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On November 27, the Superior Court of New Jersey, Appellate Division, affirmed an order requiring arbitration between a consumer and the buyer of the consumer’s debt (debt collector) in a lawsuit filed by the consumer claiming that the debt collector was not licensed to collect debts in New Jersey. According to the decision, the consumer had opened a credit card account with a bank, which included an arbitration agreement, then defaulted on the account. The debt collector then bought the debt and collected the consumer’s debt. The consumer subsequently sued the debt collector for its purported unlicensed collection of debts, but the trial court dismissed the complaint and compelled arbitration between the parties. The consumer appealed, arguing in part that the trial court erred by allowing an arbitrator to decide the validity of the assignment to the debt collector, and, therefore, the enforceability of the arbitration agreement. The appellate division court sided with the trial court that the arbitration clause “clearly and expressly stated claims relating to the ‘application, enforceability or interpretation of this Agreement, including this arbitration provision’ are subject to arbitration.” Moreover, the court concurred that the agreement did not violate the state’s plain language statute. However, the appellate division remanded the case to the trial court for issuance of an order to stay—rather than dismiss—the matter pending arbitration.
On November 15, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit vacated the district court’s certification order of a class action alleging a national satellite TV company violated the TCPA by contacting individuals who had previously asked to not be contacted. According to the opinion, a consumer filed a class action against the company alleging that the company failed to maintain an “internal do-not-call list,” which allowed the company and its telemarketing service provider to contact him eighteen times after he repeatedly asked to not be contacted. The consumer sought certification “of all persons who received more than one telemarketing call from [the telemarketing service provider] on behalf of [the company] while it failed to maintain an internal do-not-call list.” The district court certified the class and the company appealed.
On appeal, the 11th Circuit disagreed with the district court, concluding the court incorrectly determined that issues common to the class predominated over issues individual to each member. Specifically, the appellate court noted that the class consisted of unnamed class members who may not have asked the company to stop calling and therefore, would never have been on an internal do-not-call list, had one been properly maintained. Thus, these members were not injured by the company’s failure to comply and their injuries are then “not fairly traceable to [the company’s] alleged wrongful conduct,” resulting in a lack of Article III standing to sue. The appellate court emphasized that recertification is still possible, but the district court would need to determine which of the class members made the request to not be contacted. However, if “few made [the] request, or if it will be extraordinarily difficult to identify those who did, then the class would be overbroad” and individualized issues may “overwhelm issues common to the class.”
On November 6, the CFPB filed an amicus brief with the Court of Appeals of Maryland in a case challenging a private class action settlement against a structured settlement company, which purports to “release the Bureau’s claims in a pending federal action, to enjoin class members from receiving benefits from the Bureau’s lawsuit, and to assign any benefits the Bureau might obtain for class members to the class-action defendants.” As previously covered by InfoBytes, in 2017, the U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland allowed a UDAAP claim brought by the CFPB to move forward against the same structured settlement company, where the Bureau alleged the company employed abusive practices when purchasing structured settlements from consumers in exchange for lump-sum payments. A similar action was also brought by the Maryland attorney general against the company. In addition to the state and federal enforcement actions, the plaintiffs filed a private class action against the company, and a trial court approved a settlement. The Court of Special Appeals reversed the lower court’s approval of the settlement, concluding that it “interferes with the [state’s] and Bureau’s enforcement authority.” The company appealed.
In its brief to the Maryland Court of Appeals, the Bureau argues that the Court of Special Appeals decision should be affirmed because the settlement provisions “threaten to interfere with the Bureau’s authority under the [Consumer Financial Protection Act] in two significant ways.” Specifically, the Bureau argues that the settlement (i) could interfere with the Bureau’s statutory mandate to remediate consumers harmed through the Civil Penalty Fund; and (ii) would interfere with the Bureau’s authority to use restitution to remediate consumer harm. The Bureau states that “the risk of windfalls to such wrongdoers could force the Bureau to decline to award Fund payments to victims,” and would “threaten to offend basic principles of equity.”
On October 31, the U.S. District Court for the District of New Jersey certified two classes of consumers alleging a payday lender and its subsidiaries charged usurious, triple-digit interest rates on short-term loans originated by a nonparty entity run by a member of a federally recognized Indian tribe. The lawsuit—which alleges, among other things, usury and consumer fraud in violation of New Jersey law, common law restitution and unjust enrichment, and violations of the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act—was filed in 2016 with the defendants arguing that the claims were subject to an arbitration provision accompanying the loan agreement. However, as previously covered by InfoBytes, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit upheld the district court’s decision that the tribal arbitration forum referenced in the loan agreement does not actually exist and, “because the loan agreement’s forum selection clause is an integral, non-severable part of the arbitration agreement,” the entire arbitration agreement is unenforceable.
