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On January 21, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit partially reversed a district court’s dismissal of an action concerning a debt collector’s use of language or symbols other than the collector’s address on an envelope sent to a consumer. According to the opinion, the consumer received a debt collection letter enclosed in an envelope stamped with the words “TIME SENSITIVE DOCUMENT” in bold font. The consumer filed a complaint against the defendant asserting various claims under the FDCPA, including that inclusion of “TIME SENSITIVE DOCUMENT” on the envelope was a violation of section 1692f(8). The defendant had argued that an exception should be carved out for “benign” language in this instance, and the district court agreed.
As previously covered by InfoBytes, the 7th Circuit invited the CFPB to file an amicus brief on whether there is a benign language exception to section 1692f(8)’s prohibition, and, if so, whether the phrase “TIME SENSITIVE DOCUMENT” falls within that exception. The Bureau asserted that there is no benign language exception, and stressed that while section 1692f(8) recognizes that debt collectors may be permitted to include language and symbols on an envelope that facilitate the mailing of an envelope, section 1692f(8), by its own terms, does not allow for benign language. Additionally, the Bureau commented that section 1692f’s prefatory text does not “provide a basis for reading a ‘benign language’ exception into section 1692f(8),” nor does the prefatory text suggest that the prohibition applies only in instances where it may be “‘unfair or unconscionable’” in a general sense.
The 7th Circuit concluded that section 1692f(8) is clear. Because the language at issue does not fall within the list of exceptions—it is not the debt collector’s name or its address—the inclusion of the phrase “TIME SENSITIVE DOCUMENT” is a violation of section 1692f(8), and the district court erred in dismissing this claim. However, the appellate court agreed with the district court’s dismissal of the consumer’s section 1692e claims that the language used on the envelope and in the body of the letter were false and deceptive.
According to sources, on January 17, CFPB Director Kathy Kraninger sent a letter to prominent members of Congress announcing plans to extend the qualified mortgage patch—which exempts loans eligible for purchase by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac (GSEs) from the Qualified Mortgage (QM) Rule’s 43 percent debt-to-income (DTI) ratio—for a short period beyond its current January 2021 expiration. As previously covered by a Buckley Special Alert, the Bureau issued an Advance Notice of Proposed Rulemaking last July to solicit feedback on, among other things, whether the DTI limit should be altered and how Regulation Z and the Ability to Repay/QM Rule should be amended to minimize disruption from the so-called GSE patch expiration. Kraninger notes in her letter that the Bureau plans to propose an amendment to the QM Rule to replace DTI ratios as a factor in mortgage underwriting with an alternative measure of credit risk. One alternative, Kraninger says, could be to use pricing thresholds based on the difference between the loan’s annual percentage rate and the average prime offer rate for a similar loan. The Bureau is also considering adding a “seasoning” approach through a separate rulemaking process to give safe harbor to certain loans when the borrower has made timely payments for a certain period, Kraninger states. Sources report that the Bureau plans to issue a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking no later than May.
On January 15, Paul Clement, the lawyer selected by the U.S. Supreme Court to defend the leadership structure of the CFPB, filed a brief in Seila Law LLC v. CFPB arguing that Seila Law’s constitutionality arguments are “remarkably weak” and that “a contested removal is the proper context to address a dispute over the President’s removal authority.” First, Clement stated that “there is no ‘removal clause’ in the Constitution,” and that because the “constitutional text is simply silent on the removal of executive officers” it does not mean there is a “promising basis for invalidating an Act of Congress.” Moreover, the Constitution leaves it to Congress to decide “all manner of questions about the organization and structure of executive-branch departments and officers,” Clement wrote. Second, Clement disagreed with the argument that Congress cannot impose modest restrictions on the President’s ability to remove executive officers, so long as the President is the one exercising the removal powers. Third, Clement noted that in the past, the Court has repeatedly upheld the ability to place permissible restrictions on a President’s removal authority.
