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On April 29, the CFPB filed a proposed stipulated final judgment and order in the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California resolving allegations that a student loan debt relief business and a general debt-settlement company, along with their owner and CEO (collectively, “defendants”), engaged in wrongful fee-charging practices and deceptive telemarketing. As previously covered by InfoBytes, the CFPB filed a complaint against the defendants for allegedly violating the Telemarketing Sales Rule (TSR) and the Consumer Financial Protection Act (CFPA) by charging illegal advance fees and using deceptive tactics to induce consumers to sign up for services. According to the complaint, from 2015 to the present, the defendants allegedly charged consumers upfront fees for the debt-relief company to file paperwork with the Department of Education to obtain loan consolidation, loan forgiveness, or income-driven repayment plans. Some consumers paid the upfront fee using a third-party financing company and paid an APR between 17 and 22 percent. The CFPB also alleged that the defendants required some consumers to pay the fee in installments into a trust plan, which carried a $6 monthly banking fee paid to the administrator of the trust accounts. The Bureau alleged that the defendants failed to provide the proper disclosures under the TSR. Moreover, the complaint asserted that from 2019 to the present, the defendants violated the CFPA by representing to consumers that they were turned down for a loan in order to pitch the company’s settlement services. Under the terms of the proposed settlement, the student loan debt relief business and the general debt-settlement company are permanently banned from engaging in debt relief services, and the CEO is banned for five years.
The CEO is also required to pay a civil monetary penalty of $30,000 to the CFPB.
On April 28, the Department of Education announced it will deliver relief to tens of thousands of borrowers harmed by “pervasive and widespread misconduct” at a beauty school. According to the Department, the students attended the beauty school between 2009 and 2016, during which it “engaged in pervasive and widespread misconduct that negatively affected all borrowers who enrolled.” The 28,000 borrowers will receive loan discharges totaling approximately $238 million, which will provide relief to borrowers who enrolled at the beauty school during this period, including those who have not yet applied for a borrower defense discharge. According to Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona, the Department will “continue to strengthen oversight and enforcement for colleges and career schools that engaged in misconduct and uphold the Biden-Harris Administration’s commitment to helping students who have been harmed.” The Office of Federal Student Aid also announced it is hiring four employees for its enforcement unit.
On April 19, the Department of Education announced additional changes to the federal student loan program designed to reduce or eliminate federal student loan debt for many borrowers. In particular:
- To address long-term forbearance steering, Federal Student Aid (FSA) will conduct “a one-time account adjustment that will count forbearances of more than 12 months consecutive and more than 36 months cumulative toward forgiveness” under the income-driven repayment (IDR) and Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF) programs.
- Borrowers “steered” into shorter-term forbearances may file a complaint with the FSA Ombudsman to seek an account review.
- FSA will also partner with the CFPB to conduct regular audits of servicers’ forbearance use, and will seek to improve oversight of loan servicing activities.
- Loan servicers’ ability to enroll borrowers in forbearance by text or email will be restricted.
- FSA will conduct a one-time revision of IDR-qualifying payments for all Direct Student Loans and federally-managed Federal Family Education Loan Program (FFEL) loans, and will count any month in which a borrower made a payment toward IDR, regardless of the payment plan. Borrowers who meet the required number of payments for IDR forgiveness based on the one-time revision will receive automatic loan cancellation. Moreover, months spent in deferment prior to 2013 will count towards IRD forgiveness (with the exception of in-school deferment) to address certain data reliability issues.
In addition, FSA plans to reform its IDR tracking process. New guidance will be issued to student loan servicers to ensure accurate and uniform payment counting practices. FSA will also track payment counts on its own systems and will display IDR payment counts on StudentAid.gov beginning in 2023 so borrowers can monitor their progress. The Department also plans to issue rulemaking that will revise the terms of IDR and “further simplify payment counting by allowing more loan statuses to count toward IDR forgiveness, including certain types of deferments and forbearances.”
