On January 15, an Army Reserve sergeant filed a class action suit against a large national bank for allegedly violating the SCRA limitation on a lender’s ability to foreclose on an active duty service member’s property. According to the complaint, the bank violated the law by foreclosing on the plaintiff’s home and seizing personal property while the sergeant was on active duty. Wensel et al v. The Bank of New York, No 2:15-cv-00068, (W.D. Penn. Jan. 15, 2015)
On January 6, a large national bank filed a motion to dismiss a suit alleging it charged improper overdraft fees. Filed last year in the Central District of California, the suit claims the bank violated federal and state laws – the EFTA and California’s unfair competition law – by posting customers’ larger debit transactions first, causing customer accounts to deplete faster resulting in more overdraft fees. In its motion, the bank claims it voluntarily stopped charging overdraft fees for one-time debit card transactions and most ATM withdrawals prior to the effective date of the amended regulations. The bank also argues that state law claims regarding good faith practices are preempted by the federal National Banking Act (NBA). The matter is scheduled to be heard on March 3. Stanionis et al v. Bank of America, No. 14-cv-2222
District Court Denies Motion to Dismiss Class Action Against Debt Collection Firm Over “Misleading” Collection Letters
On December 15, the U.S. District Court for the District of New Jersey denied a motion to dismiss a class action suit against a fund and law firm specializing in debt collection. Marucci et al v. Cawley & Bergmann, LLP et al, No. 13-cv-4884 (D.N.J. Dec. 15, 2014). The suit claims that the firm violated the FDCPA by not informing consumers that interest was accruing on the amount specified in their collection letters. According to the complaint, the debt collection letters used by the firm “would lead the least sophisticated consumer to believe that payment of the amount stated in the letter would satisfy the Debt, when in fact interest is accruing and the consumer may still owe additional accrued interest.” The court found that the plaintiff’s interpretation of the letter was sufficiently reasonable to state a claim.
In what may be the first action of its kind, a consumer who received restitution under the CFPB consent order has filed a class action lawsuit based on the same alleged violations. While this litigation is still in its early stages, it serves as an important reminder that an institution’s exposure does not end when it reaches a public settlement with a regulator and may, in fact, increase.
Settlement of CFPB Action
As previously discussed in a BuckleySandler webinar, on July 24, 2013, the CFPB filed suit against Castle & Cooke Mortgage LLC, its President, and its Senior Vice President of Capital Markets, alleging that the defendants “developed and implemented a scheme by which the Company would pay quarterly bonuses to loan officers in amounts that varied based on the interest rates of the loans they originated” in violation of the Truth in Lending Act’s loan originator compensation rules.
On November 7, 2013, the defendants entered into a consent order with the CFPB, agreeing to pay $9.2 million for restitution and a $4 million civil penalty to resolve the allegations. Consistent with current CFPB practice, the consent order stated that “[r]edress provided by the Company shall not limit consumers’ rights in any way” – in other words, affected consumers are not required to sign releases in order to receive remediation. Read more…
On August 6, the Minnesota Supreme Court held in a foreclosure-related case that the plausibility standard announced in Twombly and Iqbal does not apply to civil pleadings in Minnesota state court. Walsh v. U.S. Bank, N.A., No. A13-0742, 2014 WL 3844201 (Minn. Aug. 6, 2014). A borrower sued her mortgage lender to vacate the foreclosure sale of her home, claiming the lender failed to properly serve notice of the non-judicial foreclosure proceeding. The bank moved to dismiss the suit based on the plausibility standard established by the U.S. Supreme Court in Twombly, which requires plaintiffs to plead “enough facts to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.” The Minnesota Supreme court held that the state’s traditional pleading standard is controlling, and not the federal standard established in Twombly. The court explained that under the state standard, “a claim is sufficient against a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim if it is possible on any evidence which might be produced, consistent with the pleader’s theory, to grant the relief demanded.” The court identified five reasons the state rule applies: (i) the relevant state rule does not clearly require more factual specificity; (ii) the state’s rules of civil procedure express a strong preference for short statements of facts in complaints; (iii) the sample complaints attached to the rules show that short, general statements are sufficient; (iv) the rules allow parties to move for a more definite statement if a pleading is overly vague; and (v) there are other means to control the costs of discovery.
On July 30, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California held that a payday lender whose loan agreements requiredborrowers to consent to electronic withdrawals of their scheduled loan payments violated the federal Electronic Fund Transfer Act’s prohibition on the conditioning of credit on a borrower preauthorizing electronic fund transfers (EFTs) for repayments. De La Torre v. CashCall, Inc., No. 8-3174, 2014 WL 3752796 (N.D. Cal. Jul. 30, 2014). The court previously certified a class seeking to recover actual and statutory damages under the EFTA. The class borrowers claim that the lender required borrowers to agree to electronic transfers of scheduled payments as a condition to obtaining their loans. The borrowers alleged those EFTs caused borrowers to incur insufficient fund fees on the accounts from which the loan payments were withdrawn. On summary judgment, the court rejected the lender’s argument that its promissory notes authorized, but did not require, payment by EFT, and that the EFTA only prohibits the conditioning of the extension of credit upon a requirement to make all loan payments by EFT. The court held that the plain meaning of the statute dictates that a violation of the EFTA occurs “at the moment of conditioning—that is, the moment the creditor requires a consumer to authorize EFT as a condition of extending credit to the consumer.” The court held that by extension, the borrowers also established that the lender violated the Unfair Competition Law. The court granted summary judgment in favor of the borrowers on both their EFTA and UCL claims. However, the court held that whether the EFTA violation caused borrowers to incur the insufficient fund fees is a disputed fact, which should be decided after liability is determined and with the borrowers’ claims for statutory damages and restitution.
On July 14, a national bank, numerous related companies, and several of their third-party collection vendors agreed to pay $75 million to resolve class claims that the bank and other parties violated the TCPA by using an automatic telephone dialing system and/or an artificial prerecorded voice to call mobile telephones without prior express consent. The bank maintains that its customer agreement provided it with prior express consent to make automated calls to customers on their mobile telephones, and that the TCPA permits prior express consent to be obtained after the transaction that resulted in the debt owed. Although they agreed to resolve the matter through settlement to avoid further costs of litigation, the bank and other defendants deny all material allegations.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.