A federal district court in Kentucky recently ruled against the CFPB in a long-standing case under the Real Estate Settlement Procedures Act (RESPA) involving a Louisville, Kentucky law firm Borders & Borders, PLC (Borders).  In the case, CFPB v. Borders & Borders, PLC, the court granted the summary judgment motion of Borders, finding that joint ventures related to Borders satisfied the statutory conditions of the RESPA section 8(c)(4) affiliated business arrangement exemption.  The court referred to the exemption as a “safe harbor”.  The CFPB had alleged that the joint ventures did not qualify for the safe harbor because they were not bona fide providers of settlement services.

Borders is a law firm that performs residential real estate closings, and also is an agent authorized to issue title insurance policies for a number of title insurers.  In 2006, the principals of Borders established nine joint venture title agencies with the principals of real estate and mortgage brokerage companies.  In February 2011, the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) notified Borders that it was investigating the firm for potential violations of the RESPA referral fee prohibitions based on the joint ventures.  (HUD was the federal agency responsible for interpreting and enforcing RESPA before such authority was transferred to the CFPB.)  Upon receipt of the notice, Borders ceased operating all of the joint ventures.

In October 2013 the CFPB filed a complaint against Borders asserting that the firm violated the RESPA referral fee prohibition through the establishment and operation of the joint ventures.  The CFPB asserted that Borders paid kickbacks to the principals of the real estate and mortgage brokerage companies that were disguised as profit distributions from the joint ventures, and that the kickbacks were for the referral of customers to Borders by the principals.

The CFPB claimed that the joint ventures were not subject to the affiliated business arrangement safe harbor under RESPA section 8(c)(4), which permits referrals and payments of ownership distributions among affiliated parties if the conditions of the safe harbor are met.  The conditions are that (1) when a person is referred to a settlement servicer provider that is a party to an affiliated business arrangement, a disclosure is made to the person being referred of the existence of the affiliated business arrangement, along with a written estimate of the charge or range of charges generally made by the provider to which the person is being referred, (2) the person is not required to use any particular provider of settlement services (subject to certain exceptions), and (3) the only thing of value that is received from the arrangement, other than payments otherwise permitted under RESPA section 8(c), is a return on the ownership interest or franchise relationship.

As noted above, the CFPB argued that the joint ventures did not qualify for the safe harbor because they were not bona fide providers of settlement services within the meaning of RESPA.  The statutory safe harbor for affiliated business arrangements contains no such condition.  The position that a joint venture must be a bona fide provider of settlement services to qualify for the safe harbor previously was asserted by HUD in statement of policy 1996-2 (the “Statement of Policy”).  HUD set forth factors that it would examine in assessing whether or not a particular joint venture is a bona fide provider of settlement services.

Although the CFPB did not expressly reference the Statement of Policy in its complaint against Borders, it addressed many of the same factors that HUD identified in the Statement of Policy.  The CFPB asserted that:

  • In most instances Borders provided the initial capitalization for the joint ventures, and the capital was comprised of only enough funds to cover a joint venture’s errors and omissions insurance.
  • Each joint venture had a single staff member, who was an independent contractor shared by all of the joint ventures and concurrently employed by Borders.
  • Borders’ principals, employees and agents managed the affairs of the joint ventures.
  • The joint ventures did not have their own office spaces, email addresses or phone numbers, and could not operate independent of Borders.
  • The joint ventures did not advertise themselves to the public
  • All of the business of the joint ventures was referred by Borders.
  • The joint ventures did not perform substantive title work—such work was performed by Borders.

With regard to the disclosure condition of the affiliated business arrangement safe harbor, the CFPB asserted that when Borders referred a customer to a joint venture, Borders “sometimes used a disclosure form intended to notify customers of a business affiliation between the owners of the law firm and  [the joint venture].”  The CFPB also asserted that the notice did not contain the ownership interest percentages in the joint venture or include a customer acknowledgment section, which are elements of the form of notice in Appendix D to Regulation X, the regulation under RESPA.

