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 20, the CFPB announced the resolution of an enforcement action against one of the largest payday lenders in the country. The consent order alleges that the lender and an online lending subsidiary made hundreds of payday loans to active duty military members or dependents in violation of the Military Lending Act, and that call center training deficiencies have allowed additional loans to be originated to spouses of active-duty members. The order also alleges unfair and deceptive debt collection practices, including so-called “robosigning” that allegedly yielded inaccurate affidavits and pleadings likely to cause substantial injury. In July, the CFPB issued a notice that it would hold supervised creditors accountable for engaging in acts or practices the CFPB considers to be unfair, deceptive, and/or abusive when collecting their own debts, in much the same way third-party debt collectors are held accountable for violations of the FDCPA.
Notably, this is the first public action in which the CFPB alleges that the supervised entities engaged in unlawful examination conduct. The Bureau asserts that the lender and subsidiary failed to comply with examination requirements, including by not preserving and producing certain materials and information required by the CFPB. Both the lender and its subsidiary are nonbanks and have not previously been subject to regular federal consumer compliance examinations; the CFPB does not allege that the exam failures were intentional violations potentially subject to criminal charges.
Pursuant to the consent order, the lender must pay $8 million in consumer redress, in addition to the more than $6 million the lender has already distributed to consumers for alleged debt collection and MLA violations. The lender also must pay a $5 million civil money penalty. The CFPB did not reveal how it determined the penalty amount or what portion of the fine is attributable to the alleged consumer-facing violations versus the alleged unlawful exam conduct. Finally, the order requires comprehensive compliance enhancement and imposes ongoing reporting and recordkeeping obligations for a period of three years.
In written remarks released by the CFPB, Director Cordray stated: “This action should send several clear messages to everyone under the jurisdiction of the Consumer Bureau. First, robo-signing practices are illegal wherever they occur, and they need to stop – period. Second, violations of the Military Lending Act harm our servicemembers and will be vigorously policed. Third, the Bureau will detect and punish entities that withhold, destroy, or hide information relevant to our exams.”
On November 6, the CFPB announced an advance notice of proposed rulemaking (ANPR) to solicit input on a wide array of issues related to consumer protection in the debt collection market. With the release of the ANPR, the CFPB also announced the publication of approximately 5,000 debt collection complaints in its consumer complaint database.
The ANPR marks the Bureau’s first step toward exercising its rulemaking authority under the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA). Notably, although the FDCPA generally applies only to third-party debt collectors, the CFPB’s regulations could extend to original creditors as well. In addition to the CFPB’s express authority to make substantive rules under the FDCPA, the Bureau made all creditors subject to debt collection guidance issued earlier this year pursuant to its general authority to regulate unfair, deceptive, and abusive practices. Read more…
On October 18, New York DFS Superintendent Benjamin Lawsky commented on the New York Unified Court System’s proposal to require debt collectors to use standardized affidavits as evidence of ownership of debt when seeking default judgments in consumer credit actions following an assignment of the original creditor’s interest. Superintendent Lawsky urged the Court System to pursue “bolder reform,” including requiring debt collectors to (i) present “stronger affidavits” to prevent “robo-signing” and ensure debt collectors review a consumer’s file, (ii) include information about the reviewed debts in the affidavit, (iii) include documentation evidencing the debt with the complaint, (iv) send consumers a pre-complaint notice before commencing a collection lawsuit, and (v) demonstrate proof of service when moving for a default judgment. The Superintendent also recommended that consumers be provided an opportunity to vacate a default judgment if a debt collector violates court rules. The Court System is accepting comments on its proposal through December 4, 2013.
On October 17, the Massachusetts Division of Banks released final regulations intended to parallel and supplement new mortgage servicing requirements promulgated by the CFPB and included in National Mortgage Servicing Settlement. The new regulations generally (i) prohibit third-party mortgage servicers from initiating a foreclosure when an application for a loan modification is in process, (ii) require that third-party mortgage servicers ensure that a creditor has the right to foreclose and that any foreclosure-related documents are properly prepared and executed based on personal knowledge, and (iii) mandate that third-party servicers provide a single point of contact for a borrower, follow detailed loan modification procedures, communicate with borrowers in a timely manner, and establish policies and procedures that ensure effective monitoring and oversight of certain third party providers (e.g., law firms, foreclosure firms, etc.). The new regulations also, among other things, (i) amend the definition of “debt collector” to include active debt buyers, (ii) clarify the definition of net worth for debt collectors, (iii) expand the limitations on contact with a consumer by a debt collector to include cellular telephone and text messaging, and (iv) add significant events of a debt collector and third party loan servicer that must be reported. The new requirements are effective immediately.
