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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Recently, the Massachusetts Division of Banks published final amendments to its regulation concerning documentation and determination of borrower’s interest to establish an additional safe harbor for any home loan that meets the definition of a “Qualified Mortgage” under the CFPB’s ability-to-repay/qualified mortgage rule. A Qualified Mortgage now will be deemed to be in the borrower’s interest under the regulation. The amendments also clarify that the exemption under the borrower’s interest regulation applies to all Qualified Mortgages which are eligible for safe harbor consideration under TILA, including the small creditor exemption, provided that the Qualified Mortgage is not higher cost. The amendments became effective July 18, 2014.
On July 10, the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida dismissed with prejudice the Fair Housing Act claims in three suits filed by the City of Miami against mortgage lenders. City of Miami v. Bank of Am., No. 13-cv-24506, 2014 WL 3362348 (S.D. Fla. July 9, 2014); City of Miami v. Wells Fargo & Co., No. 13-cv-24508 (S.D. Fla. July 9, 2014); City of Miami v. Citigroup Inc., No. 13-cv-24510 (S.D. Fla. July 9, 2014). The city alleged the lenders engaged in predatory lending in minority communities, that the allegedly predatory loans were more likely to result in foreclosure, and that foreclosures allegedly caused by those practices diminished the city’s tax base and increased the costs of providing municipal services.
The court held that under the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent decision in Lexmark Intern., Inc. v. Static Control Components, Inc., 134 S. Ct. 1377, 1387 (2014), purely economic injury is outside the zone of interest of the Fair Housing Act. The court explained that the “policy behind the Fair Housing Act (FHA) emphasizes the prevention of discrimination in the provision of housing” while the city’s alleged “economic injury from the reduction in tax revenue . . . [and] expenditures” in contrast is not “affected by a racial interest.” Thus, the court held that the city’s claim fell outside the FHA’s zone of interest and the city lacked standing to sue. The court explained that the recent decision in City of Los Angeles v. Bank of America, which allowed that city’s FHA claim to proceed, was not persuasive because, unlike in the Ninth Circuit, controlling Eleventh Circuit precedent requires the application of the zone of interest to FHA claims.
The court also held that the city could not establish proximate causation because it did not allege facts that isolated the lenders’ practices as the cause of any alleged lending disparity, citing the independent actions of a multitude of non-parties during the financial crisis that “break the causal chain.” The court rejected the city’s statistical correlations as insufficient to support a causation claim. Finally, the court held that the city’s FHA claims were time barred and that the continuing violation doctrine did not apply to extend the time limit. For further discussion of how courts should apply Lexmark to these types of municipal FHA cases the way the court did in this case, see the article published recently by BuckleySandler attorneys Valerie Hletko and Ann Wiles.
On July 2, the Massachusetts Division of Banks published an industry letter regarding mortgage lenders’ obligation to timely fund and disburse mortgage proceeds and oversee internal and third-party compliance with that requirement. The letter advises lenders that numerous recent examinations have revealed issues with timely funding of loans by lenders and disbursement of funds by settlement agents. The letter reminds lenders that the state’s “Good Funds Law” requires a mortgage lender to disburse—in the form of a certified check, bank treasurer’s check, cashier’s check, or wire transfer—the full amount of the loan proceeds prior to recording the mortgage, and that failure to do so may be considered an unfair and deceptive practice. In addition, the letter advises lenders that (i) they must establish and implement policies and procedures to ensure that vendors distribute loan proceeds in the required timeframe, and (ii) internal compliance audits should include testing of the lender’s and any settlement agents’ settlement processes and procedures.
