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CFPB Focuses on Complaint Trends & Concentrations Leveraging New Tools

The CFPB recently announced new publicly available tools to better leverage the Complaints Database and to spot trends and concentrations of consumer complaints. If you are a data nerd, or even if you are not, it might be prudent to familiarize yourself and your teams with these new tools, as they are likely to be utilized by the Bureau and others in a variety of contexts. The industry should assume State AG’s offices and State consumer agencies will access the data in connection with their activities, including any supervision and enforcement. It is likely that consumer protection advocacy groups will analyze and utilize the data in their work. Finally, it is possible that consumer class action litigators may attempt to incorporate data trends or specific topic concentrations into their cases. Even if your institution may not be experiencing a complaint spike, noting the fact that others are, could help your team proactively refine operations procedures and mitigate risk.

Director Kraninger had promised the enhanced resources and tools last year.  In the recent press release, she noted that “these powerful new capabilities allow users to gain deeper insight into changes in the location, type, and volume of complaints over time, which provides valuable context into consumers’ experiences in the financial marketplace.”

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CFPB Issues Final Rule on Small-Dollar Lending

On Tuesday, July 7, 2020, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (“CFPB”) formally rescinded rules implemented under former CFPB Director Richard Cordray aimed at determining a consumer’s ability to repay small-dollar loans.  In 2017, then Director Cordray instituted mandatory underwriting provisions that would have required payday lenders to assess, as part of the underwriting process, whether borrowers could afford to repay their loans without reborrowing.  Upon review of these mandatory provisions, the CFPB did not find the requisite legal and statutory guidance to further enforce these underwriting standards. 

While small-dollar loans provide for increased consumer access to capital, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic, this renewed focus on small-dollar lending is a noticeable directional turn from the consumer lending advice of prior administrations.  Under the previous presidential administration, regulators were more cautious of banks’ lending in this space and worried about risks, such as high interest rates and perceived repayment risks, associated with lending small-dollar loans to consumers.[1]  In 2013, prudential regulators, including the OCC and the FDIC, went as far to release guidance that essentially discouraged banks from engaging in small-dollar lending activity altogether.[2]   

Regulators under the current administration have signaled that they are more open to reengaging banks in the practice of small-dollar lending, so as to meet the unmet short-term credit needs of the American consumer.[3]  In its press release concerning the repeal of these provisions, the Bureau stated that “rescinding the mandatory underwriting provisions of the 2017 rule ensures that consumers have access to credit and competition in states that have decided to allow their residents to use these small-dollar loan products, subject to state law limitations,” and noted that a subset of consumers might have a particular need for products such as payday loans as a result of the economic downturn brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic.

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SCOTUS Upholds CFPB but not its Singular Director Structure

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (“CFPB”) is slightly less than a decade old, created in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis to enforce the nation’s consumer financial protection laws and ensure that consumer debt products are safe and transparent for the consumers who use them.  The Bureau has had only two directors, Richard Cordray and Kathleen Kraninger, with Mick Mulvaney as Acting Director in between.  SCOTUS’s recent ruling will give the president the right to fire the director at will, unless Congress acts to change CFPB to a commission structure (like the FTC).  The ruling is important but leaves a number of unanswered questions likely to spur further litigation and CFPB challenges.

Single Director Provisions and Constitutionality

Unlike many agencies, which are governed by multimember boards and commissions, the CFPB is governed by a single director, who is appointed by the president, confirmed by the Senate for a five-year term, and may only be removed for “inefficiency, neglect of duty, or malfeasance in office.”  See 12 U.S.C. §§ 5491(c)(1),(3). This leadership structure and, by association, the constitutionality of the organization itself, was challenged in Seila Law, LLC v. Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, 591 U.S. ___, (2020) a case on appeal from the Ninth Circuit.  In 2017, the CFPB issued a civil investigative demand (“CID”) to Seia Law LLC, a California law firm specializing in debt-related legal services.  In response to the CID, Seia Law asked the CFPB to set it aside on the grounds that the Bureau’s leadership structure was unconstitutional insofar as its single director structure violated the separations of powers.  The District Court held for the CFPB and the Ninth Circuit affirmed.  See Consumer Financial Protection Bureau v. Seila Law LLC, 923 F.3d 680 (9th Cir. 2019).    

