Recently, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, the watchdog agency of the financial industry, has proved that it has considerable bite. Created under the Dodd-Frank act to fill gaps in regulatory coverage, the CFPB’s mandate is to enforce federal regulations that, among other things, restrict “unfair deceptive or abusive acts or practices” in consumer finance. The CFPB in recent months announced two major debt relief crackdowns, the most recent of which permanently shut the doors of a Florida company.
Last month, the CFPB announced that it filed a complaint against a Florida debt-relief company that misled consumers across the country by charging upfront fees for debt-relief services without actually settling most of the consumers’ debts. According to the complaint, the defendants engaged in abusive practices by knowingly enrolling vulnerable consumers who had inadequate incomes to complete debt-relief programs. The complaint charged American Debt Settlement Solutions, Inc. (ADSS) and its owner, Michael DiPanni, with actions that were not just unfair and deceptive, but also abusive. Indeed, this case if the first time that the CFPB in its short history has enforced this prohibition on “abusive” acts or practices.
While “unfair” and “deceptive” are familiar terms to anyone who follows the Federal Trade Commission, the term “abusive” is new to Dodd-Frank and has been the subject of much consternation among Republicans in Congress, who consider it too vague. With this complaint, the CFPB provided what may be its first example of the type of conduct it will consider “abusive.” ADSS allegedly collected about $500,000 in fees from hundreds of consumers in multiple states, charging illegal upfront fees for debt-relief services and “falsely promising them it would begin to settle their debts within three to six months when, in reality, services rarely materialized.
The CFPB said the actions were “abusive” because consumers reasonably relied on the company to “act in their interest by enrolling them in a debt-relief program that they can be reasonably expected to complete, and which will therefore result in the negotiation, settlement, reduction, or alteration of the terms of their debts.” The CFPB simultaneously filed a proposed consent order that would settle the matter by halting the company’s operations and imposing a $15,000 fine.
ADSS and its owner may have walked away relatively unscathed, with only a civil penalty, but others caught in the CFPB’s cross hairs have not been as fortunate. Earlier this year, the CFPB filed suit against two lawyers and two debt relief companies in New York, alleging that they charged thousands of consumers illegal advance fees and left some worse off financially, while illegally profiting themselves. One of the lawyers, Michael Levitis, also faces mail and wire fraud charges brought by the Manhattan U.S. Attorney’s Office – the first-ever criminal charges stemming from a CFPB referral. What’s notable in this complaint is that the acts are described as both deceptive and unfair, but not as abusive.
Although a relatively new agency, the CFPB is proving that it has the chops to take down offenders in the financial industry. Both the Florida and New York cases are signs of future enforcement, and they send a stern warning to offenders – if you prey on vulnerable consumers, be prepared for a fight.
As part of its aggressive program to protect consumers in financial matters, the Consumer Protection Financial Bureau (CFPB) has announced that it is prepared to adopt a controversial “disparate impact” theory of liability against lenders. A case that the U.S. Supreme Court may accept would have a major impact on whether the CFPB is actually going to be able to do that.
The “disparate impact” theory was first articulated by the Supreme Court and further addressed by the Civil Rights Act of 1991 in the employment discrimination context. In a 1971 decision, Griggs v. Duke Power Co., the Court held that Title VII “proscribes not only overt discrimination but also practices that are fair in form, but discriminatory in operation.”
In the employment context, under Griggs, even though an employer may not intend to discriminate against a protected group, it may still be found liable under anti-discrimination laws for practices that disproportionately disadvantage such a group.
The theory was administratively adopted for federal fair lending laws in the 1990s, as laid out in a 1994 Interagency Policy Statement on Fair Lending. This statement from the Department of Justice and other federal agencies says that lenders may be liable for fair lending law violations if their policies or practices are shown to have a disparate impact on protected groups – even if there was no intent to discriminate. The statement, however, does not have the force of law.
In addition, the federal government, in practice, had not aggressively pursued fair lending cases in the absence of intentional discrimination against a protected group — until the Obama Administration’s CFPB announced its intention to use the “disparate impact” theory.
