As we reported previously, in June 2018 Zillow Group (Zillow) announced that it is no longer under investigation by the CFPB for Real Estate Settlement Procedures Act (RESPA) and UDAAP compliance with regard to its co-marketing program. The CFPB investigation triggered a securities lawsuit filed in the United States District Court for the Western District of Washington (C17-1387-JCC). The plaintiffs alleged in a putative class action that they purchased Zillow shares at an inflated price and were damaged by alleged material misrepresentations by the defendants regarding the Zillow co-marketing program and CFPB investigation of the program. The court noted that there was a decline in the price of Zillow stock in the two days after Zillow provided an update in August 2017 regarding the status of the CFPB investigation. Underlying the plaintiffs’ claims were alleged violations of RESPA with regard to the co-marketing program, which are the focus of this blog post.
The court noted that because the plaintiffs alleged securities fraud under section 10(b) of the Securities Exchange Act of 1934 and section 10b-5 of Securities and Exchange Commission rules, in order to survive a motion to dismiss the complaint must satisfy the general standard of setting forth sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to state a claim for relief that is plausible on its face, and meet additional standards. One additional standard is that that the complaint must state with particularity the circumstances constituting fraud or mistake.
With regard to RESPA, the plaintiffs asserted that the co-marketing program (1) acted as a vehicle to allow real estate agents to make illegal referrals to lenders in exchange for the lenders paying to Zillow a portion of the agents’ advertising costs, and (2) facilitated RESPA violations by allowing lenders to pay to Zillow a portion of their agents’ advertising costs that was in excess of the fair market value of the advertising services that the lenders received from Zillow. The court found that the plaintiffs failed to sufficiently plead either theory of RESPA liability.
In support of the theory that when lenders pay a portion of the real estate agent’s advertising costs to Zillow they are effectively paying to receive unlawful mortgage referrals from the agent, the plaintiffs cited the CFPB enforcement action against PHH Mortgage Corporation regarding mortgage reinsurance arrangements. We have extensively reported on the matter, in which the CFPB deviated from prior government interpretations of RESPA by effectively reading out of RESPA the section 8(c)(2) safe harbor that permits payments for goods and services between parties even when there are referrals of settlement services business between the parties. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit rejected the CFPB’s interpretation of RESPA. Summarizing the holding of the D.C. Circuit, the court in the Zillow case stated the “D.C. Circuit held that RESPA’s safe harbor allows mortgage lenders to make referrals to third parties on the condition that they purchase services from the lender’s affiliate, so long as the third party receives the services at a “reasonable market value.””
The court in the Zillow case determined the plaintiffs’ assertion that the co-marketing program violates RESPA because it allowed agents to make referrals in exchange for lenders paying a portion of their advertising costs “is neither factually nor legally viable.” The court first noted that the complaint does not contain particularized facts demonstrating that real estate agents participating in the co-marketing were actually providing unlawful referrals to lenders. The court then stated that, even if it “draws an inference that co-marketing agents were making mortgage referrals, such referrals would fall under the Section 8(c) safe harbor because lenders received advertising services in exchange for paying a portion of their agent’s advertising costs.”
Addressing the plaintiffs’ second theory of liability—that the co-marketing program facilitated RESPA violations by allowing lenders to pay more the than fair market value for advertising services they received from Zillow—the court states that the plaintiffs failed to provide particularized facts that demonstrate that the lenders actually paid more than the fair market value of the advertising services they received from Zillow.
While the mortgage industry will welcome the favorable decisions on the RESPA issues, industry members should be mindful that the context is a securities fraud case with specific pleading standards.