According to the plaintiffs, the defendants evaded state law usury limits by attempting to use the sovereignty of an Indian tribe, with most loans carrying an annual percentage interest rate of 139 percent. While the defendants challenged the notion that common questions about the loan agreements predominated over the individual concerns of each class member, the court determined that the loan agreements at issue have an identical structure of interest amortized over a fixed payment schedule. “Plaintiffs have therefore shown that they can use common evidence to prove their [Consumer Fraud Act] claims, and that common questions predominate,” the court stated. “Namely the nearly identical, allegedly usurious loan agreements, which caused an out of pocket loss in the form of usurious interest.” The court also dismissed the defendants’ argument that the plaintiffs’ suit was inferior to a 2018 CFPB action, which resulted in a $10.3 million civil money penalty but no restitution (previous InfoBytes coverage here), stating that “[i]ncredibly, [d]efendants argue that this CFPB action, which denied any recovery to the putative class members here, is a superior means for them to obtain relief.”
On October 30, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California certified a class of borrowers who allegedly applied for student loan relief based on their higher education institution’s misconduct but have yet to receive a decision from the Department of Education. The borrowers allege that the Department has arbitrarily and capriciously stonewalled its own process for adjudicating the borrowers’ defense claims under the Higher Education Act, which “allows the Department to cancel a student federal loan repayment based on a school’s misconduct.” The borrowers claim the Department has failed to decide a borrower defense claim since June 2018. According to the borrowers—former students of for-profit schools with claims dating back to 2015—“the Department’s inaction continues to cause putative class members ongoing harm.” The Department argued, however, that the class should not be certified because the borrowers’ claims rely too much on individual circumstances and fail to prove a “systemic policy of inaction[.]” The court disagreed and certified the class, stating that the borrowers “have identified a single uniform policy—namely, the Department’s alleged ‘blanket refusal’ to adjudicate borrower defenses—which ‘bridges all their claims.’” Moreover, the court noted that “this alleged uniform policy is supported by the undisputed fact that the Department has failed to adjudicate a single borrower defense claim in over a year.” The class does not include borrowers who are part of a separate action filed against the Department (covered by InfoBytes here).
On October 28, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois granted final approval of a $12.5 million TCPA class action settlement between a group of consumers and three cruise lines and their marketing group (collectively, “defendants”). According to the opinion, a consumer filed the action against the defendants alleging they violated the TCPA’s prohibition of the use of an autodialer without prior consent. While the motion for class certification was pending, the parties reached an agreement-in-principle for a class-wide settlement. The settlement requires the defendants to, among other things, set up a common fund of $12.5 million to permit each claimant to “recover for up to three calls per telephone number, with a maximum value for each call set at $300.” The court noted that after deducting attorneys’ fees, other costs, and an incentive award for the principal plaintiff, the nearly 275,000 class members will be eligible to receive an average of about $22 per claim. The court noted that while $22 is “significantly below the $500 recovery available under the statute for each call… a settlement does not need to provide the class with the maximum possible damages in order to be reasonable.” The court went on to state that the settlement “still serves the purpose of punishing [the cruise lines] for their role in the controversy,” and the total settlement fund is a “deterrent to potential future defendants who might think twice about violating the TCPA in an effort to boost business.”
11th Circuit: District Court erred in denying class certification over bankruptcy preemption defense
On October 29, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit vacated a district court decision denying class certification, concluding the court erred in its determination that each FDCPA and Florida Consumer Collection Practices Act (FCCPA) claim’s individualized inquiries predominated over issues common to the proposed class. According to the opinion, two plaintiffs filed a class action against their mortgage servicer alleging the servicer violated the FDCPA and the FCCPA by sending monthly mortgage statements after the debt was discharged in a Chapter 7 bankruptcy and they moved out of the home. The servicer objected to class certification that included both consumers who vacated their homes and those who remained in their homes because the Bankruptcy Code treats the two groups differently, thus requiring an individualized review to decide how the rules would be applied. Additionally, the servicer argued that the court would be required to decide whether the Bankruptcy Code precluded or preempted the claims for only class members who chose to remain in their homes. The district court denied class certification, concluding that individualized claims predominated over common issues, because “the question of ‘whether the Bankruptcy Code precluded and/or preempted the FDCPA and FCCPA’ presented an individualized rather than a common issue.”
On appeal, the 11th Circuit disagreed. The appellate court noted that the district court erred when it concluded that the question of whether the Bankruptcy Code precluded or preempted the FDCPA only applied to those consumers who chose to remain in their homes, because the preemption defense “potentially barred every class member’s FDCPA claim,” thus requiring the court to treat it as a common issue. The appellate court made a similar determination for the FCCPA claims. The appellate court cautioned that its conclusion was not an opinion about whether the servicer’s “defense is meritorious,” but was “limited to the conclusion that [the] defense raises questions common to all class members.” The appellate court, therefore, vacated and remanded the case back to district court.
