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On December 6, the CFPB announced the filing of a complaint and proposed final judgment in the U.S. District Court for the District of Nevada against a non-bank mortgage company for allegedly deceiving veterans about the benefits of refinancing their mortgages in violation of the Consumer Financial Protection Act. According to the complaint, during in-home presentations, the company would allegedly use flawed “apples to apples” comparisons between the consumers’ mortgages and an Interest Rate Reduction Refinancing Loan (a loan, guaranteed by the Department of Veterans Affairs, which allows veterans to refinance mortgages at lower interest rates). The Bureau alleges the presentations misrepresented the future cost savings of the refinance by (i) inflating the future amount of principal owed under the existing mortgage; (ii) overestimating the future loan’s term, which underestimated the future monthly payments; and (iii) overestimating the total monthly benefit of the loan after the first month.
If ordered by the court, the judgment would require the company to pay $268,869 in redress to consumers and a civil penalty of $260,000; it would also prohibit the company from misrepresenting the terms or benefits of mortgage refinancing.
On November 29, the U.S. District Court for the District of New Jersey partially denied a company’s motion to dismiss proposed class action allegations that it violated the TCPA when it used an automatic telephone dialing system (ATDS) to send unsolicited text messages to customers’ cell phones that resulted in additional message and data charges. According to the opinion, the company sent three text messages to the plaintiff who responded to two of them. The first message gave the plaintiff the option to send “STOP” to opt out or “HELP” to receive assistance. Because the plaintiff texted “HELP” in response, the court found that the plaintiff consented to receiving the company’s second message; the court found that the third follow-up message was permissible because it was a single “confirmatory message” sent after the plaintiff texted “STOP” after receiving the second follow-up message. However, the court determined that the plaintiff satisfied the burden of showing at this stage in the proceedings that the first text message was sent from a company with whom he had no prior relationship and had not provided consent. “When an individual sends a message inviting a responsive text, there is no TCPA violation,” the judge ruled. “The TCPA prohibits a party from using an ATDS ‘to initiate any telephone call to any residential telephone line using an artificial or prerecorded voice to deliver a message without the prior express consent of the called party,’ unless the call falls within one of the statute’s enumerated exemptions.”
The court further denied the company’s motion to stay pending the FCC’s interpretation of what qualifies as an ATDS in light of the decision reached by the D.C. Circuit in ACA International v. FCC, stating, among other things, that the company “has not established the FCC proceedings will simplify or streamline the issues in this matter” and that the plaintiff is entitled to discovery concerning the company’s communication devices.
On December 3, the U.S. District Court for the District of New Jersey granted class certification to a group of borrowers alleging that a debt collection company misrepresented late charges accruing on student loan debt after default, in violation of the FDCPA section 1692e, among other sections. The lead plaintiff brought the action against the debt collector after receiving a letter regarding her defaulted federal Perkins student loans, which stated “[d]ue to interest, late charges, and other charges that may vary from day to day, the amount due on the day you pay may be greater” even though the plaintiff later learned that Perkins loans cannot accrue late charges after default. After the FDCPA’s 1692e claim survived summary judgment, the plaintiff moved to certify the class, while the debt collector opposed the certification and separately moved to dismiss the class claim for lack of standing. In denying the motion to dismiss and granting certification, the court held the borrower had standing as she met the requirement of showing a concrete and particularized injury, stating “when a debt collector violates Section 1692e by providing false or misleading information, the informational injury that results—i.e., receipt of that false or misleading information—constitutes a concrete harm under Spokeo.” The court found that the borrower met the requirements for class certification, including the numerosity requirement as evidenced by the almost 3,000 letters sent by the debt collection company to New Jersey loan holders. Moreover, the court found that the class claims would predominate over individual ones since there exist common questions of law or fact insofar as class members received the same or substantially similar letters from the collector.
