Last week, the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral argument in the case of Timbs v. Indiana, which presents the issue of whether the prohibition on excessive fines in the Eighth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution is incorporated against the States under the Fourteenth Amendment.  Although it involves a civil asset forfeiture arising from the petitioner’s criminal conviction, the case could have significant implications for consumer financial services companies facing fines and penalties sought by State attorneys general and regulators.  More specifically, the case could provide a potent constitutional basis for challenging such fines and penalties.  The case’s potential significance is heightened as State AGs and regulators ramp up their supervisory and enforcement activity in order to fill the void created by a less aggressive CFPB.

The petitioner in the Supreme Court case, Timbs, had pled guilty to one count of dealing a controlled substance.  In addition to receiving a six year sentence, with the first year to be served in home detention and the remaining five years on probation, Timbs agreed to pay fines and court costs.  Indiana law allowed the court to impose a maximum fine of $10,000 for his crime.  Several months later, the State of Indiana filed a case seeking the forfeiture of the vehicle Timbs was driving at the time of his arrest: a Land Rover worth approximately $40,000.

Following an evidentiary hearing on the State’s forfeiture request, the Indiana trial court determined that forfeiture would be grossly disproportionate to the crime, and therefore unconstitutional under the Eighth Amendment’s Excessive Fines Clause.  The Eighth Amendment provides: “Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.”  The Indiana Court of Appeals affirmed but the Indiana Supreme Court unanimously reversed, declining to apply the Excessive Fines Clause because the U.S. Supreme Court has not yet held that the States are subject to the Excessive Fines Clause.

The questions and comments posed by the U.S. Supreme Court at the oral argument strongly suggested a general consensus among the justices that the Excessive Fines Clause is incorporated against the States under the Fourteenth Amendment, and therefore does apply to economic sanctions imposed by State and local governments.  The justices’ comments, however, suggested disagreement on the scope of the right guaranteed by the Excessive Fines Clause, especially in the context of civil asset forfeitures.  Because the Indiana Supreme Court did not reach the question of the forfeiture’s excessiveness due to the absence of definitive U.S. Supreme Court authority regarding the application of the Excessive Fines Clause to the States, the U.S. Supreme Court could hold that the Excessive Fines Clause does apply to the States, but not provide standards for determining whether a particular fine is unconstitutionally excessive.  A transcript of the oral argument is available here.

This afternoon the Senate voted 50 – 49 to invoke cloture and proceed to debate and a final vote on the nomination of Kathy Kraninger to be the next Director of the Bureau of Consumer Financial Protection (“BCFP”).  The vote was along strict party lines, with Senator James Inhofe (R-OK) not voting.  The Senate could begin debate on Kraninger’s nomination as early as Monday.  If all 50 senators who voted affirmatively today do so again for the full Senate vote, Kraninger’s confirmation is assured.  Once confirmed by the Senate, Kraninger will serve a 5-year term as the Director of the BCFP.

The CFPB, Fed, and OCC have published notices in the Federal Register announcing that they are increasing three exemption thresholds that are subject to annual inflation adjustments. Effective January 1, 2019 through December 31, 2019, these exemption thresholds are increased as follows:

The CFPB has filed an amicus brief in the U.S. Supreme Court in support of the respondent/law firm defendant in Obduskey v. McCarthy & Holthus LLP, et al., a Tenth Circuit decision that held that a law firm hired to pursue a non-judicial foreclosure under Colorado law was not a debt collector as defined under the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act.  The Supreme Court granted certiorari in June 2018 to review the Tenth Circuit’s decision and resolve a circuit split on whether the FDCPA applies to non-judicial foreclosure proceedings.  Because the Supreme Court’s decision in Obduskey will determine whether the FDCPA’s protections apply in countless non-judicial foreclosure actions, it could have a significant financial impact on the mortgage industry.

The amicus brief represents the second CFPB amicus brief filed under Acting Director Mulvaney’s leadership (the first was filed in the Seventh Circuit) and the first CFPB amicus brief filed in the Supreme Court under his leadership.  Most significantly, the amicus brief appears to be the first amicus brief filed by the CFPB in which it has supported the industry position.

In its amicus brief, the CFPB points to FDCPA Section 1692a(6) which defines the term “debt collector” to include, for purposes of Section 1692f(6), someone whose business is principally the “enforcement of security interests.”  Section 1692f(6) provides that it is an unfair or unconscionable collection practice to take or threaten to take nonjudicial action to effect dispossession of property under specified circumstances.  The CFPB argues that it follows from this ‘limited-purpose definition of debt collector” that, except for purposes of Section 1692f(6), enforcing a security interest, is not, by itself debt collection and to read the provision differently would render the “limited-purpose definition…superfluous.”

