Justia U.S. Supreme Court Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Consumer Law
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Following the 2008 financial crisis, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), was established by the Dodd-Frank Act as an independent regulatory agency tasked with ensuring that consumer debt products are safe and transparent. The administration of 18 existing federal statutes was transferred to CFPB. A new prohibition on unfair and deceptive practices in the consumer-finance sector, 12 U.S.C. 5536(a)(1)(B), gave CFPB extensive rulemaking, enforcement, and adjudicatory powers, including the authority to conduct investigations, issue subpoenas and civil investigative demands, initiate administrative adjudications, prosecute civil actions in federal court, and issue binding decisions in administrative proceedings. CFPB is led by a single Director, appointed by the President with the advice and consent of the Senate, for a five-year term, during which the President may remove the Director only for “inefficiency, neglect of duty, or malfeasance,” 12 U.S.C. 5491(c)(1),(3). CFPB issued a civil investigative demand to Seila, a law firm that provides debt-related legal services. The Ninth Circuit affirmed an order requiring that Seila comply. The Supreme Court vacated. CFPB’s leadership by a single individual removable only for inefficiency, neglect, or malfeasance violates the separation of powers. Precedent has established two exceptions to the President’s unrestricted removal power: for a multi-member body of experts who were balanced along partisan lines, appointed to staggered terms, performed only “quasi-legislative” and “quasi-judicial functions,” and were not to exercise executive power, and for an inferior officer—an independent counsel—who had limited duties and no policymaking or administrative authority. Neither of those exceptions applies to CFPB. The Court declined to extend the precedents to an independent agency led by a single Director and vested with significant executive power. CFPB’s structure has no foothold in history or tradition and is incompatible with the Constitution, which—with the sole exception of the Presidency—avoids concentrating power in the hands of any single individual. The Director’s five-year term and receipt of funds outside the appropriations process heighten the concern that the agency will slip from the Executive’s control and from that of the people. The Court found the Director’s removal protection severable from the other provisions of Dodd-Frank that establish CFPB. View "Seila Law LLC v. Consumer Financial Protection Bureau" on Justia Law

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The Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA) authorizes private civil actions against debt collectors “within one year from the date on which the violation occurs,” 15 U.S.C. 1692k(d). Klemm sued Rotkiske to collect an unpaid debt and attempted service at an address where Rotkiske no longer lived. An individual other than Rotkiske accepted service. Rotkiske failed to respond to the summons; Klemm obtained a default judgment in 2009. Rotkiske claims that he first learned of this judgment in 2014 when his mortgage application was denied. He filed suit, alleging that Klemm violated the FDCPA by contacting him without lawful ability to collect. Rotkiske argued for the application of a “discovery rule” to delay the beginning of the limitations period until the date that he knew or should have known of the alleged FDCPA violation. The Third Circuit and Supreme Court affirmed the dismissal of the suit. Absent the application of an equitable doctrine, section 1692k(d)’s limitations period begins to run when the alleged FDCPA violation occurs, not when the violation is discovered. Rotkiske cannot rely on the application of an equitable, fraud-specific discovery rule to excuse his otherwise untimely filing, having neither preserved that issue before the Third Circuit nor raised it in his certiorari petition. View "Rotkiske v. Klemm" on Justia Law

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Citibank filed a state court debt-collection action, alleging that Jackson was liable for charges incurred on a Home Depot credit card. Jackson responded by filing third-party class-action claims against Home Depot and another, alleging that they had engaged in unlawful referral sales and deceptive and unfair trade practices under state law. Home Depot filed a notice to remove the case from state to federal court. The district court remanded, finding that controlling precedent barred removal by a third-party counterclaim defendant. The Fourth Circuit and the Supreme Court affirmed. The general removal provision, 28 U.S.C. 1441(a) does not permit removal by a third-party counterclaim defendant; the section refers to “civil action[s],” not “claims.” In other removal provisions, Congress has clearly extended removal authority to parties other than the original defendant but has not done so here. The Class Action Fairness Act, section 1453(b), does not alter section 1441(a)’s limitation on who can remove, suggesting that Congress intended to leave that limit in place. Section 1453(b) and 1441(a) both rely on the procedures for removal in section 1446, which also employs the term “defendant.” Interpreting that term to have different meanings in different sections would render the removal provisions incoherent. View "Home Depot U.S.A., Inc. v. Jackson" on Justia Law

