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On February 5, the CFPB announced a settlement with a Texas-based payday lender and six subsidiaries (defendants) for allegedly assisting in the collection of online installment loans and online lines of credit that consumers were not legally obligated to pay based on certain states’ usury laws or licensing requirements. As previously covered by InfoBytes, the Bureau filed a complaint in 2017—amended in 2018—against the defendants for allegedly violating the CFPA’s prohibitions on unfair, deceptive, and abusive acts and practices by, among other things, making deceptive demands and originating debit entries from consumers’ bank accounts for loans that the defendants knew were either partially or completely void because the loans were void under state licensing or usury laws. The defendants—who operated in conjunction with three tribal lenders engaged in the business of extending and collecting the online installment loans and lines of credit—also allegedly provided material services and substantial assistance to two debt collection companies that were also involved in the collection of these loans.
Under the stipulated final consent order, the defendants are prohibited from (i) extending, servicing, or collecting on loans made to consumers in any of the identified 17 states if the loans violate state usury limits or licensing requirements; and (ii) assisting others engaged in this type of conduct. Additionally, the settlement imposes a $1 civil money penalty against each of the seven defendants. The Bureau’s press release notes that the order “is a component of the global resolution of the [defendants’] bankruptcy proceeding in the Bankruptcy Court for the Northern District of Texas, which includes settlements with the Pennsylvania Attorney General’s Office and private litigants in a nationwide consumer class action.” The press release also states that “[c]onsumer redress will be disbursed from a fund created as part of the global resolution, which is anticipated to have over $39 million for distribution to consumers and may increase over time as a result of ongoing, related litigation and settlements.”
On January 23, the OCC issued a notice of charges against five former senior executives for allegedly failing to adequately ensure a national bank’s incentive compensation plans regarding sales practices operated in accordance with bank policy. (See previous InfoBytes coverage here.) The relief sought by the OCC against these individuals could include a lifetime prohibition from participating in the banking industry, a personal cease and desist order, and/or civil money penalties. Under federal law, the individuals may request a hearing to challenge the allegations and relief sought by the OCC. The same day, the OCC also announced settlements with the bank’s former chairman/CEO, its former chief administrative officer and director of corporate human resources, and its former chief risk officer for their alleged roles in the bank’s sales practices misconduct. According to the OCC, the actions serve to, among other things, reinforce the agency’s expectations that management and employees of regulated entities comply with applicable laws and regulations.
On January 15, the SEC filed a brief in a pending U.S. Supreme Court action. The question presented to the Court asks whether the SEC, in a civil enforcement action in federal court, is authorized to seek disgorgement of money acquired through fraud. The petitioners were ordered by a California federal court to disgorge the money that they collected from investors for a cancer treatment center that was never built. The SEC charged the petitioners with funneling much of the investor money into their own personal accounts and sending the rest of the funds to marketing companies in China, in violation of the Securities Act’s prohibitions against using omissions or false statements to secure money when selling or offering securities. The district court granted the SEC’s motion for summary judgment, and ordered the petitioners to pay a civil penalty in addition to the $26.7 million the court ordered them to repay to the investors. The petitioners appealed to the Supreme Court and in November, the Court granted certiorari.
The petitioners argued that Congress has never authorized the SEC to seek disgorgement in civil suits for securities fraud. They point to the court’s 2017 decision in Kokesh v. SEC, in which the Court reversed the ruling of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit when it unanimously held that disgorgement is a penalty and not an equitable remedy. Under 28 U.S.C. § 2462, this makes disgorgement subject to the same five year statute of limitations as are civil fines, penalties and forfeitures (see previous InfoBytes coverage here). The petitioners also suggested that the SEC has enforcement remedies other than disgorgement, such as injunctive relief and civil money penalties, so loss of disgorgement authority will not hinder the agency’s enforcement efforts.
According to the SEC’s brief, historically, courts have used disgorgement to prevent unjust enrichment as an equitable remedy for depriving a defendant of ill-gotten gains. More recently, five statutes enacted by Congress since 1988 “show that Congress was aware of, relied on, and ratified the preexisting view that disgorgement was a permissible remedy in civil actions brought by the [SEC] to enforce the federal securities laws.” The agency notes that the Court has recognized disgorgement as both an equitable remedy and a penalty, suggesting, however, that “the punitive features of disgorgement do not remove it from the scope of [the Exchange Act’s] Section 21(d)(5).” Regarding the petitioner’s reliance on Kokesh, the brief explains that “the consequence of the Court’s decision was not to preclude or even to place special restrictions on SEC claims for disgorgement, but simply to ensure that such claims—like virtually all claims for retrospective monetary relief—must be brought within a period of time defined by statute.”