On September 30, the NY AG announced settlements with five companies that collected debts on allegedly illegal payday loans. The AG alleged that the companies collected on behalf of payday lenders who allegedly made illegal loans; under state law, the maximum allowable interest rate is 16% for most lenders not licensed by the state. In August, the NY AG sued payday lending firms and their owners for allegedly violating the state’s usury and licensed lender laws in connection with their issuing of personal loans over the Internet. In March, the New York Department of Financial Services warned third-party debt collectors that it is illegal to attempt to collect a debt on an illegal payday loan made in New York, even if such loans were made on the Internet, and followed up with a similar warning to lenders in August. The NY AG’s settlement requires the five companies collectively to pay approximately $280,000 in restitution and $30,000 in penalties. One of the companies is required to reverse negative reporting to the credit reporting bureaus related to approximately 8,550 consumer accounts. In addition, all of the companies will be prohibited from collecting on payday loans from New Yorkers in the future.
On September 25, the FTC announced the settlement of its first case against a debt collector for using text messaging to attempt to collect debts in an allegedly unlawful manner. The complaint, filed on August 23, alleged that an individual and the two debt collection companies he controlled violated the FDCPA and FTC Act when the companies failed to disclose in English- and Spanish-language text messages and phone calls that the companies were debt collectors and that they falsely portrayed themselves as law firms. The FTC also alleged that the defendants illegally revealed debts to the consumers’ family members, friends, and co-workers. To resolve the FTC’s claims, the companies agreed to pay a $1 million civil penalty, agreed not to send text messages omitting the disclosures required by law and agreed to obtain a consumer’s express consent before contacting them by text message. The defendants are also barred from falsely claiming to be law firms and from falsely threatening to sue or take any action – such as seizure of property or garnishment – that they do not actually intend to take.
On September 19, the CFPB and the OCC announced parallel enforcement actions against a national bank to resolve allegations that the bank engaged in the unfair and deceptive marketing, sale, and billing of “add-on products” across multiple consumer products, and the OCC announced a separate order that resolves claims related to the bank’s non-home loan debt collection litigation practices and compliance with the SCRA.
Under the CFPB’s consent order, the bank will pay a $20 million penalty to resolve allegations that over a seven year period ending in March 2012, the bank, through its vendor, enrolled customers in credit monitoring and identify theft products, and charged some customers for these products without or before having received written authorization to perform the monitoring services. The CFPB order also requires restitution to affected customers, and numerous requirements to enhance compliance, including with regard to vendor oversight. Under the OCC’s parallel action, the bank entered a consent order similar to the one entered with the CFPB, and consented to pay a $60 million penalty.
The CFPB order acknowledges the bank’s representations that it no longer offers the scrutinized products and that it already has credited or refunded affected customers. The bank’s press release also reaffirms its commitment to holding its vendors to high standards.
In a separate action announced by the OCC on the same day, the bank also entered a consent order to resolve allegations of unsafe or unsound practices with regard to its non-mortgage debt collection litigation practices and its non-mortgage SCRA compliance. As the bank pointed out in a press release, the consent order relates to only a slight percentage of credit card, student loan, auto loan, business banking and commercial banking customers who defaulted on their loan or contract and the resulting collections litigation that followed several years ago. The press release explains that the bank uncovered the issue in internal reviews that began in 2010 and took several steps in response, including: (i) halting new credit card collections litigation in 2011, (ii) dismissing the impacted lawsuits, and (iii) improving SCRA controls.
Over the past year, the CFPB has started to publicly outline its supervisory approach to student lending and servicing. In doing so, it repeatedly has identified similarities between the lending practices that led to the subprime mortgage crisis and the escalating default rate in the burgeoning level of student loan debt. Rather than wait for a student loan crisis, the CFPB is attempting to put in place a program it hopes can help prevent one.
