In a mistaken attempt to justify the CFPB’s arbitration rule, supporters are pointing to the need to protect the rights of military servicemembers and the recent Equifax data breach.  On September 20, Democratic Senator Jack Reed will host an event entitled “The CFPB Forced Arbitration Rule,” which is described as a briefing for Senate staff and press members.

According to the event announcement, the participants will discuss how the CFPB’s arbitration rule “restores the rights of servicemembers, military families and consumers.”  Obviously overlooked (or ignored) by Senator Reed and the other participants is the fact that federal law already prohibits the use of arbitration agreements in most consumer credit contracts entered into by active-duty servicemembers and their dependents.  More specifically, this prohibition is contained in the Military Loan Act.

Since 2007, creditors have been prohibited by the MLA from including arbitration agreements in contracts for consumer credit extended to active-duty service members and their dependents where the credit is a closed-end payday loan with a term of 91 days or less in which the amount financed does not exceed $2,000, a closed-end vehicle title loan with a term of 181 days or less, or a closed-end tax refund anticipation loan.  In 2015, the Department of Defense adopted a final rule that dramatically expanded the MLA’s scope.

The final rule extended the MLA’s protections to a host of additional products, including credit cards, installment loans, private student loans and federal student loans not made under Title IV of the Higher Education Act, and all types of deposit advance, refund anticipation, vehicle title, and payday loans.  The rule already became effective for transactions or accounts consummated or established after October 3, 2016 for most products, and will become effective for credit card accounts consummated or established after October 3, 2017.

The event announcement also indicates that there will be a discussion of how the arbitration rule impacts Equifax customers.  As we have previously commented, the attempt of consumer advocates to link the Equifax data breach to the CFPB’s arbitration rule is a tempest in a teapot.  The breach has nothing to do with the arbitration rule.  While the rule covers some credit reporting company activities, it does not appear to cover data breaches such as this one.

This past January, the CFPB filed a lawsuit against TCF National Bank in Minnesota federal district court that alleged that the bank, in connection with offering overdraft services, violated the Consumer Financial Protection Act’s UDAAP prohibition and Regulation E (which implements the Electronic Funds Transfer Act).  Earlier this month, the district court granted in part TCF’s motion to dismiss the CFPB’s amended complaint and dismissed with prejudice the CFPB’s Regulation E claims.  This opinion represents a serious setback for the CFPB (1) specifically in connection with other similar overdraft protection cases in which the CFPB has alleged that a bank’s opt-in procedure violated Regulation E, and (2) generally in connection with a wide variety of cases in which the CFPB is seeking to recover damages and civil money penalties for alleged CFPA violaltions that predate July 21, 2011.

Although it was undisputed that TCF had provided the opt-in notice required by Regulation E, the CFPB alleged that TCF engaged in abusive and deceptive practices in connection with enrolling new customers in overdraft services and that it did not comply with the Regulation E requirements to provide a “reasonable opportunity” for customers to consent to overdraft services and to obtain the customer’s affirmative consent.

The court was unwilling to dismiss the CFPB’s UDAAP claims because it could not conclude that “the Bureau failed to plausibly allege abusive or deceptive conduct simply because the required notice was provided at some point during the account-opening process.”  However, the court would not allow the CFPB to assert UDAAP claims arising before July 21, 2011 (the CFPA’s effective date) using “a type of continuing-violation theory.”  The court observed that “accepting the Bureau’s argument theoretically could render unlawful every account opening ever conducted by TCF, since some of them occurred after the CFPA’s effective date.”

In dismissing the CFPB’s Regulation E claims, the court rejected the CFPB’s attempt to transform conduct that allegedly violated the CFPA into Regulation E violations.  According to the court, while the CFPA broadly attaches to abusive or deceptive practices, “Regulation E, on the other hand, specifies with almost surgical precision the information banks must convey to consumers in connection with overdraft services—a description of the services, the right to opt-in (or not) and so on—and the ways in which they may obtain consumers’ consent.”

