On July 22, BuckleySandler secured a substantial victory before the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit. Representing a global insurance company in a nationwide lender-placed insurance (“LPI”) class action brought by mortgage borrowers, the Firm argued on interlocutory appeal that the Second Circuit should reverse the district court’s denial of its motion to dismiss on the basis of the “filed-rate” doctrine. Ordinarily, the filed-rate doctrine provides that rates approved by the applicable regulatory agency – including LPI rates – are per se reasonable and unassailable in judicial proceedings brought by ratepayers. The district court, however, held that the plaintiffs’ claims were not barred by the doctrine because, rather than directly billing the plaintiffs for the LPI premiums, the insurance company initially charged the premiums to the plaintiffs’ mortgage servicer who, in turn, charged the borrowers. The Second Circuit reversed the Southern District of New York’s decision, holding that the filed-rate doctrine applied notwithstanding the fact that the mortgage servicer served as an intermediary to pass on the LPI rates to borrowers. Because the plaintiffs’ claims ultimately rested on the premise that the LPI rates approved by the regulators were too high and included impermissible costs, the Second Circuit held that the claims were barred by the filed-rate doctrine.
On July 15, a three-judge panel of the Florida Third District Court of Appeal issued its opinion in Smith v. Reverse Mortgage Solutions, Inc., 2015 WL 4257632. In 2008, Mr. Smith took out a reverse mortgage on his home where he lived with his wife; only Mr. Smith signed the promissory note, but both spouses signed the mortgage. Mr. Smith died in late 2009, and Reverse Mortgage Solutions filed a complaint for foreclosure, although Mrs. Smith was still alive. The mortgage allowed foreclosure if “a Borrower dies and the Property is not the principal residence of at least one surviving Borrower.” The lower court ruled in favor of Reverse Mortgage Solutions. On appeal, however, the court interpreted the documents de novo and found that Mrs. Smith was a “borrower” “based on the plain and unambiguous language of the mortgage,” and therefore was protected from foreclosure until she died. Although the court stated that this finding would be sufficient to decide the case, it also noted several other bases for its decision, including that (i) Mrs. Smith was identified as the “Borrower” on the signature page of the mortgage; (ii) Florida’s homestead provisions require the spouse’s signature on a mortgage of jointly held property to validly convey the interest in property; and (iii) federal law applicable to reverse mortgages contemplates the foreclosure of mortgaged property and expressly defines “homeowner” to include the spouse of the homeowner. The court remanded the case to the lower court to decide whether the other condition precedent preventing foreclosure, that the property was Mrs. Smith’s primary residence, had been met. A dissenting judge argued that neither the Florida homestead provisions nor HUD requirements should affect the interpretation of the loan note. Although he was prepared to affirm the lower court decision based on the unavailability of a trial transcript, he stated that if it was necessary to address the question of whether Mrs. Smith was a “borrower,” he would conclude that she was not because both the mortgage and the promissory note generally identified Mr. Smith as the only borrower.
District Court Applies Supreme Court’s Inclusive Communities Decision in Rejecting Disparate Impact Claim
On July 17, the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California granted summary judgment for Wells Fargo in a Fair Housing Act (FHA) case brought by the City of Los Angeles. City of Los Angeles v. Wells Fargo & Co., No. 2:13-cv-09007-ODW (RZx) (C.D. Cal. July 17, 2015). The City alleged that the bank engaged in mortgage lending practices that had a disparate impact on minority borrowers. In rejecting the City’s claims, the court’s opinion heavily relied on the Supreme Court’s recent decision in Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs v. Inclusive Communities Project, Inc., which imposed limitations on the disparate impact theory of liability under the FHA, despite holding that the theory remains cognizable. 135 S. Ct. 2507 (2015). Citing Inclusive Communities, the district court warned that disparate impact claims may only seek to “remove policies that are artificial, arbitrary, and unnecessary barriers and not valid governmental and private priorities.” The court further held that the City failed to point to a specific defendant policy that caused the disparate impact and failed to show “robust causality” between any of defendant’s policies and the alleged statistical disparity, as Inclusive Communities requires. The court also rejected the notion that disparate impact claims could be used to impose new policies on lenders, and said that the City’s argument that lenders should adopt policies to avoid disproportionate lending was a “roundabout way of arguing for a racial quota,” which Inclusive Communities also warns against. Finally, the court was sharply critical of the City’s argument that Federal Housing Administration loans are harmful to minority borrowers, and that, in any event, any disparate impact from these loans would be a result of the federal government’s policies, not the defendant’s policies.
