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On February 26, the CFPB filed its first enforcement action against a for-profit higher-education company, alleging that the company engaged in unfair and abusive private student loan origination practices.
In a civil complaint filed in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Indiana, the CFPB asserts that the company offered first-year students no-interest short-term loans to cover the difference between the costs of attendance and federal loans obtained by students. The CFPB claims that when the short-term loans came due at the end of the first academic year and borrowers were unable to pay them off, the company forced borrowers into “high-rate, high-fee” private student loans without providing borrowers an adequate opportunity to understand their loan obligations. Moreover, the CFPB claims that the company’s business model is dependent on coercing students into “high-rate, high-fee” private loans, despite the low average incomes and credit profiles of the students, and a 64 percent default rate on such loans.
The company issued a statement denying the charges, criticizing the CFPB’s decision to file suit, and challenging the CFPB’s jurisdiction. The statement describes the suit as an “aggressive attempt by the Bureau . . . to extend its jurisdiction into matters well beyond consumer finance” and expresses the company's intent to “ vigorously contest the Bureau's theories in court.”
The complaint details a number of alleged “high-pressure” origination tactics the CFPB claims resulted in part from the compensation structure the company established for its financial aid staff, which included commissions based on loan origination volume. The complaint also details the loan programs at issue, asserting that the programs were ostensibly run by third parties, but were controlled and guaranteed by the company, which allowed it to establish lenient lending criteria to maximize student participation. The company also is alleged to have misrepresented to prospective students the company’s accreditation and the placement rates and salaries of its graduates.
For certain students who did not obtain private student loans to pay-off the short-term company product and instead carried balances on the short-term credit through graduation, the CFPB asserts the company offered a “graduation discount” if the borrowers agreed to pay off some or all of the balance in a lump sum rather than through an installment plan. The CFPB reasons that to the extent the lump sum discounts were not applied to the installment plans, such discounts constituted finance charges subject to TILA’s disclosure requirements. The CFPB asserts that the company failed to clearly and conspicuously disclose those charges in writing to borrowers who opted not to pay a lump sum and instead entered into installment plans.
The CFPB brings claims for violations of the Consumer Financial Protection Act’s prohibitions on unfair and abusive practices, as well as for violations of TILA. In addition to injunctive relief, the CFPB is seeking unspecified monetary relief, including restitution for harmed borrowers, disgorgement, rescission, and civil money penalties.
On October 22, the CFPB released the procedures its examiners will use in assessing financial institutions’ compliance with the remittance transfer requirements of Regulation E. Amendments to those regulations, finalized by the CFPB earlier this year, are set to take effect October 28, 2013. In general, the rule requires remittance transfer providers that offer remittances as part of their “normal course of business” to: (i) provide written pre-payment disclosures of the exchange rates and fees associated with a transfer of funds as well as the amount of funds the recipient will receive; and (ii) investigate consumer disputes and remedy errors. The rule does not apply to financial institutions that consistently provide 100 or fewer remittance transfers each year, or to transactions under $15.
The new examination procedures detail the specific objectives examiners should pursue as part of the examination, including to: (i) assess the quality of the regulated entity’s compliance risk management systems with respect to its remittance transfer business; (ii) identify acts or practices relating to remittance transfers that materially increase the risk of violations of federal consumer financial law and associated harm to consumers; (iii) gather facts that help to determine whether a supervised entity engages in acts or practices that are likely to violate federal consumer financial law; and (iv) determine whether a violation of a federal consumer financial law has occurred and, if so, whether further supervisory or enforcement actions are appropriate. In doing so, CFPB examiners will look not only at potential risks related to the remittance regulations, but also outside the remittance rule to assess “other risks to consumers,” including potential unfair, deceptive, or abusive acts or practices and Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act privacy violations. Finally, consistent with other examination procedures published by the CFPB, the examiners are instructed to conduct both a management- and policy-level review as well as a transaction-level review to inform the stated examination objectives.
