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DFPI says escrow trust accounts are not stored value under MTA
The California Department of Financial Protection and Innovation recently released a new opinion letter covering aspects of the California Money Transmission Act (MTA) and the Escrow Act related to persons engaging in business as an escrow agency within the state. The redacted opinion letter examines a request from the inquiring company for confirmation that it does not require either an internet escrow agent license or a money transmitter license in the state of California in connection with its proposed business model (details on the model have been omitted). DFPI responded that under the Escrow Law, “it is unlawful for any person to engage in business as an escrow agent within this state except by means of a corporation duly organized for that purpose licensed by the commissioner as an escrow agent.” The definition of an “internet escrow agent,” DFPI explained, was added to Financial Code section 17003, subdivision (b) to mean “any person engaged in the business of receiving escrows for deposit or delivery over the Internet.” DFPI concluded that based on the facts asserted within the request, the inquiring company has not demonstrated that its proposed model is exempt from the Escrow Law.
DFPI further considered whether the inquiring company’s proposed model meets the definition of stored value under the MTA, and whether it qualifies for several exemptions under the statute. DFPI explained that the transactions under consideration are not considered “stored value under the definition in Financial Code section 2003, subdivision (x), because they do not represent a claim against the issuer; rather, the money comes under [the inquiring company’s] possession and control and therefore must be placed in an escrow trust account. “An escrow trust account is not the same as stored value,” DFPI said, adding that since the transaction is not stored value, it is unnecessary to address the remaining arguments regarding the MTA.
2nd Circuit: NY law on interest payments for escrow accounts is preempted
On September 15, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit held that New York’s interest-on-escrow law impermissibly interferes with the incidentals of national bank lending and is preempted by the National Bank Act (NBA). Plaintiffs in two putative class actions obtained loans from a national bank, one before and the other after certain Dodd-Frank provisions took effect. The loan agreements—governed by New York law—required plaintiffs to deposit money into escrow accounts. After the bank failed to pay interest on the escrowed amounts, plaintiffs sued for breach of contract, alleging, among other things, that under New York General Obligations Law (GOL) § 5-601 (which sets a minimum 2 percent interest rate on mortgage escrow accounts) they were entitled to interest. The bank moved to dismiss both actions, contending that GOL § 5-601 did not apply to federally chartered banks because it is preempted by the NBA. The district court disagreed and denied the bank’s motion, ruling first that RESPA (which regulates the amount of money in an escrow account but not the accruing interest rate) “shares a ‘unity of purpose’ with GOL § 5-601.” This is relevant, the district court said, “because Congress ‘intended mortgage escrow accounts, even those administered by national banks, to be subject to some measure of consumer protection regulation.’” Second, the district court reasoned that even though TILA § 1639d does not specifically govern the loans at issue, it is significant because it “evinces a clear congressional purpose to subject all mortgage lenders to state escrow interest laws.” Finally, with respect to the NBA, the district court determined that “the ‘degree of interference’ of GOL § 5-601 was ‘minimal’ and was not a ‘practical abrogation of the banking power at issue,’” and concluded that Dodd-Frank’s amendment to TILA substantiated a policy judgment showing “there is little incompatibility between requiring mortgage lenders to maintain escrow accounts and requiring them to pay a reasonable rate of interest on sums thereby received.” As such, GOL § 5-601 was not preempted by the NBA, the district court said.
On appeal, the 2nd Circuit concluded that the district court erred in its preemption analysis. According to the appellate court, the important question “is not how much a state law impacts a national bank, but rather whether it purports to ‘control’ the exercise of its powers.” In reversing the ruling and holding that that GOL § 5-601 was preempted by the NBA, the appellate court wrote that the “minimum-interest requirement would exert control over a banking power granted by the federal government, so it would impermissibly interfere with national banks’ exercise of that power.” Notably, the 2nd Circuit’s decision differs from the 9th Circuit’s 2018 holding in Lusnak v. Bank of America, which addressed a California mortgage escrow interest law analogous to New York’s and held that a national bank must comply with the California law requiring mortgage lenders to pay interest on mortgage escrow accounts (covered by InfoBytes here). Among other things, the 2nd Circuit determined that both the district court and the 9th Circuit improperly “concluded that the TILA amendments somehow reflected Congress’s judgment that all escrow accounts, before and after Dodd-Frank, must be subject to such state laws.”
