Wake Forest Law Review

By Cole Tipton

SummitBridge National v. Faison

In this bankruptcy action, SummitBridge National (“National”) appeals the district court’s holding that it is barred from claiming attorney’s fees incurred after a bankruptcy petition was filed.  The contract between National and Ollie Faison (“Faison”) stated that Faison would pay “all costs of collection, including but not limited to reasonable attorneys’ fees.”  The Fourth Circuit reversed the district court’s holding and stated that the Bankruptcy Code does not preclude contractual claims to attorney’s fees that were guaranteed by a pre-bankruptcy contract.  The determination of the district court was reversed and remanded for further proceedings.

US v. Pratt

In this criminal action, Samual Pratt (“Pratt”) appeals his conviction of various counts of sex trafficking and child pornography due to evidentiary errors.  Pratt contends the district court should have suppressed evidence from his cellphone and should not have admitted certain hearsay statements.  First, the Fourth Circuit held that it was reversible error to admit evidence from Pratt’s cellphone because the phone was seized without consent and the government waited thirty-one days before obtaining a search warrant.  The Court stated that such a delay was unreasonable.  Second, the Fourth Circuit held that an unavailable witness’s hearsay statements were admissible because Pratt had procured the witness’s unavailability through phone calls and threats.  Accordingly, the Fourth Circuit vacated Pratt’s convictions on the two counts prejudiced by the cell phone evidence, vacated his sentence, and remanded.

Parker v. Reema Consulting Services, Inc 

In this civil action, Evangeline Parker (“Parker”) appeals the district court’s dismissal of her complaint against her employer, Reema Consulting Services, Inc. (“Reema”).  The central issue of the appeal was whether a false rumor circulated by Reema that Parker slept with her boss for a raise could give rise to liability under Title VII for discrimination “because of sex.”  The Fourth Circuit held that because the complaint alleged Reema spread the rumor and acted on it by penalizing the employee, a cognizable claim for discrimination “because of sex” was alleged.  The district court’s dismissal was reversed.

US Dep’t of Labor v. Fire & Safety Investigation

In this civil action, Fire & Safety Investigation Consulting Services, LLC (“Fire & Safety”) appealed the district court’s determination that they violated the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”) for failing to pay overtime compensation.  Fire & Safety uses an alternative work schedule for its employees in which an employee works 12 hours per day for 14 days and then receives 14 days off.  Because employees under this plan will work 88 hours in one work week, Fire & Safety pays its employees a blended rate for all 88 hours that is supposed to account for the 48 hours of overtime worked, rather than paying 40 hours of standard pay plus 48 hours of overtime.  The Fourth Circuit held that this blended rate fails to observe the formalities required by the FLSA which requires all overtime hours be recorded and paid at one and one-half times the standard rate of pay for all hours worked over 40.  Accordingly, the Fourth Circuit affirmed the district court’s judgment, including over $1.5 million in back wages and liquidated damages.

Trana Discovery, Inc. v. S. Research Inst.

In this civil action, Trana Discovery, Inc. (“Trana”) brought a fraud and negligent misrepresentation action against Southern Research Institute (“Southern”).  Trana alleged that Southern had provided false data in research reports of a new HIV medication it was researching.  The district court granted summary judgment for Southern on both claims.  The Fourth Circuit upheld the grant of summary judgement, stating that there was no genuine dispute of material fact due to an insufficiency of evidence regarding damages and the standard of care Southern was exacted to.  Accordingly, summary judgement was affirmed.

Jesus Christ is the Answer v. Baltimore County, Maryland

In this civil action, Jesus Christ is the Answer Church (“Church”) brought an action alleging violation of the First Amendment’s Free Exercise Clause, the Fourteenth Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause, the Maryland Declaration of Rights, and the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Person Act.  Church alleged that Baltimore County, Maryland (“Baltimore”) had infringed upon their State and Federal rights by denying their modified petition for zoning variances to establish a church.  Several neighbors, who had expressed open hostility towards Church, opposed the petition.  After the petition was denied, Church filed an action in district court which was dismissed for failure to state a claim.  On appeal, the Fourth Circuit reversed and remanded because Church’s complaint contained facts sufficient to state a claim that was “plausible on its face.”  The Fourth Circuit held that the neighbors apparent religious bias towards Church was sufficient to plead a plausible Constitutional claim and violation of the Religious Land Use Act. 