The Roberts Majority Opinion

The Supreme Court of the United States vacated the judgment of the Ninth Circuit and per Chief Justice John Roberts’s majority opinion (joined by Justices Thomas, Alito, Gorsuch, and Kavanaugh), “the CFPB’s leadership by a single individual removable only for inefficiency, neglect, or malfeasance violates the separation of powers.”  See Seila Law, 591 U.S. at 11-30.  Article II provides the president with executive powers that empower him to “take care that the laws be faithfully executed.”  See U.S. Const. art. II.  Time and again, precedent has confirmed that such executive powers permit the president to both appoint and remove executive officials.  In advancing the argument of the Ninth Circuit, Paul Clement, whom the Supreme Court appointed to defend the Ninth Circuit’s ruling, looked to Humphrey’s Executor v. United States, 295 U.S. 602 (1935), where the Supreme Court held that the structure of the Federal Trade Commission (“FTC”) – consisting of five members who could be removed only for cause – did not violate Article II of the Constitution.  Since the 1935 decision in Humphrey’s, the Court has recognized two exceptions to the president’s power to remove those whom he appoints: 

“Congress could create for-cause removal protections for a multimember body of experts, balanced along partisan lines, that performed legislative and judicial functions and was not to exercise any executive power; [and] [sic.] exceptions for inferior officers, who have limited duties and lack policymaking or administrative authority, such as an independent counsel.”  See Amy Howe, Opinion analysisCourt strikes down restrictions on removal of CFPB direction buy leaves bureau in place, SCOTUSblog (Jun. 29, 2020).

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CFPB Issues CARES Act Credit Reporting FAQs

On June 16th, the CFPB issued a Compliance Aid Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) addressing the CARES Act changes to the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA) and clarifying furnisher reporting obligations regarding consumers who have received payment assistance or forbearance. In public remarks in connection with Consumer Data Industry Association webinar released June 19, 2020 Director Kraninger highlighted the CFPB’s commitment to consumers:  “I do want to stress that we are telling struggling borrowers to reach out to their servicers to see what options are available to them. Under CFPB regulations, servicers are required to have policies and procedures in place to ensure the disclosure of the availability of CARES Act mortgage forbearance to consumers. If a consumer has an issue with their servicer, we encourage them to submit a complaint to us if the consumer can’t first resolve the matter with the servicer.” Here are few of the highlights in the FAQ that address issues which may prove the most challenging for lenders, services and furnishers and agencies.

FAQ #5 “Constructive Work” With Borrowers Encouraged.

“Even if accommodations are not required by the CARES Act or by other applicable law, the Bureau and other Federal and State agencies have encouraged financial institutions in prior guidance (the March 22, 2020 Federal Reserve Intragency Statement) to work constructively with borrowers who are or may be unable to meet their contractual payment obligations because of the effects of COVID-19.” This guidance goes to the spirit of the CARES Act to help consumers impacted by the pandemic, but also asks servicers use their best judgment in offering assistance beyond that required. Understanding borrower’s specific circumstances will be critical in assessing the reasonableness of efforts. Where personnel are applying judgment, having internal servicer guidelines for escalation to ensure uniformity and consistency may prove beneficial. Tracking and monitoring metrics and other characteristics of those loans and borrowers may also help ensure fairness.  

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CFPB Rolls Out Pilot Program Offering Advisory Opinions

The devil is in the details.  The best intentioned new financial services rules and regulations can present challenges for compliance folks trying to implement the rules into their institutions’ existing systems and practices.  Requirements, which may seem simple in the abstract, sometimes create herculean challenges because of system limitations, programming challenges, or simple ambiguity when loaded into real world operations.  To hopefully overcome these compliance obstacles, on Thursday, June 18, 2020, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (“CFPB”) began its trial phase of a pilot program offering advisory opinions aimed at “reduc[ing] ambiguity and increas[ing] regulatory certainty, support[ing] proactive consumer protection, and enhanc[ing] the timeliness of guidance.”  The CFPB first previewed this pilot program in March 2020 so that financial services providers could solicit provisional legal opinions on matters pertaining to the interpretation of the Bureau’s rules and laws.