Clement further contended, among other things, that the dispute in Seila is “not just unripe, but entirely theoretical.” He referenced the Bureau’s brief filed last September (covered by InfoBytes here), in which the CFPB argued that the for-cause restriction on the President’s authority to remove the Bureau’s single director violates the Constitution’s separation of powers, and noted that “[w]hatever was true when this suit was first filed, the theory of the unitary executive appears alive and well in the Director’s office.” Rather, Clement stated, the Court should wait for an instance where a CFPB director has been fired for something short of the “inefficiency, neglect of duty, or malfeasance in office” threshold that Congress set for dismissing a CFPB director in Dodd-Frank before ruling on the question. Clement also emphasized that “text, first principles and precedent” all “strongly support” upholding the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit’s decision from last May, which deemed the CFPB to be constitutionally structured and upheld a district court’s ruling enforcing Seila Law’s compliance with a 2017 civil investigative demand.
As previously covered by InfoBytes, the 9th Circuit held that the for-cause removal restriction of the CFPB’s single director is constitutionally permissible based on existing Supreme Court precedent. The panel agreed with the conclusion reached by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit majority in the 2018 en banc decision in PHH v. CFPB (covered by a Buckley Special Alert) stating, “if an agency’s leadership is protected by a for-cause removal restriction, the President can arguably exert more effective control over the agency if it is headed by a single individual rather an a multi-member body.”
The parties in Seila filed briefs last December. While both parties are in agreement on the CFPB’s single-director leadership structure, they differ on how the matter should be resolved. Seila Law argued that the Court should invalidate all of Title X of Dodd-Frank, whereas the Bureau contended that the for-cause removal provision should be severed from the rest of the law in accordance with Dodd-Frank’s express severability clause. Oral arguments are scheduled for March 3. (Previous InfoBytes coverage here.)
On December 26, the CFPB denied a petition by a student loan relief company to modify or set aside a civil investigative demand (CID) issued by the Bureau last October. According to the company’s petition, the CID requested information as part of an investigation into the company’s promotion of student loan debt relief programs. As previously covered by InfoBytes, stipulated orders were entered against the company by the FTC and the Minnesota attorney general for violations of TILA and the assisting and facilitating provision of the Telemarketing Sales Rule, which resulted in the company being permanently banned from engaging in transactions involving debt relief products and services or making misrepresentations regarding financial products and services. In its petition, the company argued that the CFPB’s requests were duplicative of the FTC’s earlier investigation. The company also argued that the documents and materials sought in the CID were overly burdensome and the time frame to respond was too short. Furthermore, the company stated that until the U.S. Supreme Court issues a decision in Seila Law v. CFPB on whether the Bureau’s structure violates the Constitution’s separation of powers under Article II, the CID should either be withdrawn or stayed because of the uncertainty surrounding the Bureau’s ability to proceed with enforcement actions.
The Bureau denied the petition, arguing that “the administrative CID petition process is not the proper forum for raising and deciding constitutional challenges to provisions of the Bureau’s statute.” The Bureau also noted that the company failed to show that it engaged with Bureau staff on ways to alleviate undue burden, such as proposing modifications to the substance of the requests, and that even though the Bureau proposed an extension to the CID deadline, the company did not seek such an extension.
On January 13, fifteen Democratic Senators, led by Senators Catherine Cortez Masto (D-NV) and Sherrod Brown (D-OH) sent a letter to the Inspector General of the Federal Reserve Board calling for an investigation into the CFPB’s restitution penalties levied against companies accused of wrongdoing. The Senators claim that the Bureau’s restitution approach “creates a perverse incentive for companies to violate the law by allowing them to retain all or nearly all of the funds they illegally obtain from consumers.” The letter asks the Inspector General to investigate four recent settlements to examine how the Bureau determines restitution awards and whether the applied standard for restitution differs from the standard applied by courts and in prior CFPB settlements.