About a month after the CFPB filed its complaint, the US Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit issued a decision in Carter v. Wells Bowen Realty, Inc., 736 F.3d 722 (6th 2013).  It appears the opinion of the court presented a hurdle that the CFPB could not clear in its case against Borders.  In the Carter case, private plaintiffs asserted that certain joint ventures did not qualify for the affiliated business arrangement safe harbor based on the bona fide settlement service provider requirement that HUD set forth in the Statement of Policy.  The court determined that the defendants satisfied the three statutory conditions of the affiliated business arrangement safe harbor, and based on this determination the court ruled in favor of the defendants.  The court refused to apply what it considered a fourth condition to the safe harbor asserted by HUD—that the entity receiving referrals must be a bona fide provider of settlement services.  The court stated that “a statutory safe harbor is not very safe if a federal agency may add a new requirement to it through a policy statement.”

The court in the Borders case stated that the joint ventures each had an operating agreement, were authorized to conduct business in Kentucky, were approved by a title insurer to issue title insurance policies, were subject to audit, had a separate operating bank account, had a separate escrow bank account, maintained an errors and omission insurance policy, issued lender’s and owner’s title insurance policies, had operating expenses, generated revenue, made profit distributions, filed tax returns, issued IRS K-1 forms and were solvent.  The court also stated that each of the joint ventures were staffed by the same individual, who worked from her home office and was categorized as an independent contractor.

Citing the Carter case, the court set forth the three statutory conditions of the affiliated business arrangement safe harbor.  The court determined that the joint ventures satisfied the three conditions.  With regard to the disclosure condition, the court determined that the provision of the disclosure by Borders to its customers at the closing of a real estate transaction was sufficient, because it was the first contact that Borders had with the customers, and that the customer then decided at the closing whether to accept the referral of title insurance to one of the joint ventures.  (The court had earlier noted in its opinion that customers had 30 days from the date of closing to decide whether to purchase owner’s title insurance from the joint venture.)  With regard to the deviation of the notice from the form notice in Regulation X, the court found the content of the Borders’ notice to be sufficient to meet the statutory notice condition.

The decision of the court that the delivery of the notice at closing was sufficient is raising more than a few eyebrows in the industry.  In any event, based on the determination that the three statutory conditions of the affiliated business arrangement were satisfied, the court granted Borders’ motion for summary judgment.  The court did not impose the fourth condition asserted by the CFPB that the joint ventures had to be bona fide settlement service providers.  It interesting that the court nonetheless decided to note various aspects of the joint ventures in an apparent attempt to demonstrate their legitimacy.

The CFPB can appeal the decision to the Sixth Circuit, but if it does so the CFPB will have to face the hurdle of the Carter decision.  So the CFPB would need to assert one or more theories supporting why the Carter decision does not preclude a finding of a RESPA violation in the Borders case.

On June 7, the CFPB submitted a Rule 28(j) letter to the D.C. Circuit in the PHH case.  In the letter, the CFPB embraced the fact that the Supreme Court’s recent Kokesh v. SEC decision makes the five-year statute of limitations in 28 USC § 2462 applicable to disgorgement remedies in CFPB administrative proceedings.  The CFPB asserted (incorrectly in our view) that Kokesh somehow obviated the applicability of RESPA’s three-year statute of limitations in the PHH case.

PHH forcefully responded to that argument in its reply letter.  It started with the point that § 2462’s limitation period applies “except as otherwise provided” by Congress. Because RESPA “otherwise provides” a three-year statute of limitations, § 2462 is inapplicable.  Next, it pointed out how unreasonable it is for the CFPB to assume that Congress would set one statute of limitations for judicial actions and another for administrative proceedings.  That “would destroy the certainty that Section 2614 was intended to provide,” it argued.  PHH also reminded the court of the CFPB Director’s holding in an earlier proceeding that no statute of limitations applies to administrative actions.  It chided the CFPB for trying to back away from that position at the “eleventh-hour.”

PHH also pointed out that “at the same time the CFPB argued in this Court that Section 2462 governs disgorgement, the Acting Solicitor General argued in Kokesh that it does not.  The CFPB’s freelancing merely underscores that the Director answers to no one but himself.”

On May 24, 2017, the US Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit (D.C. Circuit) held oral argument in the PHH case, which we have blogged about extensively. The constitutionality of the CFPB’s structure was the central issue at the oral argument, occupying the vast majority of the time and the judges’ questions. It appears that the court intends to decide whether the CFPB’s single-director-removable-only-for-cause structure violates the Constitution’s separation of powers doctrine, even if the court rules in PHH’s favor on the RESPA issues.

