Subscribe to our InfoBytes Blog weekly newsletter and other publications for news affecting the financial services industry.
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.
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 24, the CFPB announced a settlement with a Tennessee-based small dollar lender, resolving allegations that the lender violated the Consumer Financial Protection Act (CFPA). Specifically, as stated in the consent order, the CFPB alleges that the lender (i) deceptively threatened to sue consumers on time-barred debts; (ii) misled consumers that the lender would report late payments to credit reporting agencies when the lender did not; and (iii) abusively set-off previous loans by telling its employees not to tell check-cashing consumers that it would deduct previous amounts owed from the check proceeds. Consequently, the Bureau alleged that the lender took “unreasonable advantage of the consumers’ lack of understanding” that the lender would take a portion of the check they intended to cash and physically kept the check away from consumers until the transaction was complete, which “nullified” any written set-off disclosures when the consumer signed his or her agreement. In addition to the $200,000 civil money penalty, the consent order requires the lender to (i) pay approximately $32,000 in restitution to consumers, and (ii) establish a compliance plan with detailed steps and timelines for complying with applicable laws.
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 17, the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs released the CFPB’s fall 2018 rulemaking agenda. According to the Bureau’s preamble, the information presented is current as of August 30 and represents regulatory matters it “reasonably anticipates” having under consideration during the period of October 1, 2018, to September 30, 2019. The Bureau also states it plans on “reexamining the requirements of [ECOA] in light of recent Supreme Court case law and the Congressional disapproval of a prior Bureau bulletin concerning indirect auto lender compliance with ECOA and its implementing regulations.”
Key rulemaking initiatives include:
- Property Assessed Clean Energy Loans (PACE): The Bureau is planning to complete an assessment of its 2013 rules for assessing consumers’ ability to repay mortgage loans by January 2019, which will inform the drafting of a request for information or advance notice of proposed rulemaking (ANPR) on PACE issues to facilitate the Bureau’s rulemaking process.
- HMDA/Regulation C: The Bureau plans to follow-up on its action in August 2017 to amend Regulation C to increase the threshold for collecting and reporting data with respect to open-end lines of credit for a period of two years so that financial institutions originating fewer than 500 open-end lines of credit in either of the preceding two years would not be required to begin collecting such data until January 1, 2020.
- Debt Collection: The Bureau states it plans to issue an ANPR addressing issues such as communication practices and consumer disclosures by March 2019, and has received support from industry and consumer groups to engage in rulemaking to explore ways to apply the FDCPA to modern collection practices.
- Small Dollar Lending: The Bureau anticipates it will issue a proposed rule on small dollar lending in January 2019.
- Payday Rule: The Bureau estimates it will issue an ANPR in January 2019 to reconsider the merits and compliance date for its final payday/vehicle title/high-cost installment loan rule.
- FCRA: Comments must be submitted by November 19 on the changes and underlying disclosures implemented by its interim final rule, which amended certain model forms under the FCRA and took effect September 21. (See previous InfoBytes coverage on the interim final rule here.)
Long term priorities now include rulemaking addressing (i) small business lending data collection; (ii) consumer reporting; (iii) amendments to FIRREA concerning automated valuation models; (iii) consumer access to financial records; (iv) rules to implement the the Economic Growth, Regulatory Relief, and Consumer Protection Act, concerning various mortgage requirements, student lending, and consumer reporting; and (v) clarity for the definition of abusive acts and practices.
On September 6, the CFPB released its summer 2018 Supervisory Highlights, which outlines its supervisory and oversight actions in the areas of auto loan servicing, credit card account management, debt collection, mortgage servicing, payday lending, and small business lending. The findings of the report cover examinations that generally were completed between December 2017 and May 2018. Highlights of the examination findings include:
- Auto loan servicing. The Bureau determined that billing statements showing “paid-ahead” status after insurance proceeds from a total vehicle loss were applied, where consumers were treated as late if they failed to pay the next month, were deceptive. The Bureau also found that servicers unfairly repossessed vehicles after the repossession should have been canceled because the account was not coded correctly, or because an agreement with consumer was reached.
