The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) recently announced that it will “formally seek the public’s comment on whether its 2013 Disparate Impact Regulation is consistent with the 2015 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs v. Inclusive Communities Project, Inc.

As we reported previously, the regulation provides that liability may be established under the Fair Housing Act (FHA) based on a practice’s discriminatory effect (i.e., disparate impact) even if the practice was not motivated by a discriminatory intent, and that a challenged practice may still be lawful if supported by a legally sufficient justification.  Under the regulation a practice has a discriminatory effect where it actually or predictably results in a disparate impact on a group of persons or creates, increases, reinforces, or perpetuates segregated housing patterns because of race, color, religion, sex, handicap, familial status, or national origin.  The regulation also addresses what constitutes a legally sufficient justification for a practice, and the burdens of proof of the parties in a case asserting that a practice has a discriminatory effect under the FHA.

While the Supreme Court held in its Inclusive Communities Project opinion that disparate impact claims may be brought under the FHA, it also set forth limitations on such claims that “are necessary to protect potential defendants against abusive disparate impact claims.”  In particular, the Supreme Court indicated that a disparate impact claim based upon a statistical disparity “must fail if the plaintiff cannot point to a defendant’s policy or policies causing that disparity” and that a “robust causality requirement” ensures that a mere racial imbalance, standing alone, does not establish a prima facie case of disparate impact, thereby protecting defendants “from being held liable for racial disparities they did not create.”  Significantly, while the Inclusive Communities Project opinion held that liability may be established under the FHA based on disparate impact, the disparate impact claim against the Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs was later dismissed by the District Court based on the limitations on such impact claims prescribed by the Supreme Court in its opinion.

We have previously reported on a challenge to the HUD regulation by the American Insurance Association and National Association of Mutual Insurance Companies in the federal district court for the District of Columbia.  The trade associations assert that the regulation is not consistent with the limitations on disparate impact claims set forth by the Supreme Court its Inclusive Communities Project opinion.  A status conference was held on May 10, 2018, and HUD filed a notice with the court advising of its intent to solicit comment on the regulation.  The upcoming HUD request for comment will provide the opportunity for the mortgage industry and other interested parties to address whether the regulation reflects the limitations set forth by the Supreme Court and other concerns with the regulation.

We will report on the HUD request for comment once it is released, and hold a webinar on the request following its release.

The U.S. Department of Justice announced earlier this week that it has reached an agreement with KleinBank, a state-chartered Minnesota bank, to settle the redlining lawsuit that the DOJ filed against the bank in January 2017, only a week before President Trump’s inauguration.  The agreement represents the first fair lending settlement entered into by the DOJ under the Trump administration.

The DOJ’s complaint, which related to the bank’s residential mortgage lending business, alleged that KleinBank violated the Fair Housing Act and the Equal Credit Opportunity Act by engaging in a pattern or practice of unlawful redlining of the majority-minority neighborhoods in the Minneapolis-St. Paul metropolitan area.  From 2010 to at least 2015, the bank was alleged to have avoided serving the credit needs of individuals seeking residential mortgage loans in majority-minority census tracts in the Metropolitan Statistical Area encompassing Minneapolis and St. Paul (MSA).

The redlining claim was based, in part, upon an allegation that KleinBank established and maintained a discriminatory Community Reinvestment Act (CRA) assessment area that was “horseshoe-shaped,” “include[d] the majority white suburbs, and carve[d] out the urban areas of Minneapolis and St. Paul that have higher proportions of minority populations.”  Specifically, the complaint alleges that the bank’s main CRA assessment area excluded 78 of 97 majority-minority census tracks in the MSA, “all but two of which are located in Hennepin and Ramsey Counties.”  The DOJ alleged that, in addition to the main CRA assessment area of the bank, the “proper CRA assessment area would include the entirety of Hennepin and Ramsey Counties.”

Unlike other redlining lawsuits that the DOJ had recently filed when it sued KleinBank, the DOJ’s action against KleinBank was contested by the bank which issued a statement in which it vigorously disputed the alleged redlining claims and called them an “unprecedented reach by the government.”  Although supported by the American Bankers Association, the Independent Community Bankers Association, the Minnesota Bankers Association, and forty other state bankers associations, the bank’s motion to dismiss the complaint was unsuccessful.

Under the settlement agreement, the DOJ agrees to jointly stipulate with KleinBank to the dismissal of the lawsuit and KleinBank agrees to take various actions including:

  • Opening one full-service brick and mortar office within a majority-minority census track within Hennepin County
  • Continuing to develop partnerships with community organizations to help establish a presence in majority-minority census tracks in Hennepin County
  • Employing a full-time Community Development Officer who is a member of management to oversee the development of the bank’s lending in majority-minority census tracks in Hennipin County
  • Spending a minimum of $300,000 on advertising, outreach, education, and credit repair initiatives over the next 3 years
  • Providing at least 2 outreach programs annually for real estate brokers and agents, developers, and public or private entities already engaged in residential and real estate-related business in majority-minority census tracks in Hennepin County to inform them of the products offered by KleinBank
  • Investing a minimum of $300,000 over 3 three years in a special purpose credit program that will offer residents of majority-minority census tracks in Hennepin County home mortgage  and home improvement loans on a more affordable basis than otherwise available from KleinBank, with such more affordable terms to be provided through one or more of the following means:
    • Originating or brokering a loan at an interest rate that is at least 1/2 of a percentage point (50 basis points) below the otherwise prevailing rate
    • Providing a direct grant of a portion of the loan amount for the purpose of down payment assistance, up to a maximum of 3.5%
    • Providing closing cost assistance in the form of a direct grant of a minimum of $500 and a maximum of $1,500
    • Paying the initial mortgage insurance premium on loans subject to mortgage insurance
    • Using other means approved by the DOJ

