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CFPB Rescinds Compliance Bulletin on Marketing Services Arrangements and Issues FAQs on RESPA Section 8

A&B ABstract: 

On October 7, 2020, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (“CFPB” or “Bureau”) rescinded Compliance Bulletin 2015-05, RESPA Compliance and Marketing Services Agreements (“Bulletin 2015-05”).  In addition, the Bureau published Frequently Asked Questions (“RESPA FAQs”) on the Real Estate Settlement Procedures Act (“RESPA”) Section 8 topics in an effort to “provide clearer rules of the road and to promote a culture of compliance.”

Background on Bulletin 2015-05

The Bureau issued the Bulletin 2015-05 on October 8, 2015, under then-Director Richard Cordray, in an effort to remind participants in the mortgage industry of the prohibition on kickbacks and referral fees under RESPA and to describe “the substantial risks posed by entering into marketing services agreements” (“MSAs”).  At the time, the Bureau characterized Bulletin 2015-05 as a nonbinding general statement of policy that merely articulated considerations relevant to the Bureau’s exercise of its supervisory and enforcement authority.  Consequently, Bulletin 2015-05 was not issued pursuant to the notice and comment rulemaking requirements under the Administrative Procedures Act (5 U.S.C. § 553(b)).

Through Bulletin 2015-05, however, the Bureau presented an ostensibly novel interpretation of RESPA Section 8 to caution against MSAs altogether.

For example, RESPA Section 8(c)(2) expressly provides that “[n]othing in this section shall be construed as prohibiting… the payment to any person of a bona fide salary or compensation or other payment for goods or facilities actually furnished or for services actually performed.”  Similarly, Regulation X, 12 CFR § 1024.14(g)(iv), provides that “Section 8 of RESPA permits . . . payment to any person of a bona fide salary or compensation or other payment for goods or facilities actually furnished or for services actually performed.”  Moreover, HUD’s long-standing interpretation of Section 8(c)(2) provided that Section 8(c)(2) only allows “the payment to any person of a bona fide salary or compensation or other payment for goods or facilities actually furnished or services actually performed,” i.e., permitting only that compensation which is reasonably related to the goods or facilities provided or services performed” (HUD RESPA Statement of Policy 2001-1).

In contrast, the Bureau’s prior interpretive position was that the opportunity to enter into an MSA by contract was itself a thing of value, regardless of whether the resulting agreement provided for payment for bona fide services at fair market value.  The Bureau relied on this interpretive theory in issuing Bulletin 2015-05, which effectively took the position that if a person is in a position to receive referrals from a third party, they could not otherwise do business with that party because the CFPB would attribute compensation paid to that party to be for referrals, even if the person paid fair market value for services actually rendered, because, the CFPB believed MSAs “are designed to evade” RESPA, such that engaging in MSAs poses a “substantial legal and regulatory risk of violating RESPA,” even where the MSA is “technically compliant with the provisions of RESPA.”

A three-judge panel of the D.C. Circuit Court, in PHH Corp. v. CFPB, rejected the Bureau’s theory, as it unanimously overturned then-Director Cordray’s interpretation of RESPA, holding that tying arrangements are ubiquitous and that Section 8 permits captive reinsurance arrangements so long as mortgage insurers pay no more than reasonable market value for reinsurance. The Court noted that the “CFPB’s interpretation of Regulation X is a facially nonsensical reading of Regulation X,” since Regulation X makes clear that, if a provider “makes a payment at reasonable market value for services actually provided, that payment is not a payment for a referral.” (emphasis in original).

The inconsistency between the Bureau’s apparent misinterpretation of Section 8, as espoused in Bulletin 2015-05, and longstanding HUD interpretations (and the D.C. Circuit’s decision in PHH Corp.), led to calls for rescission of Bulletin 2015-05.

Bureau’s Rescission of Bulletin 2015-05

 In rescinding Bulletin 2015-05, the Bureau acknowledged that the bulletin “does not provide the regulatory clarity needed on how to comply with RESPA and Regulation X.”  Consistent with the rescission, Bulletin 2015-05 no longer has any force or effect.  The Bureau noted that its rescission of Bulletin 2015-05 does not mean that MSAs are per se or presumptively legal.  Rather, whether a particular MSA violates RESPA Section 8 will depend on specific facts and circumstances, including the details of how the MSA is structured and implemented.  The Bureau made clear that MSAs remain subject to scrutiny, and that the CFPB remains committed to vigorous enforcement of RESPA Section 8.

