The CFPB has obtained a default judgment in the lawsuit it filed in October 2017 in Maryland federal district court against two commonly-owned debt relief companies, their affiliated payment processor, and three individual principals for alleged violations of the Telemarketing Sales Rule and the Consumer Financial Protection Act.  (The debt relief company defendants were Federal Debt Assistance Association, LLC and Financial Document Assistance Administration, Inc.  The payment processor defendant was Clear Solutions, Inc.)

Since the lawsuit was filed under the leadership of former Director Cordray, the Bureau’s decision to pursue a default judgment suggests that the debt relief industry will remain a target of CFPB enforcement actions.  The industry has also faced a barrage of enforcement actions by the FTC and state AGs and is likely to remain a target of such actions.

The Default Judgment and Order (Order), in its findings of fact, finds that the defendants did not answer or otherwise defend the CFPB’s action.  It further finds that the two debt relief companies, who targeted credit card debt, violated the TSR and CFPA by engaging in conduct that included the following:

  • Requesting and receiving fees before they had renegotiated the terms of at least one debt pursuant to a bona fide plan with the creditor or debt collector, before the customer had made one payment pursuant to that plan and in which the fee was not proportional to the amount saved.
  • Misrepresenting that they would reduce consumers’ principal balances by at least 60%, leave consumers’ creditors without recourse on the debts, and increase consumers’ credit scores
  • Instructing consumers to stop making payments on the debts enrolled in the program without disclosing that doing so might lead to the consumer being sued or to an increase in the amount owed.
  • Misrepresenting their affiliation with, endorsement by, or sponsorship by the CFPB and FTC.

The Order also includes as a finding of fact that for each of the CFPA and TSR violations committed by the two debt relief companies, the payment processor and three individual defendants also violated the CFPA and TSR by providing substantial assistance or support to the debt-relief companies’ unlawful acts and practices.  It also finds that the individual defendants each violated the CFPA “by directly contributing to the development, review, and approval of materials containing the misrepresentations about the companies’ government affiliations.

The Order enters judgment in favor of the Bureau against all of the defendants, jointly and severally, in the amount of $4,972, 389.31 for the purpose of providing consumer redress.  It also enters judgment against all of the defendants, jointly and severally, for a civil penalty of $16 million and imposes an injunction that permanently bans the defendants from engaging in the telemarketing of debt relief and credit repair products and services.

Ballard Spahr has successfully brought actions against fraudulent debt relief companies on behalf of bank clients seeking to protect their customers.  Litigation is only one prong of our multi-pronged strategy, which includes coordination with government regulatory entities and, where applicable, state bar associations.

 

 

The bulletin issued yesterday by the OCC encouraging the banks it supervises “to offer responsible short-term, small-dollar installment loans” quickly met with mixed reviews from consumer advocates.

The Pew Charitable Trusts issued a press release in which it praised the OCC’s action for “remov[ing] much of the regulatory uncertainty that has prevented [banks] from entering the market [for small installment loans].”  The press release quotes the director of Pew’s consumer finance project who called the OCC bulletin “a welcome step that should help pave the way for banks to offer safe, affordable small-dollar installment loans to the millions of Americans that have been turning to high-cost nonbank lenders.”

Other consumer advocates took a more critical view of the OCC bulletin.  The Center for Responsible Lending’s senior policy counsel is reported to have raised the concern that “in a broader deregulatory environment, banks may be given more latitude to make high-cost loans than they’ve been given in the past, and that would have disastrous consequences.”  She also reportedly noted the absence of a federal usury ceiling and suggested that the policies and practices for small dollar loans set forth in the OCC bulletin would not allow a bank to charge more than a 36% annual percentage rate on such loans.

Christopher Peterson, a senior fellow at the Consumer Federation of America and a law professor at the University of Utah, took an even harsher view of the OCC bulletin.  Professor Peterson tweeted that he “[doesn’t] support this guidance” and that “[t]he OCC is replacing the 2013 policy with a new, weaker guidance that will tempt banks back into the subprime small dollar lending.”  (The “2013 policy” referred to by Professor Peterson is the OCC’s rescinded guidance on deposit advance products).

