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Brooke focuses her practice on complex litigation and federal consumer protection statutes, including the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA) and Regulation V (Reg V), the Equal Credit Opportunity Act (ECOA) and Regulation B (Reg B), the Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA), and Unfair and Deceptive Acts and Practices laws (UDAP).

The Federal Trade Commission announced in mid-July that it conducted the first compliance sweep of car dealerships since the effective date of its revised Used Car Rule requiring use of a new Buyers Guide sticker.  The sweep took place between April and June 2018 in 20 cities nationwide.  The FTC coordinated its efforts with 12 partner agencies in seven states to ensure that dealers are displaying a revised version of the Buyers Guide, which contains warranty and other information for consumers. 

In the sweep, inspectors found that approximately 70 percent of vehicles displayed Buyers Guides and roughly half of those displayed the revised Buyers Guide.  Inspectors reviewed 94 different dealerships and reported that 33 dealerships posted the revised Buyers Guide on more than half of their vehicles, but only 14 dealerships had revised Buyers Guides on all of their used vehicles for sale.  The FTC Act provides for penalties of up to $41,484 per violation for those dealerships that do not properly comply with the Used Car Rule. 

As we reported here, the FTC issued additional guidance on the Used Car Rule in September 2017 in response to a number of questions raised by dealers regarding compliance.  The guidance was in the form of frequently asked questions (FAQs) and addressed topics such as: whether and what type of changes can be made to the language; the format and font of the Buyers Guide; disclosure requirements regarding manufacturer and third-party warranties; and guidance for completing the “systems covered” portion of the revised Buyers Guide.  The amendments to the Rule included a grace period that permitted dealers to use their remaining stock of Buyers Guides for up to one year after the January 28, 2017 effective date, making January 28, 2018 the deadline for compliance. 

The FTC and its partners inspected dealerships in California, Florida, Illinois, New York, Ohio, Texas, and Washington.  The FTC reports that those dealerships that were not compliant can expect follow-up inspections to ensure compliance.

 

On May 21, President Donald Trump signed a bill repealing the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau’s Bulletin 2013-02, a controversial bulletin addressing auto finance.  As we reported here, the House passed a resolution officially disapproving of the Bulletin in early May, following in the footsteps of the Senate, which passed the same resolution a few weeks earlier.

Bulletin 2013-02 set forth the CFPB’s interpretation of the Equal Credit Opportunity Act (“ECOA”) as applied to pricing in indirect automobile lending.  The Bulletin targeted dealer markups, a practice whereby an automobile dealer charges a consumer a higher interest rate than the rate at which an indirect lender is willing to purchase the consumer’s retail installment contract.  The Bureau expressed concern that indirect lenders afforded too much pricing discretion to dealers, potentially opening the door to discrimination against protected groups, including women, African-Americans, and Hispanics.  Further, the Bureau also announced in the Bulletin its intent to use a disparate treatment or disparate impact theory to hold an indirect auto lender liable for allowing prohibited pricing differences created by a dealer’s conduct.

In March 2017, Senator Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) asked the Government Accountability Office, Congress’ investigative wing, to determine whether the Bulletin qualified as a “rule.”  The GAO concluded that the guidance did qualify as a rule, even though Bulletin 2013-02 was not legally binding.  Senators Toomey and Jerry Moran (R-Kan.) introduced a resolution to overturn the Bulletin in March 2018, a resolution which passed narrowly along party lines.  The bill fared better in the House of Representatives, passing 234 to 175.

House Financial Services Committee Chairman Jeb Hensarling (R-Tex.) attended the signing ceremony at the White House and issued a statement hailing the measure:  “Thanks to the hard work of Republicans in Congress, today is a good day for American consumers, who would have had to pay more for their auto loans under the Bureau’s flawed guidance, and the rule of law.  Gone are the days of a rogue Bureau using its unchecked powers to sidestep due process and harm the very consumers it is charged with protecting.  I look forward to continuing to work with President Trump, Acting Director Mulvaney, and my colleagues in Congress to ensure the Bureau, as well as all other federal regulatory agencies, are held accountable for their actions and act in a transparent manner.”

