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On June 29, the American University Washington College of Law held a symposium centered in part around the CFPB’s new approach for examining institutions for unfair conduct. During the CFPB’s New Approach to Discrimination: Invoking UDAAP symposium, CFPB Assistant Director for the Office of Enforcement Eric Halperin answered questions related to updates recently made to the Bureau’s Unfair, Deceptive, or Abusive Acts or Practices Examination Manual. These updates detail the agency’s view that its broad authority under UDAAP allows it to address discriminatory conduct in the offering of any financial product or service as an unfair act or practice. (Covered by a Buckley Special Alert here.) The Bureau published a separate blog post by its enforcement and supervision heads explaining that they were “cracking down on discrimination in the financial sector,” and that the new procedures would guide examiners to look “beyond discrimination directly connected to fair lending laws” and “to review any policies or practices that exclude individuals from products and services, or offer products or services with different terms, in an unfairly discriminatory manner.”
Assistant Director Halperin’s remarks were followed by a discussion of the Bureau’s revisions to its Examination Manual by a panel that consisted of David Silberman of the Center for Responsible Lending, Kitty Ryan of the American Bankers Association, and John Coleman of Buckley LLP, which was moderated by Jerry Buckley. Topics covered included a June 28 letter that trade associations sent to the CFPB urging recission of revisions to the Examination Manual.
In his interview with American University Law School Professor V. Gerard Comizio, Halperin stated that the CFPB’s Examination Manual updates provide guidance on how examiners will implement the Bureau’s statutory authority to examine whether an act or practice is unfair because it may cause or is likely to cause substantial injury to consumers that is not reasonably avoidable and not outweighed by countervailing benefits to consumers or competition. He stressed that the update does not create a new legal standard under the three prongs of the unfairness standard. Halperin also discussed how the Bureau’s UDAAP authority interacts with laws enacted specifically to prevent discriminatory conduct such as ECOA and the Fair Housing Act, and touched on steps institutions should consider taking to ensure compliance. Notably, when asked whether the Bureau intends to pursue disparate impact claims under the CFPA, Halperin stated that disparate impact, along with disparate treatment, are wholly distinct concepts from Dodd-Frank’s prohibition on unfair acts and practices. He added that in assessing an unfair act and practice, the key is to examine the substantial injury prong and then assess the reasonable avoidability and the countervailing benefits prongs. He further explained that the unfairness test does not contain an intentional standard and noted that there have been cases brought by both the FTC and the Bureau where there was injurious conduct that was not intentional or specifically known to the party engaging in this practice. According to Halperin, substantial injury alone is not sufficient to prove unfairness and using disparate impact as the mechanism of proof is not what the Bureau uses to prove an unfairness claim.
Halperin reiterated that the CFPB Examination Manual is designed to provide transparency to financial institutions about the types of issues that examiners will be inquiring about in furtherance of determining whether there has been an unfair act or practice under the current framework, and does not extend or create new law. In terms of practical compliance implications, Halperin said most financial institutions should already have robust UDAAP compliance systems in place and should already be looking for potential unfair acts or practices and examining patterns and group characteristics to identify the root cause of any issues, and to avoid substantial injury to consumers. With respect to a white paper recently sent to CFPB Director Rohit Chopra from several industry groups and the U.S Chamber of Commerce urging the Bureau to rescind the UDAAP exam manual (covered by InfoBytes here), Halperin commented that he has not had time to fully digest the white paper in detail but hoped that some of what was discussed during the symposium, particularly on the legal principles that will be used both in the exam manual and in any supervision and enforcement actions, clarifies that the Bureau is looking for conduct that violates the unfairness test.
On June 29, the CFPB issued a report analyzing the impact of credit card line decreases (CLD) on consumers. The report is a part of a CFPB series that examines consumer credit trends using a longitudinal sample of approximately five million de-identified credit records maintained by one of the three nationwide consumer reporting agencies. The report described how credit card companies increasingly used credit line decreases during both the Great Recession and at the start of the Covid-19 pandemic. According to the Bureau, in issuing the report it “sought to examine the importance and impact of these decisions by credit card companies” because of the “critical role credit plays in financial resiliency, especially during a downturn.” Key findings of the report include, among other things, that: (i) 67 percent of consumers who had CLDs did not show evidence of a recent delinquency on any credit card, and 83 percent had no delinquency on the card that received the CLD; (ii) the median amount of credit decreased by approximately 75 percent for consumers across different credit score tiers; (iii) the median deep subprime, subprime, near-prime, and prime account utilization reached 94 percent when the CLD was applied; and (iv) the median credit scores for consumers with a recent card delinquency on any card decreased between 33 and 87 points.
