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On May 6, the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California preliminarily approved a revised class action settlement concerning allegations that a mortgage servicer charged borrowers a $15 convenience fee for making mortgage payments over the phone. The plaintiff filed a class action complaint in 2019 against the servicer alleging, among other things, that the servicer’s assessment of the convenience fee breached her mortgage agreement and violated the FDCPA, California’s Rosenthal Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, and California’s Unfair Competition Law. The parties reached a settlement in 2020, but the court denied approval, expressing concerns with several aspects of the settlement, including the adequacy of the settlement fund, anticipated attorneys’ fees and incentive award requests, and proposed notice to potential class members. Under the terms of the revised settlement, the servicer will be required to pay approximately $3.3 million into a settlement fund, which will be distributed to class members according to the proportional amount of the pay-to-pay fees charged to each borrower within the class period. Additionally, the named plaintiff agreed to seek an incentive award not to exceed $5,000, and attorneys’ fees and expenses will be capped at 25 percent of the settlement fund.
On May 7, the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California entered two default judgments totaling more than $34.1 million in an action by the CFPB against a mortgage lender and several related individuals and companies (collectively, “defendants”) for alleged violations of the Consumer Financial Protection Act (CFPA), Telemarketing Sales Rule (TSR), and Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA). Settlements have already been reached with the chief operating officer/part-owner of one of the defendant companies, as well as certain other defendants (covered by InfoBytes here, here, and here).
As previously covered by InfoBytes, the Bureau filed a complaint in 2020 claiming the defendants violated the FCRA by, among other things, illegally obtaining consumer reports from a credit reporting agency for millions of consumers with student loans by representing that the reports would be used to “make firm offers of credit for mortgage loans” and to market mortgage products, but instead, the defendants allegedly resold or provided the reports to companies engaged in marketing student loan debt-relief services. The defendants also allegedly violated the TSR by charging and collecting advance fees for their debt-relief services. The CFPB further claimed that the defendants violated the TSR and CFPA when they used telemarketing sales calls and direct mail to encourage consumers to consolidate their loans, and falsely represented that consolidation could lower student-loan interest rates, improve borrowers’ credit scores, and change their servicer to the Department of Education.
The May 7 default judgment entered against the student loan debt-relief companies requires the collective payment of more than $19.6 million in consumer redress and more than $11.3 million in civil money penalties to the Bureau. The companies are also permanently enjoined from offering or providing debt-relief services or from using or obtaining consumer reports for any purpose. Moreover, the companies and any associated individuals may not disclose, use, or benefit from consumer information contained in or derived from prescreened consumer reports for use in marketing debt-relief services.
A second default judgment was entered the same day against one of the individual defendants. The judgment requires the individual defendant to pay a more than $3.2 million civil money penalty and permanently enjoins him from providing debt relief services or from using or obtaining prescreened consumer reports for any purpose.
On May 6, the CFPB’s Office of Servicemember Affairs (OSA) released its annual report, which provides an overview of OSA’s activities in fulfilling its statutory responsibilities for fiscal year 2020 and covers the period between January 1, 2020 to December 31, 2020. The report also addresses concerns raised by military consumers based on approximately 40,000 complaints submitted by servicemembers, veterans, and their families (collectively “servicemembers”). Key takeaways from the report include the following:
- Financial help due to the Covid-19 pandemic. In response to Covid-19, the Bureau released an online resource “to highlight tools and information that consumers can use to protect themselves and manage their finances, including information on topics such as mortgage and housing assistance, student loans, and avoiding scams.” For servicemembers, the page connects to an OSA blog detailing resources that military personnel can use for immediate financial assistance and to sustain long-term financial well-being.
- Misadventures in Money Management (MiMM). MiMM serves as an online educational tool that provides young servicemembers with an important “baseline of financial education through the power of storytelling and gamification.”
- Consumer Financial Protection Week and Military Consumer Protection Month. OSA took part in a joint webinar with the CFPB’s Office of Older Americans and the Office of Community Affairs, which highlighted initiatives for vulnerable populations and emphasized the “importance of research in understanding the financial well-being of military consumers.” The webinar also unveiled the Bureau’s “first research report that studied how the credit records of young servicemembers coevolve with military service.”
- National Veterans and Military Families Month. During November 2020, OSA organized with other agencies and organizations to encourage the military community to leverage available resources to help improve their financial well-being. These initiatives included, among other things: (i) publishing OSA’s Debt and Delinquency after Military Service research report; (ii) participating in the Bureau’s Financial inTuition Repayment Podcast Series; and (iii) convening “a virtual military consumer webinar with partner agencies and organizations to discuss financial challenges facing servicemembers, veterans, and their families in the financial marketplace.”
- Education and empowerment. The Bureau also “deployed and amplif[ied] [its] financial education tools through partners, engaging servicemembers and military families at townhall-style listening sessions at military installations.”
