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On November 22, the Democratic members of the House Financial Services Committee sent a letter to Secretary of HUD Ben Carson, opposing the agency’s proposed rule amending its interpretation of the Fair Housing Act’s (FHA) disparate impact standard (also known as the “2013 Disparate Impact Regulation”). The letter argues that the proposed rule would “make it harder for everyday Americans who find themselves victims of housing discrimination to get justice.” As previously covered by InfoBytes, in August, HUD issued the proposed rule in order to bring the rule “into closer alignment with the analysis and guidance” provided in the 2015 Supreme Court ruling in Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs v. Inclusive Communities Project, Inc. (covered by a Buckley Special Alert) and to codify HUD’s position that its rule is not intended to infringe on the states’ regulation of insurance. Specifically, the proposed rule codifies the burden-shifting framework outlined in Inclusive Communities, adding five elements that a plaintiff must plead to support allegations that a specific, identifiable policy or practice has a discriminatory effect. Moreover, the proposal provides methods for defendants to rebut a disparate impact claim.
The letter urges Secretary Carson to “immediately rescind” the proposed rule, calling the proposal a “huge departure from a standard and framework that has been expressly supported by HUD…[and] a deviation from decades of legal precedent, including a Supreme Court decision affirming the legitimacy of the disparate impact standard under the [FHA].” Moreover, the letter argues that “[i]n 2018, Black homeownership rates reached the lowest they had since before the [FHA] was passed,” and that HUD’s mission to build inclusive and sustainable communities will be “seriously compromised” with this proposed rule.
On October 28, HUD and DOJ announced a long-awaited Memorandum of Understanding (MOU), which provides prudential guidance concerning the application of the False Claims Act to matters involving alleged noncompliance with FHA guidelines. The announcement was made by HUD Secretary Dr. Benjamin S. Carson at the Mortgage Bankers Association’s Annual Conference, and both agencies issued releases shortly after Carson’s comments. The intention, HUD noted, is to bring greater clarity to regulatory expectations within the FHA program and ease banks’ worries about facing future penalties for mortgage-lending errors.
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Click here to read the full special alert.
If you have any questions about the HUD/DOJ Memorandum of Understanding or other related issues, please visit our Mortgages or False Claims Act & FIRREA practice pages, or contact a Buckley attorney with whom you have worked in the past.
On October 18, 22 state attorneys general submitted comments opposing HUD’s proposed rule amending the agency’s interpretation of the Fair Housing Act’s disparate impact standard (also known as the “2013 Disparate Impact Regulation”), arguing the proposal would “render disparate impact liability a dead letter under the Fair Housing Act (FHA).” As previously covered by InfoBytes, in August, HUD issued the proposed rule, to bring the rule “into closer alignment with the analysis and guidance” provided in the 2015 Supreme Court ruling in Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs v. Inclusive Communities Project, Inc. (covered by a Buckley Special Alert) and to codify HUD’s position that its rule is not intended to infringe on the states’ regulation of insurance. Specifically, the proposal codifies the burden-shifting framework outlined in Inclusive Communities, adding five elements that a plaintiff must plead to support allegations that a specific, identifiable, policy or practice has a discriminatory effect. Moreover, the proposal provides methods for defendants to rebut a disparate impact claim.
In the comment letter, the attorneys general argue that the proposal ignores “the Supreme Court’s binding interpretation of the FHA” in Inclusive Communities, stating that the Court “emphasiz[ed] the continued importance of the FHA’s disparate impact theory of liability in advancing the nation’s efforts to advance justice and equality.” Additionally, the attorneys general suggest that the proposal ignores HUD’s statutory mandate and is “arbitrary and capricious in light of its numerous substantive defects.” The attorneys general assert that no changes to the rule are necessary, as there are no revisions “that would add clarity, reduce uncertainty, decrease unwarranted regulatory burdens, or otherwise assist in determining lawful conduct.” The letter concludes with a threat of a “meritorious legal challenge” should HUD approve the changes.
