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  • District Court dismisses First Amendment challenge to Montana’s statute banning robocalls

    Privacy, Cyber Risk & Data Security

    On February 9, a federal judge for the U.S. District Court for the District of Montana denied a plaintiff’s motion for summary judgment, which sought to overturn the State of Montana’s statutory restrictions on robocalls. Among other things, the plaintiff—a Michigan-based political consulting firm that relies on automated calls to gather data—claimed the 1991 Montana statute violated its right to free speech under the First and Fourteenth Amendments of the United States Constitution by prohibiting automated sales and political campaign calls. However, the court ruled that the Montana statute is sufficiently narrowly tailored and is intended to preserve and protect residents’ “control over [their] property and personal choices regarding receipt of communications.” Exemptions to the ban, the court explained, can occur “if the permission of the called party is obtained by a live operator before the recorded message is delivered.” The narrow tailoring leaves “ample alternative (including all of the more traditional) channels of communication for the protected political speech.”

    Privacy/Cyber Risk & Data Security Robocalls State Legislation Courts

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  • Alabama attorney general establishes cybercrime lab

    State Issues

    On February 14, the Alabama Attorney General’s Office announced the establishment of the Cybercrime Lab, which was created in partnership with the U.S. Secret Service, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, U.S. Department of Homeland Security Investigations, the Alabama Fusion Center, the Alabama Office of Prosecution Services, and U.S. Attorney Louis Franklin. In addition to supporting cyber-related investigations in areas such as network intrusions and data breaches conducted by law enforcement in Alabama at the federal, state, and local levels, the Cybercrime Lab will provide assistance to agencies seeking access to digital evidence. Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall commented that his office also has new resources for reporting suspected debit/credit card skimming devices.

    State Issues State Attorney General Data Breach Privacy/Cyber Risk & Data Security

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  • District judge rules financing contingency clause in retail installment contract does not violate TILA

    Courts

    On February 12, a federal judge in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of California held that a financing contingency clause in a retail installment contract (contract) did not violate the Truth in Lending Act (TILA). The clause provided that the dealership (defendant) could cancel the contract if it could not assign it to a financial institution on terms acceptable to the seller. According to the opinion, the plaintiff signed the contract with the defendant to purchase a car after being told she was approved for financing; however, the defendant later contacted the plaintiff and informed her that it was unable to assign her loan to a third party bank and demanded that she “return to the dealership with a co-signor or surrender the [v]ehicle.” The plaintiff asserted that “she never received a written notice explaining why [the] defendant [had] revoked its extension of credit” or why it had cancelled the contract. Among other things, the plaintiff argued that the defendant’s actions violated (i) TILA when it inserted a seller’s right to cancel provision in the contract, and (ii) a “breach of ‘good faith and fair dealing obligation.’” However, with respect to TILA, the judge found no violation, holding that while TILA requires certain disclosures for the purpose of avoiding the “uninformed use of credit,” it does not prohibit the inclusion of financing contingencies. Here, the contract included all required elements under TILA and the properly disclosed credit terms were not rendered meaningless or invalid just because the dealership reserved a unilateral right to rescind the contract. The judge further dismissed the breach of good faith claim, noting that the defendant was acting within the allowed terms of the right to cancel provision.

    Courts TILA Auto Finance

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  • 3rd Circuit rules settlement offer for time-barred debt could violate FDCPA

    Courts

    On February 12, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit held that a collection letter offering a settlement on a time-barred debt could violate the prohibition against "any false, deceptive, or misleading representation or means in connection with the collection of any debt” of the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA). According to the opinion, the plaintiff filed a class action complaint against the debt collector after receiving a letter stating that the debt collector would accept a partial “settlement” of the delinquency amount, which was past the New Jersey six-year statute of limitations. The lower court granted the debt collector’s motion to dismiss, finding that the letter did not contain a threat of legal action by the use of the word settlement and therefore, did not violate the FDCPA. In reversing the lower court’s decision, the 3rd Circuit concluded that the “least-sophisticated debtor could be misled into thinking that ‘settlement of the debt’ referred to the creditor’s ability to enforce the debt.” In its conclusion, the appellate court also noted that settlement offers of time-barred debts “do not necessarily constitute deceptive or misleading practices” under the FDCPA and remanded the case back to the lower court for review.