Ninth Circuit Bars Qui Tam Relator’s Whistleblower Recovery in False Claims Act Suit Over Conviction
On July 16, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit affirmed a district court’s dismissal of a qui tam relator from a False Claims Act suit, holding that the False Claims Act requires dismissal of a relator convicted of any conduct giving rise to the fraud at issue, however minor, and prevents the relator from collecting any share of a whistleblower award. United States ex rel. Schroeder v. CH2M Hill, No. 13-35479 (9th Cir. July 16, 2015). The relator submitted false time cards while working for a contractor who engaged in fraudulent billing practices. The Ninth Circuit held that the False Claims Act permits reducing relator awards for planners and initiators of the subject fraud, but dismisses and does not permit collection by all “relators convicted of criminal conduct arising from the fraudulent conduct at issue in the qui tam suit,” even those that did not plan or initiate the fraud. Congress’s hierarchy for relator awards, reasoned the court, “may satisfy other values, such as the deterrent effect of preventing criminally culpable individuals from gaining from their conduct, and the investigatory benefits of actions brought by planners and initiators who often have greater knowledge about co-conspirators and the scope of a fraudulent scheme.” The court rejected the idea that the statute “contain[s] an exception for minor participants” who were nonetheless convicted of the subject criminal conduct.
DC Circuit Bars Retroactive Application of Dodd-Frank Act Provisions Permitting SEC to Bar Association with Municipal Advisors and Rating Organizations
On July 14, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit ruled that Dodd-Frank Act provisions authorizing the SEC to punish certain misconduct by barring association with municipal advisors and rating organizations may not be applied with respect to misconduct that took place prior to the effective date of the provisions. Koch et al. v. SEC, No. 14-1134 (D.C. Cir. Jul. 14, 2015). The Koch appeal arose from an SEC finding that the defendants had violated the securities laws by engaging in a market manipulation practice known as “marking the close,” and the SEC’s imposition of sanctions that, among others, prohibiting Koch from associating with municipal advisors and rating organizations. The DC Circuit upheld the finding of violations, but vacated the part of the order barring Koch from associating with municipal advisors and rating organizations on the basis the relevant Dodd-Frank provisions authorizing that sanction had not been enacted at the time of the misconduct. The court determined that applying those provisions was impermissibly retroactive, as there was no showing that Congress intended the provisions to apply retroactively and because it triggered additional legal consequences not existing at the time of the misconduct. The court did not disturb the other remedial orders in the case, including bars to association with other securities industries.
On July 8, the DOJ announced the prison sentences of three real estate developers for their roles in an alleged mortgage fraud scheme that resulted in over $27 million dollars in losses. Convicted in November 2014 of wire fraud, bank fraud, and conspiracy, the three individuals “engaged in a scheme in which they facilitated payments to straw buyers as well as the submission of false loan applications on behalf of the straw buyers to secure mortgages to purchase units” in the condominium developments they controlled or managed. Post-sale, the individuals retained profits from the sales and control over the units. According to trial evidence, two of the individuals funneled some of the loan proceeds to shell companies to pay the buyers’ closing cash obligations and mortgage payments. Shell companies were also used to divert over $2 million in fraudulent funds to bank accounts in Switzerland and Liechtenstein. Because the defendants and their co-conspirators were eventually unable to make mortgage payments, dozens of condominium units entered into foreclosure, causing the FHA, Freddie Mac, Fannie Mae, and other private lenders a combined loss of $27.8 million. In addition to the varying prison sentences, U.S. District Judge Seitz ordered each defendant to forfeit over $35 million in fraudulent proceeds and to pay over $21 million in restitution.
