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Special Alert: CFPB’s RESPA advisory addresses online mortgage-comparison platforms
The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) issued guidance yesterday making clear that those who operate or participate in online mortgage-comparison shopping platforms will be closely scrutinized for compliance with the prohibition on payments for referrals to mortgage lenders. “Companies operating these digital platforms appear to shoppers as if they provide objective lender comparisons, but may illegally refer people to only those lenders paying referral fees,” the agency said. Here’s what you need to know:
The CFPB issued an Advisory Opinion on how the Real Estate Settlement Procedures Act (RESPA) applies to online mortgage-comparison platforms. The agency said platform operators violate RESPA “when they steer shoppers to lenders by using pay-to-play tactics rather than providing shoppers with comprehensive and objective information.” Specifically, the agency said operators receive a prohibited referral fee when they use or present information in a way that steers consumers to mortgage lenders in exchange for a payment or something else of value.
Agencies remind banks of HMDA reporting changes on closed-end mortgages
On February 1, the OCC reminded banks and OCC examiners that the loan origination threshold for reporting HMDA data on closed-end mortgages has changed due to a court decision issued last year, which addressed challenges made by a group of consumer fair housing associations to changes made in 2020 by the CFPB that permanently raised coverage thresholds for collecting and reporting data about closed-end mortgage loans and open-end lines of credit under HMDA (covered by InfoBytes here.) Due to a court order vacating the 2020 HMDA Final Rule as to the loan volume reporting threshold for closed-end mortgage loans, the OCC explained that the loan origination threshold for reporting HMDA data on closed-end mortgage loans reverted to the threshold established by the 2015 HMDA Final Rule.
According to Bulletin 2023-5, the threshold for reporting HMDA data is now 25 closed-end mortgage loans originated in each of the two preceding calendar years rather than the 100-loan threshold set by the 2020 HMDA Final Rule. “Banks that originated at least 25 closed-end mortgage loans in each of the two preceding calendar years but fewer than 100 closed-end mortgage loans in either or both of the two preceding calendar years (referred to collectively as affected banks) may need to make adjustments to policies and procedures to comply with reporting obligations,” the OCC said. The agency added that it does not plan to assess penalties for failures to report closed-end mortgage loan data on reportable transactions conducted in 2022, 2021 or 2020 for affected banks that meet other coverage requirements under Regulation C.
The FDIC and Federal Reserve Board also issued similar guidance (see FIL-06-2023 and CA 23-1).
District Court dismisses CFPB redlining action against nonbank lender
On February 3, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois dismissed with prejudice claims that a Chicago-based nonbank mortgage company and its owner violated ECOA by engaging in discriminatory marketing and applicant outreach practices. The CFPB sued the defendants in 2020 alleging fair lending violations, including violations of ECOA and the CFPA, predicated, in part, on statements made by the company’s owner and other employees during radio shows and podcasts from 2014 through 2017. (Covered by a Special Alert.) The complaint (which was later amended) marked the first time a federal regulator has taken a public enforcement action against a nondepository institution based on allegations of redlining.
The Bureau claimed that the defendants discouraged African Americans from applying for mortgage loans from the company and redlined African American neighborhoods in the Chicago area by (i) discouraging their residents from applying for mortgage loans from the company; and (ii) discouraging nonresidents from applying for loans from the company for homes in these neighborhoods. The defendants moved to dismiss with prejudice, arguing that the Bureau improperly attempted to expand ECOA’s reach “beyond the express and unambiguous language of the statute.” The defendants explained that while the statute “regulates behavior towards applicants for credit, it does not regulate any behavior relating to prospective applicants who have not yet applied for credit.” The Bureau countered that courts have consistently recognized Regulation B’s discouragement prohibition even when applied to prospective applicants.
In dismissing the action with prejudice, the court applied step one of Chevron framework (which is to determine “whether Congress has directly spoken to the precise question at issue”) when reviewing whether the Bureau’s interpretation of ECOA in Regulation B is permissible. Explaining that ECOA’s plain text “clearly and unambiguously prohibits discrimination against applicants”—defined as a person who applies for credit—the court concluded (citing to case law in support of its decision) that Congress’s directive only prohibits discrimination against applicants and does not apply to prospective applicants. The court stressed that the agency’s authority to enact regulations is not limitless and that the statute’s use of the term “applicant” clearly marks the boundary of ECOA.