Also on October 22, the CFPB announced a new tool designed to make it easier for the public to navigate the regulations subject to CFPB oversight. To start, the new eRegulations tool includes only Regulation E, which implements the Electronic Fund Transfer Act and includes the remittance requirements discussed above. Noting that federal regulations can be difficult to navigate, the CFPB redesigned the electronic presentation of its regulations, including by (i) defining key terms throughout, (ii) providing official interpretations throughout, (iii) linking certain sections of the “Federal Register preambles” to help explain the background of a particular paragraph, and (iv) providing the ability to see previous, current, and future versions. The CFPB notes that the tool is a work in progress and that suggestions from the public are welcome. Further, the CFPB encourages other agencies, developers, or groups to use and adapt the system.
CFPB Puts Creditors, Third-Party Collectors on Notice Regarding Unfair, Deceptive, and Abusive Debt Collection Practices
On July 10, the CFPB issued new debt collection guidance that, among other things, seeks to hold CFPB-supervised creditors accountable for engaging in acts or practices the CFPB considers to be unfair, deceptive, and/or abusive (UDAAP) when collecting their own debts, in much the same way debt collectors are held accountable for violations of the FDCPA. Bulletin 2013-07 reviews the Dodd-Frank Act UDAAP standards, provides a non-exhaustive list of debt collection acts or practices that could constitute UDAAPs, and states that even though creditors generally are not considered debt collectors under the FDCPA, the CFPB intends to supervise their debt collection activities under its UDAAP authority.
Separately, in Bulletin 2013-08, the CFPB provided guidance to creditors, debt buyers, and third-party collectors about compliance with the FDCPA and sections 1031 and 1036 of Dodd-Frank when making representations about the impact that payments on debts in collection may have on credit reports and credit scores. The Bulletin states that potentially deceptive debt collection claims are a matter of “significant concern” to the CFPB and describes the CFPB’s planned supervisory activities and other actions the CFPB may take to ensure that the debt collection market “functions in a fair, transparent, and competitive manner.”
In addition, the CFPB announced that it will begin accepting consumer complaints related to debt collection, and published five “action letters” that consumers can use to correspond with debt collectors. The letters address the situations when the consumer: (i) needs more information on the debt; (ii) wants to dispute the debt and for the debt collector to prove responsibility or stop communication; (iii) wants to restrict how and when a debt collector can contact them; (iv) has hired a lawyer; (v) wants the debt collector to stop any and all contact.
Spotlight on Student Lending (Part 1 of 2): Facing Increased Regulatory Scrutiny, Student Loan Lenders Prepare for CFPB Examinations
Currently, total outstanding student debt (both federal loans and private loans) has risen to roughly $1.1 trillion dollars. That figure represents an over 50% increase since 2008 and makes student loans the largest source of unsecured consumer debt – surpassing credit cards. At the same time, at least with respect to federal student loans, delinquencies have risen sharply during the same time period and, with unemployment rates for recent graduates still high by historic standards, the risk of continued high delinquency rates remains significant. Complicating matters is that student loan servicers, and servicers of private student loans in particular, have limited ability vis-à-vis a mortgage lender to modify those loans for borrowers in default.
Not surprisingly, given this backdrop, borrowers have lodged complaints with the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB or Bureau) focused on their inability to obtain loan modifications, concerns about improper payment processing, and concerns about servicers’ debt collection practices. All of these factors have prompted the Bureau to draw comparisons to the recent mortgage servicing crisis and to increase focus and attention on the student lending and servicing industry in an effort to stave off a problem of those proportions.
In addition, the Bureau has focused its attention within student lending and servicing on other, more traditional areas of regulatory concern. For example, the Bureau in the past year indicated it intends to closely scrutinize student lenders on fair lending issues – especially the use of non-credit bureau attributes such as cohort default rate – as well as unfair, deceptive, or abusive trade practices.
