Subscribe to our InfoBytes Blog weekly newsletter and other publications for news affecting the financial services industry.
On July 1, FHFA released a policy statement on its commitment to “comprehensive” fair lending oversight of Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, and the Federal Home Loan Banks (collectively, “regulated entities”), in addition to expanding FHFA’s fair lending program. The statement describes FHFA’s position on monitoring and information gathering, supervisory examinations, and administrative enforcement regarding ECOA, the Fair Housing Act, and the Federal Housing Enterprises Financial Safety and Soundness Act. FHFA noted the purpose of the policy statement is “to provide a foundation for possible future interpretations and rulemakings by the agency for its regulated entities.” FHFA also issued an order on fair lending reporting that requires Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to submit quarterly fair lending reports and data. Comments on the policy statement are due 60 days after publication in the Federal Register.
On May 26, the OCC announced a series of examiner-led virtual workshops for the boards of directors of community national banks and federal savings associations. The workshops will focus on emerging issues regarding compliance risk, and will provide training and guidance on implementing effective compliance risk management programs, as well as guidance on regulations such as the Bank Secrecy Act and ECOA. A schedule of the upcoming workshops is available here.
On April 27, the CFPB announced a consent order against a nationwide, New Jersey-based mortgage broker and direct lender for allegedly sending deceptive loan advertisements to hundreds of thousands of older borrowers. According to the CFPB, the respondent’s advertisements and letters violated the Mortgage Acts and Practices Advertising Rule (MAP Rule), TILA, and the CFPA, by, among other things; (i) misrepresenting the costs of reverse mortgages, including fees, associated taxes, and insurance; (ii) failing to inform borrowers that if they did not continue to pay taxes or insurance they were at risk of losing their homes; (iii) creating the impression that consumers had a preexisting relationship with the lender; and (iv) informing consumers that they were preapproved for specific loan amounts and likely to obtain particular terms or refinancing. Under the terms of the consent order, the respondent is required to pay a $140,000 civil money penalty. Additionally, an advertising compliance official must review the respondent’s mortgage advertisement template before it is put into use in an advertisement “to ensure that it is compliant with the MAP Rule, Regulation Z, TILA, the CFPA,” as well as the consent order. The respondent must also develop and provide the CFPB a “comprehensive compliance plan designed to ensure that Respondent’s mortgage advertising complies with all applicable Federal consumer financial laws and the terms of this Order.”
On April 19, the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection wrote a blog post identifying lessons learned to manage the consumer protection risks of artificial intelligence (AI) technology and algorithms. According to the FTC, over the years the Commission has addressed the challenges presented by the use of AI and algorithms to make decisions about consumers, and has taken many enforcement actions against companies for allegedly violating laws such as the FTC Act, FCRA, and ECOA when using AI and machine learning technology. The FTC stated that it has used its expertise with these laws to: (i) report on big data analytics and machine learning; (ii) conduct a hearing on algorithms, AI, and predictive analytics; and (iii) issue business guidance on AI and algorithms. To assist companies navigating AI, the FTC has provided the following guidance:
- Start with the right foundation. From the beginning, companies should consider ways to enhance data sets, design models to account for data gaps, and confine where or how models are used. The FTC advised that if a “data set is missing information from particular populations, using that data to build an AI model may yield results that are unfair or inequitable to legally protected groups.”
- Watch out for discriminatory outcomes. It is vital for companies to test algorithms—both prior to use and periodically after that—to prevent discrimination based on race, gender, or other protected classes.
- Embrace transparency and independence. Companies should consider how to embrace transparency and independence, such as “by using transparency frameworks and independent standards, by conducting and publishing the results of independent audits, and by opening. . . data or source code to outside inspection.”
- Don’t exaggerate what your algorithm can do or whether it can deliver fair or unbiased results. Under the FTC Act, company “statements to business customers and consumers alike must be truthful, non-deceptive, and backed up by evidence.”
- Data transparency. In the FTC guidance on AI last year, as previously covered by InfoBytes, an advisory warned companies to be careful about how they get the data that powers their models.
- Do more good than harm. Companies are warned that if their models cause “more harm than good—that is, in Section 5 parlance, if it causes or is likely to cause substantial injury to consumers that is not reasonably avoidable by consumers and not outweighed by countervailing benefits to consumers or to competition—the FTC can challenge the use of that model as unfair.”
- Importance of accountability. The FTC warns of the importance of being transparent and independent and cautions companies to hold themselves accountable or the FTC may do it for them.
On April 12, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California denied defendants’ motion to compel arbitration in a matter alleging a lender denied plaintiffs’ applications based on their immigration status. The plaintiffs filed a putative class action against the defendants, alleging the lender denied their loan applications based on one of the plaintiff’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) status and the other plaintiff’s status as a conditional permanent resident. The plaintiffs claimed that these practices constituted unlawful discrimination and “alienage discrimination” in violation of federal law and California state law. The plaintiffs also alleged that the lender violated the FCRA by accessing one of their credit reports without a permissible purpose. The defendants moved to compel arbitration and dismiss the claims.