On June 30, the CFPB issued an order terminating a financial services company’s sandbox approval order related to its earned wage access (EWA) lending model. As previously covered by InfoBytes, the Bureau issued a two-year approval order to the company in December 2020, which provided the company safe harbor from liability under TILA and Regulation Z (to the fullest extent permitted by section 130(f) as to any act done in good faith compliance with the order). The company’s product allowed employees access to their earned but unpaid wages prior to payday and granted employees of a participating employer the ability to download the company’s app and agree to the company’s terms prior to engaging in an EWA program. The Bureau said in its announcement that it had informed the company earlier in June “that it was considering terminating the approval order in light of certain public statements the company made wrongly suggesting a CFPB endorsement of its products.” According to the Bureau, the company then requested termination of the order in order, citing the need to make changes to its fee model that would have required modifying the existing approval order. The Bureau noted that the company “requested termination of the order so it could make fee model changes quickly and flexibly.” The Bureau’s announcement indicated that it plans to issue guidance “soon” regarding earned wage access products and the definition of “credit” under TILA and Regulation Z.
On June 29, the CFPB issued an advisory opinion to state its interpretation that Section 808 of the FDCPA and Regulation F generally prohibit debt collectors from charging consumers “pay-to-pay” fees for making payments online or by phone. “These types of fees are often illegal,” the Bureau said, explaining that its “advisory opinion and accompanying analysis seek to stop these violations of law and assist consumers who are seeking to hold debt collectors accountable for illegal practices.”
These fees, commonly known as convenience fees, are prohibited in many circumstances under the FDCPA, the Bureau said. It pointed out that allowable fees are those authorized in the original underlying agreements that consumers have with their creditors, such as with credit card companies, or those that are affirmatively permitted by law. Moreover, the Bureau stressed that the fact that a law does not expressly prohibit the assessment of a fee does not mean a debt collector is authorized to charge a fee. Specifically, the advisory opinion interprets FDCPA Section 808(1) to permit collection of fee only if: (i) “the agreement creating the debt expressly permits the charge and some law does not prohibit it”; or (ii) “some law expressly permits the charge, even if the agreement creating the debt is silent.” Additionally, the Bureau’s “interpretation of the phrase ‘permitted by law’ applies to any ‘amount’ covered under section 808(1), including pay-to-pay fees.” The Bureau further added that while some courts have adopted a “separate agreement” interpretation of the law to allow collectors to assess certain pay-to-pay fees, the agency “declines to do so.”
The Bureau also opined that a debt collector is in violation of the FDCPA if it uses a third-party payment processor for which any of that fee is remitted back to the collector in the form of a kickback or commission. “Federal law generally forbids debt collectors from imposing extra fees not authorized by the original loan,” CFPB Director Rohit Chopra said. “Today’s advisory opinion shows that these fees are often illegal, and provides a roadmap on the fees that a debt collector can lawfully collect.”
As previously covered by InfoBytes, the Bureau finalized its Advisory Opinions Policy in 2020. Under the policy, entities seeking to comply with existing regulatory requirements are permitted to request an advisory opinion in the form of an interpretive rule from the Bureau (published in the Federal Register for increased transparency) to address areas of uncertainty.
On June 28, the CFPB issued an interpretive rule addressing states’ authority to pass consumer-reporting laws. Specifically, the Bureau clarified that states “retain broad authority to protect people from harm due to credit reporting issues,” and explained that state laws are generally not preempted unless they conflict with the FCRA or “fall within narrow preemption categories enumerated within the statute.” Under the FCRA, states have flexibility to enact laws involving consumer reporting that reflect challenges and risks affecting their local economies and residents and are able to enact protections against the abuse and misuse of data to mitigate these consequences.
Stating that the FCRA’s express preemption provisions have a narrow and targeted scope, the Bureau’s interpretive rule provided several examples such as (i) if a state law “were to forbid consumer reporting agencies [(CRA)] from including information about medical debt, evictions, arrest records, or rental arrears in a consumer report (or from including such information for a certain period of time), such a law would generally not be preempted; (ii) a state law that prohibits furnishers from furnishing such information to a CRA would generally not be prohibited; and (iii) if a state law requires a CRA to provide information required by the FCRA at the consumer’s requests in a language other than English, such a law would generally not be preempted. The interpretive rule is effective upon publication in the Federal Register.
