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On July 30, the DOJ announced several settlements with a group of California-based mortgage loan modification service providers to resolve allegations that the defendants violated the Fair Housing Act by targeting Hispanic homeowners for predatory mortgage loan modification services and interfering with the homeowners’ ability to keep their homes. According to the DOJ, the defendants persuaded as many as 400 Hispanic homeowners to pay approximately $5,000 for audits advertised as essential for loan modifications, but in actuality had no impact on the modification process and provided no financial benefit. Additionally, the DOJ claimed that the defendants “encouraged their clients to stop making mortgage payments and instructed them to cease contact with their lenders,” which led to many homeowners losing their homes due to defaulted mortgages. The lawsuit stemmed from complaints filed with HUD by two of the defendants’ former clients, who intervened in the lawsuit, along with their attorney, Housing and Economic Rights Advocates (HERA), and members of one of the former client’s family.
While three of the companies identified as defendants in the complaint ceased operations, the settlement agreements resolve allegations against the individuals responsible for owning and operating the now-defunct companies. Under the terms of the agreements, the individual defendants have agreed to, among other things, (i) refrain from engaging in the discriminatory conduct; and (ii) contribute more than $148,000 towards a restitution fund to reimburse fees paid to the defendants by former clients. Additionally, five of the individual defendants have agreed to pay an additional $405,699 in suspended judgments should it be determined the defendants misrepresented their current financial situations. The DOJ noted that the individual defendants have also agreed to an additional $91,650 in compensation in separate settlements reached with their former clients and HERA.
Pension advance company settles with Virginia Attorney General over high-interest loans targeting veterans and retirees
On November 15, the Virginia Attorney General announced a $51.7 million settlement with a pension advance company, its owner, and related entities (defendants) to resolve allegations concerning allegedly illegal, high-interest loans made to more than 1,000 Virginia veterans and retirees in violation of the Virginia Consumer Protection Act (VCPA). According to the Attorney General’s complaint, the defendants allegedly “disguised [the] illegal, high interest loans as ‘pension sales’ that could provide Virginia pension holders with a quick lump sum of cash,” and seemingly concentrated the sales in two Virginia areas where a large number of retired veterans and civil servants reside. Following the lawsuit, the defendants shut down lending operations in Virginia and around the country. Under a permanent injunction and final judgment, the court—which declared the defendants’ agreements to be “usurious and illegal”—ordered the defendants to: (i) provide over $20 million in borrower debt forgiveness; (ii) pay a $31.7 million civil money penalty; (iii) pay $414,473 in restitution; (iv) pay $198,000 for costs and attorneys’ fees; and (v) agree to injunctive relief to prevent further violations of the VCPA.
On October 30, the U.S. Attorney for the Middle District of Florida filed a lawsuit against a Florida legal services provider and two of its officers (defendants) for allegedly violating the Fair Housing Act by “intentionally discriminating against Hispanic homeowners by targeting them with a predatory mortgage loan modification and foreclosure rescue services scheme.” Specifically, the complaint alleges that the defendants, among other things, (i) targeted borrowers through the use of Spanish-language advertisements that allegedly promised to cut mortgage payments in half; (ii) promised payments would be lowered “in a specific timeframe in exchange for thousands of dollars of upfront fees and continuing monthly fees of as much as $550,” without delivering the promised loan modifications; (iii) instructed borrowers to stop making monthly mortgage payments and to stop communicating with their lenders; and (iv) had borrowers sign English-language contracts while only translating the provisions regarding payment. The complaint seeks to enjoin the defendants from participating in discriminatory activities on the basis of national origin, and requests monetary damages and civil penalties.
New York City Department of Consumer Affairs sues for-profit college for deceptive and predatory lending practices
On October 19, New York City Department of Consumer Affairs (DCA) announced that it filed suit in New York County Supreme Court against a for-profit college alleging deceptive and predatory lending practices that violate NYC Consumer Protection Law and local debt collection rules. The DCA alleges that college recruiters engaged in deceptive practices such as (i) masquerading federal loan applications as scholarships; (ii) steering students towards college loans and referring to them as “payment plans”; and (iii) deceiving students about institutional grants by failing to disclose that they require students to obtain the maximum amount of federal loans available before a grant can be awarded. DCA also alleges that the for-profit college violated debt collection laws by concealing its identity on invoices when collecting debt, and seeking payments from graduates for debts not owed.
