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  • Eleventh Circuit Rules Credit Reporting Agency Did Not Willfully Violate FCRA

    Courts

    In an August 24 opinion, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit held that a credit reporting agency had not interpreted the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA) in an “objectively unreasonable” manner when it included in a plaintiff’s credit report that the plaintiff was an authorized user of her parents’ delinquent credit card account. In doing so, the appellate court upheld the Georgia district court’s decision to dismiss the class action lawsuit over allegations that two credit reporting agencies failed to take reasonable precautions to ensure the accuracy of the plaintiff’s credit score. The appellate court concluded that including the information was a reasonable interpretation of the FCRA obligation to “follow reasonable procedures to assure the maximum possible accuracy” of the reported information—meaning the report must be technically accurate. Because this interpretation was not objectively unreasonable, the plaintiff could not plead that the violations were willful.

    The case concerned a plaintiff who was designated as an authorized user of her parents’ credit card when they became ill. After the plaintiff’s parents died, the account went into default, and the credit card company reported the default to consumer reporting agencies listing the consumer as an authorized user, which caused her credit score to drop by 100 points. The credit card company—responding to the plaintiff’s complaint over the inaccurate information—interceded in the matter with the credit reporting agencies. The information was expunged from the plaintiff’s report and her credit score returned to its prior level. The plaintiff then filed a consumer class action complaint in 2015, contending that the consumer reporting agencies had violated their duty under the FCRA when they failed to take reasonable precautions to ensure the accuracy of her credit score.

    At issue, the appellate court opined, was which interpretation should be applied when determining “maximum possible accuracy,” which, depending on differing court opinions, might mean (i) making certain that any included information is “technically accurate,” or (ii) ensuring the information is not only technically accurate but also not misleading or incomplete. The appellate court asserted that while the first interpretation was a less exacting reading of the FCRA, the plaintiff failed to cite any judicial precedents or agency interpretive guidance advising that reporting authorized user information was a violation. Further, the plaintiff failed to show that the credit reporting agency reported false information.

    Of note, the appellate court determined the plaintiff had shown an “injury in fact” and had standing to sue based on the following reasons: (i) reporting inaccurate credit information “has a close relationship to the harm caused by the publication of defamatory information,” which has a long provided basis as a cause of action; (ii) a concrete injury was allegedly sustained due to time spent resolving the problems resulting from the credit inaccuracies; and (iii) the plaintiff was affected personally because her credit score fell due to the reported information.

    Courts Credit Reporting Agency Appellate Eleventh Circuit FCRA

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  • CFPB Files Amicus Brief Supporting Reversal of Preliminary Injunction Freezing Department of Education’s Student Debt Collection

    Courts

    On August 21, the CFPB filed an amicus brief in the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, urging the court to reverse a trial court’s order and arguing that precluding the Department of Education (Department) from sending billions of dollars in defaulted student loans to debt collection companies is contrary to public interest. The Bureau, siding with the Department, claims the trial court’s preliminary injunction deprives “borrowers in default of access to basic information about key consumer protections and the opportunity to arrange repayment—functions performed by debt collection contractors under [the Department’s] current collections regime—[and] does not facilitate, but impedes, borrowers’ ability to enter into income-driven repayment plans, whether through rehabilitation or consolidation.” As previously reported in InfoBytes, on May 31, U.S. Court of Federal Claims Chief Judge Susan G. Braden ordered a continuation of her preliminary injunction, which prevents the Department from collecting on defaulted student loans—a process that was halted on March 29 when Judge Braden issued a temporary restraining order in this matter. The May order, Judge Braden stated, would stay in place “until the viability of the debt collection contracts at issue is resolved.”

    In its amicus brief, the Bureau contended that data presented in its 2016 Ombudsman Report (Report) providing recommendations for reforms to the current process for collection and restructuring federal student loan debt does not support the trial court’s position, a claim the court made when issuing its order. Rather, the Bureau’s position is that the Report provides several recommendations for improvements to the current system, which focus on which companies will be granted debt collection contracts and, additionally, suggests solutions such as moving rehabilitated borrowers into income-driven repayment plans. The Bureau also proposes ways policymakers can simplify and streamline the rehabilitation process. Thus, the Bureau countered, the preliminary injunction is “wholly divorced from these concerns and recommendations and is, in fact, inconsistent with them.”

