The Minnesota Attorney General announced that she has filed a lawsuit in state court against two pension advance companies.

According to the AG’s press release, the companies often solicited borrowers through their own websites or websites of “lead generators” who marketed “pension loans” or “loans that can fit your needs.”  The press release states that the transactions required military veterans and senior citizens to assign portions of their monthly pension payments for up to ten years in exchange for much smaller cash amounts (usually less than $5,000) on which the AG claimed the companies typically charged annual percentage rates of 200 percent.

The lawsuit is reported to allege that the companies violated Minnesota lending laws by making loans to Minnesota borrowers without being licensed as a lender and sought to evade Minnesota law by falsely characterizing the transactions as pension “purchase agreements” rather than loans.

In February 2017, the CFPB and the New York Attorney General filed a lawsuit in which they alleged that a litigation settlement advance product offered by the defendant was a usurious loan that was deceptively marketed as an assignment.  In August 2015, the CFPB and the New York Department of Financial Services filed a lawsuit against two pension advance companies in which the CFPB and NYDFS made similar allegations regarding the advances made by the companies.

The Minnesota AG’s lawsuit and the CFPB/NY lawsuits not only indicate that pension advance companies and litigation funding companies have become targets of regulatory enforcement actions, but also suggest that merchant cash advance providers and other finance companies whose products are structured as purchases rather than loans could face heightened scrutiny from state and federal regulators.

 

The Minnesota Supreme Court recently ruled that two for-profit postsecondary education schools had charged usurious interest rates on student loans and could not charge rates greater than 8% without obtaining a lending license.

Minnesota’s general usury law caps interest rates at 8% for written contracts but allows a lender to charge up to 18% on a “consumer credit sale pursuant to an open end credit plan.”  In State of Minnesota v. Minnesota School of Business, et al., the Minnesota Attorney General sought to enjoin the schools from making private student loans that typically had interest rates between 12% and 18%, alleging that the loans were subject to the 8% cap.  The schools did not pay out money to the student and instead credited the loan amount against the student’s outstanding tuition balance.  The credit was not available to the student for any other purpose.  The student repaid the loan through monthly payments pursuant to a schedule that had a fixed date by which the entire loan and accrued interest had to be paid in full, and no additional funds were available if the student paid off the loan early.

At issue was whether the loans qualified as a “consumer credit sale pursuant to an open end credit plan” on which Minnesota allowed up to 18 percent interest to be charged.  (The decision states that the parties agreed that the loans “were consumer credit sales.”)   Although the Supreme Court found that the definition of “open end credit plan” under Minnesota law only incorporated the Truth in Lending Act and Regulation Z definition of “open-end credit plan” in effect in 1971 and not as subsequently amended to expressly require revolving credit, it found that revolving credit was nevertheless an essential part of the 1971 definition.

Reversing the Minnesota Court of Appeals, the Supreme Court concluded that the loans were not made pursuant to an open-end plan.   It found that the repayment schedule on the schools’ loans, which provided for a fixed end date, was consistent with a closed-end plan and also observed that the schools had required students to sign a form containing an acknowledgment that a loan was not an “extension of credit under an open-end consumer credit plan.”  According to the Supreme Court, the schools had “structured their loans to give themselves the benefit of open-end credit plans, charging interest in excess of 8 percent-without providing their students the benefit of revolving credit.”

Having found that the schools had charged usurious interest rates, the Supreme Court concluded that to charge rates higher than 8 percent on loans that were not made pursuant to an open-end credit plan, the schools needed to obtain a Minnesota lending license.

The opinion states that the schools did not contest “that they were [engaged] in the business of making loans” for purposes of the lending license statute.  Thus, it appears that the schools did not attempt to argue that, in extending credit to students to finance tuition, they were not acting as lenders making “loans” subject to Minnesota’s general usury law but instead were acting as sellers of goods or services extending credit to buyers to which the time-price doctrine applies.  Sellers making closed-end credit sales should consult with counsel as to how they can avoid the 8 percent rate cap by taking advantage of the time-price doctrine under Minnesota law.