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On February 13, the FTC and California Department of Financial Protection (DFPI) announced that the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California granted their motion for summary judgment against several companies and owners that the agencies alleged were operating a fraudulent mortgage relief operation. As previously covered by InfoBytes, the FTC and DFPI filed a joint complaint against the defendants in September 2022 alleging that the defendants violated the FTC Act, the FTC’s Mortgage Assistance Relief Services Rule (the MARS Rule or Regulation O), the Telemarking Sales Rule, the Covid-19 Consumer Protection Act, and the California Consumer Financial Protection Law. In granting the motion for summary judgment, the court found the defendants violated all five laws. According to the motion, the defendants falsely represented that they could lower homeowners’ interest rates and reduce the principal balances, but, after taking the payment upfront, rarely delivered any agreed-upon services. The defendants also allegedly made misleading claims during telemarketing calls with homeowners regarding home foreclosure and mortgage payments, among other claims, including with homeowners with numbers on the national Do Not Call registry.
The court ordered the defendants to pay approximately $16 million in restitution and $3 million in civil penalties. Further, the court ordered that the defendants are subject to a (i) permanent ban on advertising, promoting, offering for sale, or selling, or assisting others in those acts, any debt relief product or service and all telemarketing; and (ii) prohibition against making misrepresentations or unsubstantiated claims regarding products or services.
Recently, the CFPB, NCUA, FDIC, FTC, and OCC provided notice in the Federal Register of adjustments to the maximum civil money penalties due to inflation pursuant to the Federal Civil Penalties Inflation Adjustment Act of 1990, as amended by the Debt Collection Improvement Act of 1996 and further amended by the Federal Civil Penalties Inflation Adjustment Act Improvements Act of 2015. Each notice or final rule (see CFPB here, FDIC here, OCC here, FTC here, and NCUA here) adjusts the maximum civil money penalties available and documents the inflation-adjusted maximum amounts associated with the penalty tiers for each type of violation within a regulator’s jurisdiction. For violations occurring on or after November 2, 2015, the OCC’s adjusted maximum penalties go into effect as of January 8; the CFPB and FDIC’s adjustments go into effect January 15; and the FTC and NCUA’s adjustments go into effect January 10.
Recently, the National Credit Union Administration (NCUA) announced it will reinstate assessing civil money penalties for credit unions that fail to submit a call report (NCUA Form 5300) in a timely manner. The call report program was suspended after December 2019 during the Covid-19 pandemic. “The December 2023 Call Report will be the first reporting cycle under the reinstated program and will be due by 11:59:59 p.m. Eastern time, January 30, 2024.” The NCUA states it will send a reminder to credit unions with outstanding call reports a week before their deadline. The NCUA will also consider extenuating circumstances, including the size and good faith of the credit union, the gravity of the violation, the history of previous violations, and other matters like natural disasters or incapacitation of key employees.
On November 15, the CFPB announced a consent order against a Chicago-based small-dollar lender for allegedly violating a 2019 order and by independently violating the CFPA. According to the 2019 consent order, the respondent allegedly withdrew funds from consumers’ bank accounts without permission and failed to honor loan extensions. Specifically, the respondent replaced consumers’ bank account information used to pay for existing loans with separate account information supplied by a “lead generator.” Respondent allegedly debited consumers’ payments through the accounts provided by the lead generator, instead of the consumers’ originally saved payment method. The 2019 order, among other things, (i) barred the respondent from making or initiating electronic fund transfers without valid authorization; (ii) barred the respondent from failing to honor loan extensions; (iii) required the respondent to pay a $3.8 million civil money penalty. In its most recent order, the CFPB alleged that through an investigation of the respondent’s compliance with the 2019 order, the respondent continued the same unauthorized withdrawals and canceled loan extensions. The Bureau also alleged that the respondent failed to disclose that making a partial payment could cancel a loan extension and misrepresent associated fees, and they failed to provide consumers copies of signed authorizations. The respondent also allegedly provided inaccurate due dates, misrepresented skipping payments, and misrepresented loan amounts. The respondent released a statement on the enforcement action, highlighting its cooperation with the CFPB, and internal technical issues.