As part of that program, at the end of 2012, the CFPB released its student loan examination procedures. Also in 2012 the CFPB released two reports (July 2012 and October 2012) aimed at curbing purported violations of law, and it has continued to highlight student loan issues this year, including in a recent update on student loan complaints. In addition, in March of 2013, partly to address the complaints of student loan debtors, the CFPB announced its intention to supervise and examine the larger non-bank education loan servicers. That rule should be finalized next month.
Student lenders and servicers also should take note of the CFPB’s recently issued debt collection guidance, which, among other things, holds CFPB-supervised creditors accountable for engaging in acts or practices the CFPB considers to be unfair, deceptive, and/or abusive (UDAAP) when collecting their own debts. Many of the guideposts set forth in the guidance reflect the standards to which third-party debt collectors are held accountable under the FDCPA.
For more information about the CFPB’s debt collection guidance, please see a recent article by BuckleySandler Partner Valerie Hletko. Over the coming months, look for additional articles from BuckleySandler attorneys about the CFPB’s activities in the area of student loans and other non-mortgage consumer financial products and services.
On August 6, the New York Department of Financial Services (DFS) sent letters to 35 online lenders, including lenders affiliated with Native American Tribes, demanding that they cease and desist offering allegedly illegal payday loans to New York borrowers. The letters demand that within 14 days the companies confirm that they are no longer soliciting or making payday loans in excess of the state usury caps. Under New York law, it is civil usury for a company to make a loan or forbearance under $250,000 with an interest rate exceeding 16% per year, and a criminal violation to make a loan with an interest rate exceeding 25% per year. The letters also remind recipients that it is illegal to collect on loans that exceed the usury cap; a separate letter to third-party debt collectors included the same notice. The DFS previously warned third-party debt collectors about collecting on illegal payday loans in March. In addition, the Department of Financial Services sent letters to 117 banks and NACHA requesting that they work with the DFS to create a set of model safeguard procedures to deny ACH access to the targeted lenders and provide the DFS with information about steps the institutions are taking to halt the allegedly illegal activity.
The role of banks in processing payday loan payments was identified as an enforcement priority earlier this year by the DOJ’s Financial Fraud Enforcement Task Force. The DOJ, the CFPB, and other federal agencies reportedly have issued subpoenas to banks and other entities as part of a broad investigation of online payday lending.
On July 25, the New York Department of Financial Services (DFS) proposed new regulations related to third-party debt collection in that state. The proposal is the DFS’ first use of the statutory “gap authority” that allows it to regulate and enforce rules against previously unregulated providers of financial products and services. The proposed regulations (i) establish initial disclosures that incorporate federal requirements and require collectors to provide details about the nature of the debt; (ii) set new disclosure requirements for time-barred debt; (iii) require collectors to provide specified verification of disputed debts; (iv) require collectors to provide written confirmation of a debt settlement; and (v) allow consumers to communicate with collectors via email. The DFS will accept comments on the proposal for 45 day following publication in the state register.
Magistrate Judge Finds Tribal Payday Lender Subject to FTC Act; Lender Agrees to Settle Some FTC Charges
On July 22, the FTC announced that it obtained a partial settlement of claims it filed last year against a Native American Tribe-affiliated payday lending operation that allegedly charged undisclosed and inflated fees, and collected on loans illegally by threatening borrowers with arrest and lawsuits. FTC v. AMG Servs, Inc. No. 12-536 (D. Nev.). The agreement does not include any monetary resolution of the claims, but (i) prohibits the defendants from certain collection practices, (ii) prohibits the defendants from conditioning the extension of credit on preauthorized electronic fund transfers, and (iii) requires the defendants to implement enhanced compliance policies that are subject to new reporting requirements. The settlement follows a report and recommendation issued last week by the magistrate judge assigned to the case in which he concluded that the FTC has authority under the FTC Act to regulate “Indian Tribes, Arms of Indian Tribes, employees of Arms of Indian Tribes and contractors of Arms of Indian Tribes” with regard to the payday lending activities at issue in the case. Relying on Ninth Circuit precedent, the magistrate judge held that while the FTC Act does not expressly apply to Indian Tribes, it is a statute of general applicability with reach sufficient to cover the Tribal entities. Further, the magistrate judge concluded that “both TILA and EFTA provide the FTC the power to enforce the statutes without regard for any jurisdictional limitations contained in the FTC Act.” The FTC will continue litigating other charges against the defendants, including allegations that they deceived consumers about the cost of their loans by charging undisclosed charges and inflated fees.
