On November 27, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit held that HUD’s supplemental ten factor test for determining whether RESPA’s affiliated business arrangements safe harbor applies is not entitled to deference or persuasive weight, and determined that a real estate agency and its affiliated title servicers companies satisfied RESPA’s statutory affiliated business arrangements safe harbor provision. Carter v. Welles-Bowen Realty, Inc., No. 10-3922, 2013 WL 6183851 (6th Cir. Nov. 27, 2013). On behalf of a putative class, a group of homebuyers who used a real estate agency’s settlement services claimed that the agency and two title services companies violated RESPA’s referral fee prohibition. The agency and title companies asserted that they satisfied RESPA’s affiliated business arrangements safe harbor provision because (i) they disclosed the arrangement to the homebuyers, (ii) the homebuyers were free to reject the referral, and (iii) the companies only received a return from the referral through their ownership interest. The homebuyers countered that the companies must also demonstrate that they were bona fide providers of settlement services under HUD’s ten factor test for distinguishing sham business arrangements, which HUD established in a 1996 policy statement. A district court granted summary judgment in favor of the companies, finding that HUD’s ten factor test was void for unconstitutional vagueness. On appeal, the Sixth Circuit affirmed but on different grounds. The Sixth Circuit held that HUD’s policy statement is not entitled to Chevron or Skidmore deference because the statement provides only ambiguous guidelines HUD intends to consider rather than HUD’s interpretation of the statute. As a result, the companies’ compliance with the three conditions set out in the statute sufficed to obtain the exemption under the affiliated business safe harbor provision. The Sixth Circuit noted that “a statutory safe harbor is not very safe if a federal agency may add a new requirement to it through a policy statement.”
On December 5, ACLU-affiliated entities and borrower advocacy groups filed a lawsuit in the Northern District of California seeking to compel FHFA to produce “all [FHFA] records pertaining to the use of eminent domain to purchase mortgages.” Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment v. Fed. Hous. Fin. Agency, No. 13-5618 (N.D. Cal. Dec. 5, 2013). Specifically, the plaintiffs seek to compel FHFA to respond to a FOIA request that demanded, among other things, (i) all communications and records of meetings between FHFA leadership and financial services industry trade associations and individual companies; (ii) all FHFA records regarding the City of Richmond’s proposal to seize certain mortgages; and (iii) all studies and analyses of the impact of eminent domain or principal reduction proposals relied upon by FHFA in support of materials it released in August 2013 outlining potential actions the agency could take in response to local efforts to employ eminent domain to seize mortgages. The complaint details the organizations’ position on eminent domain as a tool to implement principal reduction, which the organizations complain FHFA has improperly failed to pursue on its own. The request and complaint suggest that FHFA’s eminent domain position was unduly influenced by the financial services industry and “is advancing the interests of Wall Street firms at the expense of the nation’s homeowners.” This latest challenge of FHFA’s positions on eminent domain and principle reduction precede, potentially by days, an anticipated vote to confirm Representative Mel Watt (D-NC) to serve as FHFA Director.
On December 2, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit held that a set of parens patriae suits filed by the Mississippi Attorney General (AG) against credit card issuers is not subject to federal jurisdiction under the Class Action Fairness Act (CAFA) or National Bank Act (NBA) preemption. Hood v. JP Morgan Chase & Co., No. 13-60686, 2013 WL 6230960 (5th Cir. Dec. 2, 2013). The consolidated appeal involves cases originally filed by the AG in state court against six credit card issuers for allegedly violating the Mississippi Consumer Protection Act in connection with the marketing, sale, and administering of certain ancillary products, including payment protection plans. After the card issuers removed the cases, a federal district court denied the state’s motion to remand, holding that it had subject matter jurisdiction because: (i) the cases were CAFA mass actions; (ii) the NBA (and the Depository Institutions Deregulation and Monetary Control Act for one state-chartered bank defendant) preempted some of the state law claims; and (iii) it had supplemental jurisdiction over the remaining state law claims. The Sixth Circuit disagreed and held that the card issuers failed to prove that any card holder met CAFA’s individual amount in controversy requirement, rejecting the issuers’ argument that the state is the real party in interest and its claims for restitution and civil penalties exceed the threshold. The court also rejected the issuers’ argument—and the district court’s holding—that the payment protection plans were part of the loan agreement and the fees associated with the plans constitute “interest,” such that the state’s challenge to the plans was an implicit usury claim preempted by the NBA. Instead, the court held that while the plans could conceivably fit within the definition of “interest,” there is no clear rule on this subject that demands removal. Moreover, the court held that even if the payment protection plan fees are “interest,” the claims still would not be preempted because the state does not allege that the issuers charged too much interest, but rather challenges the alleged practice of improperly enrolling customers in the plans. The court reversed the district court and remanded for further proceedings consistent with its opinion.
