On May 12, 2022, the Maryland Office of the Commissioner of Financial Regulation (the “OCFR”) issued an Industry Advisory (the “Advisory”) “put[ting] [the] industry on notice” of the recent decision issued by the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals in Ashly Alexander, et. al. v. Carrington Mortgage Services, LLC. The Advisory directs lenders and servicers to review their practices in charging consumer borrowers loan payment fees (referred to herein as “convenience fees”) both to ensure on-going compliance with the law and to determine whether any improper fees have previously been assessed so that they can undertake appropriate reimbursements to affected borrowers.
The Carrington Decision
In Carrington, the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals held that the Maryland Consumer Debt Collection Act (“MCDCA”) incorporates §§ 804 through 812 of federal Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (“FDCPA”), including the FDCPA’s prohibition on “[t]he collection of any amount (including any interest, fee, charge, or expense incidental to the principal obligation) unless such amount is expressly authorized by the agreement creating the debt or permitted by law,” under § 808(1). Because Maryland law does not expressly permit or authorize the assessment of convenience fees, the court held that such fees must be expressly authorized by the loan documents in order to be permitted under § 808(1).
The Carrington court further clarified that the FDCPA’s substantive provisions apply to any person who meets the broad definition of a “collector” under the MCDCA, even if such person would not be considered a “debt collector” under the FDCPA. Notably, the FCDPA contains important exclusions from the definition of “debt collector”, such as when a person is collecting a debt that was obtained prior to default, or if the person collecting the debt was the original creditor. On the other hand, as amended effective October 1, 2018, the MCDCA defines a “collector” broadly to include all persons collecting or attempting to collect an alleged debt arising out of a consumer transaction and does not provide for similar exclusions. We discussed the Carrington decision in greater detail in a prior blog post.
The Advisory reminds Maryland “collectors” of the Carrington court’s ruling, that collecting fees on any form of loan payment violates the MCDCA if the fees are not set forth in the loan documents. As a result, Maryland lenders and servicers are cautioned “that any fee charged, whether for convenience or to recoup actual costs incurred by lenders and servicers for loan payments made through credit cards, debit cards, the automated clearing house (ACH), [or other payment methods], must be specifically authorized by the applicable loan documents.” The Advisory makes clear that “[i]f such a fee is not provided for in the applicable loan documents, it would be deemed illegal.” Further, attempts to circumvent this fee restriction by directing consumers to a payment platform associated with the lender or servicer that collects a loan payment fee or requiring consumers to amend their loan documents for the purposes of inserting such fees could also violate Maryland law.”
The Advisory anticipates that some lenders or servicers may discontinue offering certain payment options as a result of the Carrington decision. However, the Commissioner expressly requests that such lenders or servicers promptly notify their customers of such change and encourages lenders and servicers “to work with consumers to minimize the impact any change in payment options could have, including where possible, continuing such payment options without fees, especially when consumers are attempting to pay their obligations in a timely manner.”
Lenders and servicers are directed to review their records to determine whether any improper fees have previously been assessed and, if so, make appropriate reimbursements to affected borrowers. The OCFR intends to monitor the impact that the Carrington decision has on lender and servicer fee practices and lenders and servicers can expect a follow-up on this topic from the OCFR in the coming months.
The implications of the Carrington decision are numerous. First, lenders and servicers must immediately cease the collection of convenience fees from Maryland borrowers, unless such fees are expressly authorized by the loan documents. Lenders and servicers choosing to discontinue certain payment services as a result of the Carrington decision, must also ensure that affected consumers are promptly notified of such change. In addition, lenders and servicers who meet the definition of a “collector” under the MCDCA must ensure compliance with §§ 804 through 812 of the federal FDCPA, regardless of whether they meet the FDCPA’s definition of a “debt collector.” Finally, while the Carrington decision was focused on the permissibility of convenience fees, we note that the court also held that “[t]he FDCPA’s far-reaching language [under § 808(1)] straightforwardly applies to the collection of ‘any amount.’” Thus, the implications of the Carrington decision go beyond convenience fees to arguably any other fee that is not expressly authorized by the loan documents or permitted by law, and we understand that Maryland regulators have informally indicated as much. Accordingly, lenders and servicers should carefully review all fees that are, or may be, assessed to Maryland borrowers to ensure such fees are either expressly authorized by the loan documents or permitted by law.