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On June 29, the American University Washington College of Law held a symposium centered in part around the CFPB’s new approach for examining institutions for unfair conduct. During the CFPB’s New Approach to Discrimination: Invoking UDAAP symposium, CFPB Assistant Director for the Office of Enforcement Eric Halperin answered questions related to updates recently made to the Bureau’s Unfair, Deceptive, or Abusive Acts or Practices Examination Manual. These updates detail the agency’s view that its broad authority under UDAAP allows it to address discriminatory conduct in the offering of any financial product or service as an unfair act or practice. (Covered by a Buckley Special Alert here.) The Bureau published a separate blog post by its enforcement and supervision heads explaining that they were “cracking down on discrimination in the financial sector,” and that the new procedures would guide examiners to look “beyond discrimination directly connected to fair lending laws” and “to review any policies or practices that exclude individuals from products and services, or offer products or services with different terms, in an unfairly discriminatory manner.”
Assistant Director Halperin’s remarks were followed by a discussion of the Bureau’s revisions to its Examination Manual by a panel that consisted of David Silberman of the Center for Responsible Lending, Kitty Ryan of the American Bankers Association, and John Coleman of Buckley LLP, which was moderated by Jerry Buckley. Topics covered included a June 28 letter that trade associations sent to the CFPB urging recission of revisions to the Examination Manual.
In his interview with American University Law School Professor V. Gerard Comizio, Halperin stated that the CFPB’s Examination Manual updates provide guidance on how examiners will implement the Bureau’s statutory authority to examine whether an act or practice is unfair because it may cause or is likely to cause substantial injury to consumers that is not reasonably avoidable and not outweighed by countervailing benefits to consumers or competition. He stressed that the update does not create a new legal standard under the three prongs of the unfairness standard. Halperin also discussed how the Bureau’s UDAAP authority interacts with laws enacted specifically to prevent discriminatory conduct such as ECOA and the Fair Housing Act, and touched on steps institutions should consider taking to ensure compliance. Notably, when asked whether the Bureau intends to pursue disparate impact claims under the CFPA, Halperin stated that disparate impact, along with disparate treatment, are wholly distinct concepts from Dodd-Frank’s prohibition on unfair acts and practices. He added that in assessing an unfair act and practice, the key is to examine the substantial injury prong and then assess the reasonable avoidability and the countervailing benefits prongs. He further explained that the unfairness test does not contain an intentional standard and noted that there have been cases brought by both the FTC and the Bureau where there was injurious conduct that was not intentional or specifically known to the party engaging in this practice. According to Halperin, substantial injury alone is not sufficient to prove unfairness and using disparate impact as the mechanism of proof is not what the Bureau uses to prove an unfairness claim.
Halperin reiterated that the CFPB Examination Manual is designed to provide transparency to financial institutions about the types of issues that examiners will be inquiring about in furtherance of determining whether there has been an unfair act or practice under the current framework, and does not extend or create new law. In terms of practical compliance implications, Halperin said most financial institutions should already have robust UDAAP compliance systems in place and should already be looking for potential unfair acts or practices and examining patterns and group characteristics to identify the root cause of any issues, and to avoid substantial injury to consumers. With respect to a white paper recently sent to CFPB Director Rohit Chopra from several industry groups and the U.S Chamber of Commerce urging the Bureau to rescind the UDAAP exam manual (covered by InfoBytes here), Halperin commented that he has not had time to fully digest the white paper in detail but hoped that some of what was discussed during the symposium, particularly on the legal principles that will be used both in the exam manual and in any supervision and enforcement actions, clarifies that the Bureau is looking for conduct that violates the unfairness test.
On June 28, industry groups and the U.S Chamber of Commerce (collectively, “groups”) released a White Paper, Unfairness and Discrimination: Examining the CFPB’s Conflation of Distinct Statutory Concepts, urging the CFPB to rescind the recently released unfair, deceptive and abusive acts or practices (UDAAP) examination manual. As previously covered by a Buckley Special Alert, in March, the CFPB announced significant revisions to its UDAAP exam manual, in particular highlighting the CFPB’s view that its broad authority under UDAAP allows it to address discriminatory conduct in the offering of any financial product or service. The White Paper, among other things, explained the groups’ position that the Bureau’s UDAAP authority cannot be used to extend the fair lending laws beyond the limits of existing statutory law. The White Paper stated that the Bureau “conflated” concepts of “unfairness” and “discrimination” “by announcing, via a UDAAP exam manual ‘update,’ that it would examine financial institutions for alleged discriminatory conduct that it deemed to be ‘unfair’ under its UDAAP authority.” The groups stated that the agency has “taken the law into its own hand” arguing that “the Bureau did not follow Administrative Procedure Act requirements for notice-and-comment rulemaking.” The groups said the change in the examination manual is “contrary to law and subject to legal challenge” as well as legislative repeal under the Congressional Review Act. Additionally, the groups argued that the Bureau’s interpretation exceeds the agency’s statutory authority, and that the Bureau’s “action should be held unlawful and set aside.” The groups further stated that “[c]hanges that alter the legal duties of so many are the proper province of Congress, not of independent regulatory agencies, and the CFPB cannot ignore the requirements of the Administrative Procedures Act and Congressional Review Act. The CFPB may well wish to fill gaps it perceives in federal antidiscrimination law. But Congress has simply not authorized the CFPB to fill those gaps.”
