Jenner & Block LLP

CFPB Continues to Focus on Debt-Relief and Credit-Repair Services

By: Amina Stone-Taylor

Credit-reportIn recent years, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) has focused its Bureau resources on companies offering credit repair and debt relief services.[1] In a 2019 consumer advisory, the CFPB reported that more than half the individuals who submitted a complaint to the Bureau about credit repair categorized it as “fraud/scam.”[2] The CFPB has also undertaken a number of enforcement actions focused on the credit repair industry.[3]

On June 28, 2021, the CFPB announced the proposed resolution of another enforcement matter arising from credit repair services—this time against Burlington Financial Group, LLC.  The CFPB and the Attorney General of the State of Georgia filed a joint complaint against Burlington Financial and its owners/executives, along with a proposed joint stipulation of final judgment and order. The complaint alleges that Burlington Financial misled consumers into believing the company could lower or eliminate credit-card debts and improve their credit score, and violated the Telemarketing Sale Rule (TSR) and the Consumer Financial Protection Act (CFPA) through their deceptive marketing tactics.[4] The CFPB stated, “Burlington Financial used telemarketing to solicit people with false promises that the company’s services would eliminate credit-card debts.”[5] The stipulated proposed order permanently bans Burlington Financial and its owners from providing any financial-advisory, debt relief, or credit repair services.[6] The company also will be responsible for paying a civil money penalty of $151,001.[7]

If you would like to read more about the CFPB’s claims against and resolution with Burlington Financial, please click here for access to the CFPB’s press release and filings.

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Consumer Financial Protection Bureau Releases Its 2020 Supervisory Highlights Report

By: Felicitas L. Reyes

New-Development-IconThe Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) recently released the latest version of its Supervisory Highlights report, which summarizes the findings of the Bureau’s supervisory examinations in 2020. The CFPB identified four findings from the report as “particularly concerning”:

  1. Consumer Reporting Companies’ Use of Data From “Unreliable” Furnishers: The CFPB reported that its examiners found that consumer reporting companies have accepted and reported consumer data received from third-party furnishers, while ignoring signs that the data furnishers were unreliable. The CFPB warned that it “will remain diligent and consumer reporting companies are on notice with respect to risks posed by accepting data from furnishers where there are indications of unreliability.”

  2. Redlining: The report states that CFPB examiners found evidence of redlining, including direct mail marketing materials showcasing pictures of only white people and locating credit loan offices “almost exclusively” in majority-white neighborhoods. CFPB examiners found that these actions “lowered the number of applications from minority neighborhoods relative to other comparable lenders.”

  3. Regulation X Foreclosure Issues: The report states CFPB examinations identified “several violations” by mortgage servicers of the servicing rules in Regulation X, including filing for a foreclosure before evaluating borrower’s appeals or initiating a foreclosure prior to the date that they told consumers they would.  On June 28, 2021, the CFPB issued a final rule that it contends will help consumers avoid foreclosures as the emergency federal foreclosure protections expire.

  4. Student Loan Servicing for the PSLF Program: CFPB examiners found violations in the type of information that student loan servicers gave consumers about the Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF) program. Examiners found that student loan servicers were giving consumers incorrect information that could potentially bar access to the program and could result in thousands of dollars lost for these consumers.

If you would like to read more about the areas mentioned above and other consumer law violations that the CFPB report discusses, please click here for access to the full supervisory highlights report and press release. 


EU Guidance on Forced Labour in Supply Chains

   

By: Paul FeldbergLucy Blake, and Karam Jardaneh

New-Update-IconIntroduction

Earlier this week, the European Commission published its Guidance “On Due Diligence For EU Businesses To Address The Risk Of Forced Labour In Their Operations And Supply Chains”. 

The document, which is not legally binding, provides practical guidance on how to use existing international, voluntary, due diligence guidelines and principles when dealing with the risk of forced labour in supply chains.

The European Commission made clear in its press release, that the Guidance forms part of the EU’s wider strategy to defend human rights and strengthen the resilience and sustainability of the EU supply chain. The European Commission sees the Guidance as encouragement for EU businesses to take appropriate measures regarding their supply chains ahead of the EU’s introduction of a mandatory due diligence duty for businesses operating in the EU. As set out in our previous Client Alert, the due diligence duty will require certain businesses operating in the EU to identify, prevent, mitigate and account for adverse human rights and environmental impacts in their operations and supply chains. We will also cover this in more detail as well as other developments in Europe in a separate Client Alert. 

Who should consider the Guidance? 

Although the Guidance is directed at EU companies, it is based on international instruments aimed at companies globally. This includes the OECD Due Diligence Guidance For Responsible Business Conduct (the OECD Guidelines) and the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs). While the UNGPs are not “legally binding” and are often referred to as “soft-law”, there are growing expectations for companies worldwide to adhere to them. This “soft law” has been evolving into “hard law” in multiple jurisdictions (the anticipated EU mandatory due diligence laws being a prime example). Therefore, we believe that this Guidance will be a helpful resource for companies globally.

