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On January 14, a coalition of attorneys general from 19 states and the District of Columbia sent a letter to Congress in support of H.J. Res. 76, which was passed by the House of Representatives on January 16, and provides for congressional disapproval of the Department of Education’s 2019 Borrower Defense Rule (covered by InfoBytes here). The Department’s 2019 Borrower Defense 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 loan forgiveness applicable for “adjudicating borrower defenses to repayment claims for Federal student loans first disbursed on or after July 1, 2020.”
The AGs claim, however, that the 2019 Borrower Defense Rule “provides no realistic prospect for borrowers to discharge their loans when they have been defrauded by predatory for-profit schools, and . . . eliminates financial responsibility requirements for those same institutions.” The AGs further argue that the new provisions require “student borrowers to prove intentional or reckless misconduct on the part of their schools,” which they claim is “an extraordinarily demanding standard not consistent with state laws governing liability for unfair and deceptive conduct.” Other standards, such as requiring student borrowers to “prove financial harm beyond the intrinsic harm caused by incurring federal student loan debt as a result of fraud” and establishing a three-year time bar on borrower defense claims, would further reduce protections for student borrowers. Citing to several state enforcement actions taken against for-profit schools for alleged deceptive and unlawful tactics, the AGs stress the need for a “robust and fair borrower defense rule.”
On January 13, fifteen Democratic Senators, led by Senators Catherine Cortez Masto (D-NV) and Sherrod Brown (D-OH) sent a letter to the Inspector General of the Federal Reserve Board calling for an investigation into the CFPB’s restitution penalties levied against companies accused of wrongdoing. The Senators claim that the Bureau’s restitution approach “creates a perverse incentive for companies to violate the law by allowing them to retain all or nearly all of the funds they illegally obtain from consumers.” The letter asks the Inspector General to investigate four recent settlements to examine how the Bureau determines restitution awards and whether the applied standard for restitution differs from the standard applied by courts and in prior CFPB settlements.
Included among the examples of actions for which consumers were provided limited to zero restitution is a recent settlement with a debt collector accused of engaging in improper debt collection tactics. As previously covered by InfoBytes, the company agreed to pay $36,878 in redress to harmed consumers, limiting the restitution to “only those consumers who affirmatively ‘complained about a false threat or misrepresentation’” by the company, the Senators wrote. Specifically, the Senators seek to determine the number of consumers who may have been excluded from the settlement because they did not affirmatively complain about the company’s behavior. A second example highlights an action taken against a group of payday lenders that allegedly, among other things, misrepresented to consumers an obligation to repay loan amounts that were voided because the loan violated state licensing or usury laws. (Previously covered by InfoBytes here.) According to the Senators, the settlement “dropped the requests for restitution and other relief for victimized consumers.” The letter also references a report released last October by the House Financial Services Committee (covered by InfoBytes here) following an investigation into these particular settlements, in which the Bureau responded “that it did not seek restitution in these cases because it could not determine ‘with certainty’ which consumers had been harmed or the amount of the harm.”
On December 17, eight Senate Democrats wrote to CFPB Director Kathy Kraninger urging the Bureau to fulfill its statutory obligations related to the oversight of student loan servicers who collect loans guaranteed by the federal government. In the letter, the Senators express concern over what they consider the Bureau’s “unacceptable” abandonment of its supervision and enforcement activities related to federal student loan servicers, and discuss the Department of Education’s termination of two Memoranda of Understanding (MOUs) in 2017 that previously permitted the sharing of information in connection with the oversight of federal student loans. (Previously covered by InfoBytes here.) According to the Senators, Kraninger’s testimony before the Senate Banking Committee in October (covered by InfoBytes here) reaffirmed the Bureau’s responsibility and ability to examine entities engaged in federal and private student loans. In addition, the Senators claim that Kraninger testified that the Bureau and the Department were “discussing how to move forward in an effective way” to ensure they were overseeing student loan servicers. However, the Senators note that “nearly two months later, the Bureau and Department still have not reestablished MOUs, and the Bureau still has not resumed examinations of federal student loan servicers.” In addition to calling on Kraninger to “take immediate steps, including seeking a court order” requiring the Department to provide access to borrower information so the Bureau can resume examinations of student loan servicers, the Senators request information concerning the MOUs as well as a timeline from the Bureau on when it will resume its examinations.
On December 5, Senators Elizabeth Warren and Sherrod Brown wrote a letter to CFPB Director Kathy Kraninger seeking information regarding the Bureau’s plans for a program to issue formal advisory opinions. As previously covered by InfoBytes, the CFPB in September announced three new policies to “improve how the Bureau exercises its authority to facilitate innovation and reduce regulatory uncertainty,” including the mention of an “advisory opinion program” in the final policy announcement for one of the new policies. According to the letter, the Senators have concerns that CFPB guidance issued through advisory opinions has the potential to “exempt companies from complying with consumer protection laws” and “allow political employees to unduly influence and restrict the application of the consumer laws.” The letter lays out a number of questions for Director Kraninger regarding the CFPB’s use of advisory opinions, including whether all opinions will be made public, whether the facts and circumstances leading to a request for an opinion will be investigated, whether all opinions will be in writing, and who will draft them. Specifically, the letter questions the role of political appointees “at each stage of the advisory opinion process.” The letter requests that the Bureau respond to the questions by December 19.
