The United States Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit rendered an important decision on March 5, 2012, addressing the enforceability of binding arbitration provisions in consumer deposit agreements. The case began when Lawrence and Pamela Hough brought suit against Regions Bank for allegedly violating federal and state law by collecting overdraft charges under its deposit agreement. The deposit agreement contained an arbitration provision and Regions moved to compel arbitration. The federal district court hearing the case denied the motion to compel on the ground that the arbitration clause was substantively unconscionable because it contained a class action waiver. Regions appealed the decision to the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals and the appellate court vacated the ruling and sent it back to the trial court in light of a recent United States Supreme Court which held that the Federal Arbitration Act preempted a California’s judicial rule regarding the unconscionability of class arbitration waivers in consumer contracts. This time around the district court found other reasons to deny Regions’ motion to compel arbitration, holding that the arbitration clause was substantively unconscionable under Georgia law because it believed that a provision granting Regions the unilateral right to recover its expenses for arbitration allocated disproportionately to the Houghs the risks of error and loss inherent in dispute resolution.
The lower court decision was again appealed to the 11th Circuit. On appeal the Houghs argued that while the arbitration provision in the deposit agreement capped the Houghs’ costs for the arbitration proceeding at $125, another paragraph required the Houghs to reimburse Regions as a prevailing party for its costs of arbitration. The arbitration agreement permitted Regions, if it was “the prevailing party,” to obtain “reimburse[ment] for [its] costs and expenses (including reasonable attorney’s fees) … [in] arbitration” and to collect that amount by “charg[ing] [the Houghs'] account.” The district court concluded that the reimbursement provision was unconscionable because Regions had an exclusive right of setoff. The 11th Circuit disagreed, and noted that under Georgia law an arbitration provision is not unconscionable because it lacks mutuality of remedy. The district court also ruled that the arbitration clause had a degree of procedural unconscionability, but the 11th Circuit found that to be unconscionable under Georgia law, a contract must be so one-sided that “no sane man not acting under a delusion would make and that no honest man would participate in the transaction.” The court found that the arbitration clause in the Houghs’ agreement fell well short of that standard. Although the district court found it troubling that the clause was presented to the Houghs “on a take-it-or-leave-it basis with no opt-out provision,” the 11th Circuit noted that under Georgia law, an adhesion contract (i.e., one that is not truly negotiated between the parties such as a deposit agreement or a credit card agreement) is not per se unconscionable.
9th Circuit Holds TILA Bars Rescission Suits Filed More Than 3 Years After Consummation
In McOmie-Gray v. Bank of America (9th Cir. Feb. 8, 2012), the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals held that under the Truth in Lending Act (“TILA”), “rescission suits must be brought within three years from consummation of the loan, regardless whether notice of rescission is delivered within that three-year period.” It ruled that the three year period in the Act is an absolute limitation on rescission actions and that the one year period for bringing claims applies only to damages actions and does not extend the time to file a claim for rescission even where the borrower has sent the Bank a written notice of rescission within three years of loan signing or “consummation.” To learn more about the facts in this case and the Court’s decision, please click here to read the Alert published by the Commercial Litigation Client Service Group and the Financial Institutions Client Service Group on March 6, 2012.
How Long Should You Retain Data? Recent Developments May Add Confusion Not Clarity
Businesses have always collected information about their customers, but with the explosion of on-line commerce the quantity of information collected has ballooned. One question that necessarily arises for almost any business is deciding how long it will keep the data it collects. Businesses are aware that future developments in technology will improve the usefulness (and value) of the data that is currently in their possession. Retaining consumer data, however, raises a number of legal risks which are often difficult to quantify in light of the changing regulatory and litigation landscape. For a discussion of how recent developments add to the legal complexity, please click here to read the Bulletin published by the Data Privacy & Security Team on March 16, 2012.
Supreme Court Weakens EPA’s Enforcement Regine
The United States Supreme Court handed landowners a major victory against the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in its unanimous decision in Sackett v. EPA, No. 10-1062. The decision announced March 21, 2012, held that Clean Water Act compliance orders can be challenged in court under the Administrative Procedures, undercutting EPA’s historic practice of using compliance orders to, in the words of the Court, “strong-arm” parties into voluntary compliance. To learn about the case and the Court’s decision, please click here to read the Alert published by the Environmental Client Service Group on March 22, 2012.
Legislation has been introduced in the United States House of Representatives that, if passed, would relieve banks of the responsibility of installing and monitoring the presence of physical notices on their ATMs notifying customers about the imposition of ATM transaction fees.
On April 17, 2012, Representatives Blaine Luetkemeyer (R-MO) and David Scott (D-GA) introduced H.R. 4367 which seeks to amend the Electronic Fund Transfer Act to limit the fee disclosure requirement for operators of ATMs to the electronic notice alone. The electronic notice allows a consumer to choose whether the consumer wishes to continue with the ATM transaction and pay the fee or exit the transaction. This proposed bill comes in the wake of class action litigation filed against banks and other ATM operators nationwide (and most recently against several Georgia community banks) alleging that the banks failed to post or maintain the physical notice on their ATMs.
