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On November 25, the CFPB announced a settlement with two companies that originated and serviced travel-related loans for military servicemembers and their families. According to the consent order with the lender and its principal, the lender (i) charged fees to customers who obtained financing, at a higher rate than those customers who paid in full, but failed to include the fee in the finance charge or APR; (ii) falsely quoted low monthly interest rates to customers over the phone; and (iii) failed to provide the required information about the terms of credit and the total of payments in violation of TILA and the TSR. The consent order prohibits future lending targeted to military consumers and requires the lender and its principal to pay a civil money penalty of $1. The order also imposes a suspended judgment of almost $3.5 million, based on an inability to pay.
In its consent order against the servicer, the Bureau asserts the servicer engaged in deceptive practices by overcharging servicemembers for debt-cancellation products and, in violation of the FCRA’s implementing Regulation V, never established or maintained written policies and procedures regarding the accuracy of information furnished to credit reporting agencies. The consent order issues injunctive relief and requires the servicer to (i) pay a $25,000 civil money penalty; (ii) provide redress to consumers who were allegedly overcharged for the debt-cancellation product; (iii) pay over $54,000 in restitution to borrowers with no outstanding balance on their loans and issue additional account credits to borrowers with outstanding balances; and (iv) establish reasonable policies and procedures for accurate reporting to consumer reporting agencies.
On October 8, the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) announced that it completed its home loan funding fee refund initiative, returning more than $400 million to VA borrowers. As previously covered by InfoBytes, in June the VA Office of the Inspector General (OIG) issued a report concluding that the VA improperly charged exempt veterans VA home loan funding fees. The OIG recommended that the VA develop a plan to, among other things, identify exempt veterans who were inappropriately charged funding fees and issue refunds. The VA reviewed nearly 20 years of loan originations, and identified 130,000 loans for potential refunds. VA notes that most fees were charged correctly, except for veterans whose exemption status changed after the closing of their loan. VA also announced changes to its program, in order to provide veterans with “the most up-to-date information possible on a Veteran’s funding fee exemption status,” including (i) enhancements to communications to veterans regarding the loan funding fee; (ii) new policy guidance directing lenders to inquire about a veteran’s disability claim status during the underwriting process; (iii) instructing lenders to obtain an updated Certificate of Eligibility for a veteran within three days of closing, if there was a disability claim pending; (iv) and procedural changes to ensure regulator internal oversight of funding fee activities.
On October 1, the CFPB and the South Carolina Department of Consumer Affairs filed an action in the U.S. District Court for the District of South Carolina against two companies and their owner, alleging that the defendants violated the Consumer Financial Protection Act (CFPA) and the South Carolina Consumer Protection Code (SCCPC) by offering high-interest loans to veterans and other consumers in exchange for the assignment of some of the consumers’ monthly pension or disability payments. The complaint alleges that the majority of the credit offers are brokered for veterans with disability pensions or retirement pensions. The defendants allegedly did not disclose to consumers the interest rates associated with the products, marketing the contracts as sale of payments and not credit offers. The defendants also allegedly did not disclose that the contracts were void under federal and state law, which prohibit the assignment of certain benefits. The Bureau and South Carolina are seeking injunctive relief, restitution, damages, disgorgement, and civil money penalties.
The Bureau’s announcement notes that this is the third action in 2019 related to the marketing or administration of high-interest credit to veterans. As previously covered by InfoBytes, in January 2019, the Bureau settled with an online loan broker resolving allegations that the broker violated the CFPA by operating a website that connected veterans with companies offering high-interest loans in exchange for the assignment of some or all of their military pension payments. Additionally, in August 2019, the Bureau and the Arkansas attorney general announced a proposed settlement with three loan brokerage companies, along with their owner and operator, for allegedly misrepresenting high-interest credit offers to veterans and other consumers as purchases of future pension or disability payments (covered by Infobytes here).
