On May 16, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit reversed and remanded a district court’s summary judgment ruling in favor of a defendant furnisher, stating that it is up to a jury to decide whether the defendant’s “reasonable investigation” into the plaintiff’s dispute complied with the FCRA. After the plaintiff defaulted on both his first and second mortgages, the property was foreclosed and sold. Several years later, the plaintiff tried to purchase another home but was denied a mortgage due to a tradeline on his credit report that showed one of his mortgages as past due with accruing interest and late fees due to missed payments. The plaintiff disputed the debt through the consumer reporting agency (CRA) and provided a citation to the Arizona Anti-Deficiency Statute, which abolished his liability for the reported debt. The CRA then told the defendant about the dispute and provided information about the statutory citation. The defendant originally “updated” the plaintiff’s account to show that the debt was being disputed, but continued to report current and past due balances. Yet after the plaintiff again disputed the validity of his debt, the defendant marked the account as “paid, closed” and changed the balance to $0.
The plaintiff sued, claiming the defendant violated the FCRA by failing to reasonably investigate his dispute and for reporting inaccurate information. The district court granted the defendant’s motion for summary judgment, ruling that the reports it made were accurate as a matter of law and that the defendant had reasonably investigated the dispute. Moreover, “whether the Arizona anti-deficiency statute rendered [plaintiff’s] debt uncollectible is a legal question, not a factual one,” the district court stated, adding that “the FCRA does not impose on furnishers a duty to investigate legal disputes, only factual inaccuracies.”
The 9th Circuit disagreed, writing that Arizona law required that the plaintiff’s balance be “abolished,” so it was “patently incorrect” for the defendant to report otherwise. In applying Arizona law, the plaintiff had “more than satisfied his burden” of showing inaccurate reporting, the appellate court wrote, explaining that the “situation was no different than a discharge under bankruptcy law, which extinguishes ‘the personal liability of the debtor.’” The 9th Circuit also held that the FCRA does not “categorically exempt legal issues from the investigations that furnishers must conduct.” Pointing out that the “distinction between ‘legal’ and ‘factual’ issues is ambiguous, potentially unworkable, and could invite furnishers to ‘evade their investigation obligation by construing the relevant dispute as a ‘legal’ one,’” the panel referred to an April 2021 amicus brief filed in support of the plaintiff by the CFPB, which argued that the FCRA does not distinguish between legal and factual disputes when it comes to furnishers’ obligations to investigate disputes referred from CRAs. The CFPB recently made a similar argument in an amicus brief filed last month in the 11th Circuit (covered by InfoBytes here). There, the CFPB argued that importing this exemption would run counter to the purposes of FCRA, would create an unworkable standard that would be difficult to implement, and could encourage furnishers to evade their statutory obligations any time they construe the disputes as “legal.”
Holding that there was a “genuine factual dispute about the reasonableness” of the defendant’s investigation, the appellate court ultimately determined that it would “leave it to the jury” to decide whether the defendant’s investigation had been reasonable. “Unless ‘only one conclusion about the conduct’s reasonableness is possible,’ the question is normally inappropriate for resolution at the summary judgment stage,” the appellate court stated. “Here, as is ordinarily the case, this question is best left to the factfinder.”