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On May 9, the CFPB issued an advisory opinion to affirm its interpretation that ECOA bars lenders from discriminating against customers after they have applied for and received credit, not just during the application process. The Bureau’s opinion and analysis interprets ECOA and its implementing rule, Regulation B, as applying to the “approval, denial, renewal, continuation, or revocation of any open-end consumer credit account,” and is consistent with the agency’s joint amicus brief filed last December with the DOJ, Federal Reserve Board, and FTC, which argued that the term “applicant” as used in ECOA/Regulation B, includes both those seeking credit, as well as persons who have sought and have received credit (i.e., current borrowers). (Covered by InfoBytes here.) This has been the agency’s “longstanding position,” the Bureau stressed, noting it was the view of federal agencies prior to the Bureau’s creation as well.
However, “[d]espite this well-established interpretation, the Bureau is aware that some creditors fail to acknowledge that ECOA and Regulation B plainly apply to circumstances that take place after an extension of credit has been granted, including a revocation of credit or an unfavorable change in the terms of a credit arrangement,” the advisory opinion stated, explaining that ECOA prohibits creditors from lowering a borrower’s available line of credit or subjecting a borrower to more aggressive collections practices on a prohibited basis, such as race or national origin. “In addition, the Bureau is aware that some creditors fail to provide applicants with required notifications that include a statement of the specific reasons for the adverse action taken or disclose an applicant’s right to such a statement.” Creditors are required to provide “adverse action notices” when denying a loan, the Bureau wrote, adding that these notices are required when the terms of an existing loan are modified or terminated. “This interpretation of ECOA, therefore, forecloses a potential loophole that could effectively swallow much of the Act. Such a loophole would be plainly inconsistent with ECOA,” the advisory opinion stressed. While the Bureau acknowledged that “a few other district court decisions have interpreted ‘applicant’ to include only persons actively seeking credit,” the agency stressed that the district courts “read ‘applicant’ in isolation instead of reading this statutory term in context, as required by the Supreme Court,” and that “no court of appeals has endorsed these district courts’ narrow reading.”
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 May 6, the CFPB issued its annual fair lending report to Congress, which outlines the Bureau’s efforts in 2021 to fulfill its fair lending mandate. Much of the Bureau’s work in 2021 focused on addressing racial injustice and long-term economic consequences of the Covid-19 pandemic. According to the report, the Bureau continued to prioritize promoting fair, equitable, and nondiscriminatory access to credit, with a particular focus on fair lending supervision efforts in areas related to “mortgage origination and pricing, small business lending, student loan origination work, policies and procedures regarding geographic and other exclusions in underwriting, and  the use of artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning models.” Fair Lending Director Patrice Alexander Ficklin said that while she is “encouraged by the possibility of utilizing vehicles like special purpose credit programs to expand access to credit,” she remains “skeptical of claims that advanced algorithms are the cure-all for bias in credit underwriting and pricing.” The report addressed enforcement and supervision work, highlighting four fair lending-related enforcement actions taken last year related to (i) illegal redlining practices; (ii) failure to provide accurate denial reasons on adverse-action notices; (iii) UDAAP violations related to the treatment of “gate money” for incarcerated individuals; and (iv) fees and payments associated with immigration bonds. The report also discussed initiatives concerning small business lending and data collection rulemaking, automated valuation models rulemaking, and a final rule amending certain provisions in Regulation X related to Covid-19 protections offered by mortgage servicers. Additionally, the report discussed an interpretive rule concerning ECOA’s prohibition on sex discrimination, stakeholder engagement on matters concerning fair lending compliance and policy decisions, HMDA reporting, and interagency engagement and reporting, among other topics. The report noted that going forward, the Bureau intends to sharpen its focus on digital redlining and algorithmic bias to identify emerging risks as more tech companies influence the financial services marketplace. According to CFPB Director Rohit Chopra, “[w]hile technology holds great promise, it can also reinforce historical biases that have excluded too many Americans from opportunities.”
On April 29, the National Fair Housing Alliance (NFHA) announced a settlement agreement with a real estate company resolving allegations that the company perpetuated redlining practices through its policies and procedures. NFHA, along with nine other fair housing organizations, sued the company following an investigation into its practices. The fair housing organizations alleged that the company’s minimum home price policy violated the Fair Housing Act by discriminating against sellers and buyers of homes in communities of color. Limiting or denying services for homes priced under a certain value can “perpetuate racial segregation and contribute to the racial wealth gap” the organizations claimed in the press release. According to the complaint, the company disproportionately withheld its services to homebuyers and sellers in these communities at a higher rate than in White zip codes in multiple major cities across the U.S, thereby disincentivizing homebuying within these communities, reducing housing demand and values, and perpetuating residential segregation. Under the terms of the settlement, the company will make several national operational changes and enhancements, including (i) expanding housing opportunities for consumers in communities of color in major cities throughout the country; (ii) eliminating its minimum housing price policy for a period of five years; and (iii) appointing a fair housing compliance officer, adopting an equal opportunity in housing policy, and developing a fair housing training program. The company will also pay $4 million to go towards expanding homeownership opportunities in the covered cities and to cover conduct monitoring, compliance efforts, litigation fees and costs.
