Fourth Circuit Affirms Dismissal Of Class Action Alleging Illegal Mortgage Referrals

On July 10, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit affirmed a district court’s holding that the fees charged by a mortgage company jointly owned by a national bank and a real estate firm did not violate Maryland’s Finder’s Fee Act. Petry v. Prosperity Mortg. Co., No. 13-1869, 2014 WL 3361828 (4th Cir. Jul. 10, 2014). On behalf of similarly situated borrowers, two borrowers sued the bank, the real estate firm, and the mortgage company, claiming that the mortgage company operated as a broker that helped borrowers obtain mortgage loans from the bank. The borrowers alleged that all the fees that the mortgage company charged at closing were “finder’s fees” within the meaning of the Maryland Finder’s Fee Act, and, as such, the company—aided and abetted by the bank and the real estate firm—violated the Finder’s Fee Act (i) by charging finder’s fees in transactions in which it was both the mortgage broker and the lender and (ii) by charging finder’s fees without a separate written agreement providing for them.

After certifying the class the district court advised the borrowers that the fees did not qualify as finder’s fees under state law unless they had been inflated so that the overcharge could disguise the referral fee. When the borrowers acknowledged they could not prove the fees were inflated, the district court entered judgment for the defendants. On appeal, the court agreed with the district court’s conclusion as to the fees at issue, but held for the defendants on different grounds. The appeals court determined that because the mortgage company was identified as the lender in the documents executed at closing, it was not a “mortgage broker” under Finder’s Fee Act and therefore was not subject to the Act’s provisions. As such, the court further determined it need not decide whether the bank and real estate firm could be liable for the mortgage company’s alleged violations under theories of aiding and abetting.

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Supreme Court Upholds Securities Class Action “Fraud On The Market” Theory

On June 23, the U.S. Supreme Court rejected 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, 2014 WL 2807181 (Jun. 23, 2014). 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 price. 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 each individual actually relied in common on a misrepresentation in order to obtain class certification and prevail on the merits. The petitioner argued that empirical evidence no longer supports the economic theory underlying the Court’s holding in Basic allowing 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. The Court declined to upset the precedent set in Basic, holding that the petitioner failed to show a “special justification” for overruling presumption of reliance because petitioner had failed to establish a fundamental shift in economic theory and that Basic’s presumption is not inconsistent with more recent rulings from the Court. The Court also declined to require plaintiffs to prove price impact directly at the class certification stage, but agreed with the petitioner that a 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.

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Illinois Federal Court Rejects Putative Class Challenge To Crediting Of Online Mortgage Payments

On May 27, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois held that a mortgage servicer did not violate Regulation Z when it credited a payment two days after the borrower submitted the payment online. Fridman v. NYCB Mortg. Co., LLC, No. 13-3094, 2014 WL 2198395 (N.D. Ill. May 27, 2014). The borrower filed a putative class action against her mortgage servicer, alleging the servicer violated TILA and Regulation Z by failing to promptly credit her online payments. The court explained that the servicer allows borrowers to submit payments online, but requires borrowers to acknowledge that its ACH process takes two business days to post the payment. In this case, the borrower selected the online payment option, and the delayed payment application resulted in a late fee for the borrower. The court rejected the borrower’s argument that the servicer’s online payment screen is the equivalent of a check, and therefore the date of receipt is when the servicer receives the information—either at the online submission or when the ACH file is created through the nightly batch processing. The court determined based on Regulation E staff commentary that the ACH system utilized by the servicer is an electronic fund transfer system, and determined that the payment at issue fits squarely within the definition of “electronic fund transfer” that is considered received under Regulation Z  “when the mortgage servicer receives the third-party payor’s check or other transfer medium, such as an electronic fund transfer.” Therefore, the court held that the servicer was in compliance with Regulation Z when it credited the account after receiving the transfer of funds from the borrower’s deposit account two days after the borrower submitted her payment online. The court granted the servicer’s motion for summary judgment and dismissed the suit.

