Enforcement, Innovation, Consumer Data and Unconstitutionality
Director Kraninger and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau have been busy this month. Summer is over, and back to school it is.
In addition to convening a symposium and two Director speeches, the Bureau released ten plus statements this month spanning enforcement activity, no action letter policy, innovation, and consumer data enhancements. Not to be overlooked, the Director also announced her position that the Bureau’s structure is unconstitutional. In this relatively short article, we cannot dive deeply into the specifics of each new development, but we can offer some highlights to help keep you abreast of Bureau changes. Definitely, more to come.
Enforcement: Two actions. One stipulated judgment. The Bureau’s actions assert (a) violations of Consumer Financial Protection Act of 2010 and Reg O in connection with allegedly deceptive and abusive mortgage assistance services and (b) violations of the Fair Credit Reporting Act, Regulation V and the CFPA in connection with allegedly improper debt collection practices. The former included a proposed stipulated judgment, which if entered, would resolve the matter by imposing civil money penalty and other relief. See September 6 and September 25 case announcements here.
On December 11, 2018 Kathleen Kraninger, the new Director of the Bureau of Consumer Financial Protection, held a media conference. She introduced herself and answered media questions. Subsequent headlines have focused on among other things: (a) whether she would simply follow the recent course set by her predecessor Acting Director Mick Mulvaney, and (b) whether the Bureau’s recent name change would stick. Director Kraninger’s comments appeared to signal accountability, independence and curiosity. The impact on regulated institutions in 2019 and beyond remains to unfold. Here are some developments to watch in 2019.
Listening Tour 2019. Kraninger will be engaging in a listening tour to get to know the 1500 employees in the Bureau. For example, she plans to visit to San Francisco, Chicago, New York regional offices. She also indicated that she intends to connect with other regulators and constituencies including, state regulators, other related federal agencies, consumer advocates and regulated institutions. She also indicated she will work to have a productive relationship with House Financial Services Committee and its incoming chair Maxine Waters. Earlier this month, Waters released a statement requesting Kraninger undertake specific initiatives “to put consumers first by rolling back the anti-consumer actions taken by her predecessor and allowing the Consumer Bureau to resume its work of protecting hardworking Americans from unfair, deceptive or abusive practices.” New staffing alignments and other strategic changes may be borne form this listening tour.
Believes Regulated Industry Wants to Comply. In a nod to industry, Kraninger noted that institutions want to comply with consumer protection laws. The Bureau needs to give institutions clear rules in her view. However, she also signaled strong action for outliers, indicating that enforcement is a critical function and tool of the Bureau “fundamental to the agency’s mission.” She also noted that “bad actors” should expect repercussions under her watch.
The holidays are a time for deals — rebates, discounts and special financing offers. Especially prevalent are automobile advertisements with images of big red bows atop shiny new cars and exhilarated families dashing out into the snow to unpack presents out of the back. Well, the regulators are watching those advertisements too. For the fourth time in a month, the CFPB is warning consumers, especially servicemembers, about the potential pitfalls of the car buying process and understanding exactly what they are buying and what they are financing. The FTC is joining in to help, with its own resources as well.
Add-On Products are an area of special concern and focus for the CFPB. The CFPB recommends that buyers “be prepared to say ‘No, thank you’ if [they’re] offered add-ons [they] don’t want or need.” But the CFPB also adds a warning that customers should be sure to review their contracts carefully to make sure the items declined are not included. Dealer sales practices vary on these types of products, and the CFPB appears to be suggesting not so subtly that buyer had better beware.
Value & Actual Costs/ Financing. Products and services the regulators highlight include: (a) guaranteed auto protection (GAP), (b) tire, dent, paint and fabric protection packages, (c) extended warranties, and (d) service contracts. These additional products and services can be valuable to consumers depending on how long they intend to keep the car, how they want to maintain it, and their own economic circumstances and budget cashflow. The CFPB and FTC focus signals that in marketing these products and services, institutions and their business partners must be direct and forthright about the product, its features, its limitations, and the price. High pressure sales tactics or aggressive marketing may result in customer complaints, regulatory inquiries, and litigation and reputation risk.
KISS. An acronym first utilized in military equipment design in the 1960’s, “Keep it Simple Stupid.” Litigators rely on KISS in formulating trial themes and presentations to juries. Simple messages resonate. In that vein, I offer three KISS takeaways from the Bureau of Consumer Financial Protection’s Supervisory Highlights, Issue 17, Summer 2018.
KISS #1: Details Matter.
