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 barely year-old Consumer Financial Protection Bureau came out of the gate this week with its first enforcement action. Capital One has the dubious honor of being CFPB’s premier target under the bureau’s authority to take action against entities that it believes engage in unfair, deceptive, or abusive practices in the offering of consumer financial products and services. Congress created the CFPB as part of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act. That law broadly empowers the CFPB to supervise and enforce the nation’s consumer financial laws.
The CFPB claimed that Capital One’s telemarketing vendors used certain deceptive marketing practices to pressure or mislead consumers into paying for “add-on” products such as payment protection and credit monitoring. The practices of particular concern to the CFPB included:
• Misleading consumers about the benefits of the products – for instance that the product would improve credit scores when that was inaccurate
• Deceiving consumers about the nature of the products – CFPB claims some consumers were told the products could be cancelled, while canceling was difficult to accomplish
• Taking orders from ineligible consumers and then denying claims later based upon eligibility
• Leading consumers to believe the products were free when they were not
• Enrolling consumers without the consumer’s express consent
Capital One agreed to a consent order, in which the bank neither admits nor denies the allegations. The consent order provides for refunds to two million consumers of at least $140 million and a $25 million penalty. The consent decree also places additional restrictions and oversight on Capital One, including a requirement that it stop the marketing of these products until it has presented an acceptable compliance plan to ensure these acts do not recur. Capital One must also submit to an independent audit to determine if it has met the conditions of the consent decree, and it must ensure the refunds are automatic so that consumers do not have to take any action to obtain their refunds.
In addition to the consent order and the associated press release, the CFPB also issued a compliance bulletin stressing that institutions will be held liable for actions by third-party vendors operating on their behalf. The agency stressed certain proactive actions that companies should take to ensure that marketing materials and customer service interactions do not violate the law. Among these practices are the review of scripts, ads, radio and TV commercials to make sure they reflect the actual terms of the products and are not deceptive or misleading. The CFPB also cautioned that employee incentive and compensation programs tied to add-on products should require that employees adhere to guidelines and not create incentives for employees to provide inaccurate information.
Those familiar with FTC enforcement will note many similarities, as the CFPB has stated it will follow FTC precedent on “unfair” and “deceptive” practices. The CFPB has also made clear that service providers and others who “knowingly or recklessly provide substantial assistance to a covered person or service provider” may face the CFPB’s wrath.
While this is the first CFPB action, others are sure to follow as the CFPB is engaged in ongoing examinations and has issued subpoenas. The CFPB is also working closely with state attorneys general and the FTC, sharing information on potential violations and coordinating enforcement actions. We expect to see several additional CFPB actions as the new agency flexes its enforcement muscles, particularly in the mortgage, credit card, educational and “pay day” loan arenas.