On November 27, HUD issued Mortgagee Letter 2013-42, granting an extension of time to Title I and II lenders and mortgagees with a December 31, 2013 fiscal year end to submit required materials and fees for annual recertification. The letter notes that FHA-approved lenders and mortgagees with a fiscal year end of December 31, 2013 or later must use the Lender Electronic Assessment Portal (LEAP) to complete the annual certification process. Given that LEAP recertification functionality will not be deployed until after March 31, 2014, lenders and mortgagees with a fiscal year end of December 31, 2013 will be unable to access LEAP within the required timeframe, and instead will have until 30 days after the deployment of LEAP functionality to complete their annual certification.
On November 27, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit held that HUD’s supplemental ten factor test for determining whether RESPA’s affiliated business arrangements safe harbor applies is not entitled to deference or persuasive weight, and determined that a real estate agency and its affiliated title servicers companies satisfied RESPA’s statutory affiliated business arrangements safe harbor provision. Carter v. Welles-Bowen Realty, Inc., No. 10-3922, 2013 WL 6183851 (6th Cir. Nov. 27, 2013). On behalf of a putative class, a group of homebuyers who used a real estate agency’s settlement services claimed that the agency and two title services companies violated RESPA’s referral fee prohibition. The agency and title companies asserted that they satisfied RESPA’s affiliated business arrangements safe harbor provision because (i) they disclosed the arrangement to the homebuyers, (ii) the homebuyers were free to reject the referral, and (iii) the companies only received a return from the referral through their ownership interest. The homebuyers countered that the companies must also demonstrate that they were bona fide providers of settlement services under HUD’s ten factor test for distinguishing sham business arrangements, which HUD established in a 1996 policy statement. A district court granted summary judgment in favor of the companies, finding that HUD’s ten factor test was void for unconstitutional vagueness. On appeal, the Sixth Circuit affirmed but on different grounds. The Sixth Circuit held that HUD’s policy statement is not entitled to Chevron or Skidmore deference because the statement provides only ambiguous guidelines HUD intends to consider rather than HUD’s interpretation of the statute. As a result, the companies’ compliance with the three conditions set out in the statute sufficed to obtain the exemption under the affiliated business safe harbor provision. The Sixth Circuit noted that “a statutory safe harbor is not very safe if a federal agency may add a new requirement to it through a policy statement.”
On November 13, HUD issued Mortgagee Letter 2013-41, which, effective immediately, clarifies self-reporting requirements for all single-family FHA-approved lenders. The letter details lenders’ obligations to report all findings of fraud and material misrepresentations, as well as any material findings concerning origination, servicing, or underwriting of a loan that the lender is unable to mitigate. The letter defines “material finding” and provides a non-exhaustive list of examples, and describes the parameters for mitigating reportable findings. The letter outlines internal and external reporting timeframes: (i) internal reporting to senior management must take place within 30 days of an initial findings report; (ii) findings of fraud or material misrepresentation must be reported immediately to the FHA; and (iii) all other material findings must be reported no later than 30 days after the lender has completed its internal evaluation, or within 60 days of initial disclosure, whichever occurs first. The letter also explains that the FHA may request supporting documentation for use in reviewing a report, and that the FHA requires the reporting contact to have immediate access to: (i) the endorsement case binder; (ii) the quality control report; and (iii) any other documentation necessary to evaluate the finding. The letter further states that failure to comply with these requirements may result in the FHA taking administrative action against the lender.
Special Alert: Settlement In Key Fair Housing Case Moves Forward, Supreme Court Unlikely To Hear Appeal
Last night, the Mount Holly, New Jersey Township Council voted to approve a settlement agreement that will resolve the underlying claims at issue in a closely watched Fair Housing Act (FHA) appeal pending before the U.S. Supreme Court, Township of Mount Holly v. Mt. Holly Gardens Citizens in Action, Inc., No. 11-1507. The agreement is subject to approval by the U.S. District Court for the District of New Jersey, after which we expect that the Supreme Court appeal will be withdrawn.
The Court had agreed to address one of two disparate impact-related questions presented in the appeal—specifically, the threshold question of whether disparate impact claims are cognizable under the FHA. Under current interpretation by several agencies and some Circuit Courts of Appeal, disparate impact theory allows government and private plaintiffs to establish “discrimination” based solely on the results of a neutral policy without having to show any intent to discriminate (or even in the demonstrated absence of intent to discriminate). Though not a lending case, the appeal could have offered the Supreme Court its first opportunity to rule on the issue of whether the FHA permits plaintiffs to bring claims under a disparate impact theory.
