On December 29, the U.S. District Court for the District of Delaware dismissed a class action accusing a payday lender of consumer fraud. Zieger v. Advance America, No. 13-cv-1614 (D. Del. Dec. 29, 2014). Filed in 2013, the suit sought damages on behalf of borrowers who obtained loans from the lender on allegedly “unconscionable and incomprehensible” terms. Among these terms, from which the plaintiff had opted out, was a dispute resolution provision that effectively prohibits a borrower’s right to a jury trial. In its order, the Court ruled that the plaintiffs’ claims of the lender’s misrepresentations lacked specificity and that general attacks on payday lending were not sufficient to support fraud claims. The Court granted the lender’s motion to strike the class allegations and also granted the plaintiff leave to amend the complaint with class allegations pertaining to those similarly situated borrowers who may have also opted out of the dispute resolution clause.
On January 6, the Connecticut Department of Banking issued a cease and desist order against the head of an American Indian tribe and two payday loan companies owned by the tribe for allegedly violating a state cap on interest rates. The order requires (i) the two companies pay a combined civil penalty of $800,000 and (ii) that the head of the tribe pay a civil penalty in the amount of $700,000.This action is considered to be the first enforcement action ever against the leader of a Native American tribe.
On November 13, Governor Cuomo announced that four additional financial institutions have agreed to use a database created by the State’s Department of Financial Services to “help identify and stop illegal, online payday lending in New York.” The database includes a list of companies that the DFS has identified and taken action against for making illegal internet payday loans to people in New York. The total number of institutions using the database now stands at five.
On August 12, Manhattan District Attorney (DA) Cyrus Vance, Jr. announced the indictment of twelve payday lending companies and related individuals for allegedly engaging in criminal usury by making high interest payday loans to Manhattan residents. According to the DA’s press release, between 2001 and 2013, one of the indicted individuals allegedly created multiple companies, including establishing one as a website and offshore corporation, to accept and process online applications for payday loans. The DA also indicted the payday lending business’ chief operating officer and legal counsel. The DA charged the defendants with 38 counts of felony first degree criminal usury and one count of conspiracy in the fourth degree. The defendants are also accused of continuing to extend such loans to New York residents for years, even after, according to the DA, they had been repeatedly warned by New York State officials of the loans’ illegality.
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.
This afternoon, the CFPB announced that a nonbank consumer lender will pay $10 million to resolve allegations that it engaged in certain unfair, deceptive, and abusive practices in the collection of payday loans. This action comes exactly one year after the CFPB issued guidance 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. Read more…
On June 23, the DOJ released a transcript of a message delivered by Attorney General Eric Holder in which he pledged to continue investigations of financial institutions “that knowingly facilitate consumer scams, or that willfully look the other way in processing such fraudulent transactions.” These investigations are part of the DOJ’s “Operation Choke Point,” which has faced criticism from financial institutions and their advocates on Capitol Hill, and which payday lenders recently filed suit to halt. Opponents of the operation assert that the DOJ investigations, combined with guidance from prudential regulators, are targeting lawful businesses and cutting off their access to the financial system. In his remarks, the AG promised that the DOJ will not target “businesses operating within the bounds of the law,” but vowed to continue to pursue “a range of investigations into banks that illegally enable businesses to siphon billions of dollars from consumers’ bank accounts in exchange for significant fees.” Mr. Holder stated that he expects the DOJ to resolve some of these investigations in the coming months.