On Monday, May 14, 2018, the Federal Communications Commission (“FCC”) issued a public notice seeking comment on interpretation of the Telephone Consumer Protection Act (“TCPA”) in light of the D.C. Circuit’s decision in ACA International v. FCC. The notice reflects an intent by the FCC to take up the proper interpretation of the TCPA promptly. Specifically, the FCC seeks comment on key areas of the TCPA, including:

  • How to interpret “capacity” in light of the D.C. Circuit’s decision in ACA, including the amount of user effort required to enable a device to function as an automatic telephone dialing system (“ATDS”);
  • The functions a device must be able to perform to qualify as an ATDS, including whether the word “automatic” envisions only non-manual dialing of telephone numbers;
  • How to treat reassigned wireless numbers and how to interpret the term “called party” for reassigned numbers, including whether the term refers to the person the caller expected to reach, the party the caller reasonably expected to reach, or the person actually reached;
  • Revocation of prior consent, including particular opt-out methods that would suffice to revoke consent;
  • The scope of the term “person” under the statute, and whether it includes federal government contractors; and
  • The appropriate limit for calls made to a reassigned number.

The initial comment period closes on June 13, 2018 and the reply comment period closes on June 28, 2018, meaning that the issues would be ripe for decision by the FCC in short order.

The ACA decision was immediately hailed by current FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, who said in a statement that the “unanimous D.C. Circuit decision addresses yet another example of the prior FCC’s disregard for the law and regulatory overreach. As the court explains, the agency’s 2015 ruling placed every American consumer with a smartphone at substantial risk of violating federal law. That’s why I dissented from the FCC’s misguided decision and am pleased that the D.C. Circuit too has rejected it.” Commissioners O’Rielly and Carr similarly praised the decision, giving Chairman Pai the necessary majority to effect major change in the TCPA landscape.

The call for comments also follows on the heels of a petition filed with the FCC by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and 17 trade groups. The petition focused solely on the definition of an ATDS. Like the FCC’s request for comment, the petition tracks the language of the D.C. Circuit’s decision in ACA, where it struck down major portions of the FCC’s previous expansive interpretations of the TCPA, including its definition of an ATDS. While the FCC has taken the position for 15 years that a predictive dialer is an ATDS, the D.C. Circuit found that the 2015 Order and its predecessors do not give a clear answer as to whether a device qualifies as an ATDS only if it can generate random or sequential numbers for dialing. The U.S. Chamber petition urges the FCC to confirm that equipment must use a random or sequential number generator to store or produce numbers and dial those numbers without human intervention to qualify as an ATDS and to find that only calls made using actual ATDS capabilities are subject to the TCPA. Calling the ACA decision “an opportunity to restore rationality to . . . the TCPA,” the groups ask the Commission to issue a declaratory ruling as soon as possible to clarify the ATDS definition.

In sum, the groundwork is being laid at the FCC for a major change in interpretation of the TCPA, and the changes under consideration would substantially reduce the legal risks for companies using telephony to contact consumers.

Troutman Sanders LLP has unique industry-leading expertise with the TCPA, with experience gained trying TCPA cases to verdict and advising Fortune 500 companies regarding their compliance strategy. We will continue to monitor legislative developments and regulatory implementation of the TCPA in order to identify and advise on potential risks.

On May 8, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a resolution officially disapproving Bulletin 2013-02, issued by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau in early 2013.  The Senate passed a similar measure on April 18, meaning the resolution moves to President Trump’s desk for signature.  Though the Senate resolution passed narrowly in a party-line vote, the bill found bipartisan support in the House, passing 234 to 175.  The bill is the latest in a line of agency guidance invalidated under the Congressional Review Act (“CRA”).