That is where the pending Supreme Court case, Mount Holly v. Mount Holly Gardens Citizens in Action, Inc. comes in. In that case, the Township of Mount Holly, N.J., made plans to redevelop a blighted residential area that was primarily inhabited by low- and moderate-income minority residents. Under the plan, the neighborhood would be demolished, and significantly more-expensive housing would be built. Many of the residents objected to the redevelopment, saying that their neighborhood would be destroyed and that they would not be able to afford to live in the new neighborhood. They sued under the Fair Housing Act, alleging that although the plan was not specifically targeted against minorities, it would have a disparate impact on them. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit allowed the case to proceed, and the Supreme Court is now considering it.
The issue is whether “disparate impact” is cognizable under the Fair Housing Act, as it is in the employment context. If the Court holds that impact as well as intent leads to a cause of action under the Fair Housing Act, the CFPB will go ahead and act under the theory. It will bring cases, for example, against banks that make loans only in areas that happen to be inhabited by high-income people and decline to make loans in areas where low-income people (many of whom are minorities) live. It will use geography as a proxy for racial or ethnic discrimination: Where were loans made, and where were they denied?
The Supreme Court has not yet decided whether it will hear the Mount Holly case. The most recent activity was the Court’s request, at the end of October, that the U.S. solicitor general formally express the views of the U.S. government on the issue. The solicitor general has not yet filed, and it will probably be a few weeks until he does file and the justices consider the SG’s arguments and decide whether to grant certiorari.
Consumer advocacy groups have actively pushed the disparate impact theory. The National Fair Housing Alliance has filed administrative complaints against Bank of America, Wells Fargo, and U.S. Bancorp, alleging that bank practices in maintaining foreclosed properties discriminate against people in predominantly black and Hispanic neighborhoods. Bank of America, Wells Fargo and SunTrust have recently paid some $500 million to settle claims: Since the banks opted to settle these cases, there was no formal legal ruling on the theory of liability.
Thus, “disparate impact” has been slowly taking hold in the lending context – without any real statutory basis or judicial clarification. The theory is still being used only by extension or analogy to the employment context. A high court ruling would clarify this very important area of law. Lenders, developers, and borrowers are waiting for clarification.
On November 19, 2012, the Federal Trade Commission and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau announced that they have launched a new coordinated effort to protect consumers, focusing on mortgage advertisements that they say are deceptive.
The CFPB and the FTC worked together to review roughly 800 mortgage ads. These ads were produced by entities involved in different aspects of the mortgage process, including mortgage brokers and lenders, lead generators, real estate agents, home builders, and others. The ads were featured on a wide range of media including newspaper, direct mail, email and social media.
The agencies stated that some of these ads had specifically targeted the elderly and veterans.
The letters warned the recipients that they may be in violation of the Mortgage Acts and Practices Advertising Rule (MAP Rule) that took effect in August 2011, which prohibits misleading claims concerning government affiliation, fees, costs, interest rates, payment associated with the loan, and the amount of cash or credit that is available to the consumer. The MAP Rule does not apply to traditional banks, meaning today’s actions affect only non-banks.
The FTC and the CFPB both have enforcement authority over non-bank mortgage ads under the MAP Rule. The agencies stressed that as part of the initiative they are working together to assure that consistent standards are applied across agencies. The agencies will conduct separate investigations focused on different targets to better utilize their resources and avoid double-teaming businesses.
“Working together and applying consistent standards to all types of clients in all types of ads is a very important means of making sure that mortgage advertisers are on notice that they have to comply with the law,” said Thomas Pahl, the assistant director of the FTC’s Division of Financial Practices.
The FTC and the CFPB issued more than 30 warning letters to mortgage advertisers, warning them that their advertisements may be deceptive. Both agencies stated that they have also opened formal investigations into other advertisers that may have committed more serious violations of the law. Violators of the MAP Rule can be subject to civil fines.