The judges’ questioning signaled that, in their minds, the resolution turns on three questions: First, how does the CFPB structure diminish Presidential power more than a multi-member commission structure, which the Supreme Court has approved? Second, doesn’t the CFPB’s structure make it more accountable and transparent than a multi-member commission? Third, what are the consequences of approving the CFPB structure? Judges that appeared not to be concerned with the CFPB’s structure generally focused on the first two questions. Judges that appeared to be concerned with the CFPB’s structure focused on the third question. Another key theme addressed at various points throughout the oral argument is whether the CFPB’s structure is sufficiently close to the structures validated in prior Supreme Court cases, such that the court must uphold the CFPB’s structure.

At the oral argument, PHH’s counsel urged the court to recognize the serious affront that the various features of the CFPB’s structure, taken together, present to Presidential power, including: (i) the single director, (ii) the for cause removal provision, (iii) the funding outside the Congressional appropriations process, (iii) the director’s ability to appoint all inferior officers with no outside input, (iv) the director’s five-year term, (v) the deferential standard of review given to the director’s decisions, (vi) the director’s ability to promulgate regulations unilaterally, and (vii) the director’s sole ability to interpret and enforce regulations.

Before PHH’s counsel could even fully articulate his argument, however, judges started questioning him on how these features diminished Presidential power more than the multi-member commissions running other agencies, which the Supreme Court approved in Humphrey’s Executor. The DOJ, which was given time at the oral argument, forcefully responded to the judges’ questions. The “quintessential” character of the executive is the ability to act “with energy and dispatch,” counsel argued. Multi-member panels, as deliberative bodies, lack that quality and are thus more legislative and judicial than executive. Thus, they encroach on Presidential power to a much lesser degree.

DOJ’s counsel also pointed out that the rationale justifying the for cause removal provision that that the Supreme Court approved in Humphrey’s Executor was not present in agencies endowed with the CFPB’s structural features. The DOJ’s counsel pointed to language in Humphrey’s Executor approving the for-cause removal provisions only as to “officers of the kind here under consideration,” namely FTC commissioners. The Humphrey’s Executor court extensively described the FTC and the officers “here under consideration” in a way that precluded any applicability of the case to the CFPB. In Humphrey’s Executor, the FTC was described as a “non-partisan,” non-political body of experts that exercised quasi-judicial and quasi-legislative powers. The CFPB does not fit that mold, the DOJ ‘s counsel argued.

Counsel for both PHH and the DOJ also stressed that the CFPB did not fit the mold of the inferior officer at issue in Morrison v Olson, in which the Supreme Court approved a for-cause removal provision applicable to a special prosecutor. A few judges asked counsel questions apparently aimed at establishing that the existence of special prosecutors was as great an affront to Presidential power as is the CFPB’s structure.

During these lines of questioning, one judge suggested that the CFPB’s structure makes it more accountable to the President. She pointed out that, with a single director, there is one person to blame for problems and that, unlike multi-member commissions, the President has the power to appoint leadership with complete control over the agency. Counsel for PHH and the DOJ responded to this by reminding the court that the President can only appoint a director after the last director’s five-year term expires or the for-cause removal provision is triggered. Interestingly, no one raised the point that the for cause removal provision and five-year term also limit the ability of a President to remove a director that he or she appointed, even if the appointee did not act in a manner satisfactory to the President. Thus, the argument that the CFPB director is somehow more accountable than a multi-member commission does not hold water.

Some judges’ questions presented the issue that “if” the CFPB director is the same as a special prosecutor or FTC commissioner, then the D.C. Circuit is bound by Humphrey’s Executor and Morrison v. Olson. Without missing a beat, however, the DOJ picked up on that “if” and argued the point that the CFPB director is nothing like either position. DOJ’s counsel asserted that the director is not an inferior officer, as was the special prosecutor in Morrison v. Olson, nor is the director part of a non-partisan body of experts, as was the FTC commissioner in Humphrey’s Executor.

During the argument, Judge Brown and Judge Kavanaugh, who wrote the panel’s majority opinion, attempted to draw the rest of the court’s attention to the consequences of extending Humphrey’s Executor to a single-director agency and Morrison v. Olson to principal, as opposed to inferior, officers. Judge Brown suggested that, if the CFPB’s structure is constitutional, nothing would prevent Congress from slapping lengthy terms and for-cause removal restrictions on cabinet-level officials. That, she argued, would reduce the presidency to a “nominal” office with no real executive power. Judge Kavanaugh addressed the same issue making an apparent reference to the speculation that Elizabeth Warren may run for President after Trump leaves office. How would it be, he questioned, if she ran on a consumer protection platform, got elected, and was stuck with a Trump-appointed CFPB director, who would presumably take a much different position on issues central to her platform?

