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On December 11, the FTC entered into a proposed settlement with an Arizona-based company and its officer (defendants) relating to an allegedly deceptive credit card telemarketing operation. As previously covered by InfoBytes, the FTC alleged that the defendants—as part of a larger group of 12 defendants comprised of an independent sales organization, sales agents, payment processors, and identified principals—violated the FTC Act and the Telemarketing Sales Rule by assisting a telemarketing company in masking its identity by processing the company’s credit card payments and laundering credit card transactions on behalf of multiple fictitious companies. The proposed settlement, among other things, prohibits the defendants from engaging in credit card laundering and bans them from telemarketing, processing payments, or acting as an independent sales organization or sales agent. The order also stipulates a judgment of $5.7 million, which will be suspended unless it is determined that the financial statements submitted by the defendants contain any inaccuracies.
In March 2018, the FTC reached settlements with two of the other defendants (see InfoBytes coverage here). Litigation continues against the remaining defendants.
On October 18, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit held that an individual is a “qualified consumer” under the FDCPA, even when he is alleged by debt collectors to owe debts that he claims he does not owe. According to the opinion, a credit card was fraudulently opened in the plaintiff appellant’s name and was charged off, after default, to a debt collector who filed suit in an attempt to collect the debt. After the small-claims collection case was dismissed, the plaintiff appellant sued the debt collector for alleged violations of the FDCPA and the Illinois Collection Agency Act. The district court dismissed the action, holding that, to be a “consumer” under FDCPA, the individual must “allege he actually owed a debt.” On appeal, the 7th Circuit reversed. It held that the plain language of FDCPA covers individuals “allegedly obligated to pay” a debt, which includes “obligations alleged by the debt collector as well.” As a result, individuals who are alleged by debt collectors to owe debts are consumers under the FDCPA, even if they deny having any connection to the debt or any obligation to pay it.
California state appeals court partially reverses proposed class action suit addressing arbitration terms
On October 2, a California state appeals court partially reversed a trial court’s denial of class certification in a putative class action alleging that a written cardmember agreement issued by a credit card company contained unconscionable and unenforceable arbitration terms. According to the opinion, after the cardmember and his company failed to make timely and sufficient payments on their accounts, the credit card company closed the accounts and filed a collection action. The cardmember subsequently filed a putative class action cross-complaint against the credit card company and two other card issuers, alleging the arbitration terms in the cardmember agreements he signed are unlawful under California’s Unfair Competition Law, and asserting, among other things, that the legally unenforceable contract terms prevented negotiations, prohibited injunctive relief, and failed to communicate to cardholders what the rules would be at the time of arbitration. The cardmember further alleged that cardholders were overcharged annual credit card fees or purchase fees “as consideration for the promises contained in the cardmember agreement.” During the course of the litigation, the credit card companies sent certain cardmembers modified contract terms, which allowed cardmembers the option to reject arbitration altogether if a written rejection notice was provided within a specific time period.
The trial court denied class certification, finding, among other things, that the cardmember was not an adequate class representative and did not have claims typical of the putative class because there was no evidence he paid annual fees and that individual issues would predominate with respect to procedural unconscionability and each individual class member’s entitlement to declaratory relief. On appeal, the court held that the trial court “used improper criteria and erroneous assumptions” when reaching its decision that “procedural unconscionability would involve predominantly individualized issues.” Moreover, the appellants and absent class members were linked by common questions, including whether it was unreasonable for the respondent to modify its arbitration terms during pending litigation, since this denied cardholders who opted out of arbitration the right to join the class.
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 27, the CFPB issued a final rule amending Regulation Z, which implements the Truth in Lending Act (TILA), including as amended by the Credit Card Accountability Responsibility and Disclosure Act of 2009 (CARD Act), the Home Ownership and Equity Protection Act of 1994 (HOEPA), and the Dodd-Frank ability-to-repay and qualified mortgage provisions (ATR/QM). The CFPB is required to make annual adjustments to dollar amounts in certain provisions in Regulation Z, and has based the adjustments on the annual percentage change reflected in the Consumer Price Index in effect on June 1, 2018. The following thresholds will be effective on January 1, 2019:
- For open-end consumer credit plans under TILA, the threshold for disclosing an interest charge will remain unchanged at $1.00;
- For open-end consumer credit plans under the CARD Act amendments, the adjusted dollar amount for the safe harbor for a first violation penalty fee will increase from $27 to $28, and the adjusted dollar amount for the safe harbor for a subsequent violation penalty fee will increase from $38 to $39;
- For HOEPA loans, the adjusted total loan amount threshold for high-cost mortgages will be $21,549, and the adjusted points and fees dollar trigger for high-cost mortgages will be $1,077; and
- The maximum thresholds for total points and fees for qualified mortgages under the ATR/QM rule will be: (i) 3 percent of the total loan amount for loans greater than or equal to $107,747; (ii) $3,232 for loan amounts greater than or equal to $64,648 but less than $107,747; (iii) 5 percent of the total loan amount for loans greater than or equal to $21,549 but less than $64,648; (iv) $1,077 for loan amounts greater than or equal to $13,468 but less than $21,549; and (v) 8 percent of the total loan amount for loan amounts less than $13,468.