The court also rejected the Bureau’s argument that ECOA’s delegation of authority to the Bureau to adopt rules to prevent evasion means the anti-discouragement provision must be sustained provided it reasonably relates to ECOA’s objectives. The Bureau pointed to the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Mourning v. Fam. Publ’ns Serv., Inc. (upholding the “Four Installment Rule” under similar delegation language in TILA), but the court held that Mourning does not permit it to avoid Chevron’s two-step framework. Because the anti-discouragement provision does not survive the first step, the court did not reach whether the provision is reasonably related to ECOA’s objectives and dismissed the action with prejudice. The remaining claims, which depend on the ECOA claim, were also dismissed with prejudice.
The firm will be sending out a Special Alert in the next few business days providing additional thinking on this decision.
D.C. Circuit says CFPB’s Prepaid Rule does not mandate model disclosures for payment companies
On February 3, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit reversed a district court’s decision that had previously granted summary judgment in favor of a payment company and had vacated two provisions of the CFPB’s Prepaid Rule: (i) the short-form disclosure requirement “to the extent it provides mandatory disclosure clauses”; and (ii) the 30-day credit linking restriction. As previously covered by InfoBytes, the company sued the Bureau alleging, among other things, that the Bureau’s Prepaid Rule exceeded the agency’s statutory authority “because Congress only authorized the Bureau to adopt model, optional disclosure clauses—not mandatory disclosure clauses like the short-form disclosure requirement.” The Bureau countered that it had authority to enforce the mandates under federal regulations, including the EFTA, TILA, and Dodd-Frank, and argued that the “EFTA and [Dodd-Frank] authorize the Bureau to issue—or at least do not foreclose it from issuing—rules mandating the form of a disclosure.”
The district court concluded, among other things, that the Bureau acted outside of its statutory authority, and ruled that it could not presume that Congress delegated power to the agency to issue mandatory disclosure clauses just because Congress did not specifically prohibit it from doing so. Instead, the Bureau can only “‘issue model clauses for optional use by financial institutions’” since the EFTA’s plain text does not permit the Bureau to issue mandatory clauses, the district court said. The Bureau appealed, arguing that both the EFTA and Dodd-Frank authorize the Bureau to promulgate rules governing disclosures for prepaid accounts, and that the decision to adopt such rules is entitled to deference. (Covered by InfoBytes here.) However, the Bureau maintained that the Prepaid Rule “does not make any specific disclosure clauses mandatory,” and stressed that companies are permitted to use the provided sample disclosure wording or use their own “substantially similar” wording.
In reversing and remanding the ruling, the appellate court unanimously determined that because the Bureau’s Prepaid Rule does not mandate “specific copiable language,” it is not mandating a “model clause,” which the court assumed for purposes of the opinion that the Bureau was prohibited from doing. While the Prepaid Rule imposes formatting requirements and requires the disclosure of certain enumerated fees, the D.C. Circuit stressed that the Bureau “has not mandated that financial providers use specific, copiable language to describe those fees.” Moreover, formatting is not part of a “model clause,” the appellate court added. And because companies are allowed to provide “substantially similar” disclosures, the appellate court held that the Bureau has not mandated a “model clause” in contravention of the EFTA. The appellate court, however, did not address any of the procedural or constitutional challenges to the Bureau’s short-form disclosures that the district court had not addressed in its opinion, but instead directed the district court to address those questions in the first instance.
9th Circuit orders district court to reassess $7.9 million civil penalty against payments company
On January 27, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ordered a district court to reassess its decision “under the changed legal landscape since its initial order and opinion” in an action concerning alleged misrepresentations made by a bi-weekly payments company. The Bureau filed a lawsuit against the company in 2015, alleging, among other things, that the company made misrepresentations to consumers about its bi-weekly payment program when it overstated the savings provided by the program and created the impression the company was affiliated with the consumers’ lender. In 2017, the district court granted a $7.9 million civil penalty proposed by the Bureau, as well as permanent injunctive relief, but denied restitution of almost $74 million sought by the agency. (Covered by InfoBytes here.) The company appealed the district court’s conclusion that it had engaged in deceptive practices in violation of the Consumer Financial Protection Act, while the Bureau cross-appealed the district court’s decision to deny restitution. The 9th Circuit consolidated the appeals for consideration.
