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Consumer Financial Protection Bureau v. Itt Educational Services, Inc.

United States District Court, S.D. Indiana, Indianapolis Division

March 6, 2015

CONSUMER FINANCIAL PROTECTION BUREAU, Plaintiff,
v.
ITT EDUCATIONAL SERVICES, INC., Defendant.

ORDER ON DEFENDANT'S MOTION TO DISMISS

SARAH EVANS BARKER, District Judge.

This cause is before the Court on Defendant ITT Educational Services, Inc.'s Motion to Dismiss [Docket No. 15], filed on April 28, 2014 pursuant to Federal Rules of Civil Procedure 12(b)(1), 12(b)(6), and 12(b)(7). For the reasons set forth below, the Motion is DENIED in part and GRANTED in part.

Factual and Procedural Background

Plaintiff Consumer Financial Protection Bureau ("the Bureau"), a United States federal agency, has brought this suit against Defendant, alleging violations of provisions of the Consumer Financial Protection Act ("CFPA"), 12 U.S.C. §§ 5531(a), 5536(a), 5564(a), & 5565, the Truth in Lending Act ("TILA"), 15 U.S.C. §§ 1601 et seq., and regulations thereunder. Because this cause is before us on a motion to dismiss, we consider the facts as presented by the Bureau's Complaint.

Defendant ITT Educational Services, Inc. ("ITT") is a publicly-traded, for-profit company offering post-secondary courses and degrees to students at more than 100 locations nationwide.[1] ¶ 2.[2] Many of ITT's students and prospective students have limited financial means[3], and ITT therefore derives much of its revenue from federal aid, including loans, secured by the students. ¶¶ 4-5. Some 80% of ITT's revenue, in fact, comes from aid granted under Title IV of the Higher Education Act of 1965, 20 U.S.C. §§ 1070 et seq. ("Title IV Aid"). However, a large number of students are still unable to afford full tuition to enroll at ITT even with federal assistance. To enable students to close this "tuition gap, " ITT extended to many of them shortterm, no-interest loans called "Temporary Credit." The Temporary Credit packages were offered to students at the beginning of an academic year, and payment was due nine months later, at the close of the school year. ¶ 6.

ITT's aggressive tactics

The Bureau alleges that ITT employed the Temporary Credit loans as an "entry point" for "pushing" students into taking out private loans when the Temporary Credit came due and students were again unable fully to afford tuition for coming school terms. ¶ 7. According to the Bureau, ITT misled students about the balance of costs and benefits associated with ITT enrollment-thus guiding them into an unmanageable financial predicament-in a number of ways.

In the first place, ITT represented to students through oral representations and advertisements that its programs greatly advanced an enrollee's career prospects and job placement rates; the Bureau alleges that these representations were exaggerated and were based on incomplete information. ¶¶ 29-33. The Bureau utilized "mystery shoppers"-young men or women presenting themselves as prospective students-who reported that ITT staff made exaggerated claims about student success, such as that graduates with associates' degrees "usually make six figures." ¶ 41. In contrast to these claims, ITT's annual disclosures in 2012 indicated that "reported annualized salaries initially following graduation averaged approximately $32, 061 for the Employable Graduates in 2011." ¶ 46.[4]

The Bureau alleges that ITT also misleadingly represented to prospective students that its "national accreditation" placed it on par with other major educational institutions. ¶ 54. In fact, while a "national" accreditation sounds authoritative, most non-profit colleges and universities are "regionally" accredited; such institutions accept transfer credits from for-profit schools like ITT only on a case-by-case basis. ¶¶ 50-53. According to the Bureau, ITT not only created an inaccurate overall impression in this respect, but also misled some prospective students in a more specific way: one recruiter claimed that ITT had the same accreditation as "all other schools"; another falsely claimed that "ITT Tech is accredited by the Department of Defense." ¶ 54.

