On May 20, the CFPB launched its Financial Coaching Initiative, an educational program designed to help “recently-transitioned veterans and economically vulnerable consumers.” The program places 60 certified financial coaches – all of whom will be accredited by the Association for Financial Counseling and Planning Education – at diverse, non-profit partner organizations around the country. With over 49 million people living below the poverty line, and at least 68 million financially underserved, the goal of the CFPB’s new educational service is to “help these consumers make good financial decisions and reach their financial goals.” The program is being paid for by the CFPB’s Civil Penalty Fund.
On May 19, the CFPB announced a stipulated final judgment against a California-based worldwide payment system company. According to the CFPB’s complaint, filed the same day, the defendant (i) failed to honor advertised promotional benefits; (ii) charged consumers deferred-interest fees; (iii) enrolled consumers in a credit product without their knowledge or consent; (iv) failed to remove late fees and interest charges that consumers accrued because of website failures; and (v) mishandled consumers’ billing disputes. Under the terms of the final judgment, the company will improve its disclosures regarding enrollment options and payment allocation, pay $15 million to reimburse consumers who were the victims of its practices, and pay $10 million to the CFPB’s Civil Penalty Fund.
On May 15, a San Diego-based storage company entered into a consent order with the DOJ to settle claims that the company’s practice of auctioning off active duty servicemembers’ stored belongings violated the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act (SCRA). As part of the settlement, the storage company will: (i) pay $170,000 in damages to those servicemembers whose stored belongings it sold without obtaining a court order; (ii) implement new SCRA policies and procedures, which are to be approved by the government; and (iii) ensure that those employees who are involved with the enforcement of storage liens receive government approved SCRA training annually.
On May 15, the California Department of Business Oversight (DBO) announced that it filed a complaint against a debt payment company for allegedly operating in California without having the proper license and for charging fees in excess of statutory limits. According to the complaint, the company contracts with borrowers to make their mortgage, credit card, or other loan payments for them, and then debits their account every two weeks in an amount equal to one-half of the required monthly payment on the loan. This payment schedule results in 26 debits per year, equating to an extra month’s worth of payments. The company claims that the extra debits are used to pay down the principal on the loan. The lawsuit alleges, however, that the California Financial Code requires companies providing debt payment services to be licensed as “proraters” by the DBO, and the company has never had such a license. The complaint also alleges that the company’s “set up fee” of one-half of the monthly loan payment amount often far exceeded the $50 limit on origination fees imposed by state law, and that the company’s advertising misrepresented how much its customers would pay for services and how much they would save on interest. Since 2009, the company has collected more than $300 million from its 10,000-25,000 customers for distribution to creditors and earned more than $10 million in fees.
On May 12, the Ninth Circuit held that a debt collection letter did not violate the FDCPA or California’s Rosenthal Act where the amount of the debt was certain, even though the debt collector had not yet obtained a judgment. Diaz v. Kubler Corp., 2015 WL 2214634 (9th Cir. May 12, 2015). The debt collector sent a collection letter demanding that the debtor pay an amount reflecting the principal owed plus interest at an annual rate of 10%, which was the rate set forth in California law for contracts that do not stipulate a legal rate of interest. The district court granted summary judgment, holding that the debt collector could not seek to collect prejudgment interest at the statutory rate without first obtaining a judgment for breach of contract. Therefore, the court held, the debt collector had violated the FDCPA and the Rosenthal Act by attempting to collect an amount not authorized by the contract creating the debt or permitted by law. The Ninth Circuit reversed, holding that California Civil Code §3287(a) allows recovery of prejudgment interest from the time that the creditor’s right to recover is “vested,” which occurs at the time “the amount of damages become certain or capable of being made certain, not the time liability to pay those amounts is determined.” Damages “become certain or capable of being made certain” when “there is essentially no dispute between the parties concerning the basis of computation of damages if any are recoverable but where their dispute centers on the issue of liability giving rise to damage.” At that time, prejudgment interest becomes available as a matter of right. Accordingly, the debt collector’s demand for prejudgment interest did not violate the FDCPA or the Rosenthal Act.
