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On October 19, the DOJ announced a $13.2 million settlement with a mortgage lender resolving allegations that the company violated the False Claims Act (FCA) by falsely certifying compliance with the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) mortgage insurance requirements in violation of the False Claims Act (FCA). Specifically, the government alleged that, between 2006 and 2011, the lender failed to follow proper mortgage underwriting and certification rules as a participant in the direct endorsement lender program and knowingly submitted loans for FHA insurance that did not qualify. Additionally, DOJ alleged that the lender “improperly incentivized underwriters and knowingly failed to perform quality control reviews.” Under the direct endorsement lender program, FHA does not review a loan for compliance with FHA requirements before it is endorsed for FHA insurance; accordingly lenders are required to follow rules designed to ensure that they are properly underwriting and certifying mortgages for FHA insurance. This settlement also resolves a related whistleblower lawsuit filed under the FCA, in which the former employee of a related entity will receive approximately $2 million.
On May 9, the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York dismissed a qui tam action brought under the False Claims Act (FCA) against a national bank and its predecessors-in-interest (defendants), which alleged that the defendants presented false information to Federal Reserve Banks (FRBanks) in connection with their applications for loans. The court held that allegations of false or fraudulent claims being presented to the FRBanks cannot form the basis of an FCA action because the FRBanks cannot be characterized as the federal government for purposes of the FCA.
The relators in the action originally brought a whistleblower lawsuit against the bank, alleging that the defendants inaccurately represented their financial condition in order to be eligible to borrow from the FRBanks’ discount window at lower interest rates. By way of background, in order for liability to incur under the FCA, a false or fraudulent claim must be made to the federal government or its agents. Therefore, the court needed to resolve two legal issues: (i) whether FRBanks should be characterized as the government or its agents for purposes of the FCA, and (ii) whether the federal government paid any portion of the loans the defendants received or reimbursed the FRBanks for issuing the loans.
In supporting its conclusion that FRBanks are not government actors, the court reasoned that the Federal Reserve Act (FRA), which created the Federal Reserve districts and FRBanks, did not designate the FRBanks as part of an executive department or agency. The court also noted that although the Federal Reserve Board of Governors (Board) is a federal agency, each FRBank operates as a private corporation owned by private stockholders, receives no government appropriations, and generates its own income from interest earned on government securities. Furthermore, the court reasoned that the Board provides only general policy supervision, FRBank employees are not government employees, and FRBanks lack the ability to promulgate regulations and operate independently of the Board and the government.
In resolving the second issue, the court agreed with the defendants’ argument that the bank’s loan requests did not create FCA liability for claims, because the relators did not, and could not, “allege that the [g]overnment either provided any portion of the money loaned to the defendants, or reimbursed [FRBanks] for making the loans.”
On February 28, the DOJ announced a $149.5 million settlement with an independent auditor for potential False Claims Act (FCA) liability related to its auditing work of a failed mortgage origination company. According to the announcement, between 2002 and 2008, the company served as an independent auditor of a mortgage originator, which issued Fair Housing Administration (FHA) insured loans through HUD’s Direct Endorsement Lender program. The program requires mortgage companies to submit to HUD annual audit reports on financial statements and compliance with certain HUD requirements. The DOJ alleges that during that time, the now failed mortgage originator engaged in a fraudulent scheme, which, among other things, resulted in the originator’s financial distress to not be reflected in its financial statements. The DOJ alleges that the independent auditor “knowingly deviated from applicable auditing standards” and therefore, failed to detect the misleading financial statements and the originator’s allegedly fraudulent conduct, which allowed the originator to continue issuing FHA loans until it declared bankruptcy in 2009. The DOJ notes that the settlement relates to allegations only and there was no determination of actual liability against the independent auditor.
On February 16, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit denied a petition for an en banc rehearing of its December 2017 ruling affirming the dismissal of a False Claims Act suit against a national bank. The petition resulted from a 2013 lawsuit filed by a consumer against the bank, which alleged, among other things, that the bank falsely asserted that it had complied with certain obligations under the 2012 National Mortgage Settlement (the “Settlement”). The district court dismissed the suit, finding that the consumer lacked standing because he did not exhaust the required dispute resolution procedures contained in the Settlement. In December 2017, the D.C. Circuit affirmed the dismissal but disagreed with the lower court’s reasoning. According to the appellate opinion, the circuit court held that the consumer’s second amended complaint did not contain any allegedly false or deceptive statements made by the bank to the government-approved settlement monitor and that ultimately, “the decisive point is that the Monitor was aware of the practices and concluded that [the bank] was in compliance.”