The court determined that Regulation E’s “reasonable opportunity” requirement “concerns only the manner in which consent may be obtained, and nothing more.”  In the court’s view, Regulation E’s intent was “to delineate specific information banks must provide to customers, not to more broadly prevent misleading or deceptive conduct in connection with the opt-in decision—the purview of the CFPA.”  Because the amended complaint did not allege that TCF failed to provide reasonable or appropriate means for consumers to provide consent, the court concluded that the CFPB’s “reasonable opportunity” claim failed.

The court also characterized the CFPB’ claim that customers failed to “affirmatively consent” because they did not understand what they were agreeing to as an attempt to “squeeze the CFPA’s broader proscriptions against misleading conduct into [Regulation E].”  The court noted that the amended complaint contained no plausible allegation that TCF failed to “actually obtain” new or existing customers’ consent to overdraft services. (emphasis provided). Calling this deficiency “fatal,” the court observed that Regulation E “requires a bank to obtain ‘affirmative consent’ and nothing more, and it is not infused with the CFPA’s gloss of preventing ‘abusive’ or ‘deceptive’ conduct.  By the Bureau’s reckoning, it would not be enough to obtain a consumer express (or ‘affirmative’) consent, but rather a bank such as TCF would be required to obtain the customer’s informed consent, lest it violate Regulation E.” (emphasis provided).

Last month, the CFPB issued another report on checking account overdraft services and four one-page prototype model forms to replace the current Regulation E model form for banks to use to disclose overdraft fees and obtain a consumer’s consent to overdraft services.  In its Spring 2017 rulemaking agenda, as it did in its Fall 2015 agenda and Fall and Spring 2016 agendas, the CFPB stated that it “is continuing to engage in additional research and has begun consumer testing initiatives related to the opt-in process.”

Professor Jeff Sovern has responded to our recent blog, “Senator Warren’s Numbers Don’t Add Up,” with a blog of his own.  He does not contest the main point of our blog, which was that Senator Warren’s claim that consumers don’t do well in arbitration is wrong.  He admits he found our discussion “interesting.”  We appreciate the compliment.

Professor Sovern does take issue with the short discussion near the end of our blog in response to Senator Warren’s remark that consumers rarely pursue individual arbitration.  We explained that most consumers resolve their disputes through companies’ informal dispute resolution procedures and also through on-line complaint portals provided by federal and state agencies.  “Is it true,” he asks, and where are the “statistics”?  Well, one such statistic is on the front of the CFPB’s website: the CFPB, through its on-line complaint portal, has handled more than 1.2 million customer complaints, and 97% of consumers get timely replies when the CFPB sends their complaints to companies.  In fact, according to the CFPB, its consumer complaint portal helps generate broad relief in the marketplace:

How one complaint can help millions

97% of complaints sent to companies get timely responses.

By submitting a complaint, consumers can be heard by financial companies, get help with their own issues, and help others avoid similar ones. Every complaint provides insight into problems that people are experiencing, helping us identify inappropriate practices and allowing us to stop them before they become major issues. The result: better outcomes for consumers, and a better financial marketplace for everyone.

What do class actions accomplish for consumers that is better than this?  Professor Sovern concedes that few putative class members submit settlement claim forms even when they are entitled to payment.  That is a problem that “bedevils class action claims,” he admits.  He also argues that “class actions … deter misconduct in a way that arbitration claims don’t.”  But you don’t need arbitration or class actions to deter alleged misconduct when agencies such as the CFPB are already doing so through their enforcement activities, without charging a hefty attorneys’ fee.  Here, again, the first page of the CFPB’s website states that its enforcement actions have brought more than $11.9 billion in relief to more than 29 million consumers.  And the CFPB maintains a public database of the consumer complaints it receives.  That is also a significant deterrent.

