CAFA reversal; not a “mass action”

Mississippi brought six parens patriae actions alleging inappropriate charges for credit card “ancillary services” in violation of state law.  Defendants removed under CAFA and on the ground of complete preemption, and the district court denied remand. Hood v. JP Morgan Chase & Co. (Dec. 2, 2013).  The Fifth Circuit reversed.  As to CAFA, it found that defendants (who have the burden) did not establish that any plaintiff had a claim of $75,000 – especially when Mississippi offered evidence that the average yearly charge at issue was around $100.  The Court also observed that the defendants likely had similar information in their records.  The Court acknowledged that federal usury laws have the effect of complete preemption, but found that the charges at issue in these cases could not be characterized as “interest” within the meaning of those laws.

Rooker/Feldman doctrine meets “Nice Try” doctrine in mortgage case

Washington Mutual (“WaMu”) failed; Chase took over its mortgage operations from the FDIC.  In the meantime, borrower Dixon (after receiving notice from Chase that it was replacing WaMu as mortgagee and servicer) obtained a default judgment in state court against WaMu for $2.8 million and a declaration that all liens were cancelled.  A year later, Chase foreclosed on the property and obtained title at a foreclosure sale.  Chase sued in federal court to quiet the cloud on title created by the recordation of the default judgment.  JP Morgan Chase Bank NA v. Dixon, No. 12-40590 (Oct. 7, 2013, unpublished).  The district court granted summary judgment to Chase.  Dixon argued that this ruling violated the Rooker/Feldman doctrine about federal review of state court judgments.  The Fifth Circuit disagreed, noting that the federal ruling did not technically “nullify” the state court judgment, and that Chase was not a party to the state proceedings and thus Rooker/Feldman was not implicated.

To file suit, perchance to bring suit; aye, there’s the rub.

In Serna v. Law Office of Joseph Onwuteaka, P.C., the plaintiff alleged that a debt collector had sued him in an impermissible venue under the FDCPA .  No. 12-20529 (Oct. 7, 2013). The defendants obtained summary judgment on limitations; the question was whether the offending act under the FDCPA — to “bring such action” — was filing of the suit or service. The Fifth Circuit found that the term “bring” is ambiguous in this context, which justifies consideration of the statute’s history and purpose.  It then concluded that “the FDCPA’s remedial nature compels the conclusion that a violation includes both filing and notice,” and reversed.  A dissent argued that the term was not ambiguous, since the term “brought” refers only to filing in another provision of the statute.

Yes, we have no jurisdiction

The Fifth Circuit affirmed the dismissal of several mortgage-related claims by a borrower against JP Morgan, based on the reasoning of the Court’s opinions in the area in 2013. Hudson v. JP Morgan Chase Bank NA, No. 13-50407 (Sept. 23, 2013, unpublished).  After the district court ruled, the Bank of New York (who had been sued but not served) entered an appearance in the case, and asked the Fifth Circuit to dismiss the claims against it as well.  Finding that BONY was not a party at the time of the district court’s dismissal ruling, the Court dismissed that request for lack of jurisdiction.

Debt Deception

The FTC sued debt negotiation companies, claiming that their ads deceptively promised substantial reductions in consumers’ credit card debt.  The district court concluded that “deception” under section 5 of the FTC Act should be evaluated on the basis of all information disclosed by the companies to consumers up to the point of purchase, and entered judgment for the defendants.  FTC v. Financial Freedom Processing Inc. No. 12-10520 (Aug. 12, 2013, unpublished). The Fifth Circuit thought that the district court’s analysis was “dubious,” noting authority in other circuits that holds “each advertisement must stand on its own merits.”  The FTC, however, elected to challenge the district court’s finding about deceptiveness at the point of purchase.  Here, “while the Companies’ radio ads and websites may be misleading–indeed, it is difficult to conclude that the websites are not deceptive–we are satisfied that substantial evidence supports the district court’s finding . . . .”

