The new year heralds many new developments in the state regulation of student loan servicers.  California, Illinois, and Washington have each taken significant steps in implementing their existing laws while legislation has been introduced in Virginia and New Mexico to regulate student loan servicers for the first time.

California. California’s Department of Business Oversight has published its student loan servicing annual report cover letter and student loan servicing annual report form.  The cover letter provides instructions for how licensees are to file the required annual report with the Commissioner by March 15th.  The annual report form requires detailed portfolio and borrower information as of December 31st, as well as aggregate complaint information for the calendar year.  These developments come along with the DBO’s publication of the third revisions to its proposed rules under the Student Loan Servicing Act.  The revisions include publication of NMLS forms, require that licensees appoint the Commissioner of the DBO as an agent for service of process, clarify the formula for assessing the required annual fee, and make various clerical revisions.

Illinois. Illinois is now accepting student loan servicer applications through NMLS.  The Student Loan Servicing Rights Act became effective December 31, 2018, but the state’s proposed regulations, published November 16, 2018, have not been finalized.

Among other requirements, the Illinois regulations require that each licensee maintain a “secured-access website” to handle communications and questions regarding new loan applications or existing loans.  The regulations further require that licensees provide “detailed” account information to borrowers on its website through a secure login system.  The regulations include an independent requirement that servicers maintain certain documents or information concerning each loan serviced consisting of: (1) the application; (2) disclosure statements sent to the borrower; (3) the promissory note or loan agreement; (4) complete loan history; (5) qualified written requests; (6) borrower instructions on how to apply overpayments; (7) statements of account sent to the borrower; and (8) any additional records specified by the Director of the Division of Banking.  All records must be maintained for a minimum of three years after the loan has been paid in full, assigned to collections, or the servicing rights have been sold, assigned, or transferred.

The regulations also include other novel additions, including that licensees maintain a consolidated report of all loans serviced by the licensee, provide same-day crediting of physical payments, provide same-day crediting of electronic payments received before a posted cut-off time, and apply payments received from cosigners only to loans for which the payor has cosigned unless otherwise specifically directed by the cosigner.

Washington. The state of Washington has published revised student loan servicer regulations, which became effective January 1, 2019.  The rules implement the modifications to the Consumer Loan Act passed last year.  The regulations now define “student loan servicing” which, similar to other states, includes receiving scheduled periodic payments, applying payments, handling modification requests, and performing “other administrative services, including collection activities.”  The modifications clarify that the regulations do not apply to licensed collection agencies collecting loans in default, or licensed attorneys collecting loans as part of providing legal services.

Substantive changes to the Washington rules relate to servicers’ reporting duties in the event of business changes, the provision of payoff information to borrowers, and the provision of a toll-free number where the borrower may speak to a single point of contact about repayment and loan forgiveness options.  The regulations also clarify that if a servicer is acquiring, transferring, or selling servicing on federal student loans in compliance with federal Department of Education rules, the regulations’ loan transfer requirements do not apply.

Virginia. In Virginia, Democratic representative Marcus B. Simon introduced HB 1760, which would prohibit any person from acting as an education loan servicer without a license and mirrors legislation he introduced in 2017.  The bill exempts certain financial institutions and nonprofit institutions of higher education, but covers other entities that receive scheduled periodic payments, apply principal and interest payments, or perform other administrative services.  The bill makes a violation punishable by a civil penalty of up to $2,500.  Among other things, violations may result from activity related to borrower communication, payment application, and credit reporting.  The bill has a delayed effective date of October 1, 2020 with applications to be accepted March 1, 2020.

New Mexico. The New Mexico legislature may soon consider its own student loan servicing restrictions.  On December 27th, Democratic Senator Bill Tallman introduced the Student Loan Servicing Rights Act, which largely follows the form of other state bills, including Virginia.  Servicing—receiving scheduled periodic payment, applying principal and interest payments, or performing administrative services—would require a license.  Certain financial institutions are exempted.  A violation of the Act, which includes provision of false or deceptive information, misapplication of payments, and furnishing inaccurate credit information, can result in a civil penalty of up to $5,000.

