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On September 15, the DOJ announced a settlement with a Texas-based furniture and appliance company, resolving allegations that the company charged excess interest on servicemembers’ purchases in violation of the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act (SCRA). According to the press release, the DOJ launched an investigation into the company after receiving a referral from a United States Army Staff Judge Advocate. After receiving notice of the investigation, the company conducted a self-audit and determined that between March 2014 and May 2019, it had not granted the request for the full six percent interest rate cap required by the SCRA for 184 out of the 322 servicemembers that requested the relief. The complaint, filed by the DOJ in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas, states that the company “engaged in a pattern or practice of violating” the SCRA by “failing or refusing to timely and/or accurately lower the interest rate on pre-service obligations obtained by at least 184 SCRA protected servicemembers to 6% per year after being provided with the documentation required by the SCRA.”
The settlement notes that the company voluntarily disclosed its findings to the DOJ and issued over $59,000 in refund checks and over $28,000 in account credits to affected servicemembers. The settlement requires the company to pay an additional $500 to each affected servicemember, and to hire an independent consultant to determine if any other servicemembers were overcharged. Additionally, the company is required to make a $50,000 payment to the United States.
On September 10, the DOJ announced a Servicemembers Civil Relief Act (SCRA) settlement with a Florida-based towing and storage company, resolving allegations that the company auctioned cars owned by active duty servicemembers without first obtaining a court order. According to the complaint, filed on the same day as the settlement, the DOJ initiated the investigation into the company after “becoming aware of a complaint” by a U.S. Navy Lieutenant whose car was towed while he was deployed abroad. The DOJ asserts that between 2013 and 2020, the company “auctioned off motor vehicles, without court orders, belonging to at least 33 SCRA-protected servicemembers.” The settlement requires the company to pay nearly $100,000 in compensation to affected servicemembers and a $20,000 civil money penalty. Additionally, the company must develop new SCRA policies and procedures for enforcing storage liens and provide annual SCRA compliance training to all of its employees.
On August 18, the DOJ announced (see here and here) two separate Servicemembers Civil Relief Act (SCRA) actions. First, the DOJ filed a complaint against a Massachusetts-based moving and storage company for failing to obtain a court order prior to auctioning an active duty servicemember’s storage unit, while he was deployed overseas. The DOJ asserts that while a servicemember has no duty to inform lienholders of their military service, the servicemember told the storage company’s agent about his military status during a phone call. Additionally, the servicemember provided the storage company with his address on Hanscom Air Force Base. In the second complaint, the DOJ alleges a Florida-based towing company auctioned a car belonging to an active duty servicemember without obtaining a court order. The DOJ asserts that the towing company had reason to believe the car was owned by a servicemember, including that there was a military decal on the car and the owner’s auto loan was through a military-oriented financial institution. In both actions, the DOJ is seeking damages, injunctive relief and civil penalties.
On August 14, President Trump signed S.3637, which amends the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act (SCRA) to expand the lease protections for servicemembers under stop movement orders in response to the Covid-19 pandemic. Specifically, the SCRA’s lease termination protections are expanded to include situations in which a servicemember executes a residential or motor vehicle lease upon the receipt of military orders for a permanent change of station or deployment and then subsequently receives a stop movement order “in response to a local, national, or global emergency, effective for an indefinite period or for a period of not less than 30 days,” which would prevent the servicemember from occupying the residence or using the vehicle. The amendments are retroactively effective and apply to stop movement orders issued on or after March 1.
On April 15, the CFPB issued a blog post providing resources for servicemembers, veterans, and military families impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic. The Bureau discusses military aid societies where servicemembers and military families can apply for emergency grants and zero-interest loans, and hardship duty pay and other allowances afforded to military families affected by the Stop Movement Order that halted domestic travel by military personnel. The Bureau also provides information for managing mortgage payments and student loans, and reminds active-duty servicemembers, military spouses and National Guard personnel and reservists on active duty for more than 30 consecutive days of their rights under the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act and the Military Lending Act. These will include being able to terminate contracts under certain conditions and to receive protections for many types of consumer credit and loans. The blog post also highlights recent changes made to existing programs due to challenges presented by Covid-19, including the expansion of online access for veterans to file benefit claims and the continuation of GI Bill program funding.
On April 3, the CFPB Office of Servicemember Affairs (OSA) released its annual report, which provides an overview of OSA’s activities in fulfilling its statutory responsibilities for fiscal year 2019 and covers the period between October 1, 2018 and September 30, 2019. OSA’s responsibilities include monitoring complaints from military consumers, and the report highlights issues facing military consumers based on approximately 34,600 complaints submitted by servicemembers, veterans, and their families (collectively “servicemembers”). Key takeaways from the report include the following:
- Education and empowerment. OSA examined financial issues that impact military consumers and provided various educational tools on topics including the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act, the Military Lending Act, mortgage lending and foreclosure protections, and credit reporting and monitoring. These tools include in-person outreach and digital education and engagement resources.
