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DOJ announces $1.59 million settlement with real estate management company for alleged SCRA violations
On March 15, the DOJ announced a $1.59 million settlement with a real estate management company resolving allegations that the company and its entities violated the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act (SCRA) by obtaining unlawful court judgments and charging unlawful lease termination fees. According to the complaint, from 2006 to 2017, the company obtained at least 152 default judgments against 127 “SCRA-protected servicemembers” by failing to accurately disclose their military status in affidavits filed with the court. Additionally, the DOJ alleged that the company wrongfully withheld security deposits and imposed early lease termination fees on servicemembers who sought termination due to qualifying military orders under the SCRA. Under the terms of the settlement, the company will pay (i) nearly $1.5 million to compensate 127 servicemembers who had allegedly unlawful default judgments entered against them; (ii) nearly $35,000 to compensate 10 servicemembers who were charged early lease termination fees; and (iii) a civil money penalty of $62,000. The settlement also requires the company to develop policies and procedures related to SCRA lease terminations and default judgments, conduct SCRA compliance training for employees involved with lease issues, and request that major credit reporting agencies delete trade lines and negative credit information for the affected servicemembers.
On March 5, the U.S. District Court for the District of South Carolina affirmed the recommendation of a Magistrate Judge and denied the motion of a law firm, one of its partners, and others’ (collectively, “defendants”) to dismiss an action alleging that the defendants violated the Federal Anti-Assignment Act (FAAA) and the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organization Act (RICO). These alleged violations were based on the advance purchase of future military pension and disability benefits in exchange for current lump sum payments. According to the report of the Magistrate Judge, five military veterans (collectively, “plaintiffs”) alleged that the defendants operated a coordinated scheme to generate leads from veterans seeking money, and connected veterans to brokers and purchasers in order for the veteran to sell future pension and disability payments for a lump sum wire transfer. The plaintiffs also alleged the operators required the veterans to execute an insurance policy or structured asset agreement to ensure the loan is fully repaid upon the veteran’s death. The Magistrate Judge recommended the motions be denied, concluding that the plaintiffs sufficiently pled the details of the alleged scheme and that the defendants violated the FAAA by inducing veterans to enter into contracts to sell their retirement or disability benefits in advance of the date they are due and payable. Moreover, the Magistrate Judge found that the plaintiffs sufficiently alleged the individual plaintiffs violated RICO by engaging in a criminal enterprise that “coordinated various corporations and websites to buy the plaintiffs’ and other veterans’ benefits and funnel the proceeds through [a defendant]’s account.” Upon review of the report, the district court found “no clear error” by the Magistrate Judge, agreed with the recommendations, and denied the motions to dismiss.
As previously covered by InfoBytes, one of the individual defendants was recently fined $1 in civil money penalties by the CFPB for allegedly violating the Consumer Financial Protection Act by operating a website that connected veterans with companies offering high-interest loans in exchange for the assignment of some or all of their military pension payments.
On March 5, U.S. Senate Democrats issued a letter urging CFPB Director, Kathy Kraninger, to resume reviews for compliance with the Military Lending Act (MLA) during routine lender examinations. The Senators argue that the existing statutory authorities for the Bureau “are more than sufficient to justify including MLA compliance in routine examinations,” in an apparent response to Kraninger’s January request to Congress to grant the Bureau “clear authority” to conduct the examinations. (Covered by InfoBytes here.) The Senators cite to Section 1024(b)(1)(C) of the Dodd-Frank Act, which states that the Bureau “shall require reports and conduct examinations on a periodic basis . . . for purposes of . . . detecting and assessing risks to consumers and to markets for consumer financial products and services,” and asserts that charging servicemembers and their families more than 36 percent in violation of the MLA is “clearly a risk” to consumers. Concluding that the CFPB has all the authority it needs to include the MLA in routine examinations, the Senators request the Bureau provide a full justification of the leadership’s decision to not review for compliance with the MLA by March 8.
On March 1, the CFPB released its latest Quarterly Consumer Credit Trends report titled, “Mortgages to First-time Homebuying Servicemembers,” which analyzes mortgages made to first-time homebuying active duty servicemembers and veterans (collectively defined as “servicemembers”). The report, using data from the Bureau’s Consumer Credit Panel (CCP) supplemented with data on military service, offers information on the mortgage choices and mortgage performance outcomes of servicemembers who bought homes between 2006 and 2016. Key findings include:
- The share of first-time homebuying servicemembers using the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) guaranteed home loan program significantly increased, from 30 percent before 2007 to 63 percent in 2009. By 2016, 78 percent of servicemembers relied on a VA mortgage for their first home loan.
- Conventional mortgages, which accounted for approximately 60 percent of loans among first-time homebuying servicemembers in 2006 and 2007, declined to 13 percent by 2016. During this period, the use of conventional mortgages among non-servicemembers also decreased, as the use of FHA and U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) increased.
- In 2016, the median servicemember first-time homebuyer VA loan amount was $212,000, increasing from $156,000 in 2006.
- Early delinquency rates for nonprime servicemember first-time VA-loan borrowers decreased from an average of 5 percent to 7 percent in 2006 and 2007 to slightly above 3 percent in 2016. Notably, early delinquency rates were lower for active duty VA-loan borrowers than for veteran VA-loan borrowers.