RESPA FAQS

Contemporaneous with its rescission of Bulletin 2015-05, the Bureau issued FAQs pertaining to compliance with RESPA Section 8.  The FAQs provide an overview of the provisions of RESPA Section 8 and respective Regulation X sections, and address the application of certain provisions to common scenarios described in Bureau inquiries involving gifts and promotional activities, and MSAs.

With respect to MSAs, the FAQs provide guidance on the following questions:

  1. What are MSAs?
  2. What is the distinction between referrals and marketing services for purposes of analyzing MSAs under RESPA Section 8?
  3. How do the provisions of RESPA Section 8 apply when analyzing whether an MSA is lawful?
  4. What are some examples of MSAs prohibited by RESPA Section 8?

Notably, the FAQs provides that under RESPA Section 8(c)(2), if the MSA or conduct under the MSA reflects an agreement for the payment for bona fide salary or compensation or other payment for goods or facilities actually furnished or for services actually performed, the MSA or the conduct is not prohibited. Thus, RESPA Section 8 does not prohibit payments under MSAs if the purported marketing services are actually provided, and if the payments are reasonably related to the market value of the provided services only.

Takeaway

While rescission of Bulletin 2015-05 is likely to be welcomed by the industry and help to restore confidence in the viability of MSAs under the current legal landscape, it remains to be seen how the Bureau’s priorities on RESPA Section 8 enforcement will change.  Companies should consider reviewing existing MSAs to ensure compliance with the Bureau’s new guidance.  Moreover, it should be noted that the Bureau specifically designated its new FAQs as “compliance aids” as opposed to official interpretations. Under the Bureau’s policy statement on Compliance Aids issued earlier this year, the Bureau states only that it “does not intend to sanction, or ask a court to sanction, entities that reasonably rely on Compliance Aids.” An interpretive rule issued by the Bureau, to the contrary, affords market participants a clear legal safe harbor from liability under RESPA.

CFPB Issues CARES Act Consumer Reporting FAQs

A&B ABstract

On June 16th, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (“CFPB” or “Bureau”) issued a Compliance Aid titled “Consumer Reporting FAQs Related to the CARES Act and COVID-19 Pandemic.” This Compliance Aid clarifies the Bureau’s April 1, 2020 Statement that providing furnishers flexibility in handling disputes during the pandemic is not unlimited, putting consumer reporting agencies and furnishers on notice that the Bureau is enforcing the Fair Credit Reporting Act (“FCRA”), as amended by the CARES Act, and its implementing Regulation V.  The Compliance Aid also addresses questions on reporting CARES Act accommodations.

CFPB Focusing on Credit Reporting Accuracy and Dispute Handling

In its April 1, 2020 statement, the Bureau indicated that while furnishers are expected to comply with the CARES Act, the Bureau “does not intend to cite in examinations or take enforcement actions against those who furnish information to [CRAs] that accurately reflects the payment relief measures they are employing” and will not take enforcement or supervisory actions against furnishers and CRAs for failing to timely investigate consumer disputes. On June 16th the Bureau clarified that it is enforcing FCRA and that while it previously provided some flexibility the April 1st Statement “did not state that the Bureau would give furnishers or CRAs an unlimited time beyond the statutory deadlines to investigate disputes before the Bureau would take supervisory or enforcement action.”  The Bureau warns that it will take public enforcement action against companies or individuals that fail to comply with FCRA, but will consider the unique circumstances that entities face as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic and entities’ good faith efforts to timely investigate disputes.

CARES Act Amendment to FCRA

Section 4021 of the CARES Act amends FCRA by adding a new section providing a special instruction for reporting consumer credit information to credit reporting agencies during the COVID-19 pandemic.  Specifically, if a creditor or other furnisher offers an “accommodation” to a consumer affected by the COVID-19 pandemic in connection with a credit obligation or account, and the consumer satisfies the conditions of such accommodation, the furnisher must:

  • report the credit obligation or account as “current;” or
  • if the credit obligation or account was delinquent before the accommodation maintain the delinquent status during the effective period of the accommodation, or, if the consumer brings the account current during such period, then to report the account as current.

