On February 7, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit held that the attempted collection of past due foreclosure-related fees from a borrower in active duty military service is a violation of section 533 of the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act (SCRA). Brewster v. Sun Trust Mortg., Inc., No. 12-56560, WL No. (9th Cir. Feb. 7, 2014). The district court dismissed an active duty servicemember’s suit against the current and former servicer of his mortgage loan after the current servicer failed to remove fees associated with a foreclosure initiated, but then withdrawn, by the prior servicer. SCRA section 533 bars the “sale, foreclosure, or seizure of property” for the breach of certain obligations relating to a mortgage made before a servicemember’s military service, unless such action is pursuant to a court order or a valid SCRA waiver, and also establishes criminal penalties for a person who knowingly makes, causes to be made, or attempts to make such a prohibited sale, foreclosure, or seizure of property. On appeal, the Ninth Circuit concluded that the failure to remove the fees incidental to the previous foreclosure’s Notice of Default was a continuation of the previous “foreclosure proceeding,” and, therefore, a violation of section 533. The court did not consider whether the Notice of Default had been initially filed in violation of section 533. The court’s reasoning hinged on its reading of what the word “foreclosure” encompassed and based its interpretation on (i) a state-law statutory definition of foreclosure that the court determined included the attempted collection of foreclosure fees as part of the foreclosure proceeding, and (ii) the U.S. Supreme Court’s unambiguous requirement that courts broadly construe the statutory language of the SCRA. The court declined to determine whether SCRA allows punitive damages, as the DOJ had urged it to do in an amicus brief. The court reversed the district court’s dismissal of the borrower’s suit and remanded for further proceedings.
On March 6, the CFPB released a “snapshot” of servicemember complaints prepared by the Office of Servicemember Affairs (OSA), which analyzes the military consumer complaints received since July 2011. According to the report, servicemembers, veterans, and their families have submitted 14,100 complaints to the Bureau since its opening and have recovered more than $1 million. The volume of servicemember complaints has continued to increase over time, rising 148% from 2012 to 2013.
Notably, although “debt collection” was not added as a complaint category until July 2013, approximately 3,800 complaints received relate to collection practices. Nearly half of these complaints concern attempts to collect non-existent debts, with the remainder concerning improper collection tactics and procedural issues related to collection. The category that received the most complaints—approximately 4,700—was mortgage. Concerns raised relate primarily to practices undertaken when a borrower defaults, but also to loan origination and making payments. The remainder of the complaints received relate to consumer loans, private student loans, payday loans, credit cards, credit reporting, banking services, and money transfers. Along with debt collection practices, the report identifies payday loans—and specifically, compliance with the Military Lending Act’s interest-rate restrictions—as a point of focus for OSA.
On January 30 the CFPB, the Department of Defense (DOD), the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), the FTC, and other federal agencies announced the launch of a new online system designed to collect information from veterans, current servicemembers, and their families regarding negative experiences at education institutions and training programs administering the Post-9/11 GI Bill, DOD Military Tuition Assistance, and other military-related education benefit programs. The new system is modeled after the CFPB’s complaint system and is intended to help the government identify and address unfair, deceptive, and misleading practices. The complaint system, which is comprised of the DOD’s Postsecondary Education Complaint System and to the VA GI Bill Feedback System, was developed in accordance with the April 2012 Executive Order 13607, Establishing Principles of Excellence for Educational Institutions Serving Service Members, Veterans, Spouses, and Other Family Members. That order required, among other things, the Secretaries of Defense and Veterans Affairs to “create a centralized complaint system for students receiving Federal military and veterans educational benefits to register complaints that can be tracked and responded to by the Departments of Defense, Veterans Affairs, Justice, and Education, the CFPB” and other relevant agencies.
