D.C. Federal District Court Dismisses Lawsuit Seeking to Block $13 Billion DOJ Settlement

On March 18, the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia dismissed a lawsuit brought by a non-profit organization challenging the $13 billion global settlement agreement entered by the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) and a national financial services firm and banking institution arising out of the 2008 financial crisis. Better Markets, Inc. v. U.S. Dept. of Justice, No. CV 14-190 (BAH), 2015 WL 1246104 (D.D.C. Mar. 18, 2015). The plaintiff—an advocacy group founded to “promote the public interest in the financial markets”—alleged that the DOJ’s decision to enter into the 2013 settlement agreement with the firm was in violation of the Constitution, the Administrative Procedure Act, and FIRREA. The court dismissed the lawsuit on grounds that the advocacy group lacked standing, concluding that the group had failed to show “a cognizable harm, or that the relief it seeks will redress its alleged injuries.”

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Fed and OCC Assert Bank Examination Privilege in Mortgage-Backed Securities Class Action

On March 23, the Federal Reserve and the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency – both non-parties in the suit – filed briefs requesting that a district court reject a motion to compel discovery of over 30,000 documents held by a large bank.  Arguing that the documents contain confidential supervisory information, the regulators asserted the bank examination privilege – “a qualified privilege that protects communications between banks and their examiners in order to preserve absolute candor essential to the effective supervision of banks.”  As for scope, the regulators argued that the privilege covers the documents because they provide agency opinion, not merely fact, and that any factual information was nonetheless “inextricably linked” with their opinions.  Additionally, they contended that the privilege is not strictly limited to communications from the regulator to the bank – instead, it may also cover communications made from the bank to the regulator and communications within the bank.  As for procedure, the regulators claimed that a plaintiff is required to request the disclosure of privileged documents through administrative processes before seeking judicial relief, a requirement they contend exists even where a defendant bank also holds copies of the documents. Finally, the regulators argued in the alternative that the lead plaintiff has not shown good cause to override the qualified privilege, as the interests of the government in protecting the supervisory information outweighs the interest of the plaintiffs in production.

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Large Retailer Agrees to Pay $10 Million Related to Data Breach Incident

On March 19, a district court granted preliminary approval in which a large retailer agreed to pay $10 million to settle a class-action action suit related to a 2013 data breach, which resulted in the compromise of at least 40 million credit cards and theft of personal information of up to 110 million people. Under the proposed settlement, the retailer will deposit the settlement amount into escrow to pay individual victims up to $10,000 in damages. In addition, the proposed settlement requires the retailer to (i) maintain a written information security program and (ii) appoint a Chief Information Security Officer. The proposed settlement is pending court approval.

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Financial Institutions File Class Action Suit In Response to Data Breach

On March 13, a federal credit union filed a class action suit against a national retailer and parent company, alleging their actions during a September 2014 data breach injured credit unions, banks, and other financial institutions. Greater Chautauqua FCU v. Kmart Corp and Sears Holdings Corp., No. 15-cv-2228, (N.D.Ill. Mar.13,2015) The complaint contends that financial institutions (i) were required to, among other things, refund fraudulent charges, respond to a higher volume of customer complaints, and increase fraud monitoring efforts, and (ii) lost revenue due to a decrease in card usage after the breach was disclosed.  The complaint alleges that the retailer failed to maintain adequate data security under applicable payment card industry standards, particularly in the wake of well-publicized data breaches at other retailers by third parties using similar techniques and malicious software. Moreover, the retailer failed to detect or notify customers for a period of at least five weeks. The complaint was filed in US District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, and alleges damages in excess of $5,000,000 for violations of the Illinois Personal Information Protection Act, the Illinois Consumer Fraud and Deceptive Business Act, and New York General Business Law, as well as negligence, and negligent misrepresentation and/or omission.

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Supreme Court Grants Federal Agencies Wide Discretion in Interpreting Regulations

On March 9, the Supreme Court unanimously ruled that the Administrative Procedure Act (APA) does not require federal agencies to go through the formal rulemaking process when making changes to rules interpreting regulations, or “interpretive rules,” even if those changes are significant. This decision, Perez v. Mortgage Bankers Association, is of impactful significance to federal agencies and regulated entities alike because it overrules long-standing precedent—known as the D.C. Circuit’s Paralyzed Veterans doctrine—that required agencies to engage the public in the formal notice-and-comment period before issuing new interpretations of previously promulgated regulations. Here, the Court held that the Paralyzed Veterans doctrine is contrary to the APA’s rulemaking previsions and imposes unwarranted procedural obligations on federal agencies.

