On March 5, the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York held that the named plaintiffs lack standing to bring claims in a multidistrict class action alleging illegal overdraft practices by a national bank. In re HSBC Bank, USA, N.A., Debit Card Overdraft Fee Litigation, No. 13-md-2451, 2014 WL 868827 (E.D.N.Y. Mar. 5, 2014). The three consolidated actions are similar to numerous actions filed against national banks across the country in which bank customers have alleged, generally, that banks manipulated debit card transactions to increase the number of overdraft fees charged to customers by re-ordering daily transactions from highest to lowest dollar amount, resulting in a higher number of individual overdraft transactions. On the bank’s motion to dismiss in this case, the court held that the named plaintiffs never lived or conducted business in 10 of the 12 states where the allegations arose and therefore lacked standing under the applicable state statutes giving rise to the claims. The court added that if the plaintiffs sought to add representatives from the other states, it would be difficult for the court to adjudicate the claims given the discrepancies between state laws. The court dismissed numerous claims under the laws of the two remaining states (California and New York), but allowed the plaintiffs breach of implied covenant and good faith and fair dealing claims under both New York and California law, and claims under California’s Unfair Competition Law and False Advertising Law, to proceed.
On March 5, the Superior Court of New Jersey, Appellate Division issued an opinion clarifying the proof necessary for debt buyers to prevail on efforts to collect an assigned debt on a closed and charged-off credit card account. New Century Fin. Servs. Inc. v. Oughla, Nos. A-6078-11T4, A-6370-11T1, 2014 WL 839180 (N.J. Sup. Ct. App. Div. Mar. 5, 2014). In a consolidated appeal of two trial court decisions, debtors sought to reverse the trial court’s orders granting summary judgment to two debt buyers seeking to collect on charged-off credit card debt they had purchased from sellers who derived their ownership from credit card issuers. The appeals court explained that to collect such debt, debtors must prove (i) ownership of the charged-off debt, which it can do through business records documenting its ownership, and (ii) the amount due at the time the card issuer charged off the debt. The court also determined that (i) an electronic copy of the last billing statement is sufficient to demonstrate the amount due at charge-off; (ii) the validity of a debt assignment is not undermined by a failure to provide notice of the assignment to the debtor, and (iii) that a debt can be assigned without specifically referencing the debtor’s name or account number. The court held in these companion cases that one of the debt buyers established ownership through proper authentication and certification of business records, while the other debt buyer failed to provide sufficient proof of the full chain of ownership of its claim to meet its burden. The court affirmed summary judgment for one buyer and reversed and remanded the other buyer’s case accordingly.
On February 26, the Supreme Court held that the Securities Litigation Uniform Standards Act of 1998 (Securities Litigation Act) does not preclude four state-law based class actions against firms and individuals who allegedly helped Allen Stanford conceal a multi-billion dollar Ponzi scheme because Stanford’s alleged misrepresentations were not material to the plaintiffs’ decisions to buy or sell a covered security and thus were not made “in connection with” the purchase or sale of a covered security. Chadbourne & Parke LLP v. Troice, No. 12-79, 2014 WL 714697 (2014). The Court explained that the Securities Litigation Act specifically forbids plaintiffs from bringing state-law based class actions if the plaintiffs allege “a misrepresentation or omission of a material fact in connection with the purchase or sale of a covered security.” In this case, the plaintiffs were investors who purchased uncovered securities (certificates of deposit in Stanford International Bank) with the expectation that Stanford would use the proceeds to purchase covered securities (securities traded on a national exchange). Stanford instead used the proceeds to finance his Ponzi scheme and invest in speculative real estate ventures. The Court, by a 7-2 margin, concluded that Stanford’s misrepresentations were not made “in connection with” the purchase or sale of a covered security because the misrepresentations did not lead anyone to buy, sell, or maintain positions in covered securities. Rather, Stanford’s misrepresentations induced the plaintiffs to take positions in uncovered securities (the certificates of deposit). The court reasoned that the “in connection with” phrase suggests a connection that matters, and a connection only matters “where the misrepresentation makes a significant difference to someone’s decision to purchase or to sell a covered security, not to purchase or sell an uncovered security.” Thus, the Court determined that the Securities Litigation Act’s prohibition on state law-based class actions did not apply to the plaintiffs in this case, and affirmed the Fifth Circuit’s order reversing the district court’s dismissal of the plaintiffs’ claims.