In the most recent order, the respondent, without admitting nor denying the CFPB’s allegations, agreed to pay a $15 million civil money penalty and refund affected consumers. The respondent also agreed to stop providing certain types of consumer loans for seven years (beginning in 2022) and to reform its executive compensation agreements and policies to ensure that compensation accounts for executives’ compliance with consumer financial protection laws, including the Consent Order. The respondent must conduct an annual compensation review and provide a report of the review to the CFPB.
On September 29, NYDFS announced a settlement with a South Korean-based bank’s American subsidiary to resolve allegations of repeated violations of AML requirements, the Bank Secrecy Act (BSA), and New York law. According to the consent order, the respondent was repeatedly examined seven times in less than 10 years by DFS and entered into a consent order with the FDIC in 2017 for BSA/AML compliance, among other things. DFS claims that respondents violated (i) New York Banking Law § 44 by conducting their business in an unsafe and unsound manner; (ii) 3 NYCRR § 116.2 by failing to maintain an effective AML compliance program; and (iii) 23 NYCRR § 504.4 by incorrectly certifying compliance with Part 504. To resolve the claims, the respondent agreed to pay a $10 million civil money penalty, and write a written plan detailing improvements to its compliance policies and procedures, among other things.
On August 25, the SEC entered into a settlement agreement with a national bank that requires the bank to pay a $35 million civil penalty for overcharging more than 10,900 investment advisory accounts over $26.8 million in advisory fees. According to the order, the bank and its predecessors agreed to reduce standard advisory fee rates for certain clients when clients agreed to open accounts at the bank via handwritten or typed notes and changes on the clients’ standard investment advisory agreements; however, these reduced rates were not entered into the bank’s billing systems when setting up client accounts. As a result, the clients were overcharged advisory fees for years, because the bank also failed to adopt policies and procedures to prevent overbilling.
The agreement “underscores the need for firms growing their businesses through acquisition to ensure that their growth does not come at the expense of client protection,” said the Director of the SEC’s Enforcement Division, Gurbir S. Grewel. He further noted that “[i]nvestment advisers must adopt and implement policies and procedures to ensure that they honor their agreements with all of their clients, including legacy clients of predecessor firms.”
In addition to the $35 million civil penalty, the bank also paid affected accountholders approximately $40 million to reimburse clients for the overcharging. The bank did not admit or deny the SEC’s charges set forth in the agreement.
On November 29, the OCC announced revisions to its civil money penalty (CMP) manual. Specifically, the OCC revised the CMP matrix, which is a tool used to guide the OCC’s decision making in assessing CMPs. The revised CMP matrix, applicable to OCC-regulated institutions, allows for sufficient differentiation among varying levels of misconduct or by institution size, and includes updated mitigating factors to provide a stronger incentive for banks to fully address underlying deficiencies. The OCC also announced a revised Policies and Procedures Manual (PPM) for assessing CMPs. This version replaces the November 13, 2018, version conveyed by OCC Bulletin 2018-41, “OCC Enforcement Actions: OCC Enforcement Action Policies and Procedures Manuals.” Highlights of the PPM include, among other things; (i) revised mitigating factors of self-identification, remediation or corrective action, and restitution: (ii) increased scoring weight of mitigating factors; and (iii) a revised table titled “Suggested Action Based on Total Matrix Score and Total Assets of Bank.” The OCC further noted that the CMP matrix is not a substitute for sound supervisory judgment, and said the OCC may depart from the matrix suggestions when appropriate and when based on the specific facts and circumstances of each matter. The OCC will begin using the revisions on January 1, 2023.