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Eleventh Circuit Holds Settlement Service Fees Do Not Violate RESPA

On March 2, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit dismissed a homeowner’s claim that a title company violated RESPA fee-splitting bans during a refinanced mortgage closing by holding that if any real estate settlement service is rendered during a closing, fee charges for these services do not violate RESPA—regardless of whether such service is appropriate. A homeowner asserted that under state law, all real estate closing services are to be provided by a licensed attorney. Here, the title company performed all closing services and merely contracted with a law firm to provide an attorney to witness the closing, arguably not satisfying the law. The homeowner also claimed the title company unlawfully marked-up the recording fee and split it with the recording office. While holding that the homeowner satisfied standing requirements by alleging an unpaid refund as injury, the court declined to find that the title company violated RESPA. The court opined that even if it is illegal under state law to charge a settlement fee for services performed by a non-lawyer, services by both the title company and a law firm were performed nonetheless. Determining whether the fees were appropriate is not within the purview of the court or RESPA’s requirements. The marking-up of the recording fee also did not violate RESPA because both the title company and the recording office actually performed a service. The court subsequently dismissed the homeowner’s federal claims and remanded her state claims to the district court.

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Illinois Federal Court Allows FCRA Lawsuit Against Credit Reporting Company to Move Forward

On February 5, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois denied a credit reporting company’s motion to compel arbitration in a putative class action which alleged that the company sold credit scores to consumers that differed from the scores the company provided to lenders due to contrasting credit scoring models. The plaintiff alleged this practice violated provisions of the Fair Credit Reporting Act, Illinois Consumer Fraud and Deceptive Business Practices Act, and Missouri Merchandizing Practices Act, and that the credit reporting company was negligent in failing to inform consumers of the conflicting scores. The credit reporting company sought to compel arbitration on the basis of arbitration terms embedded in language in an online purchase agreement. Read more…

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U.S. Supreme Court To Hear Arguments Involving Guarantor-Spouse’s Eligibility for ECOA Protection

On March 2, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear arguments to resolve claims as to whether spousal guarantors could assert ECOA as a defense against a bank’s collection efforts requiring them to guarantee their spouse’s loans. In the case at bar, two men borrowed more than $2 million to fund a real estate development company, and their wives guaranteed the loan. Subsequently, the husbands were unable to make payments and the bank declared default and ordered payment both from the company and the wives as guarantors. Later, the wives filed suit against the bank claiming the bank’s requirement that they guarantee the loans as a condition of the credit constituted discrimination on the basis of marital status. The lower court granted summary judgment in favor of the bank, and the Eighth Circuit affirmed, finding the wives were not “applicants” for credit under ECOA. Hawkins v. Community Bank of Raymore, 761 F.3d 937 (8th Cir. 2014) cert. granted, No. 14-520, 2015 WL 852422 (U.S. Mar. 2, 2015)

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International Bank to Pay $30 Million to Resolve Overdraft Fee Allegations

On March 2, an international bank agreed to pay $30 million to settle allegations that it changed the order in which customers’ debit transactions cleared in order to generate additional overdraft fees. According to the plaintiffs, the bank engaged in a practice known as “high-to-low” posting, whereby a bank orders transactions from the largest to the smallest dollar amount before posting them to the customer’s account. The bank also charged a $35 fee for each overdraft, regardless of the amount of the transaction. The plaintiffs allege that, when combined, these practices increased the number of overdraft fees paid by some customers because processing the largest charges first depleted their funds more quickly and increased the total number of transactions that failed to clear. The bank appropriately defended its practices, contending, among other things, that the claims were preempted by the National Bank Act and barred by the Uniform Commercial Code, and that the deposit agreement provided for discretion to order transactions. The settlement is scheduled to face a fairness hearing and final approval by the court.

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FTC and New York AG File Joint Suits Against Debt Collectors

On February 26, the FTC and the New York State Attorney General announced joint lawsuits to cease certain practices of two debt collection operations based in upstate New York.  The complaints allege that the defendants unlawfully used threats and abusive language, including false threats that consumers would be arrested, to collect more than $45 million in supposed debts.  The FTC and the State of New York are also seeking monetary relief to provide refunds to consumers.  FTC v. 4 Star Resolution LLC, No. 1:15-cv-00112-WMS (W.D.N.Y. Feb. 9, 2015), FTC v. Vantage Point Services, LLC, No. 1:15-cv-00006-WMS (W.D.N.Y. Jan. 5, 2015).  The District Court has temporarily enjoined the defendants’ practices in both cases.