    Two of the defendant-appellants also filed separate briefs August 14 and 15. The Department claimed in its August 15 brief that, as of May 31, the injunction has “deprived approximately 234,000 defaulted borrowers, holding accounts valued at $4.6 billion, of loans servicing services” and, furthermore, has resulted in approximately $2.4 million in uncollected funds.

    Notably, the appeals court issued an order on July 18 holding the defendant-appellants motions to stay in abeyance pending the trial court’s decision and denying the plaintiff-appellee’s motion to dismiss.

    Courts U.S. Court of Federal Claims Appellate Student Lending CFPB

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  • Second Circuit Reverses Decision Concerning Online Contract Formation

    Courts

    On August 17, 2017, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals vacated and remanded a district court order denying a defendant's motion to compel arbitration where the plaintiff had accepted an arbitration agreement through a smart phone application. See Meyer v. Uber Technologies Inc., et al., 2017 WL 3526682, (2d Cir. 2017). There, the plaintiff had created an account with the defendant by entering personal and payment information into a mobile application. On the final account creation screen, the application presented a button marked “REGISTER,” below which was black text advising users that “[b]y creating an Uber account, you agree to the TERMS OF SERVICE & PRIVACY POLICY.” The capitalized language was a hyperlink, which led to a copy of an agreement containing an arbitration clause. The trial court held that this notice was not “reasonably conspicuous” and, therefore, the plaintiff did not—unambiguously—manifest assent to the arbitration provision by registering an account. On appeal, the Second Circuit reversed, finding that a “reasonably prudent smartphone user” would have been on “reasonably conspicuous notice” of the terms and conditions of service and that the text beneath the registration button put the plaintiff on notice that clicking “REGISTER” meant acceptance of those terms—regardless of whether he actually reviewed them. Relevant to the court’s analysis were proximity of the hyperlink to the “REGISTER” button and the absence of clutter, which might have otherwise impaired the plaintiff’s ability to locate the hyperlink.

    Courts Second Circuit Appellate Arbitration Contracts

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  • Eleventh Circuit Holds TCPA Consent Can Be Partially Revoked

    Courts

    On August 10, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit held that the Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA) “permits a consumer to partially revoke her consent to be called by means of an automatic telephone dialing system.” As alleged in this case, when the consumer plaintiff applied for a credit card, she broadly consented to receive automated calls from the bank defendant on her cell phone. After falling behind on her payments, she started receiving automated delinquency calls from the bank. On an October 2014 call with a bank employee, the plaintiff expressed that she did not want to receive these automated calls “in the morning” and “during the work day.” The plaintiff claimed that the bank violated the TCPA by making “over 200 automated calls” thereafter during these restricted times of day, until she fully revoked consent in March 2015.

    The U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida had granted summary judgment in favor of the bank, but the Eleventh Circuit reversed. The Eleventh Circuit disagreed with the bank’s legal argument that “the only effective revocations are unequivocal requests for no further communications whatsoever.” Instead, the court concluded that “the TCPA allows a consumer to provide limited, i.e., restricted, consent for the receipt of automated calls,” and that “unlimited consent, once given, can also be partially revoked as to future automated calls under the TCPA.” The court also concluded that there was an “issue of material fact” as to whether the plaintiff’s October 2014 statements constituted a partial revocation. Noting that “[t]his issue is close,” the court explained that a reasonable jury could find that the plaintiff revoked her consent to be called “in the morning” and “during the work day,” even if she did not specify exactly what times she meant. Accordingly, the court remanded for trial.

    Courts Eleventh Circuit Appellate Litigation TCPA

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  • Ninth Circuit Rules FCRA Plaintiff Has Article III Standing

    Courts

    On August 15, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit issued an opinion, on remand from the U.S. Supreme Court, ruling that a consumer plaintiff could proceed with his Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA) claims because he had sufficiently alleged a “concrete” injury and therefore had standing to sue under Article III of the Constitution. Robins v. Spokeo, Inc., No. 11-56843, 2017 WL 3480695 (9th Cir. Aug. 15, 2017). By way of background, the plaintiff had alleged that the defendant consumer reporting agency “willfully violated various procedural requirements under FCRA,” and consequently published an inaccurate consumer report on its website that “falsely stated his age, marital status, wealth, education level, and profession” and “included a photo of a different person.” In May 2016, the Supreme Court vacated an earlier Ninth Circuit decision, finding that the court failed to consider an essential element of Article III standing: whether the plaintiff alleged a “concrete” injury. (See previous Special Alert here.) After providing some guidance—including that the plaintiff’s injury must be “real” and not “abstract” or merely “procedural”—the high court remanded to the Ninth Circuit for further consideration. 

