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On November 6, Colorado voters approved a ballot initiative (officially referred to as Proposition 111) to reduce the maximum annual percentage rate that may be charged on deferred deposits or payday loans to 36 percent. In addition, Proposition 111 eliminates an alternative APR formula based on loan amount, prohibits lenders from charging origination and monthly maintenance fees, and amends the definition of an unfair or deceptive practice. The measure takes effect February 1, 2019.
On October 18, the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington denied a motion to compel arbitration, holding that an arbitration clause was invalid under the “effective vindication” exception to the Federal Arbitration Act (FAA). According to the opinion, borrowers received several loans from an online payday lender, incorporated under tribal law, which charged usurious, triple-digit interest rates on the loans. Per the terms of the loan agreements, the borrowers consented to binding arbitration for any disputes and agreed per the choice-of-law provision that tribal law applied, effectively waiving any protections they might have enjoyed under federal and state law. The lender moved to arbitrate, which the borrowers opposed, arguing that the arbitration agreement was unenforceable under the “effective vindication” exception to arbitration because it implicitly waives a consumer’s state and federal statutory rights. The district court agreed, finding that the arbitration clause operated as a prospective waiver of most federal statutory remedies. The court found that while the FAA gives parties the freedom to structure arbitration agreements as they choose, that freedom does not extend to a substantive waiver of federally protected statutory rights. The lender also argued that the arbitrator, rather than the court, should decide if the agreement’s choice-of-law provision was invalid. The court disagreed, ruling that questions of arbitrability are for the courts to decide, not the arbitrators. Finally, the lender asked to sever the choice-of-law provision of the arbitration agreement. The court rejected such an approach, holding that when the “offending provisions” of an arbitration agreement “go to the essence of the contract,” they cannot be severed.
On October 22, the Georgia Supreme Court held that legal settlement cash advances are not “loans” under the state’s Payday Lending Act (PLA) and the Industrial Loan Act (ILA) when the obligation to repay is contingent upon the success of the underlying lawsuit. The decision results from a class action lawsuit bought by clients of a legal funding company. After being involved in automobile accidents, appellants signed financing agreements with a legal funding company, which advanced them funds while their personal injury lawsuit was pending. Per the terms of their financing agreements, appellants were required to repay the funds only if their personal injury lawsuits were successful. They were successful and the settlement company soon sought to recover funds pursuant to the terms of the agreement. The appellants objected and brought suit, alleging, among other things, that the financing agreements they executed violated the state’s PLA and ILA because they were usurious loans and a product of unlicensed activity. The state trial court concluded that the PLA applied to the agreements but that the ILA did not. The state appeals court concluded that neither statute applied, determining that because the repayment obligation was contingent on the success of the lawsuit, it was not a “loan” under either the PLA or the ILA. The state supreme court agreed, holding that “an agreement that involves . . . a contingent and limited obligation of repayment is not a ‘contract requiring repayment,’” as required by the ILA’s definition of “loan.” Similarly, the financing arrangement did not constitute an agreement pursuant to which “funds are advanced to be repaid,” which would make it a loan under the PLA. Appellants also argued that the contingent repayment obligation in the financing agreement was illusory, contending that the legal funding company agrees to such an arrangement only when the risk the lawsuit will fail is “close to null.” The court rejected this claim, however, noting that nothing in the pleadings suggested that the agreements were shams.
CFPB urges 9th Circuit to reverse district court’s order and impose higher penalty in tribal lending action
On October 19, the CFPB filed its opening brief before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit in Consumer Financial Protection Bureau v. CashCall, Inc., an action brought by the CFPB to limit the reach of the so-called “tribal model” of online lending. In the original action, the court found that an online loan servicer that operated on tribal lands engaged in deceptive practices by collecting on loans that exceeded the usury limits in various states, and ordered it and its affiliates to pay a $10 million penalty, far short of the Bureau’s request. (Previously covered by InfoBtyes here and here.) The CFPB appealed, arguing that the district court erred by imposing a civil penalty that was “inappropriately low” and by refusing to order appropriate restitution. In its brief, the Bureau argued that the district court misapplied the law when finding that restitution was not “an appropriate remedy.” According to the Bureau, the district court believed it had discretionary power to deny restitution, based on the court’s view of the equities. But the district court had no such discretion, the Bureau asserted, claiming that if a plaintiff proves a violation and resulting harm, it is entitled to restitution under the CFPA. In addition, the Bureau argued that the district court should not have denied restitution on the grounds that the servicer had not acted in bad faith. The Bureau argued that allowing the servicer to earn $200 million in ill-gotten gains while paying a $10 million penalty leaves companies with “little incentive to follow the law.” The Bureau also argued that the loan servicer’s actions were reckless and warranted a higher civil penalty. The district court had concluded that the servicer did not act recklessly because its primary counsel opined that it could contract around state law. In response, the Bureau asserted that the servicer had “ample reason to know” its attempts to circumvent state usury laws posed an unjustifiably high risk that it was “collecting amounts consumers did not owe” after multiple lawyers warned the servicer that its attempts to avoid state law “likely” would not work.”
