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  • New York requires student loan servicers to be licensed in broad legislation

    State Issues

    On March 31, the New York governor announced the passage of the state’s FY 2020 Budget, which includes an amendment (known as “Article 14-A” or “the Act”) to the state’s banking law with respect to the licensing of private student loan servicers. Article 14-A requires student loan servicers to be licensed by the New York Department of Financial Services (NYDFS) in order to service student loans owned by residents of New York. The licensing provisions do not apply to the servicers of federal student loans—defined as, “(a) any student loan issued pursuant William D. Ford Federal Direct Loan Program; (b) any student loan issued pursuant to the Federal Family Education Loan Program, which was purchased by the government of the United States pursuant to the federal Ensuring Continued Access to Student Loans Act and is presently owned by government of the United States; and (c) any other student loan issued pursuant to a federal program that is identified by the superintendent as a ‘federal student loan’ in a regulation”—as the Act treats federal servicers as though they are a licensed student loan servicer. Banking organizations, foreign banking organizations, national banks, federal savings associations, federal credit unions, or any bank or credit union organized under the laws of any other state, are also considered exempt from the new state licensing requirements.

    In addition to the licensing requirements, Article 14-A also prohibits any student loan servicer—including those exempt from licensing requirements or deemed automatically licensed—from, among other things, (i) engaging in any unfair, deceptive, or predatory act or practice with regard to the servicing of student loans, including making any material misrepresentations about loan terms; (ii) misapplying payments to the balance of any student loan; (iii) providing inaccurate information to a consumer credit reporting agency; and (iv) making false representations or failing to respond to communications from NYDFS within fifteen calendar days. Article 14-A requires student loan servicers (not including exempt organizations) to accurately report a borrower’s payment performance to at least one credit reporting agency if the organization regularly reports information to a credit reporting agency. Additionally, the Act specifies that a student loan servicer shall inquire on how a borrower would like nonconforming payments to be applied and continue that application until the borrower provides different directions. Article 14-A also outlines examination and recordkeeping requirements and allows for the NYDFS Superintendent to penalize servicers the greater of (i) up to $10,000 for each offense; (ii) a multiple of two times the violation’s aggregate damages; or (iii) a multiple of two times the violation’s aggregate economic gain. Article 14-A takes effect 180 days after becoming law.

    State Issues State Legislation Student Lending Consumer Finance NYDFS Student Loan Servicer Licensing

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  • White House releases 2020 budget proposal; key areas include appropriations and efforts to combat terrorist financing

    Federal Issues

    On March 11, the White House released its fiscal 2020 budget request, A Budget for a Better America. The budget was accompanied by texts entitled Major Savings and Reforms (MSR), which “contains detailed information on major savings and reform proposals”; Analytical Perspectives, which “contains analyses that are designed to highlight specified subject areas or provide other significant presentations of budget data that place the budget in perspective”; and an Appendix containing detailed supporting information. Funding through appropriations and efforts to combat terrorist financing remain key highlights carried over from last year. Notable takeaways of the 2020 budget proposal are as follows:

    CFPB. In the MSR’s “Restructure the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau” section, the budget revives a call to restructure the Bureau, and proposes legislative action to implement a two-year restructuring period, subject the CFPB to the congressional appropriations process starting in 2021, and “bring accountability” to the Bureau. Among other things, the proposed budget would cap the Federal Reserve’s transfers to the Bureau at $485 million in 2020.

    Financial Stability Oversight Council (FSOC). The 2020 budget proposal requests that Congress establish funding levels through annual appropriations bills for FSOC (which is comprised of the heads of the financial regulatory agencies and monitors risk to the U.S. financial system) and its independent research arm, the Office of Financial Research (OFR). Currently FSOC and OFR set their own budgets.

    Flood Insurance. The Credit and Insurance chapter of the budget’s Analytical Perspectives section discusses FEMA initiatives such as modifying the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) to become a simpler, more customer-focused program, and “doubling the number of properties covered by flood insurance (either the NFIP or private insurance) by 2022.” Separately, the budget proposal emphasizes that the administration believes that “flood insurance rates should reflect the risk homeowners face by living in flood zones.”

    Government Sponsored Enterprises. Noted within the MSR, the budget proposes doubling the guarantee fee charged by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to loan originators from 0.10 to 0.20 percentage points from 2020 through 2021. The proposal is designed to help “level the playing field for private lenders seeking to compete with the GSEs” and would generate an additional $32 billion over the 10-year budget window. 