On January 28, the GAO issued a report on SCRA mortgage protections required by the 2012 legislation that extended those protections. Using data from three large mortgage servicers and a large credit union, the GAO examined changes in the financial well-being of servicemembers who received foreclosure-prevention and mortgage-related interest rate protections under SCRA, including the extent to which they became delinquent and the impact of protection periods. The report states that the number of servicemembers with mortgages eligible for SCRA mortgage protections is unknown because servicers have not collected this information in a comprehensive manner. For those identified as SCRA-eligible at the two servicers, delinquency rates ranged from 16 to 20 percent and from four to eight percent for other military borrowers. Delinquencies at the credit union were under one percent. GAO concluded that some servicemembers appeared to have benefitted from the SCRA interest rate cap of six percent, but that many eligible borrowers had not taken advantage of the protection. GAO also determined that the data were insufficient to assess the impact of SCRA protections after servicemembers left active duty, although it believes one institution’s limited data indicated that military borrowers had a higher risk of delinquency in the first year after leaving active duty. GAO also reviewed documentation on DOD’s partnerships and relevant education efforts related to SCRA mortgage protections and found relevant information to be limited because DOD has not undertaken any formal evaluations of the partnerships’ effectiveness. Given its finding that many servicemembers did not appear to be taking advantage of the SCRA interest rate cap, GAO concluded that DOD’s SCRA education efforts could be improved and that an assessment of the effectiveness of these efforts is still warranted.
On October 3, Delaware Attorney General Beau Biden (DE AG) announced that his office sent letters to nearly 30 lending institutions asking for information about their compliance with the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act (SCRA). The letters ask the financial institutions to provide by October 16: (i) documentation of any internal SCRA compliance review, including the findings of any such review; (ii) all written policies, procedures and practices in place used to verify SCRA compliance; (iii) the number of customer files reviewed for SCRA compliance, both in Delaware and nationwide; (iv) documentation concerning any SCRA violations identified during reviews; (v) all written policies, procedures, and practices in place concerning the provision of remediation to account owners to address any judgments obtained in error or other actions taken in violation of the SCRA; (vi) documentation of steps taken to prevent future SCRA violations; and (vii) all SCRA employee training materials. The DE AG also sent a letter to the chairmen of the U.S. House and Senate veterans’ affairs committees, urging the lawmakers to change federal to allow state attorneys general to prosecute SCRA violations.
On September 17, the CFPB released revised short-term, small-dollar lending Examination Procedures that incorporate the regulations issued by the Department of Defense (DoD) to implemente the Military Lending Act (MLA), which addresses alleged predatory lending practices by lenders that operate near military bases. The CFPB was given explicit power to enforce the MLA in the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2013.
The revised Procedures note that the MLA covers active-duty military members and their dependents and applies to “consumer credit,” defined as closed-end loans that are payday loans with a term of 91 days or fewer and an amount financed of $2,000 or less as well as certain vehicle title loans and tax refund anticipation loans. The revised Manual notes the special requirements of the MLA, including: (i) capping the Military Annual Percentage Rate (the APR under TILA plus other charges such as credit insurance premiums and fees for certain credit-related ancillary products) at 36 percent; (ii) prohibiting a lender from holding a post-dated personal check, debit authorization, or title to a vehicle for repayment or security; (iii) prohibiting mandatory arbitration clauses and waivers of legal rights under the SCRA or other consumer protection laws; (iv) prohibiting lenders from rolling over loans, unless the new transaction results in more favorable terms for the consumer; (v) prohibiting lenders from requiring consumers to pay through the military wage allotment system; and (vi) prohibiting prepayment penalties.
The CFPB’s press release notes the Bureau’s ongoing coordination with the Department of Defense on servicemember protection, as described in the agencies’ 2012 Joint Statement of Principles on small-dollar lending.
On September 19, the CFPB and the OCC announced parallel enforcement actions against a national bank to resolve allegations that the bank engaged in the unfair and deceptive marketing, sale, and billing of “add-on products” across multiple consumer products, and the OCC announced a separate order that resolves claims related to the bank’s non-home loan debt collection litigation practices and compliance with the SCRA.
Under the CFPB’s consent order, the bank will pay a $20 million penalty to resolve allegations that over a seven year period ending in March 2012, the bank, through its vendor, enrolled customers in credit monitoring and identify theft products, and charged some customers for these products without or before having received written authorization to perform the monitoring services. The CFPB order also requires restitution to affected customers, and numerous requirements to enhance compliance, including with regard to vendor oversight. Under the OCC’s parallel action, the bank entered a consent order similar to the one entered with the CFPB, and consented to pay a $60 million penalty.