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 30, the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York agreed to stay proceedings covering an investment company’s challenge to a bank’s practice of billing the legal fees incurred in defending a residential mortgage-backed securities (RMBS) trusts lawsuit to the RMBS trusts. According to the opinion, in 2014, an investment company filed a lawsuit against the national bank alleging breach of contract and other common law duties in the bank’s role as trustee for multiple RMBS trusts. In 2017, the investment company filed a separate lawsuit in the same court, challenging the bank’s practice of billing the RMBS trusts for the legal fees incurred by defending the original lawsuit. The two lawsuits were consolidated and the bank moved to dismiss the second lawsuit or stay the proceedings during the pendency of the original lawsuit. Upon review, the court agreed to stay the proceedings, noting the “claims at issue in the fees complaint may well turn on determinations made in the underlying suit.” The investment company argued that while the trusts’ agreements contain fee indemnity clauses, the clauses are not applicable to the bank’s alleged “willful misfeasance, bad faith, or gross negligence.” The court noted that whether the bank acted grossly negligent in its duties as trustee for the RMBS trusts is a “central factual question” in the original lawsuit and therefore, staying the proceedings “could avoid a possible waste of both the parties’ and the court’s resources.”
Additionally, in the same order, the court denied NCUA’s request to intervene in the fees action, holding the agency did not establish it could meet the higher burden of demonstrating inadequate representation by the investment company, which shares the same interests as NCUA.
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 27, the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of California denied the SEC’s motion for a preliminary injunction against a cryptocurrency company, concluding the agency failed show the currency tokens were “securities” as defined under federal securities laws. According to the order, the SEC filed a complaint against the company in October alleging it falsely claimed its initial coin offering (ICO) was registered and approved by the SEC and other regulators, including using the agency’s seal in marketing materials. At the time of the filing, the SEC claimed the company had already raised more than $2.5 million in pre-ICO sales. The SEC moved for a preliminary injunction to freeze the company’s assets and prevent the company’s owner from buying or selling securities and other digital currency during the pendency of the case. Upon review, the court noted the SEC must establish the company previously violated federal securities laws and there is a reasonable likelihood that it will happen again. The SEC argued the allegedly fraudulent marketing materials used to raise money from 32 “test investors” violated federal securities laws, while the company argued the investors did not have an expectation to receive profits as they were working with the company on the exchange’s functionality and therefore, the currency tokens were not “securities.” The court denied the SEC’s motion, concluding that it could not determine whether the tokens were “securities” under federal law without full discovery as there were disputed issues of material facts, including what the test investors relied on in terms of marketing materials before they purchased the cryptocurrency tokens.
On November 13, the U.S. District Court for the District of Minnesota held that a bank’s predictive dialing systems do not violate the Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA), granting summary judgment for the bank. According to the opinion, a customer of a national bank changed his phone number and his previous number was reassigned to the plaintiff in the case. The customer did not inform the bank he had changed his phone number, and between September 2015 and December 2015, the bank called the plaintiff’s cell phone 140 times. The plaintiff subsequently informed the bank he was not a customer and the bank ceased calling the cell phone number. In January 2016, the plaintiff filed a complaint alleging the company violated the TCPA by placing auto-dialed calls to his cell phone. The court stayed the action pending the result of the D.C. Circuit case ACA International v. FCC (covered by a Buckley Sandler Special Alert), which narrowed the FCC’s 2015 interpretation of “autodialer” under the TCPA.
In reviewing cross-motions for summary judgment, the court disagreed with the plaintiff that the company’s predictive dialing systems qualified as an autodailer under the TCPA. Citing to ACA International, the court noted that predictive dialers are not always autodialers under the Act, the equipment must have the capacity to randomly or sequentially generate numbers to dial, and the plaintiff failed to provide sufficient evidence to prove the systems has this capability. Moreover, the court rejected the plaintiff’s argument that it should follow the 9th Circuit, which recently broadened the definition of autodialer under the TCPA (covered by InfoBytes here), concluding that other courts’ narrow interpretations were more persuasive (InfoBytes coverage available here).
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.