For non-bank private student lenders, regulation by the CFPB represents a significant increase in the type of regulatory scrutiny to which lenders have traditionally been subject. Even for large bank student lenders, which have long been subject to examinations by their prudential regulators, CFPB regulatory oversight will present new challenges insofar as the Bureau’s focus is solely on consumer protection and compliance and it has made clear that understanding and regulating private student lending is one of its high priorities.
Here are several steps that student lenders and servicers can take now to proactively mitigate risk in the current environment, including:
- Developing, implementing and, as applicable, updating fair and responsible lending programs (including training of key employees in this area)
- Conducting periodic fair lending and UDAAP risk assessments
- Conducting gap analyses of collections and servicing practices to ensure compliance and CFPB readiness
It bears emphasizing that the future likely holds increased regulatory scrutiny, especially from the Bureau and especially in the area of student loan servicing and debt collection. Private student lenders will also see increased scrutiny with respect to fair and responsible lending compliance, including their use of non-credit bureau attributes in underwriting and pricing and their marketing practices, e.g., how borrowers are solicited and whether a lender uses different marketing efforts based on loan products, such as those specific to a particular major, school, or geography.
In December 2012, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau released their student loan examination procedures, and since doing so, has commenced several examinations of bank and non-bank private student lenders. Lenders will have to show compliance with a variety of federal laws applicable at various stages (called modules) of the lending process and will be examined for potentially unfair, deceptive or abusive acts and practices.
The procedures indicate that exams will be composed of several modules:
- Advertising, marketing and lead generation
- Application, qualification, loan origination, and disbursement
- Repayment and account maintenance
- Customer complaints
- Collections and credit reporting
- Information sharing and privacy
The CFPB’s examination personnel will review the lender’s organizational documents and process flowcharts, board minutes, annual reports, management reports, policies and procedures, rate and fee sheets, loan applications, account documentation, notes and disclosures, file contents, operating checklists and worksheets, computer system details, due diligence and monitoring procedures, lending procedures, underwriting guidelines, compensation policies, audit reports and responses, training materials, service provider contracts, advertisements, and complaints. Examiners may also interview the lender’s personnel and observe customer interactions.
Examiners will review potential legal and regulatory violations in modules roughly corresponding to the processes by which education loans are developed, marketed, originated and serviced, and the processes for handling consumer complaints, delinquencies and defaults, credit reporting and privacy protection. The examination process is intended to help the CFPB determine whether consumer financial protection laws have been violated and, if so, whether supervisory or enforcement actions are warranted.
BuckleySandler advises student lenders to prepare for a CFPB exam by carefully reviewing the Bureau’s examination procedures, reports, and other public statements concerning student lending and servicing. We also recommend conducting a gap analyses between those materials and existing policies and procedures, and as appropriate, filling any identified gaps.
Questions regarding the matters discussed above may be directed to any of our lawyers listed below, or to any other BuckleySandler attorney with whom you have consulted in the past.
On May 30, the CFPB filed a complaint in federal district court against a Florida debt-relief company the CFPB alleges violated the FTC’s Telemarketing Sales Rule and the Dodd-Frank Act by promising certain debt relief services in exchange for upfront payment and then failing to provide the promised services. The complaint alleges publicly for the first time violations of the “abusive” standard established in the Dodd-Frank Act. The CFPB claims the company and its owner (i) misled consumers by falsely promising them it would begin to settle their debts within three to six months and then failed to provide the services within the promised time frame, if at all; (ii) enrolled consumers despite knowing that their income level made it highly unlikely that they could complete the debt-relief programs; and (iii) collected upfront “enrollment” fees from consumers even though the company knew that the consumers could not afford the monthly payments required by these debt-relief programs. Because these practices took “unreasonable advantage” of consumers, the CFPB charges they are abusive. The CFPB announced that it plans to file a proposed order that, if approved, would (i) require the company to pay a $15,000 penalty; (ii) permanently enjoin the company from advertising, marketing, promoting, offering for sale, or selling any debt-relief product or service; and (iii) establish a two-year compliance monitoring and reporting period for the company.