With the 2018 midterm elections shifting state legislatures and governorships to Democratic control, similar legislation is expected in more states this year.

 

As we reported, the Department of Education announced earlier this month that it would begin implementing its “borrower defense” final rule which was issued in November 2016 by providing discharges of federal student loans made to any borrowers who, in addition to other conditions, could not complete his or her program of study because the borrower’s school closed.  The final rule was the subject of litigation that resulted in an October 2018 ruling requiring the Department to implement the rule.

In addition to requiring the discharges, the final rule includes a ban on all pre-dispute arbitration agreements for borrower defense claims by schools receiving Title IV assistance under the Higher Education Act.  Both mandatory and voluntary pre-dispute arbitration agreements are prohibited by the rule, whether or not they contain opt-out clauses.  In addition, schools are prohibited from relying on any pre-dispute arbitration or other agreement to block a borrower from asserting a borrower defense claim in a class action lawsuit until the court has denied class certification and the time for any interlocutory review has elapsed or the review has been resolved.  The prohibition applies retroactively to pre-dispute arbitration or other agreements addressing class actions that were entered into before the final rule’s effective date.

In August 2018, following negotiated rulemaking, the ED published a notice of proposed rulemaking that would rescind the final rule and replace it with the “Institutional Accountability regulations” contained in the proposal.  Among the major changes to the final rule that would be made by the proposal is the removal of the arbitration ban.

Although the October 2018 ruling requires the Department to implement the final rule, the Department has not yet indicated whether it will enforce the arbitration ban, such as by requiring schools to retroactively cancel arbitration agreements in existing contracts.  Politico reported last week however that Department Spokeswoman Liz Hill has indicated that guidance from the Department on mandatory arbitration agreements will be forthcoming.

 

 

 

In a December 13 posting, the Department of Education announced that on December 14, it would begin sending emails to borrowers “to inform them that the company that handles billing and other services related to their federal student loans will discharge some or all of the borrower’s loans within the next 30-90 days.”

The discharges are required by Department’s “borrower defense” final rule which was issued in November 2016 and the subject of litigation that resulted in an October 2018 ruling requiring the Department to implement the rule.  It provides for the automatic discharge of federal student loans made to borrowers who, in addition to other conditions, could not complete his or her program of study because the borrower’s school closed.  Borrowers are also entitled to refunds of payments made on the loans.

According to media reports, the Department is expected to discharge $150 million in federal student loans owed by approximately 15,000 borrowers, with about half of the borrowers consisting of students who attended Corinthian Colleges.

 

The CFPB is facing criticism for not yet having issued the 2018 annual report of its Student Loan Ombudsman.  The 2017 annual report was issued in October 2017 and, like previous reports, included student loan complaint data and a discussion of such data.

The Dodd-Frank Act requires the Ombudsman to prepare an annual report “that describes the activities, and evaluates the effectiveness of the Ombudsman during the preceding year.”  Those criticizing the CFPB for not yet issuing a 2018 report emphasize the non-release of complaint data.  It should be noted however that while Dodd-Frank requires the Ombudsman to “compile and analyze data on borrower complaints regarding private education loans,” it does not impose a similar requirement for federal student loans nor does it require the Ombudsman to include complaint data in the annual report.

It is possible that the CFPB has not yet released the 2018 report because the position of Student Loan Ombudsman has remained unfilled since the August 2018 resignation of Seth Frotman, the former Ombudsman.  Mr. Frotman is now the Executive Director of the Student Borrower Protection Center.  Earlier this week, the Center issued a report containing an analysis of student loan complaints submitted to the CFPB on or after September 1, 2017.

 

 

Former CFPB Student Loan Ombudsman Seth Frotman, who abruptly resigned from the Bureau in August, has formed a nonprofit organization to advocate for additional oversight of the student loan industry. Called the Student Borrower Protection Center (SBPC), the group describes itself as “leading a nationwide effort to end the student debt crisis in America.”

