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On January 18, NYDFS announced that it has adopted an updated check cashing regulation. As previously covered by InfoBytes, NYDFS issued a proposed check cashing regulation in June 2022, following an emergency regulation announced in February 2022, that halted annual increases on check-cashing fees and locked the current maximum fee set last February at 2.27 percent (covered by InfoBytes here). The regulation establishes a new fee methodology that evaluates the needs of licensees and consumers who use check cashing services. Two tiers of fees for licensed check cashers are recommended: (i) the maximum fee that a check casher may charge for a public assistance check issued by a federal or state government agency (including checks for Social Security, unemployment, retirement, veteran’s benefits, emergency relief, housing assistance, or tax refunds) is set at 1.5 percent; and (ii) the maximum fee a check casher is permitted to charge for all other checks, drafts, or money orders is $1 or 2.2 percent, whichever is greater. According to NYDFS Superintendent Adrienne Harris, “the existing fee methodology wasn’t just outdated, but inappropriate and punitive to consumers.” She further noted that “[c]heck cashers should not be entitled to automatic, annual fee increases.”
On January 13, respondents filed a brief in opposition to a petition for a writ of certiorari filed by the CFPB last November, which asked the U.S. Supreme Court to review whether the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit erred in holding that the Bureau’s funding structure violates the Appropriations Clause of the Constitution (covered by InfoBytes here). The Bureau also asked the Supreme Court to consider the 5th Circuit’s decision to vacate the agency’s 2017 final rule covering “Payday, Vehicle Title, and Certain High-Cost Installment Loans” (Payday Lending Rule or Rule) on the premise that it was promulgated at a time when the Bureau was receiving unconstitutional funding. The Bureau requested that the Supreme Court review the case during its current term, which would ensure resolution of the issue by the summer of 2023. Last December, a coalition of state attorneys general from 22 states, including the District of Columbia, filed an amicus brief supporting the Bureau’s petition for a writ of certiorari, while 16 states filed an amicus brief opposing the petition (covered by InfoBytes here).
In their opposition brief, the respondents urged the Supreme Court to deny the Bureau’s petition on the premise that the 5th Circuit’s decision does not warrant review—“let alone in the expedited and limited manner that the Bureau proposes”—because the appellate court correctly vacated the Payday Lending Rule, which, according to the respondents, has “multiple legal defects, including but not limited to the Appropriations Clause issue.” Among other things, the respondents argued that the Bureau erroneously contended that the Appropriations Clause does not limit the manner in which Congress may exercise its authority, claiming that: (i) the Appropriations Clause ensures Congressional oversight of the federal fiscal and executive power; (ii) the Bureau’s funding statute nullifies Congress’s appropriations power in an unprecedented manner; (iii) the Bureau’s merit defenses, including claims that text, history, and precedent support its funding scheme, all fail; and (iv) the Bureau’s remedial defenses of the Payday Lending Rule also fail.
The respondents also maintained that the case “is neither cleanly presented . . . nor ripe for definitive resolution at this time,” and argued that the Supreme Court could address the validity of the Payday Lending Rule without addressing the Bureau’s funding issue. Explaining that the 5th Circuit’s decision “simply vacated a single regulation that has never been in effect,” the respondents claimed that the appellate court should have addressed questions about the Rule’s validity before deciding on the Appropriations Clause question. The respondents claimed that the appellate court incorrectly rejected two antecedent grounds for vacating the Payday Lending Rule: (i) the Rule’s “promulgation was tainted by the removal restriction later held invalid in Seila Law” (covered by a Buckley Special Alert); and (ii) the Rule exceeds the Bureau’s authority “because the prohibited conduct falls outside the statutory definition of unfair or abusive conduct.” “Given the significant prospect that this Court will be unable to resolve the constitutional question in this case, it should await a better vehicle,” the respondents wrote, adding that “[i]f and when some judgment in some future case has ‘major practical effects,’  the Bureau should seek this Court’s review then—which may well present a better vehicle.”
Further, the respondents stated that if the Supreme Court grants review of the case, it “should proceed in a more deliberative fashion than the Bureau has urged.” The respondents asked the Supreme Court to expressly include the antecedent questions by either granting the respondents’ cross-petition or adding them to the Board’s petition in order to provide clarity about whether the Supreme Court intends to consider the alternative grounds. They further urged the Supreme Court to wait until next term to review the case, writing that the Bureau “cannot justify its demand for a case of this complexity and importance to be briefed, argued, and decided in a few months at the end of a busy Term.”
On January 18, the FDIC issued guidance (see FIL-03-2023 and FIL-04-2023) to provide regulatory relief to financial institutions and help facilitate recovery in areas of Alabama affected by severe storms, straight-line winds, and tornadoes occurring on January 12, and in areas of California affected by severe winter storms, flooding, and landslides occurring from December 27 and continuing. The FDIC wrote that in supervising impacted institutions, it will consider the unusual circumstances those institutions face. The guidance suggested that institutions work with borrowers impacted by the severe weather to extend repayment terms, restructure existing loans, or ease terms for new loans “in a manner consistent with sound banking practices.” The FDIC noted that institutions may receive favorable Community Reinvestment Act consideration for community development loans, investments, and services in support of disaster recovery. The agency will also consider relief from certain reporting and publishing requirements.