On November 26, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit held that mortgage servicers are exempted from TILA liability, despite recent amendments to the statute. Marais v. Chase Home Fin. LLC, No. 12-4248, 2013 WL 6170977 (6th Cir. Nov. 26, 2013). A borrower had alleged that her servicer violated TILA by failing to properly respond to her written request for information regarding her loan. The Sixth Circuit rejected the borrower’s argument that amendments to TILA as part of the Helping Families Save Their Homes Act of 2009 created a cause of action against mere servicers, and held that servicers who are not creditors or creditor assignees are expressly exempt from TILA liability. The court, however, held that the servicer could be liable under RESPA for damages caused by its purported deficient response to the borrower’s request for information.
On November 21, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit held that the federal Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA) does not preempt an Indiana statute that bans most robocalls without exempting calls that are not made for a commercial purpose. Patriotic Veterans, Inc. v. State of Indiana, No. 11-3265, 2013 WL 6114836 (7th Cir. Nov. 21, 2013). A not-for-profit Illinois corporation seeking to use automatically dialed interstate phone calls to deliver political messages to Indiana residents sought a declaration that the Indiana Automated Dialing Machine Statute (IADMS) violates the First Amendment, at least as it applies to political messages, and also is preempted by the TCPA, which expressly exempts non-commercial calls such as political calls from the TCPA’s regulation of autodialers. Overturning the district court’s decision, the Seventh Circuit found that the Indiana statute is not expressly preempted by the TCPA because the plain language of the TCPA’s savings clause states that the federal law does not preempt any state law that prohibits the use of automatic telephone dialing systems and, even if the IADMS is considered a regulation of, rather than a prohibition on, the use of autodialers, the savings clause does not at all address state laws that impose interstate regulations on their use. The court further found that the IADMS is not impliedly preempted by the TCPA because it is possible to comply with the state statute without violating the TCPA, the state statute furthers the TCPA’s purpose of protecting the privacy interests of residential telephone subscribers, and Congress did not intend to create field preemption when it enacted the TCPA. The court, however, remanded the case to the district court to consider whether the statute violates the First Amendment.
Recently, the New York Court of Appeals, in answering questions , held that no private right of action exists for judgment debtors to seek money damages and injunctive relief against banks that allegedly violate New York’s Exempt Income Protection Act (EIPA) procedural requirements. In this case, two groups of judgment debtor plaintiffs alleged that their banks failed to provide them and other members of putative classes with exemption notices and claim forms as required by the EIPA, and asserted that the banks unlawfully froze their accounts and charged them various fees in violation of the statute. The federal district courts held that the EIPA, which provides a special exemption from satisfaction of money judgments for certain amounts and types of a debtor’s income, permits judgment debtors and creditors to bring claims against each other but provides no private right of action against the banks. On a consolidated appeal, the Second Circuit asked New York’s highest court to address the issue, given (i) there was no controlling precedent in New York that governs the cases and (ii) the questions presented involve important issues of New York state law and policy that are likely to recur. The New York Court of Appeals agreed with the federal district courts that a private right of action cannot be implied from the EIPA. As to whether judgment debtors can seek money damages and injunctive relief against banks that violate EIPA in special proceedings and, if so, whether those special proceedings are the exclusive mechanism for such relief or whether judgment debtors may also seek relief in a plenary action, the New York Court of Appeals held that the banks had no obligation under the common law to provide the notices and form, and therefore any right debtors have to enforce that obligation arises from the statute.
