Wake Forest Law Review

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By Mike Stephens

This afternoon, October 7, 2016, the Fourth Circuit issued a published opinion in the civil case McCray v. Federal Home Loan Mortgage Corp. The Fourth Circuit affirmed the district court’s decision to dismiss the Plaintiff’s Truth in Lending Act (“TILA”) claims regarding notice. However, the Fourth Circuit reversed and remanded the district court’s decision that two of the defendants, the White Firm and the “Substitute Trustees,” were not “debt collectors” under the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (“FDCPA”).

Facts and Procedural History

In October 2005, Renee McCray took out a loan to refinance her house. The loan documents were sold to the Federal Home Loan Mortgage Corporation (“Freddie Mac”). Wells Fargo was retained to service the loan. After several years of payments, McCray disputed a billing statement in June 2011 and sent Wells Fargo several requests for information regarding the costs contained within the statement. Wells Fargo either failed to respond or did not respond adequately to McCray’s requests. Eventually, McCray stopped making payments after April 2012 and the loan went into default. Wells Fargo employed the White Firm to initiate the foreclosure.

The White Firm sent McCray a letter dated September 28, 2012, notifying McCray that the firm had been retained to begin the foreclosure proceedings on her home. The letter ended by stating, “This is an attempt to collect a debt. This is a communication from a debt collector. Any information obtained will be used for that purpose.” The White Firm also sent McCray another letter notifying her that the loan was “154 days past due” and that $4,282.91 was needed to cure the default. Members of the White Firm were placed as trustees on the deed of trust and filed a foreclosure action in February 2013, which is still pending. McCray filed suit in 2013, alleging violations of FDCPA and TILA. The district court dismissed four of McCray’s claims and granted summary judgment on the fifth. McCray raised three issues on appeal.

Defendants Were Debt Collectors Subject to the FDCPA’s Regulation

McCray first alleged that the the district court erred in concluding the White Firm and the Substitute Trustees were not “debt collectors” as defined within the FDCPA. McCray argued that the facts contained within the complaint regarding the firm’s letter were sufficient to show that the White Firm “regularly collect[ed] or attempt[ed] to collect debts” that were owed to another, consistent with the definition in 15 U.S.C. § 1692a(6). The White Firm responded that their actions did not qualify them as debt collectors as they never actually sought collection of money because, as the district court concluded, there was no “express demand for payment or specific information about [McCray’s] debt.” The White Firm also argued that their foreclosure action was “incidental to [their] fiduciary obligation,” placing them within an exception in § 1692a(6)(F)(i).

The Fourth Circuit reversed and remanded the district court’s dismissal, holding that McCray’s complaint sufficiently alleged that the White Firm were debt collectors and that their actions in initiating the foreclosure constituted debt collection activity for the purposes of the FDCPA. The Court rejected the White Firm’s argument for two reasons. First, the Court held that the FDCPA did not require an “express demand for payment.” Instead, activities “taken in connection with the collection of a debt or in an attempt to collect a debt” are actionable under the FDCPA. Second, the Court held that foreclosure is not merely “incidental,” but instead “central to the trustee’s fiduciary obligation under the deed of trust.” Thus, because McCray’s complaint alleged facts showing the White Firm was retained to collect the loan in default, and because the firm’s letter concluded that it was “an attempt to collect debt,” their actions fell within debt collection activity that is regulated by the FDCPA.

The District Court Properly Dismissed McCray’s TILA Claim

McCray also alleged that the district court wrongfully dismissed her TILA claim against Freddie Mac. McCray argued that Freddie Mac failed to give her notice of its purchase of the loan in violation of § 1641(g). This provision was added by Congress in 2009, which provides that:

not later than 30 days after the date on which a mortgage loan is sold or otherwise transferred or assigned to a third party, the creditor that is the new owner or assignee of the debt shall notify the borrower in writing of such transfer.