The CFPB’s counsel defended the Bureau’s structure at the hearing using the same technical arguments that the CFPB has been making all along. The CFPB’s counsel asserted that the CFPB’s structure was constitutional because each of the features taken individually has support in Supreme Court jurisprudence, principally Humphrey’s Executor and Morrison v. Olson.

In discussing the CFPB’s problematic structural features, CFPB counsel argued that, because each feature is a “zero” in terms of a problematic Congressional encroachment on Presidential power, that adding them together resulted in zero constitutional problems. “Zero plus zero plus zero, is zero,” he said. In rebuttal, PHH’s counsel pointed out that, as catchy as the argument may be rhetorically, it completely ignores the fact that even Supreme Court jurisprudence supportive of the individual features recognizes them as departures from the norm, acceptable only under certain circumstances. PHH’s counsel observed that the features at issue are not “zeros.”

The RESPA and statute of limitations issues did not occupy much time at the oral argument. Counsel for PHH urged the D.C. Circuit to reinstate the panel’s RESPA and statute of limitations rulings, all of which were in favor of PHH, and to rule on one issue not addressed by the panel.  While the panel decided, contrary to the CFPB’s views, that the CFPB is subject to statutes of limitations in administrative proceedings, the panel left for the CFPB on remand to decide if, as argued by the CFPB, each reinsurance premium payment triggered a new three-year statute of limitations, or whether, as argued by PHH, the three year statute of limitations is measured from the time of loan closing.  The judges did not raise any questions in response to counsel’s arguments on the RESPA and statutes of limitation issues.

Even though Lucia v. SEC was argued that same day, no questions surfaced during the PHH oral argument about the impact that Lucia may have on the PHH case.

* * *

It is likely that the earliest the D.C. Circuit’s decision will be issued is toward year-end. We will continue to monitor developments in this case.

 

For years many industry participants wondered if allowing their real estate agents or loan officers to engage in co-marketing on Zillow Group applications and websites posed a risk to their companies under RESPA.  The industry may soon know the answer, as Zillow Group advised in recent prepared remarks on first quarter earnings that “Over the past two years, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, or CFPB, has been reviewing our program for compliance with the Real Estate Settlement Procedures Act, or RESPA, which is a regulation designed to protect consumers.”

To say that the CFPB is not a fan of marketing arrangements between settlement service providers is an understatement.  We previously reported on an October 2015 bulletin in which the CFPB addressed its experiences with such marketing arrangements.  The CFPB stated “In sum, the Bureau’s experience in this area gives rise to grave concerns about the use of [marketing services agreements] in ways that evade the requirements of RESPA.”  The recent announcement by Zillow may cause industry members to assess co-marketing arrangements.

While the Zillow announcement indicates that the CFPB investigation has occurred over the past two years, the apparent reason for the announcement is the disclosure that “Recently, the CFPB requested additional information and documents from us as part of their evaluation, which we are working with them on.”  Zillow also notes that it considers its co-marketing program to be compliant, and that it has continually encouraged consumers to shop around while looking for a mortgage.

 

 

On May 4, the CFPB announced that as part of its impending 5-year review of mortgage rules, it was proposing a plan to assess the effectiveness of the Real Estate Settlement Procedures Act (RESPA) mortgage servicing rule.  The proposed assessment plan focuses on the 2013 RESPA Servicing Final Rule, which was issued in January 2013 and amended before it became effective on January 10, 2014.  The CFPB intends to issue an assessment report no later than January 10, 2019. While this report will likely not include specific proposals to modify the rule, the CFPB states that the report will “help to inform the Bureau’s thinking as to whether to consider commencing a rulemaking proceeding in the future.”

