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District Court grants partial summary judgment to debt collector in credit reporting and debt collection action
On September 21, the U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland partially granted a defendant debt collector’s motion for summary judgment in a credit reporting and debt collection action. The plaintiff disputed debt related to two electric bills for two different residences that were eventually combined into one account. After the plaintiff informed the electric company that she would not be paying the bill, the debt was eventually referred for collection to the defendant. The plaintiff disputed the debt, and the defendant conducted an investigation. The plaintiff continued to contend that the defendant was certifying the debt without proof and claimed the defendant’s agents called her a liar and incorrectly asserted that she had not made payments. The defendant argued that it was entitled to summary judgment on the plaintiff’s FCRA and FDCPA claims, contending, among other things, that FCRA 1681e(b) “expressly applies to [credit reporting agencies] and not to furnishers.”
The court first reviewed the plaintiff’s FCRA claims as to whether the defendant conducted a reasonable investigation. The court stated that the plaintiff bore the burden to establish whether the defendant failed to conduct a reasonable investigation, and noted that because she failed to provide certain evidence to the defendant “there is no genuine dispute that the investigation conducted by [defendant] was not unreasonable” or that the defendant reported accurate information to the CRAs about the debt. With respect to some of the FDCPA claims, the court denied the defendant summary judgment on the basis that the plaintiff created a genuine dispute about whether the defendant violated § 1692d (the provision prohibiting a debt collector from engaging in harassment or abuse). According to the opinion, evidence suggests that the defendant’s agents incorrectly informed the plaintiff that she had never made a payment on one of the accounts, called her a liar when she protested this information, and used a “demeaning tone” in their communications. “[A] reasonable jury could conclude that the language would have the natural consequence of abusing a consumer relatively more susceptible to harassment, oppression, or abuse,” the court wrote.
Additionally, the court ruled on Maryland state law claims introduced in the plaintiff’s opposition to summary judgment. The court ruled against her Maryland Consumer Debt Collection Act claim regarding the alleged use of abusive language, writing that the agents were not “grossly abusive” and that the plaintiff failed to generate a genuine dispute on this issue. Nor did the plaintiff show a genuine dispute as to whether the debt was inaccurate or that the defendant knew the debt was invalid. The court also entered summary judgment in favor of the defendant on the plaintiff’s Maryland Consumer Protection Act and Maryland Collection Agency Licensing Act claims.
On September 23, the U.S. Treasury Department issued Iran General License D-2, General License with Respect to Certain Services, Software, and Hardware Incident to Communications General License (GL), to add further authorizing guidance in line with changes in modern technology since the issuance of Iran GL D-1. According to Treasury, the Iranian government cut off Internet access for most of its citizens to prevent the viewing of its violent crackdown on peaceful protestors, provoked by the death of an individual in the custody of Iran’s Morality Police. Treasury further noted that the U.S. supports “the free flow of information and access to fact-based information to the Iranian people.” Highlights of the extended GL includes, among other things: (i) additional covered categories of software/services; (ii) additional authorization for the services that support the communication tools to assist ordinary Iranians in resisting repressive internet censorship and surveillance tools deployed by the Iranian regime; and (iii) the continued authorization of anti-virus and anti-malware software, anti-tracking software, mobile operating systems and related software, and anti-censorship tools and related software. The GL is effective immediately. The same day, Treasury published three frequently asked questions, which clarify GL D-2 and other information on Iran sanctions.
On September 22, the U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) announced sanctions pursuant to Executive Order 13553 against Iran’s Morality Police along with seven senior leaders who oversee Iran’s security organizations. These designations were taken in response to recent abuse and violence against Iranian women and violence against peaceful protestors and members of Iranian civil society, among others. “Today’s action to sanction Iran’s Morality Police and senior Iranian security officials responsible for this oppression demonstrates the Biden - Harris Administration’s clear commitment to stand up for human rights, and the rights of women, in Iran and globally,” Secretary of the Treasury Janet Yellen said.
As a result of the sanctions, all property and interests in property belonging to the sanctioned persons that are in the U.S. or in the possession or control of U.S. persons must be blocked and reported to OFAC. U.S. persons are also prohibited from engaging in any dealings involving the property or interests in property of blocked or designated persons, and “persons that engage in certain transactions with the individuals or entities designated today may themselves be exposed to designation,” OFAC said. Additionally, OFAC warned that “any foreign financial institution that knowingly facilitates a significant transaction or provides significant financial services for any of the individuals or entities designated today could be subject to U.S. correspondent or payable-through account sanctions.”