The district court found that McCray’s complaint failed to allege that Freddie Mac acquired the loan after Congress amended TILA to require notice. Additionally the district court found that McCray received notice of her claim in October 2011 because Wells Fargo sent her a letter notifying her that Freddie Mac was the “investor” on the loan. Because McCray filed suit in 2013 after receiving notice of the TILA claim in October 2011, the district court held, in the alternative, that her claim was barred by TILA’s one-year limitations period.

The Court affirmed the district court’s initial conclusion because McCray did not challenge the district court’s dismissal for failure to allege that her loan was sold after Congress amended TILA in 2009.  The Court affirmed the district court’s alternative holding as well. McCray did challenge the district court’s alternative conclusion, alleging hat the district court erred by not allowing her the opportunity to amend her complaint.  McCray pointed out that the October 2011 letter was not included in her complaint and instead was contained within the defendants’ motion to dismiss. Yet, McCray submitted an affidavit in her response where she stated she received a letter in December 2011 which repeated that “[t]he investor/noteholder for this loan is [Freddie Mac].” The Court found McCray’s claim was barred by the statute of limitations because McCray conceded notice that Freddie Mac was the owner of the loan in December 2011.

Wells Fargo Did Not Hold Legal Title

Lastly, McCray argued the district court wrongfully dismissed her claim that Wells Fargo violated § 1641(g) when it failed to give her notice that it had been assigned the deed of trust. The district court concluded that § 1641(g) was not applicable because Wells Fargo only received a “beneficial interest” to service the loan and “not legal title.” McCray claimed that a line in the deed of trust granted Wells Fargo an ownership interest and that failure to notify her of this interest was in violated of TILA.

The Fourth Circuit affirmed the district court, holding that the Wells Fargo did not obtain an ownership interest because the note was not sold to Wells Fargo. The Court found that simply because the note “can be sold” does not mean “the note was in fact sold to Wells Fargo.” The Court also highlighted that this claim contradicted McCray’s previous claim that Freddie Mac owned the note and failed to provide timely notice of ownership.

Disposition

The Court ultimately reversed and remanded McCray’s FDCPA claim that the White Firm and the Substitute Trustees were acting as “debt collectors.” The Court was careful to note that this reversal was not to indicate whether or not the defendants actually violated the FDCPA. The Court affirmed the district court’s dismissal of McCray’s TILA claims.

Judge Johnston Concurring in Part and Dissenting in Part

Judge Johnston, District Judge for the Southern District of West Virginia, sitting by designation, only dissented on the portion of the decision to affirm dismissal of McCray’s TILA claim against Wells Fargo for failing to provide notice of its interest in the loan. Judge Johnston noted that McCray’s complaint was filed pro se, and as such, should have been construed liberally. Because of this, the complaint could be read to infer that McCray could not identify the actual owner of the mortgage loan. In essence, the TILA claim regarding notice was nothing more than a pro se litigant attempting to “cast a wide net” by alleging both Wells Fargo and Freddie Mac failed to provide her notice of which entity owned the loan. Judge Johnston found the majority opinion’s reading of a pro se complaint to be “unduly strict” at the pleading stage when discovery would surely reveal whether Wells Fargo did receive an ownership interest.

 

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By Mikhail Petrov

On March 7, 2016, in the published civil case of Cumberland County Hospital v. Burwell, the Fourth Circuit reviewed the decision of the district court to deny Cumberland County Hospital System’s (“the Hospital”) request for a writ of mandamus to compel the Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Service (“HHS”) to adjudicate immediately the Hospital’s administrative appeals on claims for Medicare reimbursement. The Forth Circuit agreed with the district court, finding that (1) the Hospital  did not have a clear and indisputable right to a hearing within a ninety-day time frame, and (2) that the political branches are best suited to address the backlog in the administrative process.