The purpose of the assessment is to determine how well the 2013 RESPA Servicing Final Rule has met its objectives of (1) responding to borrower requests and complaints in a timely manner; (2) maintaining and providing accurate information; (3) helping borrowers avoid unwarranted or unnecessary costs and fees; and (4) facilitating review for foreclosure avoidance options.  The proposed assessment plan seeks to compare servicer and consumer activities and outcomes to a baseline that would exist if the 2013 RESPA Servicing Rule’s requirements were not in effect.  To do so, the CFPB will use loan-level data from a small number of servicers, data from the National Mortgage Database, and the American Survey of Mortgage Borrowers , consumer complaints, servicing data from a private vendor, and information obtained from supervision and enforcement activities.

The CFPB is soliciting comments on a variety of issues related to the assessment, including the feasibility and effectiveness of the assessment plan and recommendations for modifying, expanding, or eliminating the 2013 RESPA Servicing Rule.  Comments must be received 60 days after the CFPB’s notice is published in the Federal Register.

The D.C. Circuit issued its long-awaited decision in PHH Corporation v. CFPB. In reversing the decision of Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) Director Cordray to impose an enhanced penalty of $109 million on PHH for its use of a captive (wholly-owned) mortgage reinsurer, the court made several landmark rulings.

First, it held that the CFPB’s single-director-removable-only-for-cause structure is unconstitutional. The court held that it was a violation of Article II for the CFPB to lack the “critical check” of presidential control or the “substitute check” of a multi-member governance structure necessary to protect individual liberty against “arbitrary decisionmaking and abuse of power.” The court remedied this constitutional defect by severing the removal-only-for-cause provision from the Dodd-Frank Act. Under the ruling, Director Cordray now serves at the will of the President and is subject to supervision and management by the President. In a footnote, the court acknowledged that this may create some fallout in other cases, but left it for other courts to address.

It also rejected the CFPB’s argument that statutes of limitations do not apply to its administrative enforcement actions. The court’s holding was straightforward: If Congress had intended to alter the standard statute of limitations scheme, it would have said so. “[W]e would expect Congress to actually say that there is no statute of limitations for CFPB administrative actions . . . But the text of Dodd-Frank says no such thing.”

In addition, the court held that the plain language of RESPA permits captive mortgage re-insurance arrangements like the one at issue in the PHH case, if the mortgage re-insurers are paid no more than the reasonable value of the services they provide. This is consistent with HUD’s prior interpretation. For the first time in 2015, in prosecuting the case against PHH, the CFPB announced a new interpretation of RESPA under which captive mortgage reinsurance arrangements were prohibited. The court rejected this on the ground that the statute unambiguously allows the kinds of payments that the CFPB’s 2015 interpretation prohibited. We have blogged about the CFPB’s erroneous interpretation of the RESPA provisions at issue in this case.

Finally, the court further admonished the CFPB by alternatively holding that—even assuming that the CFPB’s interpretation was permitted under any reading of RESPA—the CFPB’s attempt to retroactively apply its 2015 interpretation, which departed from HUD’s prior interpretation, violated due process. It held that “the CFPB violated due process by retroactively applying that new interpretation to PHH’s conduct that occurred before the date of the CFPB’s new interpretation.”

Notably, the court explicitly declined to address the CFPB’s claim that each mortgage insurance payment made in violation of RESPA triggers a new three-year statute of limitations for that payment. The CFPB’s view on this point was one basis that allowed it to dramatically increase the penalties it sought from PHH. The court’s decision not to address this point in its opinion makes it likely that this will not be the last circuit court opinion required to resolve the case.

The opinion of the court also did not address one aspect of the CFPB Director’s prior decision that disgorgement of the entire amount of the premiums was required, without an offset for the claims paid, which had also added considerably to the penalty amount. The court states in footnote 24 that if a mortgage insurer paid more than reasonable market value for reinsurance, the disgorgement remedy is the amount that was paid above reasonable market value. The court did not expressly address the Director’s approach of ignoring the claims paid. The concurring/dissenting opinion by Judge Henderson does address this point, however, indicating that disgorgement must be reduced by the claims paid.

Because the opinion did not dismantle the CFPB, the court remanded the case to the CFPB for consideration of whether PHH violated RESPA as interpreted by HUD.

The CFPB has issued what it calls a “fact sheet” regarding the disclosure of construction-to-permanent loans under the TILA/RESPA Integrated Disclosure (TRID) rule, which the CFPB refers to as the Know Before You Owe rule.  The fact sheet falls far short of the detailed guidance sought by the mortgage industry.