The issuance of the interpretive rule arises from a notice received by the Bureau from the New Jersey attorney general concerning pending litigation that involves an argument that the FCRA preempted a state consumer protection statute. The Bureau stated that it “will continue to consider other steps to promote state enforcement of fair credit reporting along with other parts of federal consumer financial protection law,” including “consulting with states whenever interpretation of federal consumer financial protection law is relevant to a state regulatory or law enforcement matter, consistent with the State Official Notification Rule." As previously covered by InfoBytes, the Bureau issued an interpretive rule last month, clarifying states’ authority to bring enforcement actions for violations of federal consumer financial protection laws, including the CFPA.
On June 28, industry groups and the U.S Chamber of Commerce (collectively, “groups”) released a White Paper, Unfairness and Discrimination: Examining the CFPB’s Conflation of Distinct Statutory Concepts, urging the CFPB to rescind the recently released unfair, deceptive and abusive acts or practices (UDAAP) examination manual. As previously covered by a Buckley Special Alert, in March, the CFPB announced significant revisions to its UDAAP exam manual, in particular highlighting the CFPB’s view that its broad authority under UDAAP allows it to address discriminatory conduct in the offering of any financial product or service. The White Paper, among other things, explained the groups’ position that the Bureau’s UDAAP authority cannot be used to extend the fair lending laws beyond the limits of existing statutory law. The White Paper stated that the Bureau “conflated” concepts of “unfairness” and “discrimination” “by announcing, via a UDAAP exam manual ‘update,’ that it would examine financial institutions for alleged discriminatory conduct that it deemed to be ‘unfair’ under its UDAAP authority.” The groups stated that the agency has “taken the law into its own hand” arguing that “the Bureau did not follow Administrative Procedure Act requirements for notice-and-comment rulemaking.” The groups said the change in the examination manual is “contrary to law and subject to legal challenge” as well as legislative repeal under the Congressional Review Act. Additionally, the groups argued that the Bureau’s interpretation exceeds the agency’s statutory authority, and that the Bureau’s “action should be held unlawful and set aside.” The groups further stated that “[c]hanges that alter the legal duties of so many are the proper province of Congress, not of independent regulatory agencies, and the CFPB cannot ignore the requirements of the Administrative Procedures Act and Congressional Review Act. The CFPB may well wish to fill gaps it perceives in federal antidiscrimination law. But Congress has simply not authorized the CFPB to fill those gaps.”
In a letter sent to CFPB Director Rohit Chopra, the groups conveyed that Congress did not intend for the Bureau to “fill gaps” between the clearly articulated boundaries of antidiscrimination statutes with its UDAAP authority. The groups urged Director Chopra to rescind the exam manual update and stated that “[s]hould [he] believe additional authority is necessary to address alleged discriminatory conduct, we stand ready to work with Congress and the CFPB to explore that possibility and to ensure the just administration of the law.
On June 28, CFPB Deputy Director Zixta Martinez spoke before the FDIC Meeting of the Advisory Committee on Economic Inclusion to discuss expanding access to affordable payments, credit, and other financial products and services. In her remarks, Martinez first discussed electronic payments, which she considers to be “quickly supplanting cash and are now an essential part of the economy.” She then discussed the role of banks, noting that they have an “obligatory and leading role” in expanding electronic payments. Martinez stated that with “their obligations to increase banking access and reduce banking and financial inequities, banks can play a key role, for example, in reducing the persistent and growing homeownership gap between Black and white families and closing the economic gap between the banked and the under- and un-banked.” She also stated that having access to electronic payments will “low[er] monthly fees and further reduc[e] the cost of overdraft and non-sufficient fund fees” and will service banking deserts in rural areas and within communities of color. Martinez further discussed actions to build out banking access and described a recent proposal to update the Community Reinvestment Act’s (CRA) regulatory framework (covered by InfoBytes here). Martinez stated that the proposal will; (i) take steps to address problems with grade inflation on CRA exams (i.e., meaning that “almost every bank” passes”); (ii) “rely upon small business lending data, which will allow for a more in-depth understanding of small business lending issues,” race, and ethnicity; (iii) “increase incentives for banks to finance community development projects in areas experiencing persistent poverty”; and (vi) “recognize banks that assist low- and moderate-income communities with clean energy transition and climate resiliency.” Additionally, Martinez noted that the Bureau “is working to ensure that banking access and access to credit is not unfairly affected by algorithmic models.” In conclusion, she said the Bureau’s recently released guidance “confirm[s] that it is unlawful to use black box models that do not allow for clear understanding of adverse actions, such as denial of credit.” (Covered by InfoBytes here.)
On June 6, the CFPB updated its Civil Penalty Fund Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs). The FAQs, among other things: (i) present the Civil Penalty Fund Allocation Schedule; (ii) clarify basic definitions related to CFPB civil money penalties; (iii) clarify when the Bureau will begin to distribute funds; and (iv) explain redress and its difference from payments to victims from the Civil Penalty Fund.