Most notably, unlike previous redlining settlements, such as those involving Hudson City Savings Bank and BankcorpSouth Bank, the KleinBank settlement does not require the bank’s payment of a civil money penalty.

In a blog post entitled “How S.2155 (the Bank Lobbyist Act) Facilitates Discriminatory Lending” Professor Adam Levitin claimed that “This bill functionally exempts 85% of US banks and credit unions from fair lending laws in the mortgage market.”  The claim was set forth in bold and italic text.  If the intent was to draw attention to the claim, it worked.  Members of this firm saw the claim.  In short, the claim greatly mischaracterizes the limited implications of the amendment.

The Professor is referring to an amendment that S.2155 would make to the Home Mortgage Disclosure Act (HMDA) for insured banks and insured credit unions that satisfy certain conditions.  First, I will address what the amendment would not do.  The amendment:

  • Would not exempt any institution from the Equal Credit Opportunity Act, the Fair Housing Act or any other substantive fair lending law.
  • Would not exempt any institution from the mortgage loan data reporting requirements of HMDA that were in effect before January 1, 2018.
  • Would not prevent bank and credit union regulators from obtaining any information on the mortgage lending activity of institutions that they supervise.

What the amendment would do is exempt small volume mortgage lenders from the expanded HMDA data reporting requirements that became effective on January 1, 2018 if they met certain conditions.  The conditions are that:

  • To be exempt from the expanded data reporting requirements for closed-end mortgage loans, the bank or credit union would have to originate fewer than 500 of such loans in each of the preceding two calendars years
  • To be exempt from the expanded data reporting requirements for home equity lines of credit (HELOCs), the bank or credit union would have to originate fewer than 500 of such credit lines in each of the preceding two calendars years.
  • The bank or credit union could not receive a rating of (1) “needs to improve record of meeting community credit needs” during each of its two most recent Community Reinvestment Act (CRA) examinations or (2) “substantial noncompliance in meeting community credit needs” on its most recent CRA examination.

The exemption for HELOC reporting would have no implications initially, and perhaps longer.  For 2018 and 2019 the threshold to report HELOCs is 500 transactions in each of the preceding two calendar years.  The 500 HELOC threshold was implemented by a temporary rule adopted by the CFPB under former Director Cordray in August 2017, which amended the HMDA rule adopted by the CFPB in October 2015 to revise the HMDA reporting requirements.  The October 2015 rule for the first time mandated the reporting of HELOCs, and set the reporting threshold at 100 HELOCs in each of the two preceding calendar years.  The CFPB indicated in the preamble to the temporary rule that it had evidence that the number of smaller institutions that would need to report HELOCs under the 100 threshold may be higher than originally estimated, and that the costs on those institutions to implement reporting may be higher than originally estimated.  The temporary rule allows the CFPB time to further assess the appropriate threshold.

While Professor Levitin inaccurately claims that the S.2155 amendment creates a functional exemption from the fair lending laws for small volume lenders, the statement that 85% of banks and credit unions would be covered by the exemption mischaracterizes the scope of lending activity subject to HMDA reporting requirements.  Based on the data used by the CFPB to assess the 2015 rule, the change from the 100 to 500 threshold would reduce the number of institutions reporting HELOCs from 749 to 231, but would reduce the percentage of HELOCs reported only from 88% to 76%.  Additionally, 2016 HMDA data reflect that while credit unions and small banks comprised over 73% of HMDA reporting entities, the institutions received under 15% of the reported applications for the year.  While the CFPB now acknowledges it may have underestimated the number of institutions that would be covered at the 100 HELOC threshold, these statistics reflect that focusing on the percentage of institutions subject to reporting, and not the percentage of transactions subject to reporting, paints an inaccurate picture of lending activity subject to HMDA reporting requirements.

Even for institutions that would qualify for the exemption from reporting the expanded HMDA data, the CFPB and financial institution regulators will still receive the traditional HMDA data from these institutions.  And regulators can use that information to assess whether they should take a closer look at the mortgage lending activity of any institutions.  Of great significance, as noted above, the S.2155 amendment would not limit the amount of information on mortgage lending that bank or credit union regulators can obtain from institutions that they supervise.

While the expansion of the HMDA data is intended to permit regulators to better assess the mortgage lending of an institution before having to request additional information from the institution, even the expanded data does not provide for a conclusive assessment of whether or not a given institution has engaged in discrimination when evaluating mortgage loan applications.  In fact, even with data that is more comprehensive than the expanded HMDA data, a statistical analysis still does not provide for a conclusive determination regarding underwriting determinations.  You have to get your hands on the actual loan files.