On April 25, the Federal Reserve Board issued a policy statement on deposit advance products. The statement came on the same day that the OCC and the FDIC proposed more formal guidance for such products. The Board statement identifies potential “significant risks” associated with deposit advance products, including UDAP risk and other consumer compliance risk. The statement directs examiners to thoroughly review any deposit advance products offered by supervised institutions for compliance with Section 5 of the FTC Act and reminds banks of their responsibility for vendors hired to offer deposit advance products.
On March 15, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California approved a lender’s settlement with a class of borrowers who claimed that the bank suspended or reduced borrower home equity lines of credit (HELOCs) in violation of the Truth in Lending Act and California’s Unfair Competition Law. In Re Citibank HELOC Reduction Litig., No. 09-350 (N.D. Cal. Aug. 31, 2012). The borrowers claimed that the bank improperly utilized computerized automated valuation models (AVMs) as the basis for suspending or decreasing customer HELOCs because of the decline in the value of the underlying property. The complaint also charged that customers were injured because (i) the annual fee to maintain the HELOC was not adjusted to account for the decreased limit, and (ii) the borrowers’ credit ratings were damaged as a result of the reduced credit limit. The named plaintiff also alleged injury because he was forced to obtain a replacement home equity line, which resulted in payment of an early termination fee on the old HELOC and additional costs related to the new HELOC. Under the agreement, class members will have a right to request reinstatement of their HELOC accounts, the bank will expand the information contained in credit-line reduction notices based on collateral deterioration, and customers who incurred an early closure release fee when closing the account subsequent to the suspension or reduction may make a claim for the cash payment of $120. The court reduced the incentive payments owed to the six named plaintiffs by $1,000 each, but approved the proposed $1.2 million in attorneys’ fees.
On September 20, CFPB Director Richard Cordray appeared before the House Financial Services Committee in connection with the CFPB’s Semiannual Report issued July 30, 2012. During the House hearing the Director faced questions on topics covered during prior committee hearings, including (i) the status and potential impact of the CFPB’s qualified mortgage/ability to repay (QM) rule, (ii) whether that rule will provide a safe harbor or a rebuttable presumption, (iii) whether the CFPB will commit to a definition of “abusive” practices, and (iv) whether the CFPB will raise the threshold for banks exempt from compliance with new CFPB remittance rules. Mr. Cordray reiterated that the QM rule will be finalized before the end of 2012, and that while the final regulations are still under consideration, the CFPB intends to provide bright line standards to help limit litigation risk. He continued to avoid offering a definition or description of abusive practices and did not express a willingness to revisit the remittance standards. Mr. Cordray also revealed that the CFPB has determined that it cannot resolve through the issuance of guidance a problem with the application of the Federal Reserve Board’s credit card ability to repay rule that is restricting access to credit for stay-at-home spouses. Mr. Cordray committed to releasing a proposed rule to remedy the problem prior to Congress’ return following the November elections.
On January 24, the House Oversight Subcommittee on TARP, Financial Services, and Bailouts of Public and Private Programs held a hearing to receive testimony from newly appointed CFPB Director Richard Cordray. Committee members (i) sought the Director’s interpretation of the term “abusive” as it is used in the Dodd-Frank Act, (ii) requested more transparency into the CFPB’s planned regulatory actions, and (iii) requested CFPB action to mitigate the impacts of its regulations on small and community institutions. Mr. Cordray declined to offer a definition of “abusive”, relying instead on the statutory language. The Director did state that abusive practices that are not also either “unfair or deceptive”, likely would be addressed on a “facts and circumstances” basis rather than through an “abstract” regulatory definition. He did not rule out using “abusive practices” as the basis of an enforcement action prior to issuing any further guidance or rulemaking. The Director committed to consider following the SEC’s model of periodically publishing a regulatory agenda. He also explained that the CFPB will consider and address impacts of its regulatory actions on community banks and financial institutions with under $10 billion in assets.