On September 22, the CFTC announced a settlement with a cryptocurrency business and its founders (collectively, respondents) for allegedly violating the Commodity Exchange Act (CEA), Commission regulations, and Bank Secrecy Act compliance requirements. According to the CFTC, the respondents allegedly “designed, deployed, marketed, and made solicitations concerning a blockchain-based software protocol that accepted orders for and facilitated margined and leveraged retail commodity transactions.” The protocol allowed users to leverage positions, where the value was determined by the price difference between two digital assets from the time the position was established to the time it was closed. The protocol, according to the CFTC, “purported to offer users the ability to engage in these transactions in a decentralized environment.” The CFTC found that the respondents were not registered with the CFTC and had engaged in unlawful activities that could only be lawfully performed by a registered designated contract market and other activities that could only lawfully be performed by a registered futures commission merchant (FCM). Additionally, the respondents did not comply with the Bank Secrecy Act when they failed to conduct know-your customer diligence on their customers as part of a customer identification program, as required of FCMs. The order requires the respondents to pay a $250,000 civil monetary penalty and to cease and desist from further violations of the CEA and CFTC regulations. Simultaneously, the CFTC filed a complaint in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California charging a decentralized autonomous organization and successor to the cryptocurrency business that operated the same software protocol with violating the same laws as the respondents. The CFTC is seeking restitution, disgorgement, civil monetary penalties, trading and registration bans, and injunctions against further violations of the CEA and CFTC regulations.
The same day, CFTC Commissioner Summer K. Mersinger published a dissenting opinion, stating that though she does “not condone[s] individuals or entities blatantly violating the CEA or our rules,” we “cannot arbitrarily decide who is accountable for those violations based on an unsupported legal theory amounting to regulation by enforcement while federal and state policy is developing.” She further argued that there is no provision in the CEA that holds members of a for-profit unincorporated association personally liable for violations of the CEA or CFTC rules committed by the association based solely on their membership status.
On September 20, twenty-four state attorneys general sent a letter to the CEOs of three credit card companies opposing the International Organization for Standardization’s (ISO) recommendation to create a merchant category code (MCC) for gun stores to use when processing credit and debit card transactions. According to the AGs, the MCC “will not protect public safety,” and tracking gun purchase information “can only result in its misuse, either unintentional or deliberate.” The AGs also expressed their concern “that financial institutions that place their desired public policy outcomes ahead of the well-being of their investors do so in derogation of their fiduciary obligations.”
The same week, in a separate letter, twelve Republican U.S. Senators sent a letter to the CEOs also requesting the reversal of their decision to comply with the ISO standard to create a separate MCC for the sale of firearms in the U.S. According to the letter, the CEOs “are choosing the side of gun control advocates over the privacy and Second Amendment rights of millions of law abiding Americans,” and consider the decision to comply with the MCC “the first step towards backdoor gun control on law abiding Americans.” The Senators asked the CEOs to respond to a series of ISO-related questions.
As previously covered by InfoBytes, on September 2, the California and New York AGs sent a letter to the CEOs asking for the establishment of a unique MCC for gun store purchases, writing that a specially-designated MCC would help companies flag suspicious activity. The letter followed recent requests sent by several congressional Democrats to the same companies urging them to establish an MCC code for guns.
On September 21, CFPB Director Rohit Chopra discussed Bureau efforts to ensure markets for consumer financial products and services are “fair, transparent, and competitive.” Speaking during the Exchequer Club Fireside Chat, Chopra explained that the agency’s authorizing statute specifically directs the Bureau to promote competition by consistently enforcing the law regardless of whether an entity takes deposits. He clarified that there should not be different standards for assessing when a firm violates the law, and highlighted several ways that the Bureau is working to fulfill its mandate to ensure competitive markets. One example Chopra provided relates to reshaping the Bureau’s approach to promoting new products and offerings, especially as they relate to refinancing options. He pointed to Bureau efforts to ensure both banks and nonbanks could launch products to save private student loan borrowers money as an example of making sure all potential market entrants could benefit. Chopra stated that the Bureau is also requesting feedback from investors, lenders, and the public on topics related to improving mortgage refinancing options (covered by InfoBytes here), and is working on ways to stimulate more credit card and auto loan refinancing. Additionally, Chopra touched on other areas of focus, including consumer finance offerings that rely on emerging technologies such as banking in augmented reality and the metaverse, nonbank supervision and oversight, bright-line regulatory approaches, competitive pricing and back-end fees, regulatory arbitrage, and personal financial data rights.