Court Holds That Evidence of Clickwrap Assent Not Always Sufficient When Evidence Disputing Assent is Presented
On June 29, in Jim Schumacher, LLC v. Spireon, Inc., Civ. Action No. 3:12-cv-00625-TWP-CCS, a Tennessee federal judge denied the motion for partial summary judgment as to the breach of contract claim because there was evidence that the plaintiff did not use the defendant’s portal or authorize an agent to use the defendant’s portal to manifest assent to the modified contract terms even though the defendant had digital evidence of such assent to the clickwrap agreement, thus creating a factual dispute. In 2005, the plaintiff became a reseller of the defendant’s vehicle location devices. In 2009, the defendant modified its agreement, and placed the modified agreement on its customer portal website through which resellers manage purchases, sales, and customer data. Visitors to the portal were required to click “I Accept” or “I Decline” before being permitted to access any other information on the portal. The defendant produced digital evidence demonstrating that someone with the correct login and password accepted the 2009 agreement, and further digital evidence that someone with the correct login and password accepted an agreement in 2010 as well. The plaintiff claims that he did not use the portal after the defendant placed the 2009 agreement on the portal, and thus could not have assented to the clickwrap agreement. During this time, the plaintiff also did not authorize his representative to agree to the terms of the 2009 amendment, nor did he give any other users the ability to execute the agreement on his behalf. The plaintiff filed a lawsuit alleging a breach of contract claim and a fraud claim based on the 2005 agreement. Read more…
Maryland Court of Appeals Rules Borrowers Barred By Three-Year Statute of Limitations in HELOC Decision
On June 23, The Court of Appeals of Maryland reversed the judgment of the Court of Special Appeals in Windesheim v. Larocca, 2015 WL 3853500 (MD. 2015), holding that the statute of limitations for a mortgage origination fraud case began to run at origination because the borrowers had inquiry notice of the loan terms. Under the alleged “buy-first-sell-later” scheme, the borrower-plaintiffs contend that the realtor and lender-defendants encouraged the borrowers to open home equity lines of credit (HELOCs) on their current homes while simultaneously selling their current homes. The lenders allegedly forged documents and signatures in order to approve both the HELOCs and the mortgages on new homes. The trial court initially found that the claims were time-barred, as the plaintiffs should have discovered the alleged fraud when the loans were originated. On appeal to the Court of Special Appeals, Maryland’s intermediate appellate court, the plaintiffs succeeded in reversing the decision of the trial court. The defendants then filed their own appeal, and the Court of Appeals sided with the trial court in holding that the three-year statute of limitations had run. In particular, the Court of Appeals held that the borrowers had inquiry notice at origination because they signed the loan applications and thus were “presumed to have read and understood their contents.” Furthermore, the statute of limitations was not tolled by Maryland law or the fiduciary rule “because there is neither evidence that the Petitioners encouraged Borrowers not to read the Applications nor evidence that the Borrowers and Petitioners were in a fiduciary relationship.” The Court of Appeals further held that the defendants neither engaged in nor conspired to engage in false or misleading indirect advertising regarding secondary mortgage loans.
Today, the DOJ unsealed an eighteen-count indictment in Brooklyn, New York charging a Turkish citizen (Defendant) with organizing worldwide cyberattacks against at least three U.S. payment processors’ computer networks. The Defendant’s organization allegedly used “sophisticated intrusion techniques” to hack the computer systems, stealing prepaid debit card data and subsequently using the stolen data to make ATM withdrawals in which standard withdrawal limits were manipulated to allow for greater withdrawals. According to the indictment, the Defendant managed a group of co-conspirators responsible for distributing the stolen card information to “cashing crews” around the world, who then used the information to conduct tens of thousands of fraudulent ATM withdrawals and fraudulent purchases. Within two days – February 27 and 28, 2011 – the DOJ alleges that the “cashing crews withdrew approximately $10 million through approximately 15,000 fraudulent ATM withdrawals in at least 18 countries.” The remaining two operations, occurring in late 2012 and early 2013, resulted in ATM withdrawals of roughly $5 million and $40 million, respectively. The Defendant, along with other high-ranking members of the conspiracy, received the funds from the fraudulent operations via wire transfer, electronic currency, and personal delivery of U.S. and foreign currency. The Defendant was arrested in Germany on December 18, 2013, and was extradited to the United States on June 23, 2015. The charges against the Defendant follow previous charges against members of the conspiracy, including the arrest of a member of the New York cashing crew.
On June 12, the United States District Court for the Eastern District of California denied Castle & Cooke Mortgage’s motion to dismiss in a putative class action brought by affected borrowers stemming from Castle and Cooke’s 2013 settlement with the CFPB. The underlying complaint is based on the allegation that the “loan officer who sold plaintiff his mortgage loan was paid a bonus that was based, at least in part, on the fact that plaintiff received a more expensive and/or less favorable loan than he otherwise would have received.” The complaint seeks various remedies, including actual and statutory damages under the Truth in Lending Act. The complaint contains four separate causes of action: (i) violations of TILA, (ii) violations of the Utah Residential Mortgage Practices and Licensing Act, (iii) unjust enrichment under Utah law, and (iv) violations of the California Unfair Competition Law. Castle & Cooke only moved to dismiss the final two claims. In denying Castle & Cooke’s motion to dismiss, the court found that both challenged claims could be pursued, rejecting Castle & Cooke’s arguments that the claims were inappropriate given the remedies available under TILA. With this denial, the plaintiffs will be able to continue pursuing all four causes of action as the litigation continues.