“Misrepresentation in mortgage products can deprive consumers of important information while making one of the biggest financial decisions of the lives,” CFPB Director Richard Cordray stated. “Baiting consumers with false ads to buy into mortgage products would be illegal.”
The review of the advertisements revealed several different types of claims that regulators could possibly find misleading, including ads that suggested that a company was affiliated with a government agency, ads that guaranteed approval and offered low monthly payments without discussing the conditions of the offers, and ads offering a low fixed mortgage rate without discussing significant loan terms.
The announcement shows that the FTC and the CFPB are taking an aggressive and proactive look at companies that offer products in the financial services sector. Companies that offer mortgage and other consumer lending products should know that the FTC and the CFPB are paying special attention to them and that their advertisements need to comply with federal regulations.
The Federal Trade Commission has obtained an order from the federal court for the Central District of California for a preliminary injunction and asset freeze against all the defendants in an alleged mortgage modification scam.
The complaint was filed against California-based Sameer Lakhany and a number of related corporate entities for violating the Federal Trade Commission Act and the Mortgage Assistance Relief Services Rule, now known as Regulation O. This was the first FTC complaint against a mortgage relief scheme that falsely promised to get help for homeowners who joined with other homeowners to file so-called “mass joinder” lawsuits against their lenders.
The complaint listed two separate alleged schemes that collected over $1 million in fees and used images of President Obama to urge consumers to call for modifications under the “Obama Loan Modification Programs.”
The first scheme was a loan modification plan under which the defendants allegedly promised substantial relief to unwary homeowners from unaffordable mortgages and foreclosures. Their website featured a seal indicating that it was an “NHLA accredited mortgage advocate” and that NHLA is “a regulatory body in the loan modification industry to insure only the highest standards and practices are being performed. They have an A rating with the BBB.” Unfortunately, the NHLA is not a “regulatory body” and it actually has an “F” rating with the BBB.
The defendants reinforced their sales pitch by portraying themselves as nonprofit housing counselors that received outside funding for all their operating costs, except for a “forensic loan audit” fee. According to the FTC, the defendants told consumers that these audits would uncover lender violations 90 percent of the time or more and that the violations would provide leverage over their lenders and force the lenders to grant a loan modification. The defendants typically charged consumers between $795 and $1595 for this “audit.” Also, if the “audit” did not turn up any violations, the consumers could get a 70 percent refund. Unfortunately, there were often no violations found, any “violations” did not materially change the lender’s position, and it was nearly impossible to actually get a refund for this fee.
The second alleged scheme was that the defendants created a law firm, Precision Law Center, and attempted to sell consumers legal services. Precision Law Center was supposed to be a “full service law firm”, with a wide variety of practice areas. It even claimed to “have assembled an aggressive and talented team of litigators to address the lenders in a Court of Law.” However, the FTC charged that the firm never did anything besides for filing a few complaints, which were mostly dismissed.
To assist Precision Law Center in getting new clients, the defendants sent out direct mail from their law firm that resembled a class action settlement notice. The notice “promised” consumers that if they sued their lenders along with other homeowners in a “mass joinder” lawsuit, they could obtain favorable mortgage concessions from their lenders or stop the foreclosure process. The fee to participate in this lawsuit was usually between $6,000 to $10,000. The material also allegedly claimed that 80 to 85 percent of these suits are successful and that consumers might also receive their homes free and clear and be refunded all other charges.
The defendants’ direct mail solicitation also contained an official-looking form designed to mimic a federal tax form or class action settlement notice. It had prominent markings urging the time sensitivity of the materials and it requested an immediate response.
Obviously, these defendants employed many egregious marketing techniques that crossed the FTC’s line of permissibility. However, in light of the FTC’s renewed focus on Internet marketing, even a traditional marketing campaign should be carefully crafted with legal ramifications in mind.
As a final note, it is always smart not to antagonize the FTC by proclaiming (like the defendants here did) that they are “Allowed to Accept Retainer Fees” because it was “Not covered by FTC.” We couldn’t think of a better way to get onto the FTC’s radar screen!