On October 18, the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Washington granted in part a national bank’s motion to dismiss, but allowed the plaintiffs’ claim under the Washington Consumer Protection Act (WCPA) to move forward. According to the opinion, in 2011, a national bank denied the plaintiffs’ mortgage modification, and in 2012, the plaintiffs’ home was foreclosed upon. In August 2018, the national bank disclosed that approximately 625 mortgage modification applications were improperly denied due to a calculation error in the bank’s software. The bank informed the plaintiffs of the error, provided a check for $15,000, and after mediation, paid the plaintiffs another $25,000. The plaintiffs filed a class action against the bank, asserting claims for violation of the WCPA and unjust enrichment. The bank moved to dismiss the action, arguing, among other things, that the WCPA claim was an “impermissible attempt to enforce the federal Home Affordable Modification Program (HAMP), which creates no private right of action.” The court disagreed with the bank, determining that while the mortgage modification application was filed pursuant to HAMP, the plaintiffs “do not seek to enforce HAMP.” Instead, the plaintiffs argue that the wrongful denial of their application and failure to disclose the calculation error for three years “constitutes unfair or deceptive conduct in violation of the [WCPA].” The court concluded that the WCPA claim “is not an improper attempt to enforce” HAMP, as HAMP is merely “a ‘component’ of the [WCPA] claim.” The court went on to grant the bank’s motion to dismiss as to the unjust enrichment claim, while granting the plaintiffs’ request to amend their complaint.
On October 7, the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of California denied a national bank’s motion for partial summary judgment in a class action alleging the bank wrongfully charged ATM fees in violation of the bank’s standardized account agreement. According to the opinion, the plaintiffs filed the action asserting that the bank charges its customers two out-of-network (OON) fees when an account holder conducts a balance inquiry and then obtains a cash withdrawal at an OON ATM. The bank moved for summary judgment on the breach of contract claim, arguing that the terms and conditions of the contract provide for the charge of a fee “for each balance inquiry, cash withdrawal, or funds transfer undertaken at a non-[bank] branded ATM.” After conducting a limited discovery on the breach of contract issue, the district court denied the bank’s motion, concluding there are “ambiguities regarding the contract terms.” Specifically, the court noted that contract documents describe a “Foreign ATM Fee” as “initiated at an ATM other than a [bank] ATM” and that it uses the singular term of “fee” while providing “no further explanation as to what ‘initiated’ means.” According to the court, there is “ambiguity in the term ‘initiate’ that is ‘susceptible to at least two reasonable alternative interpretations.’” Moreover, the court also concluded that certain onscreen warnings about the right to cancel caused “uncertainty and ambiguity” regarding the assessment of fees, and because there are ambiguities regarding the fee terms, the court could not conclude that the plaintiffs failed to prove a breach of contract.
On September 27, the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida denied class certification in an action alleging violations of the TCPA, the Florida Consumer Collection Practices Act, and the FDCPA brought against two companies. The action alleged that defendants used an automated telephone dialing system (autodialer) to call the plaintiff’s cell phone using a “prerecorded voice” while trying to contact a different individual to collect an unpaid debt. The defendants allegedly called the plaintiff’s cell phone number—which was listed as the other individual’s home phone number but had been reassigned to the plaintiff—multiple times even after the plaintiff informed the defendants that they had the wrong phone number. The plaintiff alleged violations of the TCPA, claiming the defendants placed the calls without first obtaining prior express consent.
Among other arguments, the defendants challenged the proposed class definition, which included more than 9,000 non-customers who allegedly received calls from the defendants and were identified by a code that the plaintiff contended is assigned to calls made to “bad phone” numbers. According to the defendants, the plaintiff’s expert developed a process for “identify[ing] calls where [autodialed] calls and prerecorded messages were made to cell phones after a record documenting an event consistent with a wrong number and/or a request to stop calling.” However, the defendants argued, among other things, that there are many different reasons why a “bad phone” code could be assigned to an account, and that the plaintiff’s assertions do not “satisfy the clearly ascertainable standard,” which must be met for class certification.
“Indeed, when presented with similar evidence regarding ‘wrong number’ call log designations, this [c]ourt recognized that ‘in the debt collection industry ‘wrong number’ oftentimes does not mean non-consent because many customers tell agents they have reached the wrong number, though the correct number was called, as a way to avoid further debt collection,’” the court stated. “The difficulty in ascertaining this information is compounded by the fact that the phone numbers at issue were initially provided to [the defendants] by consenting customers.”
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