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On October 1, the CFPB and the South Carolina Department of Consumer Affairs filed an action in the U.S. District Court for the District of South Carolina against two companies and their owner, alleging that the defendants violated the Consumer Financial Protection Act (CFPA) and the South Carolina Consumer Protection Code (SCCPC) by offering high-interest loans to veterans and other consumers in exchange for the assignment of some of the consumers’ monthly pension or disability payments. The complaint alleges that the majority of the credit offers are brokered for veterans with disability pensions or retirement pensions. The defendants allegedly did not disclose to consumers the interest rates associated with the products, marketing the contracts as sale of payments and not credit offers. The defendants also allegedly did not disclose that the contracts were void under federal and state law, which prohibit the assignment of certain benefits. The Bureau and South Carolina are seeking injunctive relief, restitution, damages, disgorgement, and civil money penalties.
The Bureau’s announcement notes that this is the third action in 2019 related to the marketing or administration of high-interest credit to veterans. As previously covered by InfoBytes, in January 2019, the Bureau settled with an online loan broker resolving allegations that the broker violated the CFPA by operating a website that connected veterans with companies offering high-interest loans in exchange for the assignment of some or all of their military pension payments. Additionally, in August 2019, the Bureau and the Arkansas attorney general announced a proposed settlement with three loan brokerage companies, along with their owner and operator, for allegedly misrepresenting high-interest credit offers to veterans and other consumers as purchases of future pension or disability payments (covered by Infobytes here).
On August 23, the Illinois governor signed SB 1758, which amends the state’s Consumer Installment Loan Act and the Payday Loan Reform Act. Generally, payday loans must be repayable in substantially equal and consecutive installments. The amendment clarifies that a “‘substantially equal installment’ includes a last regularly scheduled payment that may be less than, but not more than 5% larger than, the previous scheduled payment according to a disclosed payment schedule agreed to by the parties.” The amendments take effect immediately.
On August 15, the CFPB and the Arkansas attorney general announced a proposed settlement with three loan brokerage companies, along with their owner and operator (collectively, “defendants”) for allegedly misrepresenting the contracts offered to veterans and other consumers. According to the complaint, from 2011 through 2016, the defendants offered high-interest credit to consumers, deceptively marketed as purchases of future pension or disability payments. The contracts allegedly required veterans to instruct that their pension direct deposits or monthly allotments be routed to the bank account controlled by the defendants or pay the contracted amounts from other sources, including purchasing life-insurance policies, to ensure the contract amount would be paid. The defendants allegedly did not disclose to consumers the interest rates associated with the products, marketing the contracts as sale of payments and not credit offers. The defendants also allegedly did not disclose that the contracts were void under federal and state law, which prohibit the assignment of certain benefits.
Under the proposed settlement, the defendants are: (i) prohibited from brokering or participating in agreements that sell future pension rights; (ii) required to pay a civil money penalty of $1 to the Bureau; and (iii) required to pay $75,000 to the Arkansas AG’s Consumer Education and Enforcement Fund. Additionally, the settlement imposes a judgment of $2.7 million in redress, which is suspended upon the owner paying $200,000 in redress and making the payments to the Bureau and the Arkansas AG.
On April 3, the New Mexico governor signed HB 150, which amends the New Mexico Bank Installment Loan Act of 1959 and the New Mexico Small Loan Act of 1955 to, among other things, change provisions relating to financial institutions and (i) clarify that unfair or deceptive trade practices, or unconscionable trade practices, are considered violations of the Unfair Practices Act; (ii) expand annual lender reporting requirements, including identifying secured and unsecured loan products, fees and interests paid by the borrowers, loan terms, and default rates; (iii) clarify allowable loan insurance, including provisions related to licensing requirements for lenders; and (iv) expand state and federal disclosure requirements. The amendments also limit interest and other charges (permitted finance charges cannot exceed the lesser of $200 or 10 percent of the principal with outlined exceptions); grant rights of rescission within specified time frames to allow borrowers to return the full amount of funds advanced by the lender without being charged fees; and provide for penalties for lenders who willfully violate any of the provisions. Specifically, the act applies to installment loans covered by the Installment Loan Act and the Small Loan Act, and does not apply to federally insured depository institutions. The act takes effect January 1, 2020, and is applicable to loans subject to the aforementioned acts that are executed on or after the effective date.
On February 11, the OCC released a statement from Comptroller of the Currency Joseph Otting supporting the CFPB’s proposed rule rescinding certain requirements relating to underwriting standards for short-term small-dollar loans. (Covered by InfoBytes here.) Calling the proposal “important and courageous,” Otting praised the Bureau, noting that it was “[t]he shrinking supply and steady demand” that “drove up prices and promoted much less favorable terms.” He continued to state that a framework of rules that allows responsible lenders to compete in the market will make the market “work better for everyone.”
As previously covered by InfoBytes, in May 2018, the OCC released a Bulletin encouraging banks to meet the credit needs of consumers by offering short-term, small-dollar installment loans subject to the OCC’s core lending principles.
On November 14, the FDIC issued a request for information (RFI) seeking public comment on ways it can encourage FDIC-supervised financial institutions to offer “responsible, prudently underwritten small-dollar credit products that are economically viable and address the credit needs of bank customers.” In the RFI’s release, FDIC Chairman Jelena McWilliams pointed to studies showing that “[c]onsumers benefit when small-dollar credit products are available from banks” and requested “the public to use the RFI process to tell [the FDIC] how to ensure that consumers can obtain small dollar credit from banking institutions in a responsible manner.” The RFI seeks information related to the “full spectrum of issues” related to banks offering small-dollar credit, including regulatory and non-regulatory obstacles for banks, as well as actions the FDIC could take to assist banks in serving the small-dollar market. In addition to general feedback, the RFI includes a list of suggested topics and questions for commenters to address. Comments will be due 60 days after publication in the Federal Register.