On May 11, the CFPB urged the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Tennessee to deny a request for a temporary injunction of a CFPB rule that would require all landlords to disclose to tenants federal protections put in place as a result of the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, arguing that the rule does not require false speech and is justified by the First Amendment. As previously covered by InfoBytes, the plaintiffs, including members of the National Association of Residential Property Managers, sued the CFPB asserting the Bureau’s recently issued interim final rule (IFR) violates their First Amendment rights. The IFR amended Regulation F to require debt collectors to provide tenants clear and conspicuous written notice alerting them of their rights under the CDC’s moratorium on evictions in response to the Covid-19 pandemic (covered by InfoBytes here). The plaintiffs alleged that the IFR violates the First Amendment because it “mandates untrue speech and encourages plainly misleading speech” by requiring disclosures about a moratorium that has been challenged or invalidated by several federal courts, including the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit. The CFPB asked the court not to grant the plaintiffs’ request for the temporary injunction, pointing out that the “plaintiffs fail to demonstrate that they are entitled to the extraordinary relief they seek.” The brief also notes that “requiring debt collectors to provide routine, factual notification of rights or legal protections that consumers ‘may’ have, in jurisdictions where the CDC Order applies, does not compel false speech and plainly passes First Amendment muster.”
On April 26, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Alabama partially granted a defendant debt collector’s motion for summary judgment concerning alleged FCRA and FDCPA violations. According to the opinion, the defendant sent a dunning letter to the plaintiff’s son seeking to recover unpaid debt. The plaintiff disputed the amount of debt owed and asked that the debt not be reported to the CRAs. However, two years later the son noticed the debt was included on his credit report and wrote to a CRA to dispute the debt. The defendant conducted an investigation to verify the debt and asserted that it told the CRAs that the son continued to dispute the debt. The credit reports the son obtained after the investigation, however, did not include a notation on his credit report showing the debt as disputed. The plaintiff brought suit on behalf of his son alleging the defendant violated the FCRA by failing to investigate the disputed debt, and the FDCPA by failing to communicate with the CRAs and misrepresenting the amount of the debt. The court granted summary judgment on the FCRA claim, finding that the dispute as to the debt owed was based on a legal defense not a factual inaccuracy, and that “the FCRA makes a furnisher liable for failing to report a dispute only if the dispute is meritorious.” The court, however, permitted the FDCPA claim predicated on the alleged failure to communicate with the CRA to proceed to trial because there is no analogous requirement that the dispute be meritorious to state a claim. The court dismissed the FDCPA claim predicated on the dunning letter for lack of standing.
On May 5, the CFPB released a new report surveying the prevalence, persistence of use, and other credit sources accessible for consumers who utilize payday, auto title, and pawn loans. The report uses the first two rounds of the Bureau’s Making Ends Meet survey, which was conducted before the Covid-19 pandemic in June 2019, and offers a nationally representative assessment of consumers with credit records (covered by InfoBytes here). As such, the survey allows the possibility of combining a survey of the same consumers spanning over two years with credit record data to understand consumers’ decisions about debt. Report highlights include:
- “In June 2019, 4.4 percent of consumers had taken out a payday loan in the previous six months, 2.0 percent had taken out an auto title loan, and 2.5 percent had taken out a pawn loan.” These consumers are more concentrated in the age group between 40 and 61. The report discloses that “because the number of consumers using these loans in the survey is small, there is some survey uncertainty in these estimates.”
- “77 percent of consumers using alternative financial services experienced a shock and had difficulty paying a bill or expense during the same timeframe in which they also reported borrowing a payday, auto title, or pawn loan.”
- “Payday, auto title, and pawn users who experience difficulty paying a bill or expense tend to also use other available credit, suggesting that for some consumers, these loans might be part of a broader and more complicated debt portfolio to deal with difficulties.”
On May 4, two additional settlements were reached with defendants in an action by the CFPB against a mortgage lender and several related individuals and companies (collectively, “defendants”) for alleged violations of the Consumer Financial Protection Act (CFPA), Telemarketing Sales Rule (TSR), and Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA). As previously covered by InfoBytes, the CFPB filed a complaint in 2020 in the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California claiming the defendants violated the FCRA by, among other things, illegally obtaining consumer reports from a credit reporting agency for millions of consumers with student loans by representing that the reports would be used to “make firm offers of credit for mortgage loans” and to market mortgage products, but instead, the defendants allegedly resold or provided the reports to companies engaged in marketing student loan debt relief services. The defendants also allegedly violated the TSR by charging and collecting advance fees for their debt relief services. The CFPB further alleged that the defendants violated the TSR and CFPA when they used telemarketing sales calls and direct mail to encourage consumers to consolidate their loans, and falsely represented that consolidation could lower student loan interest rates, improve borrowers’ credit scores, and change their servicer to the Department of Education. Settlements have already been reached with certain defendants (covered by InfoBytes here and here).
The May 4 settlement reached with one of the defendant companies requires the payment of a $1 civil money penalty to the Bureau because of the defendant’s limited ability to pay. The defendant, who neither admits nor denies the allegations, is ordered to promptly take dissolution steps and is banned from offering or providing consumer financial products or services. The defendant is also prohibited from using or obtaining consumer reports for any purpose and must comply with reporting requirements.
