Special Alert: Federal court says state bank, fintech partner must face Maryland’s allegation of unlicensed lending before state ALJ
A federal court late last month told a state-chartered bank and its fintech partner that they must return to a state administrative law proceeding to fight a Maryland enforcement action alleging that their failure to obtain a license to lend and collect on loans violated state law — potentially rendering the terms of certain loans unenforceable.
The Missouri-chartered bank and its partners attempted to remove an action brought by the Office of the Maryland Commissioner of Financial Regulation to the U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland, but the district court determined that removal was not proper and that Maryland’s Office of Administrative Hearings was the appropriate venue.
OCFR initially filed charges in January 2021 in Maryland’s Office of Administrative Hearings against the bank and its partner asserting the bank made installment and consumer loans and extended open-ended or revolving credit in the state without being licensed or qualifying for an exception to licensure. As a result, OCFR said they “‘may not receive or retain any principal, interest, or other compensation with respect to any loan that is unenforceable under this subsection.’” It said that not only are the bank’s loans to all Maryland consumers possibly unenforceable, but also that the bank, or its agents or assigns, could in the alternative be “prohibited from collecting the principal amount of those loans from any of these consumers or from collecting any other money related to those loans.”
The OCFR’s charge letter also said the fintech company that provided services to the bank violated the Maryland Credit Services Business Act by providing advice and/or assistance to consumers in the state “with regard to obtaining an extension of credit for the consumer when accepting and/or processing credit applications on behalf of the Bank without a credit services business license.” Additionally, the OCFR alleged violations of the Maryland Collection Agency Licensing Act related to whether the fintech company engaged in unlicensed collection activities, thus subjecting it to the imposition of fines, restitutions, and other non-monetary remedial action.
The defendants filed a notice of removal to federal court last year while the enforcement action was still pending before the OAH; OCFR moved to remand the case back to the agency.
In granting the OCFR’s motion to remand, the court concluded that the OCFR persuasively argued that the defendants have not properly removed this case from the OAH for several reasons, including that the OAH does not function as a state court. “Pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1441, a defendant may remove to federal court ‘any civil action brought in a State court of which the district courts of the United States have original jurisdiction.’” However, the court determined that, while defendants correctly observed that the OAH possesses certain “court-like” attributes, its limitations clearly showed that it does not function as a state court.
In reaching this conclusion, the court considered several undisputed facts, including that the OCFR is a unit of the Maryland Department of Labor “responsible for, among other things, issuing licenses to entities wishing to issue loans to consumers in Maryland and investigating violations of Maryland’s consumer loan laws.” The court also said that, while OCFR has authority under Maryland law to investigate potential violations of law or regulation and has the ability to issue cease and desist orders, revoke an individual’s license, or issue fines, it cannot enforce its own subpoenas or orders — and that its decisions are not final and may be appealed to a state circuit court.
The defendants had argued that the case involved a federal question as a result of the complete preemption of state usury laws by Section 27 of the FDI Act. The court said licensure, not state usury law claims, was the issue at hand.
During a status conference held last month to discuss OCFR’s motion to remand, defendants requested an opportunity to file a motion certifying the case for appeal. The court will hold in abeyance its remand order pending resolution of that motion. Parties’ briefings are due by the end of May.
If you have any questions regarding the ruling or its ramifications, please contact a Buckley attorney with whom you have worked in the past.