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On March 11, the CFPB announced it has rescinded its January 2020 policy statement, which addressed prohibitions on abusive acts or practices. As previously covered by InfoBytes, the Bureau issued the policy statement to provide a “common-sense framework” for how it planned to apply the “abusiveness” standard in supervision and enforcement matters as authorized under Dodd-Frank. Under the 2020 policy statement, the Bureau stated it would only cite or challenge conduct as abusive if the agency “concludes that the harms to consumers from the conduct outweigh its benefits to consumers.” The Bureau also stated it would generally avoid challenging conduct as abusive if it relies on all, or nearly all, of the same facts alleged to be unfair or deceptive, and that it would decline to seek civil money penalties and disgorgement for certain abusive acts or practices, absent unusual circumstances.
The Bureau now states that it is rescinding the 2020 policy statement after reaching the conclusion that the principles set forth do not actually provide clarity to regulated entities. Among other things, the Bureau notes that the 2020 policy statement is counterproductive, “afford[s] the Bureau considerable discretion in its application,” and adds uncertainty to market participants. Moreover, the Bureau claims that after reviewing and applying the 2020 policy statement, it has had “the opposite effect on preventing harm.” Going forward, the Bureau states it intends to “exercise the full scope of its supervisory and enforcement authority to identify and remediate abusive acts and practices” as established by Congress.
On February 22, the CFPB and state attorneys general from Massachusetts, New York, and Virginia filed a complaint against a group of defendants that provide immigration bond products or services for non-English speaking U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detainees. The Bureau alleges that the defendants engaged in deceptive and abusive acts and practices in violation of the CFPA, while the states bring related claims that the defendants violated their respective consumer-protection laws, by, among other things, (i) representing that they paid the detainees’ bonds and that monthly payments go towards repaying the defendants for doing so (the Bureau and states allege that the monthly payments are actually “rental fees for a GPS device that do not go to repaying consumers’ bonds”); (ii) making false threats that detainees will be re-arrested, detained, or deported if they do not make the monthly payments or remove the defendants’ GPS devices, many of which, the complaint claims, do not actually work; (iii) threatening to send detainees’ accounts to collection, representing that failing to make payments could harm their credit, or threatening to sue detainees or their families for non-payment; (iv) representing that collateral payments would be refunded once the detainees’ proceedings were resolved but in many cases failing to do so; (v) presenting detainees, most of whom cannot read or understand English, with a series of English-only contracts requiring the payment of large upfront fees plus $420 per month to “lease” GPS-tracking ankle monitors until their cases are resolved; (vi) creating the illusion that defendants are affiliated with ICE, even though they have no affiliation with authorities; and (vii) offering financial rewards to employees who sign up new customers and collect payments. The Bureau is seeking an injunction, as well as damages, redress, disgorgement, and civil money penalties.
On March 12, Senators Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and Sherrod Brown (D-OH) sent a letter to CFPB Director Kathy Kraninger expressing concerns over the Bureau’s oversight of the auto lending market. The Senators contend that the Bureau has not taken any auto lending enforcement actions since Kraninger became director, despite reports expressing concern with the volume of outstanding auto debt and “auto lenders  engaging in predatory practices and cutting back safeguards.” The Senators were “particularly concerned with the targeting of subprime consumers by non-bank lenders through indirect financing.” The letter seeks information regarding the Bureau’s plans to “fulfill its mission of stopping abusive practices and protecting consumers from this emerging threat,” including (i) whether the Bureau believes that the “incentive structure” between dealers and lenders in indirect financing can create risks for consumers; (ii) whether the Bureau believes lenders are intentionally charging higher rates because of arrangements with auto dealers; (iii) the types of actions the Bureau would take when it identifies a problematic relationship between a lender and a dealer; and (iv) a list of past enforcement actions by the Bureau against lenders who incentivized dealers to offer consumers a larger loan than the market value of the vehicle. In addition, the letter seeks information on the ways that the Bureau evaluates lender underwriting practices and whether it maintains a database with average LTV ratios, length of loan terms, and related data points for each lender. Finally, the Senators asked for clarifications on how the Bureau would evaluate whether auto lenders are engaging in abusive practices in light of its revised “abusiveness” standard and whether the Bureau has identified fair lending concerns with auto lenders. The letter requests that the Bureau respond to the questions by March 26.