A second settlement was reached the same day with one of the individual defendants. Under the terms of the settlement, the defendant also is required to pay a $1 civil money penalty, as well as $3,000 out of $7 million in consumer redress, of which full payment is suspended provided other obligations are fulfilled. The defendant, who neither admits nor denies the allegations, is permanently banned from providing debt relief services or telemarketing consumer financial products or services. The defendant is also prohibited from using or obtaining “prescreened consumer reports” for any purpose, and is further required to, among other things, comply with reporting requirements and fully cooperate with any other investigations.
On May 7, FHA issued a notice clarifying when it is appropriate to begin reviewing borrowers for loss mitigation options outlined in the “Review of Borrowers in a Pandemic-Related Forbearance for a Covid-19 Loss Mitigation Option.” The notice acknowledges that some mortgagees are unsure about when to start reviewing borrowers for Covid-19 loss mitigation options. The notice points out that FHA requires mortgagees to review borrowers for Covid-19 loss mitigation options “upon the completion or expiration of the borrower forbearance period.” For clarifying purposes, however, the notice highlights that mortgagees may review borrowers for Covid-19 loss mitigation options “at any point prior to the completion or expiration of their COVID-19 or other pandemic-related forbearance period.” Not only is it permissible for a mortgagee to undertake a loss mitigation review before the borrower exits forbearance, FHA actually urges mortgagees to review borrowers for available Covid-19 loss mitigation options “as soon as practicable as these options are designed to help borrowers resolve their delinquencies and avoid foreclosure.”
On April 30, HUD announced a Charge of Discrimination against a California-based mortgage modification service (respondents) for allegedly violating the Fair Housing Act by discriminating against Hispanic homeowners. According to HUD, the complainants alleged that the respondents targeted them for illegal or unfair loan modification assistance based on their national origin, and that as a result, “they were diverted from obtaining legitimate assistance” and “were at risk of foreclosure.” Specifically, the respondents allegedly marketed and sold loan modification services to financially distressed California homeowners, the majority of whom were Hispanic. The allegations claim that most of the advertisements were in Spanish or were aired on Spanish-language stations and contained allegedly deceptive information regarding the respondents’ ability to obtain loan modifications, as well as its payment structure. Additionally, the complainants stated that they were discouraged from seeking free loan modification assistance, and were, among other things, (i) charged fees before the respondents completed the promised mortgage modifications; (ii) advised to stop making payments without being informed about the risks involved in not paying their mortgages; (iii) provided inaccurate information about the respondents’ services, including that clients would receive services from an attorney; and (iv) instructed to stop communicating with their lenders and to instead forward all lender communications to the respondents if threatened with foreclosure. The charge will be heard by a United States Administrative Law Judge unless a party elects to have the case heard in federal district court.
On April 29, the FTC announced a civil complaint and stipulated order filed by the DOJ on its behalf against a home security and monitoring company accused of allegedly violating the FCRA by improperly obtaining consumers’ credit reports to help potential customers qualify for financing for its products and services. According to the complaint, company employees allegedly engaged in a process known as “white paging,” in which the credit history of another individual with the same or similar name as the potential customer is used to qualify the potential customer for the company’s financing program. Additionally, the FTC claimed that company sales representatives allegedly added “impermissible co-signers” to accounts for unqualified customers by unlawfully using the credit history of the “co-signers” without their permission. In the event a customer defaulted on a loan, the company referred the impermissible co-signer to its debt buyer, potentially harming the co-signer’s credit score and subjecting the individual to debt collections, the FTC stated. According to the complaint, the company was aware of the misconduct, terminated hundreds of sales representatives as a result of these practices, but later rehired some of the same sales representatives because they generated millions of dollars in revenue.
Under the terms of the stipulated order—the largest to date for an FTC FCRA action—the company is required to pay a $15 million civil money penalty, as well as $5 million to compensate harmed individuals. Additionally, the company must (i) implement an employee monitoring and training program to prevent further FCRA violations; (ii) establish and maintain an identity theft prevention program; (iii) establish a customer service task force to verify all accounts that reference more than one address or include a co-signer before referring the accounts to a debt collector and assist individuals who were improperly referred to debt collectors; and (iv) obtain biennial assessments by an independent third party to ensure compliance.
While the Commission voted 4-0 to approve the stipulated final order, Commissioner Rohit Chopra issued a separate statement noting that he believes the FTC “should have also alleged that the company violated the FTC Act’s prohibitions on deceptive practices by falsifying credit applications,” and that because the company “turned a blind eye to obvious compliance failures by its sales force” it also allegedly “violated the FTC Act’s prohibition on unfair practices.”
- APPROVED Webcast: CFL license transition to NMLS
- Jonice Gray Tucker to discuss “Justice for all: Achieving racial equity through fair lending” at CBA Live
- Warren W. Traiger to discuss “On the horizon for CRA modernization” at CBA Live
- Jonice Gray Tucker to discuss “Government investigations, and compliance 2021 trends” at the Corporate Counsel Women of Color Career Strategies Conference
- Max Bonici to discuss “BSA/AML trends: What to expect with the implementation of the AML Act of 2020” at the American Bar Association Banking Law Fall Meeting