On July 11, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit reversed and remanded a decision from the District Court for the Southern District of Georgia, concluding that the district court had erred in dismissing the plaintiff’s claims under Section 1681s-2(b) of the FCRA. Hinkle v. Midland Credit Mgmt., Inc. et al., No. 15-10398 (11th Cir. July 11, 2016). Pursuant to 15 U.S.C. § 1681s-2(b), after receiving notice of a dispute, furnishers of information are required to either verify disputed information via investigation or to notify the credit reporting agencies (CRAs) that the disputed information cannot be verified. At issue in Hinkle was whether the debt buyer’s search of its internal records was a reasonable investigation to verify debt accounts when the plaintiff disputed their validity. The debt buyer argued that, “once it compared the information the CRAs possessed with its own internal records and confirmed a match, it was entitled to report the accounts as having been ‘verified.’” The plaintiff maintained that, without obtaining account-level information beyond its internal records, the debt buyer should have reported the results of its reinvestigation to the CRAs as “cannot be verified.” The court agreed with the plaintiff, determining that a reasonable jury could find that the debt buyer’s failure to attempt to consult account-level documentation to confirm that it was seeking to collect the debts from the right person, was an unreasonable investigation on the facts of this case.
On August 22, the CFPB issued a consent order to a national bank to resolve allegations that its student loan servicing practices were unfair and deceptive in violation of the Dodd-Frank Act and that its payment aggregation practices violated the Fair Credit Reporting Act. The CFPB alleged that the bank failed to disclose key aspects related to its payment allocation process, including that partial payments would be distributed across all loans, even if a payment was sufficient to satisfy the minimum payment required for an individual loan. According to the consent order, the bank’s “allocation of a Partial Payment proportionally to all loans in the account sometimes caused consumers’ payments to satisfy fewer, if any, of the loan amounts due in the account than if the Partial Payment had been allocated in a manner that satisfied as many of the loan amounts as possible.” According to the CFPB, the bank’s failure to properly disclose its method for payment allocation resulted in consumers incurring improper late fees, which, if left unpaid for more than 30 days at the end of the month, were reported as delinquent to consumer reporting agencies. The CFPB further alleged that the bank’s payment processors used a late fee monitoring report that had a system coding error that improperly charged consumers late fees if a payment was made on the last day of a grace period, or if consumers chose to make partial payments instead of one payment. The CFPB contended that the bank failed to update, correct, or remove negative information that was inaccurately reported to credit reporting agencies. Pursuant to the consent order, the bank must (i) pay $410,000 in consumer redress; (ii) pay a civil penalty of $3.6 million; (iii) improve its student loan servicing practices to ensure that consumers’ partial payments are distributed in such a way that the amount due is satisfied for as many loans as possible, unless the consumer requests otherwise; (iv) enhance its disclosure statements; and (v) remove or correct errors on consumers’ credit reports.
On May 16, the United States Supreme Court issued an opinion vacating the Ninth Circuit’s 2014 ruling that a plaintiff had standing under Article III of the Constitution to sue an alleged consumer reporting agency as defined by the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA), for alleged procedural violations of the FCRA, 15 U.S.C § 1681 et seq. Spokeo v. Robins, No. 13-1339 (U.S. May 16, 2016). According to plaintiff Thomas Robins, the reporting agency violated his individualized (rather than collective) statutory rights by reporting inaccurate credit information regarding Robins’s wealth, job status, graduate degree, and marital status in willful noncompliance with certain FCRA requirements. In a 6-2 opinion delivered by Justice Alito, the Court ruled that Robins could not establish standing by alleging a bare procedural violation because Article III requires a concrete injury even in the context of statutory violation. Here, the Ninth Circuit erred in failing to consider separately both the “concrete and particularized” aspects of the injury-in-fact component of standing. The Court opined that the Ninth Circuit’s analysis was incomplete:
[T]he injury-in-fact requirement requires a plaintiff to allege an injury that is both “concrete and particularized.” Friends of the Earth, Inc. v. Laidlaw Environmental Services (TOC), Inc., 528 U.S. 167, 180-181 (2000) (emphasis added). The Ninth Circuit’s analysis focused on the second characteristic (particularity), but it overlooked the first (concreteness). We therefore…remand for the Ninth Circuit to consider both aspects of the injury-in-fact requirement.
On May 10, the FTC released new guidance on consumer reporting obligations under the FCRA. The guidance is intended to assist companies in understanding whether or not they are subject to consumer reporting requirements under the FCRA. According to the FTC, a company that sells or provides “consumer reports” as defined in Section 603 of the FCRA, 15 U.S.C. § 1681a(d), is considered a “consumer reporting agency” bound by FCRA requirements: “even if you don’t think of your company as a consumer reporting agency, it may be one if it provides information about people to employers for use in hiring or other employment decisions.” The guidance further notes that employment background screening companies are typically subject to FCRA requirements, such as: (i) establishing and following “‘reasonable procedures to assure maximum possible accuracy of the information concerning the individual about whom the report relates’”; (ii) obtaining certifications that verify, among other things, their clients are legitimate and that the credit report will only be used for employment purposes; (iii) providing clients with information regarding their responsibilities under the FCRA, as well as a summary of consumer rights under the FCRA; and (iv) honoring certain rights of applicants and employees, including providing access to files upon request and conducting a reasonable investigation of consumer disputes.
On January 27, the CFPB announced that it published its 2016 list of consumer reporting companies. The list includes contact information for the three largest nationwide reporting companies and various specialty reporting companies concentrating on specific geographic market areas and consumer segments. In addition, the list provides consumers with (i) tips on determining which specialty credit reports may be important to review depending upon the particular circumstances, such as applying for a job or a new bank account; (ii) information regarding how companies confirm the identity of the consumer requesting a copy of his or her credit report; and (iii) information on which companies also provide free credit scores. The CFPB also reminds consumers of their legal rights to (i) obtain the information in their credit reports, per the FCRA; and (ii) dispute inaccuracies contained in the report.