On June 15, the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York unsealed a 2013 plea agreement under which American FIFA Executive Committee Member Chuck Blazer secretly pleaded guilty to ten charges related to corruption in the soccer organization. Mr. Blazer agreed to forfeit more than $1.9 million, and to pay back-taxes and penalties on more than $11 million in unreported income.
According to the plea agreement, Mr. Blazer began cooperating with the DOJ’s investigation in December of 2011, even agreeing to work undercover making secret recordings. The unsealing of the plea agreement is the latest development in the ongoing fallout from the racketeering, wire fraud, and money laundering indictments announced three weeks ago by the DOJ against soccer executives at FIFA and others tied to the organization. Mr. Blazer’s testimony at his plea hearing in November 2013 was unsealed two weeks ago.
Georgia District Court Rules SEC’s Use of Administrative Law Judges In Insider Trading Case “Likely Unconstitutional”
On June 8, in Hill v. Securities And Exchange Commission, Civ. Action No. 1:15-CV-1801-LMM, a Georgia federal judge ruled that the Securities and Exchange Commission’s use of an in-house Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) to preside over an insider-trading case was “likely unconstitutional.” In Hill, after a nearly two-year investigation, the Securities and Exchange Commission (“SEC”) served Charles Hill, a self-employed real estate developer who was not registered with the SEC, with an Order Instituting Cease-And-Desist Proceedings under Section 21C of the Securities Exchange Act of 1934 (“Exchange Act”), alleging liability for insider trading in violation of Section 14(e) of the Exchange Act and Rule 14e-3. The SEC alleged that Hill, using inside information he received, purchased and then sold a large quantity of Radiant Systems, Inc. stock, profiting approximately $744,000. In addition to the cease-and-desist order, the SEC sought a civil penalty and disgorgement from Mr. Hill. The SEC sought to collect the civil penalty through an administrative hearing using an in-house ALJ. Mr. Hill filed this action to challenge the SEC’s decision to use an administrative proceeding, and asked the Court to (i) declare the proceeding unconstitutional; and (ii) enjoin the proceeding from occurring until the Court issues its ruling. The Court granted, in part, and denied, in part, his request. Read more…
New York Court of Appeals Rules Possession of Note, Rather than Mortgage, Conveys Standing to Commence Foreclosure Action
On June 11, the New York Court of Appeals held that a loan servicer who holds the note has standing to commence a mortgage foreclosure action against a borrower even if the servicer cannot show that it also holds the mortgage. See Aurora Loan Servs., LLC v. Taylor, 2015 NY Slip Op 04872 (Jun. 11, 2015). The court reasoned that the servicer did not need to show possession of the mortgage because “the note, and not the mortgage, is the dispositive instrument that conveys standing to foreclose under New York law.” In Aurora, the defendant borrowers had executed an adjustable rate note and a mortgage in 2006. The mortgage designated Mortgage Electronic Recording Systems, Inc. (“MERS”) as nominee, but the note was not transferred to MERS with the mortgage. After the borrowers defaulted, the servicer took possession of the note and filed for foreclosure against the borrowers. In reaching its decision, the court disregarded borrowers’ argument that the involvement of MERS somehow impacted the servicer’s standing to foreclose.
The Second Circuit Court of Appeals’ recent decision in Madden v. Midland Funding, LLC held that a nonbank entity taking assignment of debts originated by a national bank is not entitled to protection under the National Bank Act (“NBA”) from state-law usury claims. In reaching this conclusion, the Court appears to have not considered the “Valid-When-Made Doctrine”—a longstanding principle of usury law that if a loan is not usurious when made, then it does not become usurious when assigned to another party. If left undisturbed, the Court’s decision may well have broad and alarming ramifications. The decision could significantly disrupt secondary markets for consumer and commercial credit, impacting a broad cross-section of financial services providers and other businesses that rely on the availability and post-sale validity of loans originated by national or state-chartered depository institutions.
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Questions regarding the matters discussed in this Alert may be directed to any of our lawyers listed below, or to any other BuckleySandler attorney with whom you have consulted in the past.
On May 29, US District Judge Katherine Forrest sentenced Ross Ulbricht – operator of the online dark market known as Silk Road – to life in prison without the possibility of parole. As previously reported, Ulbricht was found guilty by a federal jury on February 4, 2015 for his alleged creation, ownership, and operation of a website where activities included narcotics distribution, computer hacking, and conspiracy. In addition to a life in prison sentence, Ulbricht has been ordered to pay over $180 million to the federal government. During the year and a half-long legal process of convicting and sentencing Ulbricht, the DOJ also charged two former federal agents with wire fraud and money laundering of digital currency, and held several government auctions to sell bitcoins seized during its investigation of Silk Road.