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Federal District Court Rejects Putative Class Challenge To Servicer’s Compliance With IFR Order

On May 12, the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Kentucky held that it lacks jurisdiction to review allegations that a mortgage servicer operating under an OCC consent order was negligent in its maintenance of records related to the order. Harris v. Citimortgage, Inc., No. 13-783, slip op. (W.D. Ky. May 12, 2014). The case stems from an amended OCC consent order entered in 2013 as part of the government’s decision to halt the Independent Foreclosure Review Process. The borrower in this action claimed, on behalf of herself and a class of similarly situated borrowers, that one of the settling servicers failed to keep up-to-date records and failed to exercise reasonable care in the maintenance of those records, resulting in the borrower’s foreclosure status being incorrectly classified and the borrower being paid less money under the order than she would have been if she her status had been properly classified. The court explained that the consent order requires the OCC to validate the categorization of borrowers, and that the payments to borrowers are established by the OCC at its discretion. To assess the borrower’s negligence claim, the court would be required to review the OCC’s validation of the borrower’s categorization and payment, which the court is prohibited from doing under federal law. The court dismissed the borrower’s action.

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Third Circuit Denies Rehearing of Class Certification Denial In Class Ascertainability Case

On May 2, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit denied a petition for rehearing en banc in Carrera v. Bayer, 727 F.3d 300 (3d Cir. 2013), a closely-watched case on class ascertainability. Last year, a three-judge panel of the Third Circuit reversed a district court’s certification of a Rule 23(b)(3) class, holding that plaintiffs must present far better evidence of class member ascertainability to achieve certification than “[a] party’s assurance to the court that it intends or plans to meet the requirements [of Rule 23].” 727 F. 3d at 306, quoting In re Hydrogen Peroxide Antitrust Litigation, 552 F.3d 305, 318 (3d Cir. 2008). The plaintiff in the case proposed to ascertain members of a class of purchasers of defendant’s over-the-counter drug product through company sales records that plaintiff assumed (with some support) existed. The district court certified the class, holding although the company lacked records to identify purchasers, class members could be ascertained through loyalty card records, online sales, or affidavits of class members attesting they purchased the product and stating the amount they purchased. Reversing class certification, the three-judge panel rejected plaintiff’s proposal to allow absent class members to self-identify by affidavit. In a 9-4 ruling, the full Third Circuit refused to re-hear the case but the four dissenters criticized the denial. Although Carrera is technically binding only on the federal courts of Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Delaware, the decision may have broad national impact in that the original appeals decision was already being cited in courts across the country.  The end result may be that (i) in the absence of adequate defendant records, class action plaintiffs must take far more significant pre-certification discovery, including subpoenas to third parties, to prove in some detail that records provide the data needed to ascertain class members; and (ii) courts are far less likely to accept class actions or settlements thereof that rely on affidavits alone to prove class membership.

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Ninth Circuit Reverses Denial Of Class Certification In Disparate Impact Case

On April 24, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit reversed a district court’s denial of class certification in a disparate impact age discrimination case, holding that the court erred in considering merits issues when determining class certification. Stockwell v. San Francisco, No. 12-15070, 2014 WL 1623736 (9th Cir. Apr. 24, 2014). The case involves claims brought by a group of police officers on behalf of a putative class alleging workplace age discrimination in violation of the California Fair Employment and Housing Act. The class representatives allege that the city’s promotion policy had a disparate impact on employees over the age of 40. The district court denied the named plaintiffs’ motion to certify the class, holding that the claims failed to satisfy Rule 23(a)(2)’s commonality requirement because the named plaintiffs’ statistical analysis did not establish a general policy of discrimination under Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. v. Dukes, 131 S. Ct. 2541 (2011), and failed to demonstrate that the policy caused any resulting disparate impact. On appeal, the court determined that in considering the statistical analysis, the district court improperly relied on merits issues to reach its conclusion rather than focusing on whether the questions presented were common to the members of the putative class. The Ninth Circuit held that “the officers have identified a single, well-enunciated, uniform policy that, allegedly, generated all the disparate impact of which they complain,” and that “whatever the failings of the class’s statistical analysis, they affect every class member’s claims uniformly.” Further, the court held whether the policy caused the disparate impact is a single significant question of fact common to all class members. The court reversed the district court’s holding on commonality, and remanded for consideration of other class certification prerequisites, including predominance.

