New York Proposes First Virtual Currency Licensing Framework

On July 17, the New York DFS announced a proposal to establish a licensing regime for virtual currency businesses, the first by any state. In January, the DFS held a two-day hearing on developing a regulatory framework for virtual currency firms, and subsequently sought applications for virtual currency exchanges pending completion of the regulations. The proposed regulations define virtual currency as “any type of digital unit that is used as a medium of exchange or a form of digitally stored value or that is incorporated into payment system technology.” This would include digital units of exchange that: (i) have a centralized repository or administrator; (ii) are decentralized and have no centralized repository or administrator; or (iii) may be created or obtained by computing or manufacturing effort. It would exclude digital units that are used solely within online gaming platforms or that are used exclusively as part of a customer affinity or rewards program.

Under the proposal, the state would require companies engaged in the following activities to obtain a so-called BitLicense: (i) receiving or transmitting virtual currency on behalf of consumers; (ii) securing, storing, or maintaining custody or control of such virtual currency on the behalf of customers; (iii) performing retail conversion services; (iv) buying and selling virtual currency as a customer business (as distinct from personal use); or (v) controlling, administering, or issuing a virtual currency. To obtain a license, a business would be required to, among other things: (i) hold virtual currency of the same type and amount as any virtual currency owed or obligated to a third party; (ii) provide transaction receipts with certain required information; (iii) comply with AML rules; (iv) maintain a cyber security program; and (v) establish business continuity and disaster recovery policies. Licensed entities would be subject to DFS supervision, with examinations taking place no less than once every two calendar years. The proposal will be published in the New York State Register’s July 23, 2014 edition, which begins a 45-day public comment period.

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Ninth Circuit Holds Plaintiffs Not Required To Plead Tender Or Ability To Tender To Support TILA Rescission Claim

On July 16, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit held that an allegation of tender or ability to tender is not required to support a TILA rescission claim. Merritt v. Countrywide Fin. Corp., No. 17678, 2014 WL 3451299 (9th Cir. Jul. 16, 2014). In this case, two borrowers filed an action against their mortgage lender more than three years after origination of the loan and a concurrent home equity line of credit, claiming the lender failed to provide completed disclosures. The district court dismissed the borrowers’ claim for rescission under TILA because the borrowers did not tender the value of their HELOC to the lender before filing suit, and dismissed their RESPA Section 8 claims as time-barred.

On appeal, the court criticized the district court’s application of the Ninth Circuit’s holding in Yamamoto v. Bank of New York, 329 F.3d 1167 (9th Cir. 2003) that courts may at the summary judgment stage require an obligor to provide evidence of ability to tender. Instead, the appellate court held that borrowers can state a TILA rescission claim without pleading tender, or that they have the ability to tender the value of their loan. The court further held that a district court may only require tender before rescission at the summary judgment stage, and only on a case-by-case basis once the creditor has established a potentially viable defense. The Ninth Circuit also applied the equitable tolling doctrine to suspend the one-year limitations period applicable to the borrower’s RESPA claims and remanded to the district court the question of whether the borrowers had a reasonable opportunity to discover the violations earlier. The court declined to address two “complex” issues of first impression: (i) whether markups for services provided by a third party are actionable under RESPA § 8(b); and (ii) whether an inflated appraisal qualifies as a “thing of value” under RESPA § 8(a).

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CFPB Sues Debt Collection Law Firm

On July 14, the CFPB sued a Georgia-based law firm and its three principal partners for allegedly using high-volume litigation tactics to collect millions of dollars from consumers who may not actually have owed the debts or may not have owed the debts in the amounts claimed. The suit relates to the firm’s attempts to collect, directly or indirectly, consumer credit-card debts on behalf of both credit-card issuers and debt buyers that purchase portfolios of defaulted credit-card debts. The CFPB alleges the defendants violated the FDCPA and engaged in unfair and deceptive practices by: (i) serving consumers with deceptive court filings generated by automated processes and the work of non-attorney staff, without any meaningful involvement of attorneys; and (ii) introducing faulty or unsubstantiated evidence through sworn statements even though some signers could not have known the details they were attesting to. The CFPB is seeking to permanently enjoin the firm from engaging in the alleged activity, restitution to borrowers, disgorgement, civil money penalties, and damages and other monetary relief.