On July 3, the DOJ announced the resolution of a multi-agency criminal investigation into the way a large mortgage company administered the federal Home Affordable Modification Program (HAMP). According to a Restitution and Remediation Agreement released by the company’s parent bank, the company agreed to pay up to $320 million to resolve allegations that it made misrepresentations and omissions about (i) how long it would take to make HAMP qualification decisions; (ii) the duration of HAMP trial periods; and (iii) how borrowers would be treated during those trial periods. In exchange for the monetary payments and other corrective actions by the company, the government agreed not to prosecute the company for crimes related to the alleged conduct. The investigation was conducted by the U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Virginia, as well as the FHFA Inspector General—which has authority to oversee Fannie Mae’s and Freddie Mac’s HAMP programs—and the Special Inspector General for TARP—which has responsibility for the Treasury Department HAMP program and jurisdiction over financial institutions that received TARP funds. This criminal action comes in the wake of a DOJ Inspector General report that was critical of the Justice Department’s mortgage fraud enforcement efforts, and which numerous members of Congress used to push DOJ to more vigorously pursue alleged mortgage-related violations. In announcing the action, the U.S. Attorney acknowledged that other HAMP-related investigations are under way, and that more cases may be coming.
On July 1, the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York announced that a large bank agreed to pay $10 million to resolve allegations that prior to 2011 it violated the False Claims Act and FIRREA by failing to oversee the reasonableness of foreclosure-related charges it submitted to the FHA and Fannie Mae for reimbursement, contrary to program requirements and the bank’s certifications that it had done so. The government intervened in a whistleblower suit claiming that, notwithstanding FHA program requirements and the bank’s annual FHA certifications, prior to 2011, the bank failed to create or maintain an adequate FHA quality control program to review the fees and charges submitted by outside counsel and other third-party providers to the bank, which the bank then submitted to FHA for reimbursement. The government also claimed that the bank failed to create or maintain Fannie Mae audit and control systems sufficient to ensure that the fees and expenses submitted by outside counsel and other third-party providers to the bank, which the bank then submitted to Fannie Mae for reimbursement, were reasonable, customary, or necessary. In addition to the monetary settlement, the bank was required to admit to the allegations and agreed to remain compliant with all rules applicable to servicers of mortgage loans insured by FHA and to servicers of loans held or securitized by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.
On July 1, HUD announced a conciliation agreement with a California mortgage lender, pursuant to which the lender will pay $48,000 to resolve allegations that it violated the Fair Housing Act when it denied or delayed mortgage loans to women because they were on maternity leave. Under the Fair Housing Act, it is unlawful to discriminate in the terms, conditions, or privileges associated with the sale of a dwelling on the basis of sex, including denying a mortgage loan or mortgage insurance because a woman is pregnant or on family leave. After a married couple complained to HUD that the lender denied their refinancing application because the wife was on maternity leave, HUD commenced an investigation that revealed the lender also allegedly denied four other applicants who were on maternity leave, or delayed their applications until after the women returned to work. The agreement requires the company to pay $20,000 to the couple that filed the complaint, and $7,000 to each of the other four applicants identified by HUD. The company no longer originates mortgages, but agreed to provide annual fair lending training to employees and management staff should it resume its mortgage operation. In a similar action last month, HUD required a Utah credit union to pay $25,000 to resolve allegations that the credit union discriminated against prospective borrowers on maternity leave. The HUD investigation was initiated after a married couple claimed their mortgage loan application was wrongly denied because the wife was on maternity leave. The credit union asserted that its mortgage insurer’s guidelines for calculating income for women on maternity leave allowed regular pay to be considered only if the women returned to work before the loan closed. Although the complainants previously resolved their claims, the credit union agreed to pay $10,000 to an allegedly affected borrower identified during HUD’s investigation, and $15,000 to a qualified organization to help educate the public about fair lending requirements and obligations, including the rights of borrowers on maternity, paternity, pregnancy, or parental leave at the time of an application for a home mortgage loan. The credit union also agreed to adopt an FHA-compliant policy with regard to calculation and treatment of maternity, paternity, and pregnancy leave income, and to identify when employment income may be used based upon the timing of a scheduled return to work date.