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 March 2, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear arguments to resolve claims as to whether spousal guarantors could assert ECOA as a defense against a bank’s collection efforts requiring them to guarantee their spouse’s loans. In the case at bar, two men borrowed more than $2 million to fund a real estate development company, and their wives guaranteed the loan. Subsequently, the husbands were unable to make payments and the bank declared default and ordered payment both from the company and the wives as guarantors. Later, the wives filed suit against the bank claiming the bank’s requirement that they guarantee the loans as a condition of the credit constituted discrimination on the basis of marital status. The lower court granted summary judgment in favor of the bank, and the Eighth Circuit affirmed, finding the wives were not “applicants” for credit under ECOA. Hawkins v. Community Bank of Raymore, 761 F.3d 937 (8th Cir. 2014) cert. granted, No. 14-520, 2015 WL 852422 (U.S. Mar. 2, 2015)
On November 19, the CFPB issued a press release highlighting the publication of its compliance bulletin, “Social Security Disability Income Verification.” The compliance bulletin reminds lenders that requiring consumers receiving social security disability income to provide burdensome or unnecessary documentation may raise fair lending issues. The Equal Credit Opportunity Act (ECOA) prohibits lenders from discrimination against “an applicant because some or all of the applicant’s income is from a public assistance program, which includes Social Security disability income,” and the Bureau’s bulletin highlights standards and guidelines intended to help lenders comply with the requirements of ECOA and its implementing regulation, Regulation B.
On August 5, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit held that ECOA clearly provides that a person does not qualify as an applicant under the statute solely by virtue of executing a guaranty to secure the debt of another. Hawkins v. Comm. Bank of Raymmore, No. 13-3065, 2014 WL 3826820 (8th Cir. Aug. 5, 2014). In this case, two individuals executed personal guaranties to secure several loans made to a residential development company owned by their husbands. After the company defaulted on the loans, the bank accelerated the loans and demanded payment from the company and the two individual guarantors. The guarantors, in turn, sued the bank, seeking damages and an order declaring their guaranties void and unenforceable, alleging that the bank required them to execute the guaranties securing the company’s loans solely because they are married to their respective husbands—the owners of the company. The guarantors asserted that such a requirement constituted discrimination against them on the basis of their marital status, in violation of ECOA. The court held that “the plain language of ECOA unmistakably provides that a person is an applicant only if she requests credit,” and that “a person does not, by executing a guaranty, request credit.” In doing so the court rejected the Federal Reserve Board’s implementing regulation that interpreted the term applicant to include guarantors. The court’s holding also creates a split with the Sixth Circuit, which recently “came to the contrary conclusion, finding it to be ambiguous whether a guarantor qualifies as an applicant under the ECOA.”
On July 8, the CFPB released guidance designed to ensure equal treatment for legally married same-sex couples in response to the Supreme Court’s decision in United States v. Windsor, 133 S. Ct. 2675 (2013). Windsor held unconstitutional section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act, which defined the word “marriage” as “a legal union between one man and one woman as husband and wife” and the word “spouse” as referring “only to a person of the opposite sex who is a husband or a wife.”
The CFPB’s guidance, which took the form of a memorandum to CFPB staff, states that regardless of a person’s state of residency, the CFPB will consider a person who is married under the laws of any jurisdiction to be married nationwide for purposes of enforcing, administering, or interpreting the statutes, regulations, and policies under the Bureau’s jurisdiction. The Bureau adds that it “will not regard a person to be married by virtue of being in a domestic partnership, civil union, or other relationship not denominated by law as a marriage.”
The guidance adds that the Bureau will use and interpret the terms “spouse,” “marriage,” “married,” “husband,” “wife,” and any other similar terms related to family or marital status in all statutes, regulations, and policies administered, enforced or interpreted by the Bureau (including ECOA and Regulation B, FDCPA, TILA, RESPA) to include same-sex marriages and married same-sex spouses. The Bureau’s stated policy on same-sex marriage follows HUD’s Equal Access Rule, which became effective March 5, 2012, which ensures access to HUD-assisted or HUD-insured housing for LGBT persons.
DOJ, CFPB Fair Lending Enforcement Actions Target Credit Card Repayment Programs, Marketing Of Add-On Products
On June 19, the CFPB and the DOJ announced parallel enforcement actions against a federal savings bank that allegedly violated ECOA in the offering of credit card debt-repayment programs and allegedly engaged in deceptive marketing practices in the offering of certain card add-on products. The bank will pay a total of $228.5 million in customer relief and penalties to resolve the allegations.
