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California State Assembly Banking and Finance Committee issues memorandum on Covid-19 banking and finance issues
On March 20, the California State Assembly Banking and Finance Committee issued a memorandum noting that state authority over large national banks “is significantly constrained by federal law.” The memorandum provides that, under the National Bank Act and related case law, courts have widely upheld federal preemption over state laws that “interfere with the business of banking.” As such, courts “would likely stop any attempts by the state to force banks to limit rates or fees, demand forbearance or loan modifications, or require banks to make certain loans.” While state officials may urge national banks to give their borrowers relief, “these requests do not carry the force of law.” The memorandum also discusses mortgage rates and home sales, noting that in the event that mortgage rates increase and negatively affect the real estate market, “state legislators have limited tools to address such problems.”
On February 24, the U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland denied a national bank’s motion to dismiss a putative class action alleging the bank violated Maryland law by not paying interest on escrow sums for residential mortgages. After the bank allegedly failed to pay the mortgage escrow interest, the consumer filed a lawsuit asserting various claims including for violation of Section 12-109 of the Maryland Consumer Protection Act (MCPA), which “requires lenders to pay interest on funds maintained in escrow on behalf of borrowers.” In response, the bank filed a motion to dismiss on the basis that the state law is preempted by the National Bank Act (NBA) and by 2004 OCC preemption regulations.
The court disagreed, determining that under the Dodd-Frank Act, national banks are required to pay interest on escrow accounts when mandated by applicable state or federal law. Citing previous decisions in similar escrow interest cases brought against the same bank in other states (covered by InfoBytes here and here), the court stated that Section 12-109 “does not prevent or significantly interfere with [the bank’s] exercise of its federal banking authority, because [Section] 12-109’s ‘interference’ is minimal, when compared with statutes that the Supreme Court has previously found were preempted.” The court noted that state law—which “still allows [the bank] to require escrow accounts for its borrowers”—provides that the bank must pay a small amount of interest to borrowers if it chooses to maintain escrow accounts. Moreover, the court concluded that the bank’s “suggestions about interference are belied by the fact that its direct competitors dutifully comply with [Section] 12-109.” As for the OCC’s 2004 preemption regulation, Section 34.4, the court determined that the regulation is entitled to minimal deference, and noted that it is not clear that the OCC, in promulgating the regulations, “ever considered whether the NBA preempts state laws that mandate payment of interest for escrow accounts.” According to the court, the regulations do not mention state escrow interest laws at all. As such, the court stated that it “will not defer to the OCC’s regulation, or to the agency’s current position that [Section] 12-109 is preempted.”
On January 21, a bipartisan collation of attorneys general from 21 states and the District of Columbia, along with the Hawaii Office of Consumer Protection, submitted a comment letter in response to the OCC’s proposed rule to clarify that when a national bank or savings association sells, assigns, or otherwise transfers a loan, the interest permissible prior to the transfer continues to be permissible following the transfer. (See Buckley Special Alert on the proposed rule.) The coalition, led by California, Illinois, and New York, urges the OCC to withdraw the proposed rule. Among their concerns, the AGs argue that the OCC’s proposal conflicts with the National Bank Act and Dodd-Frank, exceeds the OCC’s statutory authority, and is in violation of the Administrative Procedure Act. Specifically, the AGs claim that the proposed rule conflicts with National Bank Act (NBA) provisions that grant benefits of federal preemption only to national banks and no one else. Moreover, the AGs assert that Congress explicitly stated in Dodd-Frank that “that the benefits of federal preemption provided by the NBA accrue only to [n]ational [b]anks,” (emphasis in original) and argue that the proposed rule would contravene “this important limitation” and “cloak non-banks in [the NBA’s] preemptive power.” Moreover, the NBA sections say “nothing about interest chargeable by assignees, transferees, or purchasers of bank loans,” the AGs write.
