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Board Cohesiveness During Merger Consideration Process

Bank merger activity is reducing the number of U.S. banks at a rate of about 5% per year. It’s unclear how long this pace of industry consolidation will continue. Investment bankers, who have an interest in the level of activity continuing, are often quick to counsel bank boards of directors that the merger market may never be better than it is right now. Each year, the boards of hundreds of banks decide to heed the advice of those suggesting it’s time to sell.

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

A decision to sell a bank is one of the two most important decisions a board addresses (the other being selection of the CEO in a succession process). The strength of a board lies in the manner in which it approaches such a decision. Some boards will have gone through a lengthy process of reaching consensus before exploring potential merger opportunities. Others will find themselves considering unexpected merger offers without first having reached consensus. Vigorous debate can be healthy and productive in the process of a board reaching the best decision for the bank and its shareholders. Regardless of the circumstances in which a potential sale or merger of a bank is being considered, it is critical that all board members have access to the same level of information and be able to provide input throughout the process.

When board members believe they have been kept out of the loop on information flow, or they haven’t been adequately involved in considering a course of action, the strength of a board is undercut. Decision making is often adversely impacted as a result. This is particularly true in connection with consideration of the sale of a bank. Throughout the process of a board investigating options and considering strategic alternatives, the board members should have confidence that they are privy to all communications of importance with both professional advisers and potential merger partners.

We have seen far too many instances in which a director, on his or her own initiative and without authorization from the board as a whole, embarks on private outreach to potential merger partners. These directors usually feel justified in such action as a result of frustration with the pace at which the full board is moving or a sense that the CEO is resistant to the idea of selling the bank. Whatever the driving force, such independent action by a director can result in a breakdown in trust among the board and rarely results in a successful merger transaction.

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Open Banking: What are Open APIs?

Open Banking: What are Open APIs?

April 11, 2019

Authored by: John Bush and Barry Hester

This post is the second in a series discussing Open Banking, its implementations, and its implications.  Part 1 is here.

APIs or “Application Programming Interfaces” are everywhere in ecommerce, and they provide the building blocks in the primordial soup of innovations that may stem from open banking. 

Among other roles, APIs provide a protocol allowing one computer system to talk with another.  For example, The Weather Channel (“TWC”) has invested heavily in providing detailed meteorological information and forecasts by region.  TWC could conceivably require people to visit its website as the exclusive way to access this information.  Instead, however, TWC permits some of its information to be accessed automatically across apps, websites, and services and in ways third-party developers can predictably map (e.g., certain tagged data reflects values like “75°F” or “Partly Cloudy”).  TWC has determined such use advances the TWC business plan.  Conversely, the developers of apps, websites, and services have determined using the TWC API is superior to reinventing what TWC has accomplished—or not offering weather information at all. 

Without an API, a third party could create a bot to visit the TWC website and automatically “scrape” the information, but such an approach poses risks.  First, even a slight change to the TWC website could cause the bot to misunderstand which data it is supposed to scrape.  Second, such an approach raises contractual and copyright risks.  See, e.g., Ticketmaster L.L.C. v. RMG Technologies, Inc., 507 F. Supp.2d 1096 (C.D. Cal. 2007) (granting injunctive relief on grounds that defendant infringed copyright and terms of use through automated screen-scraping of Ticketmaster’s site in order to facilitate its own large-volume ticket brokerage).  Third, this conversion step fails to capture the richer, more reliable, and more on-point data TWC is willing to make available via its API. 

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Loan Servicers’ Obligation to Maintain Appropriate Database Systems

April 8, 2019

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The background to the Eleventh Circuit’s decision in Marchisio v. Carrington Mortgage Services, LLC, — F. 3d — (11th Cir. March 25, 2019)(2019 WL 1320522) demonstrated repeated recklessness by a lender in updating its reporting databases after repeated litigation and settlements.

Image by pixel2013 from Pixabay.

The borrowers defaulted on their home loans in 2008; the loan servicer brought a foreclosure action; in 2009, the parties settled with a deed in lieu of foreclosure that extinguished first and second loans and required the loan servicer to report to the credit reporting agencies that nothing more was due on the loans. The loan servicer failed to correct the credit reporting and continued to try to collect on the nonexistent debt, prompting the borrowers/Plaintiffs in 2012 to file a lawsuit under the Fair Credit Reporting Act. The parties settled the FCRA suit in 2013, with the loan servicer/Defendant agreeing to correct the credit reporting. The loan servicer failed to timely comply with this correction requirement within 90 days and issued three erroneous reports that the second loan was delinquent.