The CFPB and DOJ charge that the bank excluded borrowers who indicated that they preferred communications to be in Spanish or who had a mailing address in Puerto Rico, even if the consumers met the promotion’s qualifications. The CFPB and DOJ assert that as a result, Hispanic populations were unfairly denied the opportunity to benefit from the promotions, which constitutes a violation of the ECOA’s prohibition on creditors discriminating in any aspect of a credit transaction on the basis of characteristics such as national origin. Read more…
On April 30, the CFPB published its second annual report to Congress on its fair lending activities. According to the report, in 2013 federal regulators referred 24 ECOA-related matters to the DOJ—6 by the CFPB—as opposed to only 12 referrals in 2012. The report primarily recaps previously announced research, supervision, enforcement, and rulemaking activities related to fair lending issues, devoting much attention to mortgage and auto finance. However, the Bureau notes that it is conducting ongoing supervision and enforcement in other product markets, including credit card lending. The Bureau also identifies the most frequently cited technical Regulation B violations. Read more…
House Financial Services Committee Chairman Jeb Hensarling (R-TX) sent a letter today to CFPB Director Richard Cordray once again pressing the CFPB for information about its March 2013 auto finance guidance and its actions since that time to pursue allegedly discriminatory practices by auto finance companies. That guidance, which the CFPB has characterized as a restatement of existing law, sought to establish publicly the CFPB’s grounds for asserting violations of ECOA against bank and nonbank auto finance companies for the alleged effects of facially neutral pricing policies.
The letter recounts numerous exchanges between members of Congress—including both Democratic and Republican members of the Committee—and the CFPB on this issue to demonstrate what the Chairman characterizes as “a pattern of obfuscation” by the Bureau. Mr. Hensarling explains that through a series of written requests—see, e.g. here, here, and here—as well as in-person exchanges, lawmakers have sought detailed information about the CFPB’s application of the so-called disparate impact theory of discrimination to impose liability on auto finance companies. The letter states that the CFPB has repeatedly refused to provide certain key information used in applying that theory through compliance examinations and enforcement actions, including information about regression analyses, analytical controls, and numerical thresholds employed by the Bureau. Read more…
Last month, the DOJ announced a settlement with a three-branch, $78 million Texas bank to resolve allegations that the bank engaged in a pattern or practice of discrimination on the basis of national origin in the pricing of unsecured consumer loans. Based on its own investigation and an examination conducted by the FDIC, the DOJ alleged that the bank violated ECOA by allowing employees “broad subjective discretion” in setting interest rates for unsecured loans, which allegedly resulted in Hispanic borrowers being charged rates that, after accounting for relevant loan and borrower credit factors, were on average 100-228 basis points higher than rates charged to similarly situated non-Hispanic borrowers. The DOJ claimed that “[a]lthough information as to each applicant’s national origin was not solicited or noted in loan applications, such information was known to the Bank’s loan officers, who personally handled each loan transaction.”
The consent order requires the bank to establish a $159,000 fund to compensate borrowers who may have suffered harm as a result of the alleged ECOA violations. Prior to the settlement, the bank implemented uniform pricing policies that substantially reduced loan officer discretion to vary a loan’s interest rate. The agreement requires the bank to continue implementing the uniform pricing policy and to (i) create a compliance monitoring program, (ii) provide borrower notices of non-discrimination, (iii) conduct employee training, and (iv) establish a complaint resolution program to address consumer complaints alleging discrimination regarding loans originated by the bank. The requirements apply not only to unsecured consumer loans, but also to mortgage loans, automobile financing, and home improvement loans.
The action is similar to another fair lending matter referred by the FDIC and settled by the DOJ earlier in 2013, which also involved a Texas community bank that allegedly discriminated on the basis of national origin in its pricing of unsecured loans.
This morning, the CFPB and the DOJ announced their first ever joint fair lending enforcement action to resolve allegations that an auto finance company’s dealer compensation policy, which allowed for auto dealer discretion in pricing, resulted in a disparate impact on certain minority borrowers. The $98 million settlement is the DOJ’s third largest fair lending action ever and the largest ever auto finance action.
Investigation and Claims
As part of the CFPB’s ongoing targeted examinations of auto finance companies’ ECOA compliance, the CFPB conducted an examination of this auto finance company in the fall of 2012. This finance company is one of the largest indirect automobile finance companies in the country which, according to the CFPB and DOJ’s estimates, purchased over 2.1 million non-subvented retail installment contracts from approximately 12,000 dealers between April 1, 2011 and present. The CFPB’s investigation of the finance company allegedly revealed pricing disparities in the finance company’s portfolio with regard to auto loans made by dealers to African-American, Hispanic, and Asian and Pacific Islander borrowers. The CFPB referred the matter to the DOJ just last month, and the DOJ’s own investigation resulted in findings that mirrored the CFPB’s.
