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On May 24, the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California entered a stipulated final judgment and order against an individual defendant who participated in a deceptive debt-relief enterprise operation. As previously covered by InfoBytes, in 2019, the CFPB, along with the Minnesota and North Carolina attorneys general, and the Los Angeles City Attorney (together, the “states”), announced an action against the student loan debt relief operation for allegedly deceiving thousands of student-loan borrowers and charging more than $71 million in unlawful advance fees. In the third amended complaint, the Bureau and the states alleged that since at least 2015 the debt relief operation violated the CFPA, TSR, FDCPA, and various state laws by charging and collecting improper advance fees from student loan borrowers prior to providing assistance and receiving payments on the adjusted loans. In addition, the Bureau and the states claimed that the debt relief operation engaged in deceptive practices by misrepresenting, among other things: (i) the purpose and application of fees they charged; (ii) their ability to obtain loan forgiveness for borrowers; and (iii) their ability to actually lower borrowers’ monthly payments. Moreover, the debt relief operation allegedly failed to inform borrowers that it was their practice to request that the loans be placed in forbearance and also submitted false information to student loan servicers to qualify borrowers for lower payments. Under the terms of the final judgment, the individual defendant must pay a $483,662 civil money penalty to the Bureau.
On May 2, a coalition of state attorneys general, led by New York Attorney General Letitia James, announced that they are urging President Biden to cancel all outstanding federal student loan debt. In the letter, the AGs argue that full cancellation of student debt is necessary to address: the (i) enormity of the debt owed; (ii) effects of the Covid-19 pandemic; (iii) “systemically flawed repayment and forgiveness system”; and (vi) disproportionate impact on the borrowers’ debt burden, among other things. The AGs further noted that using resources to help individuals who have been “tricked” into forbearance plans, suing contractors who “bungle critical processes,” and protecting consumers from “aggressive” and “predatory” for-profit colleges have provided the AGs with a “deep understanding of the systemic challenges” facing federal student loan borrowers. The AGs stated that President Biden has authority to act under the Higher Education Act, and that such action “would benefit millions of borrowers and be one of the most impactful racial and economic justice initiatives in recent memory.”
Recently, the New York governor signed legislation regarding consumer protections and student transcripts. The first piece of legislation, S.1684/A.8293 directs NYDFS to conduct a study of underbanked communities and households in the state and to make recommendations on improving access to financial services. The bill, among other things, updates the data on households that are unbanked and underbanked and analyzes the data to develop an assessment for NYDFS. Additionally, S.4894/A.1693 prohibits banking institutions from issuing unsolicited mail-loan checks, defined by NYDFS as “an unsolicited loan offer that is sent by mail and once cashed or deposited binds the recipient to the loan terms, which may include high interest rates for multiple years.”
The New York governor also signed legislation that prohibits colleges and universities from withholding transcripts from individuals who owe the schools money. This legislation, S.5924/A.6938 establishes, among other things, that no institution, under certain circumstances, can “condition the provision of a transcript on a student's payment of a debt to such institution or school.”
On May 5, the CFPB discussed examination findings related to private student loan servicers’ alleged failure to follow through with promised loan offers or modifications. The Bureau directed servicers found to have breached their commitments to make “significant remediation amounts” for failing to make promised payments to customers. The Bureau found some servicers offered financial incentives to recruit new customers, but then failed to make the promised payments. In certain instances, servicers’ systems failed to identify customers who earned incentives, and in others, payments were denied based on terms that were not included in the original deal, the Bureau claimed. The Bureau also found that while many servicers offered payment relief options to pause or reduce payments to customers impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic, at least one servicer failed to deliver promised refunds to customers who modified their agreements to allow them to backdate forbearance after making a payment. The Bureau documented two examples of servicers committing unfair acts or practices in this space in its recent spring Supervisory Highlights (covered by InfoBytes here) and warned servicers that it is “closely monitoring” companies that break the law.
On April 29, the CFPB filed a proposed stipulated final judgment and order in the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California resolving allegations that a student loan debt relief business and a general debt-settlement company, along with their owner and CEO (collectively, “defendants”), engaged in wrongful fee-charging practices and deceptive telemarketing. As previously covered by InfoBytes, the CFPB filed a complaint against the defendants for allegedly violating the Telemarketing Sales Rule (TSR) and the Consumer Financial Protection Act (CFPA) by charging illegal advance fees and using deceptive tactics to induce consumers to sign up for services. According to the complaint, from 2015 to the present, the defendants allegedly charged consumers upfront fees for the debt-relief company to file paperwork with the Department of Education to obtain loan consolidation, loan forgiveness, or income-driven repayment plans. Some consumers paid the upfront fee using a third-party financing company and paid an APR between 17 and 22 percent. The CFPB also alleged that the defendants required some consumers to pay the fee in installments into a trust plan, which carried a $6 monthly banking fee paid to the administrator of the trust accounts. The Bureau alleged that the defendants failed to provide the proper disclosures under the TSR. Moreover, the complaint asserted that from 2019 to the present, the defendants violated the CFPA by representing to consumers that they were turned down for a loan in order to pitch the company’s settlement services. Under the terms of the proposed settlement, the student loan debt relief business and the general debt-settlement company are permanently banned from engaging in debt relief services, and the CEO is banned for five years.
The CEO is also required to pay a civil monetary penalty of $30,000 to the CFPB.