On June 16, the New York DFS launched a new database of online lenders that have been subject to actions by DFS based on evidence of illegal payday lending, and announced that one national bank had agreed to start using the tool. The DFS believes the database will help financial institutions meet “know your customer” obligations with regard to online lenders and will help ensure that electronic payment and debit networks are not used to transmit or collect on allegedly illegal, online payday loans made to New York residents. According to the DFS, the national bank plans to use the information about companies that may be engaged in illegal lending to (i) help confirm that its merchant customers are not using their accounts to make or collect on illegal payday loans to New York consumers; and (ii) identify payday lenders that engage in potentially illegal payday loan transactions with its New York consumer account holders, and, when appropriate, contact the lenders’ banks to notify them that the transactions may be illegal. The bank also agreed to provide DFS with information about payday lending activities by lenders listed in the database, including identifying lenders that continue to engage in potentially illegal lending activities despite the DFS’s previous actions. The database announcement is just the latest step taken by the DFS with regarding to online payday lending. Over the past year, the DFS has opened numerous investigations of online lenders and has scrutinized or sought to pressure debt collectors, payment system operators, and lead generators in an attempt to halt lending practices that the DFS claims violate state licensing requirements and usury restrictions.
On June 12, Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal signed HB 766, which requires all creditors seeking to conduct any consumer credit transaction or deferred presentment transaction to obtain a license in the state, regardless of whether they maintain an office in the state. Under current law only creditors with an office in the state are required to register. Any credit or deferred presentment transaction conducted by an unlicesened creditor will be deemed null and void. The bill retains an existing requirement that a creditor be licensed in the state before taking assignments of and undertaking direct collection of payments from or enforcing rights against consumers arising from consumer loans, but removes the requirement that such creditors maintain an office in the state. The bill makes corresponding changes to licensee recordkeeping requirements to allow licensed creditors to maintain records outside of the state. In addition, the bill (i) authorizes certain finance charges and fees in conjunction with a deferred presentment transaction or small loan; (ii) removes existing authority that allows a licensee to charge a one-time delinquency charge; (iii) allows a borrower who is unable to repay either a deferred presentment transaction or small loan when due to elect once in any 12-month period to repay the licensee the amount due by means of installments, referred to as an extended payment plan; and (iv) provides procedures, terms, and requirements for such extended payment plans. The changes take effect January 1, 2015.
On June 11, the Ohio Supreme Court held that single-installment, interest bearing loans are permitted under the Mortgage Loan Act (MLA), and that the Short-Term Lender Act (STLA) does not prohibit registered MLA lenders from making such loans. Ohio Neighborhood Finance, Inc. v. Scott, 2013-0103, 2014 WL 2609830 (Ohio Jun. 11, 2014). In this case, an MLA-registered lender sued a borrower seeking to recover the unpaid principal balance on a single-installment loan, as well as interest and fees. The appellate court held that the MLA does not authorize payday-like single-installment loans and that, by enacting the STLA, the General Assembly intended to prohibit all loans of short duration outside the confines of the STLA. The Ohio Supreme Court reversed, holding that the MLA’s definition of “interest-bearing loan” does not require that such loans be multiple installment loans, and that here the loan agreement expressed the debt as the principal amount, and the interest was computed based upon the principal balance outstanding daily, in compliance with the MLA. The court also held that, although the STLA would not permit the loan at issue here because its terms would violate the STLA’s restrictions on the loan term, interest, and fees, the lender was not registered under the STLA, and nothing in the STLA limits the authority of MLA registrants to make loans permitted by the MLA.
On June 5, the Community Financial Services Association and one of its short-term, small dollar lender members filed a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia claiming the FDIC, the OCC, and the Federal Reserve Board have participated in Operation Choke Point “to drive [the lenders] out of business by exerting back-room pressure on banks and other regulated financial institutions to terminate their relationships with payday lenders.” The complaint asserts that the operation has resulted in over 80 banking institutions terminating their business relationships with CFSA members and other law-abiding payday lenders. The lenders claim that the regulators are using broad statutory safety and soundness authority to establish through agency guidance and other means broad requirements for financial institutions, while avoiding the public and judicial accountability the regulators would otherwise be subject to if they pursued the same policies under the Administrative Procedures Act’s (APA) notice and comment rulemaking procedures. The lenders assert that in doing so, the regulators have violated the APA by (i) failing to observe its rulemaking requirements; (ii) exceeding their statutory authority; (iii) engaging in arbitrary and capricious conduct; and (iv) violating lenders’ due process rights. The lenders ask the court to declare unlawful certain agency guidance regarding third-party risk and payment processors and enjoin the agencies from taking any action pursuant to that guidance or from applying informal pressure on banks to encourage them to terminate business relationships with payday lenders.