The group’s website describes its projects as “supporting state and local officials” and “driving new actions in communities, in court, and in government.” These projects include: the Student Loan Law Initiative, a partnership with the University of California Irvine School of Law to generate additional research into student loan law and the economic impact of student loans; and the group’s partnerships with cities and states to advance borrower protections through legislations and policy proposals.

Among the legislative initiatives, the group describes as a discrete project the “California Borrower Bill of Rights.” The project solicits borrowers to join in lobbying the state of California to establish loan servicing standards, ban abusive practices, and create a state Student Loan Borrower Advocate to respond to consumer complaints, recommend legal reforms, and refer violators to law enforcement. The project acknowledges existing borrower protections established by the California’s Student Loan Servicing Act but does not describe what additional protections the group advocates.

The SBPC also has the explicit goal of assisting states and cities with “creative litigation strategy” in lawsuits against lenders and servicers. As part of its project on state partnerships, the group provides detailed resources on federal preemption of state regulations, borrower protections, and the nationwide impact of student debt on minorities, women, servicemembers, older Americans, and public servants.

As previously reported, Frotman’s departure from the Bureau included pointed criticism of Mulvaney’s leadership. The SBPC continues Frotman’s rehetoric with the accusations that when borrowers default, “it is often as a direct result of widespread illegal practices by student loan servicers” and that servicers “use the full weight of the government to wreak havoc on borrowers.”

In addition to Frotman, the organization includes several former CFPB employees. Bonnie Latreille, who was formerly part of the Office for Students and Young Consumers at the Bureau, serves as Director of Research and Advocacy. Mike Pierce, the SBPC’s Director and Managing Counsel, was formerly a deputy assistant director. The group’s advisory board includes Holly Petraeus and Nick Rathod, both former assistant directors at the Bureau.

The “borrower defense” final rule (Final Rule) issued by the Dept. of Education in November 2016 took effect at noon yesterday after Judge Randolph D. Moss of the D.C. federal district court refused to grant the renewed motion for a preliminary injunction filed by the California Association of Private Postsecondary Schools (CAPPS) seeking to preliminary enjoin the arbitration ban and class action waiver provisions in the Final Rule.  CAPPS had sought to block the provisions from taking effect pending the resolution of the lawsuit filed by CAPPS against the ED and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos to overturn the Final Rule.  Judge Moss found that CAPPS had filed to show that any of its members was likely to suffer an irreparable injury in the absence of an injunction.

Shortly before the Final Rule’s initial July 1, 2017 effective date, CAPPS filed a motion for a preliminary injunction to which the ED responded by issuing a stay of the Final Rule under Section 705 of the Administrative Procedure Act (APA).  The Section 705 stay was followed by the ED’s issuance of an interim final rule delaying the effective date until July 1, 2018 and the promulgation of a final rule further delaying the effective date until July 1, 2019 (Final Rule Delay).

On September 12, 2018, Judge Moss issued an opinion and order in Bauer v. DeVos, another case challenging the Final Rule in which he ruled that the ED’s rationale for issuing the Section 705 stay was arbitrary and capricious and that in issuing the Final Rule Delay, the ED had improperly invoked the good cause exception to the Higher Education Act’s negotiated rulemaking requirement.  The case consolidated two separate lawsuits filed after the ED’s issuance of the Section 705 stay, with one filed by two individual plaintiffs and the other by a coalition of nineteen states and the District of Columbia.  Both lawsuits were subsequently amended to challenge not only the Section 705 stay but also the other actions taken by the ED to delay the Final Rule’s effective date.  While Judge Moss vacated the Section 705 stay, he stayed the vacatur until 5 p.m. on October 12, 2018.

After the ED filed a notice with the court in June 2017 regarding its initial delay of the Final Rule’s effective date until July 1, 2018, CAPPS withdrew its motion for preliminary injunction.  Following the court’s decision in Bauer, CAPPS filed its renewed motion for a preliminary injunction.  In his decision denying CAPPS’ motion, Judge Moss stated that on October 12, the court extended the stay of the vacatur until noon on October 16.