The main impact from the S.2155 amendment would be the reduction of some HMDA information from small volume lenders that will be made available to the public.  With new leadership at the CFPB, we don’t know what parts of the expanded HMDA data will be released to the public.  However, even under Director Cordray, the CFPB did not plan to issue credit score information, which is an important item of information to conduct a fair lending analysis.  A significant concern of the mortgage industry regarding the expanded HMDA data is that members of the public will improperly use the data that is released to claim that the data conclusively show that the institutions engaged in discrimination.  Given that Professor Levitin paints an inaccurate picture of the impact of the HMDA amendment under S.2155, those concerns appear to be warranted.

The 10-3 en banc decision in Zarda v. Altitude Express issued earlier this week by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit is likely to be relied on by regulators and private plaintiffs alleging violations of the Equal Credit Opportunity Act based on sexual orientation discrimination.  In Zarda, the Second Circuit held that the prohibition on employment discrimination on the basis of sex in Title VII of the Civil Rights Act includes discrimination based on sexual orientation.  As a result, regulators and private plaintiffs are likely to use the decision as support for the argument that the ECOA’s prohibition against credit-related discrimination on the basis of “sex” also includes discrimination based on sexual orientation.

The Second Circuit’s decision follows an April 2017 Seventh Circuit decision that held that discrimination based on sexual orientation was actionable under Title VII as sex-based discrimination.  The Second and Seventh Circuit decisions are at odds with a March 2017 Eleventh Circuit decision. The widening circuit split could lead the U.S. Supreme Court to agree to resolve the issue if a petition for certiorari is filed in Zarda.

The Department of Justice had filed an amicus brief in Zarda.  In its brief, the DOJ argued that based on Title VII’s plain text and precedent, the prohibition does not encompass sexual orientation discrimination “as a matter of law” and observed that “whether it should do so as matter of policy remains a question for Congress to decide.”  The DOJ’s position in the amicus brief is at odds with that of former CFPB Director Cordray, who had attempted to use Title VII cases to support the CFPB’s position that the ECOA’s prohibition against discrimination on the basis of “sex” includes discrimination based on sexual orientation.

Under Mr. Cordray’s leadership, the CFPB signaled that discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation might be a focus of fair lending supervision and enforcement.  Since Mr. Cordray’s resignation and President Trump’s appointment of Mick Mulvaney as Acting Director, the CFPB has not yet taken a position on this issue.  However, in light of Mr. Mulvaney’s statements that the CFPB would no longer “push the envelope” in its enforcement efforts, it seems likely that the CFPB will retreat from any efforts to extend ECOA protections to sexual orientation.

Regardless of the positions of the CFPB and DOJ, companies should be mindful of the fact that numerous state laws already prohibit discrimination in credit transactions on the basis of sexual orientation.  Companies should therefore continue to consider revising their policies, procedures and fair lending analyses to incorporate discrimination based on sexual orientation.

 

 

The National Fair Housing Alliance (NFHA) has announced a settlement in its lawsuit against Travelers Indemnity Company in which it alleged that Travelers engaged in discriminatory conduct in violation of the Fair Housing Act (FHA).

In its lawsuit, which was filed in federal district court in Washington, D.C., NFHA alleged that Travelers had a policy of refusing to provide habitational insurance policies to landlords that rent to tenants who use Housing Choice Vouchers, also known as Section 8 vouchers.  NFHA claimed that this policy had a disparate impact on African-Americans and women and served no legitimate business purpose.  NFHA also alleged that Travelers’ policy violated the D.C. Human Rights Act’s (DCHRA) prohibition of discrimination based on race, sex, or source of income.

Travelers filed a motion to dismiss in which it contended that NHFA did not have Article III standing and that NHFA had failed to plead sufficient facts to show a causal connection between its policy and any disparate impact under the heightened pleading standards established by the U.S. Supreme Court in Inclusive Communities.  The district court denied Travelers’ motion, concluding that NFHA did have Article III standing because it had suffered an injury in fact as a result of the substantial expenditures it incurred in attempting to combat Travelers’ policy through measures such as educational materials and advertisements.

The court also found that NHFA had pleaded facts that, if true, “would show that Travelers’ policy will exacerbate racial and sex-based disparities by having a disproportionate impact on African-Americans and members of women-headed households in the District.”  As a result, NFHA had stated a prima facie FHA claim under the “robust causality requirement of Inclusive Communities.”  Because the court assumed without deciding that a similar requirement applied to DCHRA claims, it found that NFHA had stated a claim under the DCHRA as well.

According to NFHA’s press release about the settlement, Travelers has agreed to pay $450,000 to NFHA for damages, costs, and fees and not to ask about the source of income of residents at D.C. properties that it considers insuring.  This includes not inquiring about the Housing Choice Voucher program and other government housing subsidy programs in connection with the underwriting, pricing, or eligibility for new and existing insurance policies for private rental housing properties in D.C.  Additionally, Travelers has agreed to provide training to employees involved in the sale or underwriting of insurance for rental properties.