Having given prospective students an inflated notion of the standing of the school and the career benefits derived from the degrees it bestowed, the Bureau alleges that ITT's recruiting staff engaged in heavy-handed methods to convince students to enroll. These methods included frequent phone calls and in-person multimedia presentations that mystery shoppers described as overwhelming in nature. ¶¶ 56, 58-60, 62. Prospective students were encouraged to take an admission test that, in fact, was "virtually impossible to fail, " but was used to give them the impression that the school had rigorous admissions standards and that their passing the test augured well for their prospects. ¶ 61. Despite the volubility of the overall sales pitch, the Bureau maintains that ITT recruiters were instructed to be vague and evasive on the question of costs; they responded to applicants' questions by stating, "I cannot tell you what your exact cost will be, " or by asking, "Do you want a discount education, or a valuable one that will give you a return in the future?" ¶ 57.

Once students agreed to enroll, the Bureau alleges that ITT then switched gears, hurrying them through the enrollment and financial aid processes-so quickly that "many consumers did not know or did not understand what they signed up for." ¶ 64. Specifically, ITT required enrollees to sign an Enrollment Agreement before they could receive any information about their financial aid options or meet with financial aid staff. ¶ 66. Mystery shoppers reported being rushed through e-signatures of documents, including authorizations to request transcripts and credit check approvals without understanding the nature of the forms they were signing. ¶ 67. One mystery shopper recounted that an ITT representative forged her signature on a number of e-documents, explaining that she was "trying to help and it was the only way she could give me the test to help push me through." ¶ 72. The Bureau asserts that financial aid officers then "took control" of the process, rushing enrollees through form signatures and providing them with little detailed information; in the words of a mystery shopper, the process was "a bit overwhelming with how quickly we went through everything, and I wasn't exactly clear on everything the [staff member] was having me sign up for." ¶ 83.

Once students had completed an academic term at ITT, the time came for them to "repackage" their financial aid and loans for the next year. The Bureau alleges that ITT's financial aid staff employed aggressive tactics in seeking to repackage students, including tracking them down on campus, barring or pulling them from class, and enlisting the aid of other ITT staff such as professors. An ITT executive conceded that the school also used the threat of withholding course materials and transcripts as "leverage" to ensure that students would repackage. ¶¶ 85-87. At both the initial and repackaging stages, ITT staff encouraged students to rely on school representatives in seeing them through the process, including the use of forms that automatically populated and required only the students' signatures at the conclusion of the process. An executive stated that ITT was "essentially holding [the students'] hands"; one mystery shopper stated that a financial aid coordinator told him that he would "get more free money that I don't have to pay back if I let them take care of my paperwork."[5] ¶¶ 90-92.

The "private loans"

The Bureau's claims against ITT focus on its assertion that, having knowingly cajoled and guided students into a financial predicament in which they were already heavily invested in an ITT degree yet lacked the financial resources to complete it-with the Temporary Credit expiring and financial aid insufficient to fully cover the "tuition gap"-ITT then persuaded continuing students to take out financially irresponsible "private loans" from third-party lenders. In the Bureau's words:

ITT Financial Aid staff coerced students into taking out loans that they did not want, did not understand, or did not even realize they were getting.... ITT sought to have its students pay for the tuition gap with ostensible third-party loans because outside sources of payment could be booked as income to the company, improving its free cash flow and the appearance of its financial statements, and because outside sources of revenue helped ITT meet a requirement by the Department of Education that at least 10% of its revenue be derived from sources outside Title IV loans and grants.

¶¶ 97-98.

One of the sources of the students' predicament was ITT's alleged failure to adequately disclose the nature of the nine-month Temporary Credit to new students. Students who received the Temporary Credit signed a "Cost Summary Payment Addendum" (CSPA), which stated that the loan was to last for the length of an academic year and carry no interest. According to the Bureau, however, the CSPA's references to "new temporary credit" and "renewal of carryforward temporary credit" could mislead students into believing that renewal of the nointerest loan for future academic years was available. Some students believed that the Temporary Credit would be available until they graduated, ¶ 105, and a mystery shopper reported that she had been led to believe that future years' costs would be "covered under a new temporary credit and that I would owe no money out of pocket." ¶ 107. One director of finance at an ITT location instructed staff to describe the Temporary Credit as "funding" rather than as a loan that would have to be repaid. ¶ 108. ITT was aware that many or most students lacked the ability to repay the Temporary Credit, and it characterized them as "doubtful accounts" on its balance sheets. ¶ 113.