On August 21, President Trump issued a presidential memorandum to Secretary Betsy DeVos of the U.S. Department of Education directing the Department to implement a streamlined process to automatically discharge the federal student loan debt of totally and permanently disabled veterans (TPD discharge). The Higher Education Act currently allows veterans to seek a TPD discharge, but the “process has been overly complicated and difficult, and prevented too many  veterans from receiving the relief for which they are eligible.” The memo notes “[o]nly half of the approximately 50,000 totally and permanently disabled veterans who currently qualify for the discharge” have availed themselves of the benefit. The memo defines “federal student loan debt” as Federal Family Education Loan Program loans, William D. Ford Federal Direct Loan Program loans, and Federal Perkins Loans, and requires the Department to create a policy to facilitate the swift and effective discharge of the applicable loan. The Department is required to implement the directive “as expeditiously as possible.”
On July 25, the North Carolina governor signed SB 420, the “NC Servicemembers Civil Relief Act” (NCSCRA), which, among other things, incorporates into state law the rights, benefits and protections of the federal Servicemembers Civil Relief Act (SCRA) and extends those provisions to members of the North Carolina National Guard serving on state active duty and to members of the National Guard of other states serving on state active duty who reside in North Carolina. In addition to the rights afforded to servicemembers in the SCRA, the NCSCRA (i) expands certain protections for dependents of servicemembers, including protections against default judgments and an interest rate cap of six percent; (ii) authorizes the termination of certain service contracts, allowing servicemembers and their dependents to terminate telephone, internet, cable TV, satellite radio, and prepaid entertainments contracts upon relocation orders for 90 days or more to a location that does not support such services; and (iii) allows for the extension of residential lease agreements until 10 days after a member of the North Carolina National Guard or a member of another state’s National Guard who is residing in North Carolina’s active duty terminates. The NCSCRA provides for action by the attorney general for any violation, with a civil penalty up to $5,000 per violation and also allows for a private right of action by an aggrieved servicemember.
On June 24, the FTC finalized the “Free Electronic Credit Monitoring for Active Duty Military Rule,” which implements the Economic Growth, Regulatory Relief, and Consumer Protection Act requirement for nationwide consumer reporting agencies (CRAs) to provide free electronic credit monitoring services for active duty military consumers. The proposed rule, issued in November 2018 (covered by InfoBytes here), defined the term “electronic credit monitoring service” as a service through which the CRAs provide, at a minimum, electronic notification of material additions or modifications to a consumer’s file and requires CRAs to notify active duty military consumers within 24 hours of any material change. The proposal noted that CRAs may require that active duty military provide contact information, proof of identity, and proof of active duty status in order to use the free service and outlines how a servicemember may prove active duty status, such as with a copy of active duty orders. Additionally, the proposal prohibited CRAs from requiring active duty military consumers to purchase a product in order to obtain the free service.
In response to comments on the proposal, the final rule refers to the definition of “active duty military consumer” in the FCRA, which requires that the servicemember be assigned to service away from their usual duty station, or be a member of the National Guard, regardless of whether the National Guard member is stationed away from their normal duty station. The FTC noted that commenters requested the requirement that the servicemember be stationed away from their normal duty station be eliminated but “the statutory language limit[ed] the Commission’s discretion on [the] topic.” However, the FCRA does not apply the same duty station requirement to the National Guard. Additionally, the final rule, among other things (i) requires CRAs to provide free access to a credit file when it notifies an active duty military consumer about a material change to the file; (ii) extends the amount of time the CRAs have to notify an active duty military consumer of a material change from 24 hours to 48 hours; and (iii) prohibits CRAs from requiring that active duty military consumers agree to terms or conditions as a requirement to obtain their free credit file, unless the terms or conditions are necessary to comply with certain legal requirements.
While the final rule goes into effect three months after publication in the Federal Register, CRAs will be allowed to comply with certain portions of the final rule by offering existing credit monitoring services to active duty military consumers for free, for a period of up to one year from the effective date.
