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On February 12, the Federal Financial Institutions Examination Council (FFIEC) released a statement on examination principles related to ensuring fair and creditable residential property valuation practices among supervised institutions. The FFIEC underscored the necessity for institutions to comply with anti-discrimination laws and regulations, such as the ECOA and the Fair Housing Act, while also adhering to safety and soundness regulations outlined in statutes like the Financial Institutions Reform, Recovery, and Enforcement Act of 1989. According to the statement, effective valuation review programs are essential for identifying and addressing deficiencies, ensuring compliance with appraisal regulations, and promoting fair lending practices. Through examination processes, both in consumer compliance and safety and soundness assessments, the FFIEC aimed to mitigate risks associated with valuation discrimination or bias.
On February 12, the FTC provided the CFPB with an annual summary of its 2023 enforcement, research and policy development, and educational-related initiatives on ECOA, as Dodd-Frank allows the Commission to enforce ECOA and any CFPB rules applicable to entities within the FTC’s jurisdiction. The letter emphasized the commitment of each agency to enforce laws protecting civil rights, fair competition, consumer protection, and equal opportunity in the development and use of automated systems and artificial intelligence. Additionally, the letter stated the FTC continued its involvement in initiatives such as military outreach and participation in interagency task forces on fair lending. Its initiatives focused on consumer and business education regarding issues related to Regulation B and guiding fair lending practices. The Commission also highlighted (1) an enforcement action against a group of auto dealerships alleging ECOA and its implementing Regulation B violations in connection with the sale of add-on products; (2) refund checks sent as a result of the settlement of two enforcement actions against auto dealerships in which it was alleged that the dealerships violated ECOA and Regulation B by discrimination against Black and Latino consumers by charging them higher financing costs; and (3) an amicus brief submitted to an appeals court in support of the CFPB’s appeal to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit of the lower court’s decision regarding the applicability of ECOA to individuals other than “applicants.”
On January 17, the DOJ announced a $1.9 million settlement with a national bank resolving allegations that the bank engaged in unlawful redlining in Memphis, Tennessee by intentionally not providing home loans and mortgage services to majority-Black and Hispanic neighborhoods, thereby violating the Fair Housing Act, ECOA, and Regulation B. In the complaint, the DOJ alleged that from 2015 through at least 2020, the bank (i) concentrated marketing and maintained nearly all its branches in majority-white neighborhoods; (ii) was aware of its redlining risk and failed to address said risk; (iii) generated disproportionately low numbers of loan applications and home loans during the relevant period from majority-Black and Hispanic neighborhoods in Memphis, compared to similarly-situated lenders; (iv) maintained practices that denied equal access to home loans for those in majority-Black and Hispanic neighborhoods, and otherwise “discouraged” those individuals from applying; and others.
Under the consent order, which is subject to court approval, the bank will, among other things, invest $1.3 million in a loan subsidy fund to enhance home mortgage, home improvement, and home refinancing access in the specified neighborhoods. The bank will also allocate $375,000 in advertising, outreach, and financial counseling to specified neighborhoods, and allocate $225,000 to community partnerships for services boosting residential mortgage credit access in the specified areas. Additionally, the bank will assign at least two mortgage loan officers to serve majority-Black and Hispanic neighborhoods in the bank’s service area and appoint a Director of Community Lending who will oversee the continued development of lending in communities of color.
On January 2, the FTC issued a complaint and stipulated order against a personal finance mobile application that offers its users short-term cash advances through “floats.” According to the complaint, the defendant misrepresented its claims to induce users into enrolling in a subscription plan. Specifically, the defendant advertised that its users could instantly receive a cash advance larger than available, claimed cash advance limits would increase over time, and promised to make cash available “instantly” for no extra fee.
According to the complaint, employees have admitted that the defendant company “lie[s]” to users. Users allegedly received misleading advertisements that stated how cash advances or “floats” constitute “free money” when there is actually a $1.99 subscription fee listed in tiny font. Additionally, the defendant advertised that users would receive “money in minutes” for “free” with “no hidden fees” despite having to pay a hidden $4 fee to receive their money instantly. The FTC alleges from user responses that many of them would have not enrolled in this program had they known they would be advanced less than promised. Further, the FTC alleges the defendant discriminates against consumers by categorically refusing to provide cash advances to consumers who receive public assistance benefits or derive income from gig work––even after they pay subscription fees.