With respect to the defendants’ motion to compel arbitration, the lender claimed that the DACA plaintiff “expressly consented to arbitration” when he was required to check a box labeled “I agree” in order to proceed with his online student loan refinancing application back in 2016. However, the DACA plaintiff argued the arbitration agreement “lacked adequate consideration” because he was ineligible for a loan as a DACA applicant, and that even if it were a valid agreement, it only applied to his 2016 application and not to his subsequent attempts to refinance his student loans. In denying the lender’s motion to compel arbitration, the court concluded that the DACA plaintiff did not claim that he was seeking to reopen or have the lender reconsider his 2016 application, but rather he asserted that these were “standalone attempted transactions,” and as such, did not fall within the scope of the 2016 arbitration agreement.
In reviewing whether the lender’s policies constitute alienage discrimination, the court determined, among other things, that while the lender “asserts that it does not discriminate against non-citizens because some non-citizens—namely [lawful permanent residents] and some visa-holders—are still eligible to contract for credit with [the lender],” the distinction “is not supported by the language of the statute,” noting that under 42 U.S.C. § 1981, protections “extend to ‘all persons within the jurisdiction of the United States.’” Additionally, the court ruled that the second class of conditional permanent residents whose credit reports were pulled by the lender and allegedly experienced a decrease in their credit scores—despite plaintiffs claiming the lender’s policy states that permanent residents are ineligible for loans if their green cards are valid for two years or less—may proceed with their FCRA claims.
On April 14, the CFPB issued its annual fair lending report to Congress, which outlines the Bureau’s efforts in 2020 to fulfill its fair lending mandate, while protecting consumers against the resulting economic consequences of the Covid-19 pandemic. According to the report, the Bureau continued to focus on promoting fair, equitable, and nondiscriminatory access to credit, highlighting several fair lending priorities that continued from years past such as mortgage origination, small business lending, and student loan origination. The report also discusses new policy areas and programs for fair lending examinations or investigations, including (i) the Fair Lending Help Desks; (ii) amendments concerning Regulation C, which will increase the permanent threshold for collecting, recording, and reporting data about open-end lines of credit from 100 to 200; and (iii) two HMDA data point articles. Additionally, the report discusses the Bureau’s efforts in expanding access to credit for underserved or underbanked populations, including: (i) hosting the first “Tech Sprint” (covered by InfoBytes here) to encourage regulatory innovation and stakeholder collaboration; (ii) continuing to examine and investigate institutions for compliance with HMDA and ECOA; (iii) engaging with stakeholders to discuss fair lending compliance, issues related to credit access, and policy decisions; and (iv) issuing Supervisory Recommendations relating to weak or nonexistent fair lending policies and procedures, risk assessments, and fair lending training. The report also provides information related to regulation, supervision, enforcement, and education efforts.
On March 16, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit held that because ECOA does not preempt New Jersey’s common-law doctrine of necessaries (where a spouse is jointly liable for necessary expenses incurred by the other spouse) a defendant debt collector was permitted to send medical debt collection letters to a deceased individual’s spouse without violating the FDCPA. The defendant was retained to collect the deceased spouse’s medical debt and sent collection letters to the plaintiff who maintained she was not responsible for the debt and subsequently filed suit alleging violations of the FDCPA. The defendant moved for dismissal, arguing that the plaintiff owed the debt under New Jersey’s doctrine of necessaries because her deceased spouse incurred the debt for medical treatment. The district court agreed and dismissed the case. The plaintiff appealed, arguing, among other things, that the doctrine of necessaries conflicts with the spousal-signature prohibition found in the ECOA.
In affirming the district court’s dismissal, the 3rd Circuit concluded that “ECOA does not preempt the doctrine of necessaries because the debt is ‘incidental credit’ exempt from the prohibition.” According to the 3rd Circuit, the Federal Reserve Board determined that incidental credit is exempt from the § 202.7(d) spousal-signature prohibition because it “refers to extensions of consumer credit. . .(i) [t]hat are not made pursuant to the terms of a credit card account; (ii) [t]hat are not subject to a finance charge. . .and (iii) [t]hat are not payable by agreement in more than four installments.” The 3rd Circuit determined that because the medical debt in question satisfied all three criteria, the spousal-signature prohibition did not apply, and therefore ECOA and its regulations did not conflict with the doctrine of necessaries. Further, the 3rd Circuit held that ECOA focuses “on ensuring the availability of credit rather than the allocation of liability between spouses.”
On March 9, the CFPB issued an interpretive rule to clarify that ECOA’s prohibition against sex discrimination includes sexual orientation and gender identity discrimination. “This prohibition also covers discrimination based on actual or perceived nonconformity with traditional sex- or gender-based stereotypes, and discrimination based on an applicant’s social or other associations,” the Bureau stated. In 2020, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a decision in Bostock v. Clayton County, Georgia, holding that “the prohibition against sex discrimination in Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 encompasses sexual orientation discrimination and gender identity discrimination.” Following the Court’s decision, the Bureau issued a request for information (RFI) seeking, among other things, feedback on ways to provide clarity under ECOA and/or Regulation B related to the prohibition of discrimination on the basis of a sexual orientation or gender identity. (Covered by InfoBytes here.) Consistent with the Bostock decision and supported by many comments received in response to the RFI, the Bureau issued the interpretive rule to address any regulatory uncertainty that may still exist regarding the term “sex” under ECOA/Regulation B in order to protect against discrimination and ensure fair, equitable, and nondiscriminatory access to credit for both individuals and communities. The interpretive rule is effective upon publication in the Federal Register.