    On remand, the court first asked “whether the statutory provisions at issue were established to protect [the plaintiff’s] concrete interests (as opposed to purely procedural rights).” The court answered affirmatively, finding that “the FCRA procedures at issue in this case were crafted to protect consumers’ . . . concrete interest in accurate credit reporting about themselves.” Next, the court asked “whether the specific procedural violations alleged in this case actually harm, or present a material risk of harm to, such interests.” The court again answered affirmatively, finding that the plaintiff sufficiently alleged that he suffered a “real harm” to his “concrete interests in truthful credit reporting.” That is, the plaintiff sufficiently alleged that the defendant “prepared . . . an [inaccurate] report,” “that it then published the report on the Internet,” and that “the nature of the specific alleged reporting inaccuracies” was not “trivial or meaningless,” but instead covered “a broad range of material facts” about the plaintiff’s life “that may be important to employers or others making use of a consumer report.” Finally, the court found that the plaintiff’s allegations were not too speculative, because “both the challenged conduct and the attendant injury have already occurred.” After reaffirming that the plaintiff had adequately alleged the other essential elements of standing, the court remanded to the Central District of California for further proceedings.

    Courts FCRA Appellate Litigation Ninth Circuit U.S. Supreme Court

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  • Fourth Circuit Affirms SCRA Does Not Apply to Mortgage Loan Incurred During Service

    Courts

    In an opinion handed down on July 17, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit ruled that the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act (SCRA) does not apply to a mortgage loan obligation incurred during a borrower’s military service, even if the obligation was incurred during an earlier, distinct period of military service. At issue was the SCRA’s requirement that lenders obtain a court order before foreclosing on or selling property owned by a current or recent servicemember if the mortgage obligation “originated before the period of the servicemember’s military service.”

    The case concerned a borrower who had financed the purchase of a house while serving in the Navy. After his discharge from the Navy, he defaulted on his mortgage loan. The borrower then enlisted in the Army, and shortly thereafter, the bank sold the borrower’s house—without prior court approval—at a foreclosure sale. The borrower signed a move-out agreement and addendum that affirmatively waived “any rights and protections provided by [SCRA] with respect to” the deed and foreclosure sale.

    More than five years after the foreclosure sale, the borrower filed a lawsuit against the bank, alleging that the foreclosure sale was invalid under SCRA. The district court granted summary judgment for the bank, ruling that “[b]ecause it is undisputed that [the borrower’s] mortgage originated while he was in the military, that obligation does not qualify under [SCRA].” Specifically, the district court reasoned that the SCRA is “designed to ensure that servicemembers do not suffer financial or other disadvantages as a result of entering the service . . . by shielding servicemembers whose income changes as a result of their being called to active duty, and who therefore can no longer keep up with obligations negotiated on the basis of prior levels of income.” “Such a change in income and lifestyle,” the district court explained, “was not a factor in [the borrower’s] case, as the mortgage at issue here originated while he was already in the service.”

    The Fourth Circuit adopted the district court’s reasoning in a 2-1 decision. In dissent, Judge King contended that the majority’s ruling was contrary to the SCRA’s plain, unambiguous language. Judge King further reasoned that, even if the SCRA’s language was ambiguous, the borrower would still prevail because the SCRA must be liberally construed to protect servicemembers.

    Of note, because of its ruling, the district court did not address the bank’s alternative argument that the borrower had waived his rights under the SCRA by executing the addendum to his move-out agreement.

    Courts SCRA Appellate Fourth Circuit Litigation Mortgages

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  • D.C. Circuit Court Affirms Dismissal of Suit, FCA First-to-File Bar Applies

    Courts

    In an opinion handed down on July 25, the Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit affirmed a district court’s dismissal of a False Claims Act (FCA) suit because it violated the first-to-file bar, ruling that a relator must re-file a qui tam action and cannot merely amend a complaint where the relator’s complaint was filed when a related qui tam case was still pending. The first-to-file bar provides that if an individual brings an action under the FCA, “no person other than the Government may intervene or bring a related action based on the facts underlying the pending action.”