Under this order, the FTC found the defendant violated the FTC Act, the Restore Online Shoppers’ Confidence Act (ROSCA), as well as ECOA and its implementing rule, Regulation B. The stipulated order, which names the company’s cofounders in addition to the company itself, prohibits the company from further misrepresentations, requires implementation of a fair lending program, requires a simple cancellation mechanism, and provides for a monetary judgment of $3 million.
The CFPB recently issued its semi-annual report to Congress covering the Bureau’s work for the period beginning October 1, 2022 and ending March 31, 2023. The report, which is required by Dodd-Frank, includes, (i) a list of significant rules and orders (including final rules, proposed rules, pre-rule materials, and upcoming plans and initiatives); (ii) an analysis of consumer complaints, (iii) lists of public supervisory and enforcement actions, (iv) assessments of actions by state regulators and attorneys generals related to consumer financial law; (v) assessment of fair lending enforcement and rulemaking; and (vi) an analysis of efforts to increase workforce and contracting diversity.
On October 12, the CFPB and DOJ issued a joint statement on fair lending and credit opportunities for noncitizen borrowers. The statement warned that, under the Equal Credit Opportunity Act (ECOA) and its implementing regulations, it is unlawful for lenders to discriminate against credit applicants based on their national origin or race, regardless of their immigration status. In its press release announcing the joint statement, DOJ explained that the statement was prompted by reports of consumers being rejected for credit cards as well as auto, student, and personal loans because of their immigration status, even when they were otherwise qualified to receive the loans. The joint statement explained that, although a creditor may consider an applicant’s immigration status when necessary to ascertain the creditor’s rights regarding repayment, “unnecessary or overbroad reliance on immigration status in the credit decision process, including when that reliance is based on bias, may run afoul of ECOA’s antidiscrimination provisions and could also violate other laws.” Among other things, the agencies cautioned against the overbroad consideration of criteria that may “serve as a proxy for citizenship of immigration status,” such as how long a consumer has had a social security number. Likewise, requiring only certain groups of noncitizens to provide documentation, identification, or in-person applications may also violate ECOA by “harming applicants on the basis of national origin or race.”
On July 26, the CFPB released its Summer 2023 issue of Supervisory Highlights, which covers enforcement actions in areas such as auto origination, auto servicing, consumer reporting, debt collection, deposits, fair lending, information technology, mortgage origination, mortgage servicing, payday lending and remittances from June 2022 through March 2023. The Bureau noted significant findings regarding unfair, deceptive, and abusive acts or practices and findings across many consumer financial products, as well as new examinations on nonbanks.
- Auto Origination: The CFPB examined auto finance origination practices of several institutions and found deceptive marketing of auto loans. For example, loan advertisements showcased cars larger and newer than the products for which actual loan offers were available, which misled consumers.
- Auto Servicing: The Bureau’s examiners identified unfair and abusive practices at auto servicers related to charging interest on inflated loan balances resulting from fraudulent inclusion of non-existent options. It also found that servicers collected interest on the artificially inflated amounts without refunding consumers for the excess interest paid. Examiners further reported that auto servicers engaged in unfair and abusive practices by canceling automatic payments without sufficient notice, leading to missed payments and late fee assessments. Additionally, some servicers allegedly engaged in cross-collateralization, requiring consumers to pay other unrelated debts to redeem their repossessed vehicles.
- Consumer Reporting: The Bureau’s examiners found that consumer reporting companies failed to maintain proper procedures to limit furnishing reports to individuals with permissible purposes. They also found that furnishers violated regulations by not reviewing and updating policies, neglecting reasonable investigations of direct disputes, and failing to notify consumers of frivolous disputes or provide accurate address disclosures for consumer notices.
- Debt Collection: The CFPB's examinations of debt collectors (large depository institutions, nonbanks that are larger participants in the consumer debt collection market, and nonbanks that are service providers to certain covered persons) uncovered violations of the FDCPA and CFPA, such as unlawful attempts to collect medical debt and deceptive representations about interest payments.
- Deposits: The CFPB's examinations of financial institutions revealed unfair acts or practices related to the assessment of both nonsufficient funds and line of credit transfer fees on the same transaction. The Bureau reported that this practice resulted in double fees being charged for denied transactions.