On January 17, acting Comptroller of the Currency Michael J. Hsu delivered remarks at the Brookings Institute regarding large bank manageability. Hsu started by expressing his belief that developing a robust approach to detecting, preventing, and addressing too-big-to-manage (TBTM) risks will increasingly become an imperative for both banks and bank regulators. He stated that the best “way to successfully fix issues at a TBTM bank is to simplify it — by divesting businesses, curtailing operations and reducing complexity,” and that more typical actions, such as changing management, budgets, plans, and personnel will have limited impact at a bank that is too big to manage. Hsu added that “the size and complexity” of a bank “is the core problem that needs to be solved, not the weaknesses of its systems and processes or the unwillingness or incompetence of its senior leaders.”
Hsu discussed the OCC’s four-step “escalation framework.” He noted that “the design logic of an escalation framework is to use the credible threat of restrictions and divestitures, guided by and consistent with due process, to force banks to prove that they are manageable and to then let the effectiveness or ineffectiveness of their actions speak for themselves.” He noted that the first step is to put a bank on notice and make clear the nature of the weakness requiring remediation. Significant deficiencies and/or weaknesses that go unaddressed can escalate into public enforcement actions, such as a consent order, where material safety and soundness risks or violations of laws and regulations are at play. If the problem continues, then the OCC will pursue a restriction and divestitures of a bank’s business activities or capital actions. The final step includes breaking up the bank by compelling divestment.
Hsu concluded with his thoughts on the need for bank regulators to provide greater transparency on the supervisory process. He also emphasized the importance of due process and described supervisory remedies, including but not limited to, business restrictions, divestitures, and simplification of large banks when necessary.
On January 18, the CFPB released an updated version of its Mortgage Servicing Examination Procedures, detailing the types of information examiners should gather when assessing whether servicers are complying with applicable laws and identifying consumer risks. The examination procedures, which were last updated in June 2016, cover forbearances and other tools, including streamlined loss mitigation options that mortgage servicers have used for consumers impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic. The Bureau noted in its announcement that “as long as these streamlined loss mitigation options are made available to borrowers experiencing hardship due to the COVID-19 national emergency, those same streamlined options can also be made available under the temporary flexibilities in the [agency’s pandemic-related mortgage servicing rules] to borrowers not experiencing COVID-19-related hardships.” Servicers are expected to continue to use all the tools at their disposal, including, when available, streamlined deferrals and modifications that meet the conditions of these pandemic-related mortgage servicing rules as they attempt to keep consumers in their homes. The Bureau said the updated examination procedures also incorporate focus areas from the agency’s Supervisory Highlights findings related to, among other things, (i) fees such as phone pay fees that servicers charge borrowers; and (ii) servicer misrepresentations concerning foreclosure options. Also included in the updated examination procedures are a list of bulletins, guidance, and temporary regulatory changes for examiners to consult as they assess servicers’ compliance with federal consumer financial laws. Examiners are also advised to request information on how servicers are communicating with borrowers about homeowner assistance programs, which can help consumers avoid foreclosure, provided mortgage servicers collaborate with state housing finance agencies and HUD-approved housing counselors to aid borrowers during the HAF application process.
On January 19, the CFPB released Circular 2023-01 to reiterate that companies offering “negative option” subscription services are required to comply with federal consumer financial protection laws. According to the Circular, “‘negative option’ [marketing] refers to a term or condition under which a seller may interpret a consumer’s silence, failure to take an affirmative action to reject a product or service, or failure to cancel an agreement as acceptance or continued acceptance of the offer.” The Bureau clarified that negative option marketing practices could violate the CFPA where a seller: (i) misrepresents or fails to clearly and conspicuously disclose the material terms of a negative option program; (ii) fails to obtain consumers’ informed consent; or (iii) misleads consumers who want to cancel, erects unreasonable barriers to cancellation, or fails to honor cancellation requests that comply with its promised cancellation procedures.
The Bureau described receiving consumer complaints from older consumers about being repeatedly charged for services they did not intend to buy or no longer wanted to continue purchasing. Other consumers reported being enrolled in subscriptions without knowledge of the program or the costs. Consumers also submitted complaints regarding the difficulty of cancelling subscription-based services and about charges on their credit card or bank account after they requested cancellation.
The Bureau also warned that negative option programs can be particularly harmful when paired with dark patterns. The Circular noted that the Bureau and the FTC have taken action to combat the rise of digital dark patterns, which can be used to deceive, steer, or manipulate users into behavior that is profitable for a company, but often harmful to users or contrary to their intent. The Bureau noted that consumers could be misled into purchasing subscriptions and other services with recurring charges and be unable to cancel the unwanted products and services or avoid their charges.