 

A group of Democratic Senators and House members have sent a letter to Mick Mulvaney and Leandra English expressing concern about Mr. Mulvaney’s announcement that he plans to reorganize the CFPB’s Office of Fair Lending (OFLEO).

Earlier this month, Mr. Mulvaney announced that he plans to transfer the OFLEO from the Supervision, Enforcement, and Fair Lending Division (SEFL) to the Director’s Office, where it will become part of the Office of Equal Opportunity and Fairness (OEOF).  At that time, Mr. Mulvaney stated that OFLEO “will continue to focus on advocacy, coordination, and education, while its current supervision and enforcement functions will remain in SEFL.”  The OEOF oversees equal employment, diversity, and inclusion at the CFPB, and has no enforcement or supervisory role.

In their letter, the Democratic lawmakers expressed concern that the reorganization will frustrate the CFPB’s efforts to protect consumers from unfair, deceptive, or abusive acts and practices and from discrimination.  They cited OFLEO’s role in “help[ing] design specialized oversight and support[ing] bank examiners in assuring that CFPB’s regulated institutions were complying with anti-discrimination laws” and in “work[ing] with the CFPB’s enforcement lawyers and the Department of Justice to bring lawsuits” when problems identified in examinations could not be resolved. They noted that OFLEO has “also counseled banks in their efforts to build good compliance systems” and comment that of the OFLEO’s functions to date, “only the counseling will be supplied after the reorganization, though in the absence of dedicated anti-discrimination enforcement, it’s not clear whether there will be continuing demand.”

The Democratic lawmakers seek written responses to the questions asked in their letter by March 1, 2018 as well as “a copy of all documents and communications relating to the decision to [reorganize the OFLEO].”  Among the questions asked by the lawmakers are:

  • Whether the CFPB performed “a legal analysis to determine whether stripping the OFLEO of its enforcement authority would hinder the CFPB’s ability to carry out its statutory mandate to provide oversight and enforcement of federal fair lending laws
  • How transferring the OFLEO to the Director’s Office will “modify the Bureau’s decision-making process with regard to enforcement and other actions to protect consumers from unfair discrimination”
  • Whether Mr. Mulvaney or any other CFPB employee discussed the reorganization before it was announced “with any outside entities—including lobbyists or representatives of the banking or financial services industry”
  • Whether the CFPB is considering any substantive changes to its approach to the enforcement of fair lending laws, including changes to the CFPB’s interpretation of such laws

 

In an email to CFPB staff, Mick Mulvaney, President Trump’s designee as CFPB Acting Director, has indicated that he plans to make changes to the CFPB’s organizational structure to best enable the CFPB to fulfill its statutorily-mandated activities in a way that avoids redundancy and makes the best use of the CFPB’s resources.

The email describes two initial changes to be made by Mr. Mulvaney.  The first change is to relocate the Office of Consumer Response from the Operations Division to the Community Education and Engagement Division.

The second change is to transfer the Office of Fair Lending and Equal Opportunity (OFLEO) from the Supervision, Enforcement, and Fair Lending Division (SEFL) to the Director’s Office, where it will become part of the Office of Equal Opportunity and Fairness (OEOF).  In his email, Mr. Mulvaney stated that OFLEO “will continue to focus on advocacy, coordination, and education, while its current supervision and enforcement functions will remain in SEFL.”

The OEOF oversees equal employment, diversity, and inclusion at the CFPB, and has no enforcement role.  As a result, once it is part of the OEOF, it appears the OFLEO would no longer have any involvement in fair lending supervision or enforcement.  While it appears fair lending supervision and enforcement would remain in the SEFL, those activities would be performed by SEFL staffers whose responsibilities are not limited to fair lending.

Mr. Mulvaney’s reorganization plan has quickly provoked criticism from consumer advocacy groups who believe it will undermine the CFPB’s fair lending initiatives.

 

As we reported recently, the Government Accountability Office has determined that CFPB Bulletin 2013-02 on dealer pricing in indirect auto finance (“Dealer Pricing Bulletin” or “Bulletin”) is a “rule” subject to review under the Congressional Review Act (“CRA”).  We noted that, if Congress chose to disapprove the guidance, it would severely undermine the basis for any future enforcement or supervisory action based on the legal and factual theories set forth in the Bulletin.

Our friend Professor Adam Levitin at Georgetown Law Center sent one of us the following message on Twitter a few days ago, questioning whether such an override would have any impact at all:

@AlanKaplinsky Trying to puzzle through this.  It’s pretty weird. GAO’s determined that the IAL [indirect auto lending] guidance is subject to CRA. But as far as I can tell, the GAO decision has no force of law, and I don’t see how it could, as the CRA says it’s not subject to judicial review.  If it isn’t actually a “rule,” then a CRA disapproval resolution would have no effect.  But there’s no judicial review allowed to determine this.  And even if it is a rule, what would it mean to void non-binding guidance?  It doesn’t void or change the CFPB’s position or undercut any ECOA or UDAAP suit the CFPB might bring.  All it does it void the guidance communicating the CFPB’s position.  IAC, does it really matter?  Perhaps the CFPB will stop enforcement actions for a while, but the IAL consent decrees presumably have forward looking provisions, and there’s also state AG enforcement risk.  I can’t imagine compliance at most IALs letting them revert to old form.  And given the 5-year SOL on ECOA, even if a Trump confirmed CFPB Director had no interest in bringing ECOA actions, any reversion to old behavior will quickly become chargeable by the AG in the next administration or the CFPB Director after a Trump-confirmed one.  It’s possible that that AG and CFPB Director won’t be interested in pursuing ECOA actions, but if they are, a[n] IAL that reverted to allowing unpoliced markups would be in a most uncomfortable position.  A lot of risk for a few years of allowing unpoliced markups. (emphasis added).