On April 19, HUD announced a conciliation agreement with a national bank and one if its loan officers to resolve allegations that respondents violated the Fair Housing Act (FHA) by denying a mortgage loan to a couple until after one of the applicants returned to work from maternity leave. Under the FHA, it is unlawful to discriminate in the terms, conditions, or privileges associated with the sale of a dwelling on the basis of race, color, national origin, religion, sex, disability, or familial status, including denying a mortgage loan because an applicant is on maternity leave. In addition to requiring a $15,000 payment be made to the couple, the bank must “adhere to a policy wherein applicants on temporary leave, including parental leave, can be approved for a mortgage prior to returning to active work status,” and provide fair lending training to employees. The conciliation agreement does not constitute an admission by respondents or evidence of a finding by HUD of a violation of the FHA.
On April 14, HUD released its first ever Equity Action Plan (the Plan) to address procurement and resources for the agency’s Office of Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity in coordination with President Biden’s 2021 Executive Order 13985 on “Advancing Racial Equity and Support for Underserved Communities Through the Federal Government.” Among other things, the Plan requests funding increases to process, investigate, and resolve fair housing complaints and “to improve capacity to pursue Secretary-initiated investigations and compliance reviews” that do not necessarily stem from public complaints. The Plan also outlines HUD’s approach to reducing the racial homeownership gap, including future rulemakings to implement the Fair Housing Act’s mandate to Affirmatively Further Fair Housing (covered by InfoBytes here) as well as other actions to promote equity. HUD also plans to engage in a range of actions in partnership with federal and non-federal organization to maximize homeownership for creditworthy first-time homebuyers and preserve homeownership for existing homeowners. This includes (i) “improving the efficiency of the [Federal Housing Administration] program by leveraging technologies and removing perceived bias of the program so individuals, lenders, and others can use it more with first time, lower income home buyers”; (ii) increasing outreach to non-traditional lenders; and (iii) considering ways “to increase the availability of small-dollar mortgage loans by addressing the financial and operational barriers limiting origination of these loans.” HUD intends to continue to monitor data on borrowers to determine statistical changes in Black and Hispanic households that access FHA-insured loans and the rest of the mortgage market, and will track FHA lending activity in underserved markets.
On April 6, the CFPB issued its semi-annual report to Congress covering the Bureau’s work for the period beginning April 1, 2021 and ending September 30, 2021. The report, which is required by Dodd-Frank, addresses several issues, including difficulties faced by consumers in obtaining consumer financial products or services throughout the reporting period. The report highlighted that the Bureau, among other things, has: (i) taken steps to increase workforce and contracting diversity; (ii) carefully observed consumer reporting agencies’ and furnishers’ compliance with Fair Credit Reporting Act accuracy obligations relating to rental information, and outlined specific areas of focus and concern; (iii) hosted a roundtable examining racial bias in home appraisals; (vi) expanded housing efforts into a comprehensive, cross-federal campaign aimed at connecting homeowners and renters facing housing insecurity as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic with the resources available to help them stay in their homes; and (v) launched an initiative to reduce fees that consumers are charged by banks and financial companies. In regard to supervision, enforcement and fair lending, the report highlighted its public supervisory and enforcement actions and other significant initiatives during the reporting period. Additionally, the report noted rule-related work, including advisory opinions, advance notice of proposed rulemakings, requests for information and proposed and final rules.
On March 31, the FDIC released the spring 2022 edition of the Consumer Compliance Supervisory Highlights to provide information and observations related to the FDIC’s consumer compliance supervision of state non-member banks and thrifts in 2021. Topics include:
- A summary of the FDIC’s supervisory approach in response to the Covid-19 pandemic, including efforts made by banks to meet the needs of consumers and communities.
- An overview of the most frequently cited violations (approximately 78 percent of total violations involved TILA, the Flood Disaster Protection Act (FDPA), EFTA, Truth in Savings Act, and RESPA). During 2021, the FDIC initiated 20 formal enforcement actions and 24 informal enforcement actions addressing consumer compliance examination observations, and issued civil money penalties totaling $2.7 million against institutions to address violations of the FDPA and Section 5 of the FTC Act.