As currently written, the Electronic Fund Transfer Act requires both a physical notice at or on the ATM in addition to the electronic notice the customer receives on the computer screen when making the withdrawal. Currently, there are statutory penalties for failure to comply with the Act. While there is no minimum penalty proscribed for a class action, the statute provides that in a successful class action, plaintiffs may recover up to “the lesser of $500,000 or 1 percent of the net worth of the (ATM operator),” plus attorneys’ fees and costs. There may be a defense to such claims when the bank maintains procedures reasonably adapted to avoid a failure to comply with the Act and the failure to comply was a “bona fide error.”
Even where banks have been in full compliance with the physical notice requirements, many banks have found that their fee notice placards have mysteriously disappeared or have been removed by persons as yet unknown in the time periods preceding the institution of litigation against them.
Four class action complaints have been filed in the last two weeks against four different Georgia community banks alleging that the banks have violated the Electronic Fund Transfer Act. The complaints were filed in the federal courts and all allege that the banks imposed fees on consumers who withdrew cash from the bank’s ATMs and that the banks allegedly failed to post a physical notice on the ATMs that a fee would be imposed for such services.
The Electronic Fund Transfer Act requires both a physical notice at or on the ATM in addition to the electronic notice the customer receives on the computer screen when making the withdrawal. There are statutory penalties for a failure to comply with the Act. While there is no minimum penalty proscribed for a class action, the statute provides that in a successful class action, plaintiffs may recover up to “the lesser of $500,000 or 1 percent of the net worth of the (ATM operator),” plus attorneys’ fees and costs. There may be a defense to such claims when the bank maintains procedures reasonably adapted to avoid a failure to comply with the Act and the failure to comply was a “bona fide error.”
The attorneys associated with these cases have filed similar class actions, alleging the same violations of the Electronic Fund Transfer Act, against other banks, hotels and retailers around the country.
FED Releases Second Set of FAQs on Durbin Rules
The Federal Reserve Board recently posted a second set of questions and answers to the “Frequently Asked Questions About Regulation II (Debit Card Interchange Fees and Routing)” on the Fed’s website. This current release of FAQs has been merged with the previously published FAQs, with the newer questions annotated with the date added. For a summary of the new issues addressed in the FAQs, please click here to read the Alert published by the Financial Institutions Client Service Group on November 28, 2011.
FinCen Issues FAQs and Holds Webinar on Prepaid Access Rule
The Financial Crimes Enforcement Network ( “FinCEN”) recently released a set of FAQs related to the final rule on prepaid access that was issued on July 29, 2011 (the “Rule”). The FAQs are intended to provide interpretive guidance for the Rule, not supersede or replace any part of it. FinCen also recently gave a webinar presentation on the Rule. The most significant clarifications to the Rule made by FinCen are discussed in an Alert published by the Financial Institutions Client Service Group on November 28, 2011. To read this discussion, please click here.
Supreme Court to Determine Whether Corporations Are Liable in U.S. Courts for Human Rights Violations Committed Abroad
The U.S. Supreme Court may soon decide the extent to which corporations may be sued for alleged human rights violations which arise in connection with their business activities outside the U.S. The Court has granted certiorari petitions in two cases brought against corporations for alleged human rights violations committed abroad. In each case, the claims were discussed by a Court of Appeals on the ground that corporations are immune from such suits. The cases will be argued in tandem, even though different statutes apply. To read more the cases and the statutes being applied, please click here for the Alert published by the Commercial Litigation Client Service Group on November 11, 2011.
The Georgia Court of Appeals recently issued a very favorable ruling for banks that have purchased loans from the FDIC. In the case of KENSINGTON PARTNERS, LLC et al. v. BEAL BANK NEVADA, the guarantors argued that the purchaser of a $7 million loan from the FDIC did not possess a valid assignment from the FDIC. The original loan had been extended by BankFirst in 2006. BankFirst subsequently failed and the FDIC sold the loan to Beal Bank Nevada.
The record established that the FDIC sold the loan and all related documents, including the guaranties and the court rejected the argument put forth by the guarantors. In a helpful comment, the court noted that even if the assignment from the FDIC had not referenced the guaranties, under Georgia law, the assignment of the note carried with it the assignment of the guaranties. The guarantors also argued that there were genuine issues of fact concerning the amounts owed under the note.
The court rejected these arguments as well based on evidence from the FDIC loan portfolio manager accounting for the loan balance from its inception. The case is typical of some of the lender liability litigation that lenders are having to grapple with right now as well heeled borrowers and guarantors attempt to put off the day of reckoning. The litigation can be lengthy and expensive and the loan obligors are seeking to use that to extract a settlement form the lender that is favorable to the obligors.
Lenders seeking to collect against loan obligors that have sufficient assets to cover the loan should enter into collection activities with realistic expectations about the time and cost involved. Bank counsel’s awareness of typical or new lender liability theories is also vital to a successful collection effort.