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The McCarthy law firm was hired to carry out a nonjudicial foreclosure on Obduskey’s Colorado home. Obduskey invoked the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA) provision, 15 U.S.C. 1692g(b), providing that if a consumer disputes the amount of a debt, a “debt collector” must “cease collection” until it “obtains verification of the debt” and mails a copy to the debtor. Instead, McCarthy initiated a nonjudicial foreclosure action. The Tenth Circuit and Supreme Court affirmed the dismissal of Obduskey’s suit, holding that McCarthy was not a “debt collector.” A business engaged in only nonjudicial foreclosure proceedings is not a “debt collector” under the FDCPA, except for the limited purpose of section 1692f(6). The FDCPA defines “debt collector” an “any person . . . in any business the principal purpose of which is the collection of any debts, or who regularly collects or attempts to collect, directly or indirectly, debts.” The limited-purpose definition states that “[f]or the purpose of section 1692f(6) . . . [the] term [debt collector] also includes any person . . . in any business the principal purpose of which is the enforcement of security interests.” McCarthy, in enforcing security interests, is subject to the specific prohibitions contained in 1692f(6) but is not subject to the FDCPA’s main coverage. Congress may have chosen to treat security-interest enforcement differently from ordinary debt collection to avoid conflicts with state nonjudicial foreclosure schemes; this reading is supported by legislative history, which suggests that the present language was a compromise between totally excluding security-interest enforcement and treating it like ordinary debt collection. View "Obduskey v. McCarthy & Holthus LLP" on Justia Law

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The Amex credit card companies use a two-sided transaction platform to serve cardholders and merchants. Unlike traditional markets, two-sided platforms exhibit “indirect network effects,” because the value of the platform to one group depends on how many members of another group participate. Two-sided platforms must take these effects into account before making a change in price on either side, or they risk creating a feedback loop of declining demand. Visa and MasterCard have structural advantages over Amex. Amex focuses on cardholder spending rather than cardholder lending. To encourage cardholder spending, Amex provides better rewards than the other credit-card companies. Amex continually invests in its cardholder rewards program and must charge merchants higher fees than its rivals. To avoid higher fees, merchants sometimes attempt to dissuade cardholders from using Amex cards (steering). Amex places anti-steering provisions in its contracts with merchants. The Supreme Court affirmed the Second Circuit in rejecting claims that Amex violated section 1 of the Sherman Antitrust Act, which prohibits "unreasonable restraints” of trade. Applying the "rule of reason" three-step burden-shifting framework, the Court concluded the plaintiffs did not establish that Amex’s anti-steering provisions have a substantial anticompetitive effect that harms consumers in the relevant market. Evidence of a price increase on one side of a two-sided transaction platform cannot, by itself, demonstrate an anticompetitive exercise of market power; plaintiffs must prove that Amex’s anti-steering provisions increased the cost of credit-card transactions above a competitive level, reduced the number of credit-card transactions, or otherwise stifled competition. They offered no evidence that the price of credit-card transactions was higher than the price one would expect in a competitive market. Amex’s increased merchant fees reflect increases in the value of its services and the cost of its transactions, not an ability to charge above a competitive price. The Court noted that Visa and MasterCard’s merchant fees have continued to increase, even where Amex is not accepted. The market actually experienced expanding output and improved quality. View "Ohio v. American Express Co." on Justia Law

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The Fair Debt Collection Practices Act authorizes private lawsuits and fines against “debt collector[s],” defined as anyone who “regularly collects or attempts to collect . . . debts owed or due . . . another,” 15 U.S.C. 1692a(6). CitiFinancial loaned money to petitioners, who defaulted. Santander purchased the defaulted loans from CitiFinancial and sought to collect in ways petitioners believe violated the Act. The district court and Fourth Circuit held that Santander was not a debt collector because it did not regularly seek to collect debts “owed . . . another” but sought instead only to collect debts that it purchased and owned. A unanimous Supreme Court affirmed. A company may collect debts that it purchased for its own account, without triggering the statutory definition. The statute’s plain language focuses on third party collection agents regularly collecting for a debt owner—not on a debt owner seeking to collect debts for itself. The Court rejected an argument that the word “owed” is the past participle of the verb “to owe,” and indicates that the debt collector definition must exclude loan originators but embrace debt purchasers. The Court stated that it would not “rewrite a constitutionally valid text under the banner of speculation about what Congress might have done had it faced a question that, on everyone’s account, it never faced.” View "Henson v. Santander Consumer USA Inc." on Justia Law

Posted in: Consumer Law
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Filing a bankruptcy proof of claim that is obviously time-barred is not a false, deceptive, misleading, unfair, or unconscionable practice under the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA). Midland filed a proof of claim in Johnson’s Chapter 13 bankruptcy case, asserting a credit-card debt and noting that the last time any charge appeared on Johnson’s account was more than 10 years ago. The Alabama limitations period is six years. The Bankruptcy Court disallowed the claim. Johnson filed suit under the FDCPA, 15 U.S.C. 1692. The Supreme Court reversed the Eleventh Circuit. The Bankruptcy Code defines “claim” as a “right to payment,” 11 U.S.C. 101(5)(A); state law usually determines whether a person has such a right. Alabama law provides that a creditor has the right to payment of a debt even after the limitations period has expired. The word “enforceable” does not appear in the Code’s definition. The law treats unenforceability of a claim due to the expiration of the limitations period as an affirmative defense. There is nothing misleading or deceptive in filing a proof of claim that follows the Code’s similar system. Concerns that a consumer might unwittingly repay a time-barred debt have diminished force in a Chapter 13 bankruptcy, where: the consumer initiates the proceeding; a knowledgeable trustee is available; procedural rules guide evaluation of claims; and the claims resolution process is “less unnerving” than facing a collection lawsuit. View "Midland Funding, LLC v. Johnson" on Justia Law