On September 19, the U.S. District Court for the District of Southern Florida granted final judgment against an individual to resolve SEC allegations regarding her involvement in a company that allegedly fraudulently misappropriated funds from investors. As previously covered by InfoBytes, the SEC’s complaint claimed that the individual was employed by the company and was the wife of a chief executive officer who falsely represented to many Venezuelan-American investors that the company would use their funds to finance payday loans through the offer and sale of “safe and secured or guaranteed” promissory notes. The complaint noted that the defendant “received at least $1.2 million of [the company’s] investor funds for no apparent legitimate business purpose,” in violation of the federal securities laws or any regulation or order issued under such laws, as set forth in the Bankruptcy Code. According to the order, the defendant must pay $994,000 in disgorgement and $83,000 in interest.
On September 15, the FTC released a report, Bringing Dark Patterns to Light, examining how “dark patterns” can effect consumer choice and decision-making and could violate the law. The report stems from an April 2021 workshop that the Commission held to explore dark patterns. According to the FTC, the dark pattern tactics detailed in the report include disguising ads to appear like independent content, which makes “it difficult for consumers to cancel subscriptions or charges, burying key terms or junk fees, and tricking consumers into sharing their data.” The report highlighted the FTC’s efforts to combat the use of dark patterns in the marketplace and reiterated the Commission’s commitment to taking action against tactics designed to trick and trap consumers. Among other things, the report noted four common dark pattern tactics, which include design elements that: (i) induce false beliefs; (ii) hide or delay disclosure of material information; (iii) lead to unauthorized charges; and (iv) obscure or subvert privacy choices. The report also cited a 2017 case brought against a company as an example of past enforcement work, in which FTC fined the company $2.2 million for enabling default settings that allowed its smart TVs to collect and share consumers’ viewing activity with third parties, providing a brief notice to some consumers that the agency said could easily be missed.
On September 22, the CFPB issued a request for information (RFI) regarding ways to improve mortgage refinances for homeowners and how to support automatic short-term and long-term loss mitigation assistance for homeowners who experience financial disruptions. According to the Bureau, refinancing volume has decreased almost 70 percent from last year as interest rates have risen. Additionally, periods of economic turmoil, such as the Covid-19 pandemic, can pose significant challenges for mortgage borrowers, the Bureau noted. Throughout the pandemic, 8.2 million borrowers entered a forbearance program, and as of July 2022, 93 percent have exited. Of those who have exited forbearance, five percent are delinquent or in active foreclosure. The Bureau is interested in the features of pandemic-related forbearance programs that should be made more generally available to borrowers. Specifically, the RFI requests information regarding, among other things: (i) targeted and streamlined refinance programs; (ii) innovative refinancing products; and (iii) automatic forbearance and long-term loss mitigation assistance. Comments are due 60 days after publication in the Federal Register.
On September 20, President Biden announced his intention to nominate two members of the FDIC Board of Directors. The nominees, if confirmed, would fill the two vacant seats on the five-member Board. Travis Hill was nominated as a Board member and as vice chair. During his tenure at the FDIC, Hill previously served as senior advisor to the chairman and deputy to the chairman for policy. Prior to that, Hill served as senior counsel at the Senate Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs. Biden also nominated Jonathan McKernan as a Board member. McKernan is a senior counsel at the FHFA and currently is on detail from the agency to the Senate Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs where he is counsel on the minority staff. Previously, McKernan served as a senior policy advisor at the U.S. Treasury Department.
- Jedd R. Bellman to provide an “Attorney exemption/medical debt update” at the North American Collection Agency Regulatory Association annual conference
- Kathryn L. Ryan to discuss “What should crypto regulation look like: Legislation, regulation and consumer issues” at WCL's First Annual Virtual Currency Law Institute
- Elizabeth E. McGinn to discuss “How to mitigate and manage third-party risks: Leveraging tools and best practices” at The Knowledge Group’s webcast
- Elizabeth E. McGinn, Benjamin W. Hutten, and James C. Chou to discuss “The evolving regulatory landscape: Third-party and cyber risk management” at the 2022 mWISE Conference
- Sherry-Maria Safchuk to discuss “For your eyes only: Privacy updates for 2022-2023” at CCFL’s Annual Consumer Financial Services Conference
- James T. Parkinson to present a “Global anti-corruption update” at IBA’s annual conference