Finally, Professor Sovern criticizes our argument that the number of consumer arbitration filings is attributable in part to the fact that the CFPB has not spent any resources educating consumers about arbitration.  He states, “I am not aware of any evidence that consumers can be usefully educated about arbitration.”  That is a surprising position for a legal educator to take.  Unlike Professor Sovern, we are optimistic that consumers can be “usefully educated about arbitration” and that more education would help consumers recognize the many benefits that arbitration can provide if other means of resolving a dispute are not successful.

The CFPB’s final arbitration rule was the subject of an article by Ballard Spahr partners Alan Kaplinsky and Mark Levin recently published by The Regulatory Review, a publication of the University of Pennsylvania Law School’s Penn Program on Regulation.

The article, The CFPB’s Final Arbitration Rule Run Amok, discusses the final rule’s failure to satisfy the Dodd-Frank Act’s limits on the CFPB’s arbitration rulemaking authority and its promotion of an untethered public policy favoring class action litigation that benefits only class action lawyers.

 

Earlier this week the CFPB released its Summer 2017 Supervisory Highlights, which covers supervisory activities generally completed between January through June of 2017. The report touts the $14 million total restitution payments consumers received due to nonpublic supervisory activities during this period-plus the approximately $1.15 million in consumer remediation and $1.75 million in civil monetary penalties resulting from public enforcement actions that grew out of or were bolstered by CFPB examinations.

The report includes discussions of the following topics:

Auto Loan Servicing: The publication addresses repossession practices by auto loan servicers, stating that in the course of examinations the Bureau found that “one or more entities were repossessing vehicles after the repossession was supposed to be cancelled,” and concluding that the servicer(s) had committed an unfair practice by repossessing vehicles where “borrowers had brought the account current, entered an agreement with the servicer to avoid repossession, or made payments sufficient to stop the repossession, where reasonably practicable given the timing of the borrower’s action.”

Credit Card Account Management: The report focuses on four alleged credit-card related practices: (1) failure to provide tabular account-opening disclosures as required by Regulation Z (the table set forth in Appendix G-17); (2) deceptive misrepresentations to consumers regarding costs and availability of pay-by-phone options; (3) deceptive misrepresentations to consumers about the benefits of debt cancellation products; and (4) noncompliance with requirements related to billing error resolution and liability for unauthorized transactions.

Debt Collection: According to the report, the CFPB uncovered various FDCPA violations in the course of examinations of larger participants in the debt collection market. These alleged violations include unauthorized communications with third parties, false representations made to authorized credit card users regarding their liability for debts, false representations regarding credit reports, and communications with consumers at inconvenient times.

Deposit Accounts: The CFPB also claims to have found a number of Regulation E and UDAAP violations in connection with deposit accounts offered by banks. The alleged violations relate to (1) the freezing of customer deposit accounts relating to suspicious activity observed by banks; (2) misrepresentations about fee waivers for deposit products subject to a monthly service fee; (3) violations of error resolution requirements under Regulation E; and (4) deceptive statements about overdraft protection products.

Mortgage Origination and Servicing: The report details the results of supervision following the CFPB’s first round of mortgage examinations for compliance with the Bureau’s “Know Before You Owe” mortgage disclosure rule. The publication states that “for the most part, supervised entities, both banks and nonbanks, were able to effectively implement and comply with the Know Before You Owe mortgage disclosure rule changes,” but notes that examiners did find some violations relating to the content and timing of Loan Estimates and Closing Disclosure. Other origination practices addressed in the report include the failure to reimburse unused portions of service deposits and the inclusion of an arbitration notice on certain residential mortgage loan notes that was held to violate Regulation Z even though the note apparently lacked an arbitration provision. On the servicing side, the report focuses on violations of Regulation X in connection with assisting borrowers complete loss mitigation applications, and the inclusion of broad waiver of rights clauses in short sale and cash-for-keys agreements as a UDAAP. The report also cites fair lending concerns identified during examinations of mortgage servicers relating to data quality issues and “a lack of readily-accessible information” concerning borrower characteristics.

Short-Term Small Dollar Lending: The CFPB cites a number of alleged UDAAP violations, such as workplace collection calls, repeated collection calls to third parties, misrepresentations in marketing about small dollar loan products, misrepresentations about the use of references provided by borrowers in connection with loan applications, and the handling of unauthorized debits and overpayments.