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Ninth Circuit Not Sweet on Plaintiffs’ Interpretation of Trader Joe’s Honey Label

 

By: Alexander M. Smith

HoneyOn July 15, 2021, the Ninth Circuit issued a published decision in Moore v. Trader Joe’s Company in which it affirmed the dismissal of a lawsuit alleging that Trader Joe’s mislabeled its Manuka honey as “100% New Zealand Manuka Honey.” While the plaintiffs alleged that this statement was misleading because the honey was derived from floral honey sources other than Manuka flower nectar, the Ninth Circuit found that the labeling was not likely to mislead a reasonable consumer because it satisfied the FDA’s regulations governing the labeling of honey. Because “Trader Joe’s Manuka Honey is chiefly derived from Manuka flower nectar,” the Ninth Circuit concluded that “Manuka is therefore the chief flower source for all of the product’s honey under the FDA’s definition, even if some of it is derived from nectar from other floral sources.” Thus, “there is no dispute that all of the honey involved is technically manuka honey, albeit with varying pollen counts.”

The Ninth Circuit also rejected the plaintiffs’ argument “that ‘100% New Zealand Manuka Honey’ could nonetheless mislead consumers into thinking that the honey was ‘100%’ derived from Manuka flower nectar.” Although it acknowledged that “there is some ambiguity as to what ‘100%’ means in the phrase, ‘100% New Zealand Manuka Honey,’” the court nonetheless found that this ambiguity was unlikely to mislead a reasonable consumer, as “other available information about Trader Joe’s Manuka Honey would quickly dissuade a reasonable consumer from the belief that Trader Joe’s Manuka Honey was derived from 100% Manuka flower nectar.” 

This decision builds upon other recent decisions in which the Ninth Circuit has rejected product mislabeling claims based on decontextualized and therefore implausible interpretations of product labels. See, e.g., Becerra v. Dr Pepper/Seven Up, Inc., 945 F.3d 1225 (9th Cir. 2019) (holding that a reasonable consumer would understand the word “diet” on a soda label in context to make a comparative claim only about the product’s caloric content, not to make a claim that the soda promotes weight loss generally). Although the Ninth Circuit has historically been viewed as friendly to plaintiffs in food-labeling litigation, Becerra and Moore signal that courts in the Ninth Circuit are becoming increasingly skeptical of these claims.


Supreme Court Limits Article III Standing for Class Action Plaintiffs: Implications for Data Breach Class Actions

   

By: Clifford W. BerlowAlexander E. Cottingham, and Lindsay C. Harrison

SCOTUSIntroduction

On June 25, 2021, the US Supreme Court in TransUnion LLC v. Ramirez[1] narrowed the scope of Article III standing for plaintiffs who allege the violation of a statute but cannot show they otherwise suffered harm. Though decided in the context of a Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA) class action, the decision has major implications for parties litigating state and federal statutory claims of all varieties in federal courts. In particular, TransUnion seems poised to limit the viability of class actions arising from data breaches. The decision likely means, for example, that plaintiffs lack Article III standing when their information may have been accessed but was not misused in a manner causing concrete harm—a subject on which the courts of appeals previously had split. The decision also will limit plaintiffs’ ability to assert Article III standing merely based on the violation of privacy statutes alone without any resulting harm. 

Defendants litigating data breach class actions can take advantage of this new precedent in federal court to seek dismissal of data breach class actions for lack of Article III standing. But doing so is not without consequence. If federal courts are not available to adjudicate these claims, plaintiffs likely will pursue them in state courts, where standing precedent may be more lenient for plaintiffs. Defendants thus will need to be strategic about how aggressively they pursue TransUnion-based dismissals.

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Supreme Court Gives More Tools for Defendants to Challenge Class Certification in Securities Fraud Cases

   

By: Ali M. Arain, Stephen L. Ascher, Howard S. Suskin, and Reanne Zheng

Supreme Court PillarsIntroduction

On June 21, 2021, the US Supreme Court issued its decision in Goldman Sachs Group Inc. v. Arkansas Teacher Retirement System,[1] providing guidance to lower courts regarding class certification in securities fraud class actions. On balance, the opinion favors defendants, and potentially signals a backlash against the tide of securities fraud class actions based on vague and generic misstatements. Importantly, the Court instructed that all relevant evidence should be considered when making the class certification decision, sending a message that lower courts must grapple with and cannot ignore relevant evidence at the class certification stage simply because it overlaps with the merits-related evidence. The Court also stressed that the generic nature of a misrepresentation is often important evidence of lack of price impact, which lower courts should consider when deciding whether to grant or deny a class certification motion. 

Although the Supreme Court’s decision was not as sweeping as the defendants wanted, it does signal the Supreme Court’s concern that companies are too frequently held liable for securities fraud as a result of adverse legal or business developments, even where the company had never made any specific statements about the matters in question.