- Consumer complaints. Thirty-six percent of servicemember complaints focused on credit or consumer reporting. Complaints related to debt collection were the second most frequent issue, with most complaints alleging that debt collectors were attempting to collect debt that the servicemember did not owe. In particular, OSA expressed concern about complaints where “the debt collector ‘took or threatened to take negative or legal action.’” With respect to mortgage debt, many servicemembers reported challenges in the payment process, as well as difficulties in being able to afford mortgage payments. With respect to credit cards, the greatest concentration of complaints focused on problems with purchases on statements. Checking or savings account complaints centered on issues related to account management, and more than two-thirds of student lending complaints related to challenges dealing with lenders or servicers. With respect to auto lending, complaints focused on managing the loan or lease. Other complaint categories included money transfers/services and virtual currency, personal loans, prepaid cards, credit repair, and title loans.
- Agency coordination. During the reporting period, OSA coordinated several consumer protection activities with federal and state government agencies, including the Departments of Defense, Veterans Affairs (VA), Education, and Treasury, as well as the FTC, SEC, and state attorneys general. OSA also noted its participation in interagency working groups focused on helping servicemembers.
- Military consumer research. Coordinated research efforts into the financial well-being of veterans and the increased use of home loans guaranteed by the VA are highlighted.
On March 30, the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division released a statement encouraging landlords and property managers to provide flexibility for servicemembers who have had to quickly change housing plans and employment responsibilities. The Division explained that due to the Covid-19 outbreak, a March 13 Stop Movement Order halted domestic travel by military personnel. As a result, many servicemembers who had signed leases for housing in anticipation of a move to a new duty station will not be able to move until May 11, at the earliest. The statement continues that “[c]onsistent with federal and state law” property managers are urged “to afford the men and women of our armed forces maximum flexibility to adjust their residential lease obligations as needed to comply with military orders during this uncertain time.” The statement reminds property managers and landlords of “the responsibilities they have with respect to members of the National Guard and Reserve under USERRA, the SCRA and similar state laws,” adding that the Division “will act swiftly to bring violators to justice.”
Servicemembers with concerns regarding their civil rights should contact the DOJ or their nearest Armed Forces Assistance Program Office.
On August 1, the Department of Justice (DOJ) announced a $3 million settlement with a captive auto finance company, resolving allegations that it violated the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act (SCRA) by repossessing 113 vehicles owned by SCRA-protected servicemembers without first obtaining court orders and failing to refund upfront capitalized cost reduction (CCR) amounts to servicemembers who lawfully terminated vehicle leases early under the SCRA. According to the DOJ’s complaint, when a servicemember terminated their lease early pursuant to the SCRA, the finance company retained the entire CCR amount even though the SCRA requires that it refund all lease amounts paid in advance for a period after the effective date of the termination. The settlement agreement covers all repossessions of servicemembers vehicles and leases terminated by servicemembers since January 2008, and requires the finance company to create an almost $3 million settlement fund to compensate affected servicemembers and pay the U.S. Treasury $62,000. Moreover, the agreement requires the finance company to review and update its SCRA policies and procedures to prevent future violations and to provide SCRA compliance training to specified employees.
On July 25, the North Carolina governor signed SB 420, the “NC Servicemembers Civil Relief Act” (NCSCRA), which, among other things, incorporates into state law the rights, benefits and protections of the federal Servicemembers Civil Relief Act (SCRA) and extends those provisions to members of the North Carolina National Guard serving on state active duty and to members of the National Guard of other states serving on state active duty who reside in North Carolina. In addition to the rights afforded to servicemembers in the SCRA, the NCSCRA (i) expands certain protections for dependents of servicemembers, including protections against default judgments and an interest rate cap of six percent; (ii) authorizes the termination of certain service contracts, allowing servicemembers and their dependents to terminate telephone, internet, cable TV, satellite radio, and prepaid entertainments contracts upon relocation orders for 90 days or more to a location that does not support such services; and (iii) allows for the extension of residential lease agreements until 10 days after a member of the North Carolina National Guard or a member of another state’s National Guard who is residing in North Carolina’s active duty terminates. The NCSCRA provides for action by the attorney general for any violation, with a civil penalty up to $5,000 per violation and also allows for a private right of action by an aggrieved servicemember.
On July 18, the OCC released a list of recent enforcement actions taken against national banks, federal savings associations, and individuals currently and formerly affiliated with such entities. The new enforcement actions include personal cease-and-desist orders, civil money penalties, formal agreements, prompt corrective action directives, removal and prohibition orders, and terminations of existing enforcement actions. Included in the list is a formal agreement issued against a Texas-based bank on June 20 for alleged unsafe or unsound practices related to, among other things, compliance risk management and violations of laws and regulations concerning the Flood Disaster Protection Act (FDPA), Bank Secrecy Act, TILA, RESPA, and the Expedited Funds Availability Act. Among other things, the agreement requires the bank to (i) appoint a compliance committee responsible for submitting a written progress report detailing specific corrective actions; (ii) ensure that it has “sufficient and competent management”; (iii) prepare a risk-based consumer compliance program, which must include revised policies and procedures related to the Servicemembers’ Civil Relief Act, TILA-RESPA Integrated Disclosure rule, and the FDPA; and (iv) take measures to “ensure that current and satisfactory credit and proper collateral information is maintained on all loans.”
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- Daniel R. Alonso to discuss "Independent monitoring in the United States" at the World Compliance Association Peru Chapter IV International Conference on Compliance and the Fight Against Corruption
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