The CFPB order acknowledges the bank’s representations that it no longer offers the scrutinized products and that it already has credited or refunded affected customers. The bank’s press release also reaffirms its commitment to holding its vendors to high standards.
In a separate action announced by the OCC on the same day, the bank also entered a consent order to resolve allegations of unsafe or unsound practices with regard to its non-mortgage debt collection litigation practices and its non-mortgage SCRA compliance. As the bank pointed out in a press release, the consent order relates to only a slight percentage of credit card, student loan, auto loan, business banking and commercial banking customers who defaulted on their loan or contract and the resulting collections litigation that followed several years ago. The press release explains that the bank uncovered the issue in internal reviews that began in 2010 and took several steps in response, including: (i) halting new credit card collections litigation in 2011, (ii) dismissing the impacted lawsuits, and (iii) improving SCRA controls.
On September 6, California enacted AB 526, which, among other things, expands certain financial protections for military reservists. Current state law allows U.S. Military Reserve and National Guard members who are called to active duty as a result of the Iraq or Afghanistan conflicts, to defer payments on mortgages, credit cards, retail installment accounts and contracts, real property taxes and assessments, and vehicle leases for the period of active duty, plus 60 calendar days, or 180 days, whichever is the lesser. AB 526 extends those deferral provisions to a reservist who is called to active duty on and after January 1, 2014, and to a spouse or legal dependent, and authorizes deferral of payments on any obligations owed to a utility company. The bill limits the deferment period on financial obligations to not more than 180 days within a 365-day period and requires covered reservists seeking deferral to provide a copy of the activation or deployment orders and any other information that substantiates the duration of the service member’s military service.
On August 15, Freddie Mac issued Bulletin 2013-05, which, among other things, revises requirements relating to the SCRA and similar state laws and explains servicer responsibilities to effectively implement military relief legal protections. Specifically, Freddie Mac eliminated the requirement that servicers collect and report official documentation of a servicemember’s disability or death and available government benefits in the event a servicemember dies or becomes disabled while on active duty. In addition, Freddie Mac added a new guide section to include the additional foreclosure relief Freddie Mac provides to servicemembers and their dependents, and repurposed another guide section to remind servicers of their responsibilities to evaluate servicemembers and their dependents for the most appropriate relief or workout option from Freddie Mac’s existing options when a servicemember or dependent: (i) does not qualify for mortgage relief under the provisions of the SCRA or similar state laws; or (ii) qualifies for mortgage relief under the provisions of the SCRA or similar state law, but chooses to explore other relief options.
On August 1, six banking industry trade groups submitted a joint comment letter relating to a proposal by the Department of Defense (DOD) to revise protections under the Military Lending Act (MLA), which apply to consumer credit extended to members of the military and their families. Among other things, the MLA caps the annual interest on short-term, small-dollar loans — including certain payday, car title, and refund anticipation loans. The MLA does not currently include credit cards, bank loans secured by funds on deposit, installment loans, or open-end credit.
In June, the DOD issued an advanced notice of proposed rulemaking (ANPR) to solicit input on potential changes to the definition of “consumer credit” in the regulations that implement the MLA, which would significantly broaden its application. The ANPR sought comment on whether the definition of “consumer credit” should be revised to expand coverage of the MLA to additional small-dollar loan products. The trade groups suggest that expanding coverage would be redundant, costly, and confusing in light of the “well-established system of financial protections for consumers [that] exists beyond the [MLA].” In other words, there is no need to create an entirely separate class of credit products for servicemembers and their families not directly related to military service.
The trade groups specifically identify several potential negative consequences of expanded coverage, including reduced access to installment loans and other credit products, and inability to refinance existing credit. On balance, the trade groups view the current rules — adopted after plenary discussion and careful consideration by all stakeholders — to be effective in achieving the proper balance between protecting military families and ensuring their access to credit. Thirteen state attorneys general took an opposing view in a comment letter submitted on June 24.
For additional commentary on the ANPR, please see the recent article from BuckleySandler Partners Kirk Jensen and Valerie Hletko.
This afternoon, the CFPB published a “mid-year snapshot” of private student loan (PSL) complaints it received from October 2012 through March 2013. The report updates the Bureau’s initial student loan complaint report published in October 2012.