In a letter sent to CFPB Director Rohit Chopra, the groups conveyed that Congress did not intend for the Bureau to “fill gaps” between the clearly articulated boundaries of antidiscrimination statutes with its UDAAP authority. The groups urged Director Chopra to rescind the exam manual update and stated that “[s]hould [he] believe additional authority is necessary to address alleged discriminatory conduct, we stand ready to work with Congress and the CFPB to explore that possibility and to ensure the just administration of the law.
Recently, the California Department of Financial Protection and Innovation (DFPI) issued a notice of proposed rulemaking (NPRM) to adopt regulations to implement certain sections of the California Consumer Financial Protection Law (CCFPL) related to commercial financial products and services. (See also text of the proposed regulations here.) As previously covered by a Buckley Special Alert, the CCFPL became law in 2020 and, among other things, (i) establishes UDAAP authority for the DFPI; (ii) authorizes the DFPI to impose penalties of $2,500 for “each act or omission” in violation of the law without a showing that the violation was willful (thus going beyond both Dodd-Frank and existing California law); (iii) provides the DFPI with broad discretion to determine what constitutes a “financial product or service” within the law’s coverage; and (iv) provides that enforcement of the CCFPL will be funded through the fees generated by the new registration process as well as fines, penalties, settlements, or judgments. While the CCFPL exempts certain entities (e.g., banks, credit unions, certain licensees), the law expands the DFPI’s oversight authority to include debt collection, debt settlement, credit repair, check cashing, rent-to-own contracts, retail sales financing, consumer credit reporting, and lead generation.
The NPRM proposes new rules to implement sections 22159, 22800, 22804, 90005, 90009, 90012, and 90015 of the CCFPL related to the offering and provision of commercial financing and other financial products and services to small businesses, nonprofits, and family farms. According to DFPI’s notice, section 22800 subdivision (d) authorizes the Department to define unfair, deceptive, and abusive acts and practices in connection with the offering or provision of commercial financing. Section 90009, subdivision (e), among other things, authorizes the Department’s rulemaking to include data collection and reporting on the provision of commercial financing or other financial products and services.
Among other things, the NPRM:
- Clarifies that the CCFPL makes it unlawful for covered providers, as defined, to engage in unfair, deceptive, or abusive acts or practices;
- Provides standards for determining whether an act or practice is unfair, deceptive, or abusive;
- Defines small business, nonprofit, and family farm, among other terms;
- Clarifies DFPI's ability to enforce the regulation’s provisions;
- Requires covered providers to submit annual reports containing information about their provision of commercial financing or other financial products and services to small businesses, nonprofits, and family farms;
- Identifies persons excluded from the reporting requirement;
- Specifies the information required in the reports, as well as provide guidance on calculating or determining certain information;
- Clarifies the obligations of those also submitting annual reports to DFPI as licensees under the California Financing Law.
Written comments on the NPRM are due by August 8.
On June 17, the FDIC announced updates to its Consumer Compliance Examination Manual (CEM). The CEM includes supervisory policies and examination procedures for FDIC examination staff when evaluating financial institutions’ compliance with federal consumer protection laws and regulations. The June update modifies Section VII Unfair, Deceptive, or Abusive Acts or Practices to reflect the FDIC’s existing supervisory authority regarding UDAP and UDAAP under Section 5 of the FTC Act, and Sections 1031 and 1036 of the Dodd-Frank Act, respectively. Among other updates, the new Section VII changes language related to the Equal Credit Opportunity Act and Fair Housing Act to add a reference to Dodd-Frank UDAAP provisions. The updated section provides the following:
ECOA prohibits discrimination in any aspect of a credit transaction against persons on the basis of race, color, religion, national origin, sex, marital status, age (provided the applicant has the capacity to contract), the fact that an applicant’s income derives from any public assistance program, and the fact that the applicant has in good faith exercised any right under the Consumer Credit Protection Act. The FHA prohibits creditors involved in residential real estate transactions from discriminating against any person on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, handicap, familial status, or national origin. FTC UDAPs and Dodd-Frank UDAAPs that target or have a disparate impact on consumers in one of these prohibited basis groups may violate the ECOA or the FHA, as well as the FTC Act or the Dodd-Frank Act. Moreover, some state and local laws address discrimination against additional protected classes, e.g., handicap in non-housing transactions, or sexual orientation. Such conduct may also violate the FTC Act or the Dodd-Frank Act.