Statistics Regarding CFPB’s Action Review Committee Process: Another notable aspect of the report is the inclusion of new statistics about the Bureau’s Action Review Committee (ARC) process, which senior executives in the CFPB’s Division of Supervision, Enforcement, and Fair Lending use to decide whether issues that come up in examinations will be handled using a confidential supervisory action or will be investigated for possibly bringing a public enforcement action. The report includes a table detailing the total number of ARC decisions made—and the outcomes of such decisions—for fiscal years 2012 through 2016. Importantly, only a subset of CFPB matters go through the ARC process, and of these matters, 24.59% were deemed “appropriate for further investigation for possible public enforcement action.” A further 11.48% of these matters were determined to be appropriate in part for further investigation for public enforcement, and in part for resolution through confidential supervisory action. Finally, the CFPB commits in the report to publishing ARC data at the end of each fiscal year (starting with 2017 data to be published in its upcoming Fall 2017 Supervisory Highlights).

As a general matter, we should note that many of the issues discussed in the report appear to stem from system errors and failures to monitor third party vendors and service providers. Given that the CFPB now regularly conducts examinations of service providers, both banks and non-banks should pay careful attention and seek advice from outside counsel in managing their relationships with outside service providers—especially since the CFPB has taken the position that a company can be vicariously liable for violations committed by its service providers.

In a press release issued earlier this week, Senator Elizabeth Warren argued that the CFPB’s arbitration rule should not be repealed under the Congressional Review Act because consumers recovered “in only 9 percent of the disputes that arbitrators resolved” and the average award “is only 12 cents for every dollar they claimed.”  Senator Warren attributed those statistics to a “fact sheet” published on August 1, 2017 by the Economic Policy Institute (“EPI”) titled “Correcting the Record — Consumers fare better under class actions than arbitration.”  Unfortunately, these statistics obfuscate the record, rather than correcting it, and create the misimpression that consumers fare very poorly in arbitration compared to class action litigation.  That is not the case.  Let’s look at the math:

  1. In its 2015 study of consumer arbitration, the CFPB examined a total of 1847 consumer financial services arbitrations administered by the American Arbitration Association filed between 2010 and 2012.
  2. For purposes of analyzing substantive arbitration outcomes, the CFPB eliminated cases filed in 2012, leaving a total of 1060 arbitrations filed in 2010-2011.
  3. Of these 1060 arbitrations, 246 arbitrations (23.2%) settled, 362 arbitrations (34.2%) ended in a manner consistent with settlement and 111 arbitrations (10.5%) ended in a manner inconsistent with settlement although it is possible that settlements occurred. The CFPB did not include these “settlement” arbitrations in its analysis of substantive arbitration outcomes because “[t]here are almost no consumer financial arbitrations for which we know the terms of settlement.”  However, there were six credit card arbitrations where the CFPB did know the settlement terms.  One settlement provided for a monetary payment to the consumer, and three settlements provided for an amount of debt forbearance.
  4. In the remaining 341arbitrations, arbitrators made a determination regarding the merits of the parties’ disputes. Of those 341 arbitrations, there were 161 arbitrations in which an arbitrator rendered a decision with respect to a consumer’s affirmative claim against a company.  This means that 180 of the 341 arbitrations involved disputes in which consumers did not assert affirmative claims — i.e., debt collection claims by a company against a consumer.
  5. In three of the 161 arbitrations, CFPB could not determine the results. Of the remaining 158 arbitrations, arbitrators provided some kind of relief in favor of consumers’ affirmative claims in 32 cases (20.3%).  In these 32 cases, the average award to the consumer was about $5,400.
  6. Let’s turn now to the assertion by Senator Warren and EPI that consumers recovered in only “9 percent” of the disputes. No explanation was given for that number, but it apparently was derived by dividing the number of cases in which consumers obtained relief on their affirmative claims (32) by the 341 cases in which the arbitrator made a determination regarding the parties’ disputes. That was Mistake # 1.  180 of the 341 arbitrations were debt collection arbitrations by companies against consumers, so they were not arbitrations in which consumers were even seeking affirmative relief from the company.  Leaving those 180 cases in the equation is mixing apples and oranges.  To compare apples to apples, the 32 cases in which the arbitrator actually provided affirmative relief to consumers should have been divided by the 158 cases in which the consumer was actually seeking affirmative relief.  That percentage is 20.3%, as the CFPB indicated in its study.  So the statement that consumers recovered in only “9 percent” of the disputes is incorrect.
  7. Mistake # 2 was omitting any consideration of the 719 consumer arbitrations that settled or may have settled, according to the CFPB. Just because a case settles does not mean that the consumer did not come away with a monetary payment or some amount of debt forbearance.  In fact, the opposite is likely true — a case settles because the parties found a way to compromise their positions and resolve their dispute.  In fact, as noted above, the CFPB was able to identify six credit card arbitration settlements, and in four of them consumers did receive either a monetary payment or an amount of debt forbearance.  Indeed, all of the CFPB’s statistics on class actions in its arbitration study were derived from class action settlements, since none of the class actions studied by the CFPB actually went to trial.
  8. This means that the data field for measuring consumer success in arbitrations was actually 749 arbitrations — 32 arbitrations in which consumers actually obtained relief on affirmative claims, plus 717 arbitrations that settled (719 minus the two credit card settlements in which consumers did not obtain relief). Therefore, of the 1060 arbitrations filed in 2010-2011, consumers either did or may have come away with a monetary payment or some amount of debt forbearance in as many as 71% of the arbitrations.
  9. Notably, Professor Christopher Drahozal, who served as a Special Advisor to the CFPB in connection with its arbitration study, also conducted a study of more than 300 American Arbitration Association arbitrations in 2009 for the Northwestern University Searle School of Law.  He concluded that consumers won relief in 53.3% of the arbitrations.

With respect to the statement in the press release that the average consumer award “is only 12 cents for every dollar they claimed,” once again no consideration was given to amounts received by consumers in settlement, which certainly would have increased this calculation.   Notably, the CFPB did conclude that in arbitrations in which the consumer asserted an affirmative claim against the company and the arbitrator reached a decision on the merits, consumers recovered 57 cents for every dollar claimed.  The CFPB also concluded that consumers obtained debt forbearance in 19.2% of disputes in which debt forbearance was sought and the arbitrator made a decision.  The average debt forbearance was $4,100, which was 51 cents of each dollar of debt forbearance claimed.  None of these statistics was mentioned in Senator Warren’s press release or the EPI fact sheet.

Another statistic in the press release and fact sheet that bears scrutiny is that when companies bring arbitration claims against consumers, “they win 93 percent of the time.”  While that number is consistent with the CFPB’s findings, it is taken completely out of context.  These claims were debt collection claims by companies in which the consumer either defaulted or had no defenses or very weak ones.  What the press release and fact sheet fail to state is that the result would not have been any different in court.  This precise point was made by the Maine Bureau of Consumer Protection in a 2009 report to the Maine Legislature on consumer arbitrations:

[I]t is important to keep in mind that although credit card banks and assignees prevail in most arbitrations, this fact alone does not necessarily indicate unfairness to consumers.  The fact is that the primary alternative to arbitration (a civil action in court) also most commonly results in judgment for the plaintiff.  Although certainly there are cases in which a consumer has a valid defense to the action, it is also correct to say that most credit card cases result from a valid debt and a subsequent inability of the consumer to pay that debt.

(Emphasis added).  Also, the success rate in debt collections claims by companies is irrelevant to the question of whether class actions are better for consumers than arbitration because such debt claims are completely individualized and not susceptible to class action treatment.   The fact that companies “win 93% of the time” does not support the conclusion that class actions should replace arbitration as the forum for resolving consumer disputes.

