Alston & Bird Consumer Finance Blog

RESPA

CFPB’s War on Mortgage Fees Continues

What Happened?

Immediately following President Biden’s State of the Union Address announcing plans to lower homebuyer and refinancing costs, the CFPB issued a blog post seeking public input on how mortgage closing costs impact consumers. The CFPB also announced that it will work to monitor closing costs and, “as necessary, issue rules and guidance to improve competition, choice and affordability.” Significantly, the CFPB also signaled that it will continue to use its supervision and enforcement tools for companies that fail to comply with the law.

Why Is It Important?

The CFPB is putting companies on notice that the Bureau will be taking a close look at the total loans costs for originating a residential mortgage loan, including origination fees, appraisal fees, credit report fees, title insurance, discount points, and other fees. In particular, the CFPB is paying “significant attention to the recent rise in discount points,” and seems concerned with the lack of competition in connection with certain fees, such as lender’s title insurance and credit reports. The CFPB also has expressed concerns with how companies may charge lender credits and fees that are financed into the loan amount (through higher interest rates or mortgage insurance payments).

While the CFPB’s blog post does not identify any specific laws, it does provide some clues. First, the Bureau is concerned that some closing costs are high and increasing due to lack of competition. According to the Bureau, “[b]orrowers are required to pay for many of the costs associated with closing a home loan but cannot pick the provider and do not benefit from the service.” Taking unreasonable advantage of the inability of a consumer to protect their interests in selecting or using a consumer financial product or service could be construed as abusive under the Dodd-Frank Act’s UDAAP statute.

Because certain fees are fixed and don’t fluctuate with the loan size or interest rate, the Bureau is concerned that such fees could disproportionately impact borrowers with smaller loans, such as low-income borrowers, first-time borrowers, or Black or Hispanic borrowers.  This could present a fair lending problem under the Equal Credit Opportunity Act. Indeed, the CFPB already has announced that, pursuant to its authority to prevent unfair, deceptive, and abusive acts or practices (“UDAAPs”), the Bureau will begin examining institutions for alleged discriminatory conduct that the Bureau deems to be unfair.

Of course, Congress passed the Dodd-Frank Act to address many of the above concerns, and the TRID Rule already attempts to ensure that consumers are provided with greater and more timely information on the nature and costs of the residential real estate settlement process and are protected from unnecessarily high settlement charges.

What Do I Need to Do?

The CFPB is sending a strong message to the industry that closing fees will be receiving scrutiny from the CFPB.  And knowing that the CFPB has been on a hiring spree in its enforcement division, now is a good time to take a close look at the fees being charged from both a UDAAP and fair lending perspective.  The team at Alston & Bird has deep knowledge on mortgage fees and is happy to assist with such a review.

CFPB’s Message to Mortgage Servicers: Make Sure You Comply with RESPA’s Force-Placed Insurance Requirements

A&B Abstract:

In Case You Missed It:  At the recent Federal Housing Finance Agency’s Symposium on Property Insurance, CFPB Director Rohit Chopra spoke about force-placed insurance and conveyed the following message: “The CFPB will be carefully monitoring mortgage market participants, especially mortgage servicers to ensure they are meeting all of their obligations to consumers under the law.”

The CFPB’s servicing rules set forth in RESPA’s Regulation X specifically regulate force-placed insurance. For purposes of those requirements, the term “force-placed insurance” means hazard insurance obtained by a servicer on behalf of the owner or assignee of a mortgage loan that insures the property securing such loan. In turn, “hazard insurance” means insurance on the property securing a residential mortgage loan that protects the property against loss caused by fire, wind, flood, earthquake, falling objects, freezing, and other similar hazards for which the owner or assignee of such loan requires assistance. However, force-placed insurance excludes, for example, hazard insurance required by the Flood Disaster Protection Act of 1973, or hazard insurance obtained by a borrower but renewed by a company in accordance with normal escrow procedures.

Given the Bureau’s announcement, now is a good time to confirm that your company has adequate controls in place to ensure compliance with all of the technical requirements of RESPA’s force-placed insurance provisions.  Set forth below are some of the many questions to consider:

Escrowed Borrowers:

  • When a borrower maintains an escrow account and is more than 30 days past due, does the company ensure that force-placed insurance is only purchased if the company is unable to disburse funds from the borrower’s escrow account?
    • A company will be considered “unable to disburse funds” when the company has a reasonable basis to believe that (i) the borrower’s hazard insurance has been canceled (or was not renewed) for reasons other than nonpayment of premium charges; or (ii) the borrower’s property is vacant.
    • However, a company will not be “unable to disburse funds” only because the escrow account does not contain sufficient funds to pay the hazards insurance charges.

Required Notices:

  • Does the company ensure that the initial, reminder, and renewal notices required for force-placed insurance strictly conform to the timing, content, format, and delivery requirements of Regulation X?

Charges and Fees:

  • Does the company ensure that no premium charge or fee related to force-placed insurance will be assessed to the borrower unless the company has met the waiting periods following the initial and reminder notices to the borrower that the borrower has failed to comply with the mortgage loan contract’s requirements to maintain hazard insurance, and sufficient time has elapsed?
  • Are the company’s fees and charges bona fide and reasonable? Fees and charges should:
    • Be for services actually performed;
    • Bear a reasonable relationship to the cost of providing the service(s); and
    • Not be prohibited by applicable law.
  • Does the company have an adequate basis to assess any premium charge or fee related to force-placed insurance, meaning that the company has a reasonable basis to believe that the borrower has failed to comply with the mortgage loan contract’s requirement to maintain hazard insurance because the borrower’s coverage is expiring, has expired or is insufficient?
  • Does the company have appropriate controls in place to ensure that the company will not assess any premium charge or fee related to force-place insurance to the borrower if the company receives evidence that the borrower has maintained continuous hazard insurance coverage that complies with the fee requirements of the loan contract prior to the expiration of the waiting periods (at least 45 days have elapsed since the company delivered the initial notice and at least 15 days have elapsed since the company delivered the reminder notice)?
  • Will the company accept any of the following as evidence of continuous hazard insurance coverage:
    • A copy of the borrower’s hazard insurance policy declarations page;
    • The borrower’s insurance certificate;
    • The borrower’s insurance policy; or
    • Another similar form of written confirmation?
  • Does the company recognize that the borrower will be considered to have maintained continuous coverage despite a late payment when applicable law or the borrower’s policy contemplates a grace period for the payment of the hazard insurance premium and a premium payment is made within that period and accepted by the insurance company with no lapse in coverage?
  • Within 15 days of receiving evidence (from any source) demonstrating that the borrower has maintained hazard insurance coverage that complies with the hazard insurance requirements in the loan contract, does the company:
    • Cancel any force-placed insurance that the company has purchased to insure the borrower’s property; and
    • Refund to the borrower all force-placed insurance premium charges and related fees paid by such borrower for any period of overlapping insurance coverage and remove from the borrower’