Facts

Both the Hospital and the Secretary agree that, as of February 2014, HHS had 480,000 appeals awaiting assignment to an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”), and the Secretary conceded in her brief that the number had already climbed to more than 800,000 appeals, creating a ten-year backlog. While acknowledging the unacceptability of the backlog, the Secretary attributes it to an increased number of appeals within the Medicare system and inadequate funding by Congress to hire additional personnel.

The Hospital operates a number of facilities in eastern North Carolina, delivering medical services to beneficiaries of Medicare. In 2012 and 2013, the Secretary denied payment to the Hospital on over 900 claims for reimbursement for Medicare services that she had initially authorized. By September 2014, the Hospital had over 750 appeals on these claims that had been pending for more than ninety days before the Office of Medicare Hearings and Appeals (“OMHA”) within HHS. Those appeals related to claims for some $12.3 million in reimbursement. Because reimbursement of such a large sum is essential to the Hospital’s operations, the Hospital commenced this action for a writ of mandamus.

Rule of the Case

The Hospital asked the district court for a writ of mandamus to require the Secretary to docket, assign to an ALJ, and decide an appeal within ninety days, as required by the Medicare Act. See 42 U.S.C. § 1395ff(d)(1)(A). A writ of mandamus is a “drastic” remedy that must be reserved for “extraordinary situations” involving the performance of official acts or duties. Kerr v. U.S. Dist. Court for the N. Dist. of Cal., 426 U.S. 394, 402 (1976). Accordingly, to show that it is entitled to mandamus relief, a plaintiff must show, among other things, that it has a “clear and indisputable right to the relief sought” and that the responding party has a “clear duty to do the specific act requested.” United States ex rel. Rahman v. Oncology Assocs., P.C., 198 F.3d 502, 511 (4th Cir. 1999).

Reasoning of the Fourth Circuit

As bleak as the circumstances appeared to be, the Fourth Circuit was unpersuaded that Article III treatment of the ailing Article II issue in the manner the Hospital urged was the answer or, indeed, even possible or desirable.

The Hospital asserts that the Secretary’s delay violates the congressional mandate that its appeals be heard and decided by an ALJ within ninety days as per 42 U.S.C. § 1395ff(d)(1)(A). The Fourth Circuit agreed with the district court and dismissed the Hospital’s complaint, relying on two independent grounds. It held (1) that the Hospital does not have a clear and indisputable right to an ALJ hearing within a 90-day time frame, as required for issuance of a mandamus order, and (2) that the political branches, rather than the courts, are best suited to address the backlog in the administrative process.

First, the Hospital contends that the Medicare Act gives it a clear and indisputable right to have its appeals decided within ninety days and that it imposes on the Secretary a clear duty to accomplish that. In support of this contention, the Hospital emphasizes the mandatory language of the Act, which provides that an ALJ “shall conduct and conclude a hearing . . . and render a decision on such hearing by not later than the end of the 90-day period beginning on the date a request for hearing has been timely filed.” 42 U.S.C. § 1395ff(d)(1)(A). The Secretary, by contrast, maintains that the Medicare statute does not confer on the Hospital a right to a hearing within ninety days that is enforceable through mandamus, emphasizing that the statute provides that the consequence of failing to adjudicate an appeal within ninety days is that the provider (the Hospital) may escalate that appeal to the Departmental Appeals Board.

The Fourth Circuit agreed with the Secretary in that, instead of creating a right to go to court to enforce the ninety day deadline, Congress specifically gave the healthcare provider a choice of either waiting for the ALJ hearing beyond the ninety day deadline or continuing within the administrative process by escalation to the next level of review at the Departmental Appeals Board. The Hospital’s argument focuses on only the provision creating the ninety day time frame and fails to account for its context in the comprehensive administrative process. Thus, while the Act gives the Hospital the clear and indisputable right to this administrative process, it does not give it a clear and indisputable right to adjudication of its appeals before an ALJ within ninety days.

Second, the Fourth Circuit agreed with the district court’s conclusion that to grant mandamus relief would inappropriately “inter-meddle” with the agency’s problem-solving efforts and would fail to recognize HHS’s comparative institutional advantage in crafting a solution to the delays in the adjudication of appeals.