Federal District Court Holds Evidence Of Online Notice Regarding Arbitration Policy Change Alone Insufficient To Support Arbitration Demand
On December 2, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California denied a bank’s motion to compel arbitration, in part because the bank failed to provide evidence that its customer received an online notice of a contract change that added the arbitration clause. Martin v. Wells Fargo Bank, N.A., No. 12-6030, slip op. (N.D. Cal. Dec. 2, 2013). In this case, a bank customer filed suit alleging the bank violated the Telephone Consumer Protection Act and the state’s Unfair Competition Law. The bank moved to compel arbitration, claiming that it properly amended the controlling customer agreement to include the arbitration clause at issue by providing written notice in a billing insert, and by providing the same notice online to customers who logged into their account. The court held that the bank failed to demonstrate the customer logged on to her online account and received the notice at issue. Similarly, the court explained that the bank’s supporting declaration only stated that the customer’s account was “targeted to receive” the written notice, but the bank did not state the customer actually was provided with the notice. The court also questioned whether the amendment adding the arbitration clause was fair, explaining that the original customer agreement allowed the bank to amend “charges, fees, or other information contained in the disclosure” and suggested that the original agreement’s terms did not indicate the addition of an arbitration agreement was an anticipated modification.
Florida Appeals Court Affirms Dismissal Of State Qui Tam FCA Lawsuit Alleging Failure To Pay Stamp Tax Upon Assignment
On November 21, the Florida First District Court of Appeals affirmed the dismissal of a qui tam false claims act lawsuit against a lender, securitization trust, and MERS for the recovery of allegedly unpaid documentary stamp taxes associated with certain assignments of mortgage notes. Stevens v. State of Florida, No. 1D13-1206, 2013 WL 6097312 (Fl. Ct. App. Nov. 20, 2013). Appellants, two Florida residents, sought to recover the alleged unpaid taxes on behalf of the State of Florida as relators under the Florida False Claims Act (FFCA), as well as a cut of the recovered proceeds. But the First District Court of Appeal affirmed the trial court’s determination that it lacked subject matter jurisdiction under the FFCA to address Appellants’ claims. Specifically, the First District found that Florida’s Tax Act—not the FFCA—governed private actions like Appellants’ where a plaintiff sought recovery for a failure to pay taxes. Analyzing the Tax Act and FFCA under well-settled principles of statutory construction, including that specific statutes trump general statutes and that legislatures are presumed to be aware of existing laws when they pass new ones, the court of appeals determined that the Tax Act, which vests the Florida Department of Revenue with the power to compensate tax whistleblowers, precluded Appellants’ FFCA claim. BuckleySandler attorneys Matthew Previn, Andrew Louis, and Bradley Marcus represented the lender, GE Money Bank, which is now known as GE Capital Retail Bank, in the successful lower court action and subsequent successful appeal.
On November 14, the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of West Virginia denied motions to dismiss filed by former officers and directors of a failed federal thrift who allegedly contributed to the bank’s collapse by failing to exercise due diligence and monitor the bank’s relationship with a third party mortgage loan originator. FDIC v. Baldini, No. 12-0750, 2013 WL 6044412 (S.D. W.Va. Nov. 14, 2013). The former bank officers and directors moved to dismiss the FDIC’s negligence claims, filed as conservators for the failed thrift, arguing that the business judgment rule operates as a substantive rule of law that immunizes the directors and officers from liability for the alleged ordinary negligence. The court held that it is too early in the case to decide whether the officers and directors are entitled to business judgment rule protection. The court reasoned that determining whether the rule applies requires a fact-intensive investigation that is not appropriate for resolution on a 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss. The court noted that even if the rule applies, the FDIC should be permitted an opportunity to rebut that presumption. The court also held that the FDIC’s claims satisfy Twombly and Iqbal pleading requirements by sufficiently alleging that the directors and officers “essentially abdicated oversight completely” in the context of the thrift’s relationship with the third-party broker, which the court held was enough to support claims of not only ordinary, but gross negligence.