Stated differently by the CFPB, “during the accommodation, the furnisher cannot advance the delinquent status.” The CFPB provides the following example:

If the credit obligation or account was current before the accommodation, during the accommodation the furnisher must continue to report the credit obligation or account as current.

If the credit obligation or account was delinquent before the accommodation, during the accommodation the furnisher cannot advance the delinquent status. For example, if at the time of the accommodation the furnisher was reporting the consumer as 30 days past due, during the accommodation the furnisher may not report the account as 60 days past due. If during the accommodation the consumer brings the credit obligation or account current, the furnisher must report the credit obligation or account as current. This could occur, for example, if the accommodation itself brings the credit obligation or account current (such as a loan modification that resolves amounts past due so the borrower is no longer considered delinquent) or if the consumer makes past due payments that bring the credit obligation or account current.

An “accommodation,” as defined in this section, includes relief granted to impacted consumers such as an agreement to defer a payment, make a partial payment, grant forbearance, modify a loan or contract, or any other assistance or relief granted to a consumer affected by COVID-19. The reporting requirements do not apply to charged-off accounts.  This section applies from January 31, 2020 through the later of 120 days after: (i) enactment of this section, or (ii) termination of the national emergency declaration.

Questions on Reporting Accommodations under FCRA

There has been much confusion in how the CARES Act requirements translate into Metro 2 reporting requirements.  The CFPB offers the following guidance:

  • When furnishers are reporting an account to the CRAs, furnishers are expected to understand all the CRA’s data fields, to ensure that the information reported accurately reflects a consumer’s status as current or delinquent. Specifically, the Bureau provides “information a furnisher provides about an account’s payment status, scheduled monthly payment, and the amount past due may all need to be updated to accurately reflect that a consumer’s account is current consistent with the CARES Act.”
  • With respect to the use of special comment codes, the CFPB provides that “Furnishing a special comment code indicating that a consumer with an account is impacted by a disaster or that the consumer’s account is in forbearance does not provide consumer reporting agencies with this CARES Act-required information.  Left unaddressed is whether servicers are permitted to report special comment codes and other fields as required by CDIA/Metro2.
  • With respect to reporting the status of an account after an accommodation ends, the Bureau provides two instructions.  First, the Bureau states “[a]ssuming payments were not required or the consumer met any payment requirements of the accommodation, a furnisher cannot report a consumer that was reported as current pursuant to the CARES Act as delinquent based on the time period covered by the accommodation after the accommodation end.” Second, “a furnisher also cannot advance the delinquency of a consumer that was maintained pursuant to the CARES Act based on the time period covered by the accommodation after the accommodation ends.”

Questions remain on how to address a consumer’s delinquency after an accommodation ends if the delinquency hasn’t been resolved through loss mitigation or otherwise.  Also unaddressed is whether furnishers are permitted to report (i) a “special comment code” for natural disaster or forbearance or (ii) the “terms frequency” field (each of which can indicate an account is in forbearance or deferment, even while the “account status code” field is marked “current”), without violating the CARES Act requirement to report borrowers in forbearance as “current.”

Takeaway

CFPB has put furnishers on notice that the Bureau will begin to enforce the CARES Act credit reporting requirements.  Companies should pay attention to credit reporting complaint trends in the coming months.  Companies should also document good faith efforts to comply and respond to disputes as soon as possible.  Last, with the CFPB’s revised Responsible Business Conduct Policy, companies may consider getting in front of any issues while the environment is still favorable. Once forbearance ends and foreclosures resume, and given where we are in the election cycle, the situation could turn political this Fall and the enforcement posture could change.

Misrepresentation and Deception: Government Enforcement Agencies Ready to Litigate

A&B ABstract:  The COVID-19 pandemic appears to be drafting the attention to consumer protection regulators to products that were active after the 2008 recession.

