Subscribe to our InfoBytes Blog weekly newsletter and other publications for news affecting the financial services industry.
Special Alert: CFPB and DOJ Announce MOU to Coordinate Fair Lending Enforcement Efforts; CFPB Issues First Annual Report to Congress on Fair Lending Activities
On December 6, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB or Bureau) and the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) announced a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) to coordinate enforcement of the federal fair lending laws, including the Equal Credit Opportunity Act (ECOA). Simultaneously, the CFPB issued its first annual Fair Lending Report to Congress as required by the Dodd-Frank Act, which describes the Bureau’s efforts to build its Office of Fair Lending and Equal Opportunity and reviews its fair lending accomplishments. Together, these initiatives demonstrate that the CFPB and DOJ are continuing to work together closely to aggressively enforce the federal fair lending laws.
Memorandum of Understanding Regarding Fair Lending Coordination
The new MOU supplements an existing Information Sharing Agreement Regarding Fair Lending Investigations among the DOJ, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, and the Federal Trade Commission, which allows these fair lending enforcement agencies to share confidential information related to fair lending investigations, screening procedures, and investigative techniques. It also follows a general cooperation MOU that the DOJ and CFPB entered into earlier this year.
The new MOU focuses on information sharing and referral of matters alleging ECOA violations, but also governs the agencies’ referral processes for other fair lending-related laws and joint fair lending investigations.
Referral of ECOA Violations to DOJ: The MOU explains the circumstances under which the CFPB will refer potential ECOA violations to the DOJ for further investigation or prosecution. Consistent with the established practice of the prudential federal bank regulators, the MOU requires the CFPB to refer to the DOJ all matters where it has “reason to believe” that one or more creditors has engaged in a pattern or practice of lending discrimination. The CFPB may also refer to DOJ any violation of Section 701(a) of ECOA, including a recommendation that a civil action be commenced if the CFPB cannot obtain compliance from the financial institution.
Following referral, the DOJ has 60 days to determine whether to proceed with its own investigation. Within that period, the CFPB may not unilaterally commence its own action with regard to the referred violation(s). Even if exigent circumstances arise during the 60-day review period, the CFPB must first consult with the DOJ before taking independent action.
The CFPB may also refer to the DOJ possible violations of fair lending-related laws for which the CFPB has no statutory examination or enforcement authority, but for which the DOJ possesses enforcement authority, including the Fair Housing Act and the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act. Despite its lack of statutory authority to enforce these laws, the CFPB’s Supervision & Examination Manual provides resources to identify such potential violations for purposes of referrals to another federal agency.
Joint Investigations: With regard to joint investigations, the MOU provides only that “[w]hen appropriate, the DOJ and the CFPB will seek to collaborate on investigations, and conduct joint investigations of entities allowing the Agencies to leverage resources and expertise.” The agreement calls for quarterly meetings to discuss investigative activity, but allows each agency to retain “independent authority to proceed in the manner that it determines is appropriate.”
Information Sharing: The MOU describes how the parties have agreed to designate, share, use, and protect as non-public, certain information related to investigations of potential ECOA violations, including confidential supervisory information collected by the CFPB under its supervision and examination authority. The MOU allows for additional case- or investigation-specific information sharing agreements as appropriate, based on a form agreement provided as an attachment to the MOU. Section 7 of the form agreement indicates that “sharing of any confidential information [between the CFPB and DOJ] under this Agreement does not constitute a waiver of, or otherwise affect, any privilege any agency or person may claim with respect to such information under federal law.” This provision appears to mirror the treatment of confidential information under 12 U.S.C. § 1828(x) that applies to the prudential bank regulatory agencies.
CFPB’s First Annual Fair Lending Report to Congress
The First Annual Fair Lending Report of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau describes the CFPB’s efforts to build its Office of Fair Lending and Equal Opportunity and reviews that office’s accomplishments from July 21, 2011 through July 20, 2012. The CFPB includes among those accomplishments the issuance of “Bulletin 2012-04 on Discrimination in Lending” and the commencement of a number of non-public fair lending investigations, which are ongoing. The Report states that the Bureau continues to develop tools that allow it to identify areas of heightened fair lending risk and to promote efficiency in its supervisory and enforcement efforts. Earlier this year, in its strategic plan, the CFPB explained that it intends to base its fair lending-related performance on, among other indicators, the number of fair lending supervision activities opened during the fiscal year and the percentage of fair lending cases filed that were “successfully resolved” through litigation, settlement, or default judgment.
The Report states that federal regulators referred 12 ECOA-related matters to the DOJ from July 21, 2011 through December 31, 2011 and provides a summary of the most frequently cited Regulation B violations found by the federal regulators during examinations of financial institutions. The Report also provides a summary of a study and report by the CFPB to Congress on use of cohort default rates in private education lending, and provides a general status on rulemakings required by the Dodd-Frank Act. The CFPB describes the rulemaking to expand the scope of the data that must be collected and submitted under the Home Mortgage Disclosure Act (HMDA) as being in the “pre-rule stage,” and the Bureau has begun the planning process for new rules concerning data collection and reporting of small, minority- and women-owned business loan data by gathering information from stakeholders.
