The CFPB announced on February 23 that it plans to host a field hearing on the issue of arbitration provisions within various consumer financial contracts. According to the CFPB’s blog post, the hearing will take place on March 10 in Newark, New Jersey, and will feature remarks from CFPB Director Richard Cordray, testimony from consumer groups, industry representatives, and members of the public. The Dodd-Frank Act instructs the CFPB to study the use of pre-dispute arbitration provisions in consumer financial contracts (and provide a Report to Congress) and gives the CFPB the authority to issue regulations on the use of arbitration clauses if the CFPB chooses. In December 2013, the CFPB issued a report on its preliminary findings, which indicated that approximately 9 out of 10 arbitration clauses used by large banks in credit card and checking account agreements prevent consumers from participating in class actions.
On February 23, CFPB Director Richard Cordray delivered prepared remarks at the National Association of Attorneys General Winter Meeting in Washington, D.C. In his remarks, Cordray indicated that the CFPB is keeping a watchful eye on the auto lending market, stating that auto lending practices are currently being supervised at the largest banks. Cordray further revealed that the CFPB intends to move forward with a proposed rule to oversee the larger nonbank auto lenders as well. Cordray also lobbied the attorneys general to use the CFPB’s government portal to analyze consumer complaints to assist in investigations, stating, “[w]e now have 22 attorneys general and 28 state banking regulators who are already signed up and accessing this information through the secure portal. I strongly urge the rest of you to join us and do the same.”
On February 24, the CFPB announced a proposed rule that would reduce the burden of credit card issuers by suspending – for one year – their obligation to submit credit card agreements to the CFPB on a quarterly basis. The proposed rule would be in effect while the CFPB works to establish a “more streamlined and automated electronic submission system” that would make it easier for issuers to submit the agreements. The proposal amends the 2009 CARD Act, which established the requirement that issuers submit consumer credit card agreements to the CFPB. During the proposed one-year suspension, other requirements of the CARD Act would remain in place, such as the issuers’ “obligations to post currently-offered agreements on their own websites.” Comments on the proposed rule are due by March 13. Credit card issuers would resume submitting credit card agreements on a quarterly basis to the CFPB starting on April 30, 2016.
On February 26, the FTC and the New York State Attorney General announced joint lawsuits to cease certain practices of two debt collection operations based in upstate New York. The complaints allege that the defendants unlawfully used threats and abusive language, including false threats that consumers would be arrested, to collect more than $45 million in supposed debts. The FTC and the State of New York are also seeking monetary relief to provide refunds to consumers. FTC v. 4 Star Resolution LLC, No. 1:15-cv-00112-WMS (W.D.N.Y. Feb. 9, 2015), FTC v. Vantage Point Services, LLC, No. 1:15-cv-00006-WMS (W.D.N.Y. Jan. 5, 2015). The District Court has temporarily enjoined the defendants’ practices in both cases.
On an appeal of five putative class actions alleging the unlawful charging of overdraft fees on consumer checking accounts, On February 10, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit vacated a lower court order holding that the defendant’s waiver of its right to compel arbitration with the named plaintiffs precludes the Bank from compelling arbitration with any unnamed members of the putative classes. In re Checking Account Overdraft Litigation, No. 13-12082 (11th Cir. Feb. 10, 2015). The panel held that the lower court lacked jurisdiction to resolve the question. Additionally, it held that the named plaintiffs lacked standing, under Article III of the U.S. Constitution, to advance claims on behalf of those unnamed putative class members, who—in the absence of class certification—have “no justiciable controversy” with the Bank.
CFPB Initiative Results in Free Access to Credit Scores, Agency Pledges to Increase Credit Reporting Enforcement Authority
One year after launching an initiative to improve consumer access to credit reporting information, the CFPB announced on February 19 that at least 50 million Americans now have the ability to directly and freely access their credit scores. As a result of the CFPB’s credit score initiative, over a dozen major credit card issuers have elected to provide free credit reports to their cardholders, and more issuers are expected to follow suit. The initiative was launched to emphasize the significance of monitoring credit scores and to make it easier for consumers to keep themselves informed. CFPB Director Richard Cordray applauded the agency’s efforts to increase transparency in this arena in his prepared remarks for Thursday’s Consumer Advisory Board Meeting, stating that improving both the accessibility and accuracy of credit reports is vital to consumers and credit providers alike. Cordray also alluded that the CFPB intends to leverage its enforcement authority to more closely regulate the credit reporting industry, thereby placing creditors, debt collectors, and other businesses that furnish consumer credit information on high alert. “Using our supervision and enforcement authorities,” Cordray said, “we are already bringing significant new improvements to the credit reporting system − and we are only getting started.”