The AGs also argue that the proposed rule would facilitate predatory “rent-a-bank schemes” by allowing non-bank entities to ignore state interest rate caps and usury laws. “The OCC has not addressed, even summarily, how the [p]roposed [r]ule, if adopted, will serve to incentivize and sanction predatory rent-a-bank schemes,” the AGs state. “This failure to consider the substantial negative consequences this rule would have on consumer financial protection across the country renders the OCC’s [p]roposed [r]ule arbitrary and capricious.” Furthermore, the AGs contend that the OCC’s proposed rule contains no factual findings or reasoned analysis to support its proposal to extend NBA preemption to all non-bank entities that purchase loans from national banks. “[T]his is beyond the agency’s power,” the AGs argue, asserting that “[t]he OCC simply ‘may not rewrite clear statutory terms to suit its own sense of how the statute should operate.’”
On October 21, the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York entered a final judgment in NYDFS’s lawsuit against the OCC challenging the agency’s Special Purpose National Bank Charter (SPNB), concluding that the regulation should be “set aside with respect to all fintech applicants seeking a national bank charter that do not accept deposits.” As previously covered by InfoBytes, in May the district court denied the OCC’s motion to dismiss the complaint by NYDFS, which argued that the agency’s decision to allow fintech companies to apply for a SPNB is a move that will destabilize financial markets more effectively regulated by the state. The court stated that because the OCC failed to rebut NYDFS’s claims that the proposed national fintech charter posed a threat to the state’s ability to establish its own laws and regulations, the challenge “is ripe for adjudication.” After the May decision, the OCC informed the court that it would be seeking final judgment in the case, and on October 7, each party submitted proposed final orders (available here and here). The proposals were “nearly identical,” according to the court, as both (i) “direct the Clerk of Court to enter final judgment in favor of plaintiff [NYDFS] and close the case,” and (ii) “provide that each party shall bear its own fees and costs.” However, NYDFS proposed “that the regulation be ‘set aside with respect to all fintech applicants seeking a national bank charter that do not accept deposits,’” while the OCC suggested the regulation only be set aside “‘with respect to all fintech applicants seeking a national bank charter that do not accept deposits, and that have a nexus to New York State…in a manner that would subject them to regulation by [NYDFS].’” The court agreed with NYDFS, concluding that the OCC “failed to identify a persuasive reason to deviate from ordinary administrative law procedure,” which requires “vacatur” of the regulation.
On September 30, the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York held that the National Bank Act (NBA) does not preempt a New York law requiring interest on mortgage escrow accounts. According to the opinion, plaintiffs brought a pair of putative class actions against a national bank seeking interest on funds deposited into their mortgage escrow accounts, as required by New York General Obligation Law § 5-601. The bank moved to dismiss both complaints, arguing that the NBA preempts the state law. The district court disagreed, concluding that the plaintiffs’ claims for breach of contract can proceed, while dismissing the others. The court concluded there is “clear evidence that Congress intended mortgage escrow accounts, even those administered by national banks, to be subject to some measure of consumer protection regulation.” As for the OCC’s 2004 preemption regulation, the court determined that there is no evidence that “at this time, the agency gave any thought whatsoever to the specific question raised in this case, which is whether the NBA preempts escrow interest laws,” citing to and agreeing with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit’s decision in Lusnak v. Bank of America (which held that a national bank must comply with a California law that requires mortgage lenders to pay interest on mortgage escrow accounts, previously covered by InfoBytes here). Lastly, the court applied the preemption standard from the 1996 Supreme Court decision in Barnett Bank of Marion County v. Nelson, and found that the law does not “significantly interfere” with the banks’ power to administer mortgage escrow accounts, noting that it only “requires the Bank to pay interest on the comparatively small sums” deposited into the accounts and does not “bar the creation of mortgage escrow accounts, or subject them to state visitorial control, or otherwise limit the terms of their use.”