There is much that can (and ultimately may) be said in response to each of these assertions, but given the likelihood of a joint resolution of disapproval being introduced shortly, we wanted to focus today on the suggestion that the enactment of a disapproval measure would be inconsequential.  More specifically, we wanted to take the opportunity to explain why, as suggested in our blog post, we believe an override of the Dealer Pricing Bulletin should put a permanent end to this theory of assignee liability for so-called dealer “markup” disparities and make it impossible for the CFPB to pursue supervisory or enforcement actions based upon it.

Let’s begin by remembering that the legal and factual theories on which the CFPB’s indirect auto fair lending cases were based are very shaky, to say the least.  We wrote a blog post about this a couple of years ago, but just to refresh your recollection:

  • There is a significant question, especially after Inclusive Communities, about whether disparate impact claims are cognizable under the Equal Credit Opportunity Act in the first place (see “The ECOA Discrimination and Disparate Impact – Interpreting the Meaning of the Words that Actually Are There,” 61 Business Lawyer 829 (2006));
  • The Supreme Court decision in Dukes v. Wal-Mart stands for the proposition that a policy of “allowing discretion” is not a specific, identifiable policy subject to disparate impact analysis (seeAuto Finance and Disparate Impact: Substantive Lessons Learned from Class Certification Decisions);
  • The Regulation B multiple creditor liability rule (12 C.F.R. § 1002.2(l)) provides that an assignee (i.e., an “indirect auto finance company” in the parlance of the Bureau) is not liable for an ECOA violation by the original creditor unless the assignee knew or had reasonable notice of the act, policy or practice constituting the violation before becoming involved in the credit transaction – meaning in our view that the government should need to prove that the assignee knew or had reasonable notice of disparate treatment by a dealership prior to purchasing a retail installment sale contract (“RISC”);
  • The legal theory on which the discrimination claim ultimately is based – that discretionary pricing by dealerships has a discriminatory effect due to disparate treatment by dealerships – would require a dealer-level analysis rather than a portfolio-wide one;
  • The use of a portfolio-wide analysis manufactures statistical evidence of discrimination that does not exist by aggregating the RISCs of different dealerships to the assignee level, thereby comparing different auto dealers to one another; and
  • The use of a continuous-regression model over BISG proxy results creates the appearance of disparities when none exist, and inflates any that may exist.

In subsequent blogs posts, we discussed reports prepared by the House Financial Services Committee Majority Staff titled “Unsafe at Any Bureaucracy: CFPB Junk Science and Indirect Auto Lending” and “Unsafe at Any Bureaucracy, Part III: The CFPB’s Vitiated Legal Case Against Auto Lenders.”  We also reported previously on the AFSA study titled “Fair Lending: Implications for the Indirect Auto Finance Market,”an Executive Summary of which is available here.  In short, the subject of alleged assignee liability for asserted dealer “mark-up” disparities has been highly controversial and a lightning rod for Congressional, media and industry criticism of the Bureau.

Now let’s assume for the moment that Congress enacts a joint resolution disapproving the Dealer Pricing Bulletin articulating the Bureau’s theories of assignee liability for so-called dealer “markup” disparities, and the President of the United States signs it into law.  In that event, we believe that it should become impossible for a federal governmental agency to pursue the theory of liability in enforcement and, therefore, anywhere else.  We further believe that such a Congressional override would cause the federal judiciary to be even more hostile to the CFPB’s theory of liability than Supreme Court decisions like Wal-Mart and Inclusive Communities would require.  Here’s why.

The salient question is, “what would be the import of the enactment of a joint resolution of disapproval?”  A Congressional override of the guidance would not represent, as Professor Levitin suggests, merely a disapproval of the agency’s statement of its position.  It is, rather, a disapproval of the position itself pursuant to a law enacted by the democratically-elected representatives of the People of the United States declaring that “such rule shall have no force and effect.”  The “position” is embodied in the “statement” and cannot be disassociated from it; they are indivisible.

The end result of the legislative process thus would be a Public Law effectively branding this theory of liability as, in the parlance of Inclusive Communities, a disparate impact claim that is “abusive” of sales finance companies and banks engaged in the automobile sales finance business.  (Inclusive Communities emphasized the importance of safeguards against disparate impact claims that are abusive of defendants, such as the requirement to identify a specific policy or practice of the defendant causing asserted statistical disparities, and directed district courts to enforce this “robust causality requirement” promptly by “examin[ing] with care whether a plaintiff has made out a prima facie case of disparate impact” by “alleg[ing] facts at the pleading stage or produc[ing] evidencing demonstrat[ing] a causal connection” between the alleged policy and the disparity.)