On October 9, the Superior Court of New Jersey Appellate Division reversed a trial court’s decision to revive a proposed class action that challenged, among other things, interest rates of over 30 percent on car title loans. According to the appellate court, the trial court dismissed the case because Delaware, not New Jersey, had a more substantial relationship with the parties’ dispute. While the plaintiff’s contract with the Delaware-based title loan company stipulated that Delaware law applied even though she resided in New Jersey, the appellate court said that under the second exception of the test established by Instructional Systems Inc. v. Computer Curriculum Corp., New Jersey courts will uphold the contractual choice unless the “application of the law of the chosen state would be contrary to the fundamental policy of the state which has a materially greater interest than the chosen state in the determination of the particular issue and which . . . would be the state of the applicable law in the absence of an effective choice of law by the parties.”
“In her certification, plaintiff asserted that she applied for the title loan from her home in New Jersey and that defendant advised her that the loan had been approved by calling and advising her that all she had to do to pick up the money was to come to Delaware and sign the contract.” The appellate court stated that these additional facts may be sufficient to satisfy the second exception’s prerequisites, and that from a procedural standpoint, the trial court should have either converted the title loan company’s motion to dismiss to a motion for summary judgment in order to consider the new information or granted the plaintiff’s motion to file a second amended complaint.
On September 20, the New York Attorney General announced a lawsuit against nine student loan debt relief companies, along with their financing company, and two individuals (collectively, “defendants”), alleging that the defendants fraudulently, deceptively, and illegally marketed, sold, and financed student debt relief services to consumers nationwide. Among other things, the complaint alleges that the defendants (i) sent direct mail solicitations to consumers that deceptively appeared to be from a governmental agency or an entity affiliated with a government agency; (ii) misrepresented that they would apply fees paid by borrowers to student loan balances; (iii) charged consumers over $1,000 for services that were available for free; (iv) requested upfront payments in violation of federal and state credit repair and debt relief laws; (v) charged usurious interest rates; and (vi) provided consumers with “incomplete and harmful advice,” such as counseling borrowers to consolidate federal student loans without explaining that in certain circumstances borrowers could “lose months or years of loan payments they had already made that would qualify toward forgiveness of their loans under the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program.” The New York Attorney General maintains that these practices violated several federal and state consumer protection statutes, including the Telemarketing Sales Rule, New York General Business Law, the state’s usury cap on interest rates as covered by New York Banking Law and New York General Obligations Law, disclosure requirements under the Truth in Lending Act, and the Federal Credit Repair Organization Act.
California Supreme Court says loans not subject to state interest rate caps may still be unconscionable
On August 13, the Supreme Court of California held that interest rates on consumer loans of $2,500 or more could be considered unconscionable under Section 22302 of California’s Financial Code, notwithstanding Section 22303’s maximum interest rate cap for loans under $2,500. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit asked the Supreme Court of California to address Section 22302’s application to higher cost consumer loans. In the class action that is before the 9th Circuit, consumers alleged that a lender violated the “unlawful” prong of California’s Unfair Competition Law (UCL) with an unsecured $2,600 loan carrying an APR between 96 percent and 136 percent and argued the product is “unconscionable” under Section 22302. To resolve this question, the California Supreme Court held that unconscionability is a “flexible standard” that includes the larger context surrounding the contract. The court held that, although Section 22303 specifies interest rate limitations on loans under $2,500, it does not affect whether a loan in excess of $2,500 is unconscionable, and a court may consider a loan’s interest rate in determining that a loan above this threshold violates Section 22302.
District Court denies service provider’s motion to dismiss on several grounds, rules Bureau’s structure is constitutional
On August 3, the U.S. District Court for the District of Montana denied a Texas-based service provider’s motion to dismiss a suit brought by the CFPB over allegations that the service provider engaged in unfair, deceptive, and abusive acts or practices in violation of the Consumer Financial Protection Act (CFPA) by assisting three tribal lenders in the improper collection of short-term, small-dollar loans that were, in whole or in part, void under state law. (See previous InfoBytes coverage here.) The defendants moved to dismiss the claims on multiple grounds: (i) the Bureau’s structure is unconstitutional; (ii) the claims are not permitted under the CFPA; (iii) the complaint “fails to, and cannot, join indispensable parties;” and (iv) certain claims are time-barred.