BuckleySandler LLP is a national leader in fair lending enforcement, litigation, and compliance. Attorneys in our Fair and Responsible Banking Team and CFPB Team defend institutions facing fair lending enforcement actions brought by the DOJ, CFPB and other federal agencies, and the firm regularly counsels an array of financial institutions seeking to comply with the full range of federal fair lending laws.
CFPB Announces First Partnership with a City Government, Highlights Chicago's Consumer Financial Protection Efforts
On December 5, CFPB Director Richard Cordray and Chicago, IL Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced an agreement to share consumer financial protection information and resources. According to Director Cordray, the partnership will allow the CFPB to learn from and expand on the ways Chicago protects its consumers, and help the CFPB determine where it should be focusing its attention by allowing the CFPB to better understand consumer protection challenges that arise locally. The partnership also will allow the city to leverage new resources and information developed by the CFPB. In his statement regarding the partnership, Mayor Emanuel highlighted the city’s recent consumer financial protection initiatives, including (i) the planned introduction of a new City Council ordinance to regulate and license debt collectors, (ii) information gathering on predatory and deceptive acts associated with home repair loans, payday loans, small dollar loans, reverse mortgage products, and mortgage origination and servicing, (iii) new zoning regulations to limit the proliferation of payday lenders, auto-title loan stores, and other predatory financial services, and (iv) the planned introduction of a new ordinance to enhance the Department of Business Affairs & Consumer Protection’s ability to take action against businesses convicted of violating state and federal consumer protection acts.
CFPB Ombudsman Issues First Annual Report, Makes Recommendation Regarding CFPB Supervisory Examination Process
On November 30, the CFPB Ombudsman’s Office submitted its first annual report to the Director of the CFPB. It describes the establishment of the office and highlights the office’s activities from July 2011 through September 30, 2012. The report also identifies two “systemic issues” that the Ombudsman reviewed: (i) consumer understanding of the CFPB complaint process and (ii) the presence of enforcement attorneys at supervisory examinations. Almost 40 percent of the questions the Ombudsman received from consumers related to the CFPB complaint process, so the Ombudsman recommended that the CFPB provide more information to the public about the complaint process using multiple methods to communicate that information. The Ombudsman also heard concerns regarding the CFPB’s policy that enforcement attorneys participate in supervisory examinations. After conducting her own review, the Ombudsman recommended that the CFPB review its implementation of the policy, and until that review is complete, establish ways to clarify the enforcement attorney role at the supervisory examination.
On December 5, the California Department of Corporations issued Bulletin No: 001-12 to caution lenders and other institutions about the vetting and management of third-party service providers. The bulletin explains that in response to guidance from the CFPB earlier this year regarding supervision of vendors, third-party risk management companies have emerged to pre-screen potential vendors for bank and nonbank financial service providers. The bulletin generally advises lenders to be cautious about delegating vendor vetting to third-parties and mindful of their ultimate responsibilities for such vendors. The bulletin specifically (i) reminds escrow agents of the prohibition in California Financial Code section 17420 against the payment of referral fees for soliciting escrow accounts, (ii) advises lenders that mandating the use of a particular service provider on a third-party risk management company’s list, or prohibiting the use of a service provider not appearing on such list, may be violating the California Buyer’s Choice Act, and (iii) highlights potential RESPA violations and unfair business practices.
On November 29, the CFPB issued a bulletin to nationwide specialty consumer reporting agencies (NSCRAs) reminding such firms of their obligation under FCRA to facilitate the process by which consumers may obtain a free annual consumer report. The CFPB also announced that its enforcement team issued warning letters to several NSCRAs that may be violating FCRA, based on reviews conducted under the CFPB’s new authority to examine certain CRAs. According to Bulletin 2012-09, the CFPB expects every NSCRA to (i) enable consumers to request a free annual consumer report by a toll-free telephone number that is published as specified, (ii) ensure that its streamlined process for obtaining a free annual consumer report has adequate capacity to accept requests, (iii) collect only as much personal information from a consumer requesting a free annual consumer report as is reasonably necessary to identify the consumer properly, (iv) provide clear and easily understandable information and instructions to consumers, (v) comply with Regulation V when using or disclosing personally identifiable information collected from a consumer in connection with the consumer’s request for any FCRA-required disclosure, and (vi) accept requests for free annual consumer reports from consumers who use methods other than the streamlined process or instruct such consumers on how to use the streamlined process. The sample warning letter released by the CFPB cites possible violations of the requirements outlined in the Bulletin and urges recipients to review practices and procedures to ensure compliance.