Pursuant to the CRA, the enactment of a disapproval measure would preclude the CFPB from subsequently reissuing the rule or adopting a new rule that is substantially the same as the disapproved rule unless “the reissued or new rule is specifically authorized by a law enacted after the date of the joint resolution disapproving the original rule.”

If the CFPB’s “rule,” as expressed in its Dealer Pricing Bulletin, is invalid, and the CFPB cannot issue a similar rule in the future, how can it possibly turn around and apply the disapproved “rule” in supervision and enforcement?  We don’t believe it can because doing so would disregard the clear import of an act of Congress.  Rather, we are confident that a Court would conclude that the Congressional override is an expression of disapproval of the legal and factual theories of liability expressed in the Bulletin.

By Professor Levitin’s logic, even though Congress nullified the CFPB arbitration agreements rule, the CFPB would be free to commence UDAAP enforcement actions or administrative proceedings against companies simply for using arbitration agreements with class action waivers, even though the rule prohibiting them was invalidated.  We think this result not only would defy the Canon of Common Sense, but it also would fail to give effect to the will of the People as reflected in an act of Congress that was approved by the President of the United States.

In Professor’s Levitin’s formulation, an administrative agency can continue to apply, in the enforcement (and apparently in the supervisory) contexts, the substance of a “rule” that has been disapproved by an act of Congress.  We respectfully disagree.  This being a representative Democracy in which the government is subordinated to the will of the People as expressed in laws enacted by their elected representatives, we think it makes common sense to answer the salient question in the manner we suggest, rather than in a manner that leaves an agency free to do as it pleases, insulated from the clear import of what Congress (and derivatively the People) have instructed by enacting a disapproval measure into law.  We thus urge Congress to disapprove CFPB Bulletin 2013-02, because we believe that congressional disapproval should have a permanent preclusive effect on the ability of federal regulators to pursue this deeply flawed theory of liability.

We do not appear to be alone in this view.  Professor Levitin himself, in testimony submitted to the House Financial Services Committee in 2015, noted that a provision of the Financial CHOICE Act that would repeal the Dealer Pricing Bulletin would “shield discriminatory lenders from legal repercussions.”  Although we would eliminate the word “discriminatory” from that sentence, we believe that a CRA override of the Dealer Pricing Bulletin would have that effect.  Suggesting that the CFPB could pursue these cases against “indirect auto lenders” after a Congressional override of the Bulletin strikes us as wishful thinking.

Congress may have now have the opportunity to disapprove by a simple majority vote the CFPB’s disparate impact theory of assignee liability for so-called dealer “markup” disparities as a result of a determination by the General Accountability Office (GAO) that the CFPB’s Bulletin describing its legal theory is a “rule” subject to override under the Congressional Review Act (CRA).

We previously blogged about press reports that the GAO had accepted a request from Senator Patrick Toomey to determine whether CFPB Bulletin 2013-02, titled “Indirect Auto Lending and Compliance with the Equal Credit Opportunity Act” (the “Bulletin”), is a “rule” within the scope of the CRA.  (“Indirect auto lenders” is the term used by the Bureau to refer to persons, such as banks and sales finance companies, that are engaged in the business of accepting assignments of automobile retail installment sale contracts from dealerships.)  We subsequently suggested that a recent GAO determination that the interagency leveraged lending guidance is a “rule” subject to the CRA foreshadowed a similar determination for the CFPB indirect auto finance guidance reflected in the Bulletin.

As it turns out, we were right.  The GAO issued its decision on December 5, 2017, concluding that the Bulletin is a “rule” subject to the CRA because “it is a general statement of policy designed to assist indirect auto lenders to ensure they are operating in compliance with [the] ECOA and Regulation B, as applied to dealer markup and compensation policies.”

The Bulletin is an official guidance document issued by the Bureau on March 21, 2013.  It effectively previewed the Bureau’s subsequent ECOA enforcement actions against assignees of automobile retail installment sale contracts (RISCs), setting forth the views of the CFPB concerning what it characterized as a significant ECOA compliance risk associated with an asserted assignee “policy” of “allowing” dealerships to negotiate the annual percentage rate under a retail installment sale contract by “marking up” the wholesale buy rate established by a prospective assignee.  The Bulletin’s intent to establish its enforcement and supervisory approach with respect to the subject practice was unmistakably clear not only from its text but also from the tag line in the accompanying press release – “Consumer Financial Protection Bureau to Hold Auto Lenders Accountable for Illegal Discriminatory Markup.”

Before responding to Senator’s Toomey’s request, in accordance with its standard procedure for responding to requests of this nature, the GAO solicited and obtained the CFPB’s views.  The Bureau responded to the GAO by letter dated July 7, 2017.

The legal analysis reflected in the GAO opinion is straightforward.  Subject to exceptions not relevant, the CRA adopts the Administrative Procedure Act definition of a “rule,” which states, in relevant part, that a rule is “”the whole or a part of an agency statement of general . . . applicability and future effect designed to implement, interpret, or prescribe law or policy . . ..”  The GAO framed the question presented as “whether a nonbinding general statement of policy, which provides guidance on how [the] CFPB will exercise its discretionary enforcement powers, is a rule under [the] CRA.”  It agreed with the CFPB’s assertion that the Bulletin “is a non-binding guidance document” that “identifies potential risk areas and provides general suggestions for compliance” with the ECOA.