The Bureau alleges that, beginning in 2008, ITT constructed two "private loan" programs as a vehicle for students to discharge the Temporary Credit: continuing students would use the cash they received from the new loans to pay off their debt to ITT and thus remove the "doubtful accounts" from ITT's balance sheets. Of these two programs, only one-the Student CU Connect (SCUC) program-operated during the July-December 2011 time period covered by the Complaint.[6] The Complaint asserts that ITT was heavily involved in the creation of the SCUC program: developing its underwriting criteria, providing a credit facility, paying the credit union membership fees in the lead credit union on behalf of the students taking out the SCUC loans, and providing the SCUC loan originators with a stop-loss guarantee that it would make them whole for losses if defaults on the loans exceeded 35%. ¶ 121. ITT was the "sole intermediary" between SCUC and its students; funds were disbursed through ITT to the student, and could be used only to pay ITT for tuition and not for any other purpose. Additionally, eligibility criteria for the loans were tailored such that, if students had received Temporary Credit, they were automatically eligible for an ITT private loan.[7] ¶¶ 116, 122.

The loans granted under the SCUC program carried a 10-year term. For students with credit scores below 600, the interest rate after April 2011 was 13% plus prime-or 16.25%-in addition to a 10% origination fee. Nearly half of the students taking SCUC loans fell into this low-credit-score cohort. ¶¶ 123-124. These rates are drastically higher than those available under federal Stafford loans, whose rates since 2009 have ranged from 3.4% for subsidized borrowers to 6.8% for unsubsidized borrowers. ¶ 125. Despite their exacting terms, some 79% of the SCUC loans issued went to continuing ITT students who had previously received Temporary Credit in their first year at ITT. ¶ 126. As of May 2011, ITT's consultant for loan default analysis projected a gross default rate of 61.3% for the existing SCUC loans. ¶ 127.

Crucially, the Bureau alleges that these "private" loans, though nominally originated by third-party lenders, were the brainchild of ITT and that ITT consciously steered economically distressed students, faced with indebtedness upon the expiration of the Temporary Credit, into the SCUC loans. ITT executives, in quarterly earnings calls with investors and analysts, stated that the ITT private loan program was a vehicle for taking the Temporary Credit off of ITT's balance sheets. ¶ 134. In referring to the PEAKS program, which ran from 2009 to 2011 and operated similarly to the SCUC program, ITT's CEO allegedly discussed the interrelatedness of the programs as follows:

We still anticipate offering internal financing to first-year students.... Second year students then would be eligible for financing through the PEAKS program, to have financing for their forward-looking studies, as well as refinancing any institutional funding provided to them during the first year.... But it works that way, second-year students are in the PEAKS program, and first year will continue to be on the balance sheet.
...
Basically the way the program is set up, if you think about the balance sheet aspects of this, obviously positive cash flow elements there. And some of that will come from [accounts receivable] that is going to be converted into the PEAKS program, which was our plan all along.

¶¶ 135-136. In a later conference call in 2011, ITT's CEO affirmed that the SCUC program was part of this same "plan, " noting that SCUC was "substantially similar for us relative to the PEAKS program so that it's structurally similar and the economics are very, very similar." ¶ 137. According to the Bureau, many students did not migrate from the Temporary Credit to the "private loans" with eyes fully open: some accepted the new loans in reliance upon ITT's acting in their interests, while others did not realize they had incurred a new type of debt because of the "rushed and automated manner" in which ITT financial staff processed the students' paperwork. ¶¶ 141-142.

