The pendency of three cases in circuit courts challenging the CFPB’s constitutionality has given rise to speculation as to whether the CFPB will continue to defend its constitutionality under Director Kraninger’s leadership.  The CFPB continued to defend its constitutionality in these cases while under former Acting Director Mulvaney’s leadership.  It did so, however, as a fallback to its primary argument that because Mr. Mulvaney was removable at will by the President and had ratified the CFPB’s decision to bring the lawsuit in question, any constitutional defect that may have existed with the CFPB’s initiation of the lawsuit was cured.

On January 9, a Ninth Circuit panel heard oral argument in CFPB v. Seila Law LLC, one of three pending circuit court cases involving a challenge to the CFPB’s constitutionality.  The appellant in Seila Law is asking the Ninth Circuit to overturn the district court’s refusal to set aside a Bureau civil investigative demand, arguing that the CID is invalid because the CFPB’s structure is unconstitutional.  In its answering brief filed with the Ninth Circuit, the CFPB relied on the ratification argument and its fallback constitutionality argument. (Mr. Mulvaney was Acting Director at the time of briefing.)

At the oral argument, the CFPB maintained the positions taken in its brief, namely that Mr. Mulvaney’s ratification cured any constitutional defect and, in any event, the Bureau’s structure is constitutional under U.S. Supreme Court precedent and the D.C. Circuit’s en banc PHH decision.  This would suggest that Director Kraninger, like former Acting Director Mulvaney, will continue to defend the CFPB’s constitutionality in the other pending cases.

Should she do so, however, Ms. Kraninger will be at odds with the position of the Department of Justice.  In opposing the petition for certiorari filed by State National Bank of Big Spring (which the Supreme Court denied this week), DOJ argued that while it agreed with the bank that the CFPB’s structure is unconstitutional and the proper remedy would be to sever the Dodd-Frank Act’s for-cause removal provision, the case was a poor vehicle for deciding the constitutionality issue.  It also noted that its position “is that of the United States, not the position of the Bureau to date.”  The DOJ had asked the Supreme Court to allow the CFPB to weigh in should it grant the petition for certiorari.  (The DOJ’s position could have added significance because of the Dodd-Frank provision that requires the Bureau to seek the Attorney General’s consent before it can represent itself in the Supreme Court.)

If Director Kraninger has a change of heart, she will be following in the shoes of Joseph Otting, who was appointed Acting FHFA Director by President Trump (and also serves as Comptroller of the Currency).  Next week, the Fifth Circuit is scheduled to hold oral argument in the en banc rehearing of Collins v. Mnuchin, in which a Fifth Circuit panel found that the FHFA is unconstitutionally structured because it is excessively insulated from Executive Branch oversight.  The plaintiffs, shareholders of two of the housing government services enterprises (GSEs), are seeking to invalidate an amendment to a preferred stock agreement between the Treasury Department and the FHFA as conservator for the GSEs.

The Fifth Circuit panel had determined that the appropriate remedy for the constitutional violation was to sever the provision of the Housing and Economic Recovery Act of 2008 (HERA) that only allows the President to remove the FHFA Director “for cause” while “leav[ing] intact the remainder of HERA and the FHFA’s past actions.”  The plaintiffs sought a rehearing en banc to overturn the panel’s rulings that the FHFA acted within its statutory authority in entering into the agreement and that the FHFA’s unconstitutional structure did not impact the agreement’s validity.  The FHFA also sought a rehearing en banc but with the goal of overturning the panel’s determination that the plaintiffs had Article III standing to bring a constitutional challenge.

Despite having argued in its petition for rehearing that the panel’s constitutionality ruling was incorrect, the FHFA has now announced that it will not defend the FHFA’s constitutionality to the en banc court.  In the En Banc Supplement Brief of the FHFA and Mr. Otting, the FHFA states that Mr. Otting “has reconsidered the issues presented in this case.”  It further states that while it remains the FHFA’s position that the plaintiffs’ lack of standing makes it unnecessary for the en banc court to reach the constitutionality issue, to the extent the court concludes it is necessary to do so “FHFA will not defend the constitutionality of HERA’s for cause removal provision and agrees with the analysis in Section II.A of the Treasury’s Supplemental Brief that the provision infringes on the President’s control of executive authority.”