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N.D. Cal. Validates Forum Selection Clause In Website’s Hyperlinked Terms Of Use

On April 11, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California held that the forum selection clause within a website’s terms of use provisions, which an online customer had to accept in order to proceed with the transaction, is valid and supports a transfer of the case to another forum. Moretti v. Hertz Corp., No. 13-2972, 2014 WL 1410432 (N.D. Cal. Apr. 11, 2014). An online customer filed a putative class action in California state court against a car rental company and a travel website over a price disclosure dispute. The companies removed the action to federal court and sought to transfer the case to Delaware based on a forum selection clause included in the terms of use provisions on the travel website through which the car rental was arranged. In support of the motion to transfer, the travel website provided employee declarations establishing that the terms of use included a forum selection clause, and that the transaction could not have been completed unless the customer clicked a box to accept the terms of use. The court held that even though the terms of use were provided through a hyperlink on the site, in the absence of affirmative denial from the customer that he did not click to accept the terms of use, the customer had notice and consented to the terms and the forum selection clause contained therein. The court granted the defendants’ transfer motion and ordered the case transferred to the District Court of Delaware.

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SDNY Certifies Interlocutory Appeal In Lender-Placed Insurance Dispute

On April 3, the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York certified an interlocutory appeal of an order denying a motion to dismiss filed by a group of insurers facing class allegations of unlawful lender-placed insurance practices. Rothstein v. GMAC Mortgage, LLC, No. 12-3412, 2014 WL 1329132 (S.D.N.Y. Apr. 3, 2014). In declining to dismiss the case, the court held, among other things, that the filed rate doctrine did not bar borrowers’ claims because the doctrine applies only where the challenged rate is one imposed directly by an insurer, and does not apply to lender-placed insurance where a third-party—the lender or servicer—acquires the insurance at a filed rate and bills the borrower for the costs. On the insurers’ motion for interlocutory appeal, the court held that the issue of whether the filed rate doctrine applies is a question of law that could be dispositive and for which there is substantial ground for a difference of opinion, and that the potential to avoid protracted litigation warranted certification for appeal. BuckleySandler represents the insurers in this action.

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C.D. Cal. Court Holds Overnight Delivery Companies Covered By RESPA

On March 21, in a suit brought by borrowers who had paid overnight delivery fees at closing, the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California held that the overnight delivery services provided by certain delivery companies to a parent company of various escrow companies were “settlement services” under RESPA and concluded that borrowers had pleaded facts sufficient to establish that defendant parent company may have violated RESPA by accepting marketing fees from certain delivery companies in exchange for “referring”—via its escrow subsidiaries—overnight delivery business to those delivery companies. Henson v. Fidelity Nat’l Fin. Inc., No. 14-cv-01240, slip op. (C.D. Cal. Mar. 21, 2014). In this case, the defendant parent company’s allegedly required its escrow subsidiaries to use certain delivery companies in connection with loan closings. Defendant parent company, in turn, allegedly received a marketing fee from those delivery companies based on the volume of business it sent to the delivery companies through its escrow subsidiaries. On the parent company’s motion to dismiss, the court held that the overnight delivery service was a “settlement service” under RESPA given that Regulation X specifically lists a “delivery” as a settlement service if provided in connection with a real estate settlement. The court further held that a “referral” under RESPA need not be linked to particular transactions and thus that a RESPA violation could occur where a master agreement required subsidiaries to use certain delivery service providers in exchange for a marketing fee received by a parent company. However, the court agreed with the defendant that the borrowers failed to adequately plead either a split of an unearned fee or that defendant did not perform any service in exchange for the marketing fee it received. Thus the court denied, in part, and granted, in part, the defendant’s motion to dismiss.

