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Divided 4th Circuit: Including GAP coverage does not eliminate auto loan exemption from MLA
On April 12, a split U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit held that loans borrowed in part to finance the purchase of a car are not governed by the Military Lending Act (MLA), even when the loan covers additional related costs. While the MLA’s requirements apply to the extension of consumer credit to covered members, loans procured “for the express purpose of financing” the purchase of a car (and are secured by the car) are excluded from many of the statute’s protections. Plaintiff purchased a car with an auto loan that included guaranteed asset protection coverage (GAP). The plaintiff then filed a putative class action against the defendant claiming the loan violated the MLA because it mandated arbitration (which is prohibited under the MLA) and failed to disclose certain information. The plaintiff argued that the loan should be protected under the MLA because part of his “bundled” loan went to GAP coverage. The district court disagreed and dismissed the case, ruling that the plaintiff’s contract was exempt from the MLA because GAP coverage and other add-on charges were “inextricably tied” to his purchase of the car.
On appeal, the majority concluded that loan, which was used for both an MLA-exempt and non-exempt purpose, can be treated together under the statute, because “[i]f a loan finances a car and related costs, then it is for the express purpose of financing the car purchase and the exception can apply.” The key issue was how to interpret the MLA exception that covers loans made for the “express purpose” of financing a car. “If that phrase, as used in the [MLA], means merely ‘for the specific purpose,’ [the defendant] wins. If it means ‘for the sole purpose,’ [plaintiff] wins,” the majority wrote. “We do not care and we do not ask” if the loan also financed GAP coverage, provided the loan was made for the specific purpose of financing a car, the court said, explaining that the loan is exempted from the MLA, “no matter what else it financed.”
The dissenting judge warned that the majority’s conclusion undermines the purpose of the MLA. “There is no reason to suspect that Congress regulated the marketing of financial products to service members, only to allow them to be smuggled in through a vehicle-loan back door,” the dissenting judge wrote, criticizing the majority’s conclusion and noting that opening up the MLA’s exception to include additional loans “permits lenders to piggyback virtually any financial product onto an exempt vehicle loan” at the expense to service members.
Notably, the CFPB, DOJ, and Department of Defense (DOD) filed an amicus brief last year on behalf of the United States in support of the plaintiff’s appeal, in which the agencies argued that the “hybrid” loan at issue must comply with the MLA. As previously covered by InfoBytes, the agencies wrote that GAP coverage “is not needed to buy a car and does not advance the purchase or use of the car.” The agencies noted that GAP coverage is identified as a “debt-related product that addresses a financial contingency arising from a total loss of the car” and that the coverage can be purchased as a standalone product. According to the brief, the plaintiff’s loan is a “hybrid loan—that is, a loan that finances a product bundle including both an exempt product (such as a car) and a distinct non-exempt product (such as optional GAP coverage),” and the district court erred in failing to interpret the MLA consistent with guidance issued in 2016 and 2017 by the DOD suggesting that such “hybrid loans” are consumer credit subject to the protections in the MLA. The 2017 guidance explained that “a credit transaction that includes financing for [GAP] insurance … would not qualify for the exception,” and the agencies argued that although the 2017 guidance was withdrawn in 2020, the “withdrawal did not offer a substantive interpretation of the statute that would alter the conclusion” that the plaintiff’s loan was not exempt from the MLA.
CFPB shutters mortgage lender, alleging deceptive advertising
On February 27, the CFPB entered a consent order against a California-based mortgage lender (respondent) for alleged repeat violations of the Consumer Financial Protection Act, TILA (Regulation Z), and the Mortgage Acts and Practices Advertising Rule (Regulation N), in relation to a 2015 consent order. As previously covered by InfoBytes, in 2015, the Bureau claimed the respondent (which is licensed in at least 30 states and Puerto Rico and originates consumer mortgages guaranteed by the Department of Veterans Affairs and mortgages insured by the FHA) allegedly led consumers to believe it was affiliated with the U.S. government. Specifically, respondent allegedly used the names and logos of the VA and FHA in its advertisements, described loan products as part of a “distinctive program offered by the U.S. government,” and instructed consumers to call the “VA Interest Rate Reduction Department” at a phone number belonging to the mortgage lender, thus implying that the mailings were sent by government agencies. The 2015 consent order required the respondent to abide by several prohibitions and imposed a $250,000 civil money penalty.