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Federal, State Authorities Obtain Another Major RMBS Settlement

On July 14, the DOJ, the FDIC, and state authorities in California, Delaware, Illinois, Massachusetts, and New York, announced a $7 billion settlement of federal and state RMBS civil claims against a large financial institution, which was obtained by the RMBS Working Group, a division of the Obama Administration’s Financial Fraud Enforcement Task Force. Federal and state law enforcement authorities and financial regulators alleged that the institution misled investors in connection with the packaging, marketing, sale, and issuance of certain RMBS. They claimed, among other things, that the institution received information indicating that, for certain loan pools, significant percentages of the loans reviewed as part of the institution’s due diligence did not conform to the representations provided to investors about the pools of loans to be securitized, yet the institution allowed the loans to be securitized and sold without disclosing the alleged failures to investors. The agreement includes a $4 billion civil penalty, described by the DOJ as the largest ever obtained under FIRREA. In addition, the institution will pay a combined $500 million to settle existing and potential claims by the FDIC and the five states. The institution also agreed to provide an additional $2.5 billion in borrower relief through a variety of means, including financing affordable rental housing developments for low-income families in high-cost areas. Finally, the institution was required to acknowledge certain facts related to the alleged activities.

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FHFA OIG Assesses Risks From Smaller Lenders And Nonbank Mortgage Companies

On July 17, the FHFA Office of Inspector General (OIG) published a report on risks to Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac (the Enterprises) related to purchasing mortgages from smaller lenders and nonbank mortgage companies. The report states such lenders present elevated risk in the following areas: (i) counterparty credit risk—smaller lenders and nonbank lenders may have relatively limited financial capacity, and the latter are not subject to federal safety and soundness oversight; (ii) operational risk—smaller or nonbank lenders may lack the sophisticated systems and expertise necessary to manage high volumes of mortgage sales to the Enterprises; and (iii) reputational risk—the report cites as an example an institution that was sanctioned by state regulators for engaging in allegedly abusive lending practices. The report notes that in 2014 the FHFA’s Division of Enterprise Regulation’s plans to focus on Fannie Mae’s and Freddie Mac’s controls for smaller and nonbank sellers, which will include assessments of the Enterprise’s mortgage loan delivery limits and lender eligibility standards and assessment of the counterparty approval process and counterparty credit risk resulting from cash window originations. The report also notes FHFA guidance to the Enterprises last year on contingency planning for high-risk or high-volume counterparties, and states that the FHFA plans to issue additional guidance on counterparty risk management. Specifically, the Division of Supervision Policy and Support plans to issue an advisory bulletin focusing on risk management and the approval process for seller counterparties. The OIG did not make any recommendations to supplement the FHFA’s planned activities.

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New York Revises Proposed Debt Collection Regulations

On July 16, the New York DFS re-proposed a rule to regulate third-party debt collection. The revised proposal: (i) describes disclosures debt collectors must provide to consumers when the debt collector initially communicates with a consumer, and additional disclosures that must be provided when the debt collector is communicating with a consumer regarding a charged-off debt; (ii) requires debt collectors to disclose to consumers when the statute of limitations on a debt has expired; (iii) outlines a process for consumers to request additional documentation proving the validity of the charged-off debt and the debt collector’s right to collect the charged-off debt; (iv) requires debt collectors to provide consumers written confirmation of debt settlement agreements and regular accounting of the debt while the consumer is paying off a debt pursuant to a settlement agreement; (v) requires debt collectors to provide consumers with disclosures of certain rights when settling a debt; and (vi) allows debt collectors to correspond with consumers by electronic mail in certain circumstances. The DFS states that although comments on its initial proposal were “generally supportive,” the revised proposal responds to comments on how the rules could better correspond to the structure of the collection industry, and seeks to clarify the meaning of certain provisions. Comments on the revised proposal are due by August 15, 2014.

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C.D. Cal. Dismisses False Claims Act Qui Tam Suit Against Group of Lenders

On July 15, the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California dismissed a relator real estate agent’s suit against a group of lenders the relator alleged submitted claims for FHA insurance benefits to HUD based on false certifications of compliance with the National Housing Act. U.S. ex rel Hastings v. Wells Fargo Bank, No. 12-3624, Order (C.D. Cal. Jul. 15, 2014). The relator alleged on behalf of the U.S. government that loans where borrowers received assistance from seller-funded down payment assistance programs, such as the Nehemiah Program, did not satisfy requirements for gift funds, and as a result the lenders had falsely certified compliance with the National Housing Act’s three-percent down payment requirement when seeking FHA insurance for such loans. The government declined to intervene in the case. The court agreed with the lenders and held that the complaint could not survive the False Claims Act’s public disclosure bar—a jurisdictional bar against claims predicated on allegations already in the public domain. The court explained that the public disclosure standard is met if there were either (i) public allegations of fraud “substantially similar” to the one described in the False Claims Act complaint, or (ii) enough information publicly disclosed regarding the allegedly fraudulent transactions to put the government on notice of a potential claim. Here, the court determined that claims related to seller-funded down payment assistance programs were part of a “robust public debate” well prior to the time the complaint was filed in this case, and that the debate was sufficient to put the government on notice of the alleged conduct. The court also determined that the relator was not an “original source” of the public disclosures and as such could not overcome the public disclosure bar. Because the court concluded that amendment would be futile, the court dismissed the suit with prejudice.  BuckleySandler represented one of the lenders in this case.