During the pendency of the cross-appeals, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a decision in 2020 in Seila Law LLC v. CFPB, in which it determined that the director’s for-cause removal provision was unconstitutional but was severable from the statute establishing the Bureau (covered by a Buckley Special Alert). Following Seila, former Director Kathy Kraninger ratified several prior regulatory actions (covered by InfoBytes here), including the enforcement action brought against the company. At issue in the company’s appeal is whether the Bureau has authority to pursue its claims, including whether the agency’s funding mechanism is unconstitutional and whether its case is distinguishable from other actions and is entitled to dismissal for the Bureau director’s unconstitutional for-cause removal provision.
The appellate court declined to offer a position on these issues, and instead left them for the district court to consider. The 9th Circuit noted that since the district court’s 2017 order, “sister circuit courts have split” on the funding issue. “We vacate the district court’s order and remand, allowing it to reassess the case under the changed legal landscape since its initial order and opinion,” the appellate court wrote, directing the district court to “provide further consideration to [the company’s] argument on the constitutionality of the Bureau’s funding mechanism.” With respect to the Bureau’s appeal of the restitution denial, the 9th Circuit remanded the case to allow the district court to consider the effect CFPB v. CashCall and Liu v. SEC may have on the action (covered by InfoBytes here and here), as well as whether the agency “waived its claim to legal restitution by characterizing it only as a form of equitable relief before the district court.”
CFPB proposal targets late fees on cards
On February 1, the CFPB issued a notice of proposed rulemaking (NPRM) to amend Regulation Z, which implements TILA, and its commentary to better ensure that late fees charged on credit card accounts are “reasonable and proportional” to the late payment as required under the statute, the Credit Card Accountability Responsibility and Disclosure Act of 2009 (CARD Act). The NPRM would (i) adjust the safe harbor dollar amount for late fees to $8 for any missed payment—issuers are currently able to charge late fees of up to $41—and eliminate a higher safe harbor dollar amount for late fees for subsequent violations of the same type (a company would be able to charge above the immunity provision provided it could prove the higher fee is necessary to cover the incurred collection costs); (ii) eliminate the automatic annual inflation adjustment for the immunity provision amount (the Bureau would instead monitor market conditions and make adjustments as necessary); and (iii) cap late fees at 25 percent of the consumer’s required minimum payment (issuers are currently able to potentially charge a late fee that is 100 percent of the cardholder’s minimum payment owed).
The NPRM also seeks feedback on other possible changes to the CARD Act regulations, including “whether the proposed changes should apply to all credit card penalty fees, whether the immunity provision should be eliminated altogether, whether consumers should be granted a 15-day courtesy period, after the due date, before late fees can be assessed, and whether issuers should be required to offer autopay in order to make use of the immunity provision.” Comments on the NPRM are due by April 3, or 30 days after publication in the Federal Register, whichever is later.
According to the CFPB, the Federal Reserve Board “created the immunity provisions to allow credit card companies to avoid scrutiny of whether their late fees met the reasonable and proportional standard.” As a result, the CFPB stated that immunity provisions have risen (due to inflation) to $30 for an initial late payment and $41 for subsequent late payments, resulting in consumers being charged approximately $12 billion in late fees in 2020. Based on CFPB estimates, the NPRM could reduce late fees by as much as $9 billion per year. CFPB Director Rohit Chopra issued a statement commenting that the current immunity provisions are not what Congress intended when it passed the CARD Act.
The Bureau also released an unofficial, informal redline of the NPRM to help stakeholders review the proposed changes, as well as a report titled Credit Card Late Fees: Revenue and Collection Costs at Large Bank Holding Companies, which documents findings on the relationship between late fee revenue and pre-charge-off collection costs for certain large credit card issuers. According to the report, “revenue from late fees has consistently far exceeded pre-charge-off collection costs over the last several years.”
