Articles by Robert Cook, Cathy Brennan, and Kate Fisher, Hudson Cook, LLP
A new California law is drawing attention to a much-misunderstood issue – whether California Finance Lenders can pay referral fees to unlicensed ISOs. Effective January 1, 2016, the answer is yes, but only for commercial loans with an annual percentage rate of less than 36% where the lender reviews documents to verify the borrower’s ability to repay. These restrictions benefit non-profit lenders making business development loans, and shut out their higher-cost commercial lender competitors from paying referral fees to unlicensed ISOs.
Existing regulations under California’s Finance Lender’s Law (“CFLL”) prohibit paying any compensation to unlicensed persons or companies for “soliciting or accepting applications for loans.” 10 CCR 1451(c). This prohibition does not apply to referrals for merchant cash advances or referrals to banks, which are not subject to the CFLL. A number of not-for-profit CFLL lenders offering business development loans complained that it was unfair that they could not pay referral fees to an unlicensed ISO while their higher-cost competitors, the merchant cash advance companies, could.
California SB 197, supported by Opportunity Fund, California’s largest not-for-profit commercial lender, and the California Association of Micro-Enterprise Organizations, a group of more than 170 organizations, agencies, and individuals dedicated to furthering micro-business development in California, aimed to remedy this perceived problem. According to an information sheet on SB 197 available on the Opportunity Fund’s web site:
Often, merchant advance companies offer less favorable terms to small businesses than commercial lenders; however, small businesses never learn about the commercial lenders that offer more favorable terms, because those lenders cannot compensate entities to refer business to them.
http://www.opportunityfund.org/media/blog/introducing-sb-197-(block)!/ (last accessed on December 9, 2015)
The legislature approved SB 197 and Gov. Jerry Brown signed it last October. Starting on January 1, 2016, a CFLL lender can pay a fee to an unlicensed person in connection with a referral of a prospective borrower if:
- The referral by the unlicensed person leads to the consummation of a commercial loan (defined as a loan with a principal amount of $5,000 or more the proceeds of which are intended by the borrower for use primarily for other than personal, family or household purposes);
- The loan contract provides for an annual percentage rate that does not exceed 36%; and
- Before approving the loan, the lender:
- Obtains documentation from the prospective borrower documenting the borrower’s commercial status. Examples of acceptable forms of documentation include, but are not limited to, a seller’s permit, business license, articles of incorporation, income tax returns showing business income, or bank account statements showing business income; and
- Performs underwriting and obtains documentation to ensure that the prospective borrower will have sufficient monthly gross revenue with which to repay the loan pursuant to the loan terms. The lender cannot make a loan if it determines through its underwriting that the prospective borrower’s total monthly expenses, including debt service payments on the loan for which the prospective borrower is being considered, will exceed the prospective borrower’s monthly gross revenue. Examples of acceptable forms of documentation for verifying current and projected gross monthly revenue and monthly expenses include, but are not limited to, tax returns, bank statements, merchant financial statements, business plans, business history, and industry-specific knowledge and experience. If the prospective borrower is a sole proprietor or a corporation and the loan will be secured by a personal guarantee provided by the owner, the lender must consider a credit report from at least one consumer credit reporting agency that compiles and maintains files on consumers on a nationwide basis.
The licensee must also maintain records of all compensation paid to unlicensed persons in connection with the referral of borrowers for a period of at least 4 years.
SB 197 also provides that a lender that pays compensation for a referral to an unlicensed person is liable for “any misrepresentation made to that borrower in connection with that loan.” It is not clear whether the lender is liable only for misrepresentations made by the unlicensed person who receives compensation for the referral, or if the regulator will interpret this provision more broadly. Further, lenders must provide such prospective borrowers this specific written statement in 10-point font or larger at the time the licensee receives an application for the loan:
You have been referred to us by [Name of Unlicensed Person]. If you are approved for the loan, we may pay a fee to [Name of Unlicensed Person] for the successful referral. [Licensee], and not [Name of Unlicensed Person] is the sole party authorized to offer a loan to you. You should ensure that you understand any loan offer we may extend to you before agreeing to the loan terms. If you wish to report a complaint about this loan transaction, you may contact the Department of Business Oversight at 1-866-ASK-CORP (1-866-275-2677), or file your complaint online at www.dbo.ca.gov.