In addition to the brief submitted by the SEC, several amicus briefs have been filed in support of the SEC, including a brief from several members of Congress, and a brief from the attorneys general of 23 states and the District of Columbia.
On November 22, the CFPB announced a settlement with an employment background screening company resolving allegations that the company violated the FCRA. In the complaint, the Bureau asserts that the company failed to “employ reasonable procedures to assure maximum possible accuracy” in the consumer reports it prepared. Specifically, the Bureau claims that until October 2014, the company matched criminal records with applicants based on only two personal identifiers, which created a “heightened risk of false positives” in commonly named individuals. The company also had a practice of including “high-risk indicators,” sourced from a third party, in its consumer reports and did not follow procedures to verify the accuracy of the designations. Additionally, the Bureau asserts that the company failed to maintain procedures to ensure that adverse public record information was complete and up to date, resulting in reporting outdated adverse information in violation of the FCRA. Under the stipulated judgment, in addition to injunctive relief, the company will be required to pay $6 million in monetary relief to affected consumers and a $2.5 million civil money penalty.
On November 6, the CFPB filed an amicus brief with the Court of Appeals of Maryland in a case challenging a private class action settlement against a structured settlement company, which purports to “release the Bureau’s claims in a pending federal action, to enjoin class members from receiving benefits from the Bureau’s lawsuit, and to assign any benefits the Bureau might obtain for class members to the class-action defendants.” As previously covered by InfoBytes, in 2017, the U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland allowed a UDAAP claim brought by the CFPB to move forward against the same structured settlement company, where the Bureau alleged the company employed abusive practices when purchasing structured settlements from consumers in exchange for lump-sum payments. A similar action was also brought by the Maryland attorney general against the company. In addition to the state and federal enforcement actions, the plaintiffs filed a private class action against the company, and a trial court approved a settlement. The Court of Special Appeals reversed the lower court’s approval of the settlement, concluding that it “interferes with the [state’s] and Bureau’s enforcement authority.” The company appealed.
In its brief to the Maryland Court of Appeals, the Bureau argues that the Court of Special Appeals decision should be affirmed because the settlement provisions “threaten to interfere with the Bureau’s authority under the [Consumer Financial Protection Act] in two significant ways.” Specifically, the Bureau argues that the settlement (i) could interfere with the Bureau’s statutory mandate to remediate consumers harmed through the Civil Penalty Fund; and (ii) would interfere with the Bureau’s authority to use restitution to remediate consumer harm. The Bureau states that “the risk of windfalls to such wrongdoers could force the Bureau to decline to award Fund payments to victims,” and would “threaten to offend basic principles of equity.”
District Court orders millions in restitution and civil penalties against two foreclosure relief companies
On November 4, the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Wisconsin ordered restitution and disgorgement, civil penalties, and permanent injunctive relief in an action brought by the CFPB against two former foreclosure relief companies and their principals (collectively, “defendants”) for violations of Regulation O. As previously covered by InfoBytes, in 2014, the CFPB, FTC, and 15 state authorities took action against foreclosure relief companies and associated individuals, including the defendants, alleging the use of deceptive marketing tactics to obtain business from distressed borrowers. The CFPB filed three suits, the FTC filed six, and the state authorities collectively initiated 32 actions. Specifically, the CFPB alleged that the companies and individuals (i) collected fees before obtaining a loan modification; (ii) inflated success rates and likelihood of obtaining a modification; (iii) led borrowers to believe they would receive legal representation; and (iv) made false promises about loan modifications to consumers, in violation of Regulation O, formerly known as the Mortgage Assistance Relief Services (MARS) Rule. Among other things, the court order holds company one and its principals jointly and severally liable for over $18 million in restitution, while company two and its same principals are jointly and severally liable for nearly $3 million in restitution. Additionally, the court ordered civil penalties totaling over $37 million against company two and four principals.
On October 25, the FDIC announced its release of a list of administrative enforcement actions taken against banks and individuals in September. According to the press release, the FDIC issued 24 orders, which include “one consent order; five removal and prohibition orders; six assessments of civil money penalty; three voluntary terminations of deposit insurance; six section 19 orders; and three terminations of orders of restitution.”