The Final Rule broadly addresses the ability of a student to assert a school’s misconduct as a defense to repayment of a federal student loan.  It does not apply to private loans.  The Final Rule includes a ban on all pre-dispute arbitration agreements for borrower defense claims by schools receiving Title IV assistance under the Higher Education Act (HEA) and a new federal standard for evaluating borrower defenses to repayment of Direct Loans (i.e. federal student loans made by the ED).  Both mandatory and voluntary pre-dispute arbitration agreements are prohibited by the rule, whether or not they contain opt-out clauses, and schools are prohibited from relying on any pre-dispute arbitration or other agreement to block a borrower from asserting a borrower defense claim in a class action lawsuit until the court has denied class certification and the time for any interlocutory review has elapsed or the review has been resolved.  The prohibition applies retroactively to pre-dispute arbitration or other agreements addressing class actions entered into before July 1, 2017.

It would seem that because the Final Rule is now effective, the new federal standard it establishes for evaluating defenses to repayment would be applicable in actions seeking to collect on Direct Loans disbursed on or after July 1, 2017 or to recover amounts previously collected on such loans.  However, because the arbitration ban and class action provisions of the Final Rule are requirements with which a school must comply as a condition of receiving Title IV assistance, the ED presumably could waive such requirements (as well as other provisions subject to ED enforcement such as the actions and events in the Final Rule that can trigger a requirement for a school to provide a letter of credit or other financial protection to the ED to insure against future borrower defense claims and other liabilities to the ED.)

Earlier this week, Judge Randolph D. Moss of the D.C. federal district court heard oral argument on the renewed motion for a preliminary injunction filed by the California Association of Private Postsecondary Schools (CAPPS) seeking to preliminary enjoin the arbitration ban and class action waiver provisions in the “borrower defense” final rule (Final Rule) issued by the Dept. of Education in November 2016 pending the resolution of the lawsuit filed by CAPPS against the ED and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos to overturn the Final Rule.

Shortly before the Final Rule’s initial July 1, 2017 effective date, CAPPS filed a motion for a preliminary injunction to which the ED responded by issuing a stay of the Final Rule under Section 705 of the Administrative Procedure Act (APA).  The Section 705 stay was followed by the ED’s issuance of an interim final rule delaying the effective date until July 1, 2018 and the promulgation of a final rule further delaying the effective date until July 1, 2019 (Final Rule Delay).

On September 12, 2018, Judge Moss issued an opinion and order in Bauer v. DeVos, another case challenging the Final Rule in which he ruled that the ED’s rationale for issuing the Section 705 stay was arbitrary and capricious and that in issuing the Final Rule Delay, the ED had improperly invoked the good cause exception to the Higher Education Act’s negotiated rulemaking requirement.  The case consolidated two separate lawsuits filed after the ED’s issuance of the Section 705 stay, with one filed by two individual plaintiffs and the other by a coalition of nineteen states and the District of Columbia.  Both lawsuits were subsequently amended to challenge not only the Section 705 stay but also the other actions taken by the ED to delay the Final Rule’s effective date.  While Judge Moss vacated the Section 705 stay, he stayed the vacatur until 5 p.m. on October 12, 2018.

After the ED filed a notice with the court in June 2017 regarding its initial delay of the Final Rule’s effective date until July 1, 2018, CAPPS withdrew its motion for preliminary injunction.  Following the court’s decision in Bauer, CAPPS filed its renewed motion for a preliminary injunction.  Oral argument on the renewed motion was held on October 9, 2018.  According to a Politico report, Judge Moss, who was appointed by President Obama under whose administration the Final Rule was promulgated, was skeptical about arguments made by CAPPs that its member colleges would be irreparably harmed if the Final Rule took effect, questioning whether some potential harm to the schools was too speculative or premature for him to address.