Arizona Supreme Court holds statute of limitations for credit cards begins to accrue upon first missed payment
On July 27, the Arizona Supreme Court held that a cause of action to collect a credit card debt subject to an acceleration clause begins to accrue as of the date of the consumer’s first uncured missed payment. According to the opinion, the consumer was sued in 2014 by a debt collector for an unpaid balance of over $17,000 on a credit card issued in 2007. Throughout 2007 and 2008 the consumer routinely made late payments and completely missed the February 2008 payment. The consumer moved for summary judgment, arguing that the claim was barred by Arizona’s six-year statute of limitations, which began to accrue at the time of the first missed payment in February 2008. The motion was granted by the trial court. The appellate court reversed, agreeing with the debt collector that the cause of action for the entire debt does not accrue until the creditor accelerates the debt. Disagreeing with the appeals court, and affirming the trial court’s decision, the Arizona Supreme Court distinguished revolving credit card accounts from closed-end installment contracts, which have a set date that the debt must be paid in full. The court explained that with installment contracts, the accrual date can be no later than the date in which the entire balance must be paid, as compared to credit card accounts, which have no end date. On that basis, the court held that allowing a creditor to delay accrual by not accelerating the debt, would “functionally eliminate the protection provided to defendants by the statute of limitations.”
Federal Reserve submits annual report to Congress on credit card profitability of depository institutions
In July, the Federal Reserve Board submitted its annual report to Congress on the profitability of credit cards as required by Section 8 of the Fair Credit and Charge Card Disclosure Act of 1988. The Report to Congress on the Profitability of Credit Card Operations of Depository Institutions (the Report) focuses on credit card banks with assets exceeding $200 million meeting the following criteria: (i) more than 50 percent of assets are loans made to individual consumers; and (ii) 90 percent or more of consumer lending involves credit cards or related plans. As of December 31, 2017, the 12 banks that met this criteria accounted for almost 50 percent of outstanding credit card balances on the books of depository institutions. According to the Report, credit card loans have replaced other methods of borrowing, such as closed-end installment loans and personal lines of credit. In the aggregate, “consumers carried slightly over $1 trillion in outstanding balances on their revolving accounts as of the end of 2017, about 6.1 percent higher than the level at the end of 2016.” While the Report notes the difficulty with tracking credit card profitability due to revisions in accounting rules and other factors, it indicates that delinquency rates and charge-off rates for credit card loans saw a modest increase in 2017 across all banks but remained below their historical averages.
The Report also discusses recent trends in credit card pricing practices. Data from a survey that studied a sample of credit card issuers found that the average credit card interest rate across all accounts is about 13 percent, while the average interest rate on accounts that assessed interest was closer to 15 percent. The Report notes that, “while average interest rates paid by consumers have moved in a relatively narrow band over the past several years,” there exists is a great deal of variability across credit card plans and borrowers, reflecting various card features and the risk profile of the borrower.
On June 29, the CFPB announced a $335 million settlement with a national bank who allegedly violated the Truth in Lending Act by failing to properly implement annual percentage rate (APR) reevaluation requirements, which would reduce APRs for certain consumer credit card accounts, consistent with Regulation Z. According to the consent order, the Bureau also claimed the bank failed to put in place reasonable written policies and procedures to conduct the APR reevaluations. Under the terms of the consent order, the bank is required to pay $335 million in restitution to affected consumers and implement corrected policies and procedures to ensure proper APR reevaluation processes. The Bureau further noted that it did not assess civil monetary penalties due to efforts undertaken by the bank to self-identify and self-report violations to the Bureau. The bank also voluntarily corrected the deficiencies, took steps to initiate remediation to affected consumers, and implemented compliance management system enhancements.
On June 25, the U.S. Supreme Court in a 5-4 vote held that a credit card company did not unreasonably restrain trade in violation of the Sherman Act by preventing merchants from steering customers to other credit cards. As previously covered by InfoBytes, in September 2016, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit considered the non-steering protections included in the credit card company’s agreements with merchants and concluded that such provisions protect the card company’s rewards program and prestige and preserve the company’s market share based on cardholder satisfaction. Accordingly, the 2nd Circuit concluded that “there is no reason to intervene and disturb the present functioning of the payment‐card industry.” In June 2017, a coalition of states, led by Ohio, petitioned the Supreme Court to review the 2nd Circuit decision, arguing the credit card industry’s services to merchants and cardholders are not interchangeable and therefore, the credit card market should be viewed as a two-sided market, not a single market. The Supreme Court disagreed with the petitioners’ arguments, finding that the credit card industry is best viewed as one market. The court reasoned that while there are two sides to the credit card transaction, credit card platforms “cannot make a sale unless both sides of the platform simultaneously agree to use their services,” resulting in “more pronounced indirect network effects and interconnected pricing and demand.” Accordingly, the two-sided transaction should be viewed as a whole for purposes of assessing competition. The court further concluded that the higher merchant fees the credit card company charges result in a “robust rewards program” for cardholders, causing the company’s anti-steering provisions to not be inherently anticompetitive, but in fact to have “spurred robust interbrand competition and has increased the quality and quantity of credit-card transactions.”
On June 7, the CFPB released the latest quarterly consumer credit trends report, which focuses on credit card borrowing patterns at the end of the year using data from the CFPB’s Consumer Credit Panel. The report notes that consumer spending peaks each year during the “holiday shopping season” in November and December, with retail sales more than $50 billion higher in December than any other month. The CFPB highlighted some key findings regarding credit card borrowing and repayment patterns around this time: (i) credit card and retail store card debt steadily rise before the end of the calendar year and then gradually fall through March; (ii) consumers with subprime credit scores do not experience the same “seasonality” in borrowing that consumers with superprime credit scores do—they are much more likely to have higher utilization rates of available credit before the holiday shopping season; and (iii) seasonal delinquency patterns may indicate financial distress at the end of the year for some credit card users.
- 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