The bill was initially introduced by Senator Jerry Moran (R-Kan.) in an effort to overturn Bulletin 2013-02, which set forth the CFPB’s interpretation of the Equal Credit Opportunity Act (“ECOA”) as applied to pricing in indirect automobile lending.  The Bulletin targeted dealer markups, a practice whereby an automobile dealer charges a consumer a higher interest rate than the rate at which an indirect lender is willing to purchase the consumer’s retail installment contract.  The Bureau expressed concern that indirect lenders afforded too much pricing discretion to dealers, potentially opening the door to discrimination against protected groups, including women, African-Americans, and Hispanics.  Further, the Bureau also announced in the Bulletin its intent to use a disparate treatment or disparate impact theory to hold an indirect auto lender liable for allowing prohibited pricing differences created by a dealer’s conduct.

The resolution’s passage marks the likely end of the Bulletin’s checkered history.  In March 2017, Senator Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) asked the Government Accountability Office, Congress’ investigative wing, to determine whether the Bulletin qualified as a “rule.” The GAO concluded that the guidance did qualify as a rule, even though Bulletin 2013-02 is not legally binding. Specifically, the GAO found that:

The Bulletin provides information on the manner in which the CFPB plans to exercise its discretionary enforcement power. It expresses the agency’s views that certain indirect auto lending activities may trigger liability under ECOA. For example, it states that an indirect auto lender’s own markup and compensation policies may trigger liability under ECOA if they result in credit pricing disparities on a prohibited basis, such as race or national origin. It also informs indirect auto lenders that they may be liable under ECOA if a dealer’s practices result in unexplained pricing disparities on prohibited bases where the lender may have known or had reasonable notice of a dealer’s discriminatory conduct. In sum, the Bulletin advised the public prospectively of the manner in which the CFPB proposes to exercise its discretionary enforcement power and fits squarely within the Supreme Court’s definition of a statement of policy.

In conclusion, the GAO found that the Bulletin was subject to the requirements of the CRA because it served as “a general statement of policy designed to assist indirect auto lenders to ensure that they are operating in compliance with ECOA and Regulation B, as applied to dealer markup and compensation policies.”  Because the CFPB did not present the Bulletin for Congressional review, it was, effectively, a nullity.

President Trump is almost certain to sign the bill into law when it reaches his desk, putting the final nail into the coffin of Bulletin 2013-02.

Troutman Sanders routinely advises clients on the compliance risks posed by direct and indirect auto lending. We will continue to monitor these regulatory developments.

New Jersey Attorney General Gurbir S. Grewal and the New Jersey Division of Consumer Affairs have filed a complaint against luxury used-car dealership 21st Century Auto Group, Inc. and its owner, Dmitry Zeldin, accusing the dealership of violations of state consumer protection laws.  According to the Office of the Attorney General, 21st Century fails to disclose to consumers that certain vehicles have incurred prior damage and also advertises vehicles after they are sold in a “bait and switch” operation.

The A.G.’s Office prosecuted 21st Century and Zeldin five years ago on allegations of the same practices.  In 2014, the parties entered into a settlement agreement, with the dealership agreeing to pay a penalty of $130,000 and make widespread changes to its business practices.  The agreement also prohibited the dealership from engaging in unfair or deceptive acts or practices in the future.  However, the Division of Consumer Affairs reported that it continued to receive complaints about 21st Century following the settlement agreement.

“Businesses can’t just sign a settlement agreement and then go right back to the same dishonest practices that got them into trouble in the first place,” Grewal said in a statement. “They must abide by the reforms set forth in the agreement, especially those requiring them to stop deceiving customers.”

The complaint features new allegations against 21st Century, including the assertion that the dealership sold “gray market cars” – vehicles that are intended for distribution outside of the United States and do not necessarily meet safety and emissions standards required under federal law.  The complaint alleges other violations, including:

  • conducting credit checks without a consumer’s knowledge or authorization;
  • failing to conspicuously post the total selling price of used motor vehicles;
  • submitting false financial information to a lending institution;
  • misrepresenting that certain used motor vehicles advertised and/or offered for sale were covered by a warranty;
  • failing to refund monies paid by consumers after they cancelled the sales transaction;
  • advertising used motor vehicles on the 21st Century Auto Group website at a price much lower than the price posted on the vehicle at the dealership location;
  • failing to disclose to a consumer prior to purchase that a used motor vehicle had sustained major flood damage; and
  • representing that, as part of a negotiated deal, they will make certain repairs to a used motor vehicle and then, after the sale is consummated, failing to do so.