On January 24, the CFPB issued a policy statement applicable immediately to provide a “common-sense framework” for how the Bureau plans to apply the “abusiveness” standard in supervision and enforcement matters as authorized under Dodd-Frank. Under the new policy statement, the Bureau will only cite or challenge conduct as abusive if the agency “concludes that the harms to consumers from the conduct outweigh its benefits to consumers.” The Bureau will also generally avoid challenging conduct as abusive if it relies on all, or nearly all, of the same facts alleged to be unfair or deceptive. Should the Bureau include abusiveness allegations, the policy statement says it will “plead such claims in a manner designed to clearly demonstrate the nexus between the cited facts and the Bureau’s legal analysis of the claim.” With respect to supervision, the Bureau intends to clarify the specific factual basis for determining a violation of the abusiveness standard. In addition, “the Bureau generally does not intend to seek certain types of monetary relief for abusiveness violations” in instances where the Bureau determines that the person made “a good-faith effort to comply with the abusiveness standard.” However, the Bureau cautions that it will still pursue restitution for consumers in such instances, regardless of whether a person acted in good faith. The Bureau further emphasized that the issuance of the policy statement does not prevent the possibility of future rulemaking to further define the abusiveness standard.
As previously covered by InfoBytes, last June the Bureau held a symposium to examine how the “abusive” standard has been used in practice in the field. Academics and practitioners discussed whether consumer harm was required for a practice to be considered abusive or whether there was even a need to clarify the abusive standard, as it is already statutorily defined. Most panelists agreed that a guidance document or policy statement would be an important first step for the Bureau in providing clarity to the industry, noting that the industry has struggled with examples of how abusiveness is different from unfairness or deception and that the Bureau has been “inconsistent at times” in the application of the abusive standard. The Bureau notes that the symposium, along with stakeholder feedback, played an important part of the process leading to the issuance of the policy statement.
On January 8, the New York governor released a proposal that would, among other things, expand the entities subject to NYDFS’ enforcement authority and harmonize state regulator authority to bring actions against entities engaging in unfair, deceptive, or abusive acts or practices with federal authority. Proposed within the 2020 State of the State agenda are several initiatives designed to increase the state’s oversight and enforcement of the financial services industry. Key measures include:
- Abusiveness claims. The proposal would make New York consumer protection law consistent with federal law by aligning the state’s UDAAP powers with those of the CFPB, thereby empowering state authorities to bring abusiveness claims under state law.
- Eliminate certain exemptions. The proposal would end exemptions from state oversight for certain, unspecified consumer financial products and services. “With the current federal administration reducing the number and breadth of enforcement actions brought by the CFPB, it is crucial that state consumer protection laws apply to all the same consumer products and services subject to Dodd-Frank,” the proposal states.
- Closing loopholes and creating a level playing field. Under the proposal, state-licensed cryptocurrency companies would be required to pay assessment fees similar to other financial services companies. Currently, only supervised entities licensed under the state’s insurance law or banking law are required to pay assessments to NYDFS to cover examination and oversight costs.
- Fines. In order to effectively deter illegal conduct, the proposal would amend the state’s insurance law to increase fines. Additionally, instead of the current Financial Services Law (FSL) penalty of $5,000 per violation, the governor proposes “capping penalties at the greater of $5,000, or two times the damages, or the economic gain attributed to the violation,” while also updating the FSL to provide “explicit authority for [NYDFS] to collect restitution and damages.”
- Debt collection. Debt collectors under the proposal would be required to be licensed by NYDFS, thus allowing the department to examine and investigate suspected abuses. Additionally, NYDFS’ new oversight authority would allow it to bring punitive administrative actions against debt collectors, which may result in significant fines or the loss of a license. The proposal would also codify the FTC’s rule prohibiting confessions of judgment in consumer loans.
As previously covered by InfoBytes, the proposal would also, among other things, expand access to safe and affordable financial services through a collaborative initiative between the state’s Community Development Financial Institutions, NYDFS, and other state agencies designed to improve outreach and financial literacy education to the unbanked and underserved communities.