The Plaintiffs then disputed with the credit reporting agencies the reporting of a balloon payment due on the second loan. In response, the loan servicer investigated the dispute. However, because the loan servicer had not updated its database to reflect the settlements, it erroneously verified to the credit reporting agencies that the Plaintiffs were delinquent, and then in 2014 charged them for lender-placed insurance on the property, which the Plaintiffs no longer owned. This led in 2014 to the second lawsuit with the FCRA claim that the 11th Circuit addressed. This lawsuit “caught Defendant’s attention” and immediately prompted it to update its database, correct its previous errors and accurately report the status of Plaintiffs’ second loan, finally.

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What is Open Banking, and What are its Implications?

This post is the first in a series discussing open banking, its implementations, and its implications. 

“Open banking” is a phrase that has been coined to capture a current theme in financial sector innovation – one that some say is going to revolutionize banking.  For years, banks have given their customers increasing access to account information.  Now, with open banking, the access is opening to the point where customers can potentially obtain financial services in entirely novel ways, and the customer’s expectations of their bank may shift. 

Image by mohamed Hassan from Pixabay

The push to open consumers’ financial data goes back decades.  In the 1990s and 2000s, financial institutions began giving customers online access to their accounts—and instantaneous access to information previously reserved for monthly statements. Card-based transactions gradually shifted away from signed papers with carbon copy receipts to electronic devices.  With rapid access to financial information, debit cards that could immediately draw on bank accounts became more feasible.  Meanwhile, third-party vendors, such as Intuit, Microsoft, and Checkfree, were among the providers who encouraged institutions to go even further by making financial data available in a format that could be imported into their software; their work led to the promulgation of the Open Financial Exchange (“OFX”) data stream format, among others. 

In the past 10 years, the priorities in data exchange have incorporated the agenda of government proponents.  Notably, in 2016, a U.K. regulatory authority required the country’s nine largest banks to allow certain registered third-party developers to access certain customer data.  In 2018, the European Economic Area began implementing the Second Payment Services Directive (“PSD2”), including its goal to provide financial data through a central register.  In the United States, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau has expressed its view that consumers should have timely, secure, and transparent access to their financial account information and to data sharing opportunities.  During this same time, digitization has accelerated to unprecedented levels in all facets of life and commerce, and data privacy risk awareness and regulation has emerged. 

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Public Comments Due Soon on Proposed Community Bank Leverage Ratio Rules

The public comment period for the banking agencies’ capital simplification rules for qualifying community banking organizations (i.e. the Community Bank Leverage Ratio proposal) are due on Tuesday, April 9th.

As previously discussed, the regulators have proposed a new, alternative, simplified capital regime for qualifying institutions that will deem an institution to be well-capitalized so long as it maintains a leverage ratio of at least 9% and adequately capitalized so long as it maintains a leverage ratio of at least 7.5%. While initially proposed last November, publication in the Federal Register was delayed until February of this year. As a result the comment period for the rule ends on Tuesday, April 9, 2019. Comments can be submitted online through Regulations.gov.

Through the publication of this blog post, the primary comments online appear to be the appropriate threshold for the new Community Bank Leverage Ratio. As background, EGRRCPA, the statutory basis for the reforms, obligates the regulators to apply a threshold of between 8% and 10%, and the regulators proposed 9%. Most of the submitted comments, including several from community bankers, comments from the Kansas Bankers Association and the Independent Bankers Association of Texas argue for a lower 8% ratio. Conversely, the Mercatus Center has submitted a comment supporting a 10% ratio.

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SCOTUS Protects Lawyers Seeking Non-Judicial Foreclosures

Editor’s Note: BCLP’s consumer financial services team is a group of specialized lawyers from around the U.S., adept in state court rumbles, courthouse steps foreclosures, and bankruptcy court interludes. They are also deep thinkers in consumer law, and were waiting for this ruling today. If you have a portfolio of consumer loans and want some efficient, value-maximizing handling, give us a call. Here’s the take from Zina Gabsi, from our Miami CFS practice.