There may be a legal hurdle or two for the Consumer Financial Protection Board to jump after the recess appointment of agency director Richard Cordray (the House Judiciary Committee held a hearing on the matter on February 15). But the consumer protection agency created under the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform Act of 2010 is pressing forward with its initiatives. Not too surprisingly, several recently proposed initiatives from the agency would stretch the agency’s authority into areas that extend beyond the industries targeted in the Dodd-Frank Act.
The day after the House Judiciary Committee debated the constitutionality of Cordray’s appointment (it doesn’t appear that the hearing was much more than some Republican caterwauling for the record), the CFPB released news of its first major regulatory proposal: to bring consumer credit reporting agencies and debt collection services under its scrutiny.
Those who are vaguely familiar with Dodd-Frank may be aware that the legislation gives the CFPB oversight of specific nonbank markets for (1) nonbank mortgage companies, (2) payday lenders, and (3) private student lenders. These are popular and understandable targets for probes of predatory lending practices. Headlining these industries as needing increased oversight is part of what made the legislation popular and easier for Congress to pass. So where do credit reporting agencies and debt collectors fit under the regulatory scheme? Quite simply, the Dodd-Frank Act also provides for CFPB oversight of other nonbank financial companies that are “larger participants of a market for other consumer financial products or services.”
Oversight of “larger participants”? What on earth does that mean? Congress doesn’t appear to have given clear guidance on what it meant by “larger participants,” leaving the term to the agency to define. As certain as the law of gravity is the law of bureaucratic power: What is not confined (by legislative delineation) necessarily will expand.
Don’t assume that the Dodd-Frank Act’s vagueness concerning what the CFPB would oversee was … well, an oversight. Congress often provides a broad policy concept and then delegates to administrative agencies the power to run with their interpretation and execution of that concept. Hence the impossibly cumbersome Code of Federal Regulations. Even so, however, the breadth of the power delegated to the new consumer protection agency is a bit much.
To the CFPB’s immense credit, it has published at least two requests for public comment to help it define “larger participants” and included an article on the agency’s blog regarding the matter. Indeed, the CFPB seems to be doing a pretty good job of explaining its steps and initiatives and of providing a user-friendly forum to keep the public apprised of their actions. And it is not entirely the agency’s fault that it is obeying the laws of bureaucratic power reach – it would be unnatural for the agency to try to constrict its authority.
What we should glean from the CFPB’s latest proposal, though, is that the CFPB will be running with its power and companies that provide any kind of consumer finance product must be aware of the possibility of government scrutiny.
Google, Yahoo! and Bing have suspended their accounts with hundreds of advertisers and agents associated with mortgage programs under federal investigation. The move by Google and Microsoft (Microsoft powers Bing and Yahoo!) has basically shut down these businesses: Without the vehicle of the search engines, these sites cannot effectively generate traffic.
Why did Google and Microsoft cut the cord of these companies, and is there anything the companies can do? Google and Microsoft (we’ll call them the Government’s “Judge, Jury, and Executioner” or the “Enforcers”) acted upon the request of SIGTARP, a federal agency charged with preventing fraud, waste, and abuse under TARP’s Home Affordable Modification Program. (The pressure started a while back, as we wrote last March.)
SIGTARP is investigating mortgage programs that it believes have been wrongly charging “struggling homeowners a fee in exchange for false promises of lowering the homeowner’s mortgage.”
According to a source at SIGTARP, the agency handed Google and Microsoft a list of some 125 mortgage “schemes.” Apparently, the Enforcers then took that list, identified advertisers and agents associated with those mortgage programs, and opted to suspend relations with those companies (about 500 advertisers and agents for Google and about 400 for Microsoft). (SIGTARP’s announcements on these actions can be found here and here.)
So it looks as if these companies have been penalized through government action without any adjudicative process, merely through government pressure on private companies, i.e. Google and Microsoft. (More analysis from us on this to come.)