By the CFPB’s own calculations, 87% of the class actions studied provided no relief at all to the putative class members, while in the 13% of class actions that settled, the average payment to putative class members was a paltry $32.  The lawyers for the class, by contrast, made a whopping $424,495,451 in attorneys’ fees.  These are not numbers that support the additional 6,042 class actions that the CFPB estimates will be filed over the next five years if the arbitration rule is not repealed.  Nor are they numbers that justify the $2.6 billion to $5.2 billion that companies will have to spend defending them.

Even the CFPB did not find arbitration to be a system rigged against consumers.  If it had found arbitration to be unfair, it would not have allowed companies to continue to engage in individual arbitrations with consumers.   However, very few companies are expected to retain individual arbitration programs if the CFPB rule takes effect.  That is because companies subsidize almost all of the costs of individual arbitrations, and few of them will continue to pay those costs while also spending many billions of dollars defending against the 6,042 new class actions that will be filed against them as a result of the rule.

Senator Warren’s press release states that “consumers rarely pursue individual arbitration.”  But that is because most consumers resolve disputes through the use of companies’ informal dispute resolution procedures and also through on-line complaint portals provided by federal and state agencies including the CFPB itself.  Moreover, although the CFPB has a Consumer Education and Engagement division and virtually unlimited resources, it did not spend a single dollar trying to educate consumers about arbitration.

When all of the relevant numbers and facts are considered, there is only one conclusion — the CFPB arbitration rule must be repealed so that consumers can continue to enjoy the many benefits that arbitration affords them in resolving disputes with companies.  If the rule is repealed, Congress would still be able to issue a regulation supporting the use of arbitration as a vehicle for resolving consumer disputes, if it chose to do so.  For example, such a regulation could require companies using arbitration to provide enhanced disclosures to consumers.  It could also require the CFPB to devote some of its resources to educating consumers about arbitration so that they will be more knowledgeable and better equipped to use it.

Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) Director Richard Cordray has responded to the letter from the Department of Education (ED) terminating the Memoranda of Understanding (MOUs) between the agencies. ED’s August 31st letter—signed only by Kathleen Smith of the Office of Postsecondary Education and Dr. A. Wayne Johnson of Federal Student Aid—provided 30 days’ notice of the termination of two MOUs: a 2011 agreement providing collaboration to resolve student loan complaints and a 2014 agreement encouraging coordination of supervisory activities.

Director Cordray’s September 7th letter—addressed directly to Secretary Betsy DeVos—states that ED “appears to misunderstand” the scope of the CFPB’s authority.  In particular, Director Cordray asserts that the Higher Education Act does not supersede the federal consumer financial laws that the CFPB enforces under Title X of the Dodd-Frank Act (Dodd-Frank). In addition, Director Cordray emphasizes that Dodd-Frank required the Bureau to establish a consumer complaint unit and gave the Bureau authority with respect to institutions responsible for “servicing loans” and “collecting debt related to any consumer financial product or service.”

However, in advancing these arguments, Director Cordray seems to have conceded that even under his analysis some collecting and servicing of federal student loans could occur outside of the purview of the CFPB.  The discussion of servicing and collecting is circumscribed by the CFPB’s apparent admission that institutions collecting and servicing federal student loans are subject to its authority only insofar as they are covered by the “larger participant rules” for debt collectors and student loan servicers.  Moreover, Title IV of the Higher Education Act does supersede at least one federal consumer financial law, the Truth in Lending Act, which has no application to loans made, insured, or guaranteed under Title IV.

Cordray’s letter goes on to address other points made by ED.  As justification for the split, ED accused the CFPB of “violating the intent” of the agreements by failing to forward Title IV federal student loan complaints within ten days of receipt and handling complaints itself.  Director Cordray dismisses this concern by noting that ED had never expressed any concerns about the MOU or the handling of federal student loan complaints prior to its letter and that the CFPB shares its complaint information in “near real-time” by providing ED access through its Government Portal. Director Cordray also cites to Section 1035 of Dodd Frank, which provides that the CFPB student loan ombudsman is to establish an MOU with the ED student loan ombudsman to “ensure coordination in providing assistance to and serving borrowers seeking to resolve complaints related to their private education or Federal student loans.”

