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7th Circuit holds consumers can be expected to read second page of two-page collection letter, affirms dismissal of FDCPA action
On December 7, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit affirmed the dismissal of a consumer’s class action against a debt collection company for allegedly violating the FDCPA by indicating “additional important information” was on the back of the first page when the required validation notice was actually on the front of the second page. According to the opinion, the consumer alleged the debt collection notice “misleads the unsophisticated consumer by telling him that important information is on the back, but instead providing the validation notice on the front of the second page, thereby ‘overshadowing’ the consumer’s rights” under the FDCPA. The debt collector moved to dismiss the action for failure to state a claim and the district court granted the dismissal and declined to allow the consumer leave to amend the complaint.
On appeal, the 7th Circuit determined that the location of the validation notice—which “is clear, prominent, and readily readable”—did not overshadow the consumer’s FDCPA rights or misrepresent the importance of the notice, notwithstanding the language on the first page indicating the important information would be on the back of the first page, not on the top of the second page. The 7th Circuit explained, “The FDCPA does not say a debt collector must put the validation notice on the first page of a letter. Nor does the FDCPA say the first page of a debt-collection letter must point to the validation notice if it is not on the first page. Nor does the FDCPA say a debt collector must tell a consumer the validation notice is important. Nor does the FDCPA say a debt collector may not tell a consumer that other information is important.” The appellate court rejected the consumer’s unsophisticated consumer argument, concluding that "[e]ven an unsophisticated consumer—maybe especially one—can be expected to read page two of a two-page collection letter." Moreover, the appellate court upheld the denial of the consumer’s request to amend her complaint, noting that no proposed amendment would push the plaintiff’s “original claim into the realm of plausibility.”
On December 6, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit reversed a lower court’s decision to dismiss TILA allegations brought against a bank, finding that the statute of limitations for borrowers to bring TILA rescission enforcement claims is based on state law, and is six years in the state of Washington. The panel opined that, because TILA does not specify a statute of limitations for when an action to enforce a TILA recession must be brought, “courts must borrow the most analogous state law statute of limitations and apply that limitation period” to these type of claims, which, in Washington, is the six-year statute of limitations on contract claims. According to the opinion, the plaintiffs refinanced a mortgage loan in 2010, but failed to receive notice of the right to rescind the loan at the time of refinancing in violation of TILA’s disclosure requirements. Consequently, the plaintiffs had three years—instead of three days—from the loan’s consummation date to rescind the loan. In 2013, within the three-year period, the plaintiffs notified the bank of their intent to rescind the loan. However, instead of taking action in response to the plaintiffs’ notice, the bank instead began a nonjudicial foreclosure nearly four years after the rescission demand, declaring that the plaintiffs were in default on the loan. The plaintiffs filed suit in 2017 to enforce the recession, which the bank moved to dismiss on the argument that the claims were time barred. According to the panel, the lower court wrongly interpreted the plaintiff’s request for damages under the Washington Consumer Protection Act “as a claim for monetary relief under TILA”—which has a one-year statute of limitations—and dismissed the plaintiffs’ claim as time barred without leave to amend. However, the consumers were seeking a declaratory judgment and an injunction, not damages.
On appeal, the 9th Circuit rejected three possible statute of limitations offered by the lower court. The panel also rejected plaintiffs’ argument that no statute of limitations apply to TILA recession enforcement claims, and held that it could not be assumed that “Congress intended that there be no time limit on actions at all”; rather, federal courts must borrow the most applicable state law statute of limitations. Because the mortgage loan agreement was a written contract between the plaintiffs and the bank, and the plaintiffs’ suit was an attempt to rescind that written contract, Washington’s six-year time limit on suits under written contracts must be borrowed. Therefore, the panel concluded that the plaintiffs’ suit was not time-barred and reversed and remanded the case for further proceedings.
On December 7, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California denied a bank’s motion to dismiss a putative class action alleging the bank violated the California Unfair Competition Law (UCL) by not paying interest to residential mortgagors on funds held in escrow accounts, as required by California law. The three plaintiffs filed the complaint against the bank after the March decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit in Lusnak v. Bank of America, which held that a national bank must comply with a California law that requires mortgage lenders to pay interest on the funds held in a consumer’s escrow account. (Previously covered by InfoBytes here.) The plaintiffs argued that the 9th Circuit decision requires the bank to comply with the California law requiring interest on funds held in escrow.