The Bureau contends, however, that after the 2015 consent order went into effect, the respondent continued to send millions of mortgage advertisements that allegedly made deceptive representations or contained inadequate or impermissible disclosures, including that the respondent was affiliated with the VA or the FHA. Additionally, the Bureau alleges that the respondent misrepresented interest rates, key terms, and the amount of monthly payments, and falsely represented that benefits available to qualifying borrowers were time limited. Many of these alleged misrepresentations, the Bureau claims, were expressly prohibited by the 2015 consent order.
The 2023 consent order permanently bans the respondent from engaging in any mortgage lending activities, or from “otherwise participating in or receiving remuneration from mortgage lending, or assisting others in doing so.” The respondent, which neither admits nor denies the allegations, is also required pay a $1 million civil money penalty.
DOJ initiates SCRA action for auctioning servicemember vehicles without court orders
On April 15, the DOJ filed a complaint in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia against a Virginia-based towing company for allegedly auctioning vehicles owned by at least seven active duty servicemembers without first obtaining the required court orders. Under the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act (SCRA), a person holding a lien on property or effects of a servicemember may not enforce or foreclose on that lien during, or within 90 days after, a period of military service without a court order. According to the complaint, several factors should have alerted the towing company to the fact that the vehicles belonged to a servicemember, including that the vehicles were towed from a military base and one contained a duffel bag containing military uniforms and other evidence of the servicemember’s military service. Additionally, the DOJ contended, among other things, that the company’s policies and procedures “failed to include any mention at all of the SCRA or the protections it grants to servicemembers whose vehicles have been towed,” nor did these policies include the use of the Defense Manpower Data Center database “to determine a vehicle owner’s military status prior to selling, auctioning off, or otherwise disposing of a vehicle without a court order.” The DOJ seeks damages for the affected servicemembers and civil penalties, as well as a court order enjoining the company and all associated persons from engaging in the illegal conduct.
Agencies file amicus brief on “hybrid” loan MLA protections
On January 6, the CFPB, DOJ, and DOD filed an amicus brief on behalf of the United States in support of a consumer servicemember plaintiff’s appeal in Jerry Davidson v. United Auto Credit Corp, arguing that the hybrid loan at issue in the case, which was used for both an MLA-exempt and non-exempt purpose, must comply with the MLA. The loan included an amount used to purchase Guaranteed Auto Protection (GAP) insurance coverage, and the plaintiff alleged that, among other things, the auto lender (defendant) violated the MLA by forcing the plaintiff to waive important legal rights as a condition of accepting the loan and by requiring him to agree to mandatory arbitration should any dispute arise related to the loan. The plaintiff also alleged that the defendant failed to accurately communicate his repayment obligations by failing to disclose the correct annual percentage rate. The case is before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit after a district court held that the plaintiff’s GAP insurance fell within the car-loan exception to the MLA as “inextricably tied to” and “directly related” to the vehicle purchase.
Arguing that GAP coverage “is not needed to buy a car and does not advance the purchase or use of the car,” the agencies’ brief noted that GAP coverage is identified as “debt-related product that addresses a financial contingency arising from a total loss of the car” and that the coverage can be purchased as a standalone product. According to the brief, the plaintiff’s loan is a “hybrid loan—that is, a loan that finances a product bundle including both an exempt product (such as a car) and a distinct non-exempt product (such as optional GAP coverage),” and the district court erred in failing to interpret the MLA consistent with guidance issued in 2016 and 2017 by the DOD suggesting that such “hybrid loans” are consumer credit subject to the protections in the MLA. The 2017 guidance explained that “a credit transaction that includes financing for Guaranteed Auto Protection insurance … would not qualify for the exception,” and the agencies argued that although the 2017 guidance was withdrawn in 2020, the “withdrawal did not offer a substantive interpretation of the statute that would alter the conclusion” that the plaintiff’s loan was not exempt from the MLA.