- Fair Lending: Recent examinations through the CFPB's fair lending supervision program found violations of ECOA and Regulation B, including pricing discrimination in granting pricing exceptions based on competitive offers and discriminatory lending restrictions related to criminal history and public assistance income.
- Information Technology: Bureau examiners found that certain institutions engaged in unfair acts by lacking adequate information technology security controls, leading to cyberattacks and fraudulent withdrawals from thousands of consumer accounts, causing substantial harm to consumers.
- Mortgage Origination: Examiners found that certain institutions violated Regulation Z by differentiating loan originator compensation based on product types and failing to accurately reflect the terms of the legal obligation on loan disclosures.
- Mortgage Servicing: Examiners identified UDAAP and regulatory violations at mortgage servicers, including violations related to loss mitigation timing, misrepresenting loss mitigation application response times, continuity of contact procedures, Spanish-language acknowledgment notices, and failure to provide critical loss mitigation information. Additionally, some servicers reportedly failed to credit payments sent to prior servicers after a transfer and did not maintain policies to identify missing information after a transfer.
- Payday Lending: The CFPB identified unfair, deceptive, and abusive acts or practices, including unreasonable limitations on collection communications, false collection threats, unauthorized wage deductions, misrepresentations regarding debt payment impact, and failure to comply with the Military Lending Act. The report also highlighted that lenders reportedly failed to retain evidence of compliance with disclosure requirements under Regulation Z. In response, the Bureau directed lenders to cease deceptive practices, revise contract language, and update compliance procedures to ensure regulatory compliance.
- Remittances: The CFPB evaluated both depository and non-depository institutions for compliance with the EFTA and its Regulation E, including the Remittance Rule. Examiners found that some institutions failed to develop written policies and procedures to ensure compliance with the Remittance Rule's error resolution requirements, using inadequate substitutes or policies without proper implementation.
On July 18, Federal Reserve Vice Chair for Supervision Michael Barr delivered a speech on adjusting the Fair Housing Act and ECOA in response to the increasing relevance of artificial intelligence. Barr explained how the digital economy offers many great utilizations, such as accessing the creditworthiness of individuals without credit history and facilitating wider access to credit for those who may otherwise be excluded. Along with a digital economy, Barr cautioned, comes negative implications where technologies can potentially violate the fair lending laws and may perpetuate existing disparities and inaccuracies, among other things. Barr highlighted Special Purpose Credit Programs as a tool to address discrimination and bias in mortgage credit transactions. In addition, Barr highlighted two recent initiatives taken by the Fed to tackle appraisal discrimination and bias in housing mortgage credit transactions—one involved inviting public feedback on a proposed rule to uphold credibility and integrity in automated valuation models, and the other sought input on guidance addressing risks related to deficient home appraisals, emphasizing "reconsiderations of value" in the process. (Covered by InfoBytes here and here.) Barr also commented that through the Fed’s supervisory process, it is evaluating whether firms have proper risk management and controls, including with respect to these new technologies.
On June 29, the CFPB issued its annual fair lending report to Congress which outlines the Bureau’s efforts in 2022 to fulfill its fair lending mandate. Much of the Bureau’s work in 2022 was directed towards unlawful discrimination in the home appraisal industry and addressing redlining. According to the report, the CFPB also honed its efforts on factors that influence fair access to credit which included insight into factors affecting consumers’ credit profiles. The report highlights one fair lending enforcement action from 2022, where the CFPB and DOJ filed a joint complaint and proposed consent order against a company for allegedly violating ECOA, Regulation B, and the CFPA by discouraging prospective applicants from applying for credit. Notably, the Bureau notes that under section 704 of ECOA, it must refer any cases with instances of a creditor being believed to have engaged in a “pattern or practice of lending discrimination” to the DOJ. According to the report, the FDIC, NCUA, Federal Reserve Board, and CFPB collectively made 23 such referrals to the DOJ in 2022, a 91 percent increase from 2020. Five of the 23 matters were sent by the CFPB, four of which involved alleged racial discrimination in redlining, and one involving alleged discrimination in underwriting based on receipt of public assistance income. The report also discusses the CFPB’s risk-based prioritization process that resulted in initiatives concerning small business lending, policies and procedures on exclusions in underwriting, and the use of artificial intelligence. Moving forward, the Bureau will continue its collaborative approach with other agencies and prioritize areas such as combating bias in home appraisals, redlining, and the use of advanced technologies in financial services. Additionally, the report states that by focusing on restorative outcomes, comprehensive remedies, and equal economic opportunities, the CFPB aims to create a fair, equitable, and nondiscriminatory credit market for consumers.