On January 5, the U.S. Government reached a $5 million settlement with a national bank and its affiliates (together, the bank parties) to resolve a lawsuit concerning allegations that the bank parties violated the False Claims Act (FCA) by engaging in improper foreclosure-related practices. The settlement is not an admission of liability by the bank parties. Specifically, as previously covered in InfoBytes, the lawsuit primarily alleged that the bank parties knowingly used rubber-stamped surrogate signed endorsements and false mortgage assignments to support false claims for mortgage insurance from the Federal Housing Administration. The lawsuit also asserted a reverse FCA claim alleging that the bank parties made false statements when entering into the 2012 National Mortgage Settlement. The U.S. Government, the bank parties, and the relator who initially brought the suit stipulated to the dismissal with prejudice concerning 39 “Implied Certification and False Statement Claims,” along with all claims brought or that could have been brought by the relator, but without prejudice as to any other claims that could be brought by the U.S. Government. Under the terms of the settlement agreement, the bank parties are required to pay $3.4 million to the U.S. Government—$891,000 of which will be paid to the relator who originally brought the suit. In addition, the bank parties will pay the relator an additional $1.6 million in attorneys’ fees and litigation costs and expenses.
On January 3, the District Court for the Southern District of Florida granted the U.S. Government’s motion to intervene in a False Claims Act (FCA) lawsuit against a national bank. The lawsuit, filed by a foreclosure attorney and relator, alleges that the national bank submitted false claims in violation of the FCA in two ways. First, the lawsuit alleges that the national bank knowingly used rubber-stamped surrogate signed endorsements and false mortgage assignments to support false claims for mortgage insurance from FHA. Second, the lawsuit asserts a reverse FCA claim alleging that the national bank made false statements when entering into the 2012 National Mortgage Settlement. On December 21, the U.S. Government requested to intervene to assist in “effectuating and formalizing” a proposed settlement between the relator and the national bank that would resolve the matter.
The DOJ announced a $11.6 million settlement on December 8 with a Louisiana-based direct endorsement mortgage lender and certain affiliates to resolve allegations that the lender violated the False Claims Act by falsely certifying compliance with federal requirements in order to obtain insurance on mortgage loans from the Federal Housing Administration (FHA). According to the DOJ’s press release, between January 2005 and December 2014, the lender (i) certified loans that failed to meet HUD’s underwriting and origination requirements for FHA insurance; (ii) paid incentives to underwriters in violation of the “underwriter commission prohibition,” and continued to make incentive payments even after HUD notified the lender of commission prohibition noncompliance in 2010; and (iii) failed to, in a timely manner, “self-report material violations of HUD requirements” or perform quality reviews. The settlement also fully resolves a False Claims Act qui tam lawsuit that had been pending in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Arkansas.
On December 5, after a five-day trial, a jury in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia entered a unanimous verdict clearing a Pennsylvania-based student loan servicing agency (defendant) accused of improper billing practices under the False Claims Act (FCA) and bilking the federal government of millions of dollars. The plaintiff—a former Department of Education employee whistleblower—sought treble damages and forfeitures under the FCA. The case stems from a qui tam suit originally filed in 2007, in which the plaintiff alleged that multiple state-run student loan financing agencies overcharged the U.S. government through fraudulent claims to the Federal Family Education Loan Program in order to unlawfully obtain 9.5 percent special allowance interest payments. Although the district court dismissed four of the agencies from the suit in 2009, ruling that they were state agencies and therefore immune from lawsuits brought by a qui tam relator, a Fourth Circuit Panel eventually reversed the ruling with respect to the Pennsylvania-based state agency defendant, holding that the entity “is an independent political subdivision, not an arm of the commonwealth,” and “therefore a 'person' subject to liability under the False Claims Act.” The panel held that the defendant failed to qualify as a state entity because the defendant’s board is responsible for decision-making and its revenue derives from commercial activities, notwithstanding the fact that the defendant is operated by state employees and is required to deposit its funds in the state’s treasury.