In a concurring opinion, one of the judges stressed that while the panel concluded that the specific state law at issue is preempted, the opinion left “ample room for state regulation of national banks.” The judge noted that the opinion relies on a narrow standard of preempting only those “state laws that directly conflict with enumerated or incidental national bank powers conferred by Congress,” and stressed that the appellate court declined to reach a determination as to whether Congress subjected national banks to state escrow interest laws in cases (unlike the plaintiffs’ actions) where Dodd-Frank’s TILA amendments would apply.
Fannie updates Covid-19 payment deferral provisions
On November 17, Fannie Mae reissued LL-2021-07 to provide updated requirements for servicers when evaluating a borrower for a Covid-19 payment deferral offer. The updated lender letter was originally published in November 2020 and updated in February 2021 (covered by InfoBytes here). Specifically, the revisions update requirements related to performing an escrow analysis, and require single-family servicers to: (i) perform an escrow analysis when evaluating borrower for Covid-19 payment deferrals; (ii) “inform the borrower of the full monthly contractual payment based on repayment of any escrow shortage amount over a term of 60 months before the borrower can accept the COVID-19 payment deferral offer”; and (iii) “spread any escrow shortage repayment amount in equal monthly payments over a period of 60 months, unless the borrower decides to pay the escrow shortage amount in a lump sum up-front or over a shorter period (not less than 12 months) for a COVID-19 payment deferral or a Flex Modification for COVID-19 impacted borrowers.” Changes apply to a Fannie Mae Flex Modification and a Disaster Payment Deferral and will be incorporated into the Servicing Guide in February 2022. The provisions in the lender letter are effective until further notice. Fannie Mae encourages servicers to implement these policy changes immediately but no later than March 1, 2022.
District Court: Maryland escrow law does not confer private right of action
On September 22, the U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland granted a national bank’s motion for summary judgment in an action claiming the bank allegedly failed to pay interest on mortgage escrow accounts. The plaintiff filed a putative class action 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 MCPA is preempted by the National Bank Act and by 2004 OCC preemption regulations. In 2020, the court denied the bank’s motion to dismiss after it determined, among other things, that under Dodd-Frank, national banks are required to pay interest on escrow accounts when mandated by applicable state or federal law. (Covered by InfoBytes here.) 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 further 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.
However, in its most recent ruling, the court held that the MCPA does not authorize the plaintiff to sue either. “[T]his court finds that § 12-109 does not confer a private right of action,” the court wrote, adding that the plaintiff’s breach of contract claim could not get around a notice-and-cure provision in her mortgage agreement that she had not complied with before suing. The plaintiff argued that these requirements did not apply because “her self-styled breach of contract claim is actually a statutory claim because the allegedly breached contractual provision is one which pledges general adherence to applicable law.” The court disagreed, stating that under the plaintiff’s theory “any claim for breach of contract, which also violated a federal or state law, would be vaulted to a privileged hybrid status. Such claims would enjoy an unlimited private right of action (regardless of whether the underlying statute created one) and. . .would be unbounded by any of the provisions or conditions precedent detailed in the contract itself.” The court also ruled that the plaintiff’s escrow statements, which “correctly reflected that her account was not accruing interest,” are themselves “not rendered deceptive by the mere fact that Plaintiff believes such interest is owed.”
OCC supports national bank’s challenge to state law requiring interest payments on escrow accounts
On June 15, the OCC filed an amicus curiae brief in support of a defendant-appellant national bank in an appeal challenging a requirement under New York General Obligation Law § 5-601 that a defined interest rate be paid on mortgage escrow account balances. As previously covered by InfoBytes, the bank argued that the National Bank Act (NBA) preempts the state law, but the district court disagreed and issued a ruling in 2019 concluding that 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.” The district court also determined that, with respect to the OCC’s 2004 real estate lending preemption regulation (2004 regulation), 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). The district court further 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 bank’s power to administer mortgage escrow accounts, noting that it only “requires the [b]ank 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.”