On April 18, the CFPB announced it is examining the practice of transcript withholding as a debt collection practice. According to a Bureau blog post, many post-secondary institutions choose to withhold official transcripts from borrowers as an attempt to collect education-related debts ranging from student loans to library fines. “Withholding transcripts as a debt collection tactic is particularly perplexing, as it can undermine rather than enhance a student’s likelihood of repaying,” the Bureau said, noting that this practice can cause students to become stuck in a cycle of collections. As previously covered by InfoBytes, the Bureau announced in January that it plans to examine the operations of post-secondary schools that extend private loans directly to students and that are not subject to the same servicing oversight as other lenders and servicers. The Bureau noted that it is “concerned about the borrower experience with institutional loans because of past abuses at schools,” high interest rates, and debt collection practices.
On April 6, President Biden extended the moratorium on collecting student loans until August 31, explaining that the extension “will assist borrowers in achieving greater financial security and support the Department of Education’s efforts to continue improving student loan programs.” The Department of Education released a statement noting that it will continue to assess the financial impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic on student loan borrowers and assist them, which includes “allowing all borrowers with paused loans to receive a ‘fresh start’ on repayment by eliminating the impact of delinquency and default and allowing them to reenter repayment in good standing.” In response to the extension, Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona stated that the Department of Education will continue "to ensure that all borrowers have access to repayment plans that meet their financial situations and needs.”
On February 18, the CFPB released a compliance bulletin warning student loan servicers to make sure they provide complete and accurate information to eligible borrowers about Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF) benefits. The Bureau indicated that it will be paying close attention to servicers’ compliance with Dodd-Frank’s prohibition on unfair, deceptive, or abusive acts or practices. Last October, the Department of Education changed its PSLF program to now provide qualifying borrowers with a time-limited PSLF waiver that allows all payments to count towards PSLF regardless of loan program or payment plan. The waiver covers payments made on loans under the Federal Family Education Loan Program or Perkins Loan Program. (Covered by InfoBytes here.) However, Bureau supervisory findings revealed unfair or deceptive practices taken by servicers that have prevented many borrowers from making progress towards forgiveness. The Bureau emphasized that it expects servicers to comply with federal consumer financial protection laws when administering the new PSLF waiver and providing assistance to borrowers. The Bureau “will pay particular attention” to whether (i) servicers of any federal loan type provide complete and accurate information about the PSLF waiver in communications related to PSLF or loan consolidation; (ii) servicers have adequate policies and procedures to recognize when borrowers express interest in PSLF or the PSLF waiver (or where borrowers’ files otherwise demonstrate their eligibility), in order to direct borrowers to appropriate resources; and (iii) servicers take measures “to promote the benefits of the PSLF Waiver to borrowers who express interest or whose files otherwise demonstrate their eligibility.” The Bureau advised servicers to consider enhancing their compliance management systems to ensure borrowers receive accurate and complete information about the PSLF waiver and that their enrollment is facilitated.
On February 16, the FTC announced that the Department of Education (Department) will forgive $71.7 million in federal loans for approximately 1,800 former students deceived by a for-profit university. In 2016, the FTC sued university operators for allegedly advertising that 90 percent of graduates found jobs in their fields within six months of graduation, and that graduates had a 15 percent higher income on average than graduates of all other colleges or universities one year after graduation. The announcement expands on a prior FTC settlement, which required the university to pay $49.4 million in partial refunds to qualifying students and $50.6 million in debt relief. The forgiven debt included the full balance owned on all private unpaid student loans issued by the university to students as well as debts for items such as tuition, books, and lab fees. According to the Department’s announcement, these are the first approved borrower defense claims associated with a currently operating institution. The Department noted that it intends to recoup discharge costs from the university and anticipates an increase in the number of approved claims related to the university as it continues to review pending applications.