    The case concerned a qui tam relator who claimed that a telecommunications company overbilled on government contracts, thereby violating the FCA, which “penalizes the knowing submission of a false or fraudulent claim for payment to the federal government.” While the first suit was still pending, the relator filed a second suit alleging that the fraud was more widespread. The related suit was then resolved, but a district court dismissed the second suit based on the FCA’s first-to-file bar, which the D.C. Circuit affirmed. In 2015, the U.S. Supreme Court granted the relator’s petition for certiorari, and vacated the D.C. Circuit’s decision, citing a holding in Kellogg Brown & Root Services, Inc., et al v. Carter, 135 S. Ct. 1970 (2015), in which the Court claimed that the first-to-file bar only applies when a previous suit is pending—not once it has been resolved. Therefore, once the first-filed suit has been resolved, the first-to-file bar “no longer prohibits bringing a new action.” Because the statute of limitations period had run while the case was being appealed to the Supreme Court, the relator sought to amend his complaint rather than file a new action. The defendant moved to dismiss, and the district court granted the defendant’s motion. The relator appealed the ruling back to the D.C. Circuit, but the appellate court sided with the defendants and dismissed the relator’s action without prejudice. However, the appellate court expressly declined to opine on whether the statute of limitations would be equitably tolled if the relator were to re-file his complaint.

    Courts FCA Litigation Appellate D.C. Circuit

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  • Legislation Introduced to Codify “Valid When Made” Doctrine

    Federal Issues

    On July 19, Representative Patrick McHenry (R-N.C.), the Vice Chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, and Representative Gregory Meeks (D-N.Y.) introduced legislation designed to make it unlawful to change the rate of interest on certain loans after they have been sold or transferred to another party. As set forth in a July 19 press release issued by Rep. McHenry’s office, the Protecting Consumers’ Access to Credit Act of 2017 (H.R. 3299) would reaffirm the “legal precedent under federal banking laws that preempts a loan’s interest as valid when made.”

    Notably,  a Second Circuit panel in 2015 in Madden v. Midland Funding, LLC overturned a district court’s holding that the National Bank Act (NBA) preempted state law usury claims against purchasers of debt from national banks. (See Special Alert on Second Circuit decision here.)The appellate court held that state usury laws are not preempted after a national bank has transferred the loan to another party. The Supreme Court denied a petition for certiorari last year. According to Rep. McHenry, “[t]his reading of the National Bank Act was unprecedented and has created uncertainty for fintech companies, financial institutions, and the credit markets.” H.R. 3299, however, will attempt to “restore[] consistency” to lending laws following the holding and “increase[] stability in our capital markets which have been upended by the Second Circuit’s unprecedented interpretation of our banking laws.”

    Federal Issues Federal Legislation Fintech Lending Second Circuit Appellate Usury National Bank Act

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  • District Court Order Dismissing TCPA Claim Reversed on Appeal

    Courts

    On July 10, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit held that a single telemarketing call to a consumer established a concrete injury sufficient to support a Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA) suit against a New Jersey-based fitness company. The appellate court reversed the District Court’s dismissal of the suit “because the TCPA provides [the consumer] with a cause of action, and her alleged injury is concrete.”

    The appellate court considered two questions in the appeal: (i) was the alleged robocall a violation of the TCPA? If so, (ii) is the alleged injury concrete enough to provide Article III standing to sue under the United States Constitution? The court answered the first question by noting that the TCPA prohibits robocalls and prerecorded messages to cellular phones and that it “does not limit—either expressly or by implication—the statute's application to cell phone calls.” In answering the second question, the court determined that the alleged injury is exactly the kind of injury the TCPA was created to prevent: a nuisance or invasion of privacy.

    The Third Circuit remanded the case for further proceedings consistent with their findings.

    Courts Appellate Third Circuit TCPA Federal Issues Litigation

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  • Debt Collector Liable for Violating FDCPA and TCPA

    Courts

    On July 3, the Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit affirmed that a debt collector violated the Telephone Consumer Practices Act (TCPA) when it called a consumer’s cell phone without the consumer’s consent, resulting in a damages award of $34,500. Additionally, the appellate court reversed the district court’s decision regarding a Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA) claim for sending a collection letter to the consumer without taking proper precautions to ensure the consumer’s account number would remain private. The debt collector put forth the defense of bona fide error regarding its alleged violations of the FDCPA. The appellate court, citing Supreme Court precedent, rejected the defense, holding that bona fide error could be claimed only in the case of a clerical or factual error, but a “mistaken interpretation of the law is inexcusable under the FDCPA’s bona fide error defense.” The Third Circuit remanded the FDCPA claim to the district court to enter judgment for the consumer and calculate the damages the debt collector must pay.

    Courts Privacy/Cyber Risk & Data Security Third Circuit Debt Collection TCPA FDCPA Appellate

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