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Eleventh Circuit Ruling Gives Large Bank Another Chance at Arbitration

On an appeal of five putative class actions alleging the unlawful charging of overdraft fees on consumer checking accounts, On February 10, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit vacated a lower court order holding that the defendant’s waiver of its right to compel arbitration with the named plaintiffs precludes the Bank from compelling arbitration with any unnamed members of the putative classes.  In re Checking Account Overdraft Litigation, No. 13-12082 (11th Cir. Feb. 10, 2015).  The panel held that the lower court lacked jurisdiction to resolve the question.  Additionally, it held that the named plaintiffs lacked standing, under Article III of the U.S. Constitution, to advance claims on behalf of those unnamed putative class members, who—in the absence of class certification—have “no justiciable controversy” with the Bank.

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District Court Denies Motion to Dismiss in Ongoing CFPB Litigation

On February 12, 2015 the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Kentucky held that claims presented by the CFPB regarding a Kentucky-based law firm’s alleged violations of Section 8 of the Real Estate Settlement Procedures Act (“RESPA”) were legally plausible and denied the Defendants’ motion for judgment on the pleadings. The CFPB’s complaint—filed in October 2013 (as reported in InfoBytes Blog)—purported that principals of the law firm received illegal kickbacks for client referrals paid in the form of “profit distributions” from a network of affiliated title insurance companies.  Additionally, it was asserted that the affiliated companies did not provide settlement services, thereby failing to comply with RESPA’s safe harbor for affiliated business agreements.  12 U.S.C. § 2607(c)(4).  The Court stated that there was enough “factual detail” presented within the complaint for it to plausibly conclude that the firm had “committed the alleged misconduct,” that the Defendant failed to meet the first safe harbor element, and that the notice of the claim in the case had been “more than sufficient.”  The memorandum also stated that the statute of limitations, which Defendants attempted to leverage, offered no guidance as to whether the firm was “entitled to judgment” on the pleadings, leading the Court to render its decision for the CFPB. CFPB v. Borders & Borders, PLLC, et al., No. 3:13-cv-1047-jgh (W.D. KY. February 12, 2015).

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Large Global Bank Settles Legacy Claims Surrounding Mortgage-Backed Securities

On February 2, a major bank agreed to a $500 million settlement to resolve years of litigation surrounding the sale of mortgage securities by Bear Stearns, which the company acquired. In re: Bear Stearns Mortgage Pass-Through Certificates Litigation, No. 1:08-cv-08093-LTS (S.D.N.Y. Feb. 2, 2015). The litigation concerned the sale of $17.58 billion in mortgage securities by Bear Stearns, and alleged that the former investment bank “misrepresented the quality of the loans in the loan pools.”  Although investors did not accuse Bear Stearns of fraud, they alleged that it was strictly liable and negligent for the losses incurred, evidenced by the downgrading of most mortgage certificates from a AAA rating to below investment grade, or “junk” status.  In the settlement, the New York-based institution denied any wrongdoing relating to the mortgage sales of Bear Stearns, which occurred during 2006-2007 prior to acquisition.

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Fair Housing Organization Files Suit for Alleged Racial Bias

On February 3, the Fair Housing Justice Center (FHJC), a regional fair housing non-profit organization based in New York City, filed a complaint alleging that a large bank discriminated in its mortgage lending practices on the basis of race and national origin. According to the complaint, the organization hired nine “testers” of various racial backgrounds to inquire about obtaining a mortgage for first-time homebuyers. Specifically, the complaint claims that the bank’s loan officers (i) used neighborhood racial demographics to steer minority testers to racially segregated neighborhoods and (ii) offered different loan terms and conditions based on race or national origin. The plaintiff is seeking compensatory and punitive damages and injunctive relief to ensure compliance with fair housing and fair lending laws. FHJC et al v. M&T Bank Corp., No-15-cv-779 (S.D. NY. Feb. 3, 2014).

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Silk Road Operator Found Guilty

On February 4, a federal jury found Ross Ulbricht guilty on all seven federal charges brought against him in connection with his role in operating the Silk Road website, including narcotics and money laundering charges. According to the government, Mr. Ulbricht created, owned, and operated the website, which functioned as a criminal marketplace for illegal goods and services until the website was shut down in October 2013. This marketplace allowed individuals to sell controlled substances and illegal services, and included a Bitcoin-based payment system that allowed buyers and sellers to conceal their identities. According to Ulbricht’s attorneys, while Ulbricht did create the Silk Road, he turned over operation of the website to other individuals who eventually grew the site into the vast criminal marketplace.  Ulbricht faces a sentence of 20 years to life in prison and is scheduled to be sentenced by Judge Forrest on May 15.  Ulbricht’s attorney described the verdict as “very disappointing” and is planning to appeal. U.S. v. Ulbricht, No-14-cr-68 (S.D. NY. Feb. 3, 2014).

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