The GAO rejected, however, the CFPB’s argument that the CRA does not apply to the Bulletin because the Bulletin has no legal effect on regulated entities.  Specifically, the Bureau had argued “taken as a whole the CRA can logically apply only to agency documents that have [binding] legal effect.”  The GAO concluded that “CRA requirements apply to general statements of policy, which, by definition, are not legally binding.”

The GAO letter explains that, “to strengthen congressional oversight of agency rulemaking,” the CRA requires all federal agencies, including independent regulatory agencies, to submit a report on each new rule to both Houses of Congress and to the Comptroller General before it can take effect.” (emphasis added)  The CFPB acknowledged that it had not complied with this formal reporting requirement because it did not believe the Bulletin was a “rule” subject to the CRA reporting requirement.  In response to the GAO decision, Senator Toomey issued a press release stating that “I intend to do everything in my power to repeal this ill-conceived rule using the Congressional Review Act.”

As explained in prior blog posts, the CRA establishes a streamlined procedure pursuant to which Congress may enact, by simple majority vote, a joint resolution disapproving a “rule.”  A joint resolution of disapproval passed by Congress is presented to the President for executive action.  If approved by the President, the joint resolution is enacted into law and assigned a Public Law number.  If a joint resolution of disapproval is enacted into law, the disapproved rule “may not be reissued in substantially the same form, and a new rule that is substantially the same as such a rule may not be issued, unless the reissued or new rule is specifically authorized by a law enacted after the date of the joint resolution disapproving the original rule.”  Thus, the enactment of a joint resolution of disapproval has a preclusive effect on future regulatory action.

According to a Congressional Research Service report, in prior instances where the GAO determined that the agency action satisfied the CRA definition of a “rule” and joint resolutions of disapproval were subsequently introduced, “the Senate has considered the publication in the Congressional Record of the official GAO opinions . . . as the trigger date for the initiation period to submit a disapproval resolution and for the action period during which such a resolution qualifies for expedited consideration in the Senate.”  If a joint resolution of disapproval is introduced, it therefore would appear that the CRA clock may start to run for expedited consideration by the Senate once the GAO opinion is published in the Congressional Record.

So, what does all of this mean for the automobile sales finance industry?  We think there are several important implications.  First, the GAO’s decision strengthens the argument that the CFPB’s effort to regulate dealer pricing of RISCs should have been pursued through a rulemaking proceeding, rather than through “guidance” and enforcement actions.

Second, the GAO determination means that Congress could override the Bulletin by means of a joint resolution of disapproval, with a majority vote that could not be avoided by a Senate filibuster.  Given the Republican opposition to the CFPB’s pursuit of this issue, and the Democratic support for auto dealers as well (expressed in letters from members of Congress to the CFPB), there seems to be a fair chance of a CRA disapproval resolution passing.  Indeed, as Senator Toomey noted in his press release, the House of Representatives passed the Reforming CFPB Indirect Auto Financing Guidance Act in November 2015 by a bipartisan vote of 332-96.

What would the enactment of a joint resolution of disapproval mean?  Obviously, it would mean the Bulletin would be null and void.  But since the Bulletin was non-binding anyway and the CFPB did not comply with the CRA reporting requirement, what difference would it make?

Opponents of the CFPB’s disparate impact theory of liability would argue that the override of the guidance is, by definition, a Congressional repudiation of its content – the legal and factual theories of liability contained in the Bulletin. The corollary of this compelling argument is that the override would preclude not only another similar “rule,” but also that which is inherent in the existence of such a “rule” – its application to regulated entities in supervisory activities or enforcement actions. This repudiation would be permanent (unless altered by a subsequent Congressional enactment), and might therefore offer a lasting end to the CFPB’s efforts to regulate dealer pricing through banks and sales finance companies, rather than the potentially temporary hiatus that could be brought about by new leadership at the CFPB.

We hope that Congress will override the Bulletin under the CRA, and possibly put a final end to this highly questionable legal and factual ECOA theory.

The FRB recently hosted a fair lending “hot topics” webinar in conjunction the DOJ, HUD, CFPB, FDIC, OCC, and NCUA. The seven agencies discussed fair lending developments, including the revised HMDA reporting requirements, compliance management for consumer loans, and various issues related to fair lending complaints, investigations, and enforcement.

HMDA and Revised Regulation C:

Eric Wang, Deputy Fair Lending Director of the CFPB’s Office of Fair Lending and Equal Opportunity, emphasized that the CFPB is currently updating its HMDA exam procedures and that the industry should be “on the lookout” for the revised “Getting it Right” guide. He noted that the new HMDA requirements expand reporting to include 48 data elements (from 23, of which 14 have been modified), and 110 data fields (from 39). Addressing industry outcry, Wang confirmed that file resubmission will not be required based upon overall error rates. Instead, resubmission will be required where the error rates of individual fields exceed applicable thresholds. The new data resubmission guidelines also include error tolerances for certain data fields.

