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On June 29, the American University Washington College of Law held a symposium centered in part around the CFPB’s new approach for examining institutions for unfair conduct. During the CFPB’s New Approach to Discrimination: Invoking UDAAP symposium, CFPB Assistant Director for the Office of Enforcement Eric Halperin answered questions related to updates recently made to the Bureau’s Unfair, Deceptive, or Abusive Acts or Practices Examination Manual. These updates detail the agency’s view that its broad authority under UDAAP allows it to address discriminatory conduct in the offering of any financial product or service as an unfair act or practice. (Covered by a Buckley Special Alert here.) The Bureau published a separate blog post by its enforcement and supervision heads explaining that they were “cracking down on discrimination in the financial sector,” and that the new procedures would guide examiners to look “beyond discrimination directly connected to fair lending laws” and “to review any policies or practices that exclude individuals from products and services, or offer products or services with different terms, in an unfairly discriminatory manner.”
Assistant Director Halperin’s remarks were followed by a discussion of the Bureau’s revisions to its Examination Manual by a panel that consisted of David Silberman of the Center for Responsible Lending, Kitty Ryan of the American Bankers Association, and John Coleman of Buckley LLP, which was moderated by Jerry Buckley. Topics covered included a June 28 letter that trade associations sent to the CFPB urging recission of revisions to the Examination Manual.
In his interview with American University Law School Professor V. Gerard Comizio, Halperin stated that the CFPB’s Examination Manual updates provide guidance on how examiners will implement the Bureau’s statutory authority to examine whether an act or practice is unfair because it may cause or is likely to cause substantial injury to consumers that is not reasonably avoidable and not outweighed by countervailing benefits to consumers or competition. He stressed that the update does not create a new legal standard under the three prongs of the unfairness standard. Halperin also discussed how the Bureau’s UDAAP authority interacts with laws enacted specifically to prevent discriminatory conduct such as ECOA and the Fair Housing Act, and touched on steps institutions should consider taking to ensure compliance. Notably, when asked whether the Bureau intends to pursue disparate impact claims under the CFPA, Halperin stated that disparate impact, along with disparate treatment, are wholly distinct concepts from Dodd-Frank’s prohibition on unfair acts and practices. He added that in assessing an unfair act and practice, the key is to examine the substantial injury prong and then assess the reasonable avoidability and the countervailing benefits prongs. He further explained that the unfairness test does not contain an intentional standard and noted that there have been cases brought by both the FTC and the Bureau where there was injurious conduct that was not intentional or specifically known to the party engaging in this practice. According to Halperin, substantial injury alone is not sufficient to prove unfairness and using disparate impact as the mechanism of proof is not what the Bureau uses to prove an unfairness claim.
Halperin reiterated that the CFPB Examination Manual is designed to provide transparency to financial institutions about the types of issues that examiners will be inquiring about in furtherance of determining whether there has been an unfair act or practice under the current framework, and does not extend or create new law. In terms of practical compliance implications, Halperin said most financial institutions should already have robust UDAAP compliance systems in place and should already be looking for potential unfair acts or practices and examining patterns and group characteristics to identify the root cause of any issues, and to avoid substantial injury to consumers. With respect to a white paper recently sent to CFPB Director Rohit Chopra from several industry groups and the U.S Chamber of Commerce urging the Bureau to rescind the UDAAP exam manual (covered by InfoBytes here), Halperin commented that he has not had time to fully digest the white paper in detail but hoped that some of what was discussed during the symposium, particularly on the legal principles that will be used both in the exam manual and in any supervision and enforcement actions, clarifies that the Bureau is looking for conduct that violates the unfairness test.