Earlier today, the U.S. Supreme Court issued its long-awaited opinion on whether law firms pursing non-judicial foreclosures are “debt collectors” as defined by the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (“FDCPA”), 15 U.S.C. §1692 et seq. Obduskey v. McCarthy & Holthus LLP, Case No. 17-1307 (March 20, 2019). In its ruling, the Court held that a business engaged in no more than a non-judicial foreclosure is not a debt collector under the FDCPA. (Business lawyers around the US breathed a collective sigh of relief.) Instead, the Court held that those pursuing non-judicial foreclosures are subject to the more limited FDCPA restrictions contained in section 1692f(6).

The FDCPA defines a debt collector as “any person … in any business the principal purpose of which is the collection of any debts, or who regularly collects or attempts to collect, directly or indirectly, debts owed or asserted to be owed or due another.” 15 U.S.C. §1692a(6). But the statute also includes the “limited-purpose definition” which states that “[f]or the purpose of section 1692f(6) [the] term [debt collector] also includes any person … in any business the principal purpose of which is the enforcement of security interests.” Thus, the statute creates a set (debt collectors) and a subset (people that only seek to enforce security interests). The subset certainly includes “repo men,” but according to the Supreme Court, the subset also includes lawyers pursuing non-judicial foreclosures. The subset is subject to far less restrictions and mandates under the FDCPA.

The Court considered three factors in coming to its conclusion: (i) the text of the FDCPA itself; (ii) Congress’s intent; and (iii) the FDCPA’s legislative history. The Court explained that but for the limited-purpose definition (the subset), those pursuing non-judicial foreclosure would in fact be debt collectors under the additional provisions of the FDCPA. However, the Court notes that a plain reading of the limited-purpose definition, “particularly the word ‘also,’ strongly suggests that one who does no more than enforce security interests does not fall within the scope of the general definition. Otherwise why add this sentence at all?” Obduskey, at page 8. To interpret the definition of a debt collector under the FDCPA otherwise would render the addition of the “limited-purpose definition” superfluous. Id., at page 9. Furthermore, the Court posited that Congress “may well have chosen to treat security-interest enforcement differently from ordinary debt collection in order to avoid conflicts with state nonjudicial foreclosure schemes.” Id.

Of note, the Court rejected Obduskey’s argument that “McCarthy engaged in more than security-interest enforcement by sending notices that many ordinary homeowner would understand as an attempt to collect a debt backed up by the threat of foreclosure.” Id., at page 13. The Court explained that such notices were likely required under state law in order to pursue the non-judicial foreclosure and therefore the FDCPA’s “(partial) exclusion of ‘the enforcement of security interests’ must also exclude the legal means required to do so.” Id.

Justice Sotomayor wrote a concurring opinion to make two observations: “First, this is a close case, and today’s opinion does not prevent Congress from clarifying this statute if we have gotten it wrong. Second, as the Court makes clear, ‘enforcing a security interest does not grant an actor blanket immunity from the’ mandates of the FDCPA.” She interestingly noted that Congress may not have contemplated the Court’s interpretation because even though States do regulate nonjudicial foreclosures, the FDCPA was enacted “to promote consistent State action to protect consumers against debt collection abuses.”

The holding sheds light (for the moment) on the scope of the limited-purpose exception to the FDCPA’s definition of a debt collector as it relates to nonjudicial foreclosures. “[W]hether those who judicially enforce mortgages fall within the scope of the primary definition is a question we can leave for another day.” Id., at page 12. We will cover that another day too!

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Georgia Supreme Court Weighs in on Director Liability

The Supreme Court of Georgia issued its latest opinion on March 13, 2019 in the continuing litigation over whether former directors and officers of the now defunct Buckhead Community Bank can be held liable for financial losses from commercial real estate loans.

The Georgia Supreme Court had previously advised a Georgia federal court, where the case was filed by the FDIC, that the directors and officers of the bank could be held liable if they were negligent in the process by which they carried out their duties. Following that opinion, rendered in 2014, the case returned to federal court, and a trial was ultimately held in 2016. In that trial, the jury concluded that some of the directors and officers were negligent in approving some loans and awarded the FDIC $4,986,993 in damages.

The trial judge in the case found that the defendants were “jointly and severally liable” for the award, meaning that the entire verdict could be collected from any one of the defendants. The defendants appealed contending that joint and several liability had been abolished by the General Assembly in 2005. The defendants also argued that the trial court should have given the jury the opportunity to apportion the damages among each of the defendants according to their respective degrees of fault. In considering the appeal, the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit again sought direction from the Supreme Court of Georgia on this new issue of law.