Professor Peterson also criticized the OCC for not setting an “all-in usury limit,” commenting that the absence of such a limit “means many banks will be tempted to impose crushing rates and fees on borrowers.”  Perhaps because he recognizes that the OCC cannot set a usury limit (because that limit is set forth in Section 85 of the National Bank Act), Professor Peterson called upon Congress to “step up with [a] national usury limit.”  (Professor Peterson’s tweets can be viewed by clicking on the link below.)

 

This afternoon, President Trump signed the Economic Growth, Regulatory Relief, and Consumer Protection Act (the Act) into law.  The Act was passed by the House on Tuesday by a vote of 258 to 159 and by the Senate on March 14 by a vote of 67 to 31.

Although the Act does not make the sweeping changes to the Dodd-Frank Act contemplated by other proposals, it nevertheless provides welcome regulatory relief to both smaller and larger financial institutions.  After President Trump signed the Act, CFPB Acting Director Mick Mulvaney issued a statement applauding Congress for passing the Act and indicating that he is “pleased to see the long-overdue reforms to the regulations governing mortgage lending.”  Mr. Mulvaney also stated that he “stand[s] ready to work with Congress and the rest of the Administration to implement these new reforms that will promote a brighter, more prosperous future.”

On June 19, 2018, from 12 p.m. to 1 p.m. ET, Ballard Spahr attorneys will hold a webinar—Economic Growth, Regulatory Relief, and Consumer Protection Act: Anatomy of the New Banking Statute.  The webinar registration form is available here.

In addition to the changes regarding mortgage lending, the Act makes a number of changes to provisions of federal laws regarding credit reporting, and loans to veterans and students.  It also reduces the regulatory burdens on financial institutions—particularly financial institutions with total assets of less than $10 billion.  Bank holding companies with up to $3 billion in total assets would be permitted to comply with less-restrictive debt-to-equity limitations instead of consolidated capital requirements.  This change should promote growth by smaller bank holding companies, organically or by acquisition.  Larger institutions should benefit from the higher asset thresholds that would apply to systemically important banks subject to enhanced prudential standards.  The higher thresholds may lead to increased merger activity between and among regional and super regional banks.

For a summary of some of the Act’s key provisions applicable to financial institutions, click here for our full alert.

 

 

The OCC has issued a bulletin (2018-14) setting forth core lending principles and policies and practices for short-term, small-dollar installment lending by national banks, federal savings banks, and federal branches and agencies of foreign banks.

In issuing the bulletin, the OCC stated that it “encourages banks to offer responsible short-term, small-dollar installment loans, typically two to 12 months in duration with equal amortizing payments, to help meet the credit needs of consumers.”  The bulletin is intended “to remind banks of the core lending principles for prudently managing the risks associated with offering short-term, small-dollar installment lending programs.”

By way of background, the bulletin notes that in October 2017, the OCC rescinded its guidance on deposit advance products because continued compliance with such guidance “would have subjected banks to potentially inconsistent regulatory direction and undue burden as they prepared to comply with the [CFPB’s final payday/auto title/high-rate installment loan rule (Payday Rule).”]  The guidance had effectively precluded banks subject to OCC supervision from offering deposit advance products.  The OCC references the CFPB’s plans to reconsider the Payday Rule and states that it intends to work with the CFPB and other stakeholders “to ensure that OCC-supervised banks can responsibly engage in consumer lending, including lending products covered by the Payday Rule.”  (The statement issued by CFPB Acting Director Mulvaney applauding the OCC bulletin further reinforces our expectation that the CFPB will work with the OCC to change the Payday Rule.)

When the OCC withdrew its prior restrictive deposit advance product guidance, we commented that the OCC appeared to be inviting banks to consider offering the product.  The bulletin appears to confirm that the OCC intended to invite the financial institutions it supervises to offer similar products to credit-starved consumers, although it suggests that the products should be even-payment amortizing loans with terms of at least two months.  It may or may not be a coincidence that the products the OCC describes would not be subject to the ability-to-repay requirements of the CFPB’s Payday Rule (or potentially to any requirements of the Payday Rule).

The new guidance lists the policies and practices the OCC expects its supervised institutions to follow, including:

  • “Loan amounts and repayment terms that align with eligibility and underwriting criteria and that promote fair treatment and access of applicants.  Product structures should support borrower affordability and successful repayment of principal and interest in a reasonable time frame.”
  • “Analysis that uses internal and external data sources, including deposit activity, to assess a consumer’s creditworthiness and to effectively manage credit risk.  Such analysis could facilitate sound underwriting for credit offered to consumer who have the ability to repay but who do not meet traditional standards.”