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HUD Updates Requirements For Pre-Foreclosure Sales And Deeds-In-Lieu Of Foreclosure

On July 10, HUD issued Mortgagee Letter 2014-15, which updates requirements for pre-foreclosure sales (PFS) and deeds-in-lieu (DIL) of foreclosure for all mortgagees servicing FHA single-family mortgages. The letter explains that if none of FHA’s loss mitigation home retention options are available or appropriate, the mortgagee must evaluate the borrower for a non-home retention option, with mortgagors in default or at imminent risk of default being evaluated first for a PFS transaction before being evaluated for a DIL transaction. The letter details eligibility and documentation requirements for standard PFS, streamlined PFS, and DILs, as well as rules for calculating cash reserve contributions for standard PFS transactions. Further, the letter advises mortgagees that they may, under certain conditions, approve a servicemember for a streamlined PFS or DIL without verifying hardship or obtaining a complete mortgagor workout packet. The letter also addresses numerous other topics, including: (i) requirements for real estate agents and brokers participating in PFS transactions; (ii) an initial listing period requirement for PFS transactions; (iii) updated sample language for the PFS Addendum; (iv) validation requirements for appraisals; (v) the criteria under which the HUD will permit non-arms-length PFS transactions; and (vi) minimum marketing period for all PFS transactions.

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New York Adopts Shared Appreciation Mortgage Regulations

On July 9, the New York DFS announced that it finalized a rule that allows for shared appreciation mortgage modifications, which permit banks and mortgage servicers to reduce the amount of principal outstanding on a borrower’s mortgage in exchange for a share of the future increase in the value of the home. The option is limited to borrowers who are 60 or more days past due on their loan or whose loan is the subject of an active foreclosure action and who are not eligible for existing federal and private foreclosure prevention programs. The regulations detail the method for calculating a holder’s share of the appreciation, and limit the share to the lesser of: (i) the amount of the reduction in principal, plus interest; or (ii) 50% of the amount of appreciation in market value. In addition, banks and servicers would be required to provide specific disclosures to borrowers about the terms and nature of the shared appreciation mortgage modification. The regulations also: (i) specify allowable fees, charges, and interest rates; (ii) detail the calculation of unpaid principal balance and debt-to-income ratio; and (iii) list certain prohibitions, including, among others, that the holder cannot require the borrower to waive any legal claims or defenses as a condition to obtaining shared appreciation modification. The new regulations took effect immediately.

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Freddie Mac Updates Alternative To Foreclosure Requirements, Other Servicing Policies

On July 15, Freddie Mac issued Bulletin 2014-14, which announced a new automated settlement process for mortgage modification settlements. Effective December 1, 2014, servicers must submit the required settlement data for a modification of a conventional first lien Freddie Mac-owned or guaranteed mortgage via the new “Loan Modification Settlement” screen in Workout Prospector. Servicers may begin doing so on or after August 25, 2014. In addition, the Freddie Mac is amending mortgage modification signature requirements to provide that a servicer and any borrowers can agree to extend, modify, forbear, or make any accommodations with regard to a Fannie Mae/Freddie Mac Uniform Security Instrument or the Note, as otherwise authorized by Freddie Mac, without obtaining the co-signer’s signature or consent on the condition that the Security Instrument that was signed by the co-signer contained a provision allowing for such action. The bulletin also, among other things, (i) updates transfer of ownership and assumption requirements; (ii) revises certain requirements for mortgages insured by the FHA or guaranteed by the VA or Rural Housing Service; and (iii) adds several new expense codes related to attorney fees and costs and updates certain attorney fees and costs reimbursement requirements.

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Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac Publish Additional Uniform Closing Dataset Documentation

On July 15, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac announced the availability of additional documentation to support the mortgage industry with the implementation of the Uniform Closing Dataset (UCD), the common industry dataset that supports the CFPB’s closing disclosure. The documents provide information to supplement the MISMO mapping document released in March 2014. Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac intend to collect the UCD from lenders in the future, but have not yet determined the method or timeline for that data collection.