Joining other agencies, like HUD who have had a no action letter procedure in place for years, the CFPB pilot will focus on four stated priorities:  (1) “Consumers are provided with timely and understandable information to make responsible decisions”; (2) “Identify outdated, unnecessary or unduly burdensome regulations in order to reduce regulatory burdens”; (3) “Consistency in enforcement of Federal consumer financial law in order to promote fair competition”; and (4) “Ensuring markets for consumer financial products and services operate transparently and efficiently to facilitate access and innovation.”

As the pilot program is new and untested, the CFPB will pick which company questions to answer based on a review of the various petitions, granting priority to those questions that are novel and whose answers might benefit those in the greater consumer financial services community.  The Bureau has said it will consider questions such as those arising during CFPB exams and those that have not otherwise been authoritatively addressed.  In this regard, the CFPB noted the following factors that will drive its prioritization of requests:

  • The request’s alignment with the CFPB’s statutory objectives;
  • The scope of the impact on consumers if the CFPB is to provide an answer or interpretation;
  • In the event where two regulators share concurrent jurisdiction over a specific consumer protection measure, whether the CFPB’s advisory opinion will impact the manner in which the other regulator regulates the same measure; and
  • The impact the advisory opinion would have on the CFPB’s existing resources and personnel.
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CFPB Proposes Rule to Ease Transition to LIBOR for Creditors

On June 4, 2020, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (“CFPB”) issued proposed rules and changes to the Truth in Lending Act (“TILA”) to address the anticipated sunset of the London Interbank Offered Rate (“LIBOR”) at the end of 2021.  Some market lenders currently rely on the LIBOR as an index for calculating rates for open-end and closed-end credit products.  The CFPB’s proposed rules and changes shed some light on what creditors might expect when the LIBOR is discontinued, and also include a compilation of frequently asked questions (“FAQs”) to help prepare creditors for the eventual transition.

In its proposed rule, the CFPB contemplates several amendments to Regulation Z, which implements TILA, for both open-end and closed-end credit products to address the discontinuation of the LIBOR.  Select amendments include:    

  • To ensure that credit card issuers and HELOC creditors choose acceptable replacement indices for the LIBOR, the CFPB has proposed a detailed roadmap to outline specifically how these creditors may replace the LIBOR before it becomes unavailable.  Under these guidelines, credit card issuers and HELOC creditors must select a replacement index where the annual percentage rate (“APR”) for the new index is calculated similarly to the LIBOR index.  The CFPB stated that the prime rate published in The Wall Street Journal as well as certain Secured Overnight Financing Rates will be considered suitable replacements as well. 
  • Regulation Z requires lenders to disclose certain terms to borrowers of open-end credit products.  Under the proposed rule, Regulation Z would require creditors to provide further disclosures, including change-in-terms notices to inform borrowers as to which new interest rate their credit product will transition.   
  • The CFPB also proposes adding an exception from the rate reevaluation provisions applicable to credit card accounts.  Under current regulations, when a card issuer increases a rate on a credit account, the creditor must reevaluate the rate increase every six months until such time the rate is then reduced.  Per the CFPB’s proposal, a credit card issuer would be exempt from these requirements for increases that occur as a result of replacing the LIBOR index.         
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A Trust Relationship Saves Aunt’s TILA, RESPA and FDCPA Claims from Dismissal

The Ninth Circuit held, in a matter of first impression, that a trust created by an individual for tax and estate tax planning purposes does not lose all state and federal consumer disclosure protections when it seeks to finance repairs to a personal residence for the trust beneficiary, rather than for the trustee herself; instead, the loan transaction remains a “consumer credit transaction” under TILA, RESPA and California’s Rosenthal Fair Debt Collection Practices Act. Gillian, Trustee of Lou Easter Ross Revocable Trust v. Levine, — F.3d — (9th Cir. 2020), 2020 WL 1861977 (4/14/2020).