Curtis v. Propel Property Tax Funding

In this civil action, Garry Curtis (“Curtis”) brought a suit on behalf of himself and similarly situated individuals against Propel Property Tax Funding (“Propel”), alleging violations of the Truth in Lending Act, the Electronic Funds Transfer Act, and the Virginia Consumer Protection Act.  Propel was engaged in the practice of lending to third parties to finance payment of local taxes.  The district court denied Propel’s motion to dismiss and certified two interlocutory questions.  Propel appealed, asserting that Curtis did not have standing and that he failed to state a claim for relief.  The Fourth Circuit upheld the district court’s ruling, finding that: 1) Curtis had standing because he was personally subject to the harms these consumer protection statutes were designed to protect against; and 2) Curtis had sufficiently pled violations of the lending acts because Propel was conducting consumer credit transactions.

US v. Charboneau

In this civil action, Blake Charboneau (“Charboneau”) challenges the determination that he is a “sexually dangerous person” under the civil commitment provisions of the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act of 2006.  The district court held that Charboneau was a “sexually dangerous person” within the meaning of the act and committed him to the custody of the Attorney General.  On appeal, Charboneau raised two issues: 1) whether he must be diagnosed with a paraphilic disorder to be committed under the act; and 2) if the record supported the district court’s findings.  The Fourth Circuit affirmed the district court’s judgment, holding that an actual diagnosis was not necessary under the act and the record was sufficient under a clear error standard of review.

US v. Johnson

In this criminal action, Willie Johnson (“Johnson”) appealed a district court’s order to resentence him for bank robbery under the sentencing recommendation in his original plea agreement.  Johnson argued that the government’s original agreement not to seek a mandatory life sentence under the federal three-strikes law was not beneficial because his prior state crimes should not be counted for federal three-strikes treatment.  The Fourth Circuit held that state crimes are encompassed by the three-strikes program and the district court’s decision to honor the original sentencing recommendation was affirmed.

Mountain Valley Pipeline, LLC v. 6.56 Acres of Land

In this civil action, owners of 6.56 acres of land appealed a district court judgement granted Mountain Valley Pipeline, LLC (“Pipeline”) a preliminary injunction for access and possession of property it was acquiring through eminent domain.  The Fourth Circuit reviewed the district court’s application of the test set forth in Winter v. Natural Resources Defense Council, Inc., 555 U.S. 7, 20 (2008) for preliminary injunctions.  In doing so, the Court found that Pipeline had established it was likely to succeed on the merits, would suffer irreparable harm, the balance of equities was in its favor, and that an injunction served the public interest.  Accordingly, the district court was affirmed.

Booking.com B.V. v. US Patent & Trademark

In this civil action, Booking.com and the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (“USPTO”) appeal the district court’s grant of summary judgment protecting the trademark BOOKING.COM.  Booking.com appeals the district court’s grant of attorney’s fees to the USPTO, and the USPTO appeals the court’s decision that BOOKING.COM is protectable.  The Fourth Circuit held that BOOKING.COM is not generic and can be registered as a descriptive mark with secondary meaning.  Moreover, the Court upheld the grant of USPTO’s expenses because the Lanham Act requires a party to pay “all the expenses of the proceeding” when a USPTO decision is appealed to the district court.  Thus, the district court’s judgment was affirmed.

US v. Jones

In this criminal action, James Eric Jones (“Jones”) appeals the district court’s denial of a motion to vacate, set aside, or correct his sentence.  Jones was originally sentenced under the Armed Career Criminal Act (“ACCA”) which requires a mandatory fifteen-year minimum sentence for defendants with at least three prior violent felony convictions.  However, Jones claims that he does not qualify for sentencing under the act because his South Carolina conviction for assaulting, beating, or wounding a police officer is not a violent conviction as defined by the ACCA.  The Fourth Circuit held that assaulting, beating, or wounding a police officer does not qualify under the ACCA because it includes conduct that does not involve violent physical force. Therefore, the district court’s judgment was vacated and remanded.

paper-trail-1557043

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.