On February 21, the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York held that the Dodd-Frank Act’s whistleblower protection provisions could not be applied retroactively to an alleged retaliation that occurred before the effective date of the statute. Ahmad v. Morgan Stanley & Co., Inc., No. 13-6394, 2014 WL 700339 (S.D.N.Y. Feb. 21, 2014). A former employee of a financial institution filed suit against his former employer under Dodd-Frank, alleging that he had been harassed and intimidated for his attempts to raise concerns during audits of loans made by the institution. Although the alleged retaliation occurred before the effective date of Dodd-Frank, the employee argued that the statute’s whistleblower provisions—which broadly prohibit employers from discriminating, harassing, terminating or otherwise punishing employee whistleblowers for their lawful conduct—were merely technical revisions to whistleblower protections that already existed under the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002, and therefore the Dodd-Frank act protections apply retroactively. The court disagreed and held that the Dodd-Frank created an “entirely new whistleblower cause of action,” distinct from that provided by Sarbanes-Oxley. In particular, the court pointed to the plain text of Dodd-Frank, which identifies the relevant provisions as a “cause of action,” and allows plaintiffs to seek double back-pay for retaliation, a remedy not available under Sarbanes-Oxley. The court dismissed the former employee’s suit with prejudice.
On February 20, the U.S. District Court for Central District of California dismissed with prejudice a putative class action against several large mortgage servicers because the named borrowers failed to properly plead their allegations that the servicers stonewalled loan modification applications in order to continue earning servicing fees. Casault v. Federal National Mortgage Association, No. 11-10520, 2014 WL 689884 (C.D. Cal. Feb. 20, 2014). In their third amended complaint, the borrowers alleged three causes of action against the servicers: (i) fraud; (ii) violation of California’s Unfair Competition Law (UCL); and (iii) violation of the Rosenthal Act, California’s version of the FDCPA. The court granted the servicers’ motion to dismiss the fraud allegation because they failed to allege any causal connection between the scheme and the borrowers’ foreclosure. The borrowers alleged only that the foreclosures were the result of their inability to make their mortgage payments, even after receiving loan modifications. The court dismissed the UCL claim because the borrowers could not demonstrate a right to a loan modification—through contract, promissory estoppel, or some other theory—and, as a result, could not prove injury in fact. Finally, the court dismissed the borrowers’ claims under the Rosenthal Act because they failed to allege facts demonstrating that their loans defaulted prior to the debt being assigned to the servicers.
New Mexico Supreme Court Analyzes State’s Foreclosure Standing Requirements, Ability To Repay Standard
On February 13, the New Mexico Supreme Court held that a borrower’s ability to repay a home mortgage loan is one of the “borrower’s circumstances” that lenders and courts must consider in determining compliance with the New Mexico Home Loan Protection Act (HLPA). Bank of New York v. Romero, No. 33,224, 2014 WL 576151 (N.M. S. Ct. February 13, 2014). In this case, after two borrowers became delinquent on a cash-out refinance mortgage loan, a bank initiated a foreclosure action in state court. The trial court and appellate court rejected the borrowers’ arguments that the bank failed to establish that it was the holder of the note and that the loan violated the “anti-flipping provision” of the HLPA, which prohibits creditors from knowingly and intentionally making a refinance loan when the new loan does not have reasonable, tangible net benefit to the borrower considering all of the circumstances—i.e. “flipping” a home loan. The Supreme Court reviewed the state’s stringent standing requirements and held that possession of the note alone is insufficient to establish standing and that the bank failed to provide other evidence sufficient to demonstrate transfer of the note. Although its decision on standing mooted the issue of the alleged HLPA violation, the court decided to address the issue given some party may eventually establish standing to foreclose. The court, in what might be considered dicta, stated that although the “anti-flipping provision” of the HLPA did not specifically include ability to repay as a factor to be considered in assessing the “borrower’s circumstances,” it could find “no conceivable reason why the Legislature in 2003 would consciously exclude consideration of a borrower’s ability to repay the loan as a factor of the borrower’s circumstances.” As such, the court stated that the HLPA’s “reasonable, tangible net benefit” requirement must include as a factor “the ability of a homeowner to have a reasonable chance of repaying a mortgage loan,” and that here the lender failed to do so when it claimed to rely solely on the borrowers’ assertions about their income and failed to review tax returns or other documents to confirm those assertions. Finally, the court also stated that (i) the National Bank Act does not expressly preempt the HLPA; (ii) the bank failed to prove that conforming to the dictates of the HLPA prevents or significantly interferes with its operations; and (iii) the HLPA does not create a discriminatory effect. The Supreme Court reversed the lower courts’ decisions and remanded to the district court with instructions to vacate its foreclosure judgment and to dismiss the bank’s foreclosure action for lack of standing.