In its amicus brief filed with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, the OCC wrote that it “respectfully submits that the [appellate court] should reverse the decision of the [d]istrict [c]ourt and find that application of Section 5-601 to [the bank] is preempted by federal law,” adding that the 2019 ruling “upsets…settled legal principles” and “creates uncertainty regarding national banks’ authority to fully exercise real estate lending powers under the [NBA].” In addressing the district court’s application of Barnett, the OCC argued that the district court had incorrectly concluded that state laws cannot be preempted unless they “practical[ly] abrogat[e] or nullif[y] a national bank’s exercise of a federal banking power—a “stark contrast to the preemption standard set forth in Barnett and the OCC’s—as well as many other federal courts’—interpretation of that standard.” The OCC urged the appellate court to “conclude that a state law that requires a national bank to pay even a nominal rate of interest on a particular category of account impermissibly conflicts with a national bank’s power by disincentivizing the bank from continuing to offer the product. This is sufficient to trigger preemption under Barnett.”
The OCC further stated, among other things, that the district court also incorrectly disregarded the agency’s 2004 regulation, which the OCC said “specifically authorizes national banks to exercise their powers to make real estate loans ‘without regard to state law limitations concerning…[e]scrow accounts, impound accounts, and similar accounts….’” The agency further cautioned that the district court’s determination that the OCC’s 2004 regulation was not entitled to any level of deference was done in error and warned that “[i]f the OCC’s regulation regarding escrow accounts is rendered ineffective, this result could cause disruption within the banking industry by upsetting long-settled law regarding the applicability of state laws to national bank powers.”
CFPB releases mortgage servicing FAQs
On June 2, the CFPB released new FAQs regarding the Mortgage Servicing Rule and Regulation X and Regulation Z relating to escrow account guidance and analysis. General highlights from the FAQs are listed below:
- Regulation X provides that (i) an escrow account is any account established or controlled by a servicer for a borrower to pay taxes or other charges associated with a federally related mortgage loan, including charges that the servicer and borrower agreed to have the servicer collect and pay; and (ii) the computation year for an escrow account is a 12-month period that the servicer establishes for the account, starting with the borrower’s first payment date and including each subsequent 12-month period, unless the servicer issues a short year statement.
- Servicers must send the borrower an annual escrow account statement “within 30 days of the completion of the escrow account computation year.”
- Disbursement date is defined as “the date the servicer pays an escrow item from the escrow account.”
- “The initial escrow statement is the first disclosure statement that the servicer delivers to the borrower concerning the borrower’s escrow account,” and must include: (i) “the amount of the monthly mortgage payment”; (ii) “the portion of the monthly payment going into the escrow account”; (iii) “itemized anticipated disbursements to be paid from the escrow account”; (iv) “anticipated disbursement dates”; (v) “the amount the servicer elects as a cushion”; and (vi) “trial running balance for the account.”
- The annual escrow statement must include, among other things, “an account history that reflects the activity in the escrow account during the prior escrow account computation year and a projection of the activity in the account for the next escrow account computation year.”
- An escrow account analysis is the accounting a servicer conducts in the form of a trial running balance for an escrow account to: (i) “determine the appropriate target balances”; (ii) “compute the borrower’s monthly payments for the next escrow account computation year and any deposits needed to establish or maintain the account”; and (iii) “determine whether a shortage, surplus, or deficiency exists.”
- “If there is a shortage that is equal to or more than one month’s escrow account payment, the servicer may accept an unsolicited lump sum repayment to resolve the shortage. However, the servicer cannot require or provide the option of a lump sum payment on the annual escrow account statement. In addition, Regulation X does not govern whether borrowers can freely pay the servicer to satisfy an escrow account shortage. Therefore, “the acceptance of a voluntary, unsolicited payment made by the borrower to the servicer to satisfy an escrow account shortage is not a violation of Regulation X.”
- Servicers may inform borrowers that borrowers “may voluntarily provide a lump sum payment to satisfy an escrow shortage if they choose to” if “the communication is not in the annual escrow account statement itself and does not appear to indicate that a lump sum payment is something that the servicer requires but rather is an entirely voluntary option.”
