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State v. Alta Colleges, Inc.

United States District Court, N.D. Illinois, Eastern Division

September 4, 2014

PEOPLE OF THE STATE OF ILLINOIS, Plaintiff,
v.
ALTA COLLEGES, INC., a Delaware corporation, WESTWOOD COLLEGE, INC., a Colorado corporation d/b/a Westwood College and Westwood College Online, WESGRAY CORPORATION, a Colorado corporation d/b/a WESTWOOD COLLEGE-River Oaks and WESTWOOD COLLEGE-Chicago Loop, ELBERT, INC., a Colorado corporation d/b/a/ WESTWOOD COLLEGE-DuPage, and EL NELL, INC., a Colorado corporation d/b/a WESTWOOD COLLEGE-O'Hare Airport, Defendants.

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

RONALD A. GUZMAN, District Judge.

Plaintiff sues defendants (collectively, "Westwood") for their alleged violations of the Consumer Financial Protection Act and the Illinois Consumer Fraud and Deceptive Business Practices Act. The case is before the Court on Westwood's Federal Rule of Civil Procedure ("Rule") 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss and plaintiff's motion to sever and remand. For the reasons stated below, the Court denies both motions.

Facts

Westwood is a for-profit, post-secondary school that has four campuses in Illinois and an online school that operates here. (2d Am. Compl. ¶ 1.) Westwood aggressively markets its programs to Illinois consumers in print media, on the internet, television and radio, through direct mail and at job fairs. ( Id. ¶¶ 1-2, 37-41, 46-49, 54-66.) Moreover, it makes false or misleading representations to consumers about the school's accreditation and admissions process, the cost of attaining a degree, the terms of loans offered by Westwood's in-house lending program, the jobs graduates will be qualified to obtain, and the likelihood that graduates will obtain employment in their chosen field. ( Id. ¶¶ 1-7, 48-49, 56-58, 60-61, 67-78, 89, 91-92, 107-35, 141-42, 162-89, 192-216, 218, 226-70.)

On January 18, 2012, plaintiff filed a one-count complaint in state court alleging that defendants engaged in deceptive practices in violation of the Illinois Consumer Fraud and Deceptive Business Practices Act ("ICFA"). ( See Pl.'s Mem. Opp'n Defs.' Mot. Dismiss 2d Am. Compl., Ex. 1, Compl., People v. Alta, No. 12 CH 1587 (Cir. Ct. Cook Cnty.).) In March 2014, plaintiff sought leave to amend its complaint to add Count II, an ICFA unfair practice claim, and Counts III and IV for violation of the federal Consumer Financial Protection Act ("CFPA"). On May 6, 2014, the state court granted plaintiff's motion, and on May 22, 2104, defendants removed the suit to this Court.

Discussion

Motion to Dismiss - Federal Claims

Westwood argues that the CFPA claims should be dismissed because plaintiff has not alleged that it is an entity subject to the statute. The Court disagrees. In relevant part, the statute defines "covered person" as one "that engages in offering or providing a consumer financial product or service, " i.e., "extend[s] credit and servic[es] loans... or [makes] other extensions of credit, " if the service "is offered or provided for use by consumers primarily for personal, family, or household purposes." 12 U.S.C. § 5481(5)(A), (6)(A), (15)(A)(i). Plaintiff alleges that Westwood operates an in-house student loan program called APEX, which places Westwood squarely within the definition of "covered person." ( See 2d Am. Compl. ¶¶ 89-92, 127-34.)

Even if it is a "covered person, " Westwood argues that it falls within the exemption for "merchant[s], retailer[s], or seller[s] of any nonfinancial good or service." See 12 U.S.C. § 5517(a). However, that exemption does not apply if the merchant "regularly extends credit... [that] is subject to a finance charge, " and "is... engaged significantly in offering or providing consumer financial products or services." 12 U.S.C. § 5517(a)(2)(B)(iii), (C)(i). Plaintiff alleges that Westwood meets these qualifications. ( See 2d Am. Compl. ¶¶ 67-135.)

Equally unpersuasive is Westwood's argument that the CFPA claims are doomed because the students identified in the complaint took out APEX loans before the Act's effective date. Though, as plaintiff concedes, it cannot recover for violations of the CFPA that occurred before the statute went in effect on July 21, 2011 ( see Pl.'s Mem. Opp'n Defs.' Mot. Dismiss 2d Am. Compl. at 18), its failure to identify students who took out loans after that date is not fatal to its claims. Given plaintiff's allegation that Westwood has operated its APEX program since 2002 and continues to do so today ( see 2d Am. Compl. ¶¶ 89, 477, 487-88), its failure to identify specific students who received APEX financing after July 21, 2011 is not a basis for dismissing the CFPA claims.

Alternatively, Westwood contends that Counts III and IV do not sufficiently allege the elements of an abusive or unfair practice claim under the CFPA. An unfair practice claim requires allegations that the practice causes or is likely to cause "substantial injury to consumers, " consumers cannot reasonably avoid that injury, and the injury "is not outweighed by countervailing benefits to consumers or to competition." 12 U.S.C. § 5531(c)(1). An abusive practice claim requires allegations that a practice: (1) "materially interferes with [a consumer's] ability to understand a term or condition of a consumer financial product or service"; or (2) "takes unreasonable advantage of (A) a [consumer's] lack of understanding... of the material risks, costs, or conditions of the product or service; (B) [his] inability... to protect [his] interests... in selecting or using a consumer financial product or service; or (C) [his] reasonable reliance... on a covered person to act in [his] interests." 12 U.S.C. § 5531(d).

Plaintiff alleges that Westwood induces students to enter into financing contracts with APEX, by:

(1) targeting as potential students people who, because of socioeconomic background or lack of sophistication, have little or no knowledge about higher education and financial aid;
(2) holding out salespeople as "admissions representatives" who will guide potential students to the education program best suited for them;
(3) instructing admissions representatives to build a rapport with potential students and then pressure them to enroll immediately, using scripts provided by ...

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