For those students who had Temporary Credit debt at the close of their first year at ITT but who did not take out "private loans, " ITT offered them an incentive to pay off the debt in a lump sum upon graduation-in the form of a 25% discount. ¶ 144. For those students who were unable to pay off the Temporary Credit debt in a lump sum, ITT offered a "temporary credit installment plan" involving monthly payments that ranged, depending on the total amount owed, from six months to more than six years. ¶ 146. According to the Bureau, the paperwork students were given upon enrolling in the installment plan did not disclose this forgone 25% discount as constituting a "finance charge." ¶¶ 148-151.

Legal Analysis

Standard of Review

1. Standard under Rule 12(b)(1)

The Federal Rules of Civil Procedure command that courts dismiss any suit over which they lack subject matter jurisdiction-whether acting on the motion of a party or sua sponte. See Fed. R. Civ. Pro. 12(b)(1). In ruling on a motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(1), we "must accept the complaint's well-pleaded factual allegations as true and draw reasonable inferences from those allegations in the plaintiff's favor." Franzoni v. Hartmax Corp., 300 F.3d 767, 771 (7th Cir. 2002); Transit Express, Inc. v. Ettinger, 246 F.3d 1018, 1023 (7th Cir. 2001). We may, however, "properly look beyond the jurisdictional allegations of the complaint and view whatever evidence has been submitted on the issue to determine whether in fact subject matter jurisdiction exists." See Capitol Leasing Co. v. F.D.I.C., 999 F.2d 188, 191 (7th Cir. 1993); Estate of Eiteljorg ex rel. Eiteljorg v. Eiteljorg, 813 F.Supp.2d 1069, 1074 (S.D. Ind. 2011).

2. Standard under Rule 12(b)(6)

Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) authorizes dismissal of claims for "failure to state a claim upon which relief may be granted." Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6). In determining the sufficiency of a claim, the court considers all allegations in the complaint to be true and draws such reasonable inferences as required in the plaintiff's favor. Jacobs v. City of Chi., 215 F.3d 758, 765 (7th Cir. 2000). Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 8(a) applies, with several enumerated exceptions, to all civil claims, and it establishes a liberal pleading regime in which a plaintiff must provide only a "short and plain statement of the claim showing that [he] is entitled to relief, " Fed. R. Civ. Pro. 8(a)(2); this reflects the modern policy judgment that claims should be "determined on their merits rather than through missteps in pleading." E.E.O.C. v. Concentra Health Servs., Inc., 496 F.3d 773, 779 (7th Cir. 2007) (citing 2 James W. Moore, et al., Moore's Federal Practice § 8.04 (3d ed. 2006)). A pleading satisfies the core requirement of fairness to the defendant so long as it provides "enough detail to give the defendant fair notice of what the claim is and the grounds upon which it rests." Tamayo v. Blagojevich, 526 F.3d 1074, 1083 (7th Cir. 2008).

In its decisions in Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544 (2007), and Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662 (2009), the United States Supreme Court introduced a more stringent formulation of the pleading requirements under Rule 8. In addition to providing fair notice to a defendant, the Court clarified that a complaint must "contain sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.'" Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678 (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 570). Plausibility requires more than labels and conclusions, and a "formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action will not do." Killingsworth v. HSBC Bank Nevada, N.A., 507 F.3d 614, 618 (7th Cir. 2007) (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555). Instead, the factual allegations in the complaint "must be enough to raise a right to relief above the speculative level." Id. The plausibility of a complaint depends upon the context in which the allegations are situated, and turns on more than the pleadings' level of factual specificity; the same factually sparse pleading could be fantastic and unrealistic in one setting and entirely plausible in another. See In re Pressure Sensitive Labelstock Antitrust Litig., 566 F.Supp.2d 363, 370 (M.D. Pa. 2008).