The Final Rule broadly addresses the ability of a student to assert a school’s misconduct as a defense to repayment of a federal student loan.  It includes a ban on all pre-dispute arbitration agreements for borrower defense claims by schools receiving Title IV assistance under the Higher Education Act (HEA) and a new federal standard for evaluating borrower defenses to repayment of Direct Loans (i.e. federal student loans made by the ED).  Both mandatory and voluntary pre-dispute arbitration agreements are prohibited by the rule, whether or not they contain opt-out clauses, and schools are prohibited from relying on any pre-dispute arbitration or other agreement to block a borrower from asserting a borrower defense claim in a class action lawsuit until the court has denied class certification and the time for any interlocutory review has elapsed or the review has been resolved.  The prohibition applies retroactively to pre-dispute arbitration or other agreements addressing class actions entered into before July 1, 2017.

On August 31, 2018, following negotiated rulemaking, the ED published a notice of proposed rulemaking that would rescind the Final Rule and replace it with the “Institutional Accountability regulations” contained in the proposal.  Among the major changes to the Final Rule that would be made by the proposal is the removal of the Final Rule’s ban on the use of pre-dispute arbitration agreements and class action waivers.

As of now, Judge Moss’s ruling in Bauer creates the possibility that the Final Rule could become effective as soon as 5:00 p.m. tomorrow.  It seems likely that there will be further developments in the CAPPS litigation before that time.

 

On September 28, 2018, the Maryland Commissioner of Financial Regulation issued a notice advising companies servicing student loans of Maryland borrowers to provide their contact information to the state’s new Student Loan Ombudsman by November 15, 2015.

Maryland’s “Financial Consumer Protection Act of 2018” went into effect on October 1, 2015. The Act imposes a number of new regulations, and also creates the post of Student Loan Ombudsman. Under the Act, all loan servicers engaged in servicing student loans made to Maryland residents must provide the Ombudsman with the name, phone number and e-mail address of the individual designated to represent the servicer in communications with the Ombudsman. The deadline to comply with this requirement is November 15, 2018.

The Ombudsman is charged with receiving and working to resolve complaints submitted by student borrowers. The Ombudsman will also analyze and compile data related to such complaints, and the analysis of that data will be disclosed to the public along with the names of student loan servicers engaging in any abusive, unfair, deceptive or fraudulent practices.

In addition to its responsibilities related to student borrower complaints, the Ombudsman will also engage in educational efforts with both students and the state legislature. With respect to students, the Ombudsman will help student loan borrowers to understand their rights and responsibilities under the terms of their student loans. The Ombudsman is also directed to establish a student loan borrower education course by October 1, 2019.

The Ombudsman will also provide annual reports to the governor and Maryland General Assembly, along with making recommendations for statutory and regulatory procedures to resolve student loan borrower issues. These recommendations are to include an assessment of whether Maryland should require licensing or registration of student loan servicers.

California Governor Jerry Brown has signed into law Assembly Bill 38, which significantly modifies the scope, administration, and servicing requirements of the state’s Student Loan Servicing Act.  The bill was approved by the California Assembly 55-23-2 and the California Senate 28-11-1 with the intent to “build upon existing law to ensure that the Student Loan Servicing Act’s goals are met as the federal government enacts new regulations.”  The bill contains no provisions delaying its immediate effectiveness.

In its most dramatic change, the bill narrows the scope of the Act by adding an exemption and redefining several terms.  The bill carves out from coverage guaranty agencies engaged in default aversion through an agreement with the Secretary of Education and redefines “student loan servicer” to exclude a debt collector who exclusively services defaulted student loans—federal loans where no payment has been received for 270 days or more and private student loans in default according to the terms of the borrower’s agreement.  The Act also adds a section to clarify that any person claiming an exemption or an exception from a definition has the burden of proving that exemption or exception.

Reflecting these changes, the licensing trigger has been restricted to those who “engage in the business of servicing a student loan in this state.”  The previous definition included any person “directly or indirectly” engaged in servicing.  However, an out-of-state entity is still deemed to be servicing “in this state” if it services loans to California residents.  In further modifying the Act’s scope, the term “student loan” has also been changed from a loan made “primarily” to finance a postsecondary education to a loan made “solely” to finance a postsecondary education.

