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  • Supreme Court to review whether SEC’s ALJ appointment process is constitutional

    Courts

    On January 12, the U.S. Supreme Court announced it had granted a writ of certiorari in Lucia v. SEC—a case which challenges the SEC’s practice of appointing administrative law judges (ALJs) and moves the Court to consider whether the ALJ appointment practice violates the Appointments Clause (Clause) of the Constitution. In Lucia, the petitioner—against whom an ALJ had issued sanctions, imposed a lifetime securities ban, and fined $300,000—appealed the decision to the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, and argued that ALJs are officers of the United States and therefore subject to provisions of the Clause, including the requirement that officers be appointed by the president, the head of a department, or a court of law. However, the D.C. Circuit upheld the ALJs sanctions and ruled that ALJs are not “inferior officers” subject to the Clause. In his petition for certiorari, the petitioner claimed that because he was subjected to a “trial before an unconstitutionally constituted tribunal,” the ALJ’s decision should be dismissed or a new hearing granted.

    Notably, last November, the Solicitor General of the United States submitted a brief on behalf of the SEC to the Supreme Court, arguing that the SEC views in-house judges as officers of the U.S. government—not mere employees—who are subject to the Clause. Additionally, on November 30, the SEC ratified the appointment of its ALJs to resolve “any concerns that administrative proceedings presided over by its ALJs violate the Appointments Clause.”

    A decision by the Court may resolve a split between the D.C. Circuit, which has ruled that ALJs are not “inferior officers” of the U.S. government, and the Tenth and Fifth Circuits, which disagreed and ruled separately that ALJs are officers.

    See also previous Lucia coverage in an InfoBytes blog post and a Special Alert concerning the effect a decision in Lucia may have on the ongoing litigation in PHH v. CFPB.

    Courts SEC ALJ U.S. Supreme Court PHH v. CFPB

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  • Illinois Appellate Court rules generic card agreement cannot compel arbitration

    Courts

    On January 4, the Illinois Appellate Court (Fifth District) handed down an opinion affirming a circuit court’s decision to deny a debt collection company’s motion to dismiss and compel arbitration. In 2015, the company filed complaints against defendants-counterplaintiffs for failing to make payments on their accounts and entering into default. In class action counterclaims, the defendants-counterplaintiffs challenged the debt collection company’s alleged practice of suing to collect debt purchased from others without “sufficient proof of ownership of the debt,” and sought damages for purported violations of the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, among others. The debt collection company argued that because the class action counterclaims fell within the scope of a binding card agreement—which included an arbitration clause and a class action waiver provision—the class claims should be barred and dismissed. The circuit court considered whether the agreements entered into between the company and the defendants-counterplaintiffs were subject to arbitration, and determined that the company failed to demonstrate that the card agreement containing the arbitration clause was received by, agreed to, or otherwise applied to the consumers within the agreements governing the accounts in question. The appellate court affirmed and concluded that, upon review, the company’s appeal failed to “demonstrate when or how the generic [c]ard [a]greement containing the arbitration provision pertained to [defendants-counterplaintiffs] or that it was communicated . . . prior to subsequent credit card use.”

    Courts Arbitration Debt Collection State Issues FDCPA

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  • U.S. government, national bank parties enter $5 million False Claims Act settlement

    Courts

    On January 5, the U.S. Government reached a $5 million settlement with a national bank and its affiliates (together, the bank parties) to resolve a lawsuit concerning allegations that the bank parties violated the False Claims Act (FCA) by engaging in improper foreclosure-related practices. The settlement is not an admission of liability by the bank parties. Specifically, as previously covered in InfoBytes, the lawsuit primarily alleged that the bank parties knowingly used rubber-stamped surrogate signed endorsements and false mortgage assignments to support false claims for mortgage insurance from the Federal Housing Administration. The lawsuit also asserted a reverse FCA claim alleging that the bank parties made false statements when entering into the 2012 National Mortgage Settlement. The U.S. Government, the bank parties, and the relator who initially brought the suit stipulated to the dismissal with prejudice concerning 39 “Implied Certification and False Statement Claims,” along with all claims brought or that could have been brought by the relator, but without prejudice as to any other claims that could be brought by the U.S. Government. Under the terms of the settlement agreement, the bank parties are required to pay $3.4 million to the U.S. Government—$891,000 of which will be paid to the relator who originally brought the suit. In addition, the bank parties will pay the relator an additional $1.6 million in attorneys’ fees and litigation costs and expenses.