The Bureau also announced plans to review—and update as needed—publication and examination guidance documents to reflect the interpretive rule, and intends to take appropriate enforcement action against financial institutions that violate ECOA.
On February 24, the House Financial Services Committee’s Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations held a hearing entitled “How Invidious Discrimination Works and Hurts: An Examination of Lending Discrimination and Its Long-term Economic Impacts on Borrowers of Color.” The subcommittee’s memorandum regarding the hearing discussed the importance of exploring “available tools and potential legislative solutions to detect hidden discrimination and deter discrimination in lending and housing,” and addressed topics such as modern-day redlining, racial wealth gaps, and matched-pair testing (a method for detecting impermissible differences in treatment based on protected classes).
Subcommittee members also discussed recently introduced H.R. 166, the “Fair Lending for All Act,” which would, among other things: (i) direct the CFPB to establish an Office of Fair Lending Testing charged with testing creditors’ ECOA compliance, and permit the Bureau to refer ECOA violations to the attorney general for appropriate action; (ii) extend the protected classes under the law to sexual orientation, gender identity, and an applicant’s location based on zip code or census tract; (iii) establish criminal penalties under ECOA for knowing and willful violations of prohibited credit discrimination, including personal liability for executive officers and directors; (iv) require the Bureau to review loan applications for compliance with ECOA and other federal consumer laws; and (v) amend HMDA Section 304(b)(4) to add the new prohibited credit discrimination categories.
On February 3, the FTC announced it recently provided the CFPB with its annual summary of work on ECOA-related policy issues, focusing specifically on the Commission’s activities with respect to Regulation B during 2020. The summary discusses, among other things, the following FTC research and policy development initiatives:
- The FTC submitted a comment letter in response to the CFPB’s request for information on ways to provide additional clarity under ECOA (covered by InfoBytes here). Among other things, the FTC noted that Regulation B explicitly incorporates disparate impact and offered suggestions should the Bureau choose to provide additional detail regarding its approach to disparate impact analysis. The FTC also urged the Bureau to remind entities offering credit to small businesses that ECOA and Regulation B may apply based “on the facts and circumstances involved” and that entities cannot avoid application of these statutes based solely on how they characterize a transaction or the benefits they claim to provide.
- The FTC hosted the 13th Annual FTC Microeconomics Conference, which focused on the use of machine-learning algorithms when making decisions in areas such as credit access.
- The FTC’s Military Task Force continued to work on military consumer protection issues, including military consumers’ “rights to various types of notifications as applicants for credit, including for adverse action, and information about the anti-discrimination provisions, in ECOA and Regulation B.”
- The FTC continued to participate in the Interagency Task Force on Fair Lending, along with the CFPB, DOJ, HUD, and the federal banking regulatory agencies. The Commission also joined the newly formed Interagency Fair Lending Methodologies Working Group with the aforementioned agencies in order “to coordinate and share information on analytical methodologies used in enforcement of and supervision for compliance with fair lending laws, including ECOA.”
The summary also highlights FTC ECOA enforcement actions, business and consumer education efforts on fair lending issues, as well as blog posts discussing fair lending safeguards and the use of artificial intelligence in automated decision-making.
- Jeffrey P. Naimon to provide “Fair lending update” at the Colorado Mortgage Lenders Association Operational and Compliance Forum
- Jonice Gray Tucker to discuss “Justice for all: Achieving racial equity through fair lending” at CBA Live
- Warren W. Traiger to discuss “On the horizon for CRA modernization” at CBA Live
- APPROVED Webcast: Strategy & Technology: A dynamic duo for successful regulatory exams
- Daniel R. Alonso to discuss “Primer on cross-border prosecutions in Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, and Mexico for U.S. criminal lawyers” at a New York City Bar Association webinar
- Jonice Gray Tucker to discuss "Fair lending" at the Mortgage Bankers Association Regulatory Compliance Conference
- Michelle L. Rogers to discuss “State law regulatory and enforcement trends” at the Mortgage Bankers Association Regulatory Compliance Conference
- Jonice Gray Tucker to discuss “Government investigations, and compliance 2021 trends” at the Corporate Counsel Women of Color Career Strategies Conference
- Max Bonici to discuss “BSA/AML trends: What to expect with the implementation of the AML Act of 2020” at the American Bar Association Banking Law Fall Meeting
- H Joshua Kotin to discuss “Modifications and exiting forbearance” at the National Association of Federal Credit Unions Regulatory Compliance Seminar
- Jonice Gray Tucker to discuss “Fintech trends” at the BIHC Network Elevating Black Excellence Regional Summit
- Jonice Gray Tucker to discuss "Consumer financial services" at the Practising Law Institute Banking Law Institute