On June 28, industry groups and the U.S Chamber of Commerce (collectively, “groups”) released a White Paper, Unfairness and Discrimination: Examining the CFPB’s Conflation of Distinct Statutory Concepts, urging the CFPB to rescind the recently released unfair, deceptive and abusive acts or practices (UDAAP) examination manual. As previously covered by a Buckley Special Alert, in March, the CFPB announced significant revisions to its UDAAP exam manual, in particular highlighting the CFPB’s view that its broad authority under UDAAP allows it to address discriminatory conduct in the offering of any financial product or service. The White Paper, among other things, explained the groups’ position that the Bureau’s UDAAP authority cannot be used to extend the fair lending laws beyond the limits of existing statutory law. The White Paper stated that the Bureau “conflated” concepts of “unfairness” and “discrimination” “by announcing, via a UDAAP exam manual ‘update,’ that it would examine financial institutions for alleged discriminatory conduct that it deemed to be ‘unfair’ under its UDAAP authority.” The groups stated that the agency has “taken the law into its own hand” arguing that “the Bureau did not follow Administrative Procedure Act requirements for notice-and-comment rulemaking.” The groups said the change in the examination manual is “contrary to law and subject to legal challenge” as well as legislative repeal under the Congressional Review Act. Additionally, the groups argued that the Bureau’s interpretation exceeds the agency’s statutory authority, and that the Bureau’s “action should be held unlawful and set aside.” The groups further stated that “[c]hanges that alter the legal duties of so many are the proper province of Congress, not of independent regulatory agencies, and the CFPB cannot ignore the requirements of the Administrative Procedures Act and Congressional Review Act. The CFPB may well wish to fill gaps it perceives in federal antidiscrimination law. But Congress has simply not authorized the CFPB to fill those gaps.”
In a letter sent to CFPB Director Rohit Chopra, the groups conveyed that Congress did not intend for the Bureau to “fill gaps” between the clearly articulated boundaries of antidiscrimination statutes with its UDAAP authority. The groups urged Director Chopra to rescind the exam manual update and stated that “[s]hould [he] believe additional authority is necessary to address alleged discriminatory conduct, we stand ready to work with Congress and the CFPB to explore that possibility and to ensure the just administration of the law.
On June 28, CFPB Deputy Director Zixta Martinez spoke before the FDIC Meeting of the Advisory Committee on Economic Inclusion to discuss expanding access to affordable payments, credit, and other financial products and services. In her remarks, Martinez first discussed electronic payments, which she considers to be “quickly supplanting cash and are now an essential part of the economy.” She then discussed the role of banks, noting that they have an “obligatory and leading role” in expanding electronic payments. Martinez stated that with “their obligations to increase banking access and reduce banking and financial inequities, banks can play a key role, for example, in reducing the persistent and growing homeownership gap between Black and white families and closing the economic gap between the banked and the under- and un-banked.” She also stated that having access to electronic payments will “low[er] monthly fees and further reduc[e] the cost of overdraft and non-sufficient fund fees” and will service banking deserts in rural areas and within communities of color. Martinez further discussed actions to build out banking access and described a recent proposal to update the Community Reinvestment Act’s (CRA) regulatory framework (covered by InfoBytes here). Martinez stated that the proposal will; (i) take steps to address problems with grade inflation on CRA exams (i.e., meaning that “almost every bank” passes”); (ii) “rely upon small business lending data, which will allow for a more in-depth understanding of small business lending issues,” race, and ethnicity; (iii) “increase incentives for banks to finance community development projects in areas experiencing persistent poverty”; and (vi) “recognize banks that assist low- and moderate-income communities with clean energy transition and climate resiliency.” Additionally, Martinez noted that the Bureau “is working to ensure that banking access and access to credit is not unfairly affected by algorithmic models.” In conclusion, she said the Bureau’s recently released guidance “confirm[s] that it is unlawful to use black box models that do not allow for clear understanding of adverse actions, such as denial of credit.” (Covered by InfoBytes here.)