The bill also provides significant licensing changes. Now, the commissioner may require that applications, filings, and assessments be completed through the Nationwide Multistate Licensing System & Registry (NMLS).  The commissioner is further empowered  to waive or modify NMLS requirements, use NMLS “as a channeling agent for requesting information from and distributing information to” the Department of Justice and other governmental agencies, and to create a process by which licensees may challenge information entered into the NMLS by the commissioner.

The criteria for denying a license application have been clarified, and now include: failure to meet a material requirement for issuance of a license; violations of a similar regulatory scheme of California or a foreign jurisdiction; liability in any civil action by final judgment or an administrative judgment by any public agency within the past seven years; and failure to establish that the business will be operated honestly, fairly, efficiently, and in accordance with the requirements of the Act.  Additionally, applicants must now appoint the commissioner as an agent for service of process.

With respect to servicing requirements, the bill extends the timeframe within which a servicer must acknowledge a borrower’s Qualified Written Request (QWR) to ten business days.  Previously, the Act and the most recent round of regulations required that servicers acknowledge a QWR within five business days, except when the servicer fulfilled the borrower’s request within that period.

CFPB Acting Director Mick Mulvaney recently responded to former CFPB Student Loan Ombudsman Seth Frotman’s vocal departure from the Bureau.  As previously reported, Frotman tendered his resignation in a letter—also delivered to members of Congress—which accused Mulvaney of being derelict in his oversight of the “student loan market.”  Among other things,  Frotman accused Mulvaney of undercutting enforcement, undermining the Bureau’s independence, and shielding “bad actors” from scrutiny—collectively, “us[ing] the Bureau to serve the wishes of the most powerful financial companies in America.”

In an interview addressing the letter, Mulvaney has emphasized that he is focused on the explicit statutory authority provided in the Dodd-Frank Act, including the limitations on his oversight of student loans.  When asked about Frotman’s resignation, Mulvaney responded that he “never met the gentleman” and “doesn’t know who he is.”  Mulvaney has served as Acting Director since November 2017.  Frotman joined the Bureau during its creation in 2011 to focus on military lending issues as a senior advisor to Holly Petraeus (the Assistant Director for the Office of Servicemember Affairs) and transitioned to the Private Education Loan Ombudsman in April 2016.  Mulvaney added, “I talked to his supervisor who met with him on a regular basis during the nine months I’ve [been] there; [Frotman] never complained about anything that was happening at the Bureau, so I think he was more interested in getting his name in the paper.”

In his resignation letter, Frotman noted that the “Student Loan Ombudsman,” statutorily created by Section 1035 of the Dodd-Frank Act, was authorized to “provide timely assistance to borrowers,” “compile and analyze” borrower complaints, and “make appropriate recommendations” to the Director of the CFPB, the Secretary of Education, the Secretary of the Treasury, and Congressional committees regarding student loans.  Frotman, however, omits any mention of statutory limits to the Ombudsman’s authority.  Section 1035—titled “Private Education Loan Ombudsman”—directs the Ombudsman to “provide timely assistance to borrowers of private education loans,” “compile and analyze data on borrower complaints regarding private education loans” and to “receive, review, and attempt to resolve informally complaints from borrowers of [private education] loans.”

With respect to federal student loans, Section 1035 of the Dodd Frank Act only contemplates the Private Education Loan Ombudsman’s cooperation with the Department of Education’s student loan ombudsman through a memorandum of understanding (MOU).  Mulvaney noted the somewhat informal nature of the MOU created during the Obama administration, referring to it as a “handshake agreement.”  Arguably signaling an intent to defer to the Department of Education on federal student loan issues, Mulvaney stated that the issue he is most “worr[ied] about [is] the growth in …student loans” because federal involvement in the market has created a “disconnect between the making of a loan and the repaying of [a] loan.”