Based on these provisions, the CFPB contends that because enforcement of a security interest by itself is generally not debt collection under the FDCPA, a person cannot violate the FDCPA by taking actions that are legally required to enforce a security interest.  According to the CFPB, “[t]hat is dispositive here because the initiation of a Colorado nonjudicial-foreclosure proceeding undisputedly was a required step in enforcing a security interest.”  (The CFPB observes in a footnote that, although not implicated in Obduskey, actions clearly incidental to the enforcement of a security interest, even if not strictly required by state law, also would not constitute debt collection.)  The CFPB asserts that deeming the initiation of a non-judicial foreclosure proceeding to be debt collection “could bring the FDCPA into conflict with state law and effectively preclude compliance with state foreclosure procedures.  No sound basis exists to assume Congress intended that result.”

 

 

Politico has reported that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell filed cloture this afternoon on President Trump’s nomination of Kathy Kraninger to serve as CFPB Director.  The filing means that the full Senate will vote on the nomination once it returns after Thanksgiving, although the date of a vote remains uncertain.

 

 

The CFPB has issued its Spring 2018 Semi-Annual Report to Congress covering the period October 1, 2017 through March 31, 2018.

At 41 pages, the new report is even shorter than the Bureau’s last semi-annual report (which was 55 pages) and continues what appears to be a goal under Acting Director Mulvaney’s leadership of issuing semi-annual reports that are substantially shorter than those issued under the leadership of former Director Cordray.  Like the prior semi-annual report under Mr. Mulvaney’s leadership, and also in contrast to the reports issued under former Director Cordray’s leadership, the new report does not contain any aggregate numbers for how much consumers obtained in consumer relief and how much was assessed in civil money penalties in supervisory and enforcement actions during the period covered by the report.

Pursuant to Section 1017(a)(1) of the Dodd-Frank Act, subject to the Act’s funding cap, the Fed is required to transfer to the CFPB on a quarterly basis “the amount determined by the [CFPB] Director to be reasonably necessary to carry out the authorities of the Bureau under Federal consumer financial law, taking into account such other sums made available to the Bureau from the preceding year (or quarter of such year.)”  The new report references the January 2018 letter sent by Mr. Mulvaney to former Fed Chair Yellen requesting no funds for the second quarter of Fiscal Year 2018.

Mr. Mulvaney has, however, sent letters to Fed Chair Powell requesting funds transfers for the third and fourth quarters of FY 2018 and for the first quarter of FY 2019.  The amounts requested are, respectively, $98.5 million, $65.7 million, and $172.9 million.  (In contrast, former Director Cordray’s final transfer request, which was for the first quarter of FY 2018, sought a transfer of $217.1 million.)  Two of Mr. Mulvaney’s letters included the following statement:

By design, this funding mechanism [created by Section 1017(a)(1)] denies the American people their rightful control over how the Bureau spends their money, which undermines the Bureau’s legitimacy.  The Bureau should be funded through Congressional appropriations.  However, I am bound to execute the law as written. 

The new report indicates that the Bureau had 1,671 employees as of March 31, 2018, representing a slight increase in the number of employees (1,627) as of March 31, 2017.  The new report does not discuss any ongoing or past developments of significance beyond those we have covered in previous blog posts.

 

 

 

 

In this week’s episode, we discuss recent enforcement activity under the Military Lending Act and the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act, as well as takeaways about compliance.  We also review the CFPB’s controversial decision to no longer conduct exams for MLA compliance, look at the legal basis for the decision, and analyze the arguments made by critics.

To listen and subscribe to the podcast, click here.

In August 2018, Arizona began accepting applications for its regulatory sandbox that “enables a participant to obtain limited access to Arizona’s market to test innovative financial products or services without first obtaining full state licensure or other authorization that otherwise may be required.”  The state’s Attorney General is responsible for the application process and oversight of the sandbox.  At the end of last week, the Arizona AG announced that two more participants, Grain Technology, Inc. and Sweetbridge NFP, Ltd., had been added to the state’s sandbox.

In October 2018, there was an announcement by the AG that Omni Mobile Inc. had become the first sandbox participant.  The AG’s press release described Omni as “a mobile payment platform aiming to test cheaper and faster payment transfers through its centralized wallet infrastructure.”  It indicated that the product would be tested by processing guest payments at an Arizona resort, with Arizona-resident guests to receive a disclosure agreement (regarding the company’s participation in the sandbox), an explanation of the test nature of the product, a privacy notice, and the ability to opt out of any information sharing with the resort.

The AG’s announcement regarding Omni was accompanied by an announcement that the AG’s Office had signed a cooperation agreement with Taiwan’s financial regulator, the Financial Supervisory Commission, with the goal of creating an information-sharing arrangement that might create opportunities for businesses to develop and test fintech products in both markets.

The two additional sandbox participants announced last week are described in the AG’s press release as follows:

  • Grain Technology, Inc., based in New York, will test a savings and credit product in Arizona using proprietary technology to offer consumers customized savings plans and credit opportunities. Arizona consumers participating in the program will obtain access to a small line of credit aimed primarily at providing overdraft protection for bank accounts.  APRs for loans obtained through this line of credit may be as low as 12% for consumers who agree to follow a recommended repayment plan calculated using Grain’s technology (a standard APR of 15.99% will apply for those who adopt a different repayment plan).  Grain intends for loans and payments occurring through this line of credit to be reported to major credit-reporting agencies to enable consumers to build their credit profiles.
  • Sweetbridge NFP, Ltd., a Scottsdale-based international nonprofit building blockchain protocols for supply chains and commerce, will test a lending product using proprietary blockchain technology with an APR cap of 20%.  At these rates, Sweetbridge’s product will allow consumers to obtain credit at up to 1/10th the cost allowed under Arizona law.