On June 17, the FDIC announced updates to its Consumer Compliance Examination Manual (CEM). The CEM includes supervisory policies and examination procedures for FDIC examination staff when evaluating financial institutions’ compliance with federal consumer protection laws and regulations. The June update modifies Section VII Unfair, Deceptive, or Abusive Acts or Practices to reflect the FDIC’s existing supervisory authority regarding UDAP and UDAAP under Section 5 of the FTC Act, and Sections 1031 and 1036 of the Dodd-Frank Act, respectively. Among other updates, the new Section VII changes language related to the Equal Credit Opportunity Act and Fair Housing Act to add a reference to Dodd-Frank UDAAP provisions. The updated section provides the following:
ECOA prohibits discrimination in any aspect of a credit transaction against persons on the basis of race, color, religion, national origin, sex, marital status, age (provided the applicant has the capacity to contract), the fact that an applicant’s income derives from any public assistance program, and the fact that the applicant has in good faith exercised any right under the Consumer Credit Protection Act. The FHA prohibits creditors involved in residential real estate transactions from discriminating against any person on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, handicap, familial status, or national origin. FTC UDAPs and Dodd-Frank UDAAPs that target or have a disparate impact on consumers in one of these prohibited basis groups may violate the ECOA or the FHA, as well as the FTC Act or the Dodd-Frank Act. Moreover, some state and local laws address discrimination against additional protected classes, e.g., handicap in non-housing transactions, or sexual orientation. Such conduct may also violate the FTC Act or the Dodd-Frank Act.
With respect to the legal standards for “unfair” and “deceptive” under the FTC Act and Dodd-Frank, Section VII notes that these standards are “substantially similar.”
On June 21, the United States Department of Justice announced that it had secured a “groundbreaking” settlement resolving claims brought against a large social media platform for allegedly engaging in discriminatory advertising in violation of the Fair Housing Act. The settlement is one of the first significant federal actions involving claims of algorithmic bias and may indicate the complexity of applying “disparate impact” analysis under the anti-discrimination laws to complex algorithms in this area of increasingly intense regulatory focus.
On June 13, the CFPB published a guide to assist a range of stakeholders accessing publicly available HMDA data on lending patterns that may result in racial and economic inequality due to redlining practices or other “unjustified disparities.” Through the Beginner’s Guide to Accessing and Using Home Mortgage Disclosure Act Data, stakeholders can better understand the sources and meanings of various HMDA data types as well as the financial institutions that are required to maintain, report, and publicly disclose loan-level information about mortgage applications and loans. According to the Bureau, HMDA data can provide insights on whether lenders are serving the housing needs of their communities and help guide policy decisions.
On June 10, the DOJ announced that the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida entered a consent order against several defendants accused of violating the Fair Housing Act by targeting Hispanic homeowners for predatory mortgage loan modification services. After several Hispanic homeowners filed discrimination complaints with HUD, the agency conducted an investigation, issued charges of discrimination, and referred the matter to the DOJ for litigation. According to the DOJ’s complaint, the defendants targeted Hispanic homeowners with deceptive Spanish-language advertising “that falsely promised to cut their mortgage payments in half” and guaranteed “lower payments in a specific timeframe in exchange for thousands of dollars of upfront fees and continuing monthly fees of as much as $550, which defendants claimed were ‘non-refundable.’” The DOJ further contended that many of the targeted Hispanic homeowners (who had limited English proficiency) were told not to communicate with their lenders and were instructed to stop making monthly mortgage payments; however, the defendants allegedly “did little or nothing to obtain the promised loan modifications,” leading to defaults and foreclosures.
The consent order, reached in partnership with the Civil Rights Division’s Housing Section, enters a nearly $4.6 million judgment (which is mostly suspended) against the defendants to compensate harmed homeowners. Of this amount, $95,000 in total will go to three individuals who intervened as plaintiffs in the DOJ’s lawsuit. Defendants must also pay a $5,000 civil penalty. In addition to monetary relief, the consent order permanently enjoins defendants “from providing any mortgage relief assistance services, including, but not limited to, mortgage loan modification, foreclosure rescue, or foreclosure defense services.” The consent order also imposes training and reporting/recordkeeping requirements for defendants’ other real-estate activities.
