A federal district court in Kentucky recently handed the CFPB its second defeat in the agency’s lawsuit against Borders & Borders PLC and the law firm’s principals by denying the CFPB’s motion for reconsideration. Significantly, the court based its decision on grounds that are completely different than the basis for its original decision to grant the defendants’ motion for summary judgment.
As previously reported, the CFPB filed suit against the law firm and its principals in October 2013, claiming that they violated the referral fee prohibition under the Real Estate Settlement Procedures Act (RESPA) in connection with the establishment and operation of joint venture title insurance agencies (Joint Ventures) with the principals of real estate and mortgage brokerage companies. The CFPB asserted that Borders paid kickbacks to the principals of the real estate and mortgage brokerage companies that were disguised as profit distributions from the Joint Ventures, and that the kickbacks were for the referrals by the real estate and mortgage broker companies to Borders of consumers needing loan closing services.
Central to the CFPB’s position was its assertion that the Joint Ventures were not entitled to the affiliated business arrangement safe harbor under RESPA section 8(c)(4), which permits referrals and payments of ownership distributions among affiliated parties if the three statutory conditions of the safe harbor are met. The CFPB claimed that the Joint Ventures were not entitled to the safe harbor because they were not bona fide providers of settlement services within the meaning of RESPA. Being a bona fide provider of settlement services is not one of the three statutory conditions. It is a concept developed by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development, which had the responsibility for RESPA before the CFPB.
In its original decision, the court determined that a violation of the RESPA section 8(a) referral fee prohibition was established by the CFPB because the Joint Ventures referred loan closing business to the law firm, and the firm provided a thing of value to the Joint Ventures in connection with the assignment of title work to the companies. However, the court also determined that the three statutory conditions of the affiliated business arrangement safe harbor were met, so there was a safe harbor from the violation. The court, apparently following the decision of the US Circuit Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit in Carter v. Welles-Bowen Realty, Inc., 736 F.3d 722 (6th 2013), refused to impose a bona fide settlement service provider condition on the ability to qualify for the affiliated business arrangement safe harbor.
The CFPB asked for reconsideration in August of 2017. In denying the CFPB’s motion for reconsideration, the court found that there was no underlying violation of the RESPA section 8(a) referral fee prohibition. The CFPB had alleged that the nominal assignment of title work by the law firm to the Joint Ventures was a thing of value. According to the CFPB, the law firm did most of the actual title work for the matters nominally assigned to the Joint Ventures. The court determined that the nominal assignments of title work did not constitute a thing of value based on the following reasoning:
“The court continues to believe that this “nominal assignment” is insufficient to constitute a ‘thing of value’ because consumers were not obligated to follow the suggestion of Borders & Borders. Indeed, consumers had thirty days after the closing to decide whether to use the Title LLC suggested by Borders & Borders, or to use a different title insurance underwriter. If the consumer chose to purchase insurance from another underwriter, the JVP involved with the case received nothing. This potential benefit is insufficient to constitute a ‘thing of value’ because it is entirely conditioned on the third-party consumer’s choice.”
The court also concluded that even if the law firm provided a thing of value to the Joint Ventures when nominally assigning the title work, the safe harbor of RESPA section 8(c)(2) applied. RESPA section 8(c)(2) permits the payment of a bona fide salary or compensation for goods or facilities actually furnished or for services actually performed. In this part of the opinion, the court discussed the PHH case against the CFPB and found it to be analogous. In determining that the section 8(c)(2) safe harbor applied, the court reasoned as follows:
“Here, consumers made payments to the Title LLCs, which subsequently distributed profits to the JVPs in accordance with their ownership interest. However, these payments were not made in exchange for referrals, but in exchange for title insurance, which the consumers actually received. These payments are presumed to be bona fide because there is no evidence that the consumers paid above market value for the title insurance.”
In determining that the law firm did not provide a thing of value to the Joint Ventures, it appears that the court focused on the referral of title business itself as the alleged thing of value, and not the related CFPB assertion that the law firm actually performed most of the title work for the Joint Ventures. In determining that, even if there was a thing of value, the section 8(c)(2) safe harbor applied, it appears that the court focused on the title insurance received by consumers for the payment of premiums, and not the CFPB assertion that the Joint Ventures did not actually perform the title work.
While the CFPB can still pursue the case, we will have to wait and see if under the leadership of Acting Director Mulvaney the CFPB elects to continue its challenge to the Joint Venture arrangements.