In the midst of the global pandemic, with unemployment rates surging to unprecedented levels, consumer protection regulators appear focused on areas where cash-strapped consumers may turn,  such as credit repair, payday loans, and mortgage and other debt relief.

Notably, these are the same areas that consumer protection regulators were active in during the post-2008 recession. For example, on May 22, 2020, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) and Commonwealth of Massachusetts filed a lawsuit alleging that defendants misrepresented that they can offer solutions that will or likely will substantially increase consumers’ credit scores despite not achieving those results.

In addition, on May 19, 2020, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) was granted a temporary restraining order and asset freeze against a payday lending operation alleging that it deceptively overcharged consumers millions of dollars and withdrew money repeatedly from consumers’ bank accounts without their permission.

These lawsuits are just two of many efforts that government enforcement agencies have undertaken recently to combat fraud and protect consumers. Businesses should be aware that agencies are actively pursuing litigation as a means to remedy potential consumer harm.

CFPB and Commonwealth of Massachusetts v. Commonwealth Equity Group d/b/a Key Credit Repair and Nikitas Tsoukales

The CFPB and Massachusetts allege that Commonwealth Equity Group d/b/a Key Credit Repair (KCR) and its president, Nikitas Tsoukales violated §§ 1031 and 1036 of the Consumer Financial Protection Act (CFPA), the Telemarketing Sales Rule’s (TSR) prohibition on deceptive and abusive telemarketing acts or practices, and the Massachusetts Credit Services Organization Law. 16 C.F.R. §§ 310.3 & 310.4; M.G.L. c. 93, §§ 68A-E (MA-CSO). KCR markets to consumers a service for supposedly removing harmful information from the consumer’s credit history, credit record, or credit scores or ratings.  Since 2011, KCR has collected at least $23 million in fees from tens of thousands of consumers through its telemarketing services.

The Complaint

According to the complaint, consumers pay KCR a “first work fee” upon enrolling with the company and then charges an additional monthly fee. KCR allegedly collects these fees from consumers before performing any service. KCR markets to consumers that “on average it can raise a person’s credit score by 90 points in 90 days” and that clients start “seeing removals of bad credit history in 45 days.”  However, “consumers did not see credit scores with an average 90-point increase in 90 days,” nor did they see “removals on their credit reports within 45 days” of enrolling with KCR in many instances.

The Complaint alleges that this scheme constitutes an abusive telemarking act because it is an improper advance fee to remove derogatory information from, or improve, a person’s credit history, credit record, or credit rating.

Further, the Complaint alleges that KCR’s conduct violates the CFPA because KCR allegedly misrepresented the material aspects of its services. Therefore, the CFPB and Massachusetts are seeking injunctive and monetary relief as well as civil monetary penalties.

FTC v. Lead Express, Inc., et al.

On May 11, 2020, the FTC filed an ex parte emergency motion for a temporary restraining order and sought other relief including an asset freeze against 11 payday lenders operating as a common enterprise through websites and telemarketing.  The FTC alleged that the entities were engaging in the deceptive, unfair, and unlawful marketing tactics in violation of the FTC Act, the TSR, the Truth in Lending Act (TILA) , and the Electronic Fund Transfer Act (EFTA).

The Complaint

According to the FTC’s complaint, despite claiming that consumers’ loans would be repaid after a fixed number of payments, the defendants typically initiated repeated finance-charge-only withdrawals without crediting the withdrawals to the consumers’ principal balances. Thus, consumers allegedly paid significantly more than what they were told they would pay. These misrepresentations violate Section 5(a) of the FTC Act (15 U.S.C. § 45(a)) as well as the TSR (16 C.F.R. § 310.3(a)(2)(iii)).  Additionally, the defendants allegedly made recurring withdrawals from consumers’ bank accounts without proper authorization which violates Section 907(a) of EFTA (15 U.S.C. § 1693e(a)) and illegally used remotely created checks, which under the TSR (16 C.F.R. § 310.4(a)(9)) are a prohibited form of payment in telemarketing.

The complaint also alleges that the defendants often failed to make required credit transaction disclosures in violation of Section 121 and 128 of TILA (15 U.S.C. §§ 1631 and 1638), and Sections 1026.17 and 1026.18 of Regulation Z (12 C.F.R. §§ 1026.17 and 1026.18).

