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 August 13, the National Fair Housing Alliance (NFHA) published its annual fair housing report titled “Expanding Opportunity: Systemic Approaches to Fair Housing.” The paper summarizes 2013 fair housing enforcement actions and litigation, as well as federal policy developments, and provides fair housing-related data. NFHA reports that, overall, the number of fair housing complaints filed in 2013 remained flat compared to recent years, but notes that private fair housing organizations received more complaints of discrimination in real estate sales and homeowners insurance, as well as complaints of discriminatory housing advertisements by housing providers. According to the report, the DOJ Housing Section filed 43 cases in 2013, including 24 cases involving pattern and practice claims, compared to 36 cases in 2012, of which 21 involved pattern and practice. Of the 2013 pattern or practice cases, five alleged fair lending claims; 11 alleged rental discrimination on the basis of race, disability, sex, familial status, national origin, or religion; three alleged violations of the accessibility provisions of the Fair Housing Act; three alleged discrimination in land use and zoning practices or policies by local governments; and one alleged disability discrimination by a homeless shelter. Finally, the report provides, for the first time, an analysis of HUD data by region, which includes a breakdown of complaints by protected class within each of HUD’s 10 regions.
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 May 28, the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California held, without addressing the merits, that the City of Los Angeles has standing to pursue Fair Housing Act and restitution claims against a mortgage lender, and that the claims were sufficiently and timely pled. Los Angeles v. Wells Fargo & Co., No. 13-9007, 2014 WL 2206368 (C.D. Cal. May 28, 2014). The court denied the lender’s motion to dismiss. The city alleges the lender 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 found that by identifying specific properties alleged to have caused injury and asserting that regression analysis would support its claims and attenuated theory of causation, the city adequately pled a connection between the injury and the alleged conduct sufficient to support Article III standing. The court further concluded that the city adequately pled statutory standing under the FHA insofar as it alleged that its injuries are separate and distinct from the injuries of borrowers, and were proximately caused by the alleged lending practices. The court also held that the city’s claims were timely under the FHA’s two-year statute of limitations because it alleged broad discriminatory practices that are alleged to continue, no matter how changed over time (e.g., from redlining to reverse redlining). Notably, the court did not consider whether the city slept on its rights and could have filed sooner notwithstanding the alleged continuing nature of the practices. Finally, the court found that the city sufficiently pled facts, for purposes of surviving the motion to dismiss, to support claims of disparate treatment and disparate impact under the FHA.
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…
On April 24, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit reversed a district court’s denial of class certification in a disparate impact age discrimination case, holding that the court erred in considering merits issues when determining class certification. Stockwell v. San Francisco, No. 12-15070, 2014 WL 1623736 (9th Cir. Apr. 24, 2014). The case involves claims brought by a group of police officers on behalf of a putative class alleging workplace age discrimination in violation of the California Fair Employment and Housing Act. The class representatives allege that the city’s promotion policy had a disparate impact on employees over the age of 40. The district court denied the named plaintiffs’ motion to certify the class, holding that the claims failed to satisfy Rule 23(a)(2)’s commonality requirement because the named plaintiffs’ statistical analysis did not establish a general policy of discrimination under Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. v. Dukes, 131 S. Ct. 2541 (2011), and failed to demonstrate that the policy caused any resulting disparate impact. On appeal, the court determined that in considering the statistical analysis, the district court improperly relied on merits issues to reach its conclusion rather than focusing on whether the questions presented were common to the members of the putative class. The Ninth Circuit held that “the officers have identified a single, well-enunciated, uniform policy that, allegedly, generated all the disparate impact of which they complain,” and that “whatever the failings of the class’s statistical analysis, they affect every class member’s claims uniformly.” Further, the court held whether the policy caused the disparate impact is a single significant question of fact common to all class members. The court reversed the district court’s holding on commonality, and remanded for consideration of other class certification prerequisites, including predominance.
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…
On March 5, the Senate voted 47-52 on a procedural motion that would have advanced President Obama’s nomination of Debo Adegbile to serve as Assistant Attorney General, Civil Rights Division. Seven Democrats joined all voting Republicans to defeat the nomination. Mr. Adegbile’s participation in the legal representation of Mumia Abu-Jamal, who was convicted in 1981 of killing a Philadelphia police officer, reportedly played a factor in the voting.
On January 24, the National Automobile Dealers Association (NADA) distributed a proposed compliance program to its members aimed at reducing the risk of discrimination allegations stemming from CFPB Bulletin 2013-02, which places limits on how sources of indirect auto financing may compensate dealers. The bulletin and proposed program address the practice by which auto dealers “markup” an indirect lender’s risk-based buy rate and receive compensation based on the increased interest revenues. The NADA program recommends that dealerships adopt fixed markup limits and only exceed those limits if a legitimate business reason completely unrelated to a customer’s background is present. The proposal identifies seven “good faith” reasons for deviation—including a more competitive offer and generally-applicable promotional offers—which mirror those set forth in consent orders entered into between the DOJ and two automobile dealers accused of disparate impact discrimination in 2007. The CFPB has not commented on whether the program as proposed will satisfy regulatory scrutiny but plans to do so.
On January 10, the Arkansas Securities Department finalized amendments to certain sections of the rules that implement the Fair Mortgage Lending Act. The regulations were adopted as proposed. The regulations were amended to expand disclosure requirements for new and transferred loans to include: (i) any notice required under federal law; (ii) a schedule of the ranges and categories of the servicer’s costs and fees for its servicing-related activities; and (iii) a notice that the servicer is licensed in the state and that complaints can be submitted to the Securities Department. The rule also prohibits advertising that indicates a consumer’s ability or likelihood to obtain any new mortgage credit product or term, or a refinancing or modification, has been preapproved or guaranteed. Finally, the rule, among other things, (i) expands payment processing requirements to include payments made via electronic transfer; and (ii) amends record keeping rules to require licensees to maintain records in a format compatible with electronic examination software, and to expand the types of documents servicers must maintain. The new rules take effect February 9, 2014.
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 30, a bipartisan group of 22 Senators sent a letter to the CFPB raising concerns about CFPB guidance affecting the indirect auto financing market and auto dealers’ ability to negotiate retail margins with consumers. The guidance at issue, contained within CFPB Bulletin 2013-02, advised bank and nonbank indirect auto financial institutions about compliance with federal fair lending requirements in connection with the practice by which auto dealers “mark up” the financial institution’s risk-based buy rate and receive compensation based on the increased interest revenues.
In August, the CFPB responded to a similar inquiry from House members. The Senate letter asserts that the CFPB still has not explained a basis for alleging that discrimination under a “disparate impact” theory of liability exists in the indirect auto financing market. Nor, the letter continues, has the CFPB released the statistical methodology it uses to evaluate disparate impact in an indirect auto lender’s portfolio. Read more…