On March 28, CFPB Director Rohit Chopra warned that large, dominant banks and firms that repeatedly break the law “should be subject to the same consequences of enforcement actions as small firms.” Speaking before the University of Pennsylvania Law School as the 2022 Distinguished Lecturer on Regulation, Chopra told attendees that the current “double-standard” enforcement approach needs to end, and that the Bureau intends to establish dedicated units within its supervision and enforcement divisions to detect repeat offenders and corporate recidivists “to better hold them accountable.” This may mean that insured depository institutions lose access to federal deposit insurance or are put directly into receivership, Chopra stated, explaining that “[r]epeat offenses and, in particular, order violations, may be a sign that an institution’s condition or behavior is unsafe and unsound.”
Pointing out that penalties become meaningless if regulators are not willing to enforce them, Chopra stated that the Bureau needs “to move away from just monetary penalties and consider an arsenal of options that really work to stop repeat offenses.” To address this, Chopra outlined a new set of “bright-line structural remedies, rather than press-driven approaches” that the Bureau will consider when it discovers large entities are repeatedly committing the same types of violations. These include: (i) imposing limits or caps on size or growth; (ii) banning certain types of business practices; (iii) forcing companies to divest certain product lines; (iv) placing limitations on leverage or requirements to raise equity capital; and (v) revoking government granted privileges. Additionally, with respect to licensed nonbank institutions of all sizes that repeatedly violate the law, Chopra indicated that the Bureau will deepen its collaboration with state licensing officials to allow states to determine whether to suspend licenses or liquidate assets.
Chopra also raised the prospect of targeting individuals. “Agency and court orders bind officers and directors of the corporation, and so do the laws themselves, so there are multiple ways in which individuals are held accountable. Where individuals play a role in repeat offenses and order violations, it may be appropriate for regulatory agencies and law enforcers to charge these individuals and disqualify them. Dismissal of senior management and board directors, and lifetime occupational bans should also be more frequently deployed in enforcement actions involving large firms.” Chopra emphasized that “[w]hen it comes to individuals, we also need to pay close attention to executive compensation incentives. Important remedies for restoring law and order may include clawbacks, forfeitures, and other changes to executive compensation, including where we tie up compensation for longer periods of time and use that deferred compensation as the first pot of money to pay fines.”
On February 8, the U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) announced sanctions regulations pursuant to Executive Order 14046 of September 17, 2021, “Imposing Sanctions on Certain Persons with Respect to the Humanitarian and Human Rights Crisis in Ethiopia.” According to the final rule, OFAC “intends to supplement these regulations with a more comprehensive set of regulations, which may include additional interpretive guidance and definitions, general licenses, and other regulatory provisions.” The regulations become effective February 9, upon publication in the Federal Register.
OFAC also announced that it is amending its regulations to implement the Federal Civil Penalties Inflation Adjustment Act of 1990, as amended by the Federal Civil Penalties Inflation Adjustment Act Improvements Act of 2015, which adjusts for inflation the maximum amount of the civil monetary penalties that may be assessed under relevant OFAC regulations. The amendments become effective February 9, upon publication in the Federal Register.
Recently, the CFPB, CFTC, FDIC, FinCen, FHFA, and OCC provided notice in the Federal Register regarding adjustments to the maximum civil money penalties due to inflation pursuant to the Federal Civil Penalties Inflation Adjustment Act of 1990, as amended by the Federal Civil Penalties Inflation Adjustment Act Improvements Act of 2015. Each notice or final rule (see CFPB here, CFTC here, FDIC here, FinCen here, FHFA here, and OCC here) adjusts the maximum amounts of civil money penalties and provides a chart reflecting the inflation-adjusted maximum amounts associated with the penalty tiers for particular types of violations within each regulator’s jurisdiction. The OCC’s adjusted civil money penalty amounts are applicable to penalties assessed on or after January 12. The new CFPB, CFTC, FDIC, and FHFA civil money penalty amounts are applicable to penalties assessed on or after January 15. FinCEN's adjusted civil money penalty amounts are effective January 24.