With respect to the legal standards for “unfair” and “deceptive” under the FTC Act and Dodd-Frank, Section VII notes that these standards are “substantially similar.”
On June 9, the CFPB filed a stipulated final judgment and order in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of California resolving allegations that the operator of a student-loan debt relief company engaged in unfair debiting of consumer accounts, in violation of the CFPA. According to the complaint, in 2016, the defendant founded a student debt relief company, which “did not solicit new consumers, but instead obtained student-loan account and billing information for hundreds of former [student debt relief operation] consumers without the knowledge or consent of those consumers.” As previously covered by InfoBytes, in 2016, the CFPB filed a consent order against a San Diego-based student debt relief operation for alleged violations of the CFPA, the TSR, and Regulation P by deceiving borrowers into paying fees for federal loan benefits and misrepresenting to consumers that it was affiliated with the Department of Education. The CFPB alleged that the defendant led a debt collection scheme by withdrawing $39 per month, and collecting hundreds of thousands of dollars in total fees from student borrowers’ bank accounts, without authorization, after previously obtaining their names and account information from the former student loan debt relief business. According to the CFPB, “under this scheme, [the defendant’s] company had unlawfully debited more than $240,000 from hundreds of student borrowers’ accounts.” Under the terms of the settlement, the defendant is permanently banned from engaging in debt relief services and must pay a $175,000 penalty to the CFPB.
On May 18, the U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland approved a consent order against defendants in an action concerning allegedly unfair, abusive, and deceptive structured settlement practices. As previously covered by InfoBytes, in 2016 the Bureau initiated an enforcement action against the defendants alleging that they violated the CFPA by employing abusive practices when purchasing structured settlements from consumers in exchange for lump-sum payments. According to the Bureau, the defendants encouraged consumers to take advances on their structured settlements and falsely represented that the consumers were obligated to complete the structured settlement sale, “even if they [later] realized it was not in their best interest.” In July 2021, the court denied the defendants’ motions to dismiss the Bureau’s amended complaint, which argued that the enforcement action was barred by the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Seila Law LLC v. CFPB, which held that the director’s for-cause removal provision was unconstitutional (covered by a Buckley Special Alert). The defendants had also argued that that the ratification of the enforcement action “came too late” because the statute of limitations on the CFPA claims had already expired (covered by InfoBytes here). Under the terms of the May 18 consent order, the individual defendant, who “had an ownership interest in [the company] and served in executive positions at [the defendants] from their inception to their dissolution" is prohibited from, among other things, participating or assisting others in participating in transfer of payment streams from structured-settlement holders and referring consumers to a specific individual or for-profit entity for advice concerning any structured-settlement transaction, including for independent professional advice. The individual defendant must also pay a $5,000 civil money penalty.
On May 19, nineteen Financial Services Committee Republicans sent a letter to CFPB Director Rohit Chopra expressing concerns about the agency’s new UDAAP supervisory policy and the recent changes to CFPB administrative adjudication procedures. As previously covered by a Buckley Special Alert, the Bureau revised its UDAAP exam manual to highlight the CFPB’s view that its broad authority under UDAAP allows it to address discriminatory conduct in the offering of any financial product or service. With the March announcement, the Bureau made clear its view that any type of discrimination in connection with a consumer financial product or service could be an “unfair” practice — and, therefore, the CFPB can bring discrimination claims related to non-credit financial products. According to the letter, “the CFPB’s new [UDAAP] supervisory policy and the recent changes to CFPB administrative adjudication procedures deviate significantly from past practices.” The letter further argued that “Congress enacted the fair lending laws and delegated their enforcement to the CFPB, clearly defining the limits of CFPB’s jurisdiction.” Additionally, the letter noted that “[e]xtending ECOA’s disparate treatment and disparate impact analysis to non-credit financial products and services ignores these clear limits.” The legislators also contended that “[i]n addition to radically reinterpreting UDAAP, changes to the way the CFPB will supervise for UDAAP will impose significant new responsibilities on supervised entities.”