Instead, for the second time in two years, it appears likely that opportunity has been eliminated by a settlement entered shortly before the Court could decide the matter. Last year, the parties in Gallagher v. Magner, 619 F.3d 823 (8th Cir. 2010) similarly settled and withdrew their Supreme Court appeal before the Court had an opportunity to decide the case. The Magner parties’ decision to settle and withdrawal the appeal was followed by numerous congressional inquiries into whether federal authorities intervened to assist the parties in reaching a settlement in order to avoid Supreme Court review of a prized legal theory. One member of Congress has already initiated a similar inquiry with regard to the resolution of Mt. Holly. Read more…
On November 5, HUD released a Conciliation Agreement with a lender alleged to have discriminated against African-American and Hispanic borrowers seeking mortgage loans. In an administrative complaint filed following a review of the lender’s internal loan data, HUD claimed that the lender’s wholesale lending program violated the Fair Housing Act by underwriting, approving, purchasing, and securitizing mortgage loans in a manner that allowed pricing and denial disparities on the basis of race and national origin. HUD stated that the lender’s wholesale business, which granted third-party brokers discretion to negotiate fees and compensated those brokers through direct fees paid by borrowers to brokers, and/or through yield spread premiums paid by the lender, allegedly resulted in African-American and Hispanic borrowers paying higher APRs, receiving higher-priced loans, and paying more fees than similarly situated white borrows. HUD also alleged that African-American and Hispanic applicants were more likely to have their loan applications denied. HUD did not allege any intentional discrimination, and instead based its claims on its finding that statistical dipartites existed. To resolve the HUD investigation and complaint without litigation, and without admitting the allegations, the lender agreed to establish a $12.1 million fund to compensate allegedly harmed consumers and to distribute any excess funds to housing advocacy and counseling groups.
On November 1, HUD issued Mortgagee Letter 2013-40, which clarifies requirements under FHA’s mandatory loss mitigation program and sets expectations for servicers engaging in loss mitigation during the foreclosure process. The letter states that servicers must (i) evaluate on a monthly basis all loss mitigation tools available for delinquent borrowers, (ii) document those evaluations, and (iii) timely evaluate borrower loss mitigation requests and provide specified written responses. HUD emphasizes that servicers may reduce challenges to foreclosure actions by providing thorough explanations about appeal or escalation processes. The letter further advises servicers that a foreclosure may not be commenced for monetary default unless at least three consecutive monthly payments are unpaid, and details other conditions under which a foreclosure may be initiated. Many of these requirements do not apply if the property has been abandoned or vacant for more than 60 days. Once a foreclosure has been initiated, HUD expects servicers to continue to attempt to communicate with borrowers about potential loss mitigation options based on changing circumstances. The letter also (i) details in a chart the actions the servicer must take when it receives a loss mitigation request from a borrower, (ii) discusses servicer requests for additional borrower documents, (iii) identifies events that trigger extensions of time for initiating a foreclosure, and (iv) outlines steps for terminating foreclosures. All of the requirements in the letter are effective January 1, 2014.
On October 29, HUD released a draft section of its new FHA Single Family Housing Policy Handbook (SF Handbook). The draft section consolidates all FHA Single Family requirements—including content from hundreds of mortgagee letters, housing notices, and other requirements—for application through endorsement into a single, authoritative source for FHA Single Family Housing Policy. HUD stated that the new SF Handbook is “universally and fundamentally different in the format, style, content and delivery.” While many of the changes made in developing this first draft section of the SF Handbook are designed to conform FHA policy to a standard format using clear, consistent language, other proposed revisions reflect actual proposed changes to policy. The draft section and other information about the broader project are available on a new HUD website. HUD provided tips for reviewing the draft and requested that stakeholders provide comments on the draft section by November 29. HUD noted that the draft posting is the first phase of a multi-phased effort to overhaul the SF Handbook.
On October 31, the Philadelphia Inquirer and national media outlets reported that a tentative agreement has been reached to resolve the underlying claims at issue in Township of Mount Holly, New Jersey, et al. v. Mt. Holly Gardens Citizens in Action, Inc., et al., No. 11-1507, an appeal currently pending before the U.S. Supreme Court that could provide the Court an opportunity to rule on whether a disparate impact theory of liability is cognizable under the Fair Housing Act. Briefing before the Supreme Court has been ongoing—over the past week respondents filed their brief, as did numerous supporting parties, including a group of state attorneys general—and argument is scheduled for December 4. If the settlement holds, this will be the second time in recent years that a case involving these issues pending before the Court has settled before the Court had an opportunity to hear the case. Attention likely now will turn to litigation pending in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia over a HUD rule finalized earlier this year. That rule specifically authorized disparate impact or “effects test” claims under the Fair Housing Act. The case has been stayed by agreement of the parties pending the outcome in Mt. Holly.
On October 28, HUD issued two mortgagee letters related to the servicing of certain FHA-insured loans. Mortgagee Letter 2013-38 provides a list of the first legal actions necessary to initiate a foreclosure and the reasonable diligence timeframes for completing foreclosure and acquisition of title in each state. The letter also outlines acceptable delays in those timeframes due to mediation or bankruptcy, or when a separate legal action is necessary to acquire possession of the title. In addition, the letter provides a new schedule of allowable attorney fees by state for services performed in connection with a mortgage default. The updated reasonable diligence timeframes apply to all cases in which the first legal action to initiate foreclosure occurs on or after November 1, 2013. The updated attorney fees are effective for all cases in which certain actions occur on or after November 1, 2013. Mortgagee Letter 2013-39 updates the timelines servicers must follow for collection communications, advises servicers regarding early engagement in loss mitigation, outlines staffing requirements to support timely borrower communications, and provides guidance on the timing, content, and method of delivery for collection letters and other borrower communications. This letter also advises servicers to pay special attention to borrowers at risk of early payment default and re-default, and provides specialized collection techniques for such borrowers. Finally, this letter details the FHA’s expectations for escalating borrower inquiries and complaints that allege (i) improper analysis of borrower information or denials of loss mitigation options, (ii) foreclosures initiated or continued in violation of HUD’s policy, or (iii) any other violations of HUD collections and loss mitigation policies. This guidance is effective for all mortgages in default as of January 1, 2014.