    Courts Foreclosure Mortgage Servicing Mortgages Settlement False Claims Act / FIRREA FHA

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  • Ninth Circuit Rules Banning Credit Card Surcharges Violates First Amendment

    Courts

    On January 3, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit issued an opinion affirming a district court decision that a California law banning credit card surcharges violated the First Amendment because it was an unconstitutional restriction of speech and unconstitutionally vague. California Civil Code Section 1748.1(a) prohibits retailers from imposing surcharges on customers who pay with credit cards, but allows businesses to offer discounts for cash or debit card payments. In 2014, plaintiffs challenged the constitutionality of the law, and the district court granted summary judgment in favor of the plaintiffs and permanently enjoined its enforcement, holding that the statute violated the First Amendment because it amounted to “a content-based restriction on commercial speech rather than an economic regulation.” The California Attorney General's Office appealed.

    The Ninth Circuit affirmed the district court decision, finding that California Civil Code Section 1748.1(a) could not withstand intermediate scrutiny because (i) the plaintiffs’ speech was not misleading, (ii) Section 1748.1(a) failed to promote California’s interest in protecting consumers from deception, and (iii) Section 1748.1(a) was more extensive than necessary to achieve California’s stated interest for the regulation. Though the panel affirmed the district court’s ruling, it also modified the district court’s injunction to apply only to the plaintiffs, and only with respect to the specific pricing practice they seek to employ.

    See previous InfoBytes coverage here on court decisions regarding credit card surcharges

    Courts Ninth Circuit Credit Cards

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  • Ninth Circuit Denies Arbitration, Lacks Jurisdiction to Review Anti-SLAPP Motion

    Courts

    On December 27, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit issued an opinion affirming the district court’s decision to deny the defendants’ request to compel arbitration against plaintiffs who elected to participate in the defendants’ administration of California’s “Bad Check Diversion Program” (BCD Program). The order is the result of two consolidated appeals from separate district court orders related to a putative class action lawsuit claiming that the defendants violated the federal Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA) and California Unfair Competition Law in their administration of the BCD Program. The BCD Program, administered by private entities in agreement with a local district attorney, provides consumers accused of writing bad checks the opportunity for deferred prosecution. Under the BCD Program, the defendants sent notices on official district attorney letterhead offering the plaintiffs the chance to avoid criminal prosecution under California’s bad check statute if they participated in the BCD Program and paid specified fees. The notices also included an arbitration clause. In the class action lawsuit, plaintiffs alleged that defendants violated the law by misleading plaintiffs into thinking law enforcement sent the letters and by allegedly including false threats in the letters that implied that failure to pay would result in arrest or imprisonment.

    In response to the lawsuit, defendants filed a motion under California’s Anti-SLAPP law, which protects defendants from strategic lawsuits against public participation (SLAPP), to strike the plaintiffs’ state law claims as well as a motion to compel arbitration pursuant to the arbitration clause in the notices. With respect to the defendant’s motion to compel arbitration, the panel opined that the BCD Program is not subject to Federal Arbitration Act (FAA) provisions because it is “an agreement between a criminal suspect and the local authorities about how to resolve a potential state-law criminal violation” rather than a “private or commercial contract.” In response to the defendants’ Anti-SLAPP motion, the appellate panel concluded that it “lacked jurisdiction to review the district court’s denial of defendants’ Anti-SLAPP motion because, under the terms of the state statute, such a denial in a case deemed [by the lower court] to be filed in the public interest is not immediately appealable.”

    The panel remanded to the district court for further proceedings.

    Courts Ninth Circuit Arbitration FDCPA

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  • District Court Allows Government to Intervene in False Claims Act Litigation

    Courts

    On January 3, the District Court for the Southern District of Florida granted the U.S. Government’s motion to intervene in a False Claims Act (FCA) lawsuit against a national bank. The lawsuit, filed by a foreclosure attorney and relator, alleges that the national bank submitted false claims in violation of the FCA in two ways. First, the lawsuit alleges that the national bank knowingly used rubber-stamped surrogate signed endorsements and false mortgage assignments to support false claims for mortgage insurance from FHA. Second, the lawsuit asserts a reverse FCA claim alleging that the national bank made false statements when entering into the 2012 National Mortgage Settlement. On December 21, the U.S. Government requested to intervene to assist in “effectuating and formalizing” a proposed settlement between the relator and the national bank that would resolve the matter.

    Courts False Claims Act / FIRREA Mortgage Servicing Mortgages Foreclosure National Mortgage Servicing Settlement

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  • Fifth Circuit Claims Loan Modification Communications Are Not Debt Collection Activities Under TDCA

    Courts

    On December 11, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit ruled that a mortgage servicer’s communications about a potential loan modification do not constitute “debt collection activity” under the Texas Debt Collection Act (TDCA). The servicer had initially told borrowers that they could apply for a loan modification but later informed them that they were not eligible. The borrowers unsuccessfully appealed the determination with the servicer, yet prior to a final determination on the appeal, the servicer sent a statement reflecting a new monthly payment in the amount that the borrowers had been requesting. The borrowers made one payment in that amount, which the servicer accepted, but weeks later the servicer sent a letter stating that the mortgage was still in default. In affirming the district court’s judgment in favor of the mortgage servicer, the three-judge panel determined that while “modification discussions may constitute debt collection activities under the TDCA when those discussions are used as a ruse to collect debt,” the borrowers failed to make such a showing, and instead the servicer’s misrepresentations were “merely poor customer service.”

