Ninth Circuit Holds that Consumer Alleging FCRA Claim Against Spokeo Sufficiently Pled a Concrete Harm to Article III Standing

By: Wayne Streibich,Francis X. CrowleyCheryl S. Chang, Diana M. Eng and Nadia D. Adams

In Thomas Robins v. Spokeo, Inc., No. 11-56843 (9th Cir. Aug. 15, 2017) (“Spokeo III”), the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit unanimously ruled that Thomas Robins (“Robins”), who accused Spokeo, Inc. (“Spokeo”) of violating the Fair Credit Reporting Act (the “FCRA”) by allegedly reporting inaccurate information about him on its website, claimed a sufficiently concrete injury to confer standing under Article III of the U.S. Constitution.

Background

Spokeo operates a website that compiles consumer data and builds individual consumer profiles containing details about a person’s life, including age, contact information, level of education, marital status, employment status and wealth. Spokeo also markets its services to businesses as a way to learn about prospective employees. Robins sued Spokeo for willful violations of the FCRA, which, among other things, requires credit reporting agencies to take steps to ensure the information they provide to potential employers is accurate. 15 U.S.C. § 1681 et seq. Robins alleged Spokeo published an inaccurate report about him on its website, including that he was wealthy and had a graduate degree when in fact, he was struggling to find work.

Initially, the district court dismissed Robins’s suit based on its determination that Robins lacked standing to sue under Article III of the U.S. Constitution because Robins had not adequately pled that the alleged violation caused him an injury-in-fact. Id. at p.6. Robins appealed and the Ninth Circuit reversed on the basis that Robins established a sufficient injury-in-fact because he alleged that Spokeo violated specifically his statutory rights, which Congress established to protect against individual rather than collective harms. Robins v. Spokeo, Inc. (Spokeo I), 742 F.3d 409, 413-14 (9th Cir. 2014) (emphasis added).

The United States Supreme Court Decision

On Certiorari review, the United States Supreme Court vacated the Spokeo I opinion, because although it agreed with the Ninth Circuit’s analysis and determination that Robins established an alleged injury sufficiently particularized to him, the Ninth Circuit’s standing analysis was incomplete. Spokeo, Inc. v. Robins (Spokeo II), 136 S. Ct. 1540 (2016). The Supreme Court held that a bare procedural statutory violation is insufficient to establish a concrete injury-in-fact to confer standing. Id. at 1548-49 (internal citations omitted). In Spokeo II, the Supreme Court reasoned that the reporting of an incorrect zip code, absent another misrepresentation, was unlikely to present any material risk of real harm. Id. at 1550. Thus, the Supreme Court remanded the case to the Ninth Circuit with instructions for it to consider whether, in addition to a particularized injury, Robins also sufficiently pled a concrete injury. Spokeo III at p.7.

The Ninth Circuit’s Decision on Remand

On remand, the Ninth Circuit held that Robins had alleged injuries that were sufficiently concrete for purposes of Article III, and because the alleged injuries were previously determined to be sufficiently particularized, Robins adequately alleged all of the elements necessary to establish Article III standing. Id. at p.2. In reaching its conclusion, the Ninth Circuit conducted a two-fold analysis.

First, it considered whether Congress established the FCRA to protect consumers’ concrete interest in accurate credit reporting about themselves, and held that it did. The Ninth Circuit further noted the “ubiquity and importance of consumer reports in modern life” and held that the “real-world implications of material inaccuracies in those reports seem patent on their face.” Id. at p.12.

Second, the Ninth Circuit considered whether the FCRA violations that Robins alleged actually harmed or created a “material risk of harm” to his concrete interest in accurate crediting reporting about himself. Id. at p.15. (Internal citations omitted). The Court noted that Robins’s allegations were not minor and could be deemed a real harm because Robins specifically alleged that Spokeo falsely reported—and published—several inaccurate facts including his marital status, age, employment status, educational background and level of wealth. Id. at p.16. Further, even though some of the inaccuracies could be considered flattering and the likelihood to harm could be debated, the inaccuracies alleged did not strike the Court as mere “technical violations” outside the scope of what Congress sought to protect with the FCRA. Id. (Internal citations omitted).

Importantly, however, the Ninth Circuit reiterated that Spokeo II “requires some examination of the nature of the specific alleged reporting inaccuracies to ensure that they raise a real risk of harm to the concrete interests that [the] FCRA protects.” Id. at p.17. The Ninth Circuit cautioned that not every minor inaccuracy would cause real harm. Id. at p.16. Thus, not every FCRA violation premised on some inaccurate disclosure of Robins’s information is sufficient. Id. at pp.16-17.

Conclusion

The Ninth Circuit’s decision is significant for several reasons. First, while declining to express an opinion on the circumstances in which alleged inaccuracies of the kind pled by Robins would or would not cause concrete harm, the Court held that the allegations of Robins’s FCRA class action complaint, which are premised on a “material risk of harm” to his employment opportunities, should proceed past the initial pleading stage. Second, because the Ninth Circuit did not set a bright-line rule for what information necessarily establishes a “concrete injury” and declined to comment on whether Robins would have alleged a concrete injury had Spokeo merely produced, but not published the information, businesses will operate (and litigate) in a gray area until a case law framework for “concrete injury” is established.

Mr. Streibich would like to thank Cheryl Chang, Diana Eng, and Nadia Adams for their assistance in developing this Alert.

Eleventh Circuit Clarifies Meaning of Consummation of Transaction in Dismissing Borrowers’ TILA Right of Rescission Claim

By: Anthony Yanez

In Woide v. Federal Nat’l Mortg. Ass’n, the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit held that consummation of a contract for purposes of asserting a right of rescission under the Truth in Lending Act (“TILA”) occurs when a borrower signs the pertinent loan documents. Woide v. Federal Nat’l Mortg. Ass’n., 2017 WL 3411701 (11th Cir. Aug. 9, 2017).