On January 13, the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN) issued an alert advising financial institutions on how to detect and report suspicious financial activity that may be related to human smuggling along the southwest border of the United States. Highlighting that human smuggling is one of the eight Anti-Money Laundering and Countering the Financing of Terrorism National Priorities identified by FinCEN, the agency pointed out that human smuggling along the southwest border generates an estimated $2 billion to $6 billion in yearly revenue for illicit actors. The alert, which builds on FinCEN’s 2020 and 2014 human smuggling and human trafficking advisories (covered by InfoBytes here and here), provides trends, typologies, and red flag indicators to help financial institutions better identify and file suspicious activity reports potentially related to such activity. “Financial institutions need to know that their vigilance and prompt Bank Secrecy Act reporting matters—it aids investigations tied to human smuggling and transnational organized crime, and can ultimately save lives,” FinCEN Acting Director Himamauli Das said in the announcement.
On January 17, the U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) issued several Russia-related General Licenses (GLs), including: (i) General License (GL) 6C, which authorizes transactions related to agricultural commodities, medicine, medical devices, replacement parts and components, or software updates, Covid-19 pandemic, or clinical trials; (ii) GL 54A, which authorizes certain transactions involving certain holdings prohibited by Executive Order 14071; and (iii) GL 28B, which authorizes the wind down and rejection of certain transactions involving a public joint stock company and Afghanistan. OFAC also announced that it is amending four Russia-related Frequently Asked Questions 982, 1054, 1055, and 1059.
On January 11, a coalition of 22 state attorneys general from Massachusetts, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, the District Of Columbia, Hawaii, Illinois, Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont, Washington, and Wisconsin, filed an amicus brief with the U.S. Supreme Court in two pending actions concerning challenges to the Department of Education’s student loan debt relief program. At the beginning of December, the Supreme Court agreed to hear the Biden administration’s appeal of an injunction entered by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit that temporarily prohibits the Secretary of Education from discharging any federal loans under the agency’s student debt relief plan (covered by InfoBytes here). In a brief unsigned order, the Supreme Court deferred the Biden administration’s application to vacate, pending oral argument. Shortly after, the Supreme Court also granted a petition for certiorari in a challenge currently pending before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, announcing it will consider whether the respondents (individuals whose loans are ineligible for debt forgiveness under the plan) have Article III standing to bring the challenge, as well as whether the Department of Education’s debt relief plan is “statutorily authorized” and “adopted in a procedurally proper manner” (covered by InfoBytes here). Oral arguments in both cases are scheduled for February 28.
The states first pointed out that under the Higher Education Act, Congress gave the Secretary “broad authority both to determine borrowers’ loan repayment obligations and to modify or discharge these obligations in myriad circumstances.” The Secretary was also later granted statutory authority under the HEROES Act to take action in times of national emergency, which includes allowing “the Secretary to ‘waive or modify any statutory or regulatory provision applicable to the student financial assistance programs’ if the Secretary ‘deems’ such actions ‘necessary’ to ensure that borrowers affected by a national emergency ‘are not placed in a worse position financially’ with respect to their student loans.” The states stressed that while “the magnitude of the national emergency necessitating this relief is unprecedented, the relief offered to borrowers falls squarely within the authority Congress gave the Secretary to address such emergencies and is similar in kind to relief granted pursuant to other important federal student loan policies that have concomitantly advanced our state interests.”
The states went on to explain that the Secretary tailored the limited debt relief using income thresholds to ensure that “the borrowers at greatest risk of pandemic-related defaults receive critical relief, either by eliminating their loan obligations or reducing them to a more manageable level,” thus meeting the express goal of the HEROES Act to “prevent affected borrowers from being placed in a worse position because of a national emergency.” The states also stressed that the Secretary reasonably concluded that targeted relief is necessary to address the impending rise in pandemic-related defaults once repayment restarts. The HEROES Act expressly permits the Secretary to “exercise his modification and waiver authority ‘notwithstanding any other provision of law, unless enacted with specific reference to [20 U.S.C. § 1098bb(a)(1)],” the states asserted, noting that “relevant statutory and regulatory provisions related to student loan repayment and cancellation contain no such express limiting language.”
Secretary Miguel Cardona issued the following statement in response to the filing of more than a dozen amicus curiae briefs: “The broad array of organizations and experts—representing diverse communities and different perspectives—supporting our case before the Supreme Court today reflects the strength of our legal positions versus the fundamentally flawed lawsuits aimed at denying millions of working and middle-class borrowers debt relief.” A summary of the briefs can be accessed here.
On January 17, the Federal Reserve Board provided additional details regarding its upcoming pilot climate scenario analysis exercise and the information on risk management practices that will be gathered from the program. As previously covered by InfoBytes, the Fed announced in September 2022, that six of the nation’s largest banks will participate in a pilot climate scenario analysis exercise intended to enhance the ability of supervisors and firms to measure and manage climate-related financial risks. According to the Fed, the banks will analyze the impact of scenarios for both physical and transition risks related to climate change on specific assets in their portfolios. The Fed noted that it will collect qualitative and quantitative information during the pilot, including details on governance and risk management practices, among other things. Additionally, the banks will be asked to consider the effect on corporate loans and commercial real estate portfolios using a scenario based on current climate policies and one based on reaching net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. The Fed noted that though no firm-specific information will be released, it anticipates publishing insights at an aggregate level, reflecting what has been learned about climate risk management practices and how insights can identify possible risks and promote risk management practices.