Included among the examples of actions for which consumers were provided limited to zero restitution is a recent settlement with a debt collector accused of engaging in improper debt collection tactics. As previously covered by InfoBytes, the company agreed to pay $36,878 in redress to harmed consumers, limiting the restitution to “only those consumers who affirmatively ‘complained about a false threat or misrepresentation’” by the company, the Senators wrote. Specifically, the Senators seek to determine the number of consumers who may have been excluded from the settlement because they did not affirmatively complain about the company’s behavior. A second example highlights an action taken against a group of payday lenders that allegedly, among other things, misrepresented to consumers an obligation to repay loan amounts that were voided because the loan violated state licensing or usury laws. (Previously covered by InfoBytes here.) According to the Senators, the settlement “dropped the requests for restitution and other relief for victimized consumers.” The letter also references a report released last October by the House Financial Services Committee (covered by InfoBytes here) following an investigation into these particular settlements, in which the Bureau responded “that it did not seek restitution in these cases because it could not determine ‘with certainty’ which consumers had been harmed or the amount of the harm.”
On January 9, the CFPB and the Utah attorney general’s office announced that the first of the American Consumer Financial Innovation Network’s (ACFIN) joint office hours will be held in Salt Lake City, Utah on January 30. The CFPB’s announcement states that the office hours are intended to “provide innovators with the opportunity to discuss issues such as financial technology, innovative products or services, regulatory sandboxes, no action letters, and other matters related to financial innovation with officials from the CFPB and state partners.” As previously covered by InfoBytes, the CFPB, along with a number of state regulators, established ACFIN in September with the aim of reducing “regulatory burdens” and increasing “regulatory certainty for innovative financial products and services.” Members of ACFIN currently include state AGs from Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Colorado, Georgia, Indiana, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Utah; and state financial regulators from Florida, Georgia, Missouri, and Tennessee. ACFIN membership is open to any state and federal partners interested in joining.
On January 10, the CFPB issued its second no-action letter (NAL) under the agency’s revised NAL Policy that was issued last September. The new NAL Policy’s goal is to streamline the review process to “focus[ ] on the consumer benefits and risks of the product or service in question.” As previously covered by InfoBytes, the Bureau issued its first NAL under the revised policy in response to a request by HUD on behalf of more than 1,600 housing counseling agencies (HCAs) that participate in HUD’s housing counseling program.
A national bank is the recipient of the most recent NAL regarding the bank’s funding arrangements with HCAs certified by HUD. The NAL states that the Bureau will not take supervisory or enforcement actions against the bank under RESPA or UDAAP for entering into certain arrangements with HCAs for pre-purchase housing counseling services conditioned on the consumer applying for a loan from the bank, even if that activity could be construed as a referral, as long as the level of payment for the services is no more than a level that is commensurate with the services provided and is reasonable and customary for the area. The Bureau noted that the bank submitted its application to facilitate funding arrangements with HCAs through the HUD NAL application, which was made public last year.
On January 7, Representatives Emanuel Cleaver II (D-MO) and Gregory Meeks D-NY) sent a letter to nine federal financial regulators urging them to strengthen their financial infrastructures against possible cyber-attacks in the wake of recent threats against the U.S. from Iran and its allies following the killing of Iranian official Qasem Soleimani. The letter also requests that the regulators coordinate with law enforcement and regulated entities to increase information sharing surrounding cyber threats, and “communicate a strategy to further mitigate existing cyber vulnerabilities within [the U.S.] financial infrastructure by March.” The letter was sent to the Federal Reserve Board, Treasury Department, SEC, FDIC, CFPB, Federal Housing Finance Agency, Commodity Futures Trading Commission, National Credit Union Administration, and the OCC.
As previously covered by InfoBytes, NYDFS separately issued an Industry Letter on January 4 warning regulated entities about the “heightened risk” of cyber-attacks by hackers affiliated with the Iranian government. The letter provides recommendations for ensuring quick responses to any suspected cyber incidents, and reminds entities they must inform NYDFS “as promptly as possible but in no event later than 72 hours’ after a material cybersecurity event.”
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.