It’s unlikely that ED will find these arguments persuasive.  Director Cordray does not articulate how the CFPB can require ED to constantly monitor the Government Portal as a substitute for the direct forwarding of complaints contemplated by the MOU. He also overlooks the fact that Section 1035 of Dodd Frank can be interpreted to require the CFPB to forward complaints about federal student loans to ED but to coordinate in the limited instance when a complaint addresses conduct affecting both private student loans handled by the CFPB ombudsman and federal student loans handled by the ED ombudsman.

With respect to enforcement coordination, Director Cordray rejects the accusation that the CFPB had overstepped its bounds. He states that “the Bureau has never knowingly taken any actions in conflict with the Department’s regulations or instructions to servicers” and that all of its actions were consistent with ED’s directives.  Director Cordray also defends the CFPB’s use of information requests before conducting on-site examinations and maintains that the CFPB took the necessary steps to preserve confidentiality with respect to actions involving student loan servicers.

Again, ED is unlikely to be convinced.  The letter makes no mention of any outreach efforts on the part of the CFPB to determine ED’s intentions.  More tellingly, the letter does not explain how the CFPB is able to serve as the arbiter of what ED’s regulations, instructions, and directives require.  The perfunctory statements about preserving confidentiality are no more compelling.

Director Cordray lauds the Bureau’s complaint handling as providing an “efficient means” to obtain consumer relief, but stops short of saying that ED is incapable of independently handling all federal student loan complaints. He also notes that the CFPB began accepting complaints “without any objections” in February 2016. However, he says nothing that would indicate that the CFPB discussed the expansion of the complaint portal with ED ahead of time.  He also fails to provide any insight as to why the Bureau started accepting federal student loan complaints more than four years after signing the MOU.

Ultimately, Director Cordray’s letter serves as an olive branch. The letter requests a “constructive conversation” about future cooperation and notes that the CFPB “stand[s] ready to meet with you or your colleagues, hear your concerns, and explore constructive solutions to help us all better serve students and borrowers.”  Director Cordray does not include any explicit incentives for ED’s cooperation and, perhaps as a concession, suggests that the CFPB is willing to negotiate cooperation on a smaller scale or under more restrictive terms. As he states in the letter, the CFPB “stand[s] ready to work toward new MOUs between the Bureau and the Department.”

On September 5, 2017, the CFPB entered into a consent order with Zero Parallel, LLC (“Zero Parallel”), an online lead aggregator based in Glendale, California. At the same time, it submitted a proposed order in the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California, where it is litigating with Zero Parallel’s CEO, Davit Gasparyan. Zero Parallel and Gasparyan agreed to pay a total of $350,000 in civil money penalties to settle claims brought by the CFPB.

In the two actions, the CFPB claimed that Zero Parallel, with Gasparyan’s substantial assistance, helped provide loans to consumers which would be void under the laws of the states in which the consumers lived. Zero Parallel allegedly facilitated the loans by acting as a lead aggregator. In that role, Zero Parallel collected information that consumers entered into various websites indicating that they were interested in taking out payday or installment loans. Zero Parallel then transmitted consumers’ information to various online lenders which evaluated the consumers’ information. The lenders then decided whether they wished to make the loans. If they did, the lenders purchased the leads from Zero Parallel and interacted directly with consumers to complete the loan transactions. (More on the lead generation process in our previous blog postings.)

In some cases, the lenders who purchased the leads offered loans on terms that were prohibited in the states where the consumers resided. The CFPB claims that such loans were therefore void. Because Zero Parallel allegedly knew that the leads it sold were likely to result in void loans, the CFPB alleged that Zero Parallel engaged in abusive acts and practices. Under the consent order, and the proposed order, if it is entered, Zero Parallel will be prohibited from selling leads that would facilitate such loans. To prevent this from happening, the orders require Zero Parallel to take reasonable steps to filter the leads it receives so as to steer consumers away from these allegedly void loans.