    Courts Third Circuit Appellate FDCPA Debt Collection

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  • District Court sanctions bankruptcy law firm for allegedly harming consumers and auto lenders

    Consumer Finance

    On February 12, following a four-day trial, the U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the Western District of Virginia entered a memorandum opinion to sanction and enjoin a national consumer bankruptcy law firm and its local partner attorneys (defendants) for “systematically engag[ing] in the unauthorized practice of law, provid[ing] inadequate representation to consumer debtor clients, and promot[ing] and participat[ing] in a scheme to convert auto lenders’ collateral and then misrepresent[ing] the nature of that scheme.” According to a DOJ press release, the combined order was entered in two actions consolidated for trial brought by the DOJ’s U.S. Trustee Program. The actions concern a Chicago-based law firm that offered legal services via its website to financially distressed consumers and allegedly had “non-attorney ‘client consultants’” engage in the unauthorized practice of law and employ “high-pressure sales tactics” when encouraging consumers to file for bankruptcy relief. Among other things, the defendants allegedly (i) refused to refund bankruptcy-related legal fees to clients for whom the firm failed to file bankruptcy cases; (ii) failed to have in place oversight and supervision procedures to prevent non-attorney salespeople from practicing law; and (iii) partnered with an Indiana-based towing company to implement a scheme that would allow clients to have their bankruptcy-related legal fees paid if they transferred vehicles “fully encumbered by auto lenders’ liens” to the towing company without lienholder consent. Under the “New Car Custody Program,” the towing company allegedly claimed rights to the vehicles, sold the vehicles at auction, paid the client’s bankruptcy fees to the defendants, and pocketed the proceeds. According to the release, this program “harmed auto lenders by converting collateral in which they had valid security interests,” and exposed clients to “undue risk by causing them to possibly violate the terms of their contracts with their auto lenders as well as state laws.”

    Under the terms of the order, the court sanctioned the defendants $250,000, imposed additional sanctions totaling $60,000 against the firm’s managing partner and affiliated partner attorneys, ordered the defendants to disgorge all funds “collected from the consumer debtors in both bankruptcy cases,” and revoked the defendants’ privileges to practice in the Western District of Virginia for various specified periods of time. The court also sanctioned the towing company and “ordered the turnover of all funds it received in connection” with the program. The towing company did not respond to the filed complaints.

    Consumer Finance DOJ Bankruptcy Auto Finance State Issues Courts

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  • Fannie and Freddie update charge-off recommendations in servicing guides

    Agency Rule-Making & Guidance

    On February 14, Fannie Mae issued Servicing Guide Announcement SVC-2018-01 which, in addition to other items, updates the requirements for servicer charge-off recommendations, as directed by the Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA). According to Fannie Mae’s announcement, effective August 1, a servicer may submit a request to cease collection efforts and charge off a delinquent loan when either (i) a servicer deems the debt uncollectable and all appropriate measures to collect on the debt have been exhausted; or (ii) for certain mortgage loans, a foreclosure sale cannot be completed and at least one situation outlined in section D1-1-02 of the Servicing Guide applies. Freddie Mac also issued Bulletin 2018-2, which covers similar policy changes. According to both announcements, the change in charge-off policies reflects FHFA’s desire to avoid “neighborhood blight” for vacant properties.

    Agency Rule-Making & Guidance Fannie Mae Freddie Mac Mortgage Servicing Servicing Guide

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  • House passes bill that would effectively overturn Madden; others amend RESPA disclosure requirements and adjust points and fees definitions under TILA

    Federal Issues

    On February 14, in a bipartisan vote of 245-171, the House passed H.R. 3299, the “Protecting Consumers Access to Credit Act of 2017,” to codify the “valid-when-made” doctrine and ensure that a bank loan that was valid as to its maximum rate of interest in accordance with federal law at the time the loan was made shall remain valid with respect to that rate, regardless of whether the bank subsequently sells or assigns the loan to a third party. As previously covered in InfoBytes, this regulatory reform bill would effectively overturn the 2015 decision in Madden v. Midland Funding, LLC, which ruled that debt buyers cannot use their relationship with a national bank to preempt state usury limits. Relatedly, the Senate Banking Committee is considering a separate measure, S. 1642.

