The District of Columbia Department of Insurance, Securities, and Banking (DISB) has released for comment a revised “Student Loan Borrower’s Bill of Rights.” The District of Columbia Student Loan Ombudsman Establishment and Servicing Regulation Act of 2016 (Servicing Act), which became effective February 18, 2017, directed the DISB to draft the Bill of Rights. (In September 2017, pursuant to the Servicing Act, the DISB began licensing student loan servicers operating in D.C.)
As originally released in October 2017, the Bill of Rights contained five articles. We commented that instead of tracking the student loan servicing principles articulated by other regulators, the Bill of Rights seemed to borrow copiously from principles for the origination, servicing, and collection of small business loans adopted by the Responsible Business Lending Coalition, a network of for-profit and non-profit lenders, brokers and small business advocates. In the revised Bill of Rights, which contains 17 articles, the DISB now appears to be proposing student loan servicing principles that more closely resemble those articulated by other regulators.
The revised Bill of Rights contains numerous requirements that were not in the original version. For example, the revised version contains requirements concerning payment allocation and partial payments (Article IV), monthly billing statements (Articles V and VI), annual tax statements (Article VII), schedule of fees (Article IX), reporting to credit bureaus (Article XI), access to default diversion services (Article XII), and refinancing disclosures (Article XIII). However, the DISB does not identify the source of those rights, which are not separately set forth in the Servicing Act.
The National Council of Higher Education Resources (NCHER), a national trade association representing higher education finance organizations, has sent a letter to the DISB commenting on the revised Bill of Rights. As a general matter, NCHER expresses its view that the principles should not create enforceable obligations and highlights the enormous compliance burden that would be created for servicers if the DISB were to attempt to require federal and private student loan servicers to follow separate servicing routines for D.C. residents. We agree, and find it particularly troubling that the DISB appears to be seeking to create obligations that may not only be inconsistent with the terms of the underlying loans but also preempted by federal law.
With respect to specific provisions of the revised Bill of Rights, NCHER’s comments include the following:
- Article IV provides that a borrower “has the right to have his or her payments applied to outstanding loan balance(s) timely, appropriately, and fairly” and that the servicer’s application process “shall result in partial payments being applied in the best interest” of the borrower. NCHER questions what it means to apply payments “appropriately,” “fairly,” and “in the best interest” of the borrower and states that servicers currently post their payment allocation procedures but “should not be held to a vague standard that could be interpreted to create fiduciary responsibilities.”
- Articles V and VI provide that a borrower has a right to “a monthly billing statement” and quarterly periodic statements containing certain information. NCHER questions whether these articles establish separate servicing requirements for D.C. residents and comments that if so, they “would be overly burdensome to require that monthly payments be sent to borrowers in an in-school deferment.”
- Article IX provides that a borrower has a right to have the servicer’s current schedule of fees that could be charged to the borrower. NCHER comments that this article “seems to be based on an inaccurate understanding of roles of the various players in the student loan industry.” It notes that as a general matter, “loan fees such as late fees and NSF fees are charged by lenders, not servicers, and are disclosed as part of the lender’s Truth-in-Lending Act requirements.” NCHER also comments that if the article purports to cover expedited payment or convenience fees, “it should be understood that these optional payment services are selected by the borrower.”
- Article XII provides that a borrower has the right to access “default diversion services” from the servicer that notifies the borrower when he or she is at risk of default and requires the servicer to assist the borrower with avoiding a default. NCHER raises numerous questions about this article, including what timeframe the DISB contemplates using when measuring whether a servicer has appropriately notified a borrower that he or she is at risk of default and what “default diversion services” are contemplated by the DISB.
- Article XIII provides that to the extent a servicer or an agent of a servicer provides any financing to a borrower, including a loan modification or refinancing, the borrower has a right to receive financing that complies with certain principles. Such principles include that the financing “is in the best interest” of the borrower. NCHER comments that this article also “misconstrues the role of servicers since they do not make loans or extent credit” and that the reference to financing that “is in the best interest” of the borrower “sets up a fiduciary or suitability standard where compliance may be impossible.”