The two other pending circuit court cases challenging the CFPB’s constitutionality are the All American Check Cashing case pending in the Fifth Circuit and the RD Legal Funding case pending in the Second Circuit.  Oral argument is tentatively calendared for the week of March 11, 2019 in the All American Check Cashing case and briefing is scheduled to begin next month in the RD Legal Funding case.

 

 

The CFPB and New York Attorney General have agreed to a settlement with Sterling Jewelers Inc. of a lawsuit they filed jointly in a New York federal district court alleging federal and state law violations in connection with credit cards issued by Sterling that could only be used to finance purchases made in the company’s stores.  The proposed Stipulated Final Order and Judgment, which requires Sterling to pay a $10 million civil money penalty to the CFPB and a $1 million civil money penalty to the State of New York, represents the second settlement of an enforcement matter announced by the CFPB under Kathy Kraninger’s leadership as CFPB Director.  (In addition to a civil money penalty, the other settlement required the payment of consumer restitution.)

The complaint contains three counts asserted by the CFPB and NYAG alleging unfair or deceptive acts or practices in violation of the Consumer Financial Protection Act based on the following alleged conduct by Sterling:

  • Representing to consumers that they were completing a survey, enrolling in a rewards program, or checking on the amount of credit for which the consumer would qualify when, in fact, either the consumer or a Sterling employee was completing a credit application for the consumer without his or her knowledge or consent
  • Misrepresenting financing terms to consumers, including interest rates, monthly payment amounts, and eligibility for promotional financing
  • Enrolling consumers for payment protection plan insurance (PPPI) without informing them that they were being enrolled or misleading them about what they were signing up for

This alleged conduct is also the basis of two counts alleging state law violations asserted only by the NYAG.

In another count asserted only by the CFPB, Sterling is alleged to have violated TILA and Regulation Z by issuing credit cards to consumers without their knowledge or consent and not in response to an oral or written request for the card.  This alleged TILA/Reg Z violation is also the basis for a count alleging a state law violation asserted only by the NYAG as well as a count alleging a CFPA violation asserted by both the CFPB and NYAG.

In addition to requiring payment of the civil money penalties, the settlement prohibits Sterling from continuing to engage in the alleged unlawful practices and to “maintain policies and procedures related to sales of credit cards and any related add-on products, such as [PPPI], that are reasonably designed to ensure consumer consent is obtained before any such product is sold or issued to a consumer.  Such policies and procedures must include provisions for capturing and retaining consumer signatures and other evidence of consent for such products and services.”  By not requiring consumer restitution, the settlement differs from consent orders entered into by the CFPB under the leadership of former Director Cordray that required restitution by companies that had allegedly enrolled consumers in a product without their consent.

A Minnesota federal district court recently ruled that lead generators for a payday lender could be liable for punitive damages in a class action filed on behalf of all Minnesota residents who used the lender’s website to obtain a payday loan during a specified time period.  An important takeaway from the decision is that a company receiving a letter from a regulator or state attorney general that asserts the company’s conduct violates or may violate state law should consult with outside counsel as to the applicability of such law and whether a response is required or would be beneficial.

The amended complaint names a payday lender and two lead generators as defendants and includes claims for violating Minnesota’s payday lending statute, Consumer Fraud Act, and Uniform Deceptive Trade Practices Act.  Under Minnesota law, a plaintiff may not seek punitive damages in its initial complaint but must move to amend the complaint to add a punitive damages claim.  State law provides that punitive damages are allowed in civil actions “only upon clear and convincing evidence that the acts of the defendants show deliberate disregard for the rights or safety of others.”