Although Twombly and Iqbal represent a new gloss on the standards governing the sufficiency of pleadings, they do not overturn the fundamental principle of liberality embodied in Rule 8. As this Court has noted, "notice pleading is still all that is required, and a plaintiff still must provide only enough detail to give the defendant fair notice of what the claim is and the grounds upon which it rests, and, through his allegations, show that it is plausible, rather than merely speculative, that he is entitled to relief.'" United States v. City of Evansville, 2011 WL 52467, at *1 (S.D. Ind. Jan. 8, 2011) (quoting Tamayo, 526 F.3d at 1083). On a motion to dismiss, "the plaintiff receives the benefit of imagination, so long as the hypotheses are consistent with the complaint." Sanjuan v. Am. Bd. of Psychiatry & Neurology, Inc., 40 F.3d 247, 251 (7th Cir. 1994).

Discussion

This suit arises primarily under the Consumer Financial Protection Act (CFPA), the Bureau's organic statute. Congress enacted the CFPA as Title X of the "Dodd-Frank Act" of 2010, with the stated purpose of "ensuring that the federal consumer financial laws are enforced consistently so that consumers may access markets for financial products, and so that these markets are fair, transparent, and competitive." 12 U.S.C. § 5511(a). Counts One through Three of the Complaint allege that ITT engaged in "unfair" and "abusive" acts or practices, in violation of the CFPA's operative provisions, 12 U.S.C. §§ 5531(c)(1), 5531(d)(2)(B) & 5531(d)(2)(C). The Bureau further alleges in Count Four that ITT's nondisclosure of a finance charge violated the Truth in Lending Act (TILA), 15 U.S.C. §§ 1601 et seq., and its implementing Regulation Z, 12 C.F.R. § 1026.17.

ITT seeks dismissal on three broad grounds. First, it contends that the Bureau lacks standing to bring this suit because it is an unconstitutional entity and the CFPA's prohibitions violate the due process clause. Second, ITT urges that the complaint fails to state a claim because ITT is not a covered entity subject to its provisions. Lastly, ITT argues that all four counts fail on their merits. We address these bases of ITT's motion in turn.

I. Constitutionality of the CFPA

A. Removal Power and the "Take Care" Clause

ITT argues that the CFPA violates the constitutional separation of powers by unduly restricting the President's authority to remove the Bureau's Director if he "loses confidence in the intelligence, ability, judgment, or loyalty" of that officer. See Def.'s Br. 8 (citing Myers v. United States, 272 U.S. 52, 134 (1926)). Because the Bureau is an unconstitutional entity and thus lacks standing, ITT urges that the suit must be dismissed in its entirety for the absence of a judiciable case or controversy. Def.'s Reply 3 n.4; Susan B. Anthony List v. Driehaus, 134 S.Ct. 2334, 2341 (2014). To explain ITT's misreading of the constitutional protections afforded the President's power to remove officials like the Director of the Bureau, it is necessary to review the evolution of the doctrine.

1. Evolution of Removal Power Doctrine

The President's power to appoint and remove officers of the Executive Branch broadly derives from his Article II mandate to "take Care that the Laws be faithfully executed." U.S. Const. Art. II, § 3. See also U.S. Const. Art. II, § 1, cl. 1 (the "Vesting Clause") ("The executive Power shall be vested in a President of the United States of America."). The Constitution also specifically delineates the scope of the President's appointment power:

He shall nominate, and by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate, shall appoint Ambassadors, other public Ministers and Consuls, Judges of the supreme Court, and all other Officers of the United States, whose Appointments are not herein otherwise provided for, and which shall be established by Law: but the Congress may by law vest the Appointment of such inferior Officers, as they think proper, in the President alone, in the Courts of Law, or in the Heads of Departments.

U.S. Const. Art. II, § 2, cl. 2. As to the question of the President's removal authority, however, the document is conspicuously silent.