Background

On December 7, 2011, Federal National Mortgage Association (“Fannie Mae”) filed a foreclosure lawsuit against Charles and Susannah Woide (“Plaintiffs”) in state court after they defaulted on their mortgage. On April 1, 2015, the Plaintiffs notified Fannie Mae by mail that they were rescinding the mortgage pursuant to Section 1601-1667f of TILA. Subsequently, Plaintiffs filed a lawsuit in the Middle District of Florida[1] against Fannie Mae and the law firms that handled their foreclosure action seeking a declaratory judgment that Plaintiffs rescinded their mortgage obligation under TILA and requesting that Fannie Mae disgorge all monies that it allegedly unlawfully retained under Plaintiff’s mortgage.

Congress enacted TILA in 1968, as part of the Consumer Credit Protection Act, Pub.L. No. 90-321, 82 Stat. 146 (1968) (codified as amended at 15 U.S.C. §§ 1601-1616), “to assure a meaningful disclosure of credit terms so that the consumer will be able to compare more readily the various credit terms available to him and avoid the uninformed use of credit.” 15 U.S.C. § 1601(a). Regulation Z implements requirements under TILA and provides that “[c]onsummation means the time that a consumer becomes contractually obligated on a credit transaction.” 12 C.F.R. § 226.1(a); 12 C.F.R. § 226.2(13).

“Under TILA, a debtor may rescind a mortgage ‘until midnight of the third business day following the consummation of the transaction or the delivery of the information and rescission forms . . . , whichever is later . . . .’” Smith v. Highland Bank, 108 F.3d 1325, 1326 (11th Cir. 1997) (per curiam) (quoting 15 U.S.C. § 1635(a)). In the event that the debtor never receives the information and disclosures required by TILA, the “right of rescission shall expire three years after the date of consummation of the transaction,” 15 U.S.C. § 1635(f), which TILA defines as “the time that a consumer becomes contractually obligated on a credit transaction.” 12 C.F.R. § 1026.2(a)(13).

All Defendants moved to dismiss Plaintiff’s complaint, and the district court granted the motion to dismiss, holding that the Plaintiffs’ right of rescission expired three years after they consummated the note and mortgage, which was on December 28, 2010. The district court determined the consummation date to be December 28, 2007, which was the date that Plaintiffs had signed the note and mortgage, and then added three years to that date as the bright-line rescission deadline under TILA. Thus, the district court held that the Plaintiffs’ right of rescission letter, dated April 1, 2015, was ineffective as a matter of law. Further, since the district court determined that all of Plaintiffs’ claims derived from their legally ineffective rescission of the mortgage obligation under TILA, the district court dismissed the complaint with prejudice because any amendment would be futile. See Woide v. Federal Nat’l Mortg. Ass’n, 2016 WL 4567132 (M.D. Fla. Sept. 1, 2016). Plaintiffs appealed.

 Eleventh Circuit’s Decision

The Eleventh Circuit affirmed the district court’s dismissal, finding that the district court correctly determined that the Plaintiffs’ right to rescind under TILA expired in 2010 and that the Plaintiffs’ alleged notice of rescission could not have legally rescinded their mortgage obligation in 2015. Relying on Bragg v. Bill Heard Chevrolet, Inc., 374 F. 3d 1060, 1065 (11th Cir. 2004) and the plain language of Regulation Z, the Eleventh Circuit explained that “consummation occurs when the consumer signs the offered contract, not when the contract becomes binding under state law.” See Bragg, 374 F.3d at 1066-1068. The Plaintiffs contended that their note and mortgage never became binding under Florida law and that their mortgage obligation was never consummated within the meaning of TILA. The Eleventh Circuit rejected this argument because the issue of whether a contract was formed under state law is irrelevant to whether consummation occurred under TILA. Specifically, the Eleventh Circuit found that the question of consummation is governed by federal law, and federal law explains that the right to rescind accrues from the date that the borrower signs the operative loan documents, which, in this case, occurred in 2007.

Ultimately, because the Plaintiffs became obligated under the note and mortgage by signing the loan documents in 2007, all of their claims, which were based on their attempted rescission in 2015, were without merit. Accordingly, the Eleventh Circuit held that the district court did not err in dismissing the case with prejudice without granting leave to amend because a more carefully drafted complaint would not have stated a claim against the Defendants.

 Conclusion

This decision reaffirms the long established principle that a borrower’s right of rescission lasts no more than three years from a loan closing if that borrower never receives the information and disclosures required by TILA at the closing. Lenders and servicers should also be aware that federal law, and not state law, controls when the rescission right accrues.

[1] The Plaintiffs also asserted claims under the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, (“FDCPA”), 15 U.S.C. §§ 1692–1692p, and the Florida Consumer Collection Practices Act (“FCCPA”), Fla. Stat. §§ 559.55–559.785 on the grounds that the Defendants attempted to collect on their mortgage debt despite Plaintiff’s claim of “rescission.”

U.S. Supreme Court Excludes Banks Collecting Purchased Delinquent Debt from Definition of “Debt Collector” under the FDCPA

By: Diana M. Eng and Louise Marencik

Banks and other consumer finance firms that purchase delinquent debt and then collect on their own behalf are not “debt collectors” under the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act. However, this limitation still does not apply to those institutions that collect on behalf of another.

In a unanimous decision in Henson et al. v. Santander Consumer USA Inc., the United States Supreme Court held that the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (“FDCPA”) does not apply to banks and other consumer finance firms that purchase and then collect on defaulted debt that they own. No. 16-349, ____ U.S. ____ (2017).

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