The letter also expressed concerns regarding changes recently made to the rules governing CFPB administrative adjudications. As previously covered by InfoBytes, in February the Bureau published a procedural rule and request for public comment in the Federal Register to update its Rules of Practice for Adjudication Proceedings. The Bureau indicated that the amendments would provide greater procedural flexibility, providing parties earlier access to relevant information, expanding deposition opportunities, and making various changes related to “timing and deadlines, the content of answers, the scheduling conference, bifurcation of proceedings, the process for deciding dispositive motions, and requirements for issue exhaustion, as well as other technical changes.” According to the letter, this represents a “disturbing” action that is “contrary to [Chopra’s] comments about intending to establish durable jurisprudence made during testimony before the House Financial Services Committee in October 2021,” and “does not abide by typical notice and comment procedures.” The nineteen House Republicans on the Committee stated their view that “it is appropriate for the CFPB to immediately revert back to the previous Rules of Practice and conduct notice and comment rulemaking before  any new procedures become effective.”
On May 17, the FDIC approved a final rule implementing its authority to prohibit any person or organization from making misrepresentations about FDIC deposit insurance or misusing the FDIC’s name or logo. According to the FDIC, the final rule responds to the “increasing number of instances where individuals or entities have misused the FDIC’s name or logo, or have made false or misleading representations about deposit insurance.” To promote transparency on the FDIC’s processes for investigating and enforcing potential breaches of prohibitions under Section 18(a)(4) of the Federal Deposit Insurance Act, the final rule clarifies the agency’s procedures for identifying, investigating, and where necessary, taking formal and informal action to address potential violations, and establishes a primary point-of-contact for receiving complaints and inquiries about potential misrepresentations regarding deposit insurance. The final rule takes effect 30 days after publication in the Federal Register.
In response, the CFPB released Consumer Financial Protection Circular 2022-02 to provide that covered firms are likely in violation of the CFPA’s prohibition on deceptive acts or practices “if they misuse the name or logo of the FDIC or engage in false advertising or make material misrepresentations to the public about deposit insurance, regardless of whether such conduct (including the misrepresentation of insured status) is engaged in knowingly.” As previously covered by InfoBytes, the newly introduced circulars serve as policy statements for other agencies with consumer financial protection responsibilities. Specifically, the Bureau warned that (i) “[m]isrepresenting the FDIC logo or name will typically be a material misrepresentation”; (ii) claiming “financial products or services are ‘regulated’ by the FDIC or ‘insured’ or ‘eligible for’ FDIC insurance are likely deceptive if those claims expressly or implicitly indicate that the product or service is FDIC-insured when that is not in fact the case” (e.g. emerging financial products and services including digital assets and crypto-assets); and (iii) misusing the FDIC’s name or logo creates harm for firms that engage in honest advertising and marketing. CFPB Director Rohit Chopra, as an FDIC board member, announced the Bureau’s support for the final rule. “Misrepresentation claims about deposit insurance are particularly relevant today,” Chopra noted. “FDIC staff has noted an uptick in potential violations in recent years. We are especially concerned about potential misconduct involving novel technologies, including so-called stablecoins and other crypto-assets. While new technologies may yield significant benefits for households, workers, and small businesses, they nonetheless pose risks to consumers who may be baited by misrepresentations or false advertisements about deposit insurance.”
Acting Comptroller of the Currency Michael J. Hsu specifically called out the timeliness of the final rule in light of changes in the marketplace, technological developments, and rapidly evolving consumer behaviors. The final rule “is especially important in light of the growth of nonbank crypto firms and fintechs and their relationships with banks,” Hsu stated. “The potential for consumer confusion about the status of cash held at these firms is high and this final rule will help provide clarity.”
On May 4, the Connecticut Banking Commissioner issued a temporary cease and desist order against an unlicensed California-based marketplace lender after determining it had reason to believe the respondent allegedly violated several provision of the Connecticut General Statutes, as well as Section 1036 of the CFPA. The respondent operates a mobile application to help consumers take out small-dollar loans and solicits lenders via its website through advertisements claiming it “takes the work out of lending by vetting and organizing a marketplace of loan requests” where “[b]orrowers set their own terms and provide appreciation tips to lenders who agree to fund a loan, allowing for mutually beneficial financial outcomes.” Consumers initiate loans on the respondent’s platform for a certain amount, which includes optional monetary tips for both the lender and the respondent of up to 12 and 9 percent of the loan amount respectively. The Commissioner’s investigation noted that while the respondent touted the tips as being optional and not required for submitting a loan request or receiving funding, 100 percent of the loans originated to Connecticut consumers from June 2018 to August 2021 included a tip. When the tips were factored into the finance charge, the APRs of the Connecticut consumers’ loans ranged from 43 percent to over 4,280 percent. During the identified time period, loan disclosures identified the amount of the tips for each loan; however, starting in April 2021, the revised disclosures and promissory notes removed any itemization of the tips, and promissory notes allegedly “failed to indicate any obligation of the borrower to pay tips on their loans.” According to the Commissioner, the corresponding disclosures “stated that only one payment, for the principal loan amount, was due at the end of the loan,” however on the loan’s due date, the total loan amount including tips was withdrawn from the consumer’s account. Additionally, disclosures allegedly informed consumers that the APR on the loans was zero percent even though all the loans carried much higher APRs.