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Businesses challenged New York General Business Law section 518, which provides that “[n]o seller in any sales transaction may impose a surcharge on a holder who elects to use a credit card in lieu of payment by cash, check, or similar means,” as violating the First Amendment by regulating how they communicate their prices, and as unconstitutionally vague. The Second Circuit vacated a judgment in favor of the businesses, reasoning that in the context of singlesticker pricing—where merchants post one price and would like to charge more to customers who pay by credit card—the law required that the sticker price be the same as the price charged to credit card users. In that context, the law regulated a relationship between two prices: conduct, not speech. The Supreme Court vacated, limiting its review to single-sticker pricing. Section 518 regulates speech. It is not a typical price regulation, which simply regulates the amount a store can collect. The law tells merchants nothing about the amount they may collect from a cash or credit card payer, but regulates how sellers may communicate their prices. Section 518 is not vague as applied to the businesses; it bans the single-sticker pricing they wish to employ, and “a plaintiff whose speech is clearly proscribed cannot raise a successful vagueness claim.” View "Expressions Hair Design v. Schneiderman" on Justia Law

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The Fair Debt Collection Practices Act prohibits “abusive debt collection practices,” 15 U.S.C. 1692(a)–(d), barring “false, deceptive, or misleading representation[s].” The definition of “debt collectors,” excludes “any officer . . . of . . . any State to the extent that collecting . . . any debt is in the performance of his official duties.” Under Ohio law, overdue debts owed to state-owned agencies and instrumentalities are certified to the State’s Attorney General, who may appoint, as independent contractors, private attorneys, as “special counsel” to act on the Attorney General’s behalf. Special counsel must use the Attorney General’s letterhead in communicating with debtors. Attorneys appointed as special counsel, sent debt collection letters on the Attorney General’s letterhead to debtors, with signature blocks containing the name and address of the signatory as well as the designation “special” or “outside” counsel to the Attorney General. Each letter identified the sender as a debt collector seeking payment for debts to a state institution. Debtors filed a putative class action, alleging violation of FDCPA. The district court granted defendants summary judgment. The Sixth Circuit vacated, concluding that special counsel, as independent contractors, are not entitled to the FDCPA’s state-officer exemption. The Supreme Court reversed. Even if special counsel are not “state officers” under the Act, their use of the Attorney General’s letterhead does not violate Section 1692e. The letterhead identifies the principal—Ohio’s Attorney General—and the signature block names the agent—a private lawyer. A debtor’s impression that a letter from special counsel is a letter from the Attorney General’s Office is “scarcely inaccurate.” View "Sheriff v. Gillie" on Justia Law

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Spokeo operates a “people search engine,” which searches a wide spectrum of databases to gather and provide personal information about individuals to various users, including prospective employers. After Robins discovered that his Spokeo-generated profile contained inaccurate information, he filed a class-action complaint alleging that the company willfully failed to comply with the Fair Credit Reporting Act of 1970, 15 U.S.C. 1681e(b). The district court dismissed. The Ninth Circuit reversed, reasoning that Robins’ “personal interests in the handling of his credit information are individualized.” The Supreme Court vacated. A plaintiff invoking federal jurisdiction bears the burden of establishing the “irreducible constitutional minimum” of standing by demonstrating an injury in fact, fairly traceable to the defendant’s challenged conduct, likely to be redressed by a favorable judicial decision. A plaintiff must show that he suffered “an invasion of a legally protected interest” that is “concrete and particularized” and “actual or imminent, not conjectural or hypothetical.” The Ninth Circuit’ focused on particularization: the requirement that an injury “affect the plaintiff in a personal and individual way,” but an injury in fact must be both concrete and particularized. Concreteness requires an injury to actually exist; a plaintiff does not automatically satisfy the injury-in-fact requirement whenever a statute grants a right and purports to authorize a suit to vindicate it. The violation of a statutory procedural right granted can be sufficient in some circumstances to constitute injury in fact, so that a plaintiff need not allege additional harm beyond the one identified by Congress. The Court did not rule on the correctness of the Ninth Circuit’s ultimate conclusion, but stated that Robins cannot satisfy Article III by alleging a bare procedural violation. View "Spokeo, Inc. v. Robins" on Justia Law