    HUD. The budget proposes to eliminate funding for the Community Development Block Grant program, stating that “[s]tate and local governments are better equipped to address local community and economic development needs.” The proposal would continue to preserve access to homeownership opportunities for creditworthy borrowers through FHA and Ginnie Mae credit guarantees. The budget also requests $20 million above last year’s estimated level to help modernize FHA’s information technology systems and includes legislative proposals to “align FHA authorities with the needs of its lender enforcement program and limit FHA’s exposure to down-payment assistance practices.”

    SEC. As stated in both the budget proposal and the MSR, the budget again proposes to eliminate the SEC’s mandatory reserve fund and would require the SEC to request additional funds through the congressional appropriations process starting in 2021. According to the Appendix, the reserve fund is currently funded by collected registration fees and is not subject to appropriation or apportionment. Under the proposed budget, the registration fees would be deposited in the Treasury’s general fund.

    SIGTARP. As proposed in the MSR, the budget revives a plan that would reduce funding for the Special Inspector General for the Troubled Asset Relief Program (SIGTARP) “commensurate with the wind-down of TARP programs.” According to the MSR, “Congress aligned the sunset of SIGTARP with the length of time that TARP funds or commitments are outstanding,” which, Treasury estimates, will be through 2023. The reduction reflects, among other things, that less than one percent of TARP investments remain outstanding.  This will mark the final time payments are expected to be made under the Home Affordable Modification Program.

    Student Loan Reform. As with the 2019 budget proposal, the 2020 proposed budget seeks to establish a single income-driven repayment plan that caps monthly payments at 12.5 percent of discretionary income. Furthermore, balances would be forgiven after a specific number of repayment years—15 for undergraduate debt, 30 for graduate. In doing so, the proposal would eliminate subsidized loans and the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program, auto-enroll “severely delinquent borrowers,” and create a process for borrowers to share income data for multiple years. With certain exceptions, these proposals will only apply to loans originated on or after July 1, 2020.

    Treasury Department. The budget states that combating terrorist financing, proliferation financing, and other types of illicit financing are a top priority for the administration, and $167 million has been requested for Treasury’s Office of Terrorism and Financial Intelligence to “continue its work safeguarding the financial system from abuse and combating other national security threats using economic tools.” The proposed budget also requests $125 million for the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network to administer the Bank Secrecy Act and its work to prevent the financing of terrorism, money laundering, and other financial crimes. An additional $18 million was proposed for strengthening and protecting Treasury’s IT systems.

    Federal Issues Trump Budget CFPB FSOC Flood Insurance National Flood Insurance Program GSE HUD SEC Student Lending Department of Treasury Bank Secrecy Act FinCEN

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  • 4th Circuit: No waiver of sovereign immunity for lawsuits under the FCRA

    Courts

    On March 6, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit held that Congress did not waive sovereign immunity for lawsuits under the FCRA, affirming the lower court’s dismissal of a consumer action. According to the opinion, a consumer filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Education (the Department), a student loan company, and the three major credit reporting agencies, alleging numerous claims, including violations of the FCRA for failing to properly investigate disputes that federal student loans were fraudulently opened in his name. The Department filed a motion to dismiss to the FCRA claims against it arguing the court lacked subject matter jurisdiction based upon a claim of sovereign immunity. The lower court agreed, holding Congress had not affirmatively waived sovereign immunity for suits under the FCRA.

    On appeal, the 4th Circuit agreed with the lower court. The appellate court noted that, although the FCRA includes a “government or governmental subdivision or agency” as part of the definition of “person” in the statute, there is a “longstanding interpretive presumption that ‘person’ does not include the sovereign,” and that waivers of sovereign immunity need to be “unambiguous and unequivocal.” The appellate court noted that Congress waived immunity in other sections of the FCRA, which were not at issue in this case and, had Congress waived immunity for enforcement purposes under the FCRA, it would raise a new host of “befuddling” and “bizarre” issues, such as the prospect of the government bringing criminal charges against itself. Therefore, the appellate court concluded that the federal government may be a “person” under the substantive provisions, but that without a clear waiver from Congress, the federal government is still immune from lawsuits under the FCRA’s enforcement provisions.