Upon remand, the district court cleared the way for the jury trial by denying the defendant’s motion for judgment on the pleadings, which argued that the plaintiff cannot establish the materiality requirement set under Universal Health Services, Inc. v. U.S. ex rel. Escobar. In a memorandum opinion, the court concluded that the Department of Education continuing to pay claims even after becoming aware of the loan servicer’s billing practices did not, in fact, change the definition of materiality under the FCA, and therefore, did not “merit reconsideration of this court’s ruling that plaintiff stated a plausible claim.”
The case then went to jury trial in November, leading to the jury’s verdict in favor of the defendant.
HUD Secretary Carson Testifies at House Financial Services Committee Hearing, Discusses Use of FCA Against FHA Lenders
On October 12, Secretary of HUD, Ben Carson, testified at a hearing before the House Financial Services Committee. The hearing entitled “The Future of Housing in America: Oversight of the Department of Housing and Urban Development,” provided an update on HUD’s vision for federal housing policy and touched upon topics such as the conservatorship of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the agency’s role in hurricane disaster relief, and regulatory reform efforts. In his written testimony, Carson reaffirmed his personal interest, and that of the President Trump’s Administration, in working with the Committee on housing finance reform, specifically referencing the FHA mortgage insurance program and Ginnie Mae mortgage-backed security guaranty as “vital components” of the housing finance system. Towards the end of the three-hour-long hearing, Carson was asked by Representative Dave Trott (R-MI) about the federal government’s “unprecedented” use of the False Claims Act (FCA) as a means to “impose outrageous penalties against lenders for immaterial defects” in HFA loan originations, which, according to Rep. Trott, is turning lenders away from FHA lending and is resulting in increased costs to borrowers. Carson stated that his staff is already engaged in discussions with the DOJ staff and is “committed to getting that resolved, because it’s ridiculous, quite frankly.” Carson added, “I’m not exactly sure why there had been such an escalation previously, but the long-term effects of that escalation is obviously providing fewer appropriate choices for consumers, and that’s exactly the opposite of what we should be doing.”
On September 14, a federal judge in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas ruled after a five-week jury trial that defendants, who allegedly submitted fraudulent insurance claims after acquiring risky loans, were liable for treble damages and the maximum civil penalties allowed under the False Claims Act (FCA) and the Financial Institutions Reform, Recovery, and Enforcement Act (FIRREA). According to the court, the evidence presented at trial demonstrated that the damages suffered by the U.S. were a “foreseeable consequence” of the defendants’ misconduct and that such misconduct was part of an “prolonged, consistent enterprise of defrauding the [U.S.],” warranting a higher level of penalties. The jury found that one of the defendants along with its CEO “submitted or caused to be submitted 103 insurance claims” while misrepresenting that its branches were registered by HUD, causing the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) to sustain damages in excess of $7 million. A separate mortgage broker defendant was found to have submitted or caused to be submitted 1,192 insurance claims causing over $256 million in damages to the FHA due to the “reckless” underwriting of loan applications, in violation of FCA. The court rejected the defendants’ request for lenient civil penalties, finding the defendants’ behavior to be “custom-designed to flout the very program that relied upon [defendants’] diligence and compliance” and demonstrating “a patent unwillingness to accept responsibility for their actions.” The FIRREA penalties resulted from defendants submitting false annual certifications to HUD that were intended “to serve as a separate and independent quality check on the [defendant’s] branches,” but instead led to injury in the form of borrowers entering into default or foreclosures, as well as elevated mortgage insurance premiums.
The judge imposed over $291 million in FCA treble damages and penalties against the three defendants. Additionally, each defendant was fined $2.2 million in FIRREA penalties for actions that “were neither isolated or relatively benign . . . [but] were reckless, egregious, and widely injurious.”
- Daniel R. Alonso to discuss "The international compliance situation and new challenges" at the World Compliance Association Covid Compliance Conference
- Benjamin W. Hutten to discuss "Understanding OFAC sanctions" at a NAFCU webinar
- Garylene D. Javier to discuss "Navigating workplace culture in 2020" at the DC Bar Conference