The case is Gurbir S. Grewal, et al. v. 21st Century Auto Group, Inc., et al., pending in the Superior Court of New Jersey, Chancery Division, Union County.

 

On May 3, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and 17 trade groups filed a petition with the Federal Communications Commission for a declaratory ruling seeking a narrow definition of an automatic telephone dialing system, or “ATDS” – one of the key components of liability under the Telephone Consumer Protection Act.

The decision follows the D.C. Circuit’s landmark decision in ACA International v. FCC, which was largely seen as a major win for defendants in TCPA lawsuits, as the D.C. Circuit struck down key portions of the FCC’s previous expansive interpretations of the TCPA, including its definition of an ATDS.  In an opinion by Judge Sri Srinivasan, the court found the FCC’s interpretation, as announced in the 2015 Order, “utterly unreasonable” and lacking clarity.  The ruling also struck down long-standing TCPA rulings going back to 2003 on the issue of predictive dialers.  While the FCC has taken the position for 15 years that a predictive dialer is an ATDS, the D.C. Circuit found that the 2015 Order and its predecessors do not give a clear answer as to whether a device qualifies as an ATDS only if it can generate random or sequential numbers for dialing.

Joining the Chamber of Commerce petition are many members of the financial services industry, including ACA International, the American Bankers Association, the Mortgage Bankers Association, the Consumer Bankers Association, and the American Financial Services Association.  In the petition, the groups urge the FCC to confirm that equipment must use a random or sequential number generator to store or produce numbers and dial those numbers without human intervention to qualify as an ATDS and to find that only calls made using actual ATDS capabilities are subject to the TCPA.  Calling the ACA decision “an opportunity to restore rationality to . . . the TCPA,” the groups ask the Commission to issue a declaratory ruling as soon as possible to clarify the ATDS definition.

Troutman Sanders LLP has unique industry-leading expertise with the TCPA, with experience gained trying TCPA cases to verdict and advising Fortune 500 companies regarding their compliance strategy.  We will continue to monitor legislative developments and regulatory implementation of the TCPA in order to identify and advise on potential risks.

In a 51-47 vote on April 18, the U.S. Senate voted in favor of invalidating 2013 guidance from the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau that targeted purported discrimination in the automobile finance market.  The resolution passed on party lines, with Senator Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) the lone Democrat to join Republicans in voting to overturn the guidance. 

As we reported here, Senator Jerry Moran (R-Kan.) introduced a resolution in March to overturn the CFPB’s highly controversial Bulletin 2013-02, which set forth the CFPB’s interpretation of the Equal Credit Opportunity Act (ECOA) as applied to pricing in indirect automobile lending.  The Bulletin targeted dealer markups, a practice whereby an automobile dealer charges a consumer a higher interest rate than the rate at which an indirect lender is willing to purchase the consumer’s retail installment contract.  The Bureau expressed concern that indirect lenders afforded too much pricing discretion to dealers, potentially opening the door to discrimination against protected groups, including women, AfricanAmericans, and Hispanics.  Further, the Bureau also announced in the Bulletin its intent to use a disparate treatment or disparate impact theory to hold an indirect auto lender liable for allowing prohibited pricing differences created by a dealer’s conduct. 

In March 2017, Senator Pat Toomey (R-Penn.) asked the Government Accountability Office whether the Bulletin qualified as a rule subject to Congressional review.  The GAO concluded that the Bulletin was indeed a rule and, as a result, should have been subject to Congressional review.  Based on the decision, Toomey co-sponsored with Moran the resolution to kill the guidance. 

The resolution moves now to the House of Representatives for a vote.

The U.S. Department of Justice recently filed a lawsuit in California federal court alleging that California Auto Finance, a subprime auto lender, violated the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act by repossessing the motor vehicle of an active military servicewoman on her first day of training.