California governor proposes strengthening state consumer protection authority and increasing financial innovation
On January 10, the California governor submitted his proposal for California’s 2020-2021 state budget, which would, among other things, include the creation and administration of the California Consumer Protection Law (Law). The governor’s budget summary indicates that “[t]he federal government’s rollback of the CFPB leaves Californians vulnerable to predatory businesses and leaves companies without the clarity they need to innovate.” The proposed Law is intended to provide “consumers with more protection against unfair and deceptive practices when accessing financial services and products.” To create and administer the Law, the proposed budget contemplates the expansion of the Department of Business of Oversight’s (DBO) authority to “protect consumers” and “foster the responsible development of new financial products.” In light of the expanded role, the governor also proposed renaming the DBO to the Department of Financial Protection and Innovation. The governor’s budget includes an allocation to the DBO of a $10.2 million Financial Protection Fund and 44 positions in 2020-2021, which would increase to $19.3 million and 90 positions in 2022-2023 for creating and implementing the Law.
According to the DBO’s website, the DBO currently “provides protection to consumers and services to businesses engaged in financial transactions” and “oversees the operations of state-licensed financial institutions, including banks, credit unions, money transmitters, issuers of payment instruments and travelers checks, and premium finance companies.” Under the governor’s budget proposal summary, in addition to the DBO’s current functions, the DBO will have greater authority to “pursue unlicensed financial service providers not currently subject to regulatory oversight such as debt collectors, credit reporting agencies, and financial technology (fintech) companies, among others.”
The budget proposal summary provides that the DBO’s new activities will include:
- Offering services to educate consumers (e.g., older Americans, students, military service members, and recent immigrants).
- Licensing and examining industries that are currently under-regulated.
- Analyzing market patterns and developments for evidence-based policies and enforcement.
- Enforcing against unfair, deceptive, and abusive practices.
- Establishing a new Financial Technology Innovation Office, which will be tasked with proactively promoting “responsible development of new consumer financial products.”
- Providing legal support for the administration of the Law.
- Expanding administrative and IT staff to support the DBO’s increased authority.
The details of the Governor’s budget proposal have not yet been published.
- Amanda R. Lawrence and Sherry-Maria Safchuk to discuss "California privacy rule" on an NAFCU webinar
- Sasha Leonhardt to discuss "The Servicemembers Civil Relief Act and the Military Lending Act: Common pitfalls and emerging issues" at a NAFCU webinar
- Michelle L. Rogers to discuss "BigLaw" at the Women in Business Law Leadership Conference
- Buckley Webcast: NYDFS mortgage servicing rules: Untangling federal and state servicing requirements
- H Joshua Kotin and Jessica M. Shannon to discuss "TILA/RESPA mortgage servicing and origination" at the NAFCU Regulatory Compliance School
- Daniel P. Stipano to discuss "Pathway of the SARs: Tracking trajectories of suspicious activity reports from alerts to prosecution" at the ACAMS International AML & Financial Crime Conference
- Daniel P. Stipano to discuss "Which bud’s for you? A deep-dive into evolving marijuana laws" at the ACAMS International AML & Financial Crime Conference
- Benjamin W. Hutten to discuss "Understanding OFAC sanctions" at a NAFCU webinar
- Brandy A. Hood to discuss "RESPA 8 (TRID applied compliance)" at the Mortgage Bankers Association Legal Issues and Regulatory Compliance Conference
- Michelle L. Rogers to discuss "Major litigation" at the Mortgage Bankers Association Legal Issues and Regulatory Compliance Conference
- John P. Kromer to discuss "Navigating the multi-state fintech regulatory regime" at the American Conference Institute Legal, Regulatory and Compliance Forum on Fintech & Emerging Payment Systems
- Jonice Gray Tucker to discuss "Leveraging big data responsibly" at the Mortgage Bankers Association Legal Issues and Regulatory Compliance Conference
- Hank Asbill to discuss "Critique of direct examination; Questions and answers" at the American Bar Association Section of Litigation Anatomy of a Trial: Murder Trial of Ziang Sung Wan
- Hank Asbill to discuss "What judges want from trial lawyers" at the American Bar Association Section of Litigation Anatomy of a Trial: Murder Trial of Ziang Sung Wan
- Steven R. vonBerg to speak at the "Conference super session" at the Mortgage Bankers Association Legal Issues and Regulatory Compliance Conference