A construction-to-permanent loan is a single loan that has an initial construction phase while the home is being built, and then a permanent phase for when construction is complete and standard amortizing payments begin.  Although, as noted below, the TRID rule does address such loans, the rule does not provide detailed guidance on how to complete the Loan Estimate and Closing Disclosure for such loans, nor are sample disclosures included with the TRID rule.

In the fact sheet, the CFPB notes that Regulation Z section 1026.17(c)(6)(ii) and Appendix D to Regulation Z continue to apply in the new TRID rule world, and the CFPB specifically notes that they apply to the Loan Estimate and Closing Disclosure.  The cited section provides that when a multiple-advance loan to finance the construction of a dwelling may be permanently financed by the same creditor, the construction phase and the permanent phase may be treated as either one transaction or more than one transaction.  The fact sheet indicates, as the CFPB staff had informally advised in a May 2015 webinar, that a construction-to-permanent loan may be disclosed in a single Loan Estimate and single Closing Disclosure, or the construction phase and permanent phase can be disclosed separately, with the construction phase being set forth in one Loan Estimate and Closing Disclosure and the permanent phase being set forth in another Loan Estimate and Closing Disclosure.

Appendix D provides guidance on how to compute the amount financed, APR and finance charge for a multiple advance construction loan, when disclosed either as a single transaction or as separate transactions.  The TRID rule added a commentary provision regarding Appendix D to address the disclosure of principal and interest payments in the Projected Payments sections of both the Loan Estimate and Closing Disclosure.  The commentary provision does not address other elements of the Projected Payments sections.  Additionally, the CFPB does not clarify in the fact sheet that Appendix D applies only when the actual timing and/or amount of the multiple advances are not known.

Likely realizing that this guidance would fall short of the detailed guidance, and sample disclosures, sought by the industry, the CFPB’s final statement in the fact sheet is “The Bureau is considering additional guidance to facilitate compliance with the Know Before You Owe mortgage disclosure rule, including possibly a webinar on construction loan disclosures.”

The industry needs and deserves more than a webinar.  It deserves detailed written guidance with sample disclosures.  The failure of the CFPB to provide written guidance on other aspects of the TRID rule has significantly contributed to the confusion and uncertainty in the industry regarding TRID rule requirements.  It is frustrating to the industry that the CFPB continues to resist providing written guidance on TRID rule matters (as well as other matters), particularly when its sister federal agencies regularly provide written guidance on important matters.

 

 

The residential mortgage settlement service industry has been asking the CFPB for guidance on the legality of marketing service agreements (MSAs) under RESPA. When questioned on the issue last week at a House Financial Services Committee hearing, Director Cordray indicated that the CFPB would issue guidance. One week later the CFPB has now issued non-binding guidance in the form of Bulletin 2015-05.

In the first paragraph the CFPB sets the tone for the Bulletin by stating that (1) while it has received numerous inquiries and whistleblower tips “describing the harm that can stem from the use of MSAs, [it] has not received similar input suggesting the use of those agreements benefits either consumers or industry” and that (2) based on the CFPB’s investigative efforts, “it appears that many MSAs are designed to evade RESPA’s prohibition on the payment and acceptance of kickbacks and referral fees.” In the end, the Bulletin provides no actual guidance on how to structure a compliant MSA. Instead it simply summarizes CFPB concerns with MSAs.

Presumably based on its position that RESPA section 8(c)(2) is not an exemption from the RESPA section 8(a) referral fee prohibition, the CFPB states that “any agreement that entails exchanging a thing of value for referrals of settlement service business involving a federally related mortgage loan likely violates RESPA, whether or not an MSA or some related arrangement is part of the transaction.” Without specifically identifying any past CFPB enforcement action, the CFPB describes MSA issues that it considered to be harmful to consumers in the Lighthouse Title, Realty South, Amerisave and Genuine Title settlements.

The CFPB addresses the use of a third party to value services to be performed under an MSA in stating that “independently established market-rate compensation for marketing services, alone, does not suffice to ensure the legality of an MSA.” The CFPB also addresses the related issue of monitoring whether the services contemplated under an MSA are in fact performed in stating it found that “efforts made to adequately monitor activities that in turn are performed by a wide range of individuals pursuant to MSAs are inherently difficult.” These statements clearly convey that an appropriate valuation of marketing services by itself does not make an MSA compliant with RESPA, and that demonstrating to the CFPB that the marketing services paid for were actually performed may prove to be difficult.