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Seventh Circuit Holds Retailer’s Credit Card Upgrade Program Did Not Violate TILA

On March 19, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit held that a retailer’s credit card upgrade program that replaced existing customers’ limited use store charge cards with unsolicited general use credit cards did not violate TILA, and affirmed the district court’s dismissal of a putative class action. Acosta v. Target Corp., No. 13-2706, 2014 WL 1045202 (7th Cir. Mar. 19, 2014). Under the upgrade program, the retailer automatically issued new general purpose cards to existing store card customers and closed the old account upon either the activation of the new account or rejection by the consumer of the new card. The class representatives claimed that the program constituted an offer to change the underlying account relationship and violated TILA’s prohibition on the mailing of unsolicited credit cards. The court held that the program fell within TILA’s exemption for substitute cards based on the common understanding of “substitution” and the Federal Reserve Board staff’s Regulation Z commentary. The court also rejected the cardholders’ argument that they were fraudulently induced to accept the new card. The court determined that the retailer disclosed the reasons for a change in the APR and did not raise the rate unless payments were missed, and sufficiently disclosed the potential for a change in credit limit. The court also held that the retailer’s omission of the fact that cardholders could take steps to retain their store card account was not fraudulent, and added that to hold otherwise would require the retailer “to disclose any condition that could theoretically be negotiated with the card issuer.” The court also affirmed the dismissal of the cardholders’ breach of contract and tortious interference claims.

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Data Breach Class Settlement Approved After Eleventh Circuit Held Identity Theft Following Breach Presents Cognizable Injury

Recently, the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida approved a class settlement in a case in which the plaintiffs claimed financial harm from a health care company’s failure to protect their personal information. Resnick v. AvMed Inc., No. 10-24513 (S.D. Fla. Feb. 28, 2014). The settlement follows a September 2012 decision from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit, in which the court reversed the district court’s dismissal of the case and held that because the complaint alleged financial injury, and because monetary loss is cognizable under Florida law, the plaintiffs alleged a cognizable injury. The court explained that the plaintiffs demonstrated “a sufficient nexus between the data breach and the identity theft beyond allegations of time and sequence” because the plaintiffs plead that they were careful in protecting their identities and had never been victims of identity theft. The settlement requires the company to pay $3 million, with each class member receiving up to $10 for each year they paid an insurance premium, up to a maximum of $30. The company also agreed to implement new data security measures.

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EDNY Judge Substantially Narrows Claims In Consolidated Overdraft Class Actions

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.

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SCOTUS Holds State-Law Securities Class Actions Not Precluded By Federal Law

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.

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Class Action Alleging Servicers Engaged in Loan Modification Fraud Dismissed 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.

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SCOTUS Holds State AG Action Not A Mass Action Subject to CAFA

On January 14, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously held that an action filed by a state attorney general seeking restitution on behalf of hundreds of the state’s citizens who are not themselves parties to the action is not a “mass action” within the meaning of the Class Action Fairness Act (CAFA), and that such a suit cannot be removed to or filed in federal court under that Act. Mississippi ex rel. Hood v. AU Optronics Corp., No. 12-1036, 2014 WL 113485 (Jan. 14, 2013). In this case, defendants in a civil suit brought by the Mississippi Attorney General on behalf of allegedly harmed state citizens sought to invoke CAFA’s provision allowing the removal of “mass actions,” those “in which monetary relief claims of 100 or more persons are proposed to be tried jointly on the ground that the plaintiffs’ claims involve common ques­tions of law or fact.” The district court and Fifth Circuit looked to the “real parties in interest”—the more than 100 allegedly harmed state citizens—and determined that the case qualified as a mass action. The Court disagreed and held that under a plain reading of CAFA, “100 or more persons” refers to named plaintiffs, not unnamed parties in interest. The Court explained that (i) CAFA uses “persons” and “plaintiffs” the same way they are used in Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 20, i.e. as individuals who are proposing to join as “plaintiffs” in a single action; and (ii) “claims of 100 or more” unnamed indi­viduals cannot be “proposed to be tried jointly on the ground that the. . . claims” of some completely different group of named plaintiffs “involve common questions of law or fact.” Further, the Court determined that (i) the CAFA provision that a “mass action” removed to federal court may not be transferred unless a majority of plaintiffs so request would be unworkable if “plaintiffs” included unnamed real parties in interest; and (ii) Congress did not intend that courts conduct an inquiry into the real parties in interest. The Court declined to reach the issue of whether other state attorney general cases could be deemed class actions under different facts. In the rulings below, both the district and appeals courts rejected defendants’ argument that the suit was a class action. The Court also did not reach the issue present in the underlying decisions of whether the suit fell within the “general public” exemption to CAFA mass actions.

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