    Courts FCRA Congress Sovereign Immunity Student Lending Appellate Fourth Circuit Department of Education

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  • FTC hits online student loan lender with order

    Federal Issues

    On February 25, the FTC announced it has approved a final consent order with an online student loan refinance lender resolving allegations that the lender violated the FTC Act by misrepresenting in television, print, and internet advertisements how much money student loan borrowers can save from refinancing their loans with the company. As previously covered by InfoBytes, the FTC alleged that the lender inflated the average savings consumers have achieved by refinancing through the lender, in some instances doubling the average savings by selectively excluding certain groups of consumers from the data. Additionally, the FTC also alleged that in some instances, the lender’s webpage misrepresented instances where a loan option would result in the consumer paying more on a monthly basis or over the lifetime of the loan, simply stating the savings would be “0.00.” In October 2018, without admitting or denying the allegations, the lender agreed to a consent order that required it to cease the alleged misrepresentations and agree to compliance monitoring and recordkeeping requirements. Following a public comment period, the FTC Commission voted 5-0 to approve the final consent order.

    Federal Issues Lending Student Lending FTC Enforcement FTC Act Settlement Consent Order

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  • District Court approves final $2.5 million TCPA class action settlement

    Courts

    On February 8, the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia granted final approval to a $2.5 million putative class action settlement resolving allegations that a student loan servicer violated the TCPA by using an autodialer to contact student borrowers’ credit references without first obtaining their prior express consent. The settlement terms also require the servicer to pay more than $850,000 in attorneys’ fees and expenses. According to the plaintiff’s memorandum in support of its motion for preliminary approval of the class action settlement (as referenced in the final approval order), the servicer allegedly used an autodialer to contact the plaintiff’s cellphone without her prior express consent, which the servicer subsequently denied. The servicer had moved for summary judgment on multiple grounds, arguing, among other things, that the plaintiff could not establish that the servicer used an autodialer to place calls to her and other credit references listed on the delinquent student loans. Citing to the D.C. Circuit’s decision in ACA International v. FCC, which set aside the FCC’s 2015 interpretation of an autodialer as “unreasonably expansive,” (covered by a Buckley Special Alert), the servicer had argued that the decision “governs analysis of the issue” and that the plaintiff could not succeed in demonstrating that the telephone system used falls within the statutory definition of an autodialer. However, prior to the court issuing a ruling on the servicer’s summary judgment motion, the parties reached the approved settlement through mediation.

    Courts Student Lending Autodialer Settlement Attorney Fees

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  • FDIC, Federal Reserve issue Voluntary Private Education Loan Rehabilitation Programs advisory

    Agency Rule-Making & Guidance

    On February 4, the FDIC and the Federal Reserve Board issued a joint advisory on Voluntary Private Education Loan Rehabilitation Programs to alert financial institutions of an amendment to section 623 of the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA) contained within section 602 of the Economic, Growth, Regulatory Relief and Consumer Protection Act. The amendment provides a safe harbor from potential claims of inaccurate reporting under the FCRA, provided the financial institutions who choose to offer private education loan rehabilitation programs satisfy section 602’s statutory requirements before removing a reported default from a qualified borrower’s credit report.

    Agency Rule-Making & Guidance FDIC Federal Reserve Student Lending FCRA EGRRCPA

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  • 4th Circuit affirms jury’s verdict clearing student loan servicer in FCA suit

    Courts

    On January 8, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit affirmed a federal jury’s unanimous verdict clearing a Pennsylvania-based student loan servicing agency (defendant) accused of improper billing practices under the False Claims Act (FCA). As previously covered by InfoBytes, the plaintiff—a former Department of Education employee whistleblower—filed a qui tam suit in 2007, seeking treble damages and forfeitures under the FCA. The plaintiff alleged that multiple state-run student loan financing agencies overcharged the U.S. government through fraudulent claims to the Federal Family Education Loan Program in order to unlawfully obtain 9.5 percent special allowance interest payments. Over the course of several appeals, the case proceeded to trial against the student loan servicing agency after the 4th Circuit held that the entity was “an independent political subdivision, not an arm of the commonwealth,” and “therefore a ‘person’ subject to liability under the False Claims Act.” The plaintiff appealed the jury’s verdict, arguing the court erred by excluding evidence at trial and failed to give the jury several of his proposed instructions.

    On appeal, the 4th Circuit disagreed with the plaintiff, finding that the court correctly excluded the state audit, which determined the student loan servicer “failed its mission” with lavish spending on unnecessary expenses. The appeal court noted the audit was irrelevant to the only issue in the case: “Did [the servicer] commit fraud and file a false claim?” The appeals court also rejected the plaintiff’s jury instruction arguments, concluding that the court’s instructions substantially covered the substance of the plaintiff’s proposal and “sufficiently explained that the jury had to consider whether [the servicer’s] claims were ‘false or fraudulent.’”