Recently, a jury in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia found that a mortgage company proved that it properly classified an employee as an outside sales person under the Fair Labor Standards Act and therefore was not required to pay the employee overtime. Cougill v. Prospect Mortgage, LLC, No. 13-1433 (E.D.Va. Feb. 5, 2014). The suit is one of many that have been filed across the country involving claims by employees that they were misclassified and were not paid overtime or minimum wage. The verdict came on the same day the court ruled in favor of the mortgage company on summary judgment in a separate, but similar case. Hantz v. Prospect Mortgage, LLC, No. 13-1435, 2014 WL 463019 (E.D.Va. Feb. 5. 2014). In that case, the court held that the loan officer’s claims were time barred under the FLSA’s two-year statute of limitations because the officer failed to demonstrate the alleged misclassification would constitute a willful violation, which would have extended the time limit by a year. Although its holding on the statute of limitations issue was dispositive of the case, the court went on to address the plaintiff’s status as an outside sales person. The court reasoned that in determining FLSA classification, the inquiry is whether the employee performs tasks critical to the sales process away from the office on more than an occasional basis. The fact that the employee may also perform a significant amount of work inside the mortgage company’s office does not limit the exemption. In this case, the court noted that the loan officer’s outside meetings with realtors, time spent distributing flyers, attending open houses, and giving seminars demonstrated that the officer “customarily and regularly” engaged in outside sales activity sufficient to trigger the exemption, notwithstanding the officer’s testimony that he also worked considerable hours inside the office. The court also rejected the officer’s argument that the exemption should not apply because he did not make any sales at a borrower’s home or place of business, noting that where the actual sale occurs is irrelevant.
For the second time in less than five months, a U.S. Court of Appeals ruled that the FHA Model Mortgage sets a floor, not a ceiling, on the amount of flood insurance coverage a borrower must maintain. Feaz v. Wells Fargo Bank, N.A., No. 13-10230, 2014 WL 503149 (11th Cir. Feb. 10, 2014); see also Kolbe v. BAC Home Loans Servicing, LP, 738 F.3d 432 (1st Cir. Sept. 2013). On February 10, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit upheld a district court’s dismissal of a borrower’s claim for breach of contract and violations of various other state laws, concluding that the FHA Model Mortgage “unambiguously makes the federally required flood-insurance amount the minimum, not the maximum, the borrower must have.” Thus, the court concluded that the lender did not violate the mortgage when it required the borrower to increase her flood insurance coverage from the minimum amount required by federal law to the replacement cost value of her home or the maximum available under the National Flood Insurance Program, whichever was less. In reaching its decision, the court sided with the United States, which filed an amicus brief in this case and in a First Circuit case decided in September 2013, reasoning, in part, that any other interpretation would undermine federal housing policy.