Recently, the OCC and the CFPB have also made efforts to encourage banks to meet the small-dollar credit needs of consumers. In May, the OCC issued Bulletin 2018-14 encouraging banks to offer responsible short-term, small-dollar installment loans with typical maturities between two and 12 months (covered by InfoBytes here). In addition to applauding the OCC’s Bulletin, the CFPB announced it expects to publish proposed rules reconsidering the ability-to-repay provisions of the rule covering Payday, Vehicle Title, and Certain High-Cost Installment Loans in January 2019 (covered by InfoBytes here).
On October 26, the CFPB announced it expects to publish proposed rules reconsidering the ability-to-repay provisions of the rule covering Payday, Vehicle Title, and Certain High-Cost Installment Loans (the Rule) in January 2019. The Bureau does not intend to reconsider the payment provisions of the Rule, noting that the ability-to-repay provisions “have much greater consequences for both consumers and industry than the payment provisions.” Under the current Rule, it is an unfair and abusive practice for a lender to make a covered short-term loan or a covered longer-term balloon payment loan without reasonably determining that the consumer has the ability to repay the loan (see the Buckley Sandler Special Alert for more detailed coverage on the Rule). The Bureau also intends to address the compliance date for the Rule, which is currently set at August 19, 2019.
On October 22, the Georgia Supreme Court held that legal settlement cash advances are not “loans” under the state’s Payday Lending Act (PLA) and the Industrial Loan Act (ILA) when the obligation to repay is contingent upon the success of the underlying lawsuit. The decision results from a class action lawsuit bought by clients of a legal funding company. After being involved in automobile accidents, appellants signed financing agreements with a legal funding company, which advanced them funds while their personal injury lawsuit was pending. Per the terms of their financing agreements, appellants were required to repay the funds only if their personal injury lawsuits were successful. They were successful and the settlement company soon sought to recover funds pursuant to the terms of the agreement. The appellants objected and brought suit, alleging, among other things, that the financing agreements they executed violated the state’s PLA and ILA because they were usurious loans and a product of unlicensed activity. The state trial court concluded that the PLA applied to the agreements but that the ILA did not. The state appeals court concluded that neither statute applied, determining that because the repayment obligation was contingent on the success of the lawsuit, it was not a “loan” under either the PLA or the ILA. The state supreme court agreed, holding that “an agreement that involves . . . a contingent and limited obligation of repayment is not a ‘contract requiring repayment,’” as required by the ILA’s definition of “loan.” Similarly, the financing arrangement did not constitute an agreement pursuant to which “funds are advanced to be repaid,” which would make it a loan under the PLA. Appellants also argued that the contingent repayment obligation in the financing agreement was illusory, contending that the legal funding company agrees to such an arrangement only when the risk the lawsuit will fail is “close to null.” The court rejected this claim, however, noting that nothing in the pleadings suggested that the agreements were shams.
California Supreme Court says loans not subject to state interest rate caps may still be unconscionable
On August 13, the Supreme Court of California held that interest rates on consumer loans of $2,500 or more could be considered unconscionable under Section 22302 of California’s Financial Code, notwithstanding Section 22303’s maximum interest rate cap for loans under $2,500. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit asked the Supreme Court of California to address Section 22302’s application to higher cost consumer loans. In the class action that is before the 9th Circuit, consumers alleged that a lender violated the “unlawful” prong of California’s Unfair Competition Law (UCL) with an unsecured $2,600 loan carrying an APR between 96 percent and 136 percent and argued the product is “unconscionable” under Section 22302. To resolve this question, the California Supreme Court held that unconscionability is a “flexible standard” that includes the larger context surrounding the contract. The court held that, although Section 22303 specifies interest rate limitations on loans under $2,500, it does not affect whether a loan in excess of $2,500 is unconscionable, and a court may consider a loan’s interest rate in determining that a loan above this threshold violates Section 22302.
On May 23, the OCC released Bulletin 2018-14, which encourages banks to meet the credit needs of consumers by offering short-term, small-dollar installment loans subject to the OCC’s core lending principles. The Bulletin acknowledges the CFPB’s final rule on Payday, Vehicle Title, and Certain High-cost Installment Loans (Payday Rule) – which generally covers loans with maturities shorter than 45 days or longer-term loans with balloon payments – and states the OCC intends on working with the Bureau to ensure banks can “can responsibly engage in consumer lending, including lending products covered by the Payday Rule.”
Specifically, the Bulletin encourages banks to offer loans without balloon payments and with maturities greater than 45 days subject to three core lending principles: (i) the product should be consistent with safe and sound banking, treat customers fairly, and comply with all applicable laws and regulations; (ii) banks should effectively manage risks associated with the product; and (iii) the product should be underwritten based on reasonable policies and practices, such as amount and repayment terms aligning with eligibility, use internal and external data sources to assess a consumer’s creditworthiness, and loan servicing processes that assist distressed borrowers. Additionally, with regard to pricing, the Bulletin stated that the “OCC views unfavorably an entity that partners with a bank with the sole goal of evading a lower interest rate established under the law of the entity’s licensing state(s).”
Immediately after the OCC’s release, the CFPB issued a statement applauding the Bulletin because “[m]illions of Americans desperately need access to short-term, small-dollar credit.” In January, the CFPB stated it plans to reconsider the Payday Rule and the Spring 2018 rulemaking agenda indicates the Bureau expects a notice of proposed rulemaking to be issued by February 2019 (previously covered by InfoBytes here and here).