Lenders must require prospective borrowers to acknowledge receipt of the statement in writing.
SB 197 defines “referral” to mean either the introduction of the borrower and the lender or the delivery to the lender of the borrower’s contact information. The following activities by an unlicensed person are not authorized:
- Participating in any loan negotiation;
- Counseling or advising the borrower about a loan;
- Participating in the preparation of any loan documents, including credit applications;
- Contacting the lender on behalf of the borrower other than to refer the borrower;
- Gathering loan documentation from the borrower or delivering the documentation to the lender;
- Communicating lending decisions or inquiries to the borrower;
- Participating in establishing any sales literature or marketing materials; and
- Obtaining the borrower’s signature on documents.
Many for-profit CFLL licensees may find the narrow exemption that permits CFLL licensees making commercial loans to accept referrals from non-licensed entities impractical. The industry may instead choose to focus on the existing prohibition against paying non-licensees for “soliciting or accepting applications for loans” to avoid the limitations on the loan terms.
A claim brought by a first-position MCA company or lender may not be the only legal concern for a company that engages in stacking. Regulators could become involved if they believe aggressive stacking unfairly harm merchants. The Federal Trade Commission (“FTC”) and most state attorneys general can enforce unfair and deceptive trade practice acts even in B2B transactions.
A merchant may be harmed because the stacker imposes so large an aggregate obligation on the merchant that the merchant’s business fails. Or, a merchant may be harmed if a first-position MCA company or lender declares a default under the first-position contract when the merchant accepts the stacker’s offer. Arguably, the merchant could have protected herself from such a default by refusing the offer that caused the harm. However, a regulatory agency may be sympathetic to the plight of an unsophisticated merchant that failed to understand that the stacker’s offer could harm her relationships with the prior MCA company or lender.
Read full article by Robert Cook, Cathy Brennan, and Kate Fisher of Hudson Cook, LLP
Stacking: Is it Tortious Interference?
STACKING – the practice of entering into a cash advance transaction or loan knowing that the merchant already has one or more open cash advances or loans with a competitor – is causing a rift among merchant cash advance companies and small business lenders.
On one side are companies that only originate first-position deals. These companies generally include a clause in their contracts prohibiting the merchant from obtaining another merchant cash advance or loan until the company receives all of the future receivables it has purchased or is fully repaid. First-position companies view stacking as a threat to recovery of money advanced or loaned to merchants. On the other side are companies that routinely offer second or third-position deals. These companies argue that merchants with adequate cash flow to support additional advances should be free to obtain them.
In the last several months, at least two first-position companies have sued their stacking competitors, claiming that stacking constitutes tortious interference with contractual relations. These cases may ultimately result in a decision as to whether a stacker is liable for damages to a prior-position company when a merchant defaults. Although it varies by state, a claim of tortious interference with contractual relations claim generally includes all of the following elements:
1. The existence of its valid contract with
a third party;
2. The defendant’s knowledge of that contract;
3. The defendant’s intentional and improper procuring of a breach; and
See White Plains Coat & Apron Co. v. Cintas Corp., 8 N.Y.3d 422, 425 (2007).
So when is advancing money to a willing merchant “improper” under the law?
No reported court decisions have tackled stacking, let alone discuss whether interfering with a prior merchant cash advance or loan contract is improper. In fact, few cases discuss this issue at all. According to Section 767 of the Restatement Second of Torts, the tort of tortious interference does not have hard-set rules. The issue in each case is whether the interference is improper under the circumstances and whether, upon a consideration of the relative significance of the factors involved, the court should permit the conduct without liability, despite its effect of harm to another. In other words, it is a fact-intensive analysis.
The New York Court of Appeals put it this way: “At bottom, as a matter of policy, courts are called upon to strike a balance between two valued interests: protection of enforceable contracts, which lends stability and predictability to parties’ dealings, and promotion of free and robust competition in the marketplace.” White Plains Coat & Apron Co. v. Cintas Corp., 8 N.Y.3d 422, 425, 867 N.E.2d 381, 383 (2007).
Because there are no reported court cases addressing stacking, we can only look to cases between other types of businesses to see what courts have said about “improper” interference. Maryland’s highest appellate court has held that inducing a breach of contract, even for competitive purposes, is improper. Macklin v. Robert Logan Associates, 334 Md. 287, 303 (1994). In contrast, New York courts have concluded that improper interference is conduct that goes beyond a minimum level of ethical behavior in the marketplace.