Specifically, the federal authorities claim that, based on statistical analysis of the loan portfolios, using controversial proxy methodologies, the investigations showed that African-American borrowers were charged on average approximately 29 basis points more in dealer markup than similarly situated non-Hispanic whites for non-subvented retail installment contracts, while Hispanic borrowers and Asian/Pacific Islander borrowers were charged on average approximately 20 and 22 basis points more, respectively. The complaint also faults the finance company for not appropriately monitoring pricing disparities or providing fair lending training to dealers. Read more…
This morning, the CFPB hosted an auto finance forum, which featured remarks from CFPB staff and other federal regulators, consumer advocates, and industry representatives.
Some of the highlights include:
- Patrice Ficklin (CFPB) confirmed that the CFPB, both before issuing the March bulletin and since, has conducted analysis of numerous finance companies’ activities and found statistically significant disparities disfavoring protected classes. She stated that there were “numerous” companies whose data showed statistically significant pricing disparities of 10 basis points or more and “several” finance companies with disparities of over 20 or 30 basis points.
- Much of the discussion focused on potential alternatives to the current dealer markup system. The DOJ discussed allowing discretion within limitations and with documentation of the reasons for exercising that discretion (e.g., competition). The CFPB focus was exclusively on non-discretionary “alternative compensation mechanisms”, specifically flat fees per loan, compensation based on a percentage of the amount financed, or some variation of those. The CFPB said it invited finance companies to suggest other non-discretionary alternatives. Regardless of specific compensation model, Ms. Ficklin stated that in general, nondiscretionary alternatives can (i) be revenue neutral for dealers, (ii) reduce fair lending risk, (iii) be less costly than compliance management systems enhancements, and (iv) limit friction between dealers on the one hand and the CFPB on the other.
- There was significant debate over whether flat fee arrangements, or other potential compensation mechanisms, actually eliminate or reduce the potential for disparate impact in auto lending. There was also criticism of the CFPB’s failure to empirically test whether these “fixes” would result in other unintended consequences. Industry stakeholders asserted that such arrangements fail to mitigate fair lending risk market-wide while at the same time potentially increase the cost of credit and constrain credit availability. Industry stakeholders also questioned the validity of the large dollar figures of alleged consumer harm caused by dealer markups. When assessing any particular model, the CFPB’s Eric Reusch explained, finance companies should determine whether (i) it mitigates fair lending risk, (ii) creates any new risk or potential for additional harm, and (iii) it is economically sustainable, with sustainability viewed through the lens of consumers, finance companies, and dealers.
- Numerous stakeholders urged the CFPB to release more information about its proxy methodology and statistical analysis, citing the Bureau’s stated dedication to transparency and even referencing its Data Quality Act guidelines. The DOJ described its commitment to “kicking the tires” on its statistical analyses and allowing institutions to do the same. The CFPB referenced its recent public disclosure of its proxy methodology, noting that this was the methodology the CFPB intended to apply to all lending outside of mortgage.
- Steven Rosenbaum (DOJ) and Donna Murphy (OCC) pointedly went beyond the stated scope of the forum to highlight potential SCRA compliance risks associated with indirect auto lending.
Additional detail from each panel follows. Read more…
On October 22, the CFPB, the OCC, the FDIC, the Federal Reserve Board, and the NCUA (collectively, the Agencies) issued a joint statement (Interagency Statement) in response to inquiries from creditors concerning their liability under the disparate impact doctrine of the Equal Credit Opportunity Act (ECOA) and its implementing regulation, Regulation B by originating only “qualified mortgages.” Qualified mortgages are defined under the CFPB’s January 2013 Ability-to-Repay/Qualified Mortgage Rule (ATR/QM Rule). The DOJ and HUD did not participate in the Interagency Statement.
The Interagency Statement describes some general principles that will guide the Agencies’ supervisory and enforcement activities with respect to entities within their jurisdiction as the ATR/QM Rule takes effect in January 2014. The Interagency Statement does not state that a creditor’s choice to limit its offerings to qualified mortgage loans or qualified mortgage “safe harbor” loans would comply with ECOA; rather, the Agencies state that they “do not anticipate that a creditor’s decision to offer only qualified mortgages would, absent other factors, elevate a supervised institution’s fair lending risk.” Furthermore, the Interagency Statement will not necessarily preclude civil actions. Read more…
Recently, the DOJ released information regarding three fair lending actions, all three of which included allegations related to wholesale lending programs. On September 27, the DOJ announced separate actions—one against a Wisconsin bank and the other against a nationwide wholesale lender—in which the DOJ alleged that the lenders engaged in a pattern or practice of discrimination on the basis of race and national origin in their wholesale mortgage businesses. The DOJ charged that, during 2007 and 2008, the bank violated the Fair Housing Act and ECOA by granting its mortgage brokers discretion to vary their fees and thus alter the loan price based on factors other than a borrower’s objective credit-related factors, which allegedly resulted in African-American and Hispanic borrowers paying more than non-Hispanic white borrowers for home mortgage loans. The bank denies the allegations but entered a consent order pursuant to which it will pay $687,000 to wholesale mortgage borrowers who were subject to the alleged discrimination. The allegations originated from an FDIC referral to the DOJ.