In September 2018, the CFPB proposed significant revisions to its “Policy to Encourage Trial Disclosure Programs,” which sets forth the Bureau’s standards and procedures for exempting individual companies, on a case-by-case basis, from applicable federal disclosure requirements to allow those companies to test trial disclosures.  The proposal followed Acting Director Mulvaney’s July 2018 appointment of Paul Watkins to serve as Director of the Bureau’s Office of Innovation.  Before joining the CFPB, Mr. Watkins was in charge of fintech initiatives in the Arizona AG’s Office and led the state’s efforts to create its regulatory sandbox.  The CFPB’s proposal includes a process for the CFPB to coordinate with sandbox programs offered by other regulators.

 

Yesterday, the court reversed course in the lawsuit filed by two industry trade groups challenging the CFPB’s final payday/auto title/high-rate installment loan rule (Payday Rule).  On its own initiative, the Texas federal district court granted a stay of the Payday Rule’s August 19, 2019 compliance date and continued in force its stay of the lawsuit.  Unfortunately, the court did not specify a termination date for the stay of the compliance date, as the trade groups and CFPB originally requested.  Instead, the compliance date is stayed “pending further order of the court.”

To my mind, the court’s failure to specify how long the stay of the compliance date will remain in effect leaves the Rule’s status hopelessly muddled.  The CFPB has stated that its current plan is to revisit the Payday Rule’s ability-to-repay (ATR) provisions but not its payment provisions.  CFPB officials have indicated that the Bureau intends to propose a delay of the Payday Rule’s ATR provisions but not the payment provisions.  What happens if the CFPB follows through with that plan?  When the parties report that development to the court, might the court just lift its stay of the compliance date, without affording lenders additional time to address the payment provisions?

My guess is that the court intends its stay to function like the tolling of a statute of limitations—meaning that, for each day the stay remains in effect, the August 19 compliance deadline is extended for an additional day.  But alas, the court’s order does not specify this intent.  I hope the parties in the case ask for clarification that the compliance date will be extended day-for-day so long as the stay remains in effect.  Alternatively, the CFPB could announce that it will propose a delay in the compliance date for the payment provisions when it moves forward with its rule-making next January.

Unless and until the court and/or the CFPB clarify their intentions, prudent lenders will continue to prepare for the advent of the payment provisions of the Payday Rule.  As Ned Stark from The Game of Thrones might say (if he were alive):  “August 19 is coming.”

 

 

In June 2018, HUD issued an advance notice of proposed rulemaking (ANPR) seeking comment on whether its 2013 Fair Housing Act disparate impact rule (Rule) should be revised in light of the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2015 Inclusive Communities decision.  Comments on the ANPR were due by August 20, 2018.  The Rule is the subject of a lawsuit originally filed in June 2013 by the American Insurance Association and National Association of Mutual Insurance Companies in the D.C. federal district court.  In April 2016, the trade groups amended their complaint to include a claim that the Rule is inconsistent with the limitations on disparate impact claims set forth in Inclusive Communities.  As described more fully below, the district court entered an order last week that contemplates HUD’s issuance of a proposal to revise the Rule by December 18, 2018.

Oral argument on the parties’ cross summary judgment motions was initially scheduled for February 13, 2017.  However, on February 8, 2017, the court granted in part a motion filed by HUD seeking a continuance of the oral argument to allow the Trump Administration to install new HUD and Department of Justice officials, and continued the argument until a date to be determined by the court.  In addition, on February 15, 2017, the court stayed the case pending further discussions between the parties.

On October 19, 2018, the parties filed a joint status report in which the trade groups urged the court to schedule oral argument on the cross summary judgment motions in light of uncertainty as to what HUD’s proposal might provide and its refusal to commit not to take enforcement action against the trade groups’ members under the Rule.

On October 26, upon consideration of the joint status report, the court entered a minute order continuing the stay until December 18, 2018 to allow HUD “to issue a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking in response to public comments.”  The parties were also ordered to file another joint status report by December 18 “updating the Court on the status of HUD’s issuance of the rule and proposing any next steps in this litigation.”

Disparate impact also appears to be on the CFPB’s rulemaking agenda.  On October 17, the CFPB released its Fall 2018 rulemaking agenda.  In its preamble to the agenda and a blog post about the agenda, the CFPB indicated that future rulemaking it is considering includes the requirements of the Equal Credit Opportunity Act (ECOA).  More specifically, the blog post referenced the Bureau’s May 2018 announcement that “it is reexamining the requirements of the [ECOA] concerning the disparate impact doctrine in light of recent Supreme Court case law and the Congressional disapproval of a prior Bureau bulletin concerning indirect auto lender compliance with ECOA and its implementing regulations.”