VA issues policy guidance on VA refinance loans in response to the Economic Growth, Regulatory Relief and Consumer Protection Act
On May 25, the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) issued Circular 26-18-13 discussing the impact of “The Protecting Veterans from Predatory Lending Act of 2018” (the Act), which was included in the recently enacted bipartisan regulatory relief bill, Economic Growth, Regulatory Relief and Consumer Protection Act, S. 2155, previously covered by InfoBytes here. The Act addresses “loan churning” of VA-guaranteed refinance loans and sets out new requirements for VA eligibility. As of May 25, a lender (broker or agent included), a servicer, or issuer of an Interest Rate Reduction Refinance Loan (IRRRL) must, among other things:
- Recoup Fees. Certify that certain fees and costs of the loan will be recouped on or before 36 months after the loan note date;
- Establish a Net Tangible Benefit. Establish that when the previous loan had a fixed interest rate (i) the new fixed interest rate is at least 0.5 percent lower or (ii) if the new loan has an adjustable rate, that the rate is at least 2 percent lower than the previous loan. In each instance, the lower rate cannot be produced solely from discount points except in certain circumstances; and
- Apply a Seasoning Period. Follow a seasoning requirement for all VA-guaranteed loans. A loan cannot be refinanced by an IRRRL or a VA cash-out refinance (if the new principle amount is less than the loan being refinanced) until (i) 210 days after the date of the first payment made on the loan and (ii) the date of the sixth monthly payment is made on the loan.
The circular is rescinded on January 1, 2020.
On April 16, the New York Department of Financial Services (NYDFS) announced an investigation into whether rent-to-own and land installment home purchase agreements constitute unlicensed, predatory mortgage lending in New York. NYDFS acknowledged the ongoing investigation while releasing a consumer alert to New Yorkers about rent-to-own and land installment contract pitfalls. The alert notifies consumers that the agreements may violate certain New York laws and regulations governing fair lending, mortgage protection, interest rates, habitability, and property condition. NYDFS encourages consumers to consider a traditional leasing option and be aware of the state of disrepair the property may be in before signing the agreement.
Virginia Attorney General sues pension sale lender who targeted retired veterans and government employees; obtains full restitution for customers of online lender
On March 7, the Virginia Attorney General took action against Delaware- and Nevada-based installment lenders (defendants) for allegedly making illegal loans with excessive annual interest rates that were disguised as “lump sum” cash payouts to Virginia consumers, in violation of the Virginia Consumer Protection Act (VCPA). According to the complaint, the defendants disguised the high interest loans to Virginia pensioners as “Purchase and Sale Agreements” involving a “sale” or “pension advance” in an effort to bypass consumer lending laws, including TILA and Regulation Z disclosure requirements. Furthermore, the complaint alleges that the loans charged interest rates as high as 183 percent, far exceeding the state’s 12 percent annual usury cap, but because they were misrepresented as sales, defendants avoided potential private actions brought by consumers to recover excessive interest payments. The complaint seeks injunctive and monetary relief.
Separately, on February 23, the Virginia Attorney General announced a settlement with a group of affiliated online lenders and debt collectors (defendants) to resolve violations of the VCPA through the offering of unlawful open-end credit plan loans and engaging in illegal debt collection practices. According to the Assurance of Voluntary Compliance approved earlier in February, between January 2015 through mid-June 2017, the defendants (i) offered open-end credit plan loans and imposed bi-monthly “service fees” that—when calculated with the advertised interest—greatly increased the loan’s cost and exceeded the state’s 12 percent annual limit; (ii) imposed illegal finance charges and other service fees on borrowers during the required 25-day grace period; (iii) contacted consumers in an effort to collect on these loans; and (iv) contacted the consumers' employers to implement wage assignments and garnish wages from consumers' paychecks. Under the terms of the settlement, defendants will provide nearly $150,000 in restitution and debt forgiveness, pay $105,000 in civil penalties and attorneys’ fees, and are permanently enjoined from consumer lending and debt collection activities in the state.
On February 7, Virginia’s Attorney General, Mark R. Herring, announced a $2.7 million settlement with a Virginia affiliate of a New York-based internet lender to resolve alleged violations of the Virginia Consumer Protection Act (VCPA). According to the announcement, between January 2017 and July 2017, the online lender (i) offered installment loans with interest rates as high as 359 percent without qualifying for an exception to the state’s 12 percent interest cap; (ii) falsely claimed it was licensed by Virginia’s Bureau of Financial Institutions; and (iii) charged state residents an unlawful check-processing fee of $15 for payments made by check on closed-end installment loans. The attorney general’s office stated that the settlement requires the lender to disgorge more than $2 million in illegal interest payments received, provide over $300,000 in refunds to affected state consumers, and pay the state $30,000 in civil money penalties, costs, and fees. The settlement also contains a permanent injunction that prohibits the lender from misrepresenting its status as a licensed Virginia lender.