On June 22, the CFPB issued an Advance Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (ANPRM) soliciting information from credit card issuers, consumer groups, and the public regarding credit card late fees and late payments, and card issuers’ revenue and expenses. Under the Credit Card Accountability Responsibility and Disclosure Act of 2009 (CARD Act) rules inherited by the CFPB from the Federal Reserve, credit card late fees must be “reasonable and proportional” to the costs incurred by the issuer as a result of a late payment. However, the rules provide for a safe harbor limit that allows banks to charge certain fees, adjusted for inflation, regardless of the costs incurred. Calling the current credit card late fees “excessive,” the Bureau stated it intends to review the “immunity provision” to understand how banks that rely on this safe harbor set their fees and to examine whether banks are escaping enforcement scrutiny “if they set fees at a particular level, even if the fees were not necessary to deter a late payment and generated excess profits.”
In 2010, the Federal Reserve Board approved implementing regulations for the CARD Act that allowed credit card issuers to charge a maximum late fee, plus an additional fee for each late payment within the next six billing cycles (subject to an annual inflation adjustment). As the CFPB reported, the safe harbor limits are currently set at $30 and $41 respectively. The CFPB pointed out that in 2020, credit card companies charged $12 billion in late fee penalties. “Credit card late fees are big revenue generators for card issuers. We want to know how the card issuers determine these fees and whether existing rules are undermining the reforms enacted by Congress over a decade ago,” CFPB Director Rohit Chopra said. Chopra issued a separate statement on the same day discussing the current credit card market, questioning whether it is appropriate for card issuers to receive enforcement immunity if they hike the cost of credit card late fees each year by the rate of inflation. “Do the costs to process late payments really increase with inflation? Or is it more reasonable to expect that costs are going down with further advancements in technology every year?” he asked.
Among other things, the ANPRM requests information relevant to certain CARD Act and Regulation Z provisions related to credit card late fees to “determine whether adjustments are needed.” The CFPB’s areas of inquiry include: (i) factors used by card issuers to determine late fee amounts and how the fee relates to the statement balance; (ii) whether revenue goals play a role in card issuers’ determination of late fees; (iii) what the costs and losses associated with late payments are for card issuers; (iv) the deterrent effects of late fees and whether other consequences are imposed when payments are late; (v) methods used by card issuers to facilitate or encourage timely payments such as autopay and notifications; (vi) how late are most cardholders’ late payments; and (vii) card issuers’ annual revenue and expenses related to their domestic consumer credit card operations. The Bureau stated that public input will inform revisions to Regulation Z, which implements the CARD Act and TILA. Comments on the ANPRM are due July 22.
The ANPRM follows a June 17 Bureau blog post announcing the agency’s intention to review a “host of rules” inherited from other agencies such as the FTC and the Federal Reserve, including the CARD Act. (Covered by InfoBytes here.)
On June 23, the CFPB issued a final rule implementing amendments to the FCRA intended to assist victims of human trafficking. According to the Bureau’s announcement, the final rule prohibits credit reporting agencies (CRAs) from providing reports containing any adverse items of information resulting from human trafficking. The final rule amends Regulation V to implement changes to the FCRA enacted in December 2021 in the “Debt Bondage Repair Act,” which was included within the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2022. (Covered by InfoBytes here.)
Among other things, the final rule establishes methods available for trafficking victims to submit documentation to CRAs establishing that they are a survivor of trafficking (including “determinations made by a wide range of entities, self-attestations signed or certified by certain government entities or their delegates, and documents filed in a court where a central issue is whether the person is a victim of trafficking”). The final rule also requires CRAs to block adverse information in consumer reports after receiving such documentation and ensure survivors’ credit information is reported fairly. CRAs will have four business days to block adverse information once it is reported and 25 business days to make a final determination as to the completeness of the documentation. All CRAs, regardless of reach or scope, must comply with the final rule, including both nationwide credit reporting companies and specialty credit reporting companies.
The final rule takes July 25.
- Jedd R. Bellman to discuss “The CFPB’s crackdown on collection junk fees and the growing anti-CFPB rhetoric” at an Accounts Recovery webinar
- Benjamin W. Hutten to discuss “Latest on AML regulations and impact of economic sanctions” at a Mortgage Bankers Association webinar
- Benjamin W. Hutten to discuss “Fundamentals of financial crime compliance” at the Practicing Law Institute
- Benjamin W. Hutten to discuss “Ongoing CDD: Operational considerations” at NAFCU’s Regulatory Compliance & BSA Seminar