Despite the lack of a clear textual command, the Supreme Court has long recognized that some degree of discretion in removing executive officers is inherent in the President's powers and must be protected from excessive legislative encroachment. The Court first addressed the issue in Chief Justice Taft's voluminous opinion in United States v. Myers, 272 U.S. 52 (1926). After examining at length the course of debates in 1789's First Congress, the Court found evidence of an early consensus that, though appointment of principal executive officers was conditioned upon the "advice and consent" of the Senate, the authority to remove lay with the President alone. 272 U.S. at 111-115. The Court found the assumptions of the early Congress to be sound, and explicitly ratified them. The Constitution vested the executive power in the President, the Court reasoned, and the removal power inherent in executive authority-based on traditions inherited from the prerogatives of the British Crown-remained vested in him unless the Constitution specified otherwise.[8] Moreover, on more functional grounds, it would be difficult to imagine the President successfully fulfilling his mandate to "take care that the laws be faithfully executed" if he were unable to command the obedience of the subordinates through which he exercised his powers. Id. at 115-135. The Myers Court therefore held that Congress was prohibited from unduly limiting the President's "power of removing those for whom he cannot continue to be responsible." Id. at 117.

But the Executive Branch is far larger, and its responsibilities far more diverse, now than in the time of the First Congress or even of William Howard Taft. The rise of the "administrative state" during the New Deal and in ensuing decades has spawned a number of independent agencies-formally within the Executive Branch but deriving much of their perceived value from their insulation from party politics and the President's personal fiat. In Humphrey's Executor v. United States, 295 U.S. 602 (1935), the Court recognized that with respect to the officers of agencies like the Federal Trade Commission, which are "quasi-legislative and quasijudicial" rather than "purely executive, " the President's authority to remove need not be as absolute as Myers had proclaimed. 295 U.S. at 627-629. Because "one who holds his office only during the pleasure of another, cannot be depended upon to maintain an attitude of independence against the latter's will, " id. at 629, the Court upheld Congress's statutory mandate that the FTC commissioners be removed only for cause-for "inefficiency, neglect of duty, or malfeasance in office." Id. at 620 (quoting 15 U.S.C. § 41).

In two more recent landmark cases, the Supreme Court has considered the application of its removal doctrine to "inferior" officers: those who report directly not to the President but to another appointed official within the Executive Branch. In Morrison v. Olson, 487 U.S. 654 (1988), the Court determined that the statute[9] authorizing "independent counsels" within the Department of Justice, whom the Attorney General appointed and could remove only for cause, did not unconstitutionally abridge the President's powers. Though the independent counsel was surely an "executive" rather than "quasi-legislative" or "quasi-judicial" officer-his primary function, after all, was criminal investigation and prosecution-Congress's protection of his independence was nonetheless appropriate. This was so in large part because the independent counsel's duties were discrete in scope:

[T]he independent counsel is an inferior officer under the Appointments Clause, with limited jurisdiction and tenure and lacking policymaking or significant administrative authority. Although the counsel exercises no small amount of discretion and judgment in deciding how to carry out his or her duties under the Act, we simply do not see how the President's need to control the exercise of that discretion is so central to the functioning of the Executive Branch as to require as a matter of constitutional law that the counsel be terminable at will by the President.

Id. at 691-692. Moreover, the Court noted, the President did retain the ability to exercise some control over an independent counsel through his at-will appointee, the Attorney General. Id. at 692.

In its 2010 decision in Free Enterprise Fund v. Public Company Accounting Oversight Board, 561 U.S. 477 (2010), however, the Court drew a bright line limiting the leeway afforded to Congress by the progeny of Humphrey's Executor and Morrison: Congress could not insulate an inferior officer from presidential oversight with two layers of for-cause protection. There, the Court held that the for-cause removal of the commissioners of the Public Company Accounting Oversight Board, an entity created by the Sarbanes-Oxley Act under the aegis of the SEC- whose commissioners themselves may be removed by the President only in limited circumstances-violated the spirit of the "take care" clause. It reasoned as follows:

A second level of tenure protection changes the nature of the President's review. Now the Commission cannot remove a Board member at will. The President therefore cannot hold the Commission fully accountable for the Board's conduct, to the same extent that he may hold the Commission accountable for everything else that it does. The Commissioners are not responsible for the Board's actions. They are only responsible for their own determination of whether the Act's rigorous good-cause standard is met. And even if the President disagrees with their determination, he is powerless to intervene-unless that determination is so unreasonable as to constitute "inefficiency, ...

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