The SCRA prohibits a lender from repossessing a motor vehicle from a servicemember during military service without a court order if the servicemember made a deposit or installment payment on the loan before entering into military service. The DOJ’s complaint alleges that the auto lender violated the SCRA by repossessing the servicewoman’s vehicle without a court order, even after she had provided the lender with her military orders advising of her relocation for active duty.

The DOJ’s complaint alleges that California Auto Finance was aware that the servicewoman had completed at least one loan payment and was in the military at the time of repossession; accordingly, the lender violated the SCRA, which protects the legal rights of active servicemembers from certain civil proceedings. The Justice Department also claims that this auto lender has a stated practice of granting servicemembers repossession protections under the SCRA only if they provide deployment orders, which is actually not a federal requirement and could mean that other servicemembers may have also had their vehicles improperly repossessed.

The DOJ has made compliance with the SCRA a priority, including its enactment in 2016 of the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act Enforcement Support Pilot Program. The Program’s goal is to support enforcement efforts related to protecting the rights of current and former military personnel as part of the DOJ’s Servicemembers and Veterans Initiative. We expect the DOJ to remain active in this area.

Senator Jerry Moran (R-Kan.) recently introduced a resolution to overturn guidance promulgated by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau in 2013. The resolution seeks to invalidate the Bureau’s guidance under the Congressional Review Act, the same statute that permitted Congress to overturn the arbitration rule. 

The guidance at issue is the CFPB’s highly controversial Bulletin 2013-02, which set forth the CFPB’s interpretation of the Equal Credit Opportunity Act (“ECOA”) as applied to pricing in the indirect automobile lending space. The Bulletin targeted dealer markups, a practice whereby an automobile dealer charges a consumer a higher interest rate than the rate by which an indirect lender is willing to purchase the consumer’s retail installment contract. The Bureau specifically expressed concern that indirect lenders afforded too much pricing discretion to dealers, potentially opening the door to discrimination. Further, the Bureau also announced in the Bulletin its intent to use a disparate treatment or disparate impact theory to examine an indirect auto lender’s ECOA liability for prohibited pricing differences created by a dealer’s pricing strategies. 

This is not the first time Bulletin 2013-02 has come under fire. In March 2017, Senator Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) asked the Government Accountability Office whether the Bulletin qualified as a rule. The GAO concluded that the Bulletin was indeed a rule and, as a result, should have been subject to Congressional review. While this likely was the death knell for the Bulletin, a formal invalidation of the guidance could occur if Moran’s resolution, co-sponsored by Toomey, is successful. 

Troutman Sanders routinely advises clients on the compliance risks posed by direct and indirect auto lending. We will continue to monitor these regulatory developments.

BMW Financial Services N.A. has agreed to settle claims brought by the U.S. Department of Justice that the company violated federal law by failing to refund portions of up-front lease payments made by servicemembers who terminated their leases early due to military obligations.  Under the agreement, BMW will pay more than $2 million to affected servicemembers.

The Department of Justice filed a complaint in the District of New Jersey, contending that BMW’s auto finance division violated the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act (“SCRA”), which includes a number of protections to servicemembers.  Under the SCRA, servicemembers may terminate motor vehicle leases early without penalty after entering military service or receiving qualifying military orders for a permanent change of station or for deployment.  If a servicemember terminates a motor vehicle lease, the SCRA requires a refund of all lease amounts paid in advance.

The government alleged that BMW violated the SCRA by failing to refund portions of advance lease payments made in cash or vehicle trade-in credit when servicemembers had to end their leases early due to deployment or relocation.  According to the Department of Justice, servicemembers were denied refunds of their remaining capitalized cost reduction amounts, a portion of their up-front payments that was intended to reduce monthly payments over the term of a lease.

The agreement covers all leases terminated by servicemembers since August 24, 2011, and requires BMW to refund portions of the capitalized cost reduction amounts to each affected servicemember based on the number of days remaining on their leases, plus additional damages consisting of $500 or triple the refund, whichever is higher.  The agreement also requires BMW to revise its policies and procedures to ensure SCRA compliance moving forward.

The case is United States v. BMW Financial Services N.A., LLC (D.N.J.).