It’s easy to understand why the Enforcers would feel pressure. Google just settled with the Department of Justice and agreed to pay more than $500 million for its role in publishing prescription drug ads from Canada. Those familiar with that settlement may see Google’s recent actions for SIGTARP as follow-on. Likely Google is more apt to buckle to the Feds quickly because of the costly settlement, but the matters are not directly related. In fact, the prescription drug settlement agreement relates to prescription drug ads only.
While the SIGTARP investigation is “ongoing,” and Google and Microsoft are continuing to cooperate with the agency, what can companies who have been caught up in this firestorm do? The Enforcers do, fortunately, have grievance processes (see, for instance, Google’s grievance process here).
Either on their own, or with some added strength through legal representation, the companies can try to make their cases regarding the content and nature of the ads at issue.
What is the next step going to be? If the Federal Trade Commission identifies, say, a group of websites that it believes are promoting bogus weight-loss schemes, will the Enforcers simply move to shut off their access to the Web, without further ado?
The FTC recently issued the Mortgage Acts and Practices – Advertising Final Rule. This rule is the FTC’s response to a congressional directive to address unfair or deceptive acts in the mortgage loan industry. Briefly, the MAP Rule (1) gives the FTC and state authorities the ability to seek civil penalties for deceptive mortgage advertising, (2) clarifies and provides examples of what constitutes deceptive mortgage advertising, and (3) institutes record-keeping requirements on mortgage advertisers.
FTC Commissioner Edith Ramirez asserted in her concurring statement that the “[t]he MAP Rule is narrow in scope — addressing only the advertising phase of the mortgage lifecycle by those subject to the Federal Trade Commission’s jurisdiction — and does not render unlawful any conduct that is not already banned by the prohibition on deception in Section 5 of the FTC Act.”
At first blush, one might think that the new rule merely states the obvious, i.e. that deceptive advertising, unlawful in other industries, is also unlawful in the mortgage industry and that the rule does nothing more than to provide guidelines for what may be considered unfair or deceptive. If that were all, the rule might have deserved a resounding “duh.”
However, the record-keeping requirements that are a part of this rule should instead inspire an “ugh.” The MAP Rule requires anyone subject to the rule (essentially, everyone involved in mortgage advertising with the exception of banks and other financial institutions specifically exempted from FTC oversight) to maintain records of:
• Commercial communications, sales scripts, training materials, and marketing materials regarding any term of any mortgage credit products; and
• Documents describing or evidencing all mortgage credit products and all additional products or services that may be offered in conjunction with the products at the time of the communication.
Under the rule, this documentation must be maintained for 24 months. And failure to keep these records could constitute an independent violation of the MAP Rule.
Considering that the MAP Rule touches everyone in commercial mortgage communications who is not specifically exempted, these record-keeping requirements are hefty. Not just lenders and brokers, but also real estate agents and brokers, ad agencies, affiliate marketers, and lead generators will be subject to the rule as long as they are involved in disseminating information on mortgage products. Compliance will require advertisers to monitor and keep records of downstream ads and will require the tracking of weekly changes in mortgage rates regardless of whether one is acting on behalf of loan originators.
The FTC justifies this burden as helpful in enforcement actions. But the costs of compliance with the MAP Rule outweigh this negligible benefit. How many companies that were once involved in dissemination of mortgage product information will simply decided not to communicate? This may be especially true, considering that the record-keeping requirements come with their own penalty for compliance failures. The result will be that the MAP Rule will discourage real estate agents, brokers and others from providing mortgage-related information to clients. It will create barriers to entry for those not large enough to afford a compliance program.
The FTC, in its press announcement on the final MAP Rule, claims the rule “is designed to create a level playing field for legitimate businesses to compete in the marketplace.” Instead, it appears that the FTC is reducing the size of the playing field by creating compliance costs that will discourage market entrants/players. How will the consumer benefit from fewer options?
Given the fact that the record-keeping requirements were not a part of the congressional directive regarding mortgage ads, we look forward to seeing someone in the industry challenge them in court.