In response, the bank filed a motion to dismiss, or in the alternative to stay the case, on the basis that the plaintiffs failed to provide the bank with notice and an opportunity to cure alleged misconduct prior to judicial action as required by the mortgage deed, and that the plaintiff’s claims were preempted by the Home Owners Loan Act (HOLA). The court rejected these arguments, finding that the plaintiff’s failure to comply with the ambiguous provisions in the mortgage deed do not foreclosure their claims, concluding “[t]o deprive Plaintiffs of recourse to their statutory rights based on an ambiguous contractual provision would also frustrate the consumer protection purposes of those statutes.” As to the HOLA argument, the court acknowledged that HOLA preempted the state interest law as to the originator of the mortgages, a now-defunct federal thrift, but disagreed with the bank’s assertion that the preemption attached throughout the life of the loan, including after the loan is transferred to a bank whose own lending is not covered by HOLA. Specifically, the court looked to the legislative intent of HOLA and noted it was unclear if Congress intended for preemption to attach through the life of the loan, but found a clear goal of consumer protection. Therefore, the court concluded that “[a]llowing preemption may run contrary to HOLA's purpose and could result in a gross miscarriage of justice” by depriving homeowners of state law protections.
Additionally, the court rejected as moot the alternative request to stay the case pending the Supreme Court’s resolution of Lusnak, because the Supreme Court denied the petition of writ in that case in November (covered by InfoBytes here).
On December 3, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit upheld a $1.3 billion judgment against defendants-appellants responsible for operating an allegedly deceptive payday lending scheme. As previously covered by InfoBytes, in October 2016, the FTC announced that the U.S. District Court for the District of Nevada ordered a Kansas-based operation and its owner to pay nearly $1.3 billion for allegedly violating Section 5(a) of the FTC Act by making false and misleading representations about loan costs and payment. The owner appealed to the 9th Circuit, arguing that the loan notes were “technically correct” because the fine print located under the TILA disclosure box contained all the legally required information. The appeals court disagreed. In affirming the district court’s judgment, the appeals court determined the loan note was still deceptive even though the fine print contained the relevant information about the loan’s automatic renewal terms, stating “[appellants’] argument wrongly assumes that non-deceptive business practices can somehow cure the deceptive nature of the Loan Note.” Moreover, the appeals court rejected the argument about technical correctness, citing the FTC Act’s “consumer-friendly standard” (which does not require technical accuracy) and noting that “consumers acting reasonably under the circumstances—here, by looking to the terms of the Loan Note to understand their obligations—likely could be deceived by the representations made there.” Among other things, the appeals court also rejected the appellant owner’s challenge to the $1.3 billion judgment (based on an argument that the lower court overestimated his “wrongful gain” and that the FTC Act only allows the court to issue injunctions), concluding that the owner failed to provide evidence contradicting the wrongful gain calculation and that a district court may grant any ancillary relief under the FTC Act, including restitution.
5th Circuit finds company delay unfairly prejudiced plaintiff, reverses decision to compel arbitration
On November 28, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit reversed a lower court decision to grant a technology analytics company’s motion to compel arbitration, finding that the company substantially invoked the judicial system prior to moving to compel arbitration, and the individual plaintiff was prejudiced by such actions. According to the opinion, in 2015, the plaintiff filed a complaint against the company alleging various violations of Illinois law relating to deceptive practices and unjust enrichment. In response, the company filed a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim and, in the alternative, moved to transfer the case for forum non conveniens arguing that the plaintiff’s claims were subject to arbitration in Texas. After the case was transferred to Texas, the company filed a subsequent motion to dismiss and reply brief, both of which did not mention arbitration. In 2017, after receiving the plaintiff’s requests for production, the company filed with the district court its motion to compel arbitration. The district court granted the motion to compel, holding that while the company substantially invoked the judicial process, the plaintiff had only “suffered some prejudice” in the form of delay and delay alone is insufficient to deny arbitration.