The CFPB concludes with the ominous statement that “the Bureau’s experience in this area gives rise to grave concerns about the use of MSAs in ways that evade the requirements of RESPA. In consequence, the Bureau reiterates that a more careful consideration of legal and compliance risk arising from MSAs would be in order for mortgage industry participants generally.”

Many readers probably remember Edwards v. First American Financial Corp. for its ill-fated journey to the U.S. Supreme Court.  The Supreme Court had granted certiorari to decide the issue of whether a plaintiff who brings a RESPA claim has Article III standing to recover statutory damages in the absence of any actual damages caused by the alleged RESPA violation.  In 2012, seven months after oral argument, the Supreme Court issued a one-sentence per curiam order which stated only that “the writ of certiorari is dismissed as improvidently granted.”  As described below, the case has since found its way back to the Ninth Circuit, which issued an opinion earlier this week in which it refused to give deference to the RESPA interpretation advanced by the CFPB in its amicus brief.

The underlying lawsuit was a class action complaint filed in 2007 by a consumer who alleged that two First American entities violated RESPA by paying unlawful kickbacks to title agencies in exchange for agreements from such agencies to refer all of their title insurance business to First American.  The complaint alleged that the referral arrangements were part of agreements pursuant to which First American purchased ownership interests in such agencies to give the kickbacks “the appearance of legitimacy.”  The certiorari petition followed a decision by the Ninth Circuit affirming the district court’s ruling that the plaintiff had Article III standing and its denial of class certification but remanding the case to allow the plaintiff to conduct nationwide discovery and renew her class certification motion.

After the Supreme Court’s dismissal of the certiorari petition, the case returned to the district court.  The district court again denied the plaintiff’s motion to certify a nationwide class, ruling that to prove a RESPA violation, the plaintiff had to show that the defendants overpaid for their interests in the title agencies.  According to the district court, such proof was necessary for the plaintiff to show that the defendants gave the title agencies a “thing of value” in exchange for the referrals as required by RESPA.  In addition, because the district court read RESPA’s definition of a “referral” to require action “that has the effect of affirmatively influencing the selection” of a settlement service provider, it found that evidence on an individualized basis would be needed to show who precisely influenced class members to choose First American as their title insurer.

In its amicus brief filed in the Ninth Circuit, the CFPB argued that, when a referral agreement is entered into as part of a transaction involving the sale of ownership interests, a plaintiff can prove that the defendant paid for the referral without necessarily showing that the defendant overpaid for those ownership interests.  According to the CFPB, the safe harbor that permits “payments for goods or facilities actually furnished or services actually performed” only applies when good, services or facilities are “actually provided-typically in the context of particular real estate settlements.”  The CFPB therefore took the position that the safe harbor does not extend to every transfer of “things of value,” such as ownership interests in title agencies.  It contended that the sale and purchase of such ownership interests can be considered “things of value” paid in exchange for referrals without regard to whether the price paid for the interests was fair.  Thus, according to the CFPB, RESPA’s kickback prohibition is violated if the referral agreements between First American and the title agencies were a condition to First American’s purchase of ownership interests in the agencies.

On August 24, 2015, the Ninth Circuit issued an opinion vacating the district court’s denial of class certification except with respect to First American’s transactions with certain newly-formed agencies (i.e. agencies formed by First American with third party investors rather than agencies already existing at the time First American purchased its ownership interest).  In the opinion, the Ninth Circuit agreed with the CFPB’s position that the safe harbor did not apply to First American’s ownership interests.  However, the Ninth Circuit stated explicitly that it agreed with the CFPB’s interpretation not as a matter of deference (which the “CFPB urges us to give”) but because the CFPB’s interpretation was consistent with RESPA’s language.  The Ninth Circuit stated:

Here, CFPB is interpreting the statute, not the regulation.  An agency’s interpretation of the statute-when presented in an amicus brief-is not promulgated in the exercise of its forma rule-making authority, so no Chevron deference is warranted.

Since the beginning of the CFPB’s amicus brief program, we have voiced our concerns about the program’s lack of transparency and the CFPB’s use of the program to make law.  We are glad to see that the Ninth Circuit appears to have recognized our concerns by not deferring to the CFPB’s attempt to make RESPA law through an amicus brief.