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On March 27, the CFPB issued guidance on the student loan provisions of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act. Pursuant to the Act, borrowers with federally held student loans will automatically have their loan principal and interest payments paused until September 30. Borrowers do not need to take any action to have their payments suspended and interest will not accrue during this period. The CFPB also provided additional guidance on the impact on privately held student loans and federal loans held by commercial lenders, and provided information to help borrowers avoid student loan debt relief scams.
On March 24, Iowa’s Superintendent of Banking sent an update letter to bank presidents and CEOs concerning the state’s Covid-19 response efforts. The update highlighted, among other things, the following: (i) loan and grants available to small businesses through state and federal programs; (ii) the governor’s suspension of foreclosures and evictions in the state; (iii) the Division of Banking’s temporary suspension of requirement for in-person annual meetings; (iv) the governor’s outreach to county auditors, recorders and treasurers asking them to facilitate full range of vital mortgage-related services; (v) ongoing efforts to refine the offsite exam process; and (vi) guidance at the federal level from the Treasury Department and the March 22 Interagency Statement regarding loan modifications and troubled debt restructurings (covered by InfoBytes here).
On March 11, the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York denied the motion of a Minnesota-based indirect finance company (defendant) to dismiss allegations that its participation in a student loan relief operation violated the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organization Act (RICO), ruling that the borrowers had properly alleged mail and wire fraud and had established a pattern of “open-ended continuity.” According to the named plaintiffs, the defendant contracted dealers who marketed “student loan assistance services” to federal student loan borrowers, who were then redirected to pay the defendant a fee of $1,300 to file applications on their behalf for adjustments such as loan consolidation or enrollment in an income-driven repayment plan. Because the dealers could not legally accept the payments directly, the defendant allegedly approved borrowers for financing and made upfront payments to dealers for each recruited borrower. In denying the dismissal bid, the court ruled that “these allegations, if assumed true, establish that, in devising the scheme, [the defendant] intended to deceive borrowers so that they would incur debts to it.” Moreover, “[g]iven these allegations, the Amended Complaint contains sufficient allegations that reveal ‘the threat of continuity,’. . . and sufficient support for the proposition that [the defendant] ‘ha[s] been trying to continue’ the alleged scheme with respect to individuals in addition to the [n]amed plaintiffs,” the court wrote.
As previously covered by InfoBytes, last December the CFPB denied a petition by one of the defendants to modify or set aside a civil investigative demand (CID) issued by the Bureau, which seeks information as part of an investigation into the defendant’s promotion of student loan debt relief programs. Separately, the FTC and the Minnesota attorney general entered a stipulated order against the defendant for violations of TILA and the assisting and facilitating provision of the Telemarketing Sales Rule, which resulted in the defendant being permanently banned from engaging in transactions involving debt relief products and services or making misrepresentations regarding financial products and services (covered by InfoBytes here).
On March 10, Federal Housing Finance Agency Director Mark Calabria released a statement reminding mortgage servicers that borrowers impacted by Covid-19 and experiencing payment hardship would be eligible for hardship forbearance options set forth in the relevant Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac servicing guidelines. Calabria directed sellers and servicers to guidance issued the same day by Freddie Mac, which also reminds sellers and servicers that business continuity plans must be in place in order to conduct business operations in the event of an interruption. Fannie Mae has provided similar guidance to its seller/servicers.
Separately, on March 9, the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) issued a notice to all FHA-approved mortgagees and servicers reminding entities of loss mitigation program options that should be offered to distressed borrowers, including those impacted by Covid-19, to prevent foreclosures. These options, FHA noted, are available in the Single Family Housing Policy Handbook, 4000.1 Section III.A.2.
On March 10, the FTC announced that it obtained default judgments of over $10.7 million against three defendants in a student loan debt relief operation that the FTC alleged violated the FTC Act and the Telemarketing Act. The defendants were alleged to have deceptively marketed services to reduce or eliminate student loan debt and to have tricked borrowers into paying illegal upfront fees for these services. In its order granting the default judgment, in addition to the monetary penalties, the court permanently enjoined the defendants from (i) participating in telemarketing; (ii) selling secured and unsecured debt relief products and services; and (iii) making misrepresentations related to financial products and services.