On October 24, the CFPB announced the filing of a lawsuit against a Kentucky law firm and its principals for allegedly violating Section 8 of RESPA by operating a network of affiliated companies in order to pay “kickbacks” for referrals of mortgage settlement business. The CFPB claims, among other things, that from 2006 until 2011 the law firm established nine joint ventures (JVs) with owners and managers of real estate and mortgage brokerage companies. According to the CFPB, when a JV partner or an agent or employee of the JV made an initial referral of closing or other settlement services to the law firm, the law firm arranged for the title insurance for the underlying transaction to be issued through the co-owned JV in exchange for the settlement business. The parties subsequently split profits generated by the JVs as a result of the title insurance referrals, the CFPB alleges. The CFPB is seeking to enjoin the defendants from the alleged activity, and disgorgement of all income, revenue, proceeds, or profits received in connection with settlement services provided as a result of or in connection with a referral made in violation of RESPA. 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…
On October 10, a bank holding company announced that it has agreed in principle, on behalf of itself and certain affiliates, to resolve mortgage-related allegations by the federal government. The company reached agreements in principle with HUD and the DOJ to settle (i) certain civil and administrative claims arising from FHA-insured mortgage loans originated over a six-and-a-half year period and (ii) certain alleged civil claims regarding the company’s mortgage servicing and origination practices as part of the National Mortgage Servicing Settlement. Pursuant to the agreements in principle, the company committed to $500 million of consumer relief, a $468 million cash payment, and the implementation of certain mortgage servicing standards. The company also reached an agreement in principle with the Federal Reserve Board to impose a $160 million civil monetary penalty, in conjunction with an April 2011 Consent Order.
Federal District Court Invalidates Application Of HUD Regulation Requiring Full Payment of Reverse Mortgage From Surviving Spouses
On September 30, the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia held that a HUD regulation defining conditions under which it would insure a reverse mortgage agreement, which would have made it easier for lenders to foreclose on homes occupied by surviving spouses, contradicted the governing statute. Bennett v. Donovan, 11-498, 2013 WL 5424708 (D.D.C. Sept. 30, 2013). The surviving spouses in this case, neither of whom were legal borrowers under the reverse mortgages entered into by their spouses, sought declaratory relief that HUD’s regulations requiring that the mortgage be due and payable in full if a borrower dies and the property is not the principal residence of at least one surviving borrower violated the Administrative Procedure Act because the rule is inconsistent with the governing statute. The statute protects “homeowners,” as opposed to “borrowers,” from displacement and defines “homeowner” to include “spouse of the homeowner.” Applying the Chevron deference test, the court held that that the plain meaning of the statute is not contradicted by context or legislative history and clearly provides for the loan obligation to be deferred until the homeowner’s and the spouse’s death. The court held that the regulation as applied to the surviving spouses is invalid, and, consistent with guidance from the D.C. circuit, directed HUD to determine the appropriate relief.
On September 27, HUD issued three Mortgagee Letters. In Mortgagee Letter 2013-34, HUD announced the indefinite delay of pre-foreclosure sale (PFS) requirements for FHA mortgagees, which were announced in July. Mortgagee Letter 2013-35 announces that, effective March 31, 2014, HUD will consolidate the identification numbers it issues to FHA lenders under Title I and II. Finally, Mortgagee Letter 2013-36 updates guidance regarding 203(k) insured mortgages in the Hurricane Sandy disaster area.
On September 27, HUD released a proposal defining what constitutes a “qualified mortgage” (QM) for purposes of loans insured by the FHA. We have prepared a Special Alert regarding this proposal, which, once it is finalized and takes effect, will replace the temporary QM definition for FHA loans established by the CFPB in its January 2013 Ability-to-Repay/Qualified Mortgage Rule. QMs, when made in accordance with the applicable requirements, provide lenders with some legal protection against borrower lawsuits under TILA alleging the lender did not sufficiently consider the borrower’s ability to repay the loan.
The CFPB’s temporary QM definition will continue to apply to loans that are eligible to be guaranteed or insured by the Department of Veterans Affairs and the Department of Agriculture until those agencies establish their own QM definitions. Similarly, the CFPB’s temporary QM definition will continue to apply to loans that are eligible to be purchased or guaranteed by Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, or any successor entity for as long as those entities remain under the conservatorship or receivership of the Federal Housing Finance Authority or until January 10, 2021, whichever is earlier.
Questions regarding the matters discussed in the Special Alert may be directed to any of our lawyers listed below, or to any other BuckleySandler attorney with whom you have consulted in the past.