While the OCC’s encouragement of bank small-dollar lending is a welcome development, the bulletin contains potentially troubling language.  The OCC’s “reasonable policies and practices specific to short-term, small-dollar installment lending” also include “[l]oan pricing that complies with applicable state laws and reflects overall returns reasonably related to product risks and costs.  The OCC views unfavorably an entity that partners with a bank with the sole goal of evading a lower interest rate established under the law of the entities licensing state(s).”  (emphasis added).  This statement raises at least two concerns:

  • The OCC’s reference to “[l]oan pricing that complies with applicable state laws” is confused (or likely to cause confusion).  Federal law (12 U.S.C. Section 85) governs the interest national banks may charge.  It authorizes banks to charge the interest allowed by the law of the state where they are located, without regard to the law of any other state.  The OCC should clarify that it did not mean to suggest otherwise.
  • The OCC’s unfavorable view of bank-nonbank partnerships, where the “sole goal [is] evading” state-law rate limits, could be read to call into question a valuable distribution channel for bank loans.  While the context is “specific to short-term, small-dollar installment lending,” this apparent hostility to bank-model relationships should be of concern to all banks that partner with third parties, including fintech companies, to make loans under Section 85.  The statement in question seems at odds with the broad view of federal preemption enunciated by the OCC with respect to the Madden decision. 

 

The New Jersey Attorney General, Gurbir Grewal, has sent a letter to Department of Education Secretary Betsy Devos in which the NJ AG invites the ED to work with his office “to ensure that any investigations of fraudulent activities by educational institutions are completed properly, rather than ended prematurely or allowed to grow dormant.”

The NJ AG indicates that his invitation is intended to put to rest recent reports that the ED has discontinued investigations into potentially fraudulent activity at several large for-profit colleges and restricted communications between the ED’s staff and state AGs about such investigations.  He asserts that “[a]bandoning the Department’s cooperative relationships with State Attorneys General could only harm the public interest we should be working together to serve.”

The NJ AG asks the ED to let his office partner with the ED if it continues to pursue the investigations it “reportedly has (or had) in progress” or, if the ED will not pursue such investigations, to let his office “pick up where you leave off” and give it access to the ED’s files (claiming that his office can arrange to protect the confidentiality of any shared investigative files.)

 

Yesterday afternoon, President Trump signed into law S.J. Res. 57, the joint resolution under the Congressional Review Act (CRA) that disapproves the CFPB’s Bulletin 2013-2 regarding “Indirect Auto Lending and Compliance with the Equal Credit Opportunity Act.”  The Government Accountability Office had determined that the Bulletin, which set forth the CFPB’s disparate impact theory of assignee liability for so-called auto dealer “markup” disparities, was a “rule” subject to override under the CRA.

The joint resolution was passed by the Senate in April 2018 by a vote of 51 to 27 and by the House earlier this month by a vote of 234 to 175.  We recently shared our thoughts on the implications of Congressional disapproval.

The CFPB issued a statement about the signing that included a statement from Acting Director Mulvaney that referred to the Bulletin as an “initiative that the previous leadership at the Bureau pursued [that] seemed like a solution in search of a problem.”  Mr. Mulvaney said that “those actions were misguided, and the Congress has corrected them.”

The CFPB stated that the resolution’s enactment “does more than just undo the Bureau’s guidance on indirect auto lending.  It also prohibits the Bureau from ever reissuing a substantially similar rule unless specifically authorized to do so by law.”  Most significantly, the CFPB indicated that it “will be reexamining the requirements of the ECOA” in light of “a recent Supreme Court decision distinguishing between antidiscrimination statutes that refer to the consequences of actions and those that refer only to the intent of the actor” and “the fact that the Bureau is required by statute to enforce federal consumer financial laws consistently.”