The NPRM follows several actions initiated by the Bureau last year, including a request for comments on junk fees, a research report analyzing credit card late fees, and an advance notice of proposed rulemaking that solicited information from credit card issuers, consumer groups, and the public regarding credit card late fees and late payments, and card issuers’ revenue and expenses (previously covered by InfoBytes here and here).
District Court denies certification and defendants’ motion for summary judgment in FDCPA class action
On January 26, the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington denied a plaintiff’s motion for class certification and denied motions for summary judgment from defendants in an FDCPA case stemming from a consent order between one of the defendants and the CFPB. As previously covered by InfoBytes, in September 2017, the CFPB announced it had filed a complaint in the U.S. District Court for the District of Delaware against a collection of 15 Delaware statutory trusts and their debt collector for, among other things, allegedly filing lawsuits against consumers for private student loan debt that they could not prove was owed or that was outside the applicable statute of limitations. According to the consent judgment, the trusts were required to pay at least $3.5 million in restitution to more than 2,000 consumers who made payments resulting from the improper collection suits, to pay $7.8 million in disgorgement to the Treasury Department, and to pay an additional $7.8 million civil money penalty to the CFPB. In addition, the trusts were required to: (i) hire an independent auditor, subject to the Bureau’s approval, to audit all 800,000 student loans in the portfolio to determine if collection efforts must be stopped on additional accounts; (ii) cease collection attempts on loans that lack proper documentation or that are time-barred; and (iii) ensure false or misleading documents are not filed and that documents requiring notarization are handled properly. A separate consent order issued against the debt collector orders the company to pay a $2.5 million civil money penalty to the CFPB.
According to the district court’s order, the plaintiffs, who were sued by the defendants for failing to pay their student loans, alleged that the defendants filed fraudulent, deceptive, and misleading affidavits in order to obtain default judgments. The plaintiffs sought to include a class of those residing in Washington for which the defendants sought to collect a debt allegedly owned by one of the trusts. The district court, however, was “unconvinced” that any of the questions would generate common answers on a class-wide basis. For example, the question of whether the defendants’ employees filed false or misleading affidavits “cannot be resolved in one stroke,” the district court said, because the plaintiffs “cannot show by a preponderance of the evidence that the documents Defendants used in every debt collection action suffered from the same alleged deficiencies.” With respect to the defendants’ summary judgment motion, the district court determined there were genuine issues of material fact regarding the alleged violations of the FDCPA and state law in Washington. The district court denied the defendants’ motion for summary judgment, noting noted that “[a]ttempts to collect debts with false affidavits and without the necessary documentation to prove the claims is unfair or unconscionable and involves false, deceptive, and/or misleading representations in violation of the FDCPA.”
CFPB releases data on pandemic credit scores
On January 25, the CFPB released a blog post on credit score transitions during the Covid-19 pandemic. Using data available to the Bureau, the agency examined the transitions of consumers across credit score tiers using a commercially available credit score. According to the Bureau, the data used quarterly snapshots from June 2010 through June 2022 of the Consumer Credit Panel (CCP), which is a 1-in-48 deidentified longitudinal sample of credit records from one of the nationwide consumer reporting agencies. The Bureau assigned consumers to five credit score bins : deep subprime (300-579); subprime (580-619); near-prime (620-659); prime (660-719); and superprime (720-850). For each quarter of the CCP through June 2021, the Bureau assigned consumers a credit score bin reflecting their credit score, and a score bin reflecting their credit score 12 months in the future. The Bureau reported that transitions out of the subprime credit score tier was more common during the pandemic. Before the pandemic, 37 percent of consumers with subprime credit scores remained in the subprime tier after one year, and 26 percent dropped to the deep subprime tier. The Bureau also found that of consumers with near-prime credit scores, 24 percent transitioned to a lower tier before the pandemic, compared to 21 percent after the pandemic. Because prime credit scores are important to access lower-cost credit, the increasing number of transitions out of subprime credit scores is one factor that led to increased access to credit during the pandemic. Nevertheless, the Bureau warned that a higher credit score may not be enough to offset rising costs for goods purchased on credit.