On June 10, CFPB Director Richard Cordray testified before the Senate Banking Committee in connection with the CFPB’s recently released Semiannual Report to Congress. The hearing covered a broad range of topics, including, among several others, prepaid cards, student loans, small dollar loans, and arbitration clauses.
Director Cordray advised in response to an inquiry from Senator Menendez (D-NJ) that the CFPB’s prepaid card proposed rule, which the CFPB recently indicated could be released this month, likely will not come until the end of the summer. He reassured the Senator that the delay does not indicate any particular problem about the rulemaking, only that certain of the issues raised have been “hard to work through.” Read more…
On June 9, Darrell Issa (R-CA), Chairman of the House Oversight Committee, and Jim Jordan (R-OH), an Oversight subcommittee chairman, sent a letter to FDIC Chairman Martin Gruenberg that seeks information regarding the FDIC’s role in Operation Choke Point and calls into question prior FDIC staff statements about the agency’s role. The letter asserts that documents obtained from the DOJ and recently released by the committee demonstrate that, contrary to testimony provided by a senior FDIC staff member, the FDIC “has been intimately involved in Operation Choke Point since its inception.” The letter also criticizes FDIC guidance that institutions monitor and address risks associated with certain “high-risk merchants,” which, according to the FDIC, includes firearms and ammunition merchants, coin dealers, and payday lenders, among numerous others. The letter seeks information to help the committee better understand the FDIC’s role in Operation Choke Point and its justification for labeling certain businesses as “high-risk.” For example, the letter seeks (i) all documents and communications between the FDIC and the DOJ since January 1, 2011; (ii) all FDIC documents since that time that refer to the FDIC’s 2012 guidance regarding payment processor relationships; and (iii) all documents referring to risks created by financial institutions’ relationships with firearms or ammunition businesses, short-term lenders, and money services businesses.
On May 29, the House Oversight Committee released a staff report on Operation Choke Point, DOJ’s investigation of banks and payment processors purportedly designed to address perceived consumer fraud by blocking fraudsters’ access to the payment systems. The report provides the following “key findings”: (i) the operation was created by DOJ to “choke out” companies it considers to be “high risk” or otherwise objectionable, despite the fact that those companies are legal businesses; (ii) the operation has forced banks to terminate relationships with a wide variety of lawful and legitimate merchants; (iii) DOJ is aware of these impacts and has dismissed them; (iv) DOJ lacks adequate legal authority for the initiative; and (v) contrary to DOJ’s public statements, Operation Choke Point is primarily focused on the payday lending industry, particularly online lenders. The findings are based on documents provided to the committee by DOJ, including internal memoranda and other documents that, among other things, “acknowledge the program’s impact on legitimate merchants” and show that DOJ “has radically and unjustifiably expanded its [FIRREA] Section 951 authority.” The committee released the nearly 1,000 pages of supporting documents, which are available in two parts, here and here.
On May 21, the California Supreme Court granted the state’s appeal of an appellate court decision that short-term, small-dollar credit businesses owned by certain federally recognized Indian tribes are sufficiently related to their respective tribes to be protected under the doctrine of tribal immunity from state regulation. California v. Miami Nation Enterprises, S216878 (Cal. May 21, 2014). Earlier this year, the California Court of Appeals, Second District, affirmed dismissal of a civil action filed by the Commissioner of the California Department of Corporations seeking to enforce a cease and desist order against five tribe-affiliated online lenders, holding that a business functions as an arm of the tribe if it: (i) has been formed by tribal resolution and according to tribal law, for the purpose of tribal economic development and with the clearly expressed intent by the sovereign tribe to convey its immunity to that entity; and (ii) has a governing structure both appointed by and ultimately overseen by the tribe.