On Wednesday, in a 39-page opinion, the Georgia Supreme Court responded, providing answers to some, but not all, of the questions raised by the Eleventh Circuit. The Georgia Supreme Court held that joint and several liability can still be imposed in Georgia on defendants “who act in concert insofar as a claim of concerted action involves the narrow and traditional common-law doctrine of concerted action based on a legal theory of mutual agency and thus imputed fault.” The Supreme Court indicated that this was a very narrow exception to the usual rule that damages must apportioned among defendants.

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In Memoriam: Walter G. Moeling, IV, 1943-2019

March 7, 2019

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It is with a very heavy heart that I write to report that our longtime friend and retired Partner, Walt Moeling, passed away peacefully on Monday night. Walt was at home and surrounded by family, including his wife Nell who has become a friend to many throughout the firm. Nell was Walt’s lifelong best friend and true companion, and is almost as well-known as Walt within the banking community in the Southeast for always being by his side and helping to grow his practice. Walt was important to our group, to the firm and to every person whose path he crossed. He was an incredible mentor to many, including our entire banking team.

Walt spent his entire legal career with our firm, starting out in the late 1960s with Powell Goldstein, an Atlanta-based firm that merged with Bryan Cave in 2009. In Walt’s near 50 years of active practice, he represented banks, thrifts, insurance companies and securities firms nationwide. In recent years he was nicknamed “the Godfather of Banking in the South” by a very prominent banking industry commentator.

Walt was widely recognized for his accomplishments as a leader in the legal field and banking industry and appeared in Who’s Who in America, in the South; American Law; Business and Finance; and as one of America’s Leading Business Lawyers by Chambers and Partners.

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On the BB&T/SunTrust Merger…

On the BB&T/SunTrust Merger…

February 7, 2019

Authored by: Jonathan Hightower

Many of us who are native Southerners sat with mouths agape as we read the announcement of the $66 billion (!) all-stock merger of equals between super regional banks BB&T and SunTrust. Few of us who grew up in Georgia have not been personally impacted by these banks in some way or another. For me, my aunt worked at Trust Company Bank when I was a kid, and BB&T bought a local thrift (Carrollton Federal), making its way into our home market where it remains today. After college, law school barely beat out an offer to work in SunTrust’s commercial lending training program, and BB&T currently holds the mortgage on my home. With all of those ties, I feel somewhat nostalgic when reading that the bank will be rebranded as a part of the merger.

With that said, the real time business implications for all of us are even larger. The day before the merger, my friend Jeff Davis wrote a smart piece ($) detailing the virtues of merger of equals transactions in today’s world. BB&T recently discussed on its earnings call that it was accelerating cost savings initiatives in order to invest more in its digital offerings. With the announced merger, one can assume that the lab for digital innovation of the combined bank (to be based in Charlotte, a bit of a disappointment to the Atlanta community) will make a massive effort to transform the banking experience of the bank’s customers, a truly meaningful segment of the market. We have recently commented that the transformation of the Atlanta banking market is now a reality, and this combination promises to further evolve how many banking customers think of and interact with their banks.

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Lender’s Non-Liability for a Servicer’s RESPA Violation

February 7, 2019

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In a first, a federal circuit court rules a lender cannot be held liable for a servicer’s RESPA violation.

A borrower who took out a home equity loan from Bank of America alleged the Bank is vicariously liable for the failure of its loan servicer to comply with the Real Estate Settlement Procedures Act (RESPA), particularly 12 C. F. R. § 1024.41(c)(1). That regulation imposes duties on servicers who receive a complete loss mitigation application more than 37 days before a foreclosure sale to–within 30 days of receipt–evaluate the borrower for all loss mitigation options available to the borrower and provide the borrower with a notice stating which options, if any, it will offer the borrower.

The Fifth Circuit, which is apparently the first circuit to address the issue, held banks cannot be held vicariously liable for the alleged RESPA violations of servicers. Christiana Trust v. Riddle, — F. 3d — (2018) (2018 WL 6715882, 12/21/18). The Court had three related reasons.

First, “[b]y its plain terms the regulation at issue here imposes duties only on servicers” as it states a “servicer shall.” 12 C. F. R. § 1024.41(c)(1)

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