In support of their motion seeking leave to amend their complaint to add a punitive damages claim, the named plaintiffs relied on the following letters sent to the defendants by the Minnesota Attorney General’s office:

  • An initial letter stating that Minnesota laws regulating payday loans had been amended to clarify that such laws apply to online lenders when lending to Minnesota residents and to make clear that such laws apply to online lead generators that “arrange for” payday loans to Minnesota residents.”  The letter informed the defendants that, as a result, such laws applied to them when they arranged for payday loans extended to Minnesota residents.
  • A second letter sent two years later informing the defendants that the AG’s office had been contacted by a Minnesota resident regarding a loan she received through the defendants and that claimed she had been charged more interest on the law than permitted by Minnesota law.  The letter informed the defendants that the AG had not received a response to the first letter.
  • A third letter sent a month later following up on the second letter and requesting a response, followed by a fourth letter sent a few weeks later also following up on the second letter and requesting a response.

The district court granted plaintiffs leave to amend, finding that the court record contained “clear and convincing prima facie evidence…that Defendants know that its lead-generating activities in Minnesota with unlicensed payday lenders were harming the rights of Minnesota Plaintiffs, and that Defendants continued to engage in that conduct despite that knowledge.”  The court also ruled that for purposes of the plaintiffs’ motion, there was clear and convincing evidence that the three defendants were “sufficiently indistinguishable from each other so that a claim for punitive damages would apply to all three Defendants.”  The court found that the defendants’ receipt of the letters was “clear and convincing evidence that Defendants ‘knew or should have known’ that their conduct violated Minnesota law.”  It also found that evidence showing that despite receiving the AG’s letters, the defendants did not make any changes and “continued to engage in lead-generating activities in Minnesota with unlicensed payday lenders,” was “clear and convincing evidence that shows that Defendants acted with the “requisite disregard for the safety” of Plaintiffs.”

The court rejected the defendants’ argument that they could not be held liable for punitive damages because they had acted in good-faith when not acknowledging the AG’s letters.  In support of that argument, the defendants pointed to a Minnesota Supreme Court case that held punitive damages under the UCC were not recoverable where there was a split of authority regarding how the UCC provision at issue should be interpreted.  The district court found that case “clearly distinguishable from the present case because it involved a split in authority between multiple jurisdictions regarding the interpretation of a statute.  While this jurisdiction has not previously interpreted the applicability of [Minnesota’s payday loan laws] to lead-generators, neither has any other jurisdiction.  Thus there is no split in authority for the Defendants to rely on in good faith and [the case cited] does not apply to the present case.  Instead, only Defendants interpret [Minnesota’s payday loan laws] differently and therefore their argument fails.”

Also rejected by the court was the defendants’ argument that there was “an innocent and equally viable explanation for their decision not to respond or take other actions in response to the [AG’s] letters.”  More specifically, the defendants claimed that their decision “was based on their good faith belief and reliance on their own unilateral company policy that that they were not subject to the jurisdiction of the Minnesota Attorney General or the Minnesota payday lending laws because their company policy only required them to respond to the State of Nevada.”

The court found that the defendants’ evidence did not show either that there was an equally viable innocent explanation for their failure to respond or change their conduct after receiving the letters or that they had acted in good faith reliance on the advice of legal counsel.  The court pointed to evidence in the record indicating that the defendants were involved in lawsuits with states other than Nevada, some of which had resulted in consent judgments.  According to the court, that evidence “clearly show[ed] that Defendants were aware that they were in fact subject to the laws of states other than Nevada despite their unilateral, internal company policy.”

 

 

 

Having declared the CFPB eviscerated by President Trump, Colorado’s newly elected Democratic Attorney General, Phil Weiser, is expected to take an active approach to consumer protection.  In this week’s podcast, Ballard Spahr Partner Matt Morr, based in the firm’s Denver office, discusses Mr. Weiser’s background, key appointees, and likely areas of focus.

To listen to the podcast, click here.

 

 

A coalition of 14 state Attorneys General and the D.C. Attorney General have filed an amicus brief with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit in Williams v. Big Picture Loans in which a tribal lender and its tribal service provider have appealed from the district court’s denial of their motion to dismiss the complaint filed by consumers who alleged that the interest rate charged by the lender violated Virginia law.

The defendants argued that the complaint should be dismissed because, as “arms of the tribe,” the lawsuit was barred by sovereign immunity.   In denying the motion to dismiss, the district court ruled that the defendants had the burden of proving that they were shielded by sovereign immunity and had not met that burden.