This latest report characterizes the volume of student loan complaints as “relatively steady” over the reporting period, with complaints about loan repayment issues, including an inability to modify loans, outpacing all others. In addition to repayment-related complaints, the CFPB highlights a number of other PSL servicing complaints, including those related to (i) payment processing, (ii) conflicting information provided by lender or servicer, (iii) lack of written notices from lender or servicer, and (iv) co-signer issues.
For example, with regard to payment processing, the CFPB states that many complaints relate to the situation in which the consumer sends one payment to cover several loans handled by the same servicer. The CFPB has found that servicers generally apply those funds to satisfy outstanding fees, interest and principal, and then allocate any remaining overpayment to the outstanding principal across all loans on a pro rata basis. In some cases, depending on the size of overpayment, the servicer may also advance the due date for future payments. The CFPB believes these practices, and the way servicers have communicated them, have caused “significant borrower confusion” while limiting consumers’ ability to control the application of their overpayments. The report notes that certain online servicing platforms do not provide a simple way for consumers to allocate excess payments.
Finally, the CFPB states, in both the report and a related blog post, that, despite improvements by PSL servicers, some servicemembers continue to have difficulties obtaining rate relief under the SCRA and that the Bureau will continue to work with the DOJ on potential SCRA violations.
Importantly, the report is a “snapshot,” and the CFPB cautions in its introduction that the report is not intended to communicate the frequency to which certain practices exist in the market and that readers should recognize that there are inherent limitations with the underlying data. This is perhaps most evident in the CFPB’s listing of complaints by company, without providing any context as to each company’s market share, and without connecting the types of resolution – which themselves have limited utility – with the various companies named.
Last week, the Department of Defense (DOD) issued an advanced notice of proposed rulemaking to solicit input on potential changes to the definition of “consumer credit” in the regulations that implement the Military Lending Act (MLA). Currently, the MLA regulations cover certain payday, car title, and refund anticipation loans to servicemembers and their dependents. The DOD notice seeks (i) comment on whether the definition of “consumer credit” should be revised to cover other small dollar loans and (ii) examples of alternative programs designed to assist servicemembers who need small dollar loans. Responses to the DOD notice are due by August 1, 2013. On June 24, a bipartisan group of 13 state attorneys general submitted a comment letter urging the DOD to amend the MLA regulations to close loopholes in the definitions of covered loans and to cover any other type of consumer credit loan presenting similar dangers, such as overdraft loans.
Special Alert: CFPB Enforcement Action Targets Marketing of Auto Loans, Add-On Products to Servicemembers
This morning, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) announced enforcement actions against a national bank and its service provider related to alleged deceptive marketing of auto loans and add-on products to active-duty servicemembers. The CFPB claims that the companies failed to disclose or mischaracterized certain fees charged and ancillary products offered through a program developed to finance auto loans to servicemembers. These are the first public enforcement actions by the CFPB related to auto finance, and according to CFPB Director Richard Cordray, were precipitated by a complaint received from an individual servicemember’s relative. The actions demonstrate the CFPB’s focus on auto finance and its increasing coordination with the Department of Defense (DOD) and the individual branches of the military on servicemember protection issues. Read more…
On June 20, North Carolina enacted SB 489 to increase from $10,000 to $15,000 the maximum installment loan amount, and to increase the maximum allowable interest rates on installment loans. Under the new tiered rate structure, effective July 1, 2013, lenders may charge 30 percent on loans up to $4,000, 24 percent on loans $4,000 to $8,000, and 18 percent on loans $8,000 to $15,000. The bill also (i) extends the allowable terms of such loans to 96 months, (ii) allows lenders to charge late and deferral fees, and (iii) adds new protections for military servicemembers.
On May 1, the CFPB’s Office of Servicemember Affairs published its Semi-Annual Complaint Report, which states that the volume of complaints from servicemembers, veterans, and their families has steadily increased since the CFPB first started accepting complaints in July 2011. The report provides limited summary information about the complaints, noting that mortgage complaints predominate, followed by credit card and credit reporting complaints. In a related blog post, the CFPB states that it has received more than 5,000 servicemember complaints to date, and calls again for additional questions or complaints from the entire military community.