The Implications for FCPA Enforcement of the SEC’s New Whistleblower Rules
The SEC’s recent adoption of rules to implement the whistleblower program mandated by the Dodd-Frank Act has particular significance for enforcement of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act. For a discussion of the overall SEC enforcement context for the new whistleblower rules, a summary of the rules, and a discussion of the key issues for FCPA enforcement, including recommendations that companies should take now, please click here to read the Alert published by the Global Anti-Corruption Team of the Securities Litigation and Enforcement and International Trade Groups on June 22, 2011.
Supreme Court De-Certifies Largest Employment Discrimination Class Action In History
In Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. v. Dukes, the Supreme Court reversed a lower court’s decision to certify a nationwide class pursuing employment discrimination claims against the nation’s largest employer. A 5-4 majority of the Court concluded that the class of 1.5 million current and former female employees could not satisfy the commonality requirement. For a discussion of the decision, please click here to read the Alert published by the Class and Derivative Actions section of the Labor & Employment Client Service Group on June 21, 2011.
Supreme Court Draws Bright Line Barring Securities Fraud Claims Against Advisers to Companies Who Do Not “Make” Statements At Issue
In June the U.S. Supreme Court issued a significant decision restricting the ability of plaintiffs to bring securities fraud actions against adviser defendants who play a role in preparing statements actually made by companies they are advising. In Janus Group, et al. v. First Derivative Traders, the court held that an investment adviser to a mutual fund could not be sued in a private securities fraud action for false statements made in mutual fund prospectuses. To read more, please click here for the Alert published by the Securities Litigation and Enforcement practice group on June 16, 2011.
W-2 Reporting of Employer-Provided Health Care Costs
The 2010 health care reform legislation included an obligation for employers to inform employees of the cost of their health coverage. The IRS has now issued Notice 2011-28, which provides interim guidance for employers on W-2 reporting of the cost of coverage. For more information, please click here to read the Alert regarding the Notice published by the Employee Benefits & Executive Compensation Client Service Group on April 5, 2011.
Form I-9: Changes to Accepted Documentation
As of May 16, 2011, the documents employees present to employers for I-9 verification are subject to new regulations. The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services of the Department of Homeland Security has issued a final rule concerning the list of acceptable documentation. To learn more about the changes in acceptable documentation, please click here to read the Alert published by the Labor & Employment Client Service Group on April 27, 2011.
Reminder for Plan Administrators to Review Confidentiality Procedures for Qualified Retirement Plans
Plan administrators of plans that offer employer stock as an investment alternative should review the disclosures provided to plan participants. Investment in employer stock represents a significant litigation threat for plan fiduciaries. However, the plan fiduciary may be relieved of liability for participant losses resulting from the decision to invest in employer stock if certain disclosures are provided under ERISA Section 404(c). To learn more, please click here to read the Alert published by the Employee Benefits & Executive Compensation Client Service Group on April 12, 2011.
Pension Plan Reporting of Foreign Bank and Financial Accounts
Representatives of pension plans with interests in foreign financial accounts may be required to report those accounts to the Internal Revenue Service. On February 24, 2011 the Treasury Department issued final regulations greatly expanding the reporting requirements for individuals and entities that hold interests in foreign accounts. To learn more about the regulations, please click here to read the Alert published April 12, 2011 by the Employee Benefits & Executive Compensation Client Service Group.
CPSC Opens Business Registration for New Consumer Product Safety Information Database
The new Consumer Product Safety Information Database is now available online on a trial basis, and will launch officially in March at www.SaferProducts.gov. The Database allows a broad range of people to file so-called “reports of harm” informing the CPSC about an incident or concern that the submitter believes is an indication a product is unsafe or potentially hazardous. To read more the database, please click here to see the Alert published by the Retail Team on February 3, 2011.
IRS Reverses Course — Breast Pumps and Other Lactation Supplies are Now Deductible Medical Expenses Subject to Reimbursement under FSAs, HRAs and HSAs
In Announcement 2011-14, the Internal Revenue Service concluded that breast pumps and supplies that assist lactation are medical care under Section 213(d) of the Internal Revenue Code and can therefore be reimbursed under a health flexible spending arrangement. To learn more about this announcement, please click here to read the Feburary 22, 2011 Alert published by the Employee Benefits & Executive Compensation Client Service Group.
Patent Reform Act of 2011
On January 25, 2011, The Patent Reform Act of 2011 was introduced by Senator Leahy (D-VT) with bipartisan support. The Bill is the latest installment of Congress’ attempts to pass patent legislation reform, following the Patent Reform Act of 2009 and other bills in recent years, all of which died in Congress. To learn more, please click here to read the February 22, 2011 Bulletin published by the Intellectual Property Client Service Group.
Wide-Open House Budget Debate Moves Toward Finish Line
The House continues to work towards completing a major budget bill to fund the federal government for the remainder of the 2011 fiscal year. Of the hundreds of amendments which have been offered and voted upon, major energy and environment-related amendments would reverse a law that requires the federal government to pay the legal costs of some environmental plaintiffs, de-fund the White House climate czar’s office, prevent an EPA appeals board from revoking air permits for oil exploration in the Arctic, and de-fund the EPA’s greenhouse gas emissions registry. To read more about the proposed amendments and other energy updates, please click here to see the February 18, 2011 Energy Update.