On June 7, the Hawaii governor signed HB 991, which extends the state’s military civil relief protections to persons serving on full time National Guard duty under Section 101(19) of Title 32 of the U.S. Code. Additionally, the bill amends other provisions of the state’s military civil relief law to align with the federal Servicemembers Civil Relief Act, including (i) extending the duration of a stay of any action from 60 days to 90 days after a period of military service ends, and (ii) extending the termination of lease provisions to cover motor vehicle leases, in addition to residential leases. The bill became effective on June 7.
On May 28, the Nevada governor signed SB 201, which, among other things, updates existing Nevada law referring to the federal Military Lending Act (MLA). Specifically, the bill eliminates the current state law provisions that adopt the MLA by referring generally to the federal law and instead specifically adopts the language of certain MLA provisions for lending to a covered service member or a dependent of a covered service member. The bill thus includes language that (i) prohibits a lender from charging an annual percentage rate greater 36 percent; (ii) requires a lender to make certain disclosures before extending certain consumer credit; and (iii) prohibits certain additional loan terms in a transaction, such as a requirement that the loan be repaid by allotment. The bill also requires the Commissioner of Financial Institutions to adopt regulations to administer, carry out, and enforce the MLA provisions. The new provisions were effective on May 28 for the purpose of adopting any regulations and performing any other preparatory administrative tasks that are necessary to carry out the provisions of this act, and on October 1, 2019, for all other purposes.
On May 24, Attorneys General from 47 states, American territories, and Washington D.C., sent a letter to Secretary Betsy DeVos of the U.S. Department of Education (Department) to implement an automatic discharge process for the student loans of veterans who are totally and permanently disabled or otherwise unemployable (known as a “TPD discharge”). The letter asserts that while the Higher Education Opportunity Act of 2008 requires that the Department discharge the student loans of veterans who are totally and permanently disabled as a result of service, the Department requires eligible veterans to take “affirmative steps to secure the loan forgiveness,” which “may prove [to be] insurmountable obstacles to relief for many eligible veterans due to the severe nature of their disabilities.” According to the letter, the Department has identified over 42,000 veterans who are eligible for discharges and carry over $1 billion in dischargeable student loan debt, yet fewer than 9,000 of the eligible veterans had applied for the discharge as of April 2018. In response to the Department’s concerns about the veterans’ potential tax liability, the Attorneys General pointed out that federal tax law excludes loan discharges for disabled borrowers from taxable income. Even if the discharge increases their state tax bill, the Attorneys General argued that most borrowers would prefer to have their outstanding loans completely discharged, and those that do not could be given notice and an opportunity to opt out. Because there is no statutory requirement that eligible veterans apply for the TPD discharges, the Attorneys General urged the Department to implement a program to automatically discharge the outstanding loans as expeditiously as possible.
DOJ announces $1.59 million settlement with real estate management company for alleged SCRA violations
On March 15, the DOJ announced a $1.59 million settlement with a real estate management company resolving allegations that the company and its entities violated the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act (SCRA) by obtaining unlawful court judgments and charging unlawful lease termination fees. According to the complaint, from 2006 to 2017, the company obtained at least 152 default judgments against 127 “SCRA-protected servicemembers” by failing to accurately disclose their military status in affidavits filed with the court. Additionally, the DOJ alleged that the company wrongfully withheld security deposits and imposed early lease termination fees on servicemembers who sought termination due to qualifying military orders under the SCRA. Under the terms of the settlement, the company will pay (i) nearly $1.5 million to compensate 127 servicemembers who had allegedly unlawful default judgments entered against them; (ii) nearly $35,000 to compensate 10 servicemembers who were charged early lease termination fees; and (iii) a civil money penalty of $62,000. The settlement also requires the company to develop policies and procedures related to SCRA lease terminations and default judgments, conduct SCRA compliance training for employees involved with lease issues, and request that major credit reporting agencies delete trade lines and negative credit information for the affected servicemembers.
- Daniel R. Alonso to discuss "The international compliance situation and new challenges" at the World Compliance Association Covid Compliance Conference
- Benjamin W. Hutten to discuss "Understanding OFAC sanctions" at a NAFCU webinar
- Garylene D. Javier to discuss "Navigating workplace culture in 2020" at the DC Bar Conference