In their amicus brief, the Attorneys General argue that the district court correctly placed on the defendants the burden of providing their entitlement to sovereign immunity (rather than on the plaintiffs to negate a claim of sovereign immunity).  They also argue that in determining whether the defendants acted as “arms of the tribe,” it was proper for the district court to look beyond the defendants’ official actions (meaning their legal or organizational relationship to the tribe) and consider their practical operation in relation to the tribe.

 

On January 10, the CFPB published a report containing the results of its assessment of the Ability-to-Repay and Qualified Mortgage Rule (“ATR/QM Rule”) issued in 2013. The assessment was conducted pursuant to the Dodd-Frank Act, which requires the Bureau to review each significant rule it issues and evaluate whether the rule is effective in achieving its intended objectives, and the purposes and objectives of Title X of the Dodd-Frank Act, or whether it is having unintended consequences. The Bureau based the report on information gathered from a variety of sources, including:

  1. Loan origination and performance data from the National Mortgage Database (NMDB), Black Knight, CoreLogic, and HMDA
  2. Desktop Underwriter and Loan Prospector submissions and acquisitions data provided by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac
  3. Application-level data from nine lenders covering over 9 million applicants
  4. Survey results from 190 lenders
  5. Supervision Data
  6. Residential mortgage backed securities (RMBS) data from IMF, Bloomberg, L.P., and SEC
  7. Cost data from the Mortgage Bankers Association’s (MBA) Annual Mortgage Bankers Performance Reports between 2009 and 2018
  8. Conference of State Bank Supervisors’ (CSBS) 2015 Public Survey data
  9. Evidence from comments received in response to the 2017 RFI concerning the ATR/QM assessmentThe ATR/QM Rule, which came into effect in January 2014, prohibits a lender from making a closed-end residential mortgage loan unless before closing the lender makes a reasonable and good faith determination, based on verified and documented information, that the consumer has a reasonable ability to repay (ATR). Qualified Mortgage (QM) loans are presumed to comply with the ATR requirement, except in the case of “higher priced” mortgage loans, where this presumption is rebuttable.Based on its survey of lenders, the Bureau found that a majority of respondents changed their business model due to the ATR/QM Rule in the form of increased income documentation, increased staffing, or adopting of a policy of not originating non-QM loans. The Bureau concluded that among the nine lenders that provided data, the changes resulted in lost profits of between $20 and 26 million per year. The Bureau also found that over the period of 2014 to 2016 the ATR/QM Rule eliminated between 63-70% of non-GSE eligible home purchase loans with debt-to-income (DTI) ratios above 43%. This impact did not carry over to refinance transactions, where lenders are more likely to extend credit due to a demonstrated ability to repay. The Bureau admits that because credit standards were already tight when the ATR/QM Rule took effect, “it is possible that the impacts would be different during times when credit is more abundant.”We note that the mortgage industry did not believe that a robust non-QM market would develop, and that the temporary GSE QM would be relied on heavily by lenders. And this is no surprise. The potential liability for violating the rule is significant, and based on the general standards for a non-QM loan there is no way for a lender, a due diligence firm or other party to conclusively determine if a given non-QM loan complies with the rule. As a result, a robust QM market did not develop, and it will never develop based on the current statute and rule. Based on the presumption of compliance with the rule, which is conclusive for non-higher priced loans, mortgage lenders mainly will originate a QM loan when possible. And based on the familiarity of the industry with Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac underwriting requirements, and the relative inflexibility of the standard QM based on the strict 43% DTI ratio limit and Appendix Q, the temporary GSE QM is favored by the industry. While the Bureau noted that the temporary GSE QM will expire no later than January 10, 2021, it did not address the fact that should the QM expire, mortgage lending would be severely constrained. Congress and/or the Bureau must act to prevent another mortgage crisis.The Bureau further concludes that the ATR/QM Rule does not appear to be constraining the activities of smaller lenders, who may originate QM loans that have DTI ratios above 43% without following Appendix Q, and may also originate QM loans that have balloon payments if various conditions are met, as long as such loans are held in portfolio for at least two years after the origination. In March 2016, the definition of a small creditor was amended to increase the loan threshold from 500 to 2,000 loans per year. According to the Bureau, this amendment had ameliorative effects – (1) the geographic market coverage of small creditors increased substantially with the new threshold, increasing access to credit for borrowers in rural and underserved areas who have DTIs above 43%; and (2) the share of loans made by depository institutions that were small creditors almost doubled.
  10. We note that in May 2018, Senate Bill 2155, the Economic Growth, Regulatory Relief, and Consumer Protection Act, was signed into law, creating a new QM category for insured depository institutions and insured credit unions that have, together with their affiliates, less than $10 billion in total consolidated assets. The Act provides that the new QM loan is deemed to comply with the ATR requirements if the loan: (1) is originated by and retained by the institution, (2) complies with requirements regarding prepayment penalties and points and fees, and (3) does not have negative amortization or interest-only terms. Furthermore, the institution must consider and verify the debt, income, and financial resources of the consumer. Beyond a minor footnote, the Bureau does not address this amendment in its report, likely because it still needs to implement the law.
  11. The Bureau also notes that innovation is occurring in the Temporary GSE QM space in the area of income verification and calculation, because compliance with Appendix Q is not required (loans made under the standard QM that is based on the strict 43% DTI ratio limit must follow Appendix Q). While the innovation is positive, it does not address the underlying need to continue, or find a suitable alternative, for the Temporary GSE QM.
  12. Although the rule includes a standard QM that is based on a strict DTI ratio limit of 43%, the Bureau created a temporary QM for loans eligible for sale to Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac “to preserve access to credit for consumers with debt-to-income ratios above 43 percent during a transition period in which the market was fragile and the mortgage industry was adjusting to the final rule.” The Bureau notes that it “expected that there would be a robust and sizable market for non-QM loans beyond the 43 percent threshold and structured the Rule to try to ensure that this market would develop.”
  13. In its assessment, the Bureau found that the introduction of the ATR/QM Rule was generally not correlated with an improvement in loan performance (as measured by the percentage of loans becoming 60 or more days delinquent within two years of origination). Rather, the Bureau concludes that delinquency rates on mortgages originated in the years immediately prior to the effective date of the ATR/QM Rule were historically low, “as credit was already tight at that time.” Moreover, although the performance of non-QM loans did not improve in absolute terms under the ATR/QM Rule, it has improved relative to the performance of comparable QM loans.
  14. The CFPB states that the report does not include a cost-benefit analysis of the ATR/QM Rule or its provisions, but that “each report does address matters relating to the costs and benefits.” The CFPB indicated that going forward, it will reconsider whether to include such an analysis in its assessment.