On appeal, the 5th Circuit agreed that the company substantially invoked the judicial system, but determined the lower court erred when it found the plaintiff had not been prejudiced unfairly. As a result, the company waived its right to arbitrate. The 5th Circuit noted that after the case was transferred from Illinois to Texas, the company waited 13 months before moving to compel arbitration, in order to first obtain a dismissal from the district court. Acknowledging the damage to the plaintiff’s legal position and additional litigation expenses incurred because of this tactic, the appellate court stated, “[a] party cannot keep its right to demand arbitration in reserve indefinitely while it pursues a decision on the merits before the district court.”
3rd Circuit reverses district court’s collateral estoppel ruling preventing plaintiff from pursuing debt collection claims
On November 29, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit reversed a district court’s decision to grant summary judgment to a university and its debt collection firm (appellees) on the grounds that the issue had already been decided in state court, ordering the district court to reconsider the plaintiff/appellant’s discovery motions and whether it can “exercise supplemental jurisdiction” over the appellees’ alleged violation of Pennsylvania law.
The plaintiff/appellant, a former university student, provided the appellees with a new address in Philadelphia after being contacted about unpaid tuition. When the debt remained unpaid, the appellees filed suit against him in Philadelphia municipal court but sent notices to a New Jersey address on file in the university’s system. The plaintiff/appellant did not appear in court and a default judgment was entered against him. The plaintiff/appellant petitioned to reopen the default judgment, arguing that the appellees had intentionally served his old address to avoid the personal service requirement in Philadelphia County. The municipal court dismissed the default judgment, despite finding that the appellees had not engaged in any intentional misconduct. Following a trial on the merits, the Philadelphia municipal court judge again ruled against the plaintiff/appellant for the full amount. Subsequently, the plaintiff/appellant filed a lawsuit in federal court alleging violations of the FDCPA and Pennsylvania’s Unfair Trade Practices and Consumer Protection Law; however, the federal court barred the deceptive service of process claim, finding that the municipal court had already ruled that the debt collectors’ actions were unintentional.
On appeal, the 3rd Circuit found that the district court had erred in ruling that collateral estoppel prevented the plaintiff/appellant from pursuing claims against the appellees simply because the municipal court judge said that he did not think the notices were intentionally served to the old address so a default judgment could be obtained. “Although the [m]unicipal [c]ourt’s finding may meet the first four elements of collateral estoppel, its determination that [a]ppellees did not intentionally serve [the plaintiff/appellant] at the wrong address was not essential to its judgment at that hearing, i.e., vacating the default judgment. In fact, its finding was contrary to this ultimate judgment,” the appellate court concluded. The appellate court also reversed the grant of summary judgment to the appellees on the plaintiff/appellant’s remaining FDCPA claims and remanded them to the district court to determine whether there had been “false and deceptive service of process; misconduct in opposing the opening of default judgment; and misstatements of the case caption, case number and court in the [c]ollection [l]etter.”
On November 16, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit affirmed a Texas district court’s denial of attorney’s fees in an FDCPA action, concluding the district court did not abuse its discretion in denying the fees based on the “outrageous facts” in the case. The decision results from a lawsuit filed by a consumer against a debt collector, alleging the company violated the FDCPA and the Texas Debt Collection Act (TDCA) by using the words “credit bureau” in its name despite having ceased to function as a consumer reporting agency, and therefore misrepresented itself as a credit bureau in an attempt to collect a debt. The district court adopted a magistrate judge’s recommendation and found the company violated the FDCPA, granted summary judgment in part for the plaintiff (while denying the TDCA claims), and awarded her statutory damages of $1,000. The plaintiff then filed a motion for $130,410 in attorney’ fees, based on her attorney’s hourly rate of $450. The magistrate judge denied the attorney’s fees, noting that although violation of the FDCPA ordinarily justifies awards of attorneys’ fees, the amount claimed was “excessive by orders of magnitude,” and the lawsuit appeared to have been “created by counsel for the purpose of generating, in counsel’s own words, an ‘incredibly high fee request.’” The district court adopted the magistrate judge’s order.