On November 30, Virginia Attorney General Mark R. Herring announced a settlement with a Chicago-based “open-end credit plan internet lender” to resolve alleged violations of the Virginia Consumer Protection Act (VCPA). Specifically, the Attorney General’s Office alleged that the lender misrepresented that it was licensed to conduct lending activity in Virginia and charged unlawful origination fees during a statutorily required grace period. According to a press release issued by the Attorney General’s office, the settlement requires the lender to provide more than $3 million of refunds and interest forgiveness to borrowers, and pay the state $30,000 in civil money penalties, costs, and fees. The settlement also contains a permanent injunction that prohibits the lender from misrepresenting its status as a licensed Virginia lender and violating the VCPA.
On October 25, Virginia Attorney General Mark R. Herring announced a settlement with a Nevada-based internet lender to resolve allegations that the lender violated the Virginia Consumer Protection Act by misrepresenting it was licensed by the state’s Bureau of Financial Institutions and collecting interest exceeding the state’s general usury limit. According to a press release issued by the Attorney General’s office, the settlement requires the lender to provide refunds and interest forgiveness of more than $265,000 to borrowers, and pay the state $50,000 in civil money penalties, costs, and fees. A permanent injunction also prohibits the lender from, among other things, misrepresenting its licensing status and collecting interest exceeding the amount allowed by the state’s general usury statute.
- Benjamin W. Hutten to discuss "Requirements for banking inherently high-risk relationships" at the Georgia Bankers Association BSA Experience Program
- Benjamin W. Hutten to discuss "BSA program reporting, management and board of directors responsibilities" at the Georgia Bankers Association BSA Experience Program
- Hank Asbill to discuss "Ethical guidance in conducting internal investigations – The intersection of Yates and Upjohn" at the American Bar Association Southeastern White Collar Crime Institute
- H Joshua Kotin to discuss "Recent developments in fair lending and avoiding the pitfalls" at the Arkansas Community Bankers/Bankers Assurance 2019 Compliance Conference
- Brandy A. Hood to discuss "RESPA Section 8/referrals: How do you stay compliant?" at the New England Mortgage Bankers Conference
- Daniel P. Stipano to discuss "Risk management in enforcement actions: Managing risk or micromanaging it" at the American Bar Association Business Law Section Annual Meeting
- Valerie L. Hletko to discuss "Banking on guns ‘n drugs: Social policy meets financial services" at the American Bar Association Business Law Section Annual Meeting
- Daniel P. Stipano to discuss "Navigating the conflicting federal and state laws for doing business with cannabis companies" at the American Bar Association Business Law Section Annual Meeting
- Tim Lange to discuss "Services and value" at the North American Collection Agency Regulatory Association Annual Conference
- Katherine L. Halliday to discuss "UDAP, UDAAP & the Map rule compliance basics" at the Mortgage Bankers Association Regulatory Compliance Conference
- Brandy A. Hood to discuss "How to ace your TRID exam" at the Mortgage Bankers Association Regulatory Compliance Conference
- Amanda R. Lawrence to discuss "Data privacy litigation" at the Mortgage Bankers Association Regulatory Compliance Conference
- Melissa Klimkiewicz to discuss "Navigating FHA rules and regs" at the Mortgage Bankers Association Regulatory Compliance Conference
- Jeffrey P. Naimon to discuss "Washington regulatory overview" at the Mortgage Bankers Association Regulatory Compliance Conference
- Jonice Gray Tucker to discuss "HMDA data is out, now what?" at the Mortgage Bankers Association Regulatory Compliance Conference
- Daniel P. Stipano to discuss "Assessing the CDD final rule: A year of transitions" at the ACAMS AML & Financial Crime Conference
- Daniel P. Stipano to discuss "Lessons learned from recent enforcement actions and CMPs" at the ACAMS AML & Financial Crime Conference
- Kathryn L. Ryan to discuss "The state’s role in fintech: Providing an industry framework for innovation" at Lend360
- Jeffrey P. Naimon to discuss "Truth in lending" at the American Bar Association National Institute on Consumer Financial Services Basics
- Daniel P. Stipano to discuss "Lessons learned from recent enforcement actions" at the Institute of International Bankers Risk Management and Regulatory Examination/Compliance Seminar
- Jonice Gray Tucker to discuss "Fintech regulatory developments, crypto-assets, blockchain and digital banking, and consumer issues" at the Practising Law Institute Banking Law Institute
- Amanda R. Lawrence to discuss "How to balance a successful (and stressful) career with greater personal well-being" at the American Bar Association Women in Litigation Joint CLE Conference