    Courts False Claims Act / FIRREA Student Lending Appellate Fourth Circuit

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  • For-profit education company forgoes collection on almost $494 million in student loans

    State Issues

    On January 3, an Illinois-based for-profit education company settled with 49 state attorneys general, agreeing to forgo collection of nearly $494 million in debts owed by almost 180,000 students nationally. According to the Illinois Attorney General’s announcement, after a seven-year investigation into the company’s practices, the participating states allege that, among other things, the company (i) deceived students about the total costs of enrollment; (ii) failed to adequately disclose that certain programs lacked programmatic accreditation, which would negatively affect a student’s ability to get a license or employment in that field; and (iii) misled prospective students about post-graduate job rates. Under the settlement, the company has agreed to forgo collection of debts owed by students who either attended a company institution that closed before Jan. 1, 2019, or whose final day of attendance at two participating online institutions occurred on or before Dec. 31, 2013. In addition to the debt relief, the settlement also requires the company to, among other things, reform its recruiting and enrollment practices, including providing students with a single page disclosure that covers the (i) anticipated total direct cost; (ii) median debt for completers; (iii) programmatic cohort default rate; (iv) program completion rate; (v) notice concerning transferability of credits; (vi) median earnings for completers; and (vii) the job placement rate.

    State Issues State Attorney General Student Lending Debt Collection Debt Relief

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  • NYDFS, New York Attorney General reach $9 million settlement with student loan servicer

    State Issues

    On January 4, NYDFS and the New York Attorney General announced a joint $9 million settlement with a national student loan servicer to resolve allegations that the servicer, among other things, deceived student loan borrowers about their repayment options and steered them into higher-cost repayment plans. According to a press release issued by the Attorney General’s office, the servicer “steered distressed borrowers away from available income-based repayment plans towards other, more expensive options, thus costing them money and increasing their risk of default.” Additionally, the consent order alleges that the servicer misinformed borrowers—including servicemembers—about their repayment options, such as telling borrowers they were not eligible for Public Service Loan Forgiveness plans when they may have qualified after consolidating their loans. Furthermore, the servicer allegedly (i) improperly processed applications for income-based repayment; (ii) allocated underpayment for certain borrowers to maximize late fees; (iii) improperly processed payments; (iv) failed to accurately report information to credit reporting agencies; (v) failed to “properly recalculate monthly payments for servicemembers when adjusting their interest rates under the Servicemembers’ Civil Relief Act”; (vi) charged improper late fees; and (vii) did not provide borrowers notification of their eligibility for a co-signer release.

    The servicer, while neither admitting nor denying the findings alleged by NYDFS and the Attorney General, has agreed to pay $8 million in restitution to New York borrowers and a $1 million fine. Moreover, the servicer has agreed to stop servicing private and federal loans—with the exception of Perkins Loans—over the next five years.

    State Issues NYDFS Student Lending Settlement Student Loan Servicer Servicemembers SCRA State Attorney General

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  • District Court concludes company’s dialing system is not an autodialer under TCPA

    Courts

    On December 20, the U.S. District Court for the District of New Jersey granted a student loan company’s motion for summary judgment, holding that the plaintiff failed to establish the company’s phone system qualified as an automated telephone dialing system (autodialer) under the TCPA. The plaintiff alleged the company violated the TCPA by using an autodialer to call his cell phone without his prior express consent. Each party filed cross-motions for summary judgment with the plaintiff arguing that the company’s system “had the present capacity without modification to place calls from a stored list without human intervention.” The company disagreed with the plaintiff’s assertions, arguing that it used separate systems for land lines and cell phones, and that the system which dialed the cell phone “contains no features that can be activated, deactivated, or added to the system to enable autodialing.” Citing to the opinion of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit in Dominguez v. Yahoo (previously covered by InfoByres here), which held that it would interpret the definition of an autodialer as it would prior to the FCC’s 2015 Declaratory Ruling, the court noted that the term “capacity” in the TCPA’s autodialer definition refers to the system’s current functions, not its potential capacity. Because the plaintiff failed to establish that the system used to dial his cell phone had the “present capacity” to initiate autodialed calls without modifications, the court concluded the claim failed as a matter of law.

    Courts TCPA Autodialer Student Lending Appellate Third Circuit

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