Biden administration releases Renters Bill of Rights
On January 25, the Biden administration announced new actions for enhancing tenant protections and furthering fair housing principles, which align with the administration’s Blueprint for a Renters Bill of Rights that was released the same day. The Blueprint and fact sheet lay out several new actions that federal agencies and state and local partners will take to protect tenants and increase housing affordability and access.
- The FTC and CFPB will collect information to identify practices that unfairly prevent applicants and tenants from accessing or staying in housing, “including the creation and use of tenant background checks, the use of algorithms in tenant screenings, the provision of adverse action notices by landlords and property management companies, and how an applicant’s source of income factors into housing decisions.” According to the White House, this marks the first time the FTC has issued a request for information that explores unfair practices in the rental market. The data will inform enforcement and policy actions under each agency’s jurisdiction.
- The CFPB will issue guidance and coordinate enforcement actions with the FTC to ensure information in the credit reporting system is accurate and to hold background check companies accountable for having unreasonable procedures.
- The FHFA will launch a transparent public process for examining “proposed actions promoting renter protections and limits on egregious rent increases for future investments.” Periodic updates, including one within the next six months will be provided to interested stakeholders. FHFA Director Sandra L. Thompson commented that the agency “will conduct a public stakeholder engagement process to identify tangible solutions for addressing the affordability challenges renters are facing nationwide, particularly among underserved communities. The proposals discussed during this process will focus on properties financed by [Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac].” She noted that FHFA will continue to evaluate Fannie and Freddie’s role in providing tenant protections and advancing affordable housing opportunities.
- The DOJ intends to hold a workshop to inform potential guidance updates centered on anti-competitive information sharing, including within the rental market space.
- HUD will publish a notice of proposed rulemaking to require public housing authorities and owners of project-based rental assistance properties to provide tenants at least 30 days’ advanced notice before terminating a lease due to nonpayment.
- The Biden administration will also hold quarterly meetings with a diverse group of tenants and tenant advocates to share ideas on ways to strengthen tenant protections.
According to the announcement, the agencies’ actions exemplify the principles laid out in the Blueprint, which underscores key tenant protections, including: (i) renters should be able to access safe, quality, accessible, and affordable housing; (ii) renters should be provided clear and fair leases with defined rental terms, rights, and responsibilities; (iii) federal, state, and local governments should ensure renters are aware of their rights and are protected from unlawful discrimination and exclusion; (iv) renters should be given the freedom to organize without obstruction or harassment from housing providers or property managers; and (v) renters should be able to access resources to prevent evictions, ensure eviction proceedings are fair, and avoid future housing instability.
The administration also announced it is launching a related “Resident-Centered Housing Challenge”—a call to action for housing providers and other stakeholders to strengthen their practices and make independent commitments that will improve the quality of life for renters. The Challenge will launch this spring and encourages states, local, tribal, and territorial governments to improve existing fair housing policies and develop new ones.
CFPB seeks feedback on credit cards
On January 24, the CFPB issued a notice and request for information (RFI) seeking public feedback on several aspects of the consumer credit card market in accordance with Section 502(b) of the Credit Card Accountability Responsibility and Disclosure Act of 2009 (CARD Act). The CARD Act was enacted by Congress to establish fair and transparent practices related to the extension of credit within the credit card market, and requires the Bureau to undertake a biennial review of the industry to determine whether regulatory adjustments are needed. The Bureau said it plans to publish its report to Congress later in 2023.
The RFI covers several broad topics ranging from lending practices to the effectiveness of rate and fee disclosures, and seeks comments on the experiences of consumers and credit card issuers in the credit card market, as well as on the overall health of the credit card market. Specifically, the RFI requests feedback on issues related to:
- Credit card agreement terms and credit card issuer practices;
- The effectiveness of issuers’ disclosure of terms, fees, and other expenses of credit card plans;
- The adequacy of protections against unfair or deceptive acts or practices relating to credit card plans;
- The cost and availability of consumer credit cards;
- The safety and soundness of credit card issuers;
- The use of risk-based pricing for consumer credit cards; and
- Consumer credit card product innovation and competition
Comments on the RFI are due April 24. The Bureau noted in its announcement that it also issued market-monitoring orders to several major and specialized credit card issuers seeking information on various topics, including major credit card issuers’ practices related to, among other things, applications and approvals, debt collection, and digital account servicing.