Wang stated that the Bureau’s 2018 examinations will prioritize whether entities have made “good faith efforts” to comply with revised Regulation C. Good faith may be shown by the creation of an implementation plan or updates to policies and procedures. Wang reiterated that after the revised rule takes effect, the Bureau’s role will be “diagnostic and corrective, not punitive;” however, he refused to confirm whether the CFPB will use all HMDA data fields in its examinations. He stated that the CFPB has not prioritized “key fields” because it “would like to maintain the flexibility to examine all HMDA data fields [for] accuracy.” Vonda Eanes, Director for CRA and Fair Lending Policy at the OCC, confirmed that all agencies will have access to all HMDA data and, despite the OCC, FDIC and FRB joint guidance prioritizing 37 “key fields,” the OCC “expects to leverage all the additional HMDA data fields” in its fair lending risk analysis.

Notably, the panel failed to clarify the impact of Regulation C’s changes upon lenders’ CRA obligations. Although cautioning that no final decision has been made, Eanes confirmed that the OCC, FRB, and FDIC are considering the issuance of interagency guidance that recognizes the expanded mandatory reporting in revised Regulation C. In particular, for lenders with a sufficient number of originations, the reporting of open end lines of credit is no longer optional. Additionally, the definitions of dwelling, reverse mortgage, and manufactured home have changed. Reporting under the new HMDA data elements is required for applications on which final action is taken on or after January 1, 2018, except that for applicant demographic data the institution has the option to report under the requirements in effect at the time of application or under the 2018 rule requirements regardless of when the application was taken.

Indirect Auto Finance:

Matthew Nixon, Program Director of the NCUA’s Office of Consumer Financial Protection and Access, refused to state whether the NCUA will focus on any “hot topic” fair lending issues in 2018, but noted that it anticipates examinations will reflect the agency’s current focal points—45% related to specific concerns noted by district examiners or regional offices, 20% related to pricing disparities, 30% related to HMDA data integrity, and 5% related to follow-on work from the previous year. When prompted during the question and answer segment, NCUA noted that examinations are risk focused and indirect auto lending programs are reviewed on a case-by-case basis according to the entity’s risk profile (which includes compensation structure, complaints received, input from the district examiner, and oversight and monitoring practices). The NCUA noted that virtually all exams included cursory review of indirect auto lending programs, but only about 10% resulted in more intensive review.

Compliance Management for Consumer Loans:

Katrina Blodgett, Counsel in the FRB’s Fair Lending Enforcement Section of the Division of Consumer and Community Affairs, noted that the FRB engages in risk-focused supervision and expects that an entity’s CMS provide oversight commensurate with the level of pricing discretion provided by each consumer loan program. The FRB expects that an entity clearly communicate the basis for any exceptions offered to its loan officers, including waiving, reducing, or increasing fees. Blodgett encouraged the use of rate sheets to track all exception variables and advised that rate sheets should be reviewed as part of monthly compliance meetings. Moreover, loan officer training should include the proper use of rate sheets. Tara Oxley, Chief of Fair Lending and CRA Examinations at the FDIC, emphasized that fair lending monitoring programs should be conducted portfolio-wide and only limited to a branch-specific analysis where policies and procedures differ across branches. According to Oxley, an entity’s review must include an analysis of its lending data and its pricing exceptions and overrides, regardless of entity size or complexity.

Investigations and Enforcement:

Jacy Gaige, HUD’s Director of the Office of Systemic Investigations, reviewed the agency’s roughly 1,000 fair lending complaints in 2016. Gaige noted that the most common policy-related complaints involved requiring cosigners or unnecessary documentation for applicants with disability income, such as a doctor’s note that a disability is likely to continue. Gaige emphasized that lenders may face FHA liability where unclear policies and procedures create confusion or delay regarding application requirements or where extra help (friendlier service and quicker callback times) are provided for some individuals as compared with protected classes.

With parental leave, HUD has found that lenders have been impermissibly requiring a parent to return to work before income may be counted or impermissibly requiring a letter that an employer expects the employee to return to work. Lenders have also made statements that applicants may change their mind about returning to work or that many people do not return to work after having a baby. Gaige noted that in these situations, elevated damages may be available on account of the emotional distress associated with an early return to work.

Common complaints also included allegations that lender policies allow investor loans for small rental properties but not for group homes (which often include persons with disabilities), prohibit lending on Native American reservations, prohibit lending to those persons with less than $500,000 or more in collateral, or prohibit lending in a specific community based on the false perception of the prevalence of fraud. Novel complaints include lenders’ use of social media to target specific geographic areas or individuals (including use of a network’s parent/non-parent designation).

Marta Campos of the DOJ Civil Rights Division provided no indication of what new direction, if any, the DOJ will take in 2018. Her comments were limited to the BancorpSouth Bank joint investigation with the CFPB, which settled in June 2016. In response to a public question highlighting the dated settlement, Campos stated that there “may be” similar cases coming down the pike. She noted that lenders’ CMS programs should be able to detect similar redlining and underwriting red flags identified in Bancorp.