On November 2, the DOJ announced a new pilot program to provide military communities across the country with dedicated legal support as part of a broader effort by federal prosecutors to enforce the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act (SCRA). Under the program, the DOJ will fund assistant U.S. Attorney and trial attorney positions devoted to providing targeted support on SCRA-related cases in districts with major military bases. In addition, military judge advocate officers serving as legal assistance attorneys will be eligible for designation as “Special Assistant U.S. Attorney” for purposes of handling SCRA litigation matters.
On November 18, the GAO announced the release of its report and recommendations following the watchdog agency’s review of application of the SCRA’s rate cap by student loan servicers. According to the report, entitled Student Loans: Oversight of Servicemembers’ Interest Rate Cap Could Be Strengthened, the number of servicemembers receiving the interest rate cap for their student loans has greatly increased since the Department of Education began requiring federal student loan servicers to automatically check the Department of Defense’s SCRA database to identify those who are eligible.
The report also identified several challenges commonly encountered by servicemembers seeking to take advantage of the rate cap, including: (i) inaccurate SCRA information from the database; (ii) lack of a requirement that private loan servicers use the automatic eligibility check to identify eligible servicemembers; and (iii) lack of routine oversight of SCRA compliance for nonbank private student loan lenders and servicers. The GAO recommended, among other things, that the DOJ require private loan servicers to use the automatic eligibility check to identify eligible borrowers. The report also highlighted an issue with the Department of Education’s new borrower complaint system, which lacks the ability to track SCRA complaints systematically.
On September 29, the DOJ and OCC announced separate settlement agreements with a major U.S. bank regarding alleged violations of the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act (SCRA). The DOJ’s complaint alleged that the bank repossessed vehicles owned by active duty servicemembers without the required court orders. Under the DOJ consent order, the bank agreed to pay $10,000 to each affected servicemembers whose vehicles were repossessed between from January 2008 to July 2015 not in compliance with SCRA, plus any lost equity in the repossessed vehicle, with interest. The DOJ identified 413 affected servicemembers and the bank agreed to set aside $4,130,000 (or more if needed) to pay the required compensation. The bank also agreed to pay a $60,000 civil penalty. The DOJ acknowledged that the bank had in 2014, prior to the investigation, taken steps to ensure SCRA compliance with a full-scale review of its portfolio to identify servicemembers for SCRA protection, and had previously and voluntarily commenced efforts to compensate any affected borrowers. In the OCC consent order, the OCC found errors and deficiencies by the bank in four areas: (i) applying the 6% interest rate cap; (ii) filing accurate military status affidavits; (iii) repossessing servicemembers automobiles while they were on active duty; and (iv) implementing its SCRA compliance program. Under the consent order for a civil money penalty, the bank agreed to pay a civil money penalty of $20 million, to create a remediation plan for affected servicemembers, and to bolster its SCRA-related policies and procedures.
On August 29, OCC Senior Deputy Comptroller Grovetta Gardineer delivered remarks at the 2016 Association of Military Banks of America Workshop, emphasizing the significance of banks’ compliance with the Servicemember Civil Relief Act (SCRA) and the Military Lending Act (MLA). Although Gardineer noted that SCRA-related issues have decreased since making SCRA compliance an examination focus, she stressed that room for improvement remains. Gardineer advised banks to perform due diligence with third-party vendors, noting that banks “will be held accountable for failures” by their third-party vendors. Gardineer further cautioned that, in light of the new MLA requirements taking effect on October 3, banks must ensure that they properly identify military borrowers entitled to the MLA’s expanded coverage, which will include “nearly all consumer credit covered under the Truth in Lending Act.”
On August 10, the DOJ announced that a private military housing provider agreed to pay $200,000 to settle allegations that it violated the SCRA by obtaining default judgments against active-duty servicemembers and their families and subsequently evicting them. According to the DOJ, the company violated the SCRA when it requested default judgments against active-duty servicemembers without filing the appropriate affidavits “to alert the court of the tenants’ military status.” Under the terms of the proposed consent order, the company must (i) pay each servicemember affected by its actions $35,000 and vacate the judgment; (ii) forgive deficiency balances and request that the credit bureau remove evictions from effected credit reports; and (iii) pay a civil penalty of $60,000 to the United States. The consent order is pending approval by the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of California. The DOJ noted that this is the first case it has filed alleging illicit eviction of servicemembers from their homes.
California AG Harris filed a parallel suit against the defendants, arguing that the evictions violated the California Military and Veterans Code, the SCRA, state debt collection laws, and state privacy laws.