On appeal, the 5th Circuit noted that other circuits have held there can be narrow exceptions to the FDCPA’s attorneys’ fees mandate, including the presence of bad faith conduct on the part of the plaintiff. In determining the “extreme facts” of the case justify the district court’s denial of attorney’s fees, the appeals court noted the almost 290 hours claimed to be worked by the attorneys are not reflected in the pleadings filed, which were “replete with grammatical errors, formatting issues, and improper citations.” The poor craftsmanship of the filings, the court noted, did not justify the $450 hourly rate charged.
On November 19, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to review the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit’s March decision, which held that a California law requiring banks to pay interest on mortgage escrow funds is not preempted by federal law. As previously covered by InfoBytes, a national bank petitioned for writ of certiorari in August, arguing the 9th Circuit’s decision—holding that the Dodd-Frank Act of 2011 codified the existing National Bank Act preemption standard from the 1996 Supreme Court decision in Barnett Bank of Marion County v. Nelson—warranted further review “because it creates significant uncertainty about whether national banks must comply with similar laws in other states” and whether other state banking laws also apply to national banks. Additionally, the petition argued the uncertainty is exacerbated by the fact that the appellate court “disregarded and refused to enforce longstanding OCC regulations” and that the court interpreted the Barnett decision incorrectly.
On October 30, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit denied a California gym’s petition for a rehearing en banc of the court’s September decision reviving a TCPA putative class action. As previously covered by InfoBytes, the appeals court vacated a district court order granting summary judgment in favor of the gym, concluding that there was a genuine issue of material fact as to whether the text system used by the gym—which stores numbers and dials them automatically to send the messages—qualified as an “autodialer” under the TCPA. Notably, in vacating the summary judgment order, the 9th Circuit performed its own review of the statutory definition of an autodialer in the TCPA, because the recent D.C. Circuit opinion in ACA International v. FCC (covered by a Buckley Sandler Special Alert) set aside the FCC’s definition. Through this review, the appeals court concluded that the TCPA defined an autodialer broadly as “equipment which has the capacity—(i) to store numbers to be called, or (ii) to produce numbers to be called, using a random or sequential number generator—and to dial such numbers automatically (even if the system must be turned on or triggered by a person).”
On October 22, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit held that the availability of class or collective arbitration within an employment agreement is a threshold “question of arbitrability” that must be decided by a court. According to the opinion, an employee filed class and collection action claims against her employer for wage and hour violations. The district court compelled arbitration pursuant to an agreement between the employee and her employer but struck as unlawful a waiver clause that forbid class or collective arbitration of any claim. The case proceeded to arbitration and the arbitrator issued an award of over $10 million in damages to the employee and the other 174 claimants who had opted-in to the arbitration proceeding. The employer appealed the award, arguing that the waiver of collective arbitration provision was valid, rendering the collective arbitration in violation of the employment agreement.
On appeal, the 7th Circuit reversed and remanded the case to the district court, pointing to the Supreme Court’s recent decision in Epic Systems Corp. v. Lewis, which upheld the validity of similar provisions. (Epic held that “an arbitration agreement does not violate the National Labor Relations Act when it requires plaintiffs to pursue employment-related claims in single claimant arbitrations.”). The plaintiff also argued, however, that despite the presence of the waiver, the arbitration agreement still permitted collective arbitration. This left open the question of who interprets the agreement to determine whether collection arbitration applies—the arbitrator or the court. The 7th Circuit found for the latter, concluding that the availability of class or collective arbitration is a threshold question of arbitrability and therefore a district court, and not the arbitrator should decide its permissibility.
- Jonice Gray Tucker to discuss "Trends in regulatory enforcement" at the American Bar Association Banking Law Committee Meeting
- Jessica L. Pollet to discuss "Your career is impacting your life..." at the Ark Group Women Legal Conference
- Jon David D. Langlois to discuss "Successors in interest updates" at the Mortgage Bankers Association National Mortgage Servicing Conference & Expo
- Brandy A. Hood to discuss "Keeping your head above water in flood insurance compliance" at the Mortgage Bankers Association National Mortgage Servicing Conference & Expo