    The same day, in a separate bipartisan vote of 271-145, the House approved H.R. 3978, the “TRID Improvement Act of 2017,” which would amend the Real Estate Settlement Procedures Act of 1974 (RESPA) to modify disclosure requirements applicable to mortgage loan transactions. Specifically, the bill states that “disclosed charges for any title insurance premium shall be equal to the amount charged for each individual title insurance policy, subject to any discounts as required by either state regulation or the title company rate filings.”

    Finally, last week on February 8, the House voted 280-131 to pass H.R. 1153, the “Mortgage Choice Act of 2017,” to adjust definitions of points and fees in connection with mortgage transactions under the Truth in Lending Act (TILA). Specifically, the bill states that “neither escrow charges for insurance nor affiliated title charges shall be considered ‘points and fees’ for purposes of determining whether a mortgage is a ‘high-cost mortgage.’” On February 12, the bill was received in the Senate and referred to the Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs.

    Federal Issues Federal Legislation U.S. House Usury Lending RESPA TILA Mortgages Disclosures

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  • DOJ unseals charges against former Venezuelan government officials for money laundering and FCPA violations in state-owned energy company scheme

    Financial Crimes

    On February 12, the DOJ unsealed charges against five former Venezuelan government officials for their involvement in a money laundering scheme at Venezuela’s state-owned energy company. The five defendants are each charged with conspiracy to commit money laundering. Two defendants are also charged with conspiracy to violate the FCPA. 

    Four of the defendants were arrested in Spain in October 2017 on arrest warrants based on an indictment filed in the Southern District of Texas last August. One has been extradited from Spain, while the others are pending extradition. 

    The indictment alleges that the five defendants possessed significant influence within the company, which permitted them to solicit vendors for “bribes and kickbacks in exchange for providing assistance to those vendors in connection with their [company] business.” The company vendors included residents of the U.S. and vendors who owned U.S.-based businesses. According to the indictment, two company vendors transferred more than $27 million to accounts in Switzerland that were connected to two of the defendants. The two company vendors previously pleaded guilty in the Southern District of Texas to FCPA charges related to the bribery of company officials. 

    The charges are part of an ongoing investigation by the DOJ and ICE-HSI into bribery at the company, which has resulted in charges against fifteen individuals, ten of whom have pleaded guilty.

    Financial Crimes DOJ FCPA International Anti-Money Laundering Bribery

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  • DOJ concludes FCPA investigation into network consulting company

    Financial Crimes

    A California-based network consulting company announced in a February 9 8K filing that the DOJ has concluded its investigation into possible FCPA violations without taking action against the company. The company disclosed the FCPA investigation by the DOJ and the SEC in August 2013, but has not publicly disclosed any further details about the possible FCPA violations. The recent filing stated that the DOJ’s letter acknowledged the company’s “cooperation in the investigation.” The filing also noted that the FCPA investigation by the SEC is still pending. 

    Financial Crimes DOJ SEC FCPA

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  • Agencies assess $613 million in total penalties against national bank and its parent for BSA/AML deficiencies

    Financial Crimes

    On February 15, a national bank and its parent corporation were assessed $613 million in total penalties by the OCC, DOJ, Federal Reserve, and Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN) as part of a deferred prosecution agreement over Bank Secrecy Act (BSA) and anti-money laundering (AML) compliance program deficiencies. According to the announcement by the DOJ, the agency’s settlements cover a range of alleged AML deficiencies back to 2009, including an alleged effort not to disclose known Suspicious Activity Report (SAR) deficiencies to the OCC. Additionally, the DOJ cited the bank for failing to timely file SARs related to the banking activity of a customer who used the bank to launder proceeds from a fraudulent payday lending scheme, when the bank was allegedly on notice of the activity (previously covered by InfoBytes here).

    The $613 million in penalties include: a $453 million forfeiture as part of the deferred prosecution agreement with the DOJ; a $75 civil money penalty from the OCC; a $15 million civil money penalty from the Federal Reserve; and a $70 million civil money penalty from FinCEN.

    Financial Crimes Bank Secrecy Act Anti-Money Laundering OCC Federal Reserve FinCEN DOJ

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