On November 15, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear a challenge to the long-standing “fraud-on-the-market” theory, on which securities class actions often are based. Halliburton v. Erica P. John Fund Inc., No. 13-317, 2013 WL 4858670 (Nov. 15, 2013). Halliburton petitioned the Court after an appeals court relied on the theory to affirm class certification in a securities suit against the company, even after the appeals court acknowledged that no company misrepresentation affected its stock process. As explained in the petition, the theory at issue derives from the Court’s holding in Basic Inc. v. Levinson, 485 U.S. 224 (1988) that a putative class of investors should not be required to prove that they actually relied in common on a misrepresentation in order to obtain class certification and prevail on the merits. The petitioner argues that Basic instead allows putative class members to invoke a classwide presumption of reliance based on the concept that all investors relied on the misrepresentations when they purchased stock at a price distorted by those misrepresentations. Halliburton has asked the Court to determine (i) whether the Court should overrule or substantially modify the holding of Basic, to the extent that it recognizes a presumption of classwide reliance derived from the fraud-on-the-market theory; and (ii) whether, in a case where the plaintiff invokes the presumption of reliance to seek class certification, the defendant may rebut the presumption and prevent class certification by introducing evidence that the alleged misrepresentations did not distort the market price of its stock.
On November 5, the Court of Appeal of Louisiana, Fourth Circuit, affirmed a trial court’s holding that it lacked personal jurisdiction over a dispute that involved only one sale of goods over the Internet to a Louisiana-based customer. BioClin BV v. MultiGyn USA, LLC, No. 2012-CA-0962, 2013 WL 5935233 (La. Ct. App. Nov. 5, 2013). A Dutch company appealed a trial court’s decision to dismiss for lack of personal jurisdiction the company’s suit against a Florida based web-retailer for infringement. On appeal, the court affirmed, holding that the company failed to establish that the defendant’s one-time sale of goods into Louisiana over the Internet subjected the defendant to that state’s courts, and that “extenuating personal jurisdiction would not comport with the notions of fair play and substantial justice.” Relying on the sliding scale established in Zippo Mfg. Co. v. Zippo Dot Com, Inc., 952 F. Supp. 1119, to assess whether a website has minimum contacts with a forum state sufficient to invoke personal jurisdiction, the appeals court explained that the “mere creation of a website, does not constitute purposeful availment of the forum benefits,” nor does a one-time sale of goods through that website into the state.
On November 13, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit held that where a creditor hires a third party to send collection letters but does not rely on the third party for any other bona fide efforts to collect the debts, the creditor can be held liable for violating the FDCPA under the statute’s false name exception to creditor immunity. Vincent v. The Money Store, No. 11-4525, 2013 WL 5989446 (2nd Cir. Nov. 13, 2013). In this case, a group of debtors filed a putative class action against a mortgage lender who purchased mortgages initially payable to other lenders and subsequently hired a law firm to send allegedly deceptive collection letters to borrowers on the lender’s behalf. Although creditors generally are not considered debt collectors subject to the FDCPA, the court determined in this case that a statutory exception to creditor immunity applied because the creditor, in the process of collecting its own debts, used a name other than its own, which typically would indicate that a third party is collecting or attempting to collect such debts. The court explained that the appropriate inquiry to determine whether a representation to a debtor indicates that a third party is collecting or attempting to collect is whether the third party is making bona fide attempts to collect the debts of the creditor or whether it is merely operating as a “conduit” for a collection process that the creditor controls. Because that inquiry requires a factual determination and because a jury could find that the law firm was acting only as a conduit for the lender, the lender could be held liable if the letters falsely indicated that the law firm was collecting the debt. The court affirmed the district court’s dismissal of the debtors’ TILA claims, holding that because the mortgage documents did not name the lender as the person to whom the debt was initially payable, the lender is not a “creditor” under TILA. However, after a review of TILA’s legislative history, the court identified for Congress an apparent oversight in TILA that “allows an assignee to escape TILA liability when it overcharges the debtor and collects unauthorized fees, where the original creditor would otherwise be required to refund the debtor promptly.” The court remanded the action for further proceedings.