This is presumably a reference to the Supreme Court decision in Inclusive Communities and the fact that the ECOA discrimination proscription does not proscribe discriminatory effects but, rather, speaks solely in terms of discrimination “against any applicant on the basis of” race, national origin and other prohibited bases.  As we have observed previously, the basis for the Inclusive Communities holding with respect to the FHA, which is summarized at the end of Section II of the majority opinion, highlights material differences between the FHA and the ECOA.  The distinctions between discrimination statutes that refer to the consequences of actions and those that do not is illustrated vividly by a textual juxtaposition chart that appeared in the House Financial Services Committee Majority Staff Report titled “Unsafe at Any Bureaucracy: CFPB Junk Science and Indirect Auto Lending.”  The Business Lawyer article cited in that report, “The ECOA Discrimination Proscription and Disparate Impact – Interpreting the Meaning of the Words that Actually Are There,” discusses this issue in further detail.  The CFPB’s plans to reexamine ECOA requirements could represent an overture to reviewing references to the effects test in Regulation B (which implements the ECOA) and the Regulation B Commentary.

With regard to the Bulletin’s status as the first guidance document to be disapproved pursuant to the CRA, the CFPB commented that the resolution’s enactment “clarifies that a number of Bureau guidance documents may be considered rules for purposes of the CRA, and therefore the Bureau must submit them for review by Congress.”  The CFPB indicated that it plans to “confer with Congressional staff and federal agency partners to identify appropriate documents for submission.”

 

 

 

 

 

On May 15, Maryland Governor Larry Hogan signed into law a bill that, among other things, establishes the role of Student Loan Ombudsman within the Office of the Commissioner of Financial Regulation and sets forth various duties related to that position.

Maryland SB 1068, titled the Financial Consumer Protection Act of 2018, represents a scaled down version of an attempt by state lawmakers to regulate student loan servicers. An earlier version of the bill contained language that would have created a licensing regime for servicers, similar to what the District of Columbia, California, Connecticut, Illinois, and Washington have enacted over the past couple of years. Instead, SB 1068 enacts the other key prong of such recent legislation: the creation of an ombudsman role to monitor student lending and servicing activity within the state.

Under the new law, the Student Loan Ombudsman is required to:

  • Receive and review complaints from student loan borrowers;
  • Attempt to resolve complaints by collaborating with higher education institutions, student loan servicers, and others, as specified;
  • Compile and analyze complaint data (and, as specified, disclose that data);
  • Help student loan borrowers understand their rights and responsibilities;
  • Provide information to the public and others;
  • Disseminate information about the availability of the ombudsman to address student loan concerns;
  • Analyze and monitor the development and implementation of federal, State, and local laws, regulations, and policies on student loan borrowers;
  • By October 1, 2019, establish a student loan borrower education course that includes educational presentations and material about student education loans;
  • Make recommendations regarding statutory and regulatory methods to resolve borrower problems and concerns; and
  • Make recommendations on necessary changes to Maryland law to ensure the student loan servicing industry is fair, transparent, and equitable, including whether licensing or registration of student loan servicers should be required in Maryland.

The last item on this list suggests that a licensing or registration requirement could be forthcoming. However, under the law as enacted, new obligations for student loan servicers are presently limited to requiring each student loan servicer operating in Maryland to (1) designate an individual to represent the servicer in communications with the ombudsman and (2) provide appropriate contact information for that designee to the ombudsman.

In addition to establishing the Student Loan Ombudsman role, SB 1068 contains a number of noteworthy changes to Maryland’s consumer finance statutes, including (1) expanding the definition of “unfair and deceptive trade practices” under the Maryland Consumer Protection Act (MCPA) to include “abusive” practices; (2) providing that unfair, abusive, or deceptive trade practices include violations of the federal Military Lending Act or the federal Servicemembers Civil Relief Act; (3) adding various provisions related to consumer lending, including raising the Maryland Consumer Loan Law’s licensing trigger from $6,000 to $25,000 (thus expanding the scope of the statute’s licensing requirement); (4) increasing the maximum civil penalties for violations of MCPA and several other financial licensing and regulatory laws; (5) allocating additional resources for enforcement of Maryland’s consumer protection laws; and (6) prohibiting consumer reporting agencies from charging for a placement, temporary lift, or removal of a security freeze.

A group of 35 Democratic Senators have sent a letter to Mick Mulvaney and Leandra English urging the CFPB to continue to publicly disclose consumer complaint information.