The Department of Education is set to propose new regulations which could change how financial institutions provide services on college campuses, according to a NPRM to be published in the Federal Register on May 18. The new rules, part of a nearly 300-page “Program Integrity and Improvement” package, are intended to among other things (i) ensure that students have convenient access on their Title IV funds, (ii) do not incur unreasonable and uncommon financial account fees, and (iii) are not led to believe they must open a particular account from a financial institution to receive Federal student aid. The proposed regulations also update other provisions in the cash management regulations, clarify how previously passed coursework is treated with respect to Title IV funds eligibility, and streamline the requirements for converting clock hours to credit hours. Public comments on the proposed rulemaking will be due 45 days after date of publication in the Federal Register.
On May 14, the CFPB published a Request For Information (RFI) seeking public comment on student loan servicing practices. In particular, the Bureau is requesting comments on six areas: (i) industry practices that cause repayment challenges; (ii) challenges faced by distressed borrowers; (iii) financial incentives that affect the quality of service; (iv) application of consumer protections in other markets to the loan servicing market; and (v) the availability of information about the student loan market. According to the Bureau, the comments received concerning the aforementioned areas will be used to assist student loan servicers and policymakers identify potential options to improve service, reduce defaults, develop industry best practices, examine consumer protection, and spur innovation. Along with the RFI, the CFPB released a factsheet on student debt stress, highlighting statistics that could lead to significant challenges for the industry. In prepared remarks for a field hearing concerning the issue, CFPB Director Richard Cordray alluded to the growing concerns within the student loan market, mentioning that two-thirds of graduates finishing their bachelor’s degrees graduate with debt averaging almost $30,000.
On May 26, The CFPB and the Federal Reserve will host a 60-minute webinar to answer questions with respect to the TILA-RESPA Integrated Disclosure rule under the TILA and RESPA, also known as TRID. “This fifth and final in the planned series of webinars will address specific questions related to rule interpretation and implementation challenges that have been raised to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau by creditors, mortgage brokers, settlement agents, software developers, and other stakeholders,” according to the Federal Reserve. For those interested in attending, registration is required and can be accessed here.
On May 12, CFPB Director Richard Cordray addressed the National Association of Realtors regarding the 2008-2009 economic crash and the gradual recovery of the American housing market. In an effort to restore consumers’ confidence in the mortgage market, the Bureau implemented rules, such as the Ability-to-Repay rule and the Qualified Mortgage rule, to ensure that lenders were offering consumers mortgages they could afford. Effective August 1, the Bureau’s “Know Before You Owe” rule will replace the current separate disclosures required by TILA and RESPA with combined TILA-RESPA disclosures (“TRID”); the new forms are “consumer-tested to be more user-friendly, which will ease the process and improve the consumer experience.”. In his remarks, Cordray did not signal that the TRID effective date or enforcement of the same would by delayed by the Bureau.
On May 11, the CFPB issued Bulletin 2015-02, reminding creditors to include income from the Section 8 Housing Choice Voucher (HCV) Homeownership Program when underwriting mortgage loans. Within the Bulletin, the Bureau noted that it “has become aware of one or more institutions excluding or refusing to consider income derived from the Section 8 HCV Homeownership Program during mortgage loan application and underwriting processes,” further mentioning that “some institutions have restricted the use of Section 8 HCV Homeownership Program vouchers to only certain home mortgage loan products or delivery channels.” The Bulletin warns that disparate treatment prohibited under ECOA and Reg. B may exist when a creditor does not consider Section 8 as a source of income and provides guidance on how lenders can mitigate their fair lending risk. In conjunction with the guidance, the CFPB also published a blog post, providing an overview of the Section 8 HCV Program and detailed how consumers can submit complaints if they believe they have been discriminated against.
On May 21, the FDIC’s Division of Depositor and Consumer Protection is scheduled to host a teleconference that will focus on the implementation of the new mortgage rules issued by the CFPB in 2013. According to the FDIC, officials from the banking regulator will discuss findings and highlight best practices that its examiners have noted during initial examinations in the first year since the rules became effective in 2014. Registration is required, and will begin at 2:00 p.m. EST.