CFPB sues pawn lenders for MLA violations
On November 12, the CFPB filed a complaint against a Texas-based pawn lender and its wholly owned subsidiary (together, “lenders”) for allegedly violating the Military Lending Act (MLA) by charging active-duty servicemembers and their dependents more than the allowable 36 percent annual percentage rate on pawn loans. According to the Bureau, between June 2017 and May 2021, the two lenders together allegedly made more than 3,600 pawn loans carrying APRs that “frequently exceeded” 200 percent to more than 1,000 covered borrowers. The Bureau further claimed that the lenders failed to make all loan disclosures required by the MLA and forced borrowers to waive their ability to sue. The identified 3,600 pawn loans only represent a limited period for which the Bureau has transactional data, the complaint stated, adding that the pawn stores located in Arizona, Nevada, Utah, and Washington that originated these loans only comprise roughly 10 percent of the Texas lender’s nationwide pawn-loan transactions. As such, that Bureau alleged that the lenders—together with their other wholly owned subsidiaries—made additional pawn loans in violation of the MLA from stores in these and other states. The Bureau seeks injunctive relief, consumer restitution, disgorgement, civil money penalties, and other relief, including a court order enjoining the lenders from collecting on the allegedly illegal loans and from selling or assigning such debts.
As previously covered by InfoBytes, the Bureau issued a prior consent order against an affiliated lender in 2013, which required the payment of $14 million in consumer redress and a $5 million civil money penalty. The affiliated lender was also ordered to cease its MLA violations. In its current action, the Bureau noted that because the Texas lender (who was not identified in the 2013 action) is a successor to the prior affiliated lender, it is therefore subject to the 2013 order. Accordingly, the Bureau alleged that the Texas lender’s violations of the MLA also violated the 2013 order.
DOJ proposes SCRA settlement with Texas auto lender
On September 30, the DOJ announced a proposed settlement with a Texas-based auto lender, resolving allegations that the lender denied early motor vehicle lease terminations to qualifying servicemembers as required by the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act (SCRA). The SCRA allows servicemembers to terminate their motor vehicle leases early without penalty if they enter military service or receive qualifying military orders for a permanent change of station or to deploy to another location. According to the DOJ’s complaint, filed concurrently with the proposed settlement, an investigation revealed 10 instances in which the lender allegedly failed to provide early lease terminations to qualifying servicemembers. As a result, the DOJ claimed that the servicemembers, among other things, continued to make payments for vehicles they no longer wanted and were charged early termination penalties. Under the terms of the proposed settlement, the lender is required to pay more than $94,000 in compensation to the affected servicemembers and a $40,000 civil penalty. The proposed settlement also requires the lender to update its SCRA policies and procedures to avoid future violations and to provide SCRA compliance training to any employees whose customer interaction includes discussion of early lease termination benefits.
DOJ settles SCRA violations with New Jersey student lending authority
On September 20, the DOJ announced a settlement with a New Jersey’s student lending authority, resolving allegations that the authority obtained unlawful court judgments in violation of the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act (SCRA) against two military servicemembers who co-signed student loans . According to the press release, the DOJ launched an investigation into the authority after receiving a report from the Coast Guard that the authority obtained a default judgment in 2019 against a Coast Guard petty officer who co-signed on behalf of the two student loans. The complaint, filed by the DOJ in the U.S. District Court for the District of New Jersey, states that the authority “obtained default judgments against two SCRA-protected servicemembers” by failing “to file true and accurate affidavits indicating the military status of [the two service servicemembers].” According to the DOJ, lenders can verify an individual’s military status by utilizing a defense data center’s free and public website, or by reviewing their files to confirm military status. The authority allegedly filed affidavits in state court that inaccurately stated that the servicemembers were not in military service, even though the authority had conducted searches in the defense data center’s website that confirmed that the individuals were active military servicemembers.
The settlement notes that the authority must pay $15,000 each to the two servicemembers who had default judgments entered against them, and must pay a $20,000 civil penalty. Among other things, the settlement also requires the authority to provide compliance training to its employees and to develop new policies and procedures consistent with the SCRA. The settlement also notes that the authority, since the opening of the investigation, has been fully cooperative and has “taken steps to improve its compliance with the SCRA.”