On September 10, the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York issued a final order and judgment to approve a class action settlement agreement, which ends litigation dating back to 2011 concerning alleged violations of state usury limitations. As previously covered by InfoBytes, the plaintiffs brought claims against a debt collection firm and its affiliate alleging violations of the FDCPA and New York state usury law when the defendants attempted to collect charged-off credit card debt with interest rates above the state’s 25 percent cap that was purchased from a national bank. In 2017, upon remand following the 2nd Circuit’s decision that a nonbank entity taking assignment of debts originated by a national bank is not entitled to protection under the National Bank Act from state-law usury claims (covered by a Buckley Special Alert here), the district court certified the class and allowed the FDCPA and related state unfair or deceptive acts or practices claims to proceed.
Following a fairness hearing, the court granted the parties’ joint motion for final approval, which divides the approximately 58,000 class members into two subclasses: claims alleging state-law violations, and claims alleging FDCPA violations. Under the terms of the settlement, the defendants are required to, among other things, (i) provide class members with $555,000 in monetary relief; (ii) provide $9.2 million in credit balance reductions; (iii) pay $550,000 in attorneys’ fees and costs; (iv) pay class representatives $5,000 each; and (v) agree to comply with all applicable laws, regulations, and case law regarding the collection of interest, including the collection of usurious interest.
On May 30, the OCC filed a letter with the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York notifying the court that it intends to work with NYDFS to issue a proposed final order to the court in the action challenging the OCC’s decision to allow fintech companies to apply for a Special Purpose National Bank Charter (SPNB). As previously covered by InfoBytes, in May, the court denied the OCC’s motion to dismiss, concluding that, among other things, the OCC failed to rebut NYDFS’s claims that the proposed national fintech charter posed a threat to the state’s ability to establish its own laws and regulations, and therefore, the challenge “is ripe for adjudication.” In its letter, the OCC states that while it “disagrees with the Court’s decision, and reserves its right to appeal, it believes that the decision renders entry of final judgment in this matter appropriate.” An entry of final judgment, would allow the OCC to challenge the decision with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit.
On May 2, the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York denied the OCC’s motion to dismiss a complaint filed by NYDFS arguing that the agency’s decision to allow fintech companies to apply for a Special Purpose National Bank Charter (SPNB) is a move that will destabilize financial markets more effectively regulated by the state. (See previous InfoBytes coverage here.) The court, however, stated that because the OCC failed to rebut NYDFS’s claims that the proposed national fintech charter posed a threat to the state’s ability to establish its own laws and regulations, the challenge “is ripe for adjudication.” Specifically, NYDFS alleged that granting a national charter to fintech firms would limit its ability to regulate non-depository institutions and could potentially lead to a loss in revenue derived from assessments levied against state licensed institutions. The court rejected the OCC’s preemption arguments, writing that the “threats to New York's sovereignty are so clear that the OCC does not even mention, let alone contest, the state's interests. Instead, OCC focuses exclusively on constitutional and prudential ripeness.” The court further dismissed the OCC’s ripeness argument that it has yet to receive, review, or approve a SPNB application, and referred to NYDFS’ allegations that the OCC has “invited fintech companies . . . to discuss SPNB charters,” which potentially demonstrates “at least some demand for, and interest in, such charters.” While the court concedes that the potential for fintech companies to “flout” New York's laws would only occur once a fintech company has applied and been granted a SPNB charter, “those steps do not stymie [NYDFS’s] standing.”
In addressing NYDFS’s Administrative Procedures Act claim, the court found, among other things, that engaging in the “business of banking” under the National Bank Act (NBA) “unambiguously requires receiving deposits as an aspect of the business.” Furthermore, the court concluded that “absent a statutory provision to the contrary, only depository institutions are eligible to receive [a SPNB] from [the] OCC.” However, the court dismissed NYDFS’s claims that a SPNB charter conflicts with state law in violation of the Tenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. According to the court, while NYDFS has standing to raise a Tenth Amendment claim, it has failed to state such a claim “because federal law preempts state law only when ‘Congress has clearly expressed its intent,’” and in this instance, “the operative question is not whether the federal government has the power to take the action challenged in this case, but whether Congress has, in fact exercised that power.”