The Fourth Circuit concluded that if it were to interfere in the administrative process, it would be undermining important separation-of-powers principles. In the Medicare Act, Congress required healthcare providers to engage in an Executive Branch administrative process in making claims for Medicare reimbursement, thus precluding court suits in the first instance that would bypass the process. But, in doing so, it did not deny healthcare providers judicial review; indeed, it guaranteed such review, but only after the Secretary is given the opportunity to grant or deny the claims in accordance with the specified process. A writ of mandamus would have courts interrupt the specified administrative process and cross the lines of authority created by statute. Additionally, even if the backlog was fully attributable to the Secretary’s mismanagement, a court must “respect the autonomy and comparative institutional advantage of the executive branch” and must be “slow to assume command over an agency’s choice of priorities.” In re Barr Labs., Inc., 930 F.2d 72, 74 (D.C. Cir. 1991). Moreover, it is unlikely that any judicial intervention into HHS’s administrative process, as urged by the Hospital, would improve anything. Thus, the political branches are best-suited to alleviate OMHA’s crippling delays.

Holding

The Fourth Circuit agreed that the delay in the administrative process for Medicare reimbursement is incontrovertibly grotesque. Still, the Fourth Circuit held that the Medicare Act does not guarantee a healthcare provider a hearing before an ALJ within ninety days, and affirmed the decision of the district court to dismiss the case.

By David Darr

Today, in the civil case of United States ex rel. Prince v. Virginia Resources Authority, an unpublished per curiam opinion, the Fourth Circuit affirmed the decision of the District Court for Western District of Virginia dismissing the plaintiff’s qui tam action under the False Claims Act.

Plaintiff Contended the District Court Improperly Dismissed His Claims

On appeal, the plaintiff contended that the District Court’s dismissal of his qui tam action and subsequent denial of the plaintiff’s motion to alter judgment were reversible error.

The District Court’s Dismissal and Denial of Motion to Amend

Mark Prince brought a qui tam action under the False Claims Act on behalf of the federal government against Virginia Resources Authority (VRA) and other defendants. A qui tam action allows a whistleblower to sue on behalf of the government to recover money, and if successful, the plaintiff recovers some of that money too. Prince contended that VRA and other defendants issued bonds that violated the Virginia Constitution and that VRA falsely claimed that these bonds were legally issued. VRA filed a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim and lack of jurisdiction because a Virginia state court already decided the issue that the bonds were legally issued in previous case that Prince brought. The District Court decision said that issue was precluded and collateral estoppel was appropriate because the parties at the proceedings were the same, the issue was actually litigated in the prior case, the issue was essential to the prior judgment, and the prior case reached final judgment. Applying collateral estoppel, the District Court dismissed Prince’s claim against VRA. With respect to the other defendants, the District Court dismissed the claims against them because they were never actually served.

In response to the adverse court ruling, Prince filed a “Motion to Reconsider.” The District Court construed this motion as a Rule 59(e) motion to amend judgment because there is no basis in the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure for Prince’s “Motion to Reconsider.” Because Prince’s motion only argued that the judgment was wrong, it was improper for the District Court to grant it. Prince’s motion was more along the lines of what an appellate court should decide. The District Court also clarified in its second opinion that the United States was not precluded from litigating the matter in the future because they were not a party to the original action.

An Appellate Court Reviews Decisions for Reversible Error

The Fourth Circuit’s role in this appeal was to find out whether the District Court made any reversible error.

The Fourth Circuit Found No Reversible Error

The Fourth Circuit reviewed the record from the District Court and agreed with its reasoning for dismissing the case and not allowing the plaintiff to alter the judgment. Therefore, the Fourth Circuit found that there was no reversible error committed by the District Court.

The Fourth Circuit Affirmed the Dismissal

The Fourth Circuit affirmed, holding that the District Court did not commit any reversible error.