On March 26, the FHFA Office of Inspector General (OIG) issued a report that concludes the FHFA has failed to actively oversee how Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac monitor counterparty compliance with federal and state consumer protection laws. The OIG review found that the FHFA is vulnerable to questions about why it does not have a strategy to monitor the Enterprises’ activities to assess whether they are aligned with the public interest as reflected in federal and state laws and regulations, and that the Enterprises’ failure to pursue seller repurchase demands related to mortgages in default with no material underwriting deficiencies—but that were originated in violation of consumer protection laws—may result in losses to the Enterprises that could be avoided or mitigated. The OIG concludes that given the FHFA’s duty under HERA to ensure that the activities of the Enterprises are consistent with the public interest, the FHFA should develop and implement a risk-based plan to monitor the Enterprises’ oversight of their counterparties’ compliance with contractual requirements, including consumer protection laws. According to the report, the FHFA has begun to put together a plan to address this oversight role.
On March 28, the CFPB released tens of thousands of consumer complaints related to mortgages, student loans, bank accounts and services, other consumer loans, and credit cards. Credit reporting complaints, will be released in the near future. The expanded database is a live database that is updated daily. It includes one million data points, covering approximately 450 companies, and allows users to track, sort, search, and download information. The CFPB has made the data available in formats that allow developers to build applications, conduct analyses, and perform research, and the database includes functionality to let users build their own visualizations, charts and graphs, and embed the data on other websites or share it through social media. The CFPB is encouraging consumers, analysts, developers, data scientists, civic hackers, and companies that serve consumers, to analyze, augment, and build on the public database to develop ways for consumers to access the complaint data or “mash it up” with other public data sets. The CFPB also released a fact sheet about the database, which provides some summary analysis of the data, as well as a “snapshot” report that provides information about the CFPB’s complaint handling process and additional summary presentation of the data. The CFPB also held a field hearing to review the complaint database and solicit public feedback. Consumer groups participating in the event repeatedly stressed the need for more specific data, including the full narrative description of complaints submitted by consumers, while industry representatives continued to caution the regulator about risks associated with unverified data.
Recently, researchers from Princeton and the University of Michigan published a paper that examines the role played in the financial crisis by distorted beliefs about house prices, as opposed to the role of poorly designed incentives that may have led institutions to take excessive risks in the housing market. The study tests whether mid-level managers in the mortgage securitization business were fully aware during the boom that housing markets were overvalued and that a large-scale crisis was likely and imminent. Looking at the house transaction activities of mortgage securitization agents, as compared to activities of certain control groups, the researchers found little systematic evidence that the average securitization agent exhibited awareness of problems in overall housing markets and anticipated a broad-based crash. The researchers believe the results suggest that securitization agents may have been subject to sources of belief distortion, such as job environments that foster group think, cognitive dissonance, or other sources of over-optimism. The researchers explain that their study potentially has implications for public policy because, they argue, policy responses to date have derived from an incentive-based view of the problem, and that fixing incentives, e.g. changing the compensation contracts of securitization agents, may be insufficient to prevent another crisis.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit recently held that the False Claims Act’s (FCA) statute of limitations can be tolled by the Wartime Suspension of Limitations Act (WSLA) in civil qui tam actions in which the government does not intervene. United States v. Halliburton ex rel. Carter, No. 12-1011, 2013 WL 1092732 (4th Cir. Mar. 18, 2013). A former employee of a defense contractor alleged that his employer fraudulently billed the United States for water purification services in Iraq that were never actually performed, and that the practice was consistent with a scheme to routinely bill the government set hours, regardless of actual hours worked. The government declined to intervene in the case, and the district court subsequently dismissed the complaint with prejudice, finding in part that the relator’s complaint was untimely filed after the FCA’s statute of limitations had expired. On appeal, the Fourth Circuit held that the WSLA applies to both civil and criminal fraud claims against the United States, regardless of whether the United States has intervened, and even without a formal declaration of war. Based on those factors, the Fourth Circuit held that the relator’s FCA claims were not time-barred. The court reversed the district court’s decision, and remanded the case for further consideration.
On March 24, the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York held that a Dodd-Frank Act rule requiring the SEC, within 180 days of notifying a target of the pendency of an investigation, to file an action or obtain an extension of time from an SEC director, does not provide for the dismissal of an enforcement action that does not comply with the rule. SEC v. NIR Group, LLC, No. 11-4723, slip op. (E.D.N.Y. Mar. 24, 2013). In deciding a motion in which the SEC sought to halt discovery into its compliance with the rule, the court explained that the statute does not explicitly provide for dismissal of an enforcement action that does not comply with the 180-day requirement, but that the absence of such a remedy does not render the provision superfluous. The court determined that evidence concerning compliance with the internal deadline is not relevant to the action. For that and other reasons, the court held that the evidence sought was not discoverable.