The Court Order

On May 22, 2020, the District Court of Nevada granted an emergency motion for temporary restraining order against all eleven defendants. The order restrains the defendants from: (1) engaging in prohibited business activities in connection with advertising, marketing, promoting, or offering any loan or extension of credit, (2) releasing or using customer information, and (3) destroying, erasing falsifying documents relating to the business.  Furthermore, the defendants’ assets are frozen pending the show-cause hearing or further court order which will take place via videoconferencing on June 2, 2020.

Takeaway

With these two cases, government enforcement agencies support their statements that as the global pandemic continues, they are watching for deceptive or fraudulent practices in the financial services industry. Businesses should remain vigilant in their compliance with existing and new laws and regulations.

Regulatory Agencies Issue Mortgage Servicing Guidance and FAQs for the CARES Act

Our Financial Services & Products Group answers some questions mortgage servicers might have about how federal and state agencies will be flexible with enforcement under the CARES Act.

  • What is the “covered period” for purposes of Section 4022?
  • Can a servicer require a borrower to provide a written attestation?
  • Should servicers report the status of loans on forbearance?
  • What is being done to address mortgage servicer liquidity concerns?

Alston & Bird has formed a multidisciplinary task force to advise clients on the business and legal implications of the coronavirus (COVID-19).

CFPB Issues Policy Statement on Dodd-Frank “Abusiveness” Standard, But Important Uncertainties Remain

A&B ABstract:

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (“CFPB” or the “Bureau”) issued a Policy Statement to provide a framework for how it intends to apply the Dodd-Frank Act’s “abusiveness” standard going forward in its supervision and enforcement activities. While this framework attempts to provide clarity where the Dodd-Frank Act left uncertain what acts and practices would be considered “abusive,” the Policy Statement fails to address several key issues. In particular, the Policy Statement does not identify specific conduct that would be considered abusive—leaving public statements on such issues to enforcement matters and litigation.

Background to the Policy Statement

The Dodd-Frank Act (“the Act”) added a prohibition on “abusive” acts and practices to the established prohibition on unfair or deceptive acts and practices. Over the years, the Federal Trade Commission’s policy statements, enforcement actions, and judicial precedents have defined the prohibitions on “unfair” and “deceptive.” The abusiveness standard is less developed. The Act grants the CFPB authority to declare an act or practice as “abusive” if the act or practice: (1) materially interferes with the ability of a consumer to understand a term or condition of a consumer financial product or service; or (2) takes unreasonable advantage of (A) a lack of understanding on the part of the consumer of the material risks, costs, or conditions of the product or service; (B) the inability of the consumer to protect the interests of the consumer in selecting or using a consumer financial product or service; or (C) the reasonable reliance by the consumer on a covered person to act in the interests of the consumer. This Policy Statement follows a symposium convened by the CFPB in 2019 where a panel of academics and regulatory and industry experts debated, among other issues, whether the CFPB should further define abusiveness.

Defining “Abusive” in Precedent

The CFPB and other agencies have seldomly alleged a standalone “abusive” claim; instead, such claims are generally paralleled by claims of “unfairness” and “deceptiveness.” When alleging abusive practices, the CFPB almost always alleged deceptive or unfair practices based on the same set of underlying facts. For example, in 2017 the CFPB alleged that a loan servicer routinely entered student loan borrowers into forbearance without adequately providing information to borrowers regarding possible income-based repayment plans. The CFPB argued that the servicer’s actions constituted both abusive practices and unfair practices under the Act, and the Court agreed.  While such decisions have provided some guidance on what constitutes an abusive practice under the Act, the courts, in reviewing such allegations, considered the statutory language but did not offer any guidance on what conduct might be construed as “abusive” but not construed as “unfair.”

The CFPB’s reticence to prosecute claims of abusive practices created a vacuum of interpretive guidance on how the abusiveness standard actually constrains businesses, beyond the black letter definition contained in the Act. For example, questions remained as to what act or practice would “materially interfere” with a consumer’s understanding of terms and conditions, or what exactly would constitute a financial service provider “taking unreasonable advantage” of a consumer seeking a product of service. These undefined terms left confusion and uncertainty for covered persons seeking to avoid violations. By contrast, the unfairness and deceptiveness standards (which were already in place before the Act’s introduction of an abusiveness standard) have been subject to decades of case law and agency interpretations, which have yielded clear guidance on what acts and practices are considered unfair or deceptive.