On February 18, Steven Antonakes, Deputy Director of the CFPB, delivered remarks before the Exchequer Club of Washington, D.C. regarding the CFPB’s risk-focused supervision program. In his remarks, Antonakes identified two key differences that distinguish the CFPB from other regulatory agencies: (i) there is a “focus on risks to consumers rather than risks to institutions;” and (ii) examinations are conducted by product line rather than an “institution-centric approach.” Antonakes further stated that the agency uses field and market intelligence, which includes both qualitative and quantitative factors for each product line, such as the strength of compliance management systems, findings from CFPB’s prior examinations, the existence of other regulatory actions, the consumer complaints received, and metrics gathered from public reports, to adequately assess risks to consumers from an institution’s activity in any given market. After the review period, an institution will receive a “roll-up examination report” or a “supervisory plan,” depending on size, that will summarize the findings of the review. If corrective action is warranted, a review committee will assess violation-focused factors, institution-focused factors, and policy-focused factors to determine whether the examination should be resolved through a supervisory action or a public enforcement action.
On February 12, Congressmen Steve Stivers (R-OH) and Tim Walz (D-MN) re-introduced the Bureau of Consumer Financial Protection-Inspector General Act of 2015, legislation that would create an independent IG position at the CFPB. The IG position would be appointed by the President and confirmed by the Senate. Currently, the CFPB and the Federal Reserve share an IG. The proposed legislation is intended to increase congressional oversight over the CFPB, which has been given “broad authority” to fulfill its mission to protect consumers.
On February 12, 2015 the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Kentucky held that claims presented by the CFPB regarding a Kentucky-based law firm’s alleged violations of Section 8 of the Real Estate Settlement Procedures Act (“RESPA”) were legally plausible and denied the Defendants’ motion for judgment on the pleadings. The CFPB’s complaint—filed in October 2013 (as reported in InfoBytes Blog)—purported that principals of the law firm received illegal kickbacks for client referrals paid in the form of “profit distributions” from a network of affiliated title insurance companies. Additionally, it was asserted that the affiliated companies did not provide settlement services, thereby failing to comply with RESPA’s safe harbor for affiliated business agreements. 12 U.S.C. § 2607(c)(4). The Court stated that there was enough “factual detail” presented within the complaint for it to plausibly conclude that the firm had “committed the alleged misconduct,” that the Defendant failed to meet the first safe harbor element, and that the notice of the claim in the case had been “more than sufficient.” The memorandum also stated that the statute of limitations, which Defendants attempted to leverage, offered no guidance as to whether the firm was “entitled to judgment” on the pleadings, leading the Court to render its decision for the CFPB. CFPB v. Borders & Borders, PLLC, et al., No. 3:13-cv-1047-jgh (W.D. KY. February 12, 2015).
On February 12, the CFPB announced a civil suit against a Maryland-based mortgage company and consent orders with two additional mortgage companies headquartered in Utah and California for allegedly misleading consumers with advertisements implying U.S. government approval of their products in violation of the Mortgage Acts and Practices Advertising Rule (MAP Rule or Regulation N) of the Consumer Financial Protection Act (CFPA). In its complaint against the Maryland-based mortgage company, the CFPB alleges that the company’s reverse mortgage advertisements appeared as if they were U.S. government notices. Further, the CFPB claims that the company misrepresented whether monthly payments or repayments could be required and that there was a scheduled expiration date or deadline for the FHA-insured reverse mortgage program. The CFPB is seeking a civil fine and permanent injunction to prevent future violations with respect to the Maryland company. Similarly, the CFPB alleges that the Utah-based mortgage company disseminated direct-mail mortgage loan advertisements that improperly suggested that the lender was, or was affiliated with the FHA or VA, including that the company was “HUD approved” when it was not. The Utah company was ordered to pay a $225,000 civil penalty. In the separate consent order with the California-based mortgage company, the CFPB alleges that the lender’s mailings contained an FHA-approved lending institution logo and a website address that implied the advertisements were from, or affiliated with, the U.S. government, and were therefore deceptive and in violation of the CFPA. The company was ordered to pay an $85,000 civil penalty. In addition to civil penalties, each consent order requires the mortgage companies to submit a compliance plan to the CFPB and comply with specified record keeping, reporting, and compliance monitoring requirements.