On February 7, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit held that the attempted collection of past due foreclosure-related fees from a borrower in active duty military service is a violation of section 533 of the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act (SCRA). Brewster v. Sun Trust Mortg., Inc., No. 12-56560, WL No. (9th Cir. Feb. 7, 2014). The district court dismissed an active duty servicemember’s suit against the current and former servicer of his mortgage loan after the current servicer failed to remove fees associated with a foreclosure initiated, but then withdrawn, by the prior servicer. SCRA section 533 bars the “sale, foreclosure, or seizure of property” for the breach of certain obligations relating to a mortgage made before a servicemember’s military service, unless such action is pursuant to a court order or a valid SCRA waiver, and also establishes criminal penalties for a person who knowingly makes, causes to be made, or attempts to make such a prohibited sale, foreclosure, or seizure of property. On appeal, the Ninth Circuit concluded that the failure to remove the fees incidental to the previous foreclosure’s Notice of Default was a continuation of the previous “foreclosure proceeding,” and, therefore, a violation of section 533. The court did not consider whether the Notice of Default had been initially filed in violation of section 533. The court’s reasoning hinged on its reading of what the word “foreclosure” encompassed and based its interpretation on (i) a state-law statutory definition of foreclosure that the court determined included the attempted collection of foreclosure fees as part of the foreclosure proceeding, and (ii) the U.S. Supreme Court’s unambiguous requirement that courts broadly construe the statutory language of the SCRA. The court declined to determine whether SCRA allows punitive damages, as the DOJ had urged it to do in an amicus brief. The court reversed the district court’s dismissal of the borrower’s suit and remanded for further proceedings.
On February 10, Better Markets, a public interest non-profit organization, announced the filing of a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia challenging a November 2012 settlement obtained by the DOJ and several state attorneys general, which resolved allegations that a large bank and certain institutions it acquired misled investors in connection with the packaging, marketing, sale, and issuance of certain RMBS. The suit claims, in short, that by resolving the allegations through a civil settlement without seeking any judicial review and approval, the DOJ violated the Constitution’s separation of powers doctrine. In addition, the suit claims, the DOJ’s failure to commence a civil action (i) violated the Financial Institutions Reform, Recovery, and Enforcement Act of 1989, and (ii) constituted an arbitrary and capricious action in violation of the Administrative Procedures Act. The complaint asks the court to declare the agreement unlawful and invalid and to issue an injunction that would prevent the DOJ from enforcing the agreement until the agreement is reviewed and approved by a court.
Sixth Circuit Holds PTFA Preempts Less Restrictive State Law, May Be Used To Establish State Law Causes Of Action
On February 7, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit held that while the Protecting Tenants at Foreclosure Act (PTFA) provides no private cause of action, plaintiffs may use violations of the PTFA to establish elements of a state law cause of action. Mik v. Fed. Home Loan Mortgage Corp., No. 12-6051, 2014 WL 486214 (6th Cir. Feb. 7, 2014). Tenants filed suit alleging they were unlawfully evicted from their rental home after their landlord defaulted on her mortgage and the property was sold at a foreclosure sale. The trial court held that the tenants only asserted claims under the PTFA, which does not grant a private right of action, and dismissed the complaint. On appeal, the Sixth Circuit affirmed that the PTFA does not provide a private cause of action, and that, under the Supremacy Clause, the PTFA preempts state law that is less restrictive of tenants. However, it held that, because tenants have no opportunity to raise PTFA as a defense in cases where successors in interest do not initiate judicial proceedings, they must be permitted to use available state law causes of action, such as wrongful eviction, to enforce the PTFA’s protections. To hold otherwise, the court explained, would render the PTFA’s protections virtually meaningless because “a foreclosure sale purchaser could ignore its protections with impunity, bypass judicial process and evict any tenant without notice or court process.” The court held that, here, the tenants’ allegations that the successor failed to meet certain requirements of the PTFA were sufficient to support a claim for the tort violation of wrongful eviction. The court did not find that the tenants similarly sufficiently alleged due process violations and outrageous infliction of emotional distress under Kentucky law. The court reversed in part and affirmed in part, and remanded for further proceedings.