On January 23, the CFPB announced a settlement with an online loan broker resolving allegations that the broker violated the Consumer Financial Protection Act by operating a website that connected veterans with companies offering high-interest loans in exchange for the assignment of some or all of their military pension payments. Specifically, the CFPB alleges the broker (i) misrepresented the contracts he facilitated as valid, when, in fact, under federal law veterans’ pension payments are unassignable; (ii) misrepresented to consumers that the offer was a “sale” of a product not a high-interest credit offer; (iii) misrepresented to consumers when they would receive their loan funds; and (v) failed to disclose the applicable interest rate on the loans. Under the program, veterans were also required to obtain life insurance policies in order to ensure the outstanding amount would be repaid even if the veteran died. Under the terms of the consent order, the broker is prohibited from engaging in the specified conduct in the future and is required to assist the Bureau in identifying and locating the veterans who were harmed. The Bureau required the broker to pay $1 in civil money penalties, based on his financial statements.
On January 17, the CFPB issued a statement from Bureau Director Kathy Kraninger announcing she has asked Congress to grant the Bureau “clear authority to supervise for compliance with the Military Lending Act (MLA).” The statement expresses Kraninger’s interest in protecting servicemembers and their families and notes the requested authority would complement the Bureau’s MLA enforcement work. The announcement acknowledges the recently introduced House legislation, H.R. 442, which would directly grant the Bureau supervisory authority over the MLA, and also includes suggested draft legislation the Bureau sent to both the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate (here and here). The draft legislation would amend the Consumer Financial Protection Act to include a section providing the Bureau “nonexclusive authority to require reports and conduct examinations on a periodic basis” for the purposes of (i) assessing compliance with the MLA; (ii) obtaining information about the compliance systems or procedures associated with the law; and (iii) detecting and assessing associated risks to consumers and to markets.
As previously covered by InfoBytes, in August 2018, then acting Director Mick Mulvaney internally announced the Bureau would cease supervisory examinations of the MLA, contending the law did not explicitly grant the Bureau the authority to examine financial institutions for compliance. A bipartisan coalition of 33 state Attorneys General wrote to Mulvaney expressing concern over the decision and after her confirmation, a group of 23 House Democrats urged Kraninger to resume the examinations. (Covered by InfoBytes here and here.)
The Bureau’s request that Congress grant it authority to examine for compliance with the MLA suggests that it does not intend to do so unless Congress acts.
On December 14, Maxine Waters (D-CA) and 22 other House Democrats issued a letter urging the new CFPB Director, Kathy Kraninger, to resume supervisory examinations of the Military Lending Act (MLA). As previously covered by InfoBytes, according to reports citing “internal agency documents,” the Bureau ceased supervisory examinations of the MLA, contending the law does not authorize the Bureau to examine financial institutions for compliance with the MLA. In response, a bipartisan coalition of 33 state Attorneys General sent a letter to then acting Director, Mick Mulvaney, expressing concern over the decision (covered by InfoBytes here).
The letter from Waters, who is expected to be the next chair of the House Financial Services Committee, and the other 22 Democratic members of the Committee, argues that “there is no question the [CFPB] has the authority and the responsibility to supervise its regulated entities for compliance with the MLA.” As support, the letter cites to the Bureau’s authority to oversee a “wide range of regulated entities,” the establishment of the Bureau’s Office of Servicemember Affairs, and the 2013 amendments to the MLA, which gave the Bureau the authority to enforce the act. The letter also points to the Bureau’s work obtaining $130 million in relief for servicemembers, veterans, and their families through enforcement actions, as well as the 109 complaints the Bureau has received from military consumers since 2011.
On December 6, the CFPB announced the filing of a complaint and proposed final judgment in the U.S. District Court for the District of Nevada against a non-bank mortgage company for allegedly deceiving veterans about the benefits of refinancing their mortgages in violation of the Consumer Financial Protection Act. According to the complaint, during in-home presentations, the company would allegedly use flawed “apples to apples” comparisons between the consumers’ mortgages and an Interest Rate Reduction Refinancing Loan (a loan, guaranteed by the Department of Veterans Affairs, which allows veterans to refinance mortgages at lower interest rates). The Bureau alleges the presentations misrepresented the future cost savings of the refinance by (i) inflating the future amount of principal owed under the existing mortgage; (ii) overestimating the future loan’s term, which underestimated the future monthly payments; and (iii) overestimating the total monthly benefit of the loan after the first month.
If ordered by the court, the judgment would require the company to pay $268,869 in redress to consumers and a civil penalty of $260,000; it would also prohibit the company from misrepresenting the terms or benefits of mortgage refinancing.
On October 30, the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) released Circular 26-18-25, which clarifies the effect on a veteran’s home loan entitlement when the VA pays a guaranty on a home loan terminated by foreclosure, short sale, or deed-in-lieu of foreclosure. Specifically, for loans originated on or after January 1, 1990, the circular clarifies that the VA no longer establishes debts against veterans after the VA pays a guaranty to reimburse a servicer for its loss. However, if the veteran wants to reuse the VA home loan benefit, then he or she is required to reimburse the VA for the loss amount. The loss only affects the veteran’s entitlement under the VA Home Loan Guaranty program and does not impact any other VA benefits. The veteran may choose to repay the loss to restore the full entitlement or use any of the remaining entitlement amount that may be available to the veteran. The circular is effective until October 1, 2020.
On November 2, the DOJ announced a $95,000 settlement with a credit union resolving allegations that the credit union violated the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act (SCRA) by repossessing vehicles owned by servicemembers without first obtaining the required court orders. According to the complaint, which was filed on the same day the settlement was announced, the DOJ launched an investigation into the credit union’s repossession practices after learning of two private complaints filed against the credit union for alleged SCRA violations. Through the investigation, the DOJ discovered additional violations and that the credit union did not have policies and procedures that addressed non-judicial auto repossessions against servicemembers until August 2014. Under the terms of the settlement, the credit union is required to pay $65,000 to compensate affected servicemembers and a civil money penalty of $30,000. In addition, the company must submit its employee SCRA training materials for approval and complete reporting, record-keeping, and monitoring requirements.
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