On June 2, HUD announced a conciliation agreement with a mortgage lender to resolve allegations that it engaged in discriminatory lending practices based on race and national origin, in violation of the Fair Housing Act (FHA). The agreement arises from a complaint filed with HUD by the National Community Reinvestment Coalition (NCRC), which alleged that testing in the Seattle-Tacoma area revealed that Black and Hispanic testers were treated differently than White testers who sought housing loans. While the respondent denied that it provided less favorable treatment to testers based on race or national origin, it has agreed to pay $65,000 to NCRC and will “contribute an additional $10,000 to a Seattle-area non-profit organization specializing in providing financial literacy and housing education and counseling for persons in majority-minority census tracts in the Seattle-Tacoma-Bellevue metropolitan area.” The respondent will also conduct an event in the Seattle metro area to improve homeownership rates of Black homebuyers and will provide additional fair lending training to employees. The conciliation agreement does not constitute an admission by respondent or evidence of a finding by HUD of a violation of the FHA.
On May 12, the DOJ and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) released a technical assistance document addressing disability discrimination when using artificial intelligence (AI) and other software tools to make employment decisions. According to the announcement, the DOJ’s guidance document, Algorithms, Artificial Intelligence, and Disability Discrimination in Hiring, provides a broad overview of rights and responsibilities in plain language, and, among other things, (i) provides examples of technological tools used by employers; (ii) clarifies that employers must consider the impact on different disabilities when designing or choosing technological tools; (iii) describes employers’ obligations under the ADA when using algorithmic decision-making tools; and (iv) provides information for employees on actions they may take if they believe they have experienced discrimination. The EEOC also released a technical assistance document, The Americans with Disabilities Act and the Use of Software, Algorithms, and Artificial Intelligence to Assess Job Applicants and Employees, which focuses on preventing discrimination against job seekers and employees with disabilities.
On April 29, the National Fair Housing Alliance (NFHA) announced a settlement agreement with a real estate company resolving allegations that the company perpetuated redlining practices through its policies and procedures. NFHA, along with nine other fair housing organizations, sued the company following an investigation into its practices. The fair housing organizations alleged that the company’s minimum home price policy violated the Fair Housing Act by discriminating against sellers and buyers of homes in communities of color. Limiting or denying services for homes priced under a certain value can “perpetuate racial segregation and contribute to the racial wealth gap” the organizations claimed in the press release. According to the complaint, the company disproportionately withheld its services to homebuyers and sellers in these communities at a higher rate than in White zip codes in multiple major cities across the U.S, thereby disincentivizing homebuying within these communities, reducing housing demand and values, and perpetuating residential segregation. Under the terms of the settlement, the company will make several national operational changes and enhancements, including (i) expanding housing opportunities for consumers in communities of color in major cities throughout the country; (ii) eliminating its minimum housing price policy for a period of five years; and (iii) appointing a fair housing compliance officer, adopting an equal opportunity in housing policy, and developing a fair housing training program. The company will also pay $4 million to go towards expanding homeownership opportunities in the covered cities and to cover conduct monitoring, compliance efforts, litigation fees and costs.
- Kathryn L. Ryan and Jedd R. Bellman to discuss “Risk and compliance management: Are you covered?” at a Mortgage Bankers Association webinar
- Melissa Klimkiewicz and Daniel A. Bellovin to discuss “Things to know about flood insurance” at a NAFCU webinar
- Hank Asbill to discuss “Ethical issues at sentencing” at the 31st Annual National Seminar on Federal Sentencing
- Max Bonici will moderate a panel on “Enforcement risk and other regulatory and compliance issues related to crypto and digital assets” at the American Bar Association’s 2022 Annual Meeting
- John R. Coleman to provide a “CFPB Update” at MBA’s 2022 Regulatory Compliance Conference
- Amanda R. Lawrence to discuss “The shifting data privacy and data protection landscape” at MBA’s 2022 Regulatory Compliance Conference
- Jeffrey P. Naimon to provide “An update on key fair lending cases and the CRA and UDAAP rules” at MBA’s 2022 Regulatory Compliance Conference
- Benjamin W. Hutten to discuss “Fundamentals of financial crime compliance” at the Practicing Law Institute
- Benjamin W. Hutten to discuss “Ongoing CDD: Operational considerations” at NAFCU’s Regulatory Compliance & BSA Seminar
- James C. Chou to discuss ransomware at NAFCU’s Regulatory Compliance & BSA seminar