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Pennsylvania Provides For Licensing, Regulation Of Debt Settlement Providers

On July 9, Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett signed SB 622, which directs the Department of Banking and Securities to establish licensing requirements, including fees, for providers of debt settlement services. Such a license will be a “covered license” under state law, and, as such, will require employees of entities seeking a license to submit to criminal history checks. In addition, licensed debt settlement firms would be required to provide written disclosures regarding, among other things: (i) the amount of time necessary to achieve the represented results; (ii) the extent to which debt settlement services may include settlement offers to creditors and debt collectors, including the time by which bona fide offers will be made; (iii) the cost to the individual for providing debt settlement services and the method by which any fee will be calculated; (iv) that the use of a debt settlement service will likely adversely impact the credit worthiness of the individual; and (v) the total estimated program costs if the individual completes the program. The bill does not apply to (i) judicial officers; (ii) depository licensees; (iii) title insurers, escrow companies, or other persons that provide bill paying services and offer debt settlement incidental to those services; or (iv) attorneys who act as intermediaries. The bill defines certain prohibited activities, and grants the regulator authority to supervise licensed firms, enforce the requirements, and impose civil penalties of up to $10,000 for each violation. Most provisions of the bill take effect November 1, 2014.

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Fourth Circuit Affirms Dismissal Of Class Action Alleging Illegal Mortgage Referrals

On July 10, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit affirmed a district court’s holding that the fees charged by a mortgage company jointly owned by a national bank and a real estate firm did not violate Maryland’s Finder’s Fee Act. Petry v. Prosperity Mortg. Co., No. 13-1869, 2014 WL 3361828 (4th Cir. Jul. 10, 2014). On behalf of similarly situated borrowers, two borrowers sued the bank, the real estate firm, and the mortgage company, claiming that the mortgage company operated as a broker that helped borrowers obtain mortgage loans from the bank. The borrowers alleged that all the fees that the mortgage company charged at closing were “finder’s fees” within the meaning of the Maryland Finder’s Fee Act, and, as such, the company—aided and abetted by the bank and the real estate firm—violated the Finder’s Fee Act (i) by charging finder’s fees in transactions in which it was both the mortgage broker and the lender and (ii) by charging finder’s fees without a separate written agreement providing for them.

After certifying the class the district court advised the borrowers that the fees did not qualify as finder’s fees under state law unless they had been inflated so that the overcharge could disguise the referral fee. When the borrowers acknowledged they could not prove the fees were inflated, the district court entered judgment for the defendants. On appeal, the court agreed with the district court’s conclusion as to the fees at issue, but held for the defendants on different grounds. The appeals court determined that because the mortgage company was identified as the lender in the documents executed at closing, it was not a “mortgage broker” under Finder’s Fee Act and therefore was not subject to the Act’s provisions. As such, the court further determined it need not decide whether the bank and real estate firm could be liable for the mortgage company’s alleged violations under theories of aiding and abetting.

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FinCEN Closer To Finalizing Customer Due Diligence Proposal

On July 14, the OMB’s Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA) concluded its review of a long-awaited FinCEN proposal to establish customer due diligence requirements for financial institutions, sending the rule back to FinCEN. In its spring 2014 rulemaking agenda, Treasury updated the timeline for the rule to indicate it could be proposed in July with a 60 day comment period. OIRA’s public records do not provide information about what, if any, changes OIRA sought or required prior to FinCEN finalizing the proposal. The public portion of the FinCEN rulemaking has been ongoing since February 2012 when FinCEN released an advance notice of proposed rulemaking to solicit comment on potential requirements for financial institutions to (i) conduct initial due diligence and verify customer identities at the time of account opening; (ii) understand the purpose and intended nature of the account; (iii) identify and verify all customers’ beneficial owners; and (iv) monitor the customer relationship and conduct additional due diligence as needed. FinCEN subsequently held a series of roundtable meetings, summaries of which it later published.

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FinCEN Designates Foreign Private Bank Under Patriot Act

On July 17, FinCEN named FBME Bank Ltd., formerly known as the Federal Bank of the Middle East, as a foreign financial institution of primary money laundering concern pursuant to Section 311 of the USA PATRIOT Act. As detailed in a notice of finding, FinCEN asserts that the bank attracts illicit finance businesses by soliciting high-risk customers and promoting its weak AML controls. FinCEN explains that the bank changed its country of incorporation numerous times, partly due to its inability to adhere to regulatory requirements, and has established itself with a nominal headquarters in Tanzania. However, according to FinCEN, it transacts over 90 percent of its global banking business through branches in Cyprus and has taken active steps to evade oversight by the Cypriot regulatory authorities in the recent past. FinCEN is proposing a rule that, once final, will prohibit covered U.S. financial institutions from opening or maintaining correspondent or payable-through accounts for FBME, and for other foreign banks being used to process transactions involving FBME. The proposal also would require covered financial institutions to apply special due diligence to their correspondent accounts maintained on behalf of foreign banks to guard against processing any transactions involving FBME. Comments on the proposed rule are due 60 days after publication in the Federal Register.

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