In the White Plains Coat & Apron case, a New York-based linen rental business sued a competitor in federal court for tortious interference with existing customer contracts. White Plains claimed that it had five-year exclusive service contracts with customers and that, knowing of these arrangements, Cintas induced dozens of White Plains’ customers to breach their contracts and enter into rental agreements with Cintas. White Plains alleged that Cintas trained its sales reps to convince its customers to abandon their contracts with White Plains even after the customers told Cintas that they had contracts with White Plains.
White Plains sent Cintas a letter demanding that Cintas stop soliciting and servicing White Plains’ contract customers, enclosing a list of customers allegedly solicited improperly. When Cintas refused to stop pursuing its customers, White Plains sued.
The court granted summary judgment for Cintas and dismissed the complaint. The court held that because Cintas and White Plains were business competitors, Cintas’ legitimate interest to make a profit was a defense to White Plains’ lawsuit. According to the trial court “the only answer … is to go out and do it also to the other guy.”
White Plains appealed to the Second Circuit Court of Appeals. Because there was an important open state law question regarding whether economic self-interest was a defense to a tortious interference claim, the Second Circuit certified the following question to the New York Court of Appeals, New York’s highest appellate court: “Does a generalized economic interest in soliciting business for profit constitute a defense to a claim of tortious interference with an existing contract for an alleged tortfeasor with no previous economic relationship with the breaching party?”
The New York Court of Appeals said no, holding that economic self-interest is not a defense. However, the court explained that business competition in and of itself is not a tort, stating that:
“[W]e note that protecting existing contractual relationships does not negate a competitor’s right to solicit business, where liability is limited to improper inducement of a third party to breach its contract. Sending regular advertising and soliciting business in the normal course does not constitute inducement of breach of contract. A competitor’s ultimate liability will depend on a showing that the inducement exceeded ‘a minimum level of ethical behavior in the marketplace.’”
In a Florida case, Azar v. Lehigh Corporation, 364 So.2d 860 (Fla. Dist. Ct. App. 1978), a Florida appellate court upheld a restraining order against a former salesman of a developer after he allegedly tortiously interfered with the developer’s contracts. Lehigh Corporation developed and sold real property in a large development project in Lee County, Florida. Part of Lehigh’s promotional campaign brought prospective purchasers to see the development and stay at the only local motel at Lehigh’s expense. Lehigh’s former salesman, Leroy Azar, would follow prospective customers to the motel and persuade them to rescind their contracts for the purchase of property and to purchase property from him at a lower price. Azar spotted customers by following people down the street and observing whether they were carrying big envelopes full of Lehigh sales literature. He then would then seek out the customers in their motel rooms and offer to handle the rescission of his contract if the customer would move out of the motel and buy a lot from him. Azar also equipped his car with a large sign advertising the sale of his lots and followed Lehigh’s tour bus full of prospective customers.
The trial court granted the restraining order against Azar. Azar appealed, arguing that customers had a legal right under federal law to rescind their contracts within three days and that he was merely providing them with an opportunity to be relieved of their contract and to obtain comparable property for lower prices.
In upholding the trial court’s restraining order against Azar, the appellate court explained that there is a narrow line between what constitutes vigorous competition in a free enterprise society and malicious interference with a favorable business relationship. The court also quoted the following passage from a well-known treatise:
Though trade warfare may be waged to the bitter end, there are certain rules of combat which must be observed. . . . W. Prosser, Law of Torts (4th ed. 1971) at 956.
The appellate court explained that the issue is whether the subject conduct is considered to be “unfair” according to contemporary business standards.
How courts will treat stacking among competing merchant cash advance companies and lenders remains to be seen. The analysis of what is “improper” interference versus vigorous, but acceptable, competition will be based on the specific facts of each case. In the meantime, merchant cash advance companies and lenders that engage in stacking should consider applicable state law, including case law, and whether their conduct could be considered improper under the circumstances.
Robert Cook, Cathy Brennan and Kate Fisher are partners in the Maryland office of Hudson Cook, LLP. Robert can be reached at 410-865-5401 or by email at email@example.com. Cathy can be reached at 410-865-5405 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Kate can be reached at 410-782-2356 or by email at email@example.com.