CFPB amends Regulation Z HPML escrow exemption commentary
On June 3, the CFPB published correcting amendments to its Official Interpretations to Regulation Z (TILA) that were not part of the final rule published in February, which exempts certain insured depository institutions and credit unions from the requirement to establish escrow accounts for certain higher-priced mortgage loans (HPMLs). As previously covered by InfoBytes, under the final rule, any loan made by an insured depository institution or credit union that is secured by a first lien on the principal dwelling of a consumer would be exempt from Regulation Z’s HPML escrow requirement if (i) the institution has assets of no more than $10 billion; (ii) “the institution and its affiliates originated 1,000 or fewer loans secured by a first lien on a principal dwelling during the preceding calendar year”; and (iii) the institution meets certain existing HPML escrow exemption criteria.
The amendments add one comment to the CFPB’s commentary that was not incorporated into the Code of Federal Regulations “due to an omission in an amendatory instruction,” and revise a second comment that inadvertently did not appear in the final rule. The amendments to the commentary relate to (i) Regulation Z section 1026.35(b)(2)(vi)(B), which covers requirements for escrow exemptions for HPMLs; and (ii) Regulation Z section 1026.43(f)(1)(vi), which addresses the exemption associated with balloon-payment qualified mortgages made by certain creditors under the minimum standards for transactions secured by a dwelling. The corrections took effect June 3.
CFPB finalizes Regulation Z HPML escrow exemptions
On January 19, the CFPB issued a final rule amending Regulation Z, as required by the Economic Growth, Regulatory Relief, and Consumer Protection Act, to exempt certain insured depository institutions and credit unions from the requirement to establish escrow accounts for certain higher-priced mortgage loans (HPMLs). Under the final rule, any loan made by an insured depository institution or credit union that is secured by a first lien on the principal dwelling of a consumer would be exempt from Regulation Z’s HPML escrow requirement if (i) the institution has assets of no more than $10 billion; (ii) “the institution and its affiliates originated 1,000 or fewer loans secured by a first lien on a principal dwelling during the preceding calendar year”; and (iii) the institution meets certain existing HPML escrow exemption criteria. The final rule essentially adopts the proposed rule (covered by InfoBytes here) without change, except the end date for the exception to the prerequisite against maintaining escrows is finalized as 120 days after the date of publication in the Federal Register, instead of the 90 days as proposed.
California proposes changes to Escrow Law
Recently, the California Department of Financial Protection and Innovation (DFPI) issued a notice of proposed regulations (and accompanying statement of reasons) seeking to amend the state’s Escrow Law to clarify (i) the meanings of personal property and prohibited compensation; (ii) maintenance of books and preservation of records; and (iii) the annual report requirements. Among other things, the proposal adds “gametic material” to the definition of personal property to clarify that escrow agents may conduct transactions that hold and disburse funds under assisted reproduction agreements. Additionally, the update to the escrow books and records provisions are to “ensure that CPAs may participate in engagements to meet the annual audit report requirement for Escrow Law licensees without violating any rule of professional conduct.” Comments on the proposed regulatory amendments are due by February 15.
4th Circuit reverses dismissal of RESPA property tax suit
On October 2, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit reversed the dismissal of a putative class action, concluding that the current mortgage servicer has the obligation under RESPA to pay tax payments as they become due. According to the opinion, after a consumer refinanced their mortgage loan, the mortgage was sold to a new mortgage company (defendant), which took over the servicing rights and responsibilities from the previous servicer, effective October 2017. The consumer continued making payments on the mortgage loan, which included payments to an escrow account for property taxes. The defendant allegedly did not pay the consumer’s property taxes due in November 2017 until sometime in 2018. The city assessed late penalties (which the defendant ultimately paid) and the late payment adversely affected the consumer’s income tax bill in the amount of $895. The consumer filed a putative class action alleging, among other things, that the defendant violated RESPA by failing to make the tax payment on time. The district court dismissed the action, concluding that the previous servicer was “responsible as ‘the servicer’ under RESPA” to make the payments.
On appeal, the 4th Circuit disagreed, concluding that the consumer plausibly alleged that the defendant was responsible for servicing his mortgage at the time, and therefore, responsible for making his tax payment when due. The appellate court rejected the defendant’s argument that RESPA requires the entity that “received funds for escrow” to make the tax payment when due. RESPA, according to the appellate court, “connects the servicer’s obligation to a payment’s due date, not the date of payment into escrow by the borrower.” Thus, the defendant would be “the servicer” responsible for paying the mortgage tax from the borrower’s escrow account on its due date.