- Information on the charging of multiple non-sufficient funds fees (NSF) for re-presented items, and risk-mitigating activities taken by banks to avoid potential violations. According to the FDIC, “failure to disclose material information to customers about re-presentment practices and fees” may be deceptive. The failure to disclose material information to customers “may also be unfair if there is the likelihood of substantial injury for customers, if the injury is not reasonably avoidable, and if there is no countervailing benefit to customers or competition. For example, there is risk of unfairness if multiple fees are assessed for the same transaction in a short period of time without sufficient notice or opportunity for consumers to bring their account to a positive balance.” Recommendations on addressing overdraft issues are discussed in the report.
- An overview of fair lending concerns highlighting ways to mitigate risk, including “[m]aintaining written policies and procedures that include information for lending staff to reference when applying credit decision criteria and determining whether borrowers are creditworthy” and reviewing requirements used to screen potential applicants to make sure there is no “discriminatory impact.”
- Information on regulatory developments, such as (i) rulemaking related to the Community Reinvestment Act, flood insurance, false advertising/misuse of the FDIC’s name or logo rulemaking, deposit insurance, and LIBOR; and (ii) guidance on fintech due diligence, artificial intelligence/machine learning, and third-party risk management.
- A summary of consumer compliance resources available to financial institutions.
- An overview of consumer complaint trends.
On April 1, the FTC and the Illinois Attorney General announced a proposed settlement with an Illinois-based multistate auto dealer group for allegedly adding junk fees for unwanted “add-on” products to consumers’ bills and discriminating against Black consumers. Under the terms of the proposed settlement, the defendants are ordered to pay a $10 million penalty, of which $9.95 million will be used to provide monetary relief to consumers. According to the FTC, this is the highest penalty ever obtained against an auto dealer. The remaining balance of the penalty will be paid to the Illinois Attorney General Court Ordered and Voluntary Compliance Payment Projects Fund.
According to the complaint, which brings claims under the FTC Act, TILA, ECOA, and comparable Illinois laws, eight of the defendant’s dealerships, along with the general manager of two of the Illinois dealerships, allegedly tacked on junk fees for unwanted “add-on” products such as service contracts, GAP insurance, and paint protection to consumers’ purchase contracts at the end of the negotiation process, often without consumers’ consent. In other instances, consumers were told that the add-ons were free or were required to purchase or finance their vehicle. The complaint further alleges that defendants discriminated against Black consumers by charging them higher interest rates or more for add-on products than similarly situated non-Latino white consumers. As result, Black consumers allegedly paid, on average, $190 more in interest and $99 more for add-on products.
FTC Chair Lina M. Khan and Commissioner Rebecca Kelly Slaughter issued a joint statement noting that they “would have also supported a count alleging a violation of the FTC Act’s prohibition on unfair acts or practices.” Khan and Slaughter elaborated on reasons why the FTC “should evaluate under its unfairness authority any discrimination that is found to be based on disparate treatment or have a disparate impact,” pointing out that (i) discrimination based on protected status can cause substantial injury to consumers; (ii) “injuries stemming from disparate treatment or impact are unavoidable because affected consumers cannot change their status or otherwise influence the unfair practices”; and (iii) “injuries stemming from disparate treatment or impact are not outweighed by countervailing benefits to consumers or competition.”
On March 17, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia agreed that claims against a group of mortgage lenders for conduct arising prior to November 2013 were barred under the two-year statute of limitations of the Fair Housing Act (FHA). Plaintiffs Cobb County, DeKalb County, and Fulton County, Georgia (collectively, “Counties”) alleged that the defendants “engaged in, and continue to engage in, discriminatory schemes that expose borrowers to unreasonable levels of risk; needlessly inflate interest rates, penalties, and fees; generate unauthorized and inflated charges for default related services; and lead to higher foreclosure rates among minority borrowers.” According to the Counties, these alleged practices have caused them to incur financial injury, including foreclosure-related costs, loss of property tax revenue, increased segregation, and organizational harm to County departments and authorities due to the forced reallocation of funds to address harms caused by the defendants’ actions. The Counties filed a complaint on November 20, 2015, asserting three counts related to disparate impact and disparate treatment theories under the FHA. Defendants moved for partial summary judgment on statute-of-limitations grounds, arguing that the Counties’ allegations are time-barred because they are based on allegedly discriminatory conduct occurring before November 20, 2013. Defendants further contended that the Counties could not “allege a ‘continuing violation’ that tolls the statute of limitations for each allegedly discriminatory act until the continuing violation ends because [a plaintiff’s] knowledge of a claim, or reason to have knowledge of a claim, cuts off equitable tolling of the statute of limitations for claims based on a continuing violation, and the Counties knew or should have known of their FHA claims at least as of May 2011.”
The court agreed with the defendants, pointing out that, among other things, there is “copious circumstantial evidence” that the Counties knew or should have known of their claims prior to May 2011, including well publicized allegations against the same defendants for similar conduct, and their retention of outside counsel in 2010 to investigate potential discrimination claims. According to the court, while a reasonable jury could find that the Counties themselves did not know of their claims, the record left no doubt that the outside counsel “knew of the claims prior to the statutory period, or would have known of the claims if he conducted himself with reasonable prudence.” Because the outside counsel’s “knowledge is imputed to his clients, no reasonable jury could find in the Counties’ favor on the statute-of-limitations issue.”