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Future of Fintech Charter Unclear

 

By: Lindsey A. Lusk

FintechA legal battle over a charter to allow Fintech companies to become special purpose national banks has been put on pause. But for how long will the future of the charter remain in limbo? On June 16, 2021, the Conference of State Bank Supervisors (the CSBS) and the Office of Comptroller of the Currency (OCC) agreed to stay the litigation, and the district court approved a motion formalizing the parties’ agreement to put the litigation on hold for 90 days,[1] though some analysts have warned that the fate of the charter still may not be easily resolved.[2]

The pause follows the recent dismissal of a similar case in the Southern District of New York. In Lacewell v. Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, the New York Department of Financial Services (DFS) was attempting to block the OCC’s special purpose national bank charter (the “Fintech charter”). The Fintech charter would allow certain non-depository Fintech companies to operate as “special purpose national banks” under the National Bank Act (NBA). Accordingly, the Fintech companies would not be subject to state-by-state regulation and licensing. DFS argued that the charter is unlawful because it exceeds the OCC’s authority under the NBA.[3]

The case had been pending on appeal in the Second Circuit since April of 2020, after the district court denied the OCC’s motion to dismiss and found that DFS had standing to sue.[4] The Second Circuit heard oral argument in March 2021, and reversed the lower court’s ruling on June 3, holding that DFS lacked standing to challenge the Fintech charter.[5] It remanded the case to the district court with instruction to dismiss without prejudice.[6]

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Two Recent Circuit Court Decisions Provide Insight Into How Attorneys’ Fee Awards Can Impact Class Settlement Approval

 

By: Elizabeth Avunjian

New-Development-IconEarlier this month, and just two days apart, the Ninth and Eleventh Circuits reached opposite conclusions regarding two class action settlements: the Ninth Circuit overturned approval of a class settlement related to the alleged mislabeling of cooking oil in Briseno v. Henderson, while the Eleventh Circuit upheld all but one element of a class settlement related to the 2017 Equifax data breach in In Re Equifax Inc. Customer Data Sec. Breach Litig. Despite the courts’ divergent holdings, their analyses provide insight into how federal courts review fee awards in assessing the reasonableness of class settlements.

Notably, the Ninth Circuit took one step further than the Eleventh Circuit in applying newly-revised Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 23(e)(2) to impose a “heightened inquiry” obligation on district courts “to scrutinize attorneys’ fees for potential collusion that shortchanges the class, even in post-class certification settlements.” Briseno v. Henderson, No. 19-56297, 2021 WL 2197968, at *6, 13 (9th Cir. June 1, 2021).

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Another Vanilla Bean Lawsuit is Nipped in the Bud

 

By: Madeline Skitzki

VanillaOn June 14, 2021, Judge Jeffrey S. White of the Northern District of California dismissed yet another lawsuit challenging representations about vanilla on food products.  In that lawsuit—Lisa Robie v. Trader Joe’s Company, Case No. 4:20-cv-07355-JSE—the plaintiff alleged that Trader Joe’s mislabels its Almond Clusters cereal as “Vanilla Flavored With Other Natural Flavors,” when in fact (1) the cereal contains only trace amounts of real vanilla, and (2) the predominant source of the vanilla taste is from the artificial flavors vanillin and ethyl vanilla.

The court dismissed the claims on several grounds, with leave to amend. First, the court found that, to the extent the plaintiff challenged the product’s flavors—as opposed to its ingredients—as unnatural, those claims were preempted by the FDA’s flavor regulations. Second, the court found that the statutory and common law claims failed as a matter of law because the plaintiff did not plausibly allege that a reasonable consumer would interpret the “vanilla” representation to mean that the product’s flavor is derived exclusively from the vanilla plant. In so holding, the court found that the plaintiff failed to plausibly allege that the vanillin in the cereal is necessarily artificial. The court also noted that the label did not include any words or pictures suggesting the cereal’s vanilla flavor is derived exclusively from the vanilla bean or plant. And even if the label’s reference to “vanilla” would lead consumers to believe that the product contains vanilla from the vanilla plant, the court found no deception because the plaintiff conceded that the product does contain some real vanilla. The court also dismissed the plaintiff’s equitable claims because she had not alleged that she lacked an adequate remedy at law.

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Courts Express Reluctance to Regulate Market Prices Via Consumer Protection Claims

 

By: Lindsey A. Lusk

DrugstoreConsumers seeking to hold companies accountable for differential pricing of allegedly materially identical products have recently faced push-back from several federal courts. In May 2021, two federal courts dismissed consumer-protection claims based on price differentials between such products.

In Schulte v. Conopco, et al., the Eighth Circuit affirmed the Missouri district court’s dismissal of a Missouri Merchandising Practices Act (MMPA) claim premised on allegedly discriminatory price differentials between women’s and men’s deodorant products (a so-called “pink tax” claim). 2021 WL1971957 at *1 (8th Cir. May 18, 2021). The appellate court held that the plaintiff failed to meet the plausibility pleading standard and was mistaking “gender-based marketing for gender discrimination.” Id. The court also noted that the plaintiff was “conflate[ing] marketing targeted to women with enforced point-of-sale pricing by gender,” and that the plaintiff’s choice not to purchase men’s antiperspirant “illustrates a difference in demand based on product preferences.” Id. Because “preference-based pricing is not necessarily an unfair practice,” the court held that the MMPA did not prohibit the defendants’ differential pricing.

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