On May 8, FHFA Director Mel Watt spoke at the 22nd Annual Economic Summit, focusing on the agency’s conservatorship activities with Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac (GSEs). Most significantly, Director Watt announced that the agency is extending the GSEs’ participation in HAMP and HARP until the end of 2016. Since their 2009 inception, the two programs have relieved many borrowers of high monthly payments. HARP, allowing borrowers who regularly make their mortgage payments to refinance their loans and take advantage of low income rates, and HAMP, providing significant payment reductions tied to borrowers’ income, have prevented a number of foreclosures. Since HARP and HAMP were never intended to be permanent programs, this will be FHFA’s final extension of the GSEs’ participation. Looking forward, the agency plans to “consider how best to build on the lessons of HAMP for 2017 and beyond,” exploring possible streamlined modifications and refinance solutions for borrowers.
National Non-Profit Fair Housing Organization Files Complaint Against Fannie Mae Alleging Racial Discrimination
On May 12, 2015, the National Fair Housing Alliance (NFHA) and 19 local fair housing organizations (collectively, the “Complainants”) filed a fair housing discrimination complaint with the U.S. Department of Housing & Urban Development against Fannie Mae alleging a pattern of maintaining and marketing its foreclosed houses in white areas better than in minority areas. The complaint is the result of a five year investigation where investigators visited and documented the conditions of the foreclosed properties that Fannie Mae owns in 34 metro areas. In each of the investigated metropolitan areas, the Complainants allege that Fannie Mae engaged in the practice of maintaining and marketing its REO properties in a state of disrepair in communities of color while maintaining and marketing REO properties in predominantly White communities in a materially better condition. Fannie Mae REO properties in White communities were far more likely to have a small number of maintenance deficiencies or problems than REO properties in communities of color, while REO properties in communities of color were far more likely to have large numbers of such deficiencies or problems compared to those in White communities. As a result, the Complainants allege that Fannie Mae violated the Fair Housing Act, Title VIII of the Civil Rights Act of 1968, as amended by the Fair Housing Amendments Act of 1988, including but not limited to 42 U.S.C. §§ 3604(a)-(d). The housing advocacy groups are calling for Fannie Mae to clean up the neglected properties and spend “millions” of dollars on grants or other compensation for those trying to buy foreclosed houses and people living in communities affected by them.
On May 7, the DOJ announced a consent order with an Illinois-based lender to settle allegations that the state-chartered bank engaged in a pattern of discriminatory lending, violating the Equal Credit Opportunity Act (ECOA). According to the complaint, from at least January 1, 2011 to March 9, 2014, approximately 1,500 Hispanic borrowers and 700 African-American borrowers paid higher interest rates for their motorcycle loans than white borrowers. The average victim of the bank’s discretionary dealer markup system paid over $200 more during the loan term, allegedly because of their national origin and not because of their creditworthiness. Until March 2014, the lender’s business practice was such that the motorcycle dealers submitted loan applications to the lender, allowing the dealers “subjective and unguided discretion to vary a loan’s interest rate from the price [the lender] initially set.” In March 2014, the lender adopted a new policy that compensated dealers “based on a percentage of the loan principal amount that does not vary based on the loan’s interest rate;” since the implementation of the new policy, no discrimination has been found in the loans analyzed by the United States. Neither admitting nor denying the allegations, the lender voluntarily entered into a consent order with the U.S., agreeing to provide $395,000 in monetary relief to victims of the lender’s alleged practices.
FTC Lobbies Michigan Legislature to Repeal Ban On Direct-to-Consumer Sale of Motor Vehicles by Auto Manufacturers
On May 11, the FTC released a statement regarding the agency staff’s May 7 letter to Michigan Senator Booher, which concerns pending SB 268 – an act to regulate the sale and servicing of automobiles. The proposed legislation seeks to create an “exception to current law that prohibits automobile manufacturers from selling new vehicles directly to consumers.” While the letter states that the bill likely will encourage competition and benefit consumers, the staff’s view is that the legislation’s scope is too narrow and “would largely perpetuate the current law’s protectionism for independent franchised dealers, to the detriment of Michigan car buyers.” The focal point of the FTC staff’s letter is that, “absent some legitimate public purpose, consumers would be better served if the choice of distribution method were left to motor vehicle manufacturers and the consumers to whom they sell their products.”