On June 25, the CFPB held its “Abusive Acts or Practices Symposium,” the first event in a symposia series covering a range of consumer financial services topics. The event had two panels of experts discussing unfair, deceptive, or abusive acts and practices (UDAAP)—the first was a policy discussion, moderated by Tom Pahl, CFPB’s Policy Associate Director, Research, Markets and Regulation; and the second, examined how the “abusive” standard has been used in practice in the field and was moderated by David Bleicken, CFPB Deputy Associate Director, Supervision, Enforcement and Fair Lending. Director Kraninger began the symposium noting that it will help to “inform the Bureau’s thinking as to whether the Bureau should use its rulemaking or other tools to provide clarity about the general meaning of abusiveness—and, if so, which principles should be applied to determine the scope of abusiveness.”
The policy panel focused on whether consumer harm was required for a practice to be considered abusive. One panelist noted that while the Dodd-Frank Act statutory definition of abusive does not specifically require proof of consumer harm, it would be surprising if consumer harm wasn’t a priority in weighing enforcement claims. As for what principles the Bureau should apply in determining the scope of abusive acts and practices, one panelist identified three: “fidelity, autonomy, and modesty,” meaning the Bureau should follow the statutory language, protect autonomy of consumer decision-making, and be careful not to tie its hands prematurely based on current market information.
The practitioners’ panel focused on whether there was even a need to clarify the abusive standard, as it is already statutorily defined. Most panelists agreed that a guidance document or policy statement would be an important first step for the Bureau in providing clarity to the industry. Specifically, the panelists noted that the industry has struggled with examples of how abusiveness is different from unfairness or deception, arguing the Bureau has been “inconsistent at times” in the application of the abusive standard. One panelist explained that the Bureau often brings abusive claims in connection with a claim of deception or unfairness, stating “while this may work for the Bureau’s litigation strategy the market looks to enforcement for guidance on the policy. Standalone abusiveness claims that show how abusiveness is different from deception and unfairness would provide direction to staff and industry.” Because the standard is unclear to industry, a panelist argued that many companies choose to limit products or offerings to avoid unknown compliance risks.
An archived copy of the webcast will be available on the Bureau’s website.
On June 11, the CFPB announced that its first symposium, regarding the meaning of “abusive acts or practices” under Section 1031 of the Dodd-Frank Act, will be held on June 25. As previously covered by InfoBytes, the CFPB announced a symposia series that will convene to discuss consumer protections in “today’s dynamic financial services marketplace.” The June 25 symposium will be a public forum with two panels of experts discussing unfair, deceptive, or abusive acts and practices (UDAAP). The first panel will be a policy discussion, moderated by Tom Pahl, CFPB’s Policy Associate Director, Research, Markets and Regulation. The second panel will examine how the “abusive” standard has been used in practice in the field and will be moderated by David Bleicken, CFPB Deputy Associate Director, Supervision, Enforcement and Fair Lending.
In addition to the June 25 symposium, the series will have future events discussing behavioral law and economics, small business loan data collection, disparate impact and the Equal Credit Opportunity Act, cost-benefit analysis, and consumer authorized financial data sharing.
On April 17, Kathy Kraninger, Director of the CFPB, spoke before the Bipartisan Policy Center where she reiterated the Bureau’s focus on prevention of harm and announced a symposium that will explore the meaning of “abusive acts or practices” under Section 1031 of the Dodd-Frank Act. In her remarks, Kraninger touched on the four “tools” the Bureau has at its disposal to execute its mission: education, rulemaking, supervision, and enforcement.
- Education. The Bureau wants to help consumers protect their own interests and choose the right products and service to help themselves. Specifically, the Bureau is focusing on ensuring that American consumers learn to save to be able to absorb a financial shock.
- Rulemaking. The Bureau will comply with Congressional mandates to promulgate rules or address specific issues through rulemaking, but when the Bureau has discretion, it will focus on “preventing consumer harm by maximizing informed consumer choice, and prohibiting acts or practices which undermine the ability of consumers to choose the products and services that are best for them.” In the coming weeks, the Bureau will release its proposed rules to implement the FDCPA, which will include (i) bright line limits on the number of calls consumers can receive from debt collectors on a weekly basis; (ii) clarity on how collectors may communicate through new technology such as, email and text messages; and (iii) requiring more information at the outset of collection to help consumers better identify debts and understand payment and dispute options. Kraninger stated, “the CFPB must acknowledge that the costs imposed on regulated entities absolutely affect access to, and the availability of, credit to consumers.”