The CFPB recently filed its opening brief in the agency’s appeal of a district court’s decision to dismiss the Bureau’s claims that a Chicago-based nonbank mortgage company and its owner violated ECOA by engaging in discriminatory marketing and consumer outreach practices. As previously covered by InfoBytes, the Bureau sued the defendants in 2020 alleging fair lending violations predicated, in part, on statements made by the company’s owner and other employees during radio shows and podcasts. The agency claimed that the defendants discouraged African Americans from applying for mortgage loans and redlined African American neighborhoods in the Chicago area. The defendants countered that the Bureau improperly attempted to expand ECOA’s reach and argued that ECOA “does not regulate any behavior relating to prospective applicants who have not yet applied for credit.”
In dismissing the action with prejudice, the district court applied step one of the Chevron framework (which is to determine “whether Congress has directly spoken to the precise question at issue”) when reviewing whether the Bureau’s interpretation of ECOA in Regulation B is permissible. The court concluded, among other things, that Congress’s directive does not apply to prospective applicants.
In its appellate brief, the Bureau argued that the long history of Regulation B supports the Bureau’s interpretation of ECOA, and specifically provides “that ‘[a] creditor shall not make any oral or written statement, in advertising or otherwise, to applicants or prospective applicants that would discourage on a prohibited basis a reasonable person from making or pursuing an application.” While Congress has reviewed ECOA on numerous occasions, the Bureau noted that it has never challenged the understanding that this type of conduct is unlawful, and Congress instead “created a mandatory referral obligation [to the DOJ] for cases in which a creditor has unlawfully ‘engaged in a pattern or practice of discouraging or denying applications for credit.’”
Regardless, “even if ECOA’s text does not unambiguously authorize Regulation B’s prohibition on discouraging prospective applicants, it certainly does not foreclose it,” the Bureau wrote, pointing to two perceived flaws in the district court’s ruling: (i) that the district court failed to recognize that Congress’s referral provision makes clear that “discouraging . . . applications for credit” violates ECOA; and (ii) that the district court incorrectly concluded that ECOA’s reference to applicants “demonstrated that Congress foreclosed prohibiting discouragement as to prospective applicants.” The Bureau emphasized that several courts have recognized that the term “applicant” can include individuals who have not yet submitted an application for credit and stressed that its interpretation of ECOA, as reflected in Regulation B’s discouragement prohibition, is not “arbitrary, capricious, or manifestly contrary to the statute.” The Bureau argued that under Chevron step two (which the district court did not address), Regulation B’s prohibition on discouraging prospective applicants from applying in the first place is reasonable because it furthers Congress’ efforts to prohibit discrimination and ensure equal access to credit.
Additionally, the FTC filed a separate amicus brief in support of the Bureau. In its brief, the FTC argued that Regulation B prohibits creditors from discouraging applicants on a prohibited basis, and that by outlawing this type of behavior, it furthers ECOA’s purpose and prevents its evasion. In disagreeing with the district court’s position that ECOA only applies to “applicants” and that the Bureau cannot proscribe any misconduct occurring before an application is filed, the FTC argued that the ruling violates “the most basic principles of statutory construction.” If affirmed, the FTC warned, the ruling would enable creditor misconduct and “greenlight egregious forms of discrimination so long as they occurred ‘prior to the filing of an application.’”
Several consumer advocacy groups, including the National Fair Housing Alliance and the American Civil Liberties Union, also filed an amicus brief in support of the Bureau. The consumer advocates warned that “[i]nvalidating ECOA’s longstanding prohibitions against pre-application discouragement would severely limit the Act’s effectiveness, with significant consequences for communities affected by redlining and other forms of credit discrimination that have fueled a racial wealth gap and disproportionately low rates of homeownership among Black and Latino households.” The district court’s position would also affect non-housing credit markets, such as small business, auto, and personal loans, as well as credit cards, the consumer advocates said, arguing that such limitations “come at a moment when targeted digital marketing technologies increasingly allow lenders to screen and discourage consumers on the basis of their protected characteristics, before they can apply.”