In answering the service provider’s challenges to the Bureau’s constitutionality, the court ruled that the CFPB’s structure is legal and cited to orders from nine district courts and an en banc panel of the D.C. Circuit Court, which also rejected similar arguments. (See Buckley Sandler Special Alert.) Addressing whether the Bureau’s claims were permitted under the CFPA, the court ruled that other courts have held that enforcing a prohibition on amounts that consumers do not owe is different from establishing a usury limit, and that moreover, “[t]he fact that state law may underlie the violation . . . does not relieve [d]efendants . . . of their obligation to comply with the CFPA.” Regarding the defendants’ argument that the complaint should be dismissed on the grounds of failure to join an indispensable party because the tribal lenders possess sovereign immunity to the suit, the court wrote that “[u]nder these circumstances, the Court will not create a means for businesses to avoid regulation by hiding behind the sovereign immunity of tribes when the tribes themselves have failed to claim an interest in the litigation.” Furthermore, the court found that the remedies sought by the Bureau would not “impede the [t]ribal [l]enders’ ability to collect on their contracts or enforce their choice of law provisions directly.” Finally, the court stated that, among other things, the service provider failed to show that the Bureau’s suit fell outside the CFPA’s three-year statute of limitations for filing claims after violations have been identified.
On July 11, the New York Department of Financial Services (NYDFS or the Department) released a study of online lending in New York, as required by AB 8938. (Previously covered by InfoBytes here.) In addition to reporting the results of its survey of institutions believed to be engaging in online lending activities in New York, NYDFS makes a series of recommendations that would expand the application of New York usury and other statutes and regulations to online loans made to New York residents, including loans made through partnerships between online lender and banks where, in the Department’s view, the online lender is the “true lender.”
In particular, NYDFS recommends, “[a]ll New York lenders should operate under the same set of rules and be subject to consistent enforcement of those rules to achieve a level playing field for all market participants….” Elsewhere in the report, the Department states that it “disagrees with [the] position” that online lenders are exempt from New York law if they partner with a federally-chartered or FDIC-insured bank that extends credit to New York residents. NYDFS criticizes these arrangements, stating its view that “the online lender is, in many cases, the true lender” because the online lender is “typically … the entity that is engaged in marketing, solicitation, and processing of applications, and dealing with the applicants” and may also purchase, resell, and/or service the loan.
NYDFS also noted that it opposed pending federal legislation that would reverse the Second Circuit’s decision in Madden v. Midland Funding, LLC, which held that federal preemption of New York’s usury laws ceased to apply when a loan was transferred from a national bank to a non-bank. The Department expressed concern that, if passed, the bill “could result in ‘rent-a-bank charter’ arrangements between banks and online lender that are designed to circumvent state licensing and usury laws.”
Noting that many online lenders remain unlicensed in New York, the Department states that “[d]irect supervision and oversight is the only way to ensure that New York’s consumers and small business owners receive the same protections irrespective of the channel of delivery….” To this end, NYDFS recommended lowering the interest rate threshold for licensure from 16 percent to 7 percent.
Although NYDFS stressed that its survey results may be unreliable due to uneven response rates, it reported that, for respondents, the average median APR for online loans to businesses was 25.9%, the average median APR for online loans to individuals for personal use was 14.8%, and the average median APR for the underbanked customers was 19.6% (New York currently caps interest for civil liability at 16% and at 25% for criminal liability).
Overall, the report appears to forecast a more difficult regulatory and enforcement environment in New York for online lenders, as has been the case in West Virginia and Colorado.
On June 27, the Colorado and New York Attorneys General led a coalition of 21 state Attorneys General in a letter to congressional leaders opposing HR 3299 (“Protecting Consumers’ Access to Credit Act of 2017”) and HR 4439 (“Modernizing Credit Opportunities Act”), which would effectively overturn the 2015 decision in Madden v. Midland Funding, LLC. Specifically, H.R. 3299 and H.R. 4439 would 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.
The letter argues that the legislation “would legitimize the efforts of some non-bank lenders to circumvent state usury law” and it was not Congress’ intention to authorize these arrangements with the creation of the National Bank Act. In support of their position, the Attorneys General cite to a 2002 press release by the OCC and the more recent OCC Bulletin 2018-14 on small dollar lending, which stated the agency “views unfavorably an entity that partners with a bank with the sole goal of evading a lower interest rate established under the law of the entity’s licensing state(s).” (Previously covered by InfoBytes here.) The letter also refers to an 1833 Supreme Court case, Nichols v. Fearson, which held that a “valid loan is not invalidated by a later usurious transaction involving that loan” but was not relevant to the decision in Madden because the borrower’s argument related to preemption. Ultimately, the Attorneys General conclude the legislation would erode an “important sphere of state regulation” as state usury laws have “long served an important consumer protection function in America.”
- 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