Wednesday, October 11, 2017
The Ninth Circuit ruled yesterday that California's prorator license law likely violates the Dormant Commerce Clause. In the same ruling, the court held that California's mandatory disclosure requirements likely did not violate the First Amendment, and that the case did not warrant Younger abstention. The court sent the case back for further proceedings.
The case, Nationwide Biweekly v. Owen, arose when California prosecutors and regulators targeted Nationwide Biweekly Administration for fraud investigations involving one of its mortgage-payoff products. Here's how it works: a consumer would pay to Nationwide his or her monthly mortgage bill every two weeks, instead of paying to the lender directly every month. Nationwide would then pay the lender every month. This meant that a consumer would pay to his or her lender, through Nationwide, an extra monthly payment each year and thus pay off the loan sooner. Nationwide advertised the product as a "100% savings," but failed adequately to disclose the discount rate (based on the time-value of money) and fees for the product. So what appears to be a cost-free (and thus savings-only) product in fact is not cost-free.
The Monterey County District Attorney's Office sent Nationwide a letter about the practice and alleged that Nationwide was violating several California laws. In particular, the DA's office wrote that Nationwide was violating two provisions that required it to say that it's not affiliated with the lender in any solicitation to consumers for its product. The letter also said that Nationwide was violating California's "prorator" registration law, which required a "prorator" (a "person who, for compensation, engages in whole or in part in the business of receiving money or evidences thereof for the purpose of distributing the money or evidences thereof among creditors in payment or partial payment of the obligations of the debtor") to obtain a license. But under California law, such a license is only available to a corporation if the corporation is "organized under the laws of this State for that purpose." The Commissioner later sent Nationwide a letter notifying the corporation that it was investigating Nationwide's unlicensed business activity.
Nationwide filed suit in the Northern District, seeking to enjoin enforcement of the disclosure requirements by the DA. A Nationwide subsidiary later filed suit in the Northern District seeking to enjoin enforcement of the registration requirement against the Commissioner. The court rejected Nationwide's motion for a preliminary injunction in both cases, and Nationwide filed notices of appeal.
About a month after the opening appellate briefs were filed, the DA and the Commission filed a joint enforcement suit in California Superior Court. The district court dismissed both federal cases under Younger, and Nationwide appealed.
The Ninth Circuit ruled first that Younger abstention was not appropriate, because "before the date that the state case was filed, the district court had already conducted proceedings of substance on the merits." In particular, the court "spend a substantial amount of time evaluating the merits of the cases in considering and denying (in a detailed and reasoned order) Nationwide's motions for preliminary injunctions."
The court went on to hold that Nationwide was unlikely to succeed on its First Amendment claim. It ruled that under Zauderer, the "required disclaimers--short, accurate, and to the point--are reasonably related to California's interest in preventing . . . deception."
Finally, the court said that California's licensing requirement likely violated the Dormant Commerce Clause, because California's requirement makes in-state incorporation a prerequisite to getting a license to engage in interstate commerce.
Judge Montgomery argued in dissent that the federal proceedings were still at an embryonic stage and the court should have abstained under Younger.