DoD releases MLA report
Recently, the Department of Defense (DoD), in consultation with the Treasury Department, released a report to the House Committee on Armed Services in response to Title V of House Report 116-442 on the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) for Fiscal Year 202. The House Report requested a report regarding the Military Annual Percentage Rate (MAPR), which cannot exceed 36 percent as established under the Military Lending Act (MLA) and what impact lowering the MAPR to 30 percent would have on military readiness and servicemember retention. Some highlights of the report include, among other things: (i) “the MLA, in combination with the Department’s ongoing financial literacy education and financial counseling efforts, appears to be effective in deterring unfair credit practices”; (ii) the DoD does not take a position regarding the merit of any change to decrease the maximum MAPR rate below 30 percent; (iii) credit cards, auto loans, and personal loans are generally available at risk-based rates below the MAPR; (iv) almost a quarter of all active duty servicemembers in the U.S. are stationed in states that limit a 24 month, $2,000 loan to less than 30 percent; and (v) “a MAPR limit as low as 28 percent would likely have no impact on [servicemembers]’ access to credit cards, assuming credit card issuers meet exemptions for eligible bona fide fees when calculating the MAPR.” The report notes that the DoD “is committed to continue working with Congress to support the financial readiness of [servicemembers] and their families and is willing to provide comment on any such proposal when appropriate.”
Virginia expands military service member housing protections
On July 1, the Virginia governor signed SB 1410, which, among other things, amends the state’s anti-discrimination statutes to prohibit discrimination in public accommodations, employment, and housing based on military status. The bill amends the Virginia Fair Housing Law to prohibit discrimination in the sale or rental of dwellings by any person or entity, and prohibit discrimination by “any person or other entity, including any lending institution, whose business includes engaging in residential real estate-related transactions.” The bill also provides that “the term ‘residential real estate-related transaction’ means any of the following: [t]he making or purchasing of loans or providing other financial assistance (i) for purchasing, constructing, improving, repairing, or maintaining a dwelling or (ii) secured by residential real estate; or [t]he selling, brokering, insuring, or appraising of residential real property.” The bill is effective immediately.
CFPB resumes MLA exams
On June 16, the CFPB issued an interpretive rule explaining the reversal of its prior determination that it lacked the authority to examine supervised financial institutions for compliance with the Military Lending Act (MLA). As previously covered by InfoBytes, in 2018, the Bureau discontinued MLA-related examination activities, contending the law does not explicitly prescribe the Bureau the authority to examine financial institutions for compliance with the MLA. In January 2019, the Bureau issued a statement from former Director Kathy Kraninger announcing that she had asked Congress to grant the agency “clear authority to supervise for compliance with the [MLA],” and in March 2019, Senate Democrats issued a letter urging the resumption of reviews for compliance with the MLA during routine lender examinations (covered by InfoBytes here and here).
The CFPB’s interpretive rule states that the Bureau has statutory authority to conduct MLA examinations “[b]ecause conduct that violates the MLA is associated with activities that are subject to TILA and the CFPA.” The Bureau also indicated it may “conduct examinations of very large banks and credit unions for purposes of detecting and assessing those ‘risks to consumers’ that are ‘associated’ with ‘activities subject to’ Federal consumer financial laws.” The interpretive rule states that the Bureau can use formal administrative adjudications, civil enforcement actions, and other authorities to enforce the MLA, which is “complemented by the Bureau’s use of the examination process to detect and assess risks to consumers arising from violations of the MLA.” The rule also points out that the Bureau “believes that the very harmful conduct that Congress sought to prevent in the MLA, which the Bureau has the authority to remedy through its other authorities (specifically enforcement action), sits within the core of this authority.” CFPB acting Director Dave Uejio further emphasizes in the Bureau’s press release that “[t]hrough our enforcement of the MLA, companies that harmed military borrowers have been ordered to pay millions of dollars in redress and civil penalties. To fulfill its purpose and protect military borrowers we must supervise financial institutions and hold them accountable for endangering consumers.” With the issuance of the interpretative rule, the Bureau will now resume MLA-related examination activities.