On February 4, the DOJ announced the filing and simultaneous settlement of a complaint by the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York (SDNY) against a mortgage lender alleged to have violated the False Claims Act (FCA) by submitting false loan-level certifications to HUD that fraudulently induced HUD to insure ineligible mortgage loans. The complaint makes similar claims with respect to loans insured by the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). This is the first FCA case brought by the SDNY to assert claims based on VA loans. Although the complaint was filed in a whistleblower qui tam case under seal in January 2013, it indicates the U.S. Attorney’s investigation of fraudulent lending practices has been on-going since 2011. In addition to allegations concerning reckless origination practices, the complaint also alleges that the lender’s underwriters manipulated the data entered into the AUS/TOTAL Scorecard system, repeatedly entering hypothetical data that lacked a factual basis with the goal of determining the lowest values that would generate an “accept/approve” recommendation. The U.S. Attorney claims this practice violated HUD guidance and encouraged fraud by both loan officers and borrowers, and also that the lender made false statements in its loan-level certifications when it falsely certified to the “integrity” of the data entered by underwriters into AUS/TOTAL. To resolve the matter, the lender agreed to pay a total of $614 million; $564.6 million to resolve the HUD claims and $49.4 million to resolve the VA claims. Consistent with the SDNY’s recent practice of requiring admissions in civil fraud cases, the settlement stipulation recites that the lender admits responsibility for certain specified allegations. The settlement also requires the lender to implement “an enhanced quality control program,” the terms of which are to be memorialized in a separate agreement still to be negotiated.
On February 4, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit held that a plaintiff’s claim against a data broker alleged to have published inaccurate information about him has standing by virtue of the alleged violation of his statutory rights and need not demonstrate injury. Robins v. Spokeo, Inc., No. 11-56843, 2014 WL 407366, (9th Cir. Feb. 4, 2014). The district court held that the plaintiff failed to allege an injury in fact because his claims that the inaccurate information harmed, among other things, his ability to obtain employment did not sufficiently allege any actual or imminent harm. Applying its own precedent established in a long-running RESPA case that the U.S. Supreme Court declined to review in 2012, the court held that the violation of a statutory right usually is a sufficient injury to confer standing and that statutory causes of action do not require a showing of actual harm. The court determined that violations of statutory rights created by FCRA are concrete injuries that Congress can elevate to the status of legally cognizable injuries and are therefore sufficient to satisfy Article III’s injury-in-fact requirement. Further, the plaintiff adequately pled causation and redressability because (i) an alleged violation of a statutory provision caused the violation of a right created by that provision; and (ii) FCRA provides for monetary damages to redress the violation. The court reversed the trial court and remanded.
On January 31, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit held that the FDCPA does not impose a requirement that debt disputes be presented in writing and permits debtors to orally dispute the validity of a debt. Clark v. Absolute Collection Serv., Inc., No. 13-1151, 2014 WL 341943 (4th Cir. Jan. 31, 2014). A debt collector moved to dismiss a suit in which the debtor sought to invalidate a debt because the debt collection notice required the debtor’s dispute to be in writing. The debtor argued the notice violated FDCPA section 1692g(a)(3), which provides the basic right to dispute a debt. The debtor also claimed that the writing requirement was a false or deceptive means of collection in violation of section 1692e(10). Considering only the first argument on appeal, the Fourth Circuit joined the Second and Ninth Circuits, but split from the Third Circuit, and held that the “FDCPA clearly defines communications between a debt collector and consumers” and section 1692g(a)(3) “plainly does not” require a written communication to dispute a debt. The court rejected the debt collector’s argument that 1692g(a)(3) imposes an inherent writing requirement.
On January 30, the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York denied the SEC’s motion for an order authorizing alternative means of service for two Chinese nationals residing in the People’s Republic of China. SEC v. China Intelligent Lighting & Electronics, Inc., No. 13 CIV. 5079, 2014 WL 338817 (S.D.N.Y. Jan. 30, 2014). The SEC moved for the order after it was unable to serve two individual defendants in a securities fraud case by means of the Hague Convention on the Service Abroad of Judicial and Extra-Judicial Documents in Civil and Commercial Matters. The court agreed that alternative service would be appropriate, but rejected the SEC’s proposed method of alternative service: publication in the International New York Times and via email. The court held that alternative service is acceptable if it (i) is not prohibited by international agreement, and (ii) if it comports with constitutional notions of due process. Although no international agreement would prevent the SEC’s proposed methods of service, the court held the SEC failed to demonstrate such service was “reasonably calculated, under all the circumstances, to apprise interested parties of the pendency of the action and afford them an opportunity to present their objections.” The court held that the SEC failed to provide evidence that either method of service would actually reach the defendants—it did not provide any information about the distribution of the newspaper and failed to provide evidence the email addresses were accurate and in use by the defendants. The court denied the SEC’s motion without prejudice.