CFPB Orders Nonbank Mortgage Lender to Pay $2 Million Penalty for Deceptive Advertising and Kickbacks
On February 10, the CFPB announced a consent order with a Maryland-based nonbank mortgage lender, ordering the lender to pay a $2 million civil money penalty, in part for allegedly failing to disclose its financial relationship with a veteran’s organization to consumers. According to the consent order, the CFPB alleged that the lender, whose primary business is originating refinance mortgage loans guaranteed by the VA, paid a veteran’s organization a fee to be named the “exclusive lender” of the organization and that failing to disclose this relationship in marketing materials targeted to the organization’s members constituted a deceptive act or practice under the Dodd-Frank Act. The CFPB further alleged that, because the veteran’s organization urged its members to use the lender’s products in direct mailings from the lender, call center referrals, and through the organization’s website, the monthly “licensing fee” and “lead generation fees” paid to the veteran’s organization and a third party broker company as part of marketing and referral arrangements constituted illegal kickbacks in violation of RESPA. In addition to the civil penalty, the consent order requires the lender to end any deceptive marketing, cease deceptive endorsement relationships, submit a compliance plan to the CFPB, and comply with additional record keeping, reporting, and compliance monitoring requirements.
On February 9, the CFPB released a report detailing complaints associated with reverse mortgages. According to the report, a high volume of complaints concern requests for changes to loan terms, issues related to loan servicing, and foreclosure activities. The report covers approximately 1,200 complaints received from December 1, 2011 through December 31, 2014. The report also notes that “[s]ince the CFPB began accepting reverse mortgage complaints in December, 2011, HUD has issued more than 10 policy changes to the HECM [Home Equity Conversion Mortgage] program.” One of these policy changes, effective after March 2, 2015, will require lenders to conduct financial assessments of prospective borrowers prior to approving the loan. The change is expected to decrease defaults due to non-payment of real estate taxes and insurance for loans originated after March 2.
On February 10, the DOJ, along with the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Western District of North Carolina and the North Carolina AG, announced the settlement of the federal government’s discrimination suit involving two “buy here, pay here” auto dealerships. According to the DOJ, this is the federal government’s first-ever settlement involving discrimination in auto lending. Filed in January 2014, the settlement resolves a lawsuit alleging that two North Carolina-based auto dealerships violated the federal Equal Credit Opportunity Act by “intentionally targeting African-American customers for unfair and predatory credit practices in the financing of used car purchases.” The North Carolina AG further alleges that the auto dealerships’ lending practices violated the state’s Unfair and Deceptive Trade Practices Act. The terms of the settlement require the two dealerships to revise the terms of their loans and repossession practices to ensure that “reverse redlining” ceases to exist; required amendments include: (i) setting the maximum projected monthly payments to 25% of the borrower’s income; (ii) omitting hidden fees from required down payment; (iii) prohibiting repossession until the borrower has missed at least two consecutive payments; and (iii) providing better-quality disclosure notices at the time of the sale. Also required by the settlement agreement, the two auto dealerships must establish a fund of $225,000 “to compensate victims of their past discriminatory and predatory lending.”
On February 11, the Pennsylvania AG announced a settlement with a national payday lender that will pay $8 million in restitution to consumers who were allegedly provided illegal payday loans. According to the state AG, the lender misled consumers by charging a “monthly participation fee” on a loan product, when it was actually interest added on to consumers’ account balances. The state AG charged that the practices violated Pennsylvania’s Consumer Protection Law. In addition to providing restitution, the lender agreed to (i) forgive $12 million of unpaid principal balances; (ii) pay $1.75 million in total costs to the state AG’s office and the Department of Banking and Securities; (iii) pay $250,000 to a third-party administrator to distribute the restitution to eligible consumers.
CFPB Orders Nonbank Mortgage Lender to Pay $2 Million Penalty for Deceptive Advertising and Kickbacks
On February 10, the CFPB announced a consent order with a Maryland-based nonbank mortgage lender, ordering the lender to pay a $2 million civil money penalty for allegedly failing to disclose its financial relationship with a veteran’s organization to consumers. According to the consent order, the CFPB alleged that the lender, whose primary business is originating VA loans, paid a veteran’s organization a fee to be named the “exclusive lender” of the organization and that failing to disclose this relationship in marketing materials targeted to the organization’s members constituted a deceptive act or practice under the Dodd-Frank Act. The CFPB further alleged that, because the veteran’s organization urged its members to use the lender’s products in direct mailings from the lender, call center referrals, and through the organization’s website, the monthly “licensing fee” and “lead generation fees” paid to the veteran’s organization and a third party broker company as part of marketing and referral arrangements constituted illegal kickbacks in violation of RESPA. In addition to the civil money penalty, the consent order requires the lender to submit a compliance plan to the CFPB and comply with additional record keeping, reporting, and compliance monitoring requirements.