On two key levels: (a) your business compliance operations and consumer interactions, and (b) in the Bureau’s supervision and examination conclusions. Taking these in reverse order, the Bureau’s Introduction (p. 2) provides important guardrails:
[L]egal violations described in this and previous issues of Supervisory Highlights are based on the particular facts and circumstances reviewed by the Bureau as part of its examinations. A conclusion that a legal violation exists on the facts and circumstances described here may not lead to such a finding under different facts and circumstances.
This is critical to your supervision and examination preparedness and your interactions with the Bureau. If the Bureau spots a concern, consider providing a fulsome explanation of the analysis that went into the policy formulation, how your organization believed it was operating in good faith under applicable laws and believed that the practice would not harm or mislead consumers, what steps your organization has done in monitoring and addressing any consumer concerns regarding the policy or practice. This may sound basic, but the Bureau’s statement matters and can be referenced. The Bureau should, in my view, consider such information in assessing whether any violation has occurred, whether any consumers actually were harmed and whether any remediation is necessary. Sometimes the conclusion may be that the practice presents a risk of potential confusion or harm and simply should be modified going forward. Present your best case; the Bureau appears to be open to considering all the facts and circumstances.
Enforcement of the Law, Quantitative Impact Analysis & Other Gems
Last week CFPB Acting Director Mick Mulvaney had a busy speaking calendar in Washington, D.C. and we all should be listening. He addressed the Credit Union National Association (CUNA)’s Government Affairs Conference on Tuesday, February 27th and the National Association of Attorneys General (NAAG) Winter Meeting on Wednesday, February 28th. While there were differences in the two presentations because of the respective audiences, Mulvaney’s strategic themes were clear. You can watch the CUNA speech here and the NAAG speech here.
1. CFPB will reflect the current administration. Not surprisingly, the CFPB will be run differently under the Trump administration than it had been under the Obama administration. Whatever one’s politics, the Acting Director made abundantly clear that a new sheriff is in town. Mulvaney highlighted the time he has been spending with CFPB staff to share his priorities and to re-align departments and to focus activities under the new strategic constructs. He assured both CFPB staff and the two audiences that despite the strategy shift, he is not anticipating employee layoffs.
2. CFPB enforcement activity will enforce the law. A bit circular? Maybe. Nonsensical in light of past CFPB activity? No. Mulvaney emphasized that institutions should “know what the rules are” before being sued for allegedly failing to comply. In other words, the CFPB should not be challenging company activities which leaders did not reasonably understand violated applicable law. And related, CFPB should not push the envelope. Mulvaney rejected the notion that enforcement suits should be “creative” or that the CFPB should regulate by enforcement. Mulvaney will leave legislative tasks to the Congress. Waxing literary at CUNA, Mulvaney quoted Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America: “When justice is more certain and more mild, is at the same time more efficacious.” Mulvaney acknowledged the great power the CFPB has and opined that power should be wielded humbly and judiciously.
3. CFPB will quantitatively assess regulatory impacts. Mulvaney spoke to leveraging cost-benefit analysis at the Bureau. He will require quantitative benefits and burdens to be assessed before changes are made to regulatory requirements. He intends rule making with substantial accountability and transparency, including input from consumer groups, Attorneys General, and industry. Mulvaney hopes the CFPB will “hear” (not just listen) when engaging in these analyses, acknowledging previous criticism that the Bureau may have been “checking in the box” in that regard.
On July 10, 2017, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) released a rule prohibiting class action waivers in certain pre-dispute arbitration agreements. The rule drastically impacts arbitration clauses currently used by many financial products and services providers in their consumer agreements.
The rule has three main components. First, the rule prohibits providers from using a pre-dispute arbitration agreement to prevent consumers from bringing or participating in class actions in federal and state court. Second, the rule requires that arbitration agreements inform consumers that their right to bring a class action is unrestricted. Third, the rule requires providers to supply certain records and data relating to arbitral proceedings to the CFPB.
The rule is effective 60 days after publication in the Federal Register and generally applies to agreements entered into more than 180 days after the effective date. Congress, however, can use the Congressional Review Act to prevent the rule from taking effect.
What is the effect of the rule?
The new rule prohibits pre-dispute arbitration agreements for certain consumer financial products or services that block consumer class actions in federal and state courts. The rule accomplishes this in two ways:
providers cannot rely on any pre-dispute arbitration agreement entered after the compliance date that restricts or eliminates a consumer’s right to a class action in state or federal court (§ 1040.4(a)(1)); and
providers must include certain specified plain language in arbitration agreements that explicitly disclaims the arbitration agreements applicability to class actions (§ 1040.4(a)(2)).
The rule also requires providers to submit certain records relating to arbitral proceedings to the bureau, including copies of pleadings, the pre-dispute arbitration agreement, and the judgment. (§ 1040(b).)
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