Acting in her capacity as trustee of a trust created by her dead sister, the plaintiff obtained a loan to make repairs to a personal residence occupied by her sister’s daughter.  The district court held, on a motion to dismiss, that because the plaintiff borrower did not intend to live in the house, the loan was not a consumer credit transaction, which TILA defines as a loan extended to a natural person “primarily for personal, family or household purposes.” Both TILA and RESPA are inapplicable to “credit transactions involving extensions of credit primarily for business, commercial, or agricultural purposes.” The Rosenthal Act similarly applies to debt “due or owing from a natural person by reason of a consumer credit transaction,” which it defines identically to TILA.

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CFPB Issues Final Remittance Rule

On May 11, 2020, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (“CFPB”) announced that it will impose stricter reporting requirements on entities that process international money and remittance transfers for consumers. This final rule will take effect on July 21, 2020, replacing a temporary rule that has been in place since 2013. The new rule requires that international money transfer and remittance providers disclose the following information to consumers: exact exchange rates; the total value of transaction fees; and the amount of money expected to be received by the transfer or remittance recipient. For banks and credit unions that process large numbers of transfers, compliance costs and associated oversight policies will remain burdensome.

The new rule, however, augments the safe harbor protections afforded to certain banks and credit unions when reporting the costs of transfers and remittances to consumers. Under the temporary version of Regulation E, which was adopted in 2013, banks and credit unions that provide fewer than 500 remittances or transfers per year were permitted to estimate the costs of remittance transfers to consumers rather than providing exact transaction fees and exchange rates. Preceding the effective date of the temporary regulation, this safe harbor provision only applied to those banks and credit unions that processed fewer than 100 transfers per year. The final rule increases the transfer threshold to 500 transfers per year, making the temporary exemption permanent. In addition, the Bureau adopted a new, permanent exemption for insured institutions to “estimate the exchange rate for a remittance transfer to a particular country if, among other things, the designated recipient will receive funds in the country’s local currency and the insured institution made 1,000 or fewer remittance transfers in the prior calendar year” and the recipients received funds in the country’s local currency.

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The Paycheck Protection Program: Managing Fair Lending Risks

The past few weeks have seen increasing scrutiny of the lenders and borrowers participating in the Small Business Administration’s (“SBA”) Paycheck Protection Program (“PPP”), including by the Treasury Department, SBA Inspector General, U.S. Department of Justice, and Congress with the Special Inspector General for Pandemic Recovery surely soon to follow.

Against this backdrop, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (“CFPB”) has recently raised concerns related to fair lending for lenders participating in the PPP. On May 6, 2020, the CFPB issued guidance related to the timing for Equal Credit Opportunity Act (“ECOA”)-mandated adverse action notices under the PPP. On April 27, 2020, the CFPB published a statement in which the Bureau emphasized that lenders must comply with ECOA when extending small business credit, outlining key bases for discrimination claims under ECOA and encouraging women and minority-owned businesses who feel they have suffered lending discrimination to submit complaints to the CFPB through its complaint portal.

The CFPB’s recent focus on institutional fair lending compliance accords with that of federal banking regulators. For example, on April 27, 2020, the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency released “OCC Bulletin 2020-45,” which, among other things, encourages institutions to “prudently document their implementation and lending decisions” under the SBA’s PPP.

Given recent regulatory focus on fair lending compliance in connection with PPP lending, banks and other lenders should consider the following proactive risk mitigation steps.

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CFPB Joint Advisory Committee Meeting – COVID-19 Impact Trends

Special populations need extra support during the COVID-19 pandemic. The CFPB is committed to providing real time, easily understood consumer education materials as well as clear guidelines for financial services companies. The Bureau stands ready to prosecute bad actors for UDAAP violations in the marketplace through enforcement and referrals of UDAAP violations. These were three themes offered by Director Kathleen Kraninger in public meeting remarks. And not to bury the lead, she noted the Bureau’s on-going monitoring of consumer impacts with the Department of Justice, Treasury, the FTC and state Attorneys’ General.

On Friday, May 1, 2020, the CFPB convened a joint session of its several Advisory Committees, including the Consumer Advisory Board, the Community Bank Advisory Council, the Credit Union Advisory Council and the Academic Research Council.  The meeting involved presentations from staff focused on (1) consumer complaint analysis and trends, (2) household and market impacts and (3) special populations concerns. Public questions and comments were entertained relating to each topic. The presentation materials contain useful initial analysis on consumer complaints trends arising during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

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