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.
Southern District of New York Denies Class Certification in Fair Lending Suit Against Global Investment Bank
On May 14, the District Court for the Southern District of New York denied class certification status in a fair lending suit brought by the ACLU and NCLC against a global investment bank. Adkins v. Morgan Stanley, No. 12-CV-7667 (VEC) (S.D.N.Y. May 14, 2015). The Plaintiffs had alleged that the bank, as a significant purchaser of subprime residential mortgage loans, had caused a disparate impact on African-American borrowers in Detroit in violation of the Fair Housing Act and the Equal Credit Opportunity Act. In an exhaustive 50-page opinion, the court denied class certification on multiple grounds, including the variation in loan types and the role of broker discretion. BuckleySandler anticipates the ruling will be widely cited in future fair lending class actions.
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.
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.
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.
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.