On November 27, the CFPB issued a bulletin announcing that it intends to delay the effective date of the new remittance transfer rule finalized earlier this year and already once modified. Per Bulletin 2012-08, the CFPB plans to pursue a fast-track rulemaking next month to alter provisions of the final rule relating to: (i) situations in which incorrect account numbers are provided by senders of remittance transfers, and (ii) the disclosure of certain foreign taxes and fees charged by financial institutions receiving remittance transfers. The rulemaking also will propose an extension of the February 7, 2013 effective date of the rule until 90 days after the CFPB finalizes the rulemaking. The CFPB’s Bulletin follows pleas from industry groups and Members of Congress to change the rule and the implementation timeline. The CFPB action also follows an announcement this week by the Federal Home Loan Bank of New York (FHLBNY) that it plans to stop processing international wire transfers for its members on December 31, 2012, based on its concern that the CFPB rule would create potential risks that are too great for what the FHLBNY considers a non-core service.
On November 19, the CFPB announced that it issued warning letters to about a dozen nonbank mortgage lenders and brokers regarding advertisements targeted towards older Americans and veterans that may violate the Mortgage Acts and Practices Advertising Rule (MAP Rule). The CFPB claims that certain companies’ ads may (i) make misrepresentations about government affiliation, (ii) provide inaccurate information about interest rates, (iii) make misleading statements about the costs of reverse mortgages, or (iv) misrepresent the amount of cash or credit available to a consumer. The letters do not make any determinations as to whether the ads at issue violate the law, and the letters provide the companies an opportunity to review and remedy any potential violations. However, the CFPB announcement also notes that the Bureau has initiated formal investigations of six companies for “serious violations of the law.” At the same time, the FTC announced that it sent letters to twenty real estate agents, home builders, and lead generators warning that certain advertisements may similarly violate the MAP Rule or section 5 of the FTC Act. The FTC also acknowledged that it has opened nonpublic investigations of other advertisers that may have violated federal law. This coordinated CFPB/FTC action resulted from a review of about 800 randomly selected mortgage-related ads from across the country, including ads for mortgage loans, refinancing, and reverse mortgages. BuckleySandler is representing one of the companies being investigated by the FTC in connection with this review.
CFPB and Federal Reserve Board Increase Thresholds for Exempt Consumer Credit and Lease Transactions
On November 20, the CFPB and the Federal Reserve Board announced that, effective January 1, 2013, dollar thresholds in Regulation Z (TILA) and Regulation M (Consumer Leasing Act) for exempt consumer credit and lease transactions will increase to reflect the annual percentage increase in the consumer price index as of June 1, 2012. Transactions at or below the thresholds are subject to the protections of the regulations. Based on the adjustments, the TILA and Consumer Leasing Act protections generally will apply to consumer credit transactions and consumer leases of $53,000 or less in 2013. Mortgage transactions and private student loans remain subject to TILA regardless of the amount of the loan. While the CFPB has rulemaking authority under TILA and the Consumer Leasing Act, the Federal Reserve Board retains authority to issue rules for certain motor vehicle dealers. In addition to the joint adjustment, the CFPB separately adjusted the dollar amount that triggers additional protections for certain home mortgages under the Home Ownership and Equity Protection Act (HOEPA). Consistent with the increase in the consumer price index, the 2013 dollar amount of the HOEPA fee trigger will be $625.
On November 16, the CFPB announced that it is providing a temporary exemption from the mortgage disclosure requirements in title XIV of the Dodd-Frank Act, including new disclosures regarding (i) cancellation of escrow accounts, (ii) a consumer’s liability for debt payment after foreclosure, and (iii) the creditor’s policy for accepting partial payment. The Federal Reserve Board proposed a rule in March 2011 to implement these requirements, but did not finalize the rule prior to July 21, 2011, when authority transferred to the CFPB. Subsequently, the CFPB issued a proposal to integrate the TILA and RESPA disclosures and create new disclosure forms, which, as proposed, include many of the additional disclosures required by title XIV. In light of the overlap in the two rulemakings, and given that the title XIV requirements are required by statute to take effect on January 21, 2013, the CFPB effectively agreed to delay the compliance date pending completion of the TILA/RESPA disclosures proposal.
On November 14, the CFPB announced an initiative designed to encourage “consumer-friendly innovation and entrepreneurship” in financial product markets. The CFPB stated that the “Project Catalyst” initiative will allow the Bureau to (i) establish firm communication with innovators that will allow the Bureau to better understand the current situations in the market, (ii) understand new and emerging products in the market and the sufficiency of the existing regulatory environment for such products, and (iii) engage with innovators to help the Bureau better understand what works and does not work for consumers. The first phase of the project involves three companies that will share anonymized data about consumer behaviors and trends with the CFPB, which the CFPB intends to use to inform policy decisions. The initial phase participants will provide (i) consumer credit and debit card billing dispute data, (ii) data regarding the value consumers place on easily depositing and obtaining immediate access to their funds, and (iii) a product that helps consumers gain insight into their spending habits. Through the Project Catalyst website, interested parties can identify financial regulations that hamper consumer-friendly innovation or seek to collaborate with the CFPB on new financial products or services.