On December 4, the Senate Commerce Committee held a hearing titled “Examining Legislative Proposals to Protect Consumer Data Privacy” to discuss how to “provide consumers with more security, transparency, choice, and control over personal information both online and offline.” Among the issues discussed at the hearing was how consumer privacy rights should be enforced. As previously covered by InfoBytes, some FTC commissioners, at a hearing earlier this year, expressed that authorization to enforce federal privacy laws should vest not only in the FTC, but also in the states’ attorneys general. At the Senate hearing, there was testimony suggesting that the FTC is spread too thin to be in charge of enforcing new privacy laws. At least one witness championed state privacy regulation, while other witnesses endorsed preemption of the state laws by the envisioned federal privacy law. Although different views were expressed regarding what the law should look like, the hearing participants generally seemed to agree that a federal privacy law may be needed now in light of recent state legislative agendas and, as one Senator raised, the growing use of artificial intelligence.
On November 25, Senators Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass) and Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) wrote to CFPB Director Kathy Kraninger requesting a breakdown of how the Bureau enforces fair lending laws in light of recent allegations brought against a global financial services company that reportedly offered lower credit limits to women than to similarly creditworthy men. According to the Senators, the allegations raise questions as to whether a pattern of sex discrimination exists in the underwriting of the credit product and “underscore the importance of the CFPB adequately monitoring the lending practices of financial institutions . . . that are new to the consumer lending space.” The Senators also expressed concern that adjustments to the structure of the Bureau under President Trump’s administration have affected its “commitment to enforcing fair lending laws and carrying out its statutory responsibilities.” (Previous InfoBytes coverage here.) The Senators stated: “We’re concerned that this new structure, where many offices have varying degrees of authority, may allow new potentially discriminatory products to get to market without adequate oversight.” Specifically, the Senators asked the Bureau to respond to the following questions by December 9: (i) how does the Bureau “prioritize and evaluate risk when determining which financial institutions to examine for compliance with fair lending laws”; (ii) has the Bureau ever conducted a supervisory examination of the global financial services company’s fair lending compliance management system; (iii) have changes made to the Bureau’s structure affected its fair lending enforcement abilities; and (iv) are the Bureau’s standards used to determine violations of ECOA different under Director Kraninger.
On October 28, 23 Senate Democrats wrote to CFPB Director Kathy Kraninger urging the Bureau to open an enforcement investigation into a Pennsylvania-based student loan servicer’s alleged mismanagement of the Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF) program. The Senators contend that the servicer’s failure to properly administer the PSLF program “has resulted in widespread violations of federal law,” referring to reports by the CFPB, the Government Accountability Office, and the Department of Education Inspector General that claim that missteps and errors have caused public service workers to be denied loan forgiveness. The CFPB’s Student Loan Ombudsman’s report cites to the servicer’s “‘flawed payment processing, botched paperwork and inaccurate information,’” while the GAO report claims “that public service workers [have] improperly been denied loan forgiveness because of [the servicer’s] inability to properly account for qualifying payments and reliance on inaccurate information.” The letter requests that the Bureau investigate the servicer’s servicing practices, its management of the PSLF program, and other potential violations of federal consumer financial laws.
As previously covered by InfoBytes, on October 3, the New York attorney general filed an action against the servicer for violating the Consumer Financial Protection Act and New York law through its mishandling of income driven repayment plans and misconduct related to the administration of PSLF program applications.
On October 16, 19 Democratic Senators wrote to FHFA Director, Mark Calabria, requesting the agency to reconsider its decision to remove the language preference question and housing counseling agency information from the redesigned Uniform Residential Loan Application (URLA), which was originally set to take effect on February 1, 2020. As previously covered by InfoBytes, in August, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac (GSEs) announced, at the direction of the FHFA, that mandatory use of the redesigned URLA will no longer begin on February 1, 2020. Additionally, the GSE’s noted that FHFA is requiring the removal of the language preference question. The question, along with the home ownership education and housing counseling question, will now be a part of a separate voluntary consumer information form. In response, the Senators argue that the decision to remove the language preference question is arbitrary and could leave “loan servicers without basic communication information about their borrowers” as a voluntary information form may not be used or may not travel with the loan documents. The Senators assert that the language information is “vital” to policymakers and the planned revisions to the URLA were “an important step toward increasing language access throughout the mortgage market.” The letter requests that Director Calabria respond to their concerns by November 18.
On October 10, the Senate Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs Committee released a letter from Senators Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) and Patty Murray (D-Wash) to the new CFPB Student Loan Ombudsman, Robert Cameron, outlining their expectations for his tenure in the Ombudsman’s Office. The senators state that Cameron should, among other things, (i) advocate for student loan borrowers by utilizing the Bureau’s statutory authority and tools, including policymaking and evidence gathering for supervision and enforcement; (ii) reestablish the information sharing Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between the U.S. Department of Education and the Bureau; (iii) resume examinations of federal student loan servicers; and (iv) carry out his duties free of conflict of interests. The Senators request that Cameron provide additional information by October 25 regarding a potential conflict of interest (based on his prior work as Deputy Chief Counsel at a student loan servicer), the Bureau’s history of PSLF supervisory examinations, and current staffing in the Ombudsman Office.
On September 17, nine Democratic Senate Banking Committee members wrote to the CFPB in response to its Advanced Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (ANPR) soliciting feedback on amending Regulation Z and the Ability to Repay/Qualified Mortgage Rule (ATR/QM Rule) to minimize disruption from the so-called GSE patch expiration, previously covered by a Buckley Special Alert. The GSE patch confers Qualified Mortgage status for loans purchased or guaranteed by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac (GSEs) while those entities operate under FHFA conservatorship. The letter urges the Bureau to ensure two things when reexamining the regulation: (i) borrowers maintain the same level of access to responsible, affordable mortgage credit; and (ii) all mortgage underwriting decisions are based on a borrower demonstrating an ability to repay and rely on documentation and use verified income. The Senators request that the CFPB use the ANPR “as an opportunity to ensure the ATR and QM regulations facilitate a mortgage market that provides access to safe, sustainable mortgage credit for all creditworthy borrowers.”
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