On April 28, the Department of Education announced it will deliver relief to tens of thousands of borrowers harmed by “pervasive and widespread misconduct” at a beauty school. According to the Department, the students attended the beauty school between 2009 and 2016, during which it “engaged in pervasive and widespread misconduct that negatively affected all borrowers who enrolled.” The 28,000 borrowers will receive loan discharges totaling approximately $238 million, which will provide relief to borrowers who enrolled at the beauty school during this period, including those who have not yet applied for a borrower defense discharge. According to Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona, the Department will “continue to strengthen oversight and enforcement for colleges and career schools that engaged in misconduct and uphold the Biden-Harris Administration’s commitment to helping students who have been harmed.” The Office of Federal Student Aid also announced it is hiring four employees for its enforcement unit.
On April 27, the New York attorney general announced a settlement with a national student loan servicer, resolving allegations that it failed to properly manage student loans and administer the Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF) program by inaccurately counting loan payments, improperly denying applications, and not processing applications in a timely manner. As previously covered by InfoBytes, the New York AG filed a complaint against the defendant in 2019 alleging violations of the CFPA and New York law, whereby the defendant, among other things, (i) failed to accurately count borrower’s PSLF-qualifying payments; (ii) failed to provide timely explanations to borrowers for PSLF payment count determinations; (iii) failed to process income driven repayment (IDR) plan paperwork accurately and timely; and (iv) lacked clear policies and procedures for addressing errors, resulting in inconsistent treatment of borrowers.
Under the terms of the settlement, the defendant is required to automatically review nearly 10,000 accounts of New York borrowers for various potential errors, including incorrect information provided about PSLF or IDR eligibility and inaccurate monthly payment charges, among other things. In addition, more than 300,000 current New York residents may be eligible to have their accounts reviewed at no cost to them. The defendant is required to send out notices to borrowers within 30 days. Borrower relief may include crediting of undercounted payments, refunds of overpayments, interest, monetary payments, and modifications to past payments to designate them as PSLF-qualifying. The defendant will implement enhanced quality assurance review procedures designed to identify errors.
On April 19, the Department of Education announced additional changes to the federal student loan program designed to reduce or eliminate federal student loan debt for many borrowers. In particular:
- To address long-term forbearance steering, Federal Student Aid (FSA) will conduct “a one-time account adjustment that will count forbearances of more than 12 months consecutive and more than 36 months cumulative toward forgiveness” under the income-driven repayment (IDR) and Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF) programs.
- Borrowers “steered” into shorter-term forbearances may file a complaint with the FSA Ombudsman to seek an account review.
- FSA will also partner with the CFPB to conduct regular audits of servicers’ forbearance use, and will seek to improve oversight of loan servicing activities.
- Loan servicers’ ability to enroll borrowers in forbearance by text or email will be restricted.
- FSA will conduct a one-time revision of IDR-qualifying payments for all Direct Student Loans and federally-managed Federal Family Education Loan Program (FFEL) loans, and will count any month in which a borrower made a payment toward IDR, regardless of the payment plan. Borrowers who meet the required number of payments for IDR forgiveness based on the one-time revision will receive automatic loan cancellation. Moreover, months spent in deferment prior to 2013 will count towards IRD forgiveness (with the exception of in-school deferment) to address certain data reliability issues.
In addition, FSA plans to reform its IDR tracking process. New guidance will be issued to student loan servicers to ensure accurate and uniform payment counting practices. FSA will also track payment counts on its own systems and will display IDR payment counts on StudentAid.gov beginning in 2023 so borrowers can monitor their progress. The Department also plans to issue rulemaking that will revise the terms of IDR and “further simplify payment counting by allowing more loan statuses to count toward IDR forgiveness, including certain types of deferments and forbearances.”
On April 14, Senators Sherrod Brown (D-OH), Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), and Richard J. Durbin (D-IL) sent a letter to CFPB Director Rohit Chopra urging the Bureau to investigate recent reports of student loan servicers mismanaging income-driven repayment (IDR) programs. The letter alleged that servicers have failed to properly count qualifying payments or accurately track borrowers’ progress towards cancellation. Specifically, the senators noted that servicers’ mismanagement is affecting the lowest-income borrowers the most, citing report findings that 48 percent of IDR borrowers are eligible for $0 monthly payments that can be counted towards loan forgiveness, but are not being tracked. In addition, IDR cancellation requires servicers to “proactively notify borrowers when they are within six months of qualifying for loan cancellation”—a process that requires servicers to accurately count payments and properly track borrowers’ progress. According to the senators, “out of 4.4 million eligible borrowers, recent reports indicate that only 32 borrowers have ever had their student loans canceled through IDR.”
On April 18, the CFPB announced it is examining the practice of transcript withholding as a debt collection practice. According to a Bureau blog post, many post-secondary institutions choose to withhold official transcripts from borrowers as an attempt to collect education-related debts ranging from student loans to library fines. “Withholding transcripts as a debt collection tactic is particularly perplexing, as it can undermine rather than enhance a student’s likelihood of repaying,” the Bureau said, noting that this practice can cause students to become stuck in a cycle of collections. As previously covered by InfoBytes, the Bureau announced in January that it plans to examine the operations of post-secondary schools that extend private loans directly to students and that are not subject to the same servicing oversight as other lenders and servicers. The Bureau noted that it is “concerned about the borrower experience with institutional loans because of past abuses at schools,” high interest rates, and debt collection practices.
- Buckley Webcast: Fifth Circuit muddles CFPB’s plans to use in-house judges in enforcement proceedings
- Steven vonBerg to discuss “Regulatory plenary” at the Information Management Network’s Non-QM Forum
- Jeffrey P. Naimon to discuss “Understanding the ESG impact on compliance” at the ABA’s Regulatory Compliance Conference