The Commissioner further concluded that the respondent prohibited direct communication between consumers and lenders and charged several fees on delinquent loans, including late fees and recovery fees for its collection efforts. Moreover, at least one of the contracted collection agencies was not licensed in the state, nor was the respondent licensed as a small loan company in Connecticut, and nor did it qualify for a licensure exemption.
In issuing its order to cease and desist, order to make restitution, and notice of intent to impose a civil penalty and other equitable relief, the Commissioner stated that the respondent’s “offering, soliciting, brokering, directly or indirectly arranging, placing or finding a small loan for a prospective Connecticut borrower, without the required license” constitutes at least 1,600 violations of the Connecticut General Statutes. The Commissioner cited additional violations, which included engaging in unlicensed activities such as lead generation and debt collection, and cited the respondent for providing false and misleading information related to the terms and costs of the loan transactions in violation of both state law and the CFPA’s prohibition against deceptive acts or practices. In addition to ordering the respondent to immediately cease and desist from engaging in the alleged violations, the Commissioner ordered the respondent to repay any amounts received from Connecticut consumers in connection with their loan, plus interest.
On May 6, the CFPB issued its annual fair lending report to Congress, which outlines the Bureau’s efforts in 2021 to fulfill its fair lending mandate. Much of the Bureau’s work in 2021 focused on addressing racial injustice and long-term economic consequences of the Covid-19 pandemic. According to the report, the Bureau continued to prioritize promoting fair, equitable, and nondiscriminatory access to credit, with a particular focus on fair lending supervision efforts in areas related to “mortgage origination and pricing, small business lending, student loan origination work, policies and procedures regarding geographic and other exclusions in underwriting, and  the use of artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning models.” Fair Lending Director Patrice Alexander Ficklin said that while she is “encouraged by the possibility of utilizing vehicles like special purpose credit programs to expand access to credit,” she remains “skeptical of claims that advanced algorithms are the cure-all for bias in credit underwriting and pricing.” The report addressed enforcement and supervision work, highlighting four fair lending-related enforcement actions taken last year related to (i) illegal redlining practices; (ii) failure to provide accurate denial reasons on adverse-action notices; (iii) UDAAP violations related to the treatment of “gate money” for incarcerated individuals; and (iv) fees and payments associated with immigration bonds. The report also discussed initiatives concerning small business lending and data collection rulemaking, automated valuation models rulemaking, and a final rule amending certain provisions in Regulation X related to Covid-19 protections offered by mortgage servicers. Additionally, the report discussed an interpretive rule concerning ECOA’s prohibition on sex discrimination, stakeholder engagement on matters concerning fair lending compliance and policy decisions, HMDA reporting, and interagency engagement and reporting, among other topics. The report noted that going forward, the Bureau intends to sharpen its focus on digital redlining and algorithmic bias to identify emerging risks as more tech companies influence the financial services marketplace. According to CFPB Director Rohit Chopra, “[w]hile technology holds great promise, it can also reinforce historical biases that have excluded too many Americans from opportunities.”
- Daniel R. Alonso discussed “The importance of the FCPA in the world and its current impact” at a ‘Competitive Breakfast’ event sponsored by the international compliance firm Intedya
- Jedd R. Bellman discussed “The CFPB’s crackdown on collection junk fees and the growing anti-CFPB rhetoric” at an Accounts Recovery webinar
- Buckley Webcast: State supervision, enforcement, and multistate coordination
- Benjamin W. Hutten to discuss “Latest on AML regulations and impact of economic sanctions” at a Mortgage Bankers Association webinar
- Hank Asbill to discuss “Ethical issues at sentencing” at the 31st Annual National Seminar on Federal Sentencing
- Benjamin W. Hutten to discuss “Fundamentals of financial crime compliance” at the Practicing Law Institute
- Benjamin W. Hutten to discuss “Ongoing CDD: Operational considerations” at NAFCU’s Regulatory Compliance & BSA Seminar