Similarly, on October 16, FTC Commissioner, Rohit Chopra, voiced his concerns with the proposal in a comment letter, stating that it “appears to fundamentally misunderstand how algorithms, big data, and machine learning work in practice,” and that “it would provide safe harbors to the same technologies at issue in HUD’s own action against [a social media company].” Chopra opposes HUD’s proposal for three reasons: (i) algorithms can provide discriminatory results because they are not neutral; (ii) safe harbors should not be created “around technologies that are proprietary, opaque, and rapidly evolving”; and (iii) incentives are distorted by “outsourcing [the] liability for algorithmic discrimination to third parties.” Chopra concludes that the proposal should not be finalized because it “moves enforcement against discrimination backwards.”
On September 11, the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of California denied a mortgage company’s motion to dismiss an action by the U.S. government alleging the company violated the False Claims Act by falsely certifying compliance with FHA mortgage insurance requirements. According to the opinion, the government intervened in a former employee’s suit against the company and alleged that the company, a participant in HUD’s Direct Endorsement Lender program, had failed to report loans to HUD that presented “material risk and ‘[f]indings of fraud or other serious violations’ discovered during the ‘normal course of business and by quality control staff during reviews/audits of FHA loans.’” The company moved to dismiss the action, arguing that the government failed to allege a scheme that was designed to flout specific FHA requirements. In denying the motion, the court concluded that the government sufficiently alleged the “who, what, where, how, and why” of the company’s misconduct, noting that the company “knew, or should have known, that the certifications of compliance it made at the time of endorsement were false because the falsities were facially apparent from the loan files that it was required to underwrite in accordance with HUD’s requirements.” The court also concluded that the government sufficiently pleaded its breach of fiduciary duty and breach of contract claims.
On September 10, the Senate Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs held a hearing entitled “Housing Finance Reform: Next Steps” to discuss the federal government’s plans for reforming and strengthening the mortgage market. As previously covered by InfoBytes, the Department of Treasury and HUD released complementary proposals on September 5 discussing plans to end the conservatorships of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac (GSEs) and reform the housing finance system. The Committee heard from Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, HUD Secretary Ben Carson, and FHFA Director Mark Calabria. Committee Chairman Mike Crapo (R-ID) opened the hearing by stating a preference for comprehensive legislation to end the conservatorship of the GSEs but stressed that the agencies should “begin moving forward with incremental steps that move the system in the right direction.” Democratic members of the Committee stated their oppositions to the proposals, with Senator Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) arguing that the Treasury’s plan “will make mortgages more expensive and harder to get,” make it more difficult for small lenders to compete, and roll back tools designed to help underserved families.
Treasury Secretary Mnuchin defended his agency’s proposal, and noted that while he prefers that Congress take the lead on ending the GSE conservatorships and plans to work with Congress on a bipartisan basis to enact comprehensive housing finance reform legislation, he also sees the need to concurrently develop administrative actions to protect taxpayers and foster competition. Among other things, Mnuchin discussed steps to remove the net worth sweep, which requires the GSEs to send nearly all their profits to the Treasury, arguing that ending the sweep will allow the GSEs to retain their earnings and build up capital.
FHFA Director Calabria emphasized that plans released by the Treasury and HUD are “broadly consistent” with his top priorities, which include developing capital standards for the GSEs to match their risk profiles that would “begin the process to end the [GSE] conservatorships,” as well as reforms to reduce the risks in the GSEs’ portfolios. All three witnesses agreed with Crapo’s assessment that the GSEs in their current form “are systemically important companies [and] that they continue to be too big to fail.” Calabria further emphasized that while he believes only Congress can reach a comprehensive solution, he believes the agencies can also make significant steps.
HUD Secretary Carson commented that a central principle of HUD’s housing finance plan is to improve coordination between HUD and FHFA to allow qualified borrowers access to responsible and affordable credit options, with HUD, the Department of Veterans Affairs, and the Department of Agriculture acting as the sole sources of low-down-payment financing for borrowers outside of the conventional mortgage market. Carson further noted that reform will “reduce the Federal Government’s outsized role in housing finance.”