On November 11, a U.S. Magistrate Judge for the U.S. District Court for the District of Connecticut recommended that the District Court grant the U.S. Attorney’s motion, filed on behalf of the federal-state RMBS Working Group, to enforce a subpoena seeking information and documents from a firm that performed due-diligence work on mortgage loans and loan pools for numerous financial institutions. U.S. v. Clayton Holdings, No. 3:13mc116 (D. Conn. Nov. 11, 2013). In its opposition, the diligence firm objected to the subpoena as a “fishing expedition” that would require it to produce information for all 193 of its clients, even after it has cooperated as a third-party witness in connection with 16 companies the Working Group has identified as subjects of its RMBS investigations. Generally, the magistrate determined that the government’s request was not overly broad and burdensome, and recommended that the court order the firm to produce, for the period 2005 through 2007, (i) its entire database and all data used, maintained, or accessed in connection with due diligence services on mortgage loans and mortgage loan pools, and (ii) all communications, including e-mails, instant messages, or Bloomberg messages, concerning the provision of due diligence services on mortgage loans and mortgage loan pools. The recommended ruling does restrict the response to information and documents related to work performed for specific financial institution clients. The parties have until November 25 to object to the recommendation.
Special Alert: Settlement In Key Fair Housing Case Moves Forward, Supreme Court Unlikely To Hear Appeal
Last night, the Mount Holly, New Jersey Township Council voted to approve a settlement agreement that will resolve the underlying claims at issue in a closely watched Fair Housing Act (FHA) appeal pending before the U.S. Supreme Court, Township of Mount Holly v. Mt. Holly Gardens Citizens in Action, Inc., No. 11-1507. The agreement is subject to approval by the U.S. District Court for the District of New Jersey, after which we expect that the Supreme Court appeal will be withdrawn.
The Court had agreed to address one of two disparate impact-related questions presented in the appeal—specifically, the threshold question of whether disparate impact claims are cognizable under the FHA. Under current interpretation by several agencies and some Circuit Courts of Appeal, disparate impact theory allows government and private plaintiffs to establish “discrimination” based solely on the results of a neutral policy without having to show any intent to discriminate (or even in the demonstrated absence of intent to discriminate). Though not a lending case, the appeal could have offered the Supreme Court its first opportunity to rule on the issue of whether the FHA permits plaintiffs to bring claims under a disparate impact theory.
Instead, for the second time in two years, it appears likely that opportunity has been eliminated by a settlement entered shortly before the Court could decide the matter. Last year, the parties in Gallagher v. Magner, 619 F.3d 823 (8th Cir. 2010) similarly settled and withdrew their Supreme Court appeal before the Court had an opportunity to decide the case. The Magner parties’ decision to settle and withdrawal the appeal was followed by numerous congressional inquiries into whether federal authorities intervened to assist the parties in reaching a settlement in order to avoid Supreme Court review of a prized legal theory. One member of Congress has already initiated a similar inquiry with regard to the resolution of Mt. Holly. Read more…
On November 6, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California dismissed without prejudice as not yet ripe for determination a suit by investors seeking to preempt a California city’s plan to use its eminent domain authority to seize certain mortgages. Bank of N.Y. Mellon v. City of Richmond, No. 13-cv-3664-CRB, slip op. (N.D. Cal. Nov. 6, 2013). The court described the suit as “nearly identical” to one the court dismissed in September. Wells Fargo Bank, N.A. v. City of Richmond, No. 13-3663, slip op. (N.D. Cal. Sept. 16, 2013). The court held that the investors’ claims are not ripe under Article III considerations, explaining that allowing the parties to intervene before the city formally implements the program by actually attempting to use its eminent domain power to seize a loan would stretch the role of the judiciary beyond what is reasonable to maintain judicial efficiency. The court was not persuaded by the investor’s argument that, unlike in the prior dismissed action, the investors here requested and briefed declaratory relief, which should be subject to a relaxed standard. Further, the court held the claims are not ripe under a prudential doctrine, reasoning that (i) the case is not fit for review because an actual dispute has not yet materialized and is dependent on a factual scenario that may never play out, and (ii) the investors face no imminent, irreparable harm.