- Credit card account management. The Bureau found that companies failed to reevaluate accounts for eligibility for a rate reduction under Regulation Z or failed to appropriately reduce annual percentage rates.
- Debt collection. The Bureau found that debt collectors failed to mail debt verifications to consumers before engaging in continued debt collection, activities as required by the FDCPA.
- Mortgage servicing. The Bureau found that mortgage servicers delayed processing permanent modifications after consumers successfully completed their trial modifications, resulting in accrued interest and fees that would not otherwise have accrued, which the Bureau determined was an unfair act or practice.
- Payday lending. The Bureau found that companies threatened to repossess consumer vehicles, notwithstanding that they generally did not actually do so or have a business relationship with an entity capable of doing so, which the Bureau determined was a deceptive practice. The Bureau also found that companies did not obtain valid preauthorized EFT authorizations for debits initiated using debit card numbers or ACH credentials provided for other purposes, in violation of Regulation E.
- Small business lending. The Bureau found that some institutions collect and maintain only limited data on small business lending decisions, which it determined could impede the institution’s ability to monitor ECOA risk. The Bureau noted positive exam findings including, (i) active oversight of an entity’s CMS framework; (ii) maintaining records of policy and procedure updates; and (iii) self-conducted semi-annual ECOA risk assessments, which included small business lending.
The report notes that in response to most examination findings, the companies have already remediated or have plans to remediate affected consumers and implement corrective actions, such as new policies in procedures.
Finally, the report highlights, among other things, (i) two recent enforcement actions that were a result of supervisory activity (covered by InfoBytes here and here); (ii) recent updates to the mortgage servicing rule and TILA-RESPA integrated disclosure rule (covered by InfoBytes here and here); and (iii) HMDA implementation updates (covered by InfoBytes here).
On August 10, the CFPB announced a settlement with multiple defendants that allegedly made unauthorized payday loans. The settlement results from a 2014 complaint that alleged, among other things, that the defendants accessed consumer checking accounts to illegally deposit the proceeds of payday loans and withdraw related fees without consumer consent. The stipulated final judgment and order, among other things, (i) imposes a penalty of up to approximately $69 million if the defendants fail to fully comply with the operative terms of the settlement; (ii) prohibits the defendants from performing similar activities in the future; and (iii) assesses a civil money penalty of $1, in part based on the defendants’ inability to pay.
On July 23, as previously covered by InfoBytes, a court approved a stipulated final judgment and order against one of the defendants, who neither admitted nor denied the Bureau’s allegations, for a civil money penalty of $1 (based, in part, on his inability to pay) and agreement to fully cooperate with the Bureau.
On July 30, Ohio’s Governor signed into law HB 123, which “modifies the Short-Term Loan Act, specifies a minimum loan amount and duration for loans made under the Small Loan Law and General Loan Law, and limits the authority of credit services organizations to broker extensions of credit for buyers.” Under these amendments, payday lenders in the state will now be restricted to short-term loans of $1,000 or less, with terms for a single short-term loan set at a 91-day minimum and a one year maximum. Exemptions provided under the legislation will allow short-term loans with a minimum term of less than 91 days if the total monthly payments do not exceed an amount greater than six percent of the borrower’s verified gross monthly income or seven percent of the borrower’s verified net monthly income. Moreover, lenders are: (i) prohibited from demanding collateral for short-term loans; (ii) restricted to a small-dollar loan cap—including both fees and interest—set at 60 percent of the original principal; and (iii) required to grant borrowers three business days to rescind loans without interest. HB 123 further prohibits credit service organizations from extending credit in amounts of $5,000 or less, with repayment terms of one year or less, or with annual percentage rates exceeding 28 percent. The amendments, which take effect 90 days after the governor’s signature, will “apply only to loans that are made, or extensions of credit that are obtained, on or after the date that is  days after the effective date of this act.”