On September 5, the U.S. Treasury Department and HUD released complementary proposals in response to a presidential memorandum issued last March (previously covered by InfoBytes here) directing the departments to develop plans to end the conservatorships of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac (GSEs) and reform the housing finance system.
According to a press release released by the Treasury Department, the Treasury Housing Reform Plan outlines several broad goals and legislative and administrative reforms intended to protect taxpayers and assist homebuyers. Included in the Reform Plan are measures to privatize the GSEs, with the Treasury Department emphasizing that FHFA “should begin the process of ending” the conservatorships. “Central to this objective will be ensuring that the GSEs and their successors are appropriately capitalized to remain viable as going concerns after a severe economic downturn and also to ensure that shareholders and unsecured creditors, rather than taxpayers, bear losses.” Other notable agency and limited congressional action highlights include:
- Congress should authorize an explicit, paid-for guarantee by Ginnie Mae on qualified mortgage-backed securities for single-family and multifamily loans.
- Private sector participation should increase in the mortgage market to compete with the GSEs, and ensure a level playing field for lenders of all sizes.
- Congress should replace GSEs’ statutory affordable housing goals with a “more efficient, transparent, and accountable mechanism” to support underserved borrowers and expand HUD’s affordable housing activities.
- GSEs under FHFA’s capital rule should be required to maintain “capital sufficient to remain viable as a going concern after a severe economic downturn,” the cap on the GSEs’ investments in mortgage-related assets should be further reduced, and GSEs’ retained mortgage portfolios should be restricted to “solely supporting [the] business of securitizing mortgage-backed securities.”
- Mortgages eligible for GSE guarantees should have to comply with strict underwriting requirements.
- The Qualified Mortgage rule should be simplified and the so-called QM patch that allows GSEs to avoid certain regulations should be eliminated (see previous InfoBytes coverage on the CFPB’s advance notice of proposed rulemaking to allow the QM patch to expire here).
- Access to 30-year fix-rate mortgages for qualified homebuyers should be preserved.
HUD’s Housing Finance Reform Plan, released in conjunction with Treasury’s proposal, addresses the role of FHA and Ginnie Mae, and outlines steps to reduce risk in the FHA portfolio. According to HUD’s press release, the proposal focuses on four objectives: refocusing FHA to its core mission, protecting American taxpayers, providing tools to FHA and Ginnie Mae to appropriately manage risk, and providing liquidity to the housing finance system. Among other objectives, HUD’s plan (i) stresses that FHA, which serves low- and moderate-income borrowers, “must ensure that borrowers are creditworthy and that they have access to loans that meet their financial needs without creating undue risk”; (ii) recommends that FHA and FHFA establish a “formalized collaborative approach” to streamline government-supported mortgage programs to ensure they are “not competing and do not crowd private capital out of the marketplace;” (iii) encourages continued efforts to reduce loan churning; (iv) encourages a continued partnership between FHA and DOJ “to provide more clarity on how the agencies will consult on the appropriate use of the [False Claims Act]” to provide regulatory certainty to lenders; (v) encourages FHA to develop servicing standards for home equity conversion mortgage programs to reduce operational and financial burdens; and (vi) recommends that FHA develop a mortgage origination risk tool that integrates an automated underwriting system.
On August 29, Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, and HUD issued disaster relief guidance related to Hurricane Dorian. Fannie Mae reminded servicers of available mortgage assistance options for homeowners impacted by the hurricane: (i) qualifying homeowners are eligible to stop making mortgage payments for up to 12 months without incurring late fees and without having delinquencies reported to the credit bureaus; (ii) servicers may immediately suspend or reduce mortgage payments for up to 90 days without any contact with homeowners believed to have been affected by a disaster; and (iii) foreclosures and other legal proceedings for homeowners believed to be impacted by a disaster are temporarily suspended. Freddie Mac similarly reminded servicers of these mortgage relief options.
