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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.
On April 3, six Democratic Senators wrote to the CFPB seeking additional information on the Bureau’s oversight of student loan companies and servicers involved in the administration of the federal Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program (PSLF). In the letter, the Senators expressed concern that the Bureau’s leadership “has abandoned its supervision and enforcement activities related to federal student loan servicers.” The Senators noted that consumers owe more than $1.5 trillion in student loan debt in the U.S. and that loan servicing companies under contract with the U.S. Department of Education (the “Department”) are “covered persons” under Title X of the Dodd Frank Act, which allows the Bureau “broad oversight authority over their actions.” The Senators cited to a number of lawsuits brought by private citizens and state authorities challenging student loan servicing companies’ actions with regard to PSLF, and requested the Bureau respond to a series of questions regarding its activities overseeing student loan servicers’ handling of PSLF since December 2017. Among other things, the Senators requested information regarding (i) the Bureau’s examinations of student loan servicers’ PSLF administration; (ii) the effect of the Department’s December 2017 guidance to loan servicing contractors not to produce documents directly to other government agencies; (iii) the status of the CFPB’s alleged investigation into a specific student loan servicer’s actions; and (iv) the status of information sharing with the Department since August 2017.
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.
Washington State Department of Financial Institutions adopts amendments concerning student education loan servicers
On December 3, the Washington State Department of Financial Institutions (DFI) issued a final rule adopting amendments including student education loan servicing and servicers as activities and persons regulated under the state’s Consumer Loan Act. According to DFI, the amendments will provide consumers with student education loans a number of consumer protections and allow DFI to monitor servicers’ activities. Among other things, the amendments (i) change the definition of a “borrower” to include consumers with student education loans; (ii) specify that collection agencies and attorneys licensed in the state collecting student education loans in default do not qualify as student education loan servicers; and (iii) stipulate that businesses must either qualify for specific exemptions or possess a consumer loan license in order to lend money, extend credit, or service student education loans. In addition, the amendments provide new requirements for servicers concerning the acquisition, transfer, or sale of servicing activities, and specify borrower notification rights. Servicers who engage in these activities for federal student education loans in compliance with the Department of Education’s contractual requirements are exempt.
The amendments take effect January 1, 2019.
On September 14, the California governor approved AB 38 amending the state’s Student Loan Servicing Act (Act). The Act provides for the licensure, regulation, and oversight of student loan servicers by the California Department of Business Oversight (CDBO). Among other things, the amendments: (i) clarify the circumstances under which the Commissioner of the CDBO may deny a student loan servicer’s application; (ii) remove debt collectors of defaulted student loans from the definition of a “student loan servicer”; (iii) authorize the Commissioner to require license applicants and licensees to submit required filings with, and pay assessments to, the Commissioner through the Nationwide Multistate Licensing System and Registry; (iv) require the Commissioner to report violations of the Act “as well as other enforcement actions and information to the licensing system and registry to the extent that the information is a public record”; and (v) extend to 10 business days the time for a licensee to acknowledge receipt of a qualified written request from a borrower. The amendments also grant the Commissioner the authority to prescribe circumstances under which electronic records, including applications, financial statements, and reports, may be accepted.
District of Columbia moves to dismiss lawsuit alleging city’s student loan servicer regulations are preempted by federal law
On September 7, the District of Columbia filed a memorandum in support of its motion to dismiss a lawsuit claiming that the city’s regulations and requirements for student loan servicers are preempted by federal law. The plaintiff, a D.C.-based trade group whose membership consists of national student loan servicers, argues in its complaint that various provisions of District of Columbia Law 21-214, and rules promulgated thereunder, are preempted by the Federal Higher Education Act (HEA). For example, the complaint alleges that the licensing, examination, and annual reporting requirements are expressly preempted by the HEA, and the requirement to provide records to the D.C. Commissioner of Securities and Banking, upon request, violates the requirement that third party requests for records be made directly to the Department of Education.
The city countered that the potential harm is “hypothetical” and the plaintiff’s preemption claims are insufficient to establish standing. Several nonprofit groups filed an amicus brief in support of the city, stating that the lawsuit “is part of a strenuous effort by the Department and loan servicers not to protect federal interests, but to reach an outcome whereby no government entity provides meaningful regulation.” Moreover, the amicus brief claims that the lawsuit was filed following the Department’s Interpretation issued last March (as previously covered in InfoBytes here), which took the position that state regulation of Direct Loan servicing is broadly preempted by the HEA because it “impedes uniquely Federal interests,” and state regulation of the servicing of Federal Family Education Program Loans “is preempted to the extent that it undermines uniform administration of the program.”
On July 27, Illinois’s Governor signed HB 4397, which amends the state’s Student Loan Servicing Rights Act to specify that the definition of “student loan servicer” does not include a law firm or a licensed attorney that is collecting a post-default debt. The amended law is effective December 31.
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