Supreme Court: Special Counsel Using State AG Letterhead Not in Violation of FDCPA

On May 16, the Supreme Court reversed the Sixth Circuit’s ruling that special counsel using Ohio AG letterhead to collect debts owed to the state is false or misleading in violation of the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA), 15 U.S.C. §1692. Sheriff v. Gillie, No. 15-338 (U.S. May 16, 2016). In a unanimous 8-0 opinion delivered by Justice Ginsburg, the Court opined that its “conclusion is bolstered by the character of the relationship between special counsel and the [AG].” Specifically, the Court determined that, because special counsel acts on behalf of the AG to provide legal services to state clients, a “debtor’s impression that a letter from special counsel is a letter from the [AG’s] Office is scarcely inaccurate.” The Court further opined that, being required by the AG’s office to send debt collection communications, special counsel “create no false impression in doing just what they have been instructed to do.” The Court rejects the Sixth Circuit’s argument that consumers may have concern regarding the letters’ authenticity: “[t]o the extent that consumers may be concerned that the letters are a ‘scam,’ the solution is for special counsel to say more, not less, about their role as agents of the [AG]. Special counsel’s use of the [AG’s] letterhead, furthermore, encourages consumers to use official channels to ensure the legitimacy of the letters, assuaging the very concern the Sixth Circuit identified.” The Court concludes by emphasizing the AG’s authority, as the top law enforcement official, to take punitive action against consumers who owe debts, commenting that §1692e of the FDCPA prohibits collectors from deceiving or misleading consumers, but “it does not protect consumers from fearing the actual consequences of their debts.” Read more…


Supreme Court Holds “Arising Under” Standard Satisfies Jurisdictional Questions

In an 8-0 opinion delivered by Justice Kagan on May 16, the Supreme Court affirmed the Third Circuit’s ruling that the “jurisdictional test established by §27 [of the Exchange Act] is the same as [28 U.S.C.] §1331’s test for deciding if a case ‘arises under’ a federal law.” Merrill Lynch v. Manning, No. 14-1132 (U.S. May 16, 2016). In this case, the defendant, an investment bank, removed plaintiff’s case against the bank for its short sale practices to Federal District Court. The bank asserted that plaintiff’s claims, which referred explicitly to the SEC’s Regulation SHO in “describing the purposes of that rule and cataloguing past accusations against [the bank] for flouting its requirements,” were within federal jurisdiction on the following two grounds: (i) 28 U.S.C. §1331 grants district courts jurisdiction of “all civil actions arising under federal law”; and (ii) §27 of the Exchange Act “grants federal courts exclusive jurisdiction of ‘all suits in equity and actions at law brought to enforce liability or duty created by [the Exchange Act] or the rules or regulations thereunder.’” The plaintiff, in seeking remand of the case back to state court, argued that neither 28 U.S.C. §1331 nor §27 of the Exchange Act granted federal court the authority to adjudicate his claims which were brought under state law – specifically, the New Jersey Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO), New Jersey Criminal Code, and New Jersey Uniform Securities Law, as well as New Jersey common law of negligence, unjust enrichment, and interference with contractual relations. The Supreme Court’s opinion relies heavily on the natural reading of §27: “Like the Third Circuit, we read §27 as conferring exclusive federal jurisdiction of the same suits as ‘aris[e] under’ the Exchange Act pursuant to the general federal question statute.” The Court concluded that because the plaintiff’s claims were brought under state law and merely referenced Regulation SHO, the Federal District Court did not have jurisdiction and the case was remanded to state court.

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Special Alert: SCOTUS Vacates Ninth Circuit Decision in Case Alleging Procedural FCRA Violations

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.

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State AGs File Amicus Brief With U.S. Supreme Court in FCRA Standing Case

On September 9, the Massachusetts Attorney General announced that her office, along with 12 other states and the District of Columbia, had filed with the U.S. Supreme Court an amicus brief supporting the plaintiff-respondent in Spokeo v. Robins. (Previous InfoBytes coverage can be seen here). The putative class-action plaintiff in that case claimed that an online data broker published inaccurate information about him in violation of the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA). Reversing the district court, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit held that the violation of a statutory right created by FCRA was, in itself, a sufficient injury to confer standing to sue under Article III of the Constitution. In their multistate amicus brief, the AGs argued that the Supreme Court should affirm this holding. The states asserted that businesses frequently rely on consumer data profiles to make important credit, employment, housing, and insurance decisions. However, “the damage done by . . .  an inaccurate data profile is frequently impossible for the affected consumer to detect or quantify,” they argued.  Accordingly, “Congress rightly has authorized statutory damages for a willful violation of the FCRA.” The AGs asserted that, given their limited resources, statutory damage cases and private class actions are needed to supplement their own consumer protection actions.


Special Alert: Disparate Impact Under the Equal Credit Opportunity Act After Inclusive Communities

On June 25, the Supreme Court in Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs v. Inclusive Communities Project, Inc. held that disparate-impact claims are cognizable under the Fair Housing Act (FHA). The Court, in a 5-4 decision, concluded that the FHA permits disparate-impact claims based on its interpretation of the FHA’s language, the amendment history of the FHA, and the purpose of the FHA.

Applicability to ECOA

When certiorari was granted in Inclusive Communities, senior officials from the CFPB and DOJ made clear that they would continue to enforce the disparate impact theory under the Equal Credit Opportunity Act (ECOA) even if the Supreme Court held that disparate-impact claims were not cognizable under the FHA. It is reasonable to expect that the Court’s decision will embolden the agencies, as well as private litigants, to assert even more aggressively the disparate impact theory under ECOA. Read more…