The Department stated in total it is cancelling $415 million in student loan debt under the borrower defense to repayment program, noting that several other actions will provide borrower defense discharges to nearly 14,000 borrowers attending other colleges and universities. “The Department remains committed to giving borrowers discharges when the evidence shows their college violated the law and standards,” said U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona. The Department further noted that it is working on new regulations to improve the borrower defense to repayment program, as well as other discharge programs to provide more protections for students and taxpayers. “This includes writing a new borrower defense regulation, proposing to re-establish a gainful employment regulation to hold career training programs accountable for unaffordable debt, and proposing to create financial triggers so that the Department has monetary protection against potential losses, including borrower defense liabilities,” the Department said in its announcement.
On January 14, the DOJ announced a $7.9 million settlement with a contractor that serviced student loans for lenders under the Federal Family Education Loan Program to resolve allegations that it violated the False Claims Act by submitting or causing the submission of false claims to the Department of Education. According to the settlement agreement, from 2006 to 2016, the contractor allegedly knowingly failed to make required financial adjustments to borrower accounts and improperly treated some borrowers as eligible for military deferments, which resulted in incorrect reporting to the Department of Education and losses to the United States. The settlement press release noted that the contractor paid $1.4 million to the Department of Education under a remediation plan to partially resolve the allegations and received a credit for that payment under the settlement agreement.
On December 22, the Department of Education announced a 90-day extended pause on student loan repayment, interest, and collections through May 1, 2022, which will allow the Biden Administration “to assess the impacts of the Omicron variant on student borrowers and provide additional time for borrowers to plan for the resumption of payments and reduce the risk of delinquency and defaults after restart.” As previously covered by InfoBytes, in August 2021, President Biden announced the extension of the moratorium on collecting student loans until January 31, 2022. According to the Department, the extended pause will assist 41 million borrowers in saving $5 billion per month and “[b]orrowers are encouraged to use the additional time to ensure their contact information is up to date and to consider enrolling in electronic debit and income-driven repayment plans to support a smooth transition to repayment.”
On October 15, the Department of Education announced revised standards for its student loan servicers effective early next year. The six identified student loan servicing companies signed contract extensions agreeing to comply with federal, state, and local laws governing student loan servicing and collections and will respond to complaints filed with those authorities in a timely manner. According to Federal Student Aid (FSA) Operating Officer Richard Cordray, the new standards “rais[e] the bar for the level of service student loan borrowers will receive. . .[and] come at a critical time as we help borrowers prepare for loan payments to resume early next year.” The FSA states that servicers that do not meet certain performance standards may see a decrease in the number of accounts placed with them, and servicers that assist borrowers avoid falling behind on payments, especially at-risk borrowers, will be rewarded.
Standards will measure several performance metrics including: (i) the percentage of borrowers who end a phone call before reaching a customer service representative; (ii) how well customer service representatives answer borrowers’ questions and help navigate repayment options; (iii) “[w]hether servicers process borrower requests accurately the first time”; and (iv) the overall level of customer service borrowers receive. Additionally, the six servicers will be required to submit “new, comprehensive reports,” which will provide FSA greater insight into borrowers’ experiences with loan servicers and allow FSA to track why borrowers contact their loan servicers, the type of borrower applications that are denied, and complaints borrowers send directly to loan servicers. FSA says it intends to publicly release the performance data.
- Kathryn L. Ryan to discuss "State licensing and NMLS challenges" at MBA’s Legal Issues and Regulatory Compliance Conference
- Jonice Gray Tucker to discuss “Fair lending and equal opportunity laws” at the MBA Legal Issues and Regulatory Compliance Conference
- Jeffrey P. Naimon to discuss “Contemplating the boundaries of UDAAP” at the MBA Legal Issues and Regulatory Compliance Conference
- Steven vonBerg to speak at closing “super session“ on compliance topics at MBA Legal Issues and Regulatory Compliance Conference
- Buckley Webcast: Fifth Circuit muddles CFPB’s plans to use in-house judges in enforcement proceedings
- Jeffrey P. Naimon to discuss “Understanding the ESG impact on compliance” at the ABA’s Regulatory Compliance Conference