The DOJ charged the California-based wholesale lender with violations of the Fair Housing Act and ECOA, alleging that over a four-year period, the lender’s practice of granting its mortgage brokers discretion to set the amount of broker fees charged to individual borrowers, unrelated to an applicant’s credit risk characteristics, resulted in African-American and Hispanic borrowers paying more than non-Hispanic white borrowers for home mortgage loans. The lender did not admit the allegations, but agreed to enter a consent order to avoid litigation. Pursuant to that order the lender will pay $3 million to allegedly harmed borrowers. The order also requires the lender to take other actions including establishing race- and national origin-neutral standards for the assessment of broker fees and monitoring its wholesale mortgage loans for potential disparities based on race and national origin.
Finally, on September 30, the DOJ announced that a national bank agreed to resolve certain legacy fair lending claims against a thrift it acquired several years ago, which the bank and the OCC identified as part of the acquisition review. Based on its own investigation following the OCC referral, the DOJ alleged that, between 2006 and 2009, the thrift allowed employees in its retail lending operation to vary interest rates and fees, and allowed third-party brokers as part of its wholesale lending program to do the same, allegedly resulting in disparities between the rates, fees, and costs paid by non-white borrowers compared to similarly-situated white borrowers. The bank, which was not itself subject to the DOJ’s allegations, agreed to pay $2.85 million to approximately 3,100 allegedly harmed borrowers to resolve the legacy claims and avoid litigation.
On September 6, the DOJ announced the resolution of a long-running lawsuit against an auto dealer and a bank that financed many of the dealer’s loans, in which the government alleged that the dealer and the bank violated ECOA by charging non-Asian customers higher interest rate markups than other customers over a three-year period. The bank entered into a partial consent decree in 2009 and agreed to pay a total of $410,000 to non-Asian borrowers to resolve the allegations against it. The dealer chose to litigate and obtained a dismissal in trial court; that order was reversed last year by the Ninth Circuit. The dealer agreed to a consent decree with the DOJ on September 4 that fully resolved all claims against it. The dealer, which is now out of business, specifically denied the government’s allegations and the decree made clear the outcome was a “compromise of disputed allegations.” Under the terms of the decree, the dealer will pay up to a total of $125,000 to non-Asian customers who were charged higher dealer interest rate markups. If the dealer or its principal shareholder re-enter the business of automobile lending within the two year duration of the consent decree, it will be required to implement clear guidelines for setting dealer markup and pricing, in compliance with ECOA, and establish fair lending training for its employees and officers.
New York Federal District Court Holds FHA Disparate Impact Claims Against Mortgage Securitizer Timely, ECOA Claims Time-Barred
On July 25, the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York held that a putative class of African-American borrowers can pursue claims against a financial institution alleged to have financed and purchased so-called predatory subprime mortgage loans to be included in mortgage backed securities. Adkins v. Morgan Stanley, No. 12-7667, slip op. (S.D.N.Y. Jul. 25, 2013). The borrowers allege that the institution implemented policies and procedures that supported the subprime lending of a mortgage originator in the Detroit area so that the institution could purchase, pool, and securitize those loans. The borrowers claim those policies violated the FHA and the ECOA because they disproportionately impacted minority borrowers who were more likely to receive subprime loans, putting those borrowers at higher risk of default and foreclosure.
In resolving the financial institution’s motion to dismiss, the court held that the borrowers sufficiently alleged a disparate impact under the FHA and, although the lawsuit was filed more than five years after the originator stopped originating mortgages, the two-year statute of limitations on their FHA claims is tolled by the discovery rule. The court explained that the disparate impact of a facially neutral policy may not become immediately apparent, and “[g]iving full effect to the FHA’s language and the policy behind the language requires a discovery rule recognizing that [the borrowers’] claim here did not accrue until they knew or had reason to know” that the policies were discriminatory. The court left open the possibility that the institution may prove at a later stage that public knowledge of the facts underlying the suit may be imputed to the borrowers to render their claims “discovered” at an earlier time and therefore time-barred.
The court held that the borrowers’ ECOA claims were not similarly timely because ECOA contains specific exceptions to its statute of limitations, and to apply a general discovery rule to ECOA claims would render those exceptions meaningless. Further, the court held that the ECOA claims are not timely pursuant to a continuing violations theory or equitable tolling.
The court granted the motion to dismiss the ECOA claims and a state law claim, and denied the motion to dismiss the FHA claims.