On March 11, the U.S. Senate, in a 53-42 vote, joined the House in passing H.J. Res. 76, which provides for congressional disapproval of the Department of Education’s 2019 Borrower Defense Rule (the Rule). As previously covered by InfoBytes, the Rule, published last September and set to take effect July 1, revises protections for student borrowers that were significantly misled or defrauded by their higher education institution and establishes standards for “adjudicating borrower defenses to repayment claims for Federal student loans first disbursed on or after July 1, 2020.” If signed by the president, H.J. Res. 76 would undo changes made by the Rule that, among other things, would have required individuals to apply to the Department for a defense to repayment (under the 2016 Rule, applications could be submitted on behalf of an entire group). H.J. Res. 76 would also undo the Rule’s elimination of automatic closed-school discharges and its ban on pre-dispute arbitration and class action waivers that were previously contained within the 2016 Rule.
On February 18, the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York approved a settlement between the State of New York and a student loan debt relief operation including five debt relief companies and one individual (defendants) in order to resolve allegations that the defendants violated the Telemarketing Sales Rule, the Federal Credit Repair Organizations Act, TILA, state usury laws, and various other state laws. As previously covered by InfoBytes, the New York attorney general brought the lawsuit in 2018 alleging that the defendants “engag[ed] in deceptive, fraudulent and illegal conduct…through their marketing, offering for sale, selling and financing” of debt relief services to student loan borrowers. The AG claimed that, among other things, the defendants allegedly (i) charged consumers who purchased the debt relief services illegal upfront fees; (ii) misrepresented that they were part of or working with the federal government; (iii) falsely claimed that fees paid by borrowers would be applied to borrowers’ student loan balances; and (iv) induced borrowers to enter into usurious financing contracts to pay for the debt relief services.
Under the terms of the agreement, the defendants—without admitting or denying the allegations—agreed to a judgment of $2.2 million, which will be suspended if the defendants promptly pay $50,000 to the State of New York and comply with all other provisions of the agreement. The defendants are also permanently banned from advertising, marketing, promoting, offering for sale, or selling any type of debt relief product or service—or from assisting others in doing the same. Additionally, the defendants must request that any credit reporting agency to which the defendants reported consumer information in connection with the student loan debt relief services remove the information from those consumers’ credit files. The defendants also agreed not to sell, transfer, or benefit from the personal information collected from borrowers. According to the settlement, six additional defendants were not included in the agreement and the AG’s case against them continues.
On December 26, the CFPB denied a petition by a student loan relief company to modify or set aside a civil investigative demand (CID) issued by the Bureau last October. According to the company’s petition, the CID requested information as part of an investigation into the company’s promotion of student loan debt relief programs. As previously covered by InfoBytes, stipulated orders were entered against the company by the FTC and the Minnesota attorney general for violations of TILA and the assisting and facilitating provision of the Telemarketing Sales Rule, which resulted in the company being permanently banned from engaging in transactions involving debt relief products and services or making misrepresentations regarding financial products and services. In its petition, the company argued that the CFPB’s requests were duplicative of the FTC’s earlier investigation. The company also argued that the documents and materials sought in the CID were overly burdensome and the time frame to respond was too short. Furthermore, the company stated that until the U.S. Supreme Court issues a decision in Seila Law v. CFPB on whether the Bureau’s structure violates the Constitution’s separation of powers under Article II, the CID should either be withdrawn or stayed because of the uncertainty surrounding the Bureau’s ability to proceed with enforcement actions.
The Bureau denied the petition, arguing that “the administrative CID petition process is not the proper forum for raising and deciding constitutional challenges to provisions of the Bureau’s statute.” The Bureau also noted that the company failed to show that it engaged with Bureau staff on ways to alleviate undue burden, such as proposing modifications to the substance of the requests, and that even though the Bureau proposed an extension to the CID deadline, the company did not seek such an extension.