The Bureau did not announce any further action relative to the ATR/QM Rule but did indicate that reactions from stakeholders to the reports’ findings and conclusions would help inform future policy decisions. The Bureau concurrently released a report assessing the RESPA Mortgage Servicing Rule, which we will analyze separately.

Last July, the OCC announced its decision to accept applications for special purpose national bank (SPNB) charters from fintech companies.  At that time we observed that, while not discussed in the materials released by the OCC, it appeared that a fintech company holding an SPNB charter would be required to be a member of the Federal Reserve System and be subject to oversight as a member bank.  As a Federal Reserve member, an SPNB would have access to the Federal Reserve discount window and other Federal Reserve services.

According to a Reuters article published today, Federal Reserve officials have expressed reservations about allowing such access to fintech companies.  Reuters reports that “many Fed officials fear that these firms lack robust risk-management controls and consumer protections that banks have in place.”  The article quotes the President of the St. Louis Fed as having expressed concern that “fintech will be the source of the next crisis.” The Atlanta Fed President is quoted as having said that “almost none of [the fintech entrepreneurs he has talked to] has risk at the top of what they’re thinking about, and that makes me nervous.”

Despite its reported reservations about the SPNB charter, the Federal Reserve has acknowledged the increasing role played by fintech in shaping financial and banking landscapes and indicated that it is interested in developing policy solutions that would result in greater efficiencies and benefits to all parties.  To that end, the Philadelphia Fed sponsored a conference last November on “Fintech and the New Financial Landscape.”  At the conference, Ballard Spahr partner Scott Pearson was a member of a panel that discussed “The Roles of Alternative Data in Expanding Credit Access and Bank/Fintech Partnership.”

