing before another Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) or before the Commission in accordance with the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Lucia v. SEC. As previously covered by InfoBytes, in June, the Supreme Court held that SEC ALJs are “inferior officers” subject to the Appointments Clause of the Constitution. After the decision in Lucia, the SEC moved to remand the case for a new hearing. In response, the investment adviser moved to have the SEC’s previous orders, including those imposing penalties, set aside in whole, arguing that remand is not authorized in this circumstance; citing to Lucia, the investment adviser argued the penalties resulted from an unconstitutional hearing and the language concerning remand for a new hearing in Lucia was dicta and carried no weight. The D.C. Circuit rejected this argument and denied the motion to set aside in part, citing D.C. Circuit precedent in stating “carefully considered language of the Supreme Court, even if technically dictum, generally must be treated as authoritative.”
On September 10, the CFPB rejected the arguments made by two Mississippi-based payday loan and check cashing companies (appellants) challenging the constitutionality of the CFPB’s single director structure. The challenge results from a May 2016 complaint filed by the CFPB against the appellants alleging violations of the Consumer Financial Protection Act (CFPA) for practices related to the companies’ check cashing and payday lending services, previously covered by InfoBytes here. The district court denied the companies’ motion for judgment on the pleadings in March 2018, declining the argument that the structure of the CFPB is unconstitutional and that the CFPB’s claims violate due process. The following April, the 5th Circuit agreed to hear an interlocutory appeal on the constitutionality question and subsequently, the appellants filed an unopposed petition requesting for initial hearing en banc, citing to a July decision by the 5th Circuit ruling the FHFA’s single director structure violates Article II of the Constitution (previously covered by InfoBytes here).
In its September response to the appellants’ arguments, which are similar to previous challenges to the Bureau’s structure—specifically that the Bureau is unconstitutional because the president can only remove the director for cause—the Bureau argues that the agency’s structure is consistent with precedent set by the U.S. Supreme Court, which has held that for-cause removal is not an unconstitutional restriction on the president’s authority. The brief also cited to the recent 5th Circuit decision holding the FHFA structure unconstitutional and noted that the court acknowledged the Bureau’s structure as different from FHFA in that it “allows the President more ‘direct control.’” The Bureau also argues that the appellants are not entitled to judgment on the pleadings because the Bureau’s complaint— which was filed under the previous Director, Richard Cordray— has been ratified by acting Director, Mick Mulvaney, who is currently removable at will under his Federal Vacancies Reform Act appointment and therefore, any potential constitutional defect in the filing is cured. Additionally, the Bureau argues that even if the single-director structure were deemed unconstitutional, the provision is severable from the rest of the CFPA based on an express severability clause in the Dodd-Frank Act.
On September 6, a Texas bank and two associations (petitioners) filed a petition for writ of certiorari with the U.S. Supreme Court challenging the constitutionality of the CFPB’s structure. Specifically, the petition asks the Court (i) whether the CFPB as an independent agency headed by a single director that can only be removed from office for cause violates the Constitution’s separation of powers; (ii) whether a 1935 Supreme Court case upholding removal restrictions on members of the FTC should be overturned; and (iii) weather the CFPB’s “perpetual, on-demand funding streams” are permitted under the Appropriations Clause. The petition results from a 2012 lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of several provisions of the Dodd-Frank Act, which resulted in the June decision by the D.C. Circuit to uphold summary judgment against the petitioners. That decision was based on the January 2018 D.C. Circuit en banc decision concluding the CFPB’s single-director structure is constitutional (covered by a Buckley Sandler Special Alert.
On August 14, a national bank filed a petition for writ of certiorari with the U.S. Supreme Court requesting review of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit’s March decision, which held that a California law that requires the bank to pay interest on mortgage escrow funds is not preempted by federal law. As previously covered by InfoBytes, the 9th Circuit held that the Dodd-Frank Act of 2011 essentially codified the existing National Bank Act preemption standard from the 1996 Supreme Court decision in Barnett Bank of Marion County v. Nelson. In May, a panel of three judges on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit denied the petition for an en banc rehearing. In its petition, the bank argues that the appeals court decision warrants further review “because it creates significant uncertainty about whether national banks must comply with similar laws in other states” and whether other state banking laws also apply to national banks. The petition argues the uncertainty is exacerbated by the fact that the appellate court “disregarded and refused to enforce longstanding OCC regulations.” The bank contends that the 9th circuit interpreted the decision in Barnett incorrectly, and when a state law limits “a national bank’s federal authority to set the terms for their products and services, it is preempted by the National Bank Act.”
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- Benjamin W. Hutten to discuss "Requirements for banking inherently high-risk relationships" at the Georgia Bankers Association BSA Experience Program
- Brandy A. Hood to discuss "RESPA Section 8/referrals: How do you stay compliant?" at the New England Mortgage Bankers Conference
- Daniel P. Stipano to discuss "Lessons learned from recent enforcement actions and CMPs" at the ACAMS AML & Financial Crime Conference
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