On March 23, HUD delivered the Interagency Task Force on Property Appraisal and Valuation Equity (PAVE) Action Plan to President Biden. Created in June 2021 to address racial bias in home lending and appraisals and establish actions to root out inequity, PAVE Task Force members include HUD Secretary Marcia L. Fudge and White House Domestic Policy Advisor Susan Rice, the U.S. Attorney General, the Secretaries of Agriculture, Labor, and Veterans Affairs, the Comptroller of the Currency, the Chairmen of the Federal Reserve Board, FDIC, NCUA, Directors of the CFPB and FHFA, and the Executive Director of the Appraisal Subcommittee of the FFIEC.
According to the announcement, the Action Plan to Advance Property Appraisal and Valuation Equity (the Plan) will represent “the most wide-ranging set of reforms ever put forward to advance equity in the home appraisal process.” According to the Task Force’s executive summary, “[o]n average, homes in majority-Black neighborhoods are valued at less than half of those in neighborhoods with few or no Black residents.” The summary also reports that the impact of undervaluation on homebuyers, sellers, and communities can sometimes result in higher down payments for home buyers, often causing sales to fall through, while low valuations in a refinance transaction can reduce the cash-out available and sometimes affect the refinance interest rate and mortgage insurance premiums paid by the homeowner. The Task Force further notes that since the Fair Housing Act was passed more than 50 years ago, “the racial wealth gap is wider than ever: in 2021, the Black homeownership rate reached only 44 percent, while the white homeownership rate reached 74 percent.”
The Plan will focus primarily on actions to substantially reduce racial bias in home appraisals, as well as steps federal agencies can “take using their existing authorities to enhance oversight and accountability of the appraisal industry and empower homeowners and homebuyers to take action when they receive a valuation that is lower than expected.” Among other things, the Plan states that Task Force members will exercise broad oversight and compliance authority to strengthen “guardrails against unlawful discrimination in all stages of residential valuation.” Agencies will also issue guidance on FHA and ECOA’s application to the appraisal industry and update appraisal-specific policies to “ensure that appraisers or regulated institutions’ use of appraisals are directly included in supervisory [FHA] and ECOA compliance requirements, and are considered in every review of relevant existing and future policies and guidance.” Relevant agencies have also committed to addressing potential bias in the use of technology-based valuation tools through a rulemaking related to automated valuation models (AVMs), including the addition of a nondiscrimination quality control standard in the proposed rule. In consultation with Congress, Task Force members will also pursue legislation to modernize the governance structure of the appraisal industry.
In the coming months, the Task Force will assess: (i) the “expanded use of alternatives to traditional appraisals as a means of reducing the prevalence and impact of appraisal bias”; (ii) the use of “range-of-value estimates instead of point estimates as a means of reducing the impact of racial or ethnic bias in appraisals”; (iii) the “potential use of alternatives and modifications to the sales comparison approach that may yield more accurate and equitable home valuation”; and (iv) “public sharing of a subset of historical appraisal data to foster development of unbiased valuation methods.”
CFPB Director Rohit Chopra stated that the Bureau will take an active leadership role in the Appraisal Subcommittee and will work “to implement a dormant authority in federal law to ensure that algorithmic valuations are fair and accurate.”
Acting Comptroller of the Currency Michael J. Hsu also announced that the OCC plans to enhance its supervisory methods for identifying discrimination in property valuations and will take steps to ensure consumers are aware of their rights regarding appraisals. The agency also intends to “support research that may lead to new ways to address the undervaluation of housing in communities of color caused by decades of discrimination.”
Additionally, acting FDIC Chairman Martin J. Gruenberg noted that the agency is committed to taking several concrete actions, including collaborating with Task Force members to exercise authorities “to support a more equitable state appraisal certification and licensing system.”
- Kathryn L. Ryan to discuss "State licensing and NMLS challenges" at MBA’s Legal Issues and Regulatory Compliance Conference
- Jonice Gray Tucker to discuss “Fair lending and equal opportunity laws” at the MBA Legal Issues and Regulatory Compliance Conference
- Jeffrey P. Naimon to discuss “Contemplating the boundaries of UDAAP” at the MBA Legal Issues and Regulatory Compliance Conference
- Steven vonBerg to speak at closing “super session“ on compliance topics at MBA Legal Issues and Regulatory Compliance Conference
- Buckley Webcast: Fifth Circuit muddles CFPB’s plans to use in-house judges in enforcement proceedings
- Jeffrey P. Naimon to discuss “Understanding the ESG impact on compliance” at the ABA’s Regulatory Compliance Conference