- Supervision. This tool is the “heart of the agency,” according to Kraninger, as it helps to prevent violations of laws and regulations from happening in the first place. The Bureau will keep in mind that it is not the only regulator examining most entities and will focus on coordination and collaboration with the other regulators so as not to impose unmanageable burdens in examinations.
- Enforcement. The Bureau will continue to enforce against bad actors that do not comply with the law, as enforcement is “an essential tool that Congress gave the Bureau.” The Bureau will have a “purposeful enforcement regime” to foster compliance and help prevent consumer wrongs. Kraninger is “committed to ensuring that enforcement investigations proceed carefully and purposefully to ensure a fair and thorough evaluation of the facts and law… [and ensuring they] move as expeditiously as possible to resolve enforcement matters, whether through public action or a determination that a particular investigation should be closed.”
Kraninger also touched on how the Bureau plans to measure success going forward. Kraninger noted that in the past, the Bureau touted its outgoing statistics as a measurement, such as amount of consumer redress and number of complaints handled. However, according to Kraninger, if the Bureau succeeds in fostering a goal of prevention of harm, certain outputs like meritorious complaints would actually be lower. Therefore, the Bureau’s success should be based on how it uses all of its tools. Lastly, Kraninger announced a symposia series that would convene to discuss consumer protections in “today’s dynamic financial services marketplace.” The first will explore the meaning of “abusive acts or practices” under Section 1031 of the Dodd-Frank Act, specifically, to address issues with the “reasonableness” standard. There are no additional details on the date for the symposium but Kraninger noted that this would be the next step in exploring future rulemaking on the issue. The series will also have future events discussing behavioral law and economics, small business loan data collection, disparate impact and the Equal Credit Opportunity Act, cost-benefit analysis, and consumer authorized financial data sharing.
Additionally, on April 9, acting Deputy Director, Brian Johnson, spoke at the George Mason University Law & Economics Center's Ninth Annual Financial Services Symposium. In his prepared remarks, Johnson emphasized that regulatory rules should be “as simple as possible” when dealing with complex markets as they are easier for a greater portion of actors to understand and adapt to and also promote compliance, “which has the ancillary benefit of making it easier for consumers (not to mention regulators) to distinguish between good and bad actors.” Johnson argued that regulators should not try and dictate specific outcomes in rulemaking. Instead, Johnson stated that “financial regulators should recognize that complex market systems are not a means to accomplish their specific goals” and should “narrowly-tailor rules to address a discrete market failure.” Johnson also touched on the Bureau’s new Office of Innovation, noting that the Bureau’s proposed No Action Letter Program and Product Sandbox will offer firms “the opportunity to expand credit while still preserving important consumer protections,” while assisting the Bureau in learning about new technologies and potential consumer risks. As for the Bureau’s cost-benefit analysis, Johnson said that this activity will not be limited to future actions, but will also be used for “periodic retrospective analysis” because financial markets are “constantly changing, requiring constant reappraisal and verification of the rules that govern the system.”
- Jonice Gray Tucker to join CFPB panel at CBA’s Washington Forum
- Jonice Gray Tucker to moderate “Pandemic relief response and lasting impacts on access, credit, banking, and equality” at the American Bar Association Business Law Section Spring Meeting
- Jeffrey P. Naimon to discuss "Post-pandemic CFPB exam preparation" at the Mortgage Bankers Association Spring Conference & Expo
- Jonice Gray Tucker to discuss "Making fair lending work for you" at the Mortgage Bankers Association Spring Conference & Expo
- Jonice Gray Tucker to discuss "Reading the tea leaves of President Biden’s initial financial appointees" at LendIt Fintech
- Moorari K. Shah to discuss “CA, NY, federal licensing and disclosure” at the Equipment Leasing & Finance Association Legal Forum
- Jonice Gray Tucker to discuss "Compliance under Biden" at the WSJ Risk & Compliance Forum
- Jonice Gray Tucker to discuss “The future of fair lending” at the Mortgage Bankers Association Legal Issues and Regulatory Compliance Conference