Content of the Policy Statement

The Policy Statement acknowledges that “[u]ncertainty remains as to the scope and meaning of abusiveness,” which “creates challenges for covered persons in complying with the law,” and it sets forth a framework regarding how the CFPB will enforce the abusiveness standard. It does not, however, describe or provide examples of precisely what conduct the CFPB would deem abusive.

The Policy Statement describes three categories of principles that the CFPB intends to apply to its supervision and enforcement actions.  The CFPB has stated that the principles reflect the standards it has applied in prior actions.

  1. Benefits vs. Harms: “The Bureau intends to focus on citing conduct as abusive in supervision and challenging conduct as abusive in enforcement if the Bureau concludes that the harms to consumers from the conduct outweigh its benefits to consumers (including its effects on access to credit).” The Policy Statement notes that incorporating this principle “not only ensures that the Bureau is committed to using its scarce resources to address conduct that harms consumers, but also ensures that the Bureau’s supervisory and enforcement decisions are consistent across matters.
  2. No Dual Pleadings: The Bureau intends to avoid “dual pleading” of abusiveness along with unfairness or deception violations which arise from all or nearly all the same facts, and alleging “stand alone” abusiveness violations that “demonstrate clearly the nexus between cited facts and the Bureau’s legal analysis.” The Bureau believes that this approach to pleading will “provide more certainty to covered persons as to the metes and bounds of conduct the Bureau determines is abusive” and “facilitate the development of a body of jurisprudence as to the conduct courts conclude is abusive.”
  3. Good Faith” Limits on Monetary Relief: “[T]he Bureau generally does not intend to seek certain monetary remedies for abusive acts or practices if the covered person made a good-faith effort to comply with the law based on a reasonable—albeit mistaken—interpretation of the abusiveness standard. However, if a covered person makes a good-faith but unsuccessful effort to comply with the abusiveness standard, the Bureau still intends to seek legal or equitable remedies, such as damages and restitution, to redress identifiable consumer injury.”

The Policy Statement in Context

The Policy Statement is not a CFPB rulemaking. Rather, the Policy Statement merely “constitutes a general statement of policy that is exempt from the notice and comment rulemaking requirements of the Administrative Procedure Act” and is only “intended to provide information regarding the Bureau’s general plans to exercise its discretion.” It “does not impose any legal requirements on external parties, nor does it create or confer any substantive rights on external parties that could be enforceable in any administrative or civil Proceeding.” As such, while the Policy Statement is intended as a helpful guide to the Bureau’s enforcement philosophy with regard to the abusiveness standard, it is not law, and is subject to revision in the event of any change in the CFPB’s leadership, policies, or priorities.

The Policy Statement is not expected to affect ongoing litigation.  In remarks to the United States House of Representative Financial Oversight Committee on February 6, 2020, CFPB Director Kathleen Kraninger stated that “At this point, we have not amended any filings in court and don’t intend to related to this specifically,” indicating that the CFPB doesn’t anticipate repleading any of its pending court enforcement actions in light of the Policy Statement.

Takeaways:

While the principles outlined in the Policy Statement provide an indication of how the CFPB will react to conduct it deems to be “abusive,” it falls short of providing clarity on it will deem abusive, thereby continuing the uncertainty regarding the abusive standard that has existed since its inception. Moreover, the principles set forth in the Policy Statement are themselves subject to uncertainty. For example, it is unclear what exactly constitutes consumer benefits or harms and how those factors are weighed to determine whether conduct is abusive; likewise, it is unclear what types of actions are sufficient to demonstrate a good-faith effort to comply with the law under a mistaken interpretation of the abusiveness standard.

Notably, however, the Policy Statement expressly left open “the possibility of engaging in a future rulemaking to further define the abusiveness standard,” which presumably may take the form of enforcement actions, CFPB advisories or other guidance, or updates to the CFPB examination manual.