The CFPB also faulted Zero Parallel for failing to ensure that consumers were adequately informed about the lead generation process. This allegedly caused consumers to get bad deals on the loans they took out.

Consistent with our earlier blog posts about regulatory interest in lead generation, we see two takeaways from the Zero Parallel case.  First, the CFPB remains willing to hold service providers liable for the alleged bad acts of financial services companies to which they provide services. This requires service providers to engage in “reverse vendor oversight” to protect themselves from claims like the ones the CFPB made here.  Second, the issue of disclosure on websites used to generate leads remains a topic of heightened regulatory interest. Financial institutions and lead generators alike should remain focused such disclosures.

In July, the CFPB issued its Final Arbitration Rule on the use of arbitration provisions in consumer financial services products and services.  I will be participating in two upcoming programs related to the Rule.

PLI Webinar on CFPB Arbitration Rule

On September 13, 2017 at 2:00pm ET, Practicing Law Institute (PLI) will host a teleconference on the CFPB’s Arbitration Rule.

A link to register for the program is here.

ABA Program on The CFPB’s Final Arbitration Rule: Everything You Need to Know

In conjunction with the ABA Business Law Section Annual Meeting being held in Chicago on September 14-16, 2017, a panel discussion entitled: The CFPB’s Final Arbitration Rule: Everything You Need to Know will be held on September 14 from 2:30-3:30pm CT.

The CFPB recently submitted a proposed stipulated final order that would shut down a credit repair service and permanently enjoin it from “[a]dvertising, marketing, promoting, providing, offering for sale, selling, assisting in the sale of, or administering Credit Repair Services.” The proposed order would also enjoin the credit repair service from “[r]eceiving any remuneration or other consideration from, holding any ownership interest in, providing services to, or working in any capacity for any person engaged in or assisting in advertising, marketing, promoting, offering for sale, or selling Credit Repair Services.” It includes a $150,000 civil monetary penalty, but does not include any reimbursement to consumers.

In the lawsuit, which we previously blogged about here, the CFPB alleged that the credit repair service violated the Telemarketing Sales Rule and Dodd-Frank’s UDAAP Provision by: 1) charging illegal advance fees; 2) misleading consumers about the benefits of the services it provided; 3) misrepresenting the actual costs of the service; and 4) misrepresenting the numerous conditions and limitations on its “money-back guarantee.” The court originally dismissed the complaint without prejudice after it found that the CFPB failed to satisfy Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 9(b)’s heightened pleading standard. Following this order, the CFPB submitted a second amended complaint, and ultimately submitted the proposed stipulated final order.

The proposed stipulated final order follows similar consent orders against credit repair companies issued by the CFPB in June 2017. The CFPB’s website also contains warnings to consumers about credit repair services and debt settlement companies.

Credit repair services cause significant headache for the financial services industry. As the CFPB’s website acknowledges, many will promise to remove even accurate information from a consumer’s credit report. They attempt to do this by disputing credit reporting data the consumer knows to be accurate and submitting large numbers of such disputes – including multiple disputes for the same consumer – to furnishers to overwhelm the furnisher’s ability to investigate the disputes. This practice harms consumers with legitimate disputes by burying furnishers in a large volume of meritless disputes, and in our view, is one of the largest current flaws in the credit reporting dispute system.  Although the CFPB’s enforcement actions against credit repair agencies are a positive step, we would like to see official guidance from the Bureau aimed at alleviating the burden that furnishers face to investigate and respond to the tidal wave of meritless FCRA disputes that are currently flooding into furnishers’ offices.

Members of Ballard Spahr’s consumer financial services group will hold a webinar on strategies for dealing with debt settlement companies at 12:00 PM ET on October 4, 2017. To register for this event, access the following link: https://response.ballardspahr.com/116/3145/landing-pages/registration-form-(blank).asp