 

 

 

The U.S. Supreme Court has denied the petition for certiorari filed by State National Bank of Big Spring (SNB) which, together with two D.C. area non-profit organizations that also joined in the petition, had brought one of the first lawsuits challenging the CFPB’s constitutionality.

Despite agreeing with the petitioners that the CFPB’s structure is unconstitutional, the DOJ urged the court to deny the petition, calling the case “a poor vehicle to consider the question [of the CFPB’s constitutionality] for multiple reasons.”  Among such reasons was the DOJ’s claim that if the Supreme Court were to grant the petition, the case would likely not be considered by the full Court because of Justice Kavanaugh’s previous participation in the case while a D.C. Circuit judge.  (The order denying the petition for certiorari states that “Justice Kavanaugh took no part in the consideration or decision of this petition.”)

Another reason given by the DOJ was that other cases are pending in the courts of appeal that raise a similar constitutional challenge and “one or more of those cases may not present the same obstacles that could impede the full Court from considering the merits of this important issue.”  Those cases are the All American Check Cashing case pending in the Fifth Circuit, the RD Legal Funding case pending in the Second Circuit, and the Seila Law case pending in the Ninth Circuit.  Oral argument was held last week in the Seila Law case and is tentatively calendared for the week of March 11, 2019 in the All American Check Cashing case.  Briefing is scheduled to begin next month in the RD Legal Funding case.

 

 

 

The Cato Institute announced that it will hold a policy forum in Washington, D.C. on January 17, 2019 at which the topic will be “Promoting Fintech Innovation and Consumer Choice: The Role of Regulatory Sandboxes.”

The forum will feature Paul Watkins, Director of the CFPB’s Office of Innovation at the CFPB.  He is expected to discuss the Bureau’s “BCFP Product Sandbox” proposal and proposed revisions to its no-action letter policy.

Paul was recently our guest for our weekly podcast series.  In the podcast, in addition to responding to our questions about the sandbox proposal and proposed revisions to the NAL policy, Paul also discussed the Bureau’s proposed revisions to its trial disclosure policy.  To listen to the podcast, click here.

 

 

 

On December 28, 2018, New York Governor Cuomo signed into law amendments to the state’s General Business Law (GBL) that address the collection of family member debts.  The amendments made by Senate Bill 3491A become effective March 29, 2019.

While the legislative history indicates that the amendments are intended to address the collection of a deceased family member’s debts, they are drafted more broadly to prohibit “principal creditors and debt collection agencies” from: (a) making any representation that a person is required to pay the debt of a family member in a way that contravenes the FDCPA; and (b) making any misrepresentation about the family member’s obligation to pay such debts.

The GBL defines a “principal creditor” as “any person, firm, corporation or organization to whom a consumer claim is owed, due or asserted to be due or owed, or any assignee for value of said person, firm, corporation or organization.”  The amendments define a “debt collection agency” as “a person, firm or corporation engaged in business, the principal purpose of which is to regularly collect or attempt to collect debts: (A) owed or due or asserted to be owed or due to another; or (B) obtained by, or assigned to, such person, firm or corporation, that are in default when obtained or acquired by such person, firm or corporation.” 

In 2011, the FTC issued its final Statement of Policy Regarding Communications in Connection With the Collection of Decedents’ Debts to provide guidance on how it would enforce the FDCPA and Section 5 of the FTC Act in connection with the collection of debts of deceased debtors.  The policy statement provides that the FTC will not initiate an enforcement action under the FDCPA against a debt collector who (1) communicates for the purpose of collecting a decedent’s debts with a person who has authority to pay such debts from the assets of the decedent’s estate even if that person does not fall within the FDCPA’s definition of “consumer,” or (2) includes in location communications a statement that it is seeking to identify a person with authority to pay the decedent’s “outstanding bills” from the decedent’s estate.  It also contains a caution that, depending on the circumstances, contacting survivors about a debt too soon after the debtor’s death may violate the FDCPA prohibition against contacting consumers at an “unusual time” or at a time “inconvenient to the consumer.”