The same day, HUD released Mortgagee Letter ML 2019-14 (ML 2019-14), which updates Handbook 4000.1 and expands its “Disaster Standalone Partial Claim” loss mitigation option which “allow[s] borrowers in Presidentially Declared Major Disaster Areas (PDMDAs) with delinquent FHA-insured mortgages to bring their mortgages current without increasing their interest rates or principal and interest payments.” The mitigation option, introduced last year, “covers missed mortgage payments up to 30 percent of Unpaid Principal Balance” through an interest-free second loan on the mortgage without a required trial payment plan. The second loan will become payable only when the borrower sells the home or refinances. Additionally, the loss mitigation option will streamline income documentation and other requirements to expedite relief to eligible borrowers struggling to pay their mortgages while recovering from disasters.
Separately on August 30, the OCC issued a proclamation permitting OCC-regulated institutions, to close offices affected by Hurricane Dorian’s severe weather conditions at their discretion “for as long as deemed necessary for bank operation or public safety.” In issuing the proclamation, the OCC noted that it expects that only those bank offices directly affected by potentially unsafe conditions will close and that they should make every effort to reopen as quickly as possible to address the banking needs of their customers. The proclamation directs institutions to OCC Bulletin 2012-28 for further guidance on natural disasters and other emergency conditions.
On August 14, HUD published revisions in the Federal Register to the Federal Housing Administration’s (FHA) lender certification requirements originally issued in May. (Previously covered by InfoBytes here.) In response to comments received on its initial proposal, HUD released a proposed streamlined FHA Annual Lender Certification, which removes a broad statement regarding lenders certifying compliance with all HUD requirements in order to maintain FHA approval. Commenters generally recommended HUD: “(1) Rescind the annual certification statements since the National Housing Act does not require certification of compliance with FHA eligibility requirements or completion of an annual certification; or (2) revise the annual certification statements to a general acknowledgement of the existence of policies and procedures that are reasonably designed to ensure material compliance.” Comments are due September 13.
On August 8, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit affirmed a district court ruling that ordered two mortgage companies and their owner to pay nearly $300 million in a suit brought under the False Claims Act (FCA) and the Financial Institutions Reform, Recovery and Enforcement Act (FIRREA). The suit accused the defendants of allegedly making false certifications, which reportedly led to mortgages ending in default. The jury agreed that the defendants defrauded the Federal Housing Agency’s mortgage insurance program when a state audit revealed unregistered company branches were used to originate loans in violation of agency guidelines, and the court determined that there was ample evidence to find that the false certifications were a proximate cause of losses from loan defaults. As a result, the government trebled the damages and civil penalties under the FCA from $93 million to roughly $298 million. The defendants appealed the decision, challenging, among other things, the sufficiency of evidence, methodologies presented by the government’s expert witnesses, and the judge’s decision to not order a new trial after dismissing a disruptive juror.
On appeal, the 5th Circuit opined that there was sufficient evidence to support the jury’s findings, and rejected the defendants’ expert witness challenges, holding first that the defendants had waived any argument about the loan default sampling methodology used by one of the witnesses, because their argument that the witness “failed to control for obvious causes of default” never came up “during the extensive negotiations over the sampling methodology that would be used.” The appellate court also concluded that nothing in the record supported the defendants’ argument that the second witness “did not apply the HUD underwriting standards” in his re-underwriting methodology. The appellate court further noted that it has declined to adopt a rule used by other circuit courts that prohibits jurors from being dismissed “unless there is no possibility” that the juror’s failure to deliberate stems from their view of the evidence. Rather, the 5th Circuit held that the district court had grounds to dismiss the juror who “failed to follow instructions, exhibited a lack of candor during questioning, and had engaged in threatening behavior towards other jurors.”
On August 1, HUD issued Mortgagee Letter 2019-11, which lowers the maximum loan-to-value (LTV) and combined maximum loan-to-value (CLTV) from 85 percent to 80 percent on cash-out refinances for FHA-insured mortgage loans. The letter notes that the total number of cash-out refinance mortgages of FHA-insured mortgage loans has increased 250.47 percent from FY 2013 to FY 2018, and that the FHA therefore has concluded that the reduction in LTV is prudent “in order to strengthen the equity position of cash-out refinances and reduce loss severities in the event of default, [and] stay ahead of any potential future shift in the housing market.” The new LTV is effective for any mortgage loans insured by FHA on or after September 1.
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