    Courts Debt Collection Appellate Mortgage Servicing Fifth Circuit

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  • District Court Rules CFPB Violates FOIA in Withholding Documents Produced in Response to CID; Upholds Other CFPB Interpretations of FOIA

    Courts

    On December 14, the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia ruled that any CFPB policy considering information provided to the CFPB in response to CID requests to have been submitted “voluntarily” and therefore exempt from public disclosure violates the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). In response to a lawsuit filed by a consumer class action law firm, the court reviewed numerous claims related to the CFPB’s use of FOIA Exemptions. As explained in the opinion, the D.C. Circuit views information provided voluntarily to government entities as “more stringently protected” than compulsory submissions in determining whether materials qualify as “confidential” under FOIA Exemption 4. The court, in granting summary judgment, agreed with the plaintiff in holding that the CFPB had “actual legal authority” to issue the CID and obtain the related materials, and therefore the CFPB cannot treat information produced in response as having been disclosed voluntarily. In addressing other claims, however, the court agreed with the CFPB that documents it relied upon to identify wrongful collection lawsuits were exempt from public disclosure under FOIA Exemption 7(E), which protects “records or information compiled for law enforcement purposes,” and that CFPB attorney notes from a settlement conversation were exempt under FOIA Exemption 5, which protects intra-agency memoranda and has been interpreted to protect attorney work product. The court also supported the CFPB’s policy treating debt collectors and debt buyers as financial institutions as consistent with FOIA Exemption 8 related to financial institution information, finding that debt collectors “as a link in the credit-management chain” fit comfortably within the “inherently broad” term financial institutions.

    Courts CFPB FOIA

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  • Supreme Court Rejects Tribal Lenders’ Petition to Avoid CFPB CID

    Courts

    On December 11, the U.S. Supreme Court rejected without comment a petition from online tribal lending entities to appeal a Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals decision that ordered the entities to comply with a CFPB investigation related to small-dollar loan products. As previously covered by InfoBytes, the entities argued that due to tribal sovereignty, the CFPB does not have jurisdiction over the small-dollar lending services. The CFPB urged the Supreme Court to deny the petition, arguing that the Court’s review is unnecessary because “[t]he question at this juncture is solely whether the Bureau may obtain information from petitioners pursuant to a CID,” not “whether petitioners are subject to the Bureau’s regulatory authority.” 

    Courts Consumer Finance CFPB U.S. Supreme Court Payday Lending

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  • Jury Verdict Clears Student Loan Servicer in FCA Suit

    Courts

    On December 5, after a five-day trial, a jury in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia entered a unanimous verdict clearing a Pennsylvania-based student loan servicing agency (defendant) accused of improper billing practices under the False Claims Act (FCA) and bilking the federal government of millions of dollars. The plaintiff—a former Department of Education employee whistleblower—sought treble damages and forfeitures under the FCA. The case stems from a qui tam suit originally filed in 2007, in which the plaintiff alleged that multiple state-run student loan financing agencies overcharged the U.S. government through fraudulent claims to the Federal Family Education Loan Program in order to unlawfully obtain 9.5 percent special allowance interest payments. Although the district court dismissed four of the agencies from the suit in 2009, ruling that they were state agencies and therefore immune from lawsuits brought by a qui tam relator, a Fourth Circuit Panel eventually reversed the ruling with respect to the Pennsylvania-based state agency defendant, holding that the entity “is an independent political subdivision, not an arm of the commonwealth,” and “therefore a 'person' subject to liability under the False Claims Act.” The panel held that the defendant failed to qualify as a state entity because the defendant’s board is responsible for decision-making and its revenue derives from commercial activities, notwithstanding the fact that the defendant is operated by state employees and is required to deposit its funds in the state’s treasury.

    Upon remand, the district court cleared the way for the jury trial by denying the defendant’s motion for judgment on the pleadings, which argued that the plaintiff cannot establish the materiality requirement set under Universal Health Services, Inc. v. U.S. ex rel. Escobar. In a memorandum opinion, the court concluded that the Department of Education continuing to pay claims even after becoming aware of the loan servicer’s billing practices did not, in fact, change the definition of materiality under the FCA, and therefore, did not “merit reconsideration of this court’s ruling that plaintiff stated a plausible claim.”

    The case then went to jury trial in November, leading to the jury’s verdict in favor of the defendant. 

    Courts False Claims Act / FIRREA Student Lending Appellate

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