Among other actions, the FDIC assessed separate civil money penalties (CMPs) against four banks for alleged violations of the Flood Disaster Protection Act:
- New Jersey-based bank CMP: Failure to (i) notify borrowers that they should obtain flood insurance; and (ii) follow force-placement flood insurance procedures;
- Wisconsin-based bank CMP: Failure to (i) maintain flood insurance coverage for the term of a loan; (ii) follow force-placement flood insurance procedures; and (iii) provide written notice to borrowers concerning flood insurance coverage prior to extending, increasing, or renewing a loan;
- Wisconsin-based bank CMP: Failure to (i) follow escrow requirements for flood insurance; and (ii) provide borrowers with notice of the availability of federal disaster relief assistance;
- Wisconsin-based bank CMP: Failure to (i) obtain flood insurance coverage on loans at the time of origination; (ii) obtain adequate flood insurance; (iii) follow escrow requirements for flood insurance; (iv) follow force-placement flood insurance procedures; and (v) provide borrowers with notice of the availability of federal disaster relief assistance.
The FDIC also assessed a CMP against an Oregon-based bank for allegedly violating RESPA and the TCPA by (i) placing telemarketing calls to consumers listed on the Do-Not-Call registry; and (ii) using an automated dialing system to send pre-recorded calls or text messages to consumers’ cell phones.
Additionally, the FDIC entered a notice of charges and hearing against a Georgia-based bank relating to alleged weaknesses in its Bank Secrecy Act compliance program.
On October 16, Maxine Waters, Chairwoman of the House Financial Services Committee, released a majority staff report titled, “Settling for Nothing: How Kraninger’s CFPB Leaves Consumers High and Dry,” which details the results of the majority’s investigation into the CFPB’s handling of consumer monetary relief in enforcement actions since Richard Cordray stepped down as director in November 2017. The report argues that, under the leadership of Acting Director Mick Mulvaney and Director Kathleen Kraninger, the Bureau’s enforcement actions “have declined in volume and failed to compensate harmed consumers adequately.” Specifically, the report states that under Cordray’s leadership, “the average enforcement action by the [Bureau] returned $59.6 million to consumers, as compared to an average $31.4 million per action under Mulvaney,” but notes that $335 million of the $345 million in consumer relief obtained during Mulvaney’s tenure resulted from one settlement with a national bank (previously covered by InfoBytes here). With respect to Director Kraninger, the report acknowledges that the pace of enforcement actions increased compared to Mulvaney; however, the Bureau ordered “only $12 million in consumer relief” during her first six months, as compared to “approximately $200 million in consumer relief” during a similar six months of Cordray’s tenure.
The report highlights specifics from the investigation into settlements announced in early 2019, which resulted in civil penalties but not consumer monetary relief. The report argues that, based on the review of the internal documents received from the Bureau, the lack of consumer relief was due to the “politicization of the [Bureau],” which “contributed to the decline in the [Bureau]’s enforcement activity” rather than the merits of the enforcement actions, notwithstanding that the internal documents reflect the assessment of certain weaknesses in the Bureau’s positions. The report attributes such politicization to the introduction of political appointee positions throughout the Bureau that oversee each of the divisions. The report concludes by urging Congress to pass the Consumers First Act (HR 1500), which, among other things, seeks to limit the number of political appointees at the Bureau.
On September 12, the CFTC issued an order against an Illinois-based futures commission merchant imposing a $1.5 million fine for allegedly failing to protect its systems from cybersecurity threats and not alerting its customers in a reasonable timeframe after a breach occurred. According to the order, the CFTC claims the merchant failed to adequately implement and comply with cybersecurity policies and procedures as well as a written information systems security program, and “policies and procedures related to customer disbursements by its employees.” The CFTC contends that because of these failures the merchant’s email system was breached, which allowed access to customer information and convinced the merchant’s customer service specialist to mistakenly wire $1 million in customer funds. While the merchant approved reimbursement of the funds shortly after discovery, instituted measures to prevent additional fraudulent transfers, and notified regulators the same day, the CFTC alleges it failed to disclosure the breach or the fraudulent wire in a timely manner to current or prospective customers. Under the terms of the order, the merchant must pay a civil money penalty of $500,000 plus post-judgment interest, as well as restitution of $1 million. The merchant’s previous reimbursement of customer funds when the fraud was discovered was credited against the restitution amount.
On August 30, the FDIC announced its release of a list of administrative enforcement actions taken against banks and individuals in July. The list reflects that the FDIC issued fourteen orders and one notice of charges, which include “four stipulated consent orders; four terminations of consent orders; four Section 19 orders; one stipulated civil money penalty order; one stipulated removal and prohibition order; and one notice of charges and hearing.”
Among other actions, the FDIC assessed a civil money penalty (CMP) against a Louisiana-based bank for alleged violations of the Flood Disaster Protection Act, including, among other things, (i) failing to obtain flood insurance coverage on loans at the time of origination, increase, renewal, or extension; or (ii) failing to maintain flood insurance coverage for the term of a loan secured by property located or to be located in a special flood hazard area.
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