On April 24, the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania denied in part and granted in part a national bank’s motion to dismiss a complaint alleging violations of, among other things, the Pennsylvania Loan Interest and Protection Act (“Act 6”). The allegations stem from the bank’s servicing of the plaintiffs’ mortgage. Pursuant to a settlement agreement reached between the parties in a separate 2012 lawsuit over alleged misrepresentations made by the bank concerning whether the plaintiffs were in arrears in their mortgage and escrow payments, the mortgage principal was reset. The plaintiffs asserted that although they made timely monthly payments, a 2014 mortgage statement reflected an escrow shortage, including unpaid late charges and outstanding advance/fees. Arguing that because the loan servicers refused their allegedly timely payments, which increased the principal balance, the plaintiffs claimed that the bank breached the terms of the settlement agreement by adding the unauthorized charges without providing notice. However, the bank argued—and the court concurred—that the breach of contract claim was outside the applicable statute of limitations. The plaintiffs further alleged that the bank charged an interest rate that exceed the rate permitted under Act 6, and that the loan servicer charged the plaintiffs “undisclosed, excessive, and retaliatory attorney’s fees ‘from at least one if not two prior lawsuits,’ in violation of the [s]ettlement [a]greement and Act 6,” along with other “unwarranted charges.”
Concerning the bank’s motion to dismiss the Act 6 usurious interest rate claims based upon preemption, the court referred to the loan’s origination and rejected the bank’s argument that the usury claim was preempted by the National Bank Act, explaining that the homeowners’ mortgage was originated by a non-national bank even though a national bank was later assigned the note and mortgage. Additionally, the court rejected the bank’s argument that the Act 6 claim of unlawful attorney fees was barred by the applicable four-year statute of limitations. According to the court, “an Act 6 claim for excessive fees accrues upon payment of said fee; it does not accrue upon charge of the fee or upon the obligor’s knowledge of the fee.” However, the court determined that the plaintiffs failed to adequately allege that they made “the requisite unlawful payments of usurious interest or unlawful attorney’s fees” required to state valid Act 6 claims. As such, the court dismissed the Act 6 claims without prejudice.
On March 26, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 1st Circuit affirmed a district court’s decision to dismiss putative class action allegations that a bank charged usurious interest rates on its overdraft products, finding that the bank’s “Sustained Overdraft Fees” are not interest under the National Bank Act (NBA). The plaintiff filed a lawsuit against the bank in 2017, alleging that sustained overdraft fees should be considered interest charges subject to Rhode Island’s interest rate cap of 21 percent, and that because the alleged annual interest rates exceeded the cap, the fees violated the NBA. The district court, however, dismissed the case, ruling that the sustained overdraft fees were service charges, not interest charges.
On appeal, the split three-judge panel held that, because the sustained overdraft fees did not constitute interest payments under the NBA and the OCC’s regulations interpreting the NBA, the class challenges cannot move forward. The panel stated that the agency’s interpretation in its 2007 Interpretive Letter is due “a measure of deference.” The panel found the agency’s interpretation persuasive because “[f]lat excess overdraft fees (1) arise from the terms of a bank’s deposit account agreement with its customers, (2) are connected to deposit account services, (3) lack the hallmarks of an extension of credit, and (4) do not operate like conventional interest charges.”
In dissent, Judge Lipez noted that, while the OCC interpretive letter laid out a clear case for overdraft fees as service, not interest charges, it was silent on the question of “Sustained Overdraft Fees.” He wrote that “[s]ilence, however, is not guidance, and we would thus need to infer a ruling on a debated issue from between the lines of the Letter.” Furthermore, he could “not see how we can defer to an interpretation that the OCC never clearly made on an issue that it previously described as complex and fact-specific.”
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