On July 11, California Governor Jerry Brown signed into law SB 233, the Fair Debt Buyers Practices Act, which establishes numerous new rules related to the purchase and collection of consumer debts, including five key protections for debtors. First, the Act prohibits a debt buyer from making any written statement in an attempt to collect a consumer debt unless the debt buyer can verify certain information, such as the amount of the debt balance at charge off, the date of default or last payment, and the name and address of the charge-off creditor at the time of charge off. Second, the Act prohibits a debt buyer from making any written statement to a debtor in an attempt to collect a consumer debt unless the debt buyer has access to a copy of a contract or other document evidencing the debtor’s agreement to the debt. In instances where no signed debt contract exists, the debtor must obtain sufficient evidence to demonstrate that the debt was incurred by the debtor. Third, the Act requires a debt buyer to provide a written notice with its initial written communication to the debtor that, among other things, informs the debtor of his or her right to request certain records from the debt buyer. Fourth, the Act prohibits a debt buyer from bringing suit, initiating another proceeding, or taking any other action to collect a consumer debt if the applicable statute of limitations on the cause of action to enforce the debt has expired. Finally, the Act establishes new requirements for default judgments, such as a requirement that a debt buyer submit business records to confirm a debt prior to seeking a default judgment against a debtor. Additionally, the debt buyer must authenticate the records it submits via a sworn declaration to the court. The new rules will apply to debt buyers with respect to all consumer debt sold or resold on or after January 1, 2014.
On July 12, the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York held that members of a putative class must arbitrate their claims against creditors for allegedly unlawful debt collection practices individually. Shetiwy v. Midland Credit Management, No. 12-7068, 2013 WL 3530524 (S.D.N.Y. Jul. 12, 2013). A group of creditors facing allegations that they violated the RICO Act and the FDCPA by conspiring with third party debt collectors to collect debts through fraudulently obtained default judgments, including judgments obtained through practices associated with robosigning, moved to compel arbitration based on the terms of their cardmember agreements, which require mandatory arbitration on an individual basis of any claims arising from a cardmember’s account. The court held that even if the plaintiffs could show that costs associated with individual arbitration would preclude vindicating their statutory rights under RICO and the FDCPA, the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent holding in American Express Co. v. Italian Colors Restaurant, “made clear that a generalized congressional intent to vindicate statutory rights cannot override the FAA’s mandate that courts enforce arbitration clauses” like the one at issue here. The court explained that “[n]othing in the text of RICO or the FDCPA indicate [sic] a more explicit ‘contrary congressional command’ than that contained in the federal antitrust laws at issue in Italian Colors” and that “[i]n fact, the FDCPA explicitly limits recovery obtained by unnamed class members in a class action, without regard to how that will affect total recover for each individual.” The court enforced the arbitration agreements and stayed the case as to the creditors pending arbitration.
On July 9, the FTC announced that a third-party debt collector and its subsidiaries agreed to pay a $3.2 million civil penalty to resolve allegations that the companies violated the FDCPA and FTC Act by (i) calling individuals multiple times per day, including early in the morning or late at night, (ii) calling even after being asked to stop, (iii) calling individuals’ workplaces despite knowing that the employers prohibited such calls, (iv) leaving phone messages for third parties, which disclosed the debtor’s name and the existence of the debt, and (v) continuing collection efforts without verifying a debt, even after individuals said they did not owe the debt. In addition to the monetary penalty, which the FTC described as the largest it has ever obtained against a third-party collector, the stipulated order requires, with regard to consumers who dispute the validity or the amount of a debt, that the companies close the account and end collection efforts, or suspend collection until they have conducted a reasonable investigation and verified that their information about the debt is accurate and complete. The order also restricts situations in which the defendants can leave voicemails that disclose the alleged debtor’s name and the fact that he or she may owe a debt, and requires the companies to halt or limit other alleged practices. The companies also must record at least 75% of all their debt collection calls beginning one year after the date of the order, and retain the recordings for 90 days after they are made.