On January 9, the CFPB announced that it filed a complaint in the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California against a mortgage lender, a mortgage brokerage, and several student loan debt relief companies (collectively, “the defendants”), for allegedly violating the FCRA, TSR, and FDCPA. In the complaint, the CFPB alleges that the defendants violated the FCRA by, among other things, illegally obtaining consumer reports from a credit reporting agency for millions of consumers with student loans by representing that the reports would be used to “make firm offers of credit for mortgage loans” and to market mortgage products. The Bureau asserts that the reports of more than 7 million student loan borrowers were actually resold or provided to companies engaged in marketing student loan debt relief services.
According to the complaint, “using or obtaining prescreened lists to send solicitations marketing debt-relief services is not a permissible purpose under FCRA.” The complaint alleges that the defendants violated the TSR by charging and collecting advance fees before first “renegotiat[ing], settl[ing], reduc[ing], or otherwise alter[ing] the terms of at least one debt pursuant to a settlement agreement, debt-management plan, or other such valid contractual agreement executed by the customer,” and prior to “the customer ma[king] at least one payment pursuant to that settlement agreement, debt management plan, or other valid contractual agreement between the customer and the creditor or debt collector.” The CFPB further alleges that the defendants violated the TSR and the CFPA when they used telemarketing sales calls and direct mail to encourage consumers to consolidate their loans, and falsely represented that consolidation could lower student loan interest rates, improve borrowers’ credit scores, and change their servicer to the Department of Education.
The Bureau is seeking a permanent injunction to prevent the defendants from committing future violations of the FCRA, TSR, and CFPA, as well as an award of damages and other monetary relief, civil money penalties, and “disgorgement of ill-gotten funds.”
On December 30, the FTC announced that the U.S. District Court for the District of Nevada had, on December 5, granted its motion for summary judgment in an action against a mortgage loan modification operation (operation) for allegedly violating the FTC Act and the Mortgage Assistance Relief Services Rule (MARS Rule). The January 2018 complaint alleged that the operation had engaged in unfair or deceptive acts or practices when it “preyed on financially distressed homeowners” by making false representations in advertising that its mortgage relief services could prevent foreclosures and “substantially lower” mortgage interest rates, as previously covered here. Additionally, the complaint charged that the operation used “doctored logos” in correspondence with consumers to give the impression that it was “affiliated with, endorsed or approved by, or otherwise associated with the federal government’s Making Home Affordable loan modification program,” and similarly claimed affiliation or “special arrangements” with the holder or servicer of the consumer’s loan. The court agreed with the FTC’s allegations, finding that the operation violated the FTC Act and the MARS Rule. The court entered a monetary judgment against the operation of over $18.4 million as equitable relief, which the FTC may use to compensate consumers harmed by the operation’s business practices. To the extent that an FTC representative determines that direct consumer redress is impracticable or money remains after redress is completed, the FTC may apply any remaining funds to other equitable relief (including consumer information remedies) that it determines is reasonably related to the practices alleged in the complaint. The court also permanently enjoined the operation from marketing or providing any secured or unsecured debt relief product or service, as well as from making deceptive statements to consumers regarding any other financial product or service.
- Jonice Gray Tucker to discuss “Getting your company ready: Managing fair lending for IMBs” at the Mortgage Bankers Association Independent Mortgage Bankers Conference
- Jonice Gray Tucker to discuss “Be Your Compliance Best in 2022” at the California Mortgage Bankers Association webinar
- Lauren R. Randell to discuss “Significant legal developments in the Northeast” at the 37th Annual National Institute on White Collar Crime
- Jonice Gray Tucker to discuss “Small business & regulation: How fair lending has evolved & where it is heading?” at the Consumer Bankers Association Live program
- Jonice Gray Tucker and Kari Hall to discuss “Equity, equality, regulation and enforcement – The evolving regulatory landscape of fair lending, redlining, and UDAAP” at the ABA Business Law Committee Hybrid Spring Meeting