In remarks last month at an American Bankers Association conference, CFPB Acting Director Mick Mulvaney is reported to have strongly criticized the CFPB’s policy of publicly disclosing consumer complaint information and suggested that the policy is likely to be discontinued.  Mr. Mulvaney is reported to have said that while the CFPB will maintain the consumer complaint database as required by Dodd-Frank, he did not see any legal requirement for the CFPB “to run a Yelp for financial services sponsored by the federal government.”

In their letter, the Senators assert that consumers would be hurt by the elimination of public access to the database.  They ask the CFPB to provide, if a decision is made to end public access, “an explanation of any proposed changes, a detailed accounting of your justification, and a copy of any analysis you undertook in support of your decision.”

The CFPB has issued a request for information that seeks comment on potential changes to its practices for the public reporting of consumer complaint information.  Comments on the RFI are due by June 4.

 

As readers of this blog already know, Professor Jeff Sovern and I come at most issues from different sides of the street.  Over the years, through our respective blogs and at various programs, we have engaged in spirited but respectful debate about many consumer finance issues.  For that reason, I was particularly disappointed to read Jeff’s blog post about Andrew Smith’s appointment as Director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection.

Despite his comment that he does not “mean that Mr. Smith is a thief,” Jeff’s characterization of Andrew as a “Payday Lender Lawyer” in the title of his blog post coupled with his use of the quote “set a thief to catch a thief,” seems intended to raise questions about Andrew’s integrity based solely on his past representation of payday lenders.  Although we strongly disagree with Jeff’s support for the CFPB’s payday lending rule and his criticism of the payday lending industry, those matters are certainly fair game for debate.  However, Andrew has had an unblemished ethical record as an attorney in private practice and as a government attorney in his previous tenure with the FTC.  Indeed, Andrew is considered to be among the country’s most prominent consumer financial services lawyers, as evidenced by his position as Chair of the American Bar Association Consumer Financial Services Committee, his appointment long ago as a fellow of the American College of Consumer Financial Services Lawyers, and his ranking by Chambers USA which evaluates America’s leading lawyers for business.

We also strongly reject the inference that payday lending is a form of theft and observe that, regardless of how an attorney’s clients are viewed, it is bad policy for a lawyer’s qualifications for government appointment to depend on his or her clients’ reputations.  If that were the standard, white collar criminal lawyers would never qualify for government service.

I am confident that in his new leadership role at the FTC, Andrew will continue to adhere to the highest ethical standards.

In addition to the CFPB’s Spring 2018 rulemaking agenda that we have already blogged about, the Spring 2018 rulemaking agendas of several other federal agencies contain some items of interest to consumer financial services providers.

Items of particular interest are:

  • OCC.  The OCC plans to issue an Advance Notice of Proposed Rulemaking “for modernizing the current regulations to carry out the purposes of the Community Reinvestment Act.”  The agenda gives a May 2018 estimated date for the ANPRM.  Last month, the Treasury Department issued a memorandum in which it made recommendations for modernizing the CRA.  The memorandum was directed to the primary CRA regulators, consisting of the OCC, the Federal Reserve, and the FDIC.  Of the three agencies, only the OCC’s Spring 2018 rulemaking agenda included a CRA item.
  • NCUA.  The NCUA is drafting an amendment to its general lending rule to give federal credit unions an additional option for offering Payday Alternative Loans (PALs).  The proposal would be an alternative to the current PALs rule.  It would modify the minimum and maximum loan amounts, eliminate the minimum membership requirement, and increase the maximum loan maturity while incorporating the other features of the current PALs rule.  The NCUA expects to issue a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking in May 2018.
  • Dept. of Education.  In June 2017, the ED announced that it was postponing “until further notice” the July 1, 2017 effective date of various provisions of the “borrower defense” final rule issued by the ED in November 2016, including the rule’s ban on arbitration agreements.  It also made a concurrent announcement that it planned to enter into a negotiated rulemaking to revise the “borrower defense” rule.  In October 2017, the ED published an interim final rule postponing the effective date of such provisions of the “borrower defense” final rule until July 1, 2018, and in February 2018, the ED published a final rule to further postpone the effective date until July 1, 2019.  In its Spring 2018 rulemaking agenda, the ED indicates that it expects to issue a NPRM in May 2018 regarding the “borrower defense” rule.