Surviving Rooker-Feldman, still failing to state a claim

After sidestepping an issue about the Rooker-Feldman doctrine in the context of mortgage servicing earlier this year, the Fifth Circuit revisited the topic in Truong v. Bank of America, 717 F.3d 377 (2013).  After a review of the doctrine (“‘Reduced to its essence, the Rooker/Feldman doctrine holds that inferior federal courts do not have the power to modify or reverse state court judgments’ except when authorized by Congress.”), the Court found that it did not prevent a claim arising from alleged misconduct during the course of a foreclosure case. On the merits, however, the claim failed because of an exemption in Louisiana’s unfair trade practices act for “[a]ny federally insured financial institution,” and the Court affirmed dismissal on that basis.

Credit reporting damages

Wagner v. BellSouth Telecommunications underscores a recent holding that a reduced credit rating is not enough to establish damage under the Fair Credit Reporting Act. 12-31080 (April 5, 2013, unpublished).  The opinion also reminds that to recover mental anguish damages under the FCRA, a plaintiff must offer “evidence of genuine injury, such as the evidence of the injured party’s conduct and the observations of others,” and to demonstrate “a degree of specificity which may include corroborating testimony or medical or psychological evidence in support of the damage award.” (quoting Cousin v. Trans Union Corp., 246 F.3d 359, 371 (5th Cir. 2001)).  The Court also reviewed basic limitations principles under the FCRA and its Louisiana state analog.

Time-bar for Texas Constitution claim to nullify home equity loan

The borrowers in Priester v. JP Morgan Chase alleged two violations of the Texas Constitution about their home equity loan — not receiving notice of their rights 12 days before closing, and closing the loan in their home rather than the offices of a lender, attorney, or title company.  708 F.3d 667 (5th Cir. 2013).  A cure letter was not answered and they sued for forfeiture of interest and principal under the state constitution. The Fifth Circuit affirmed the dismissal of the claim under the Texas 4-year “residual” limitations period, finding that was the prevailing view of courts that had examined the issue, and disagreeing with a district court that had found no limitations period.  That court reasoned that a noncompliant home equity loan was void, but the Fifth Circuit concluded that the cure provision in the Constitution instead made it voidable. Tolling doctrines did not apply since it was readily apparent where the closing occurred.  The Court also affirmed the denial of a motion for leave to amend to add new claims and non-diverse parties, reviewing the factors for both aspects of such a motion.

Damages affirmed for incorrect credit reporting

The plaintiff in Smith v. Santander Consumer USA received $20,43.59 in damages for violation of the Fair Credit Reporting Act.  No. 12-50007 (Dec. 20, 2012).  The Fifth Circuit agreed that damages were not recoverable solely for a reduced line of credit, but found sufficient other evidence about harm to the plaintiff’s business and personal finances to affirm.  Enthusiasts of appellate arcana will find it interesting to compare the Court’s analysis of a general federal verdict under the Boeing standard with the Texas damages submissions required by Harris County v. Smith, 96 S.W.3d 230 (Tex. 2002) (applying Crown Life Ins. v. Casteel, 22 S.W.3d 378 (Tex. 2000)).

Defenses rejected in fraudulent lien case

Vanderbilt Mortgage v. Flores, arising from a collection suit about the financing for a mobile home, involved a substantial recovery on counterclaims for wrongful debt collection and filing of a fraudulent lien.  692 F.3d 357 (5th Cir. 2012).  The Fifth Circuit affirmed in part and reversed in part, finding: (1) the release of the debtors unambiguously reached only the lien and not the underlying debt (thereby mooting some counterclaims); (2) property owners in the position of these debtors did not have an ongoing duty, for limitations purposes, to check deed records; (3) Tex. Civ. Prac. & Rem Code chapter 12, about fraudulent liens, does not require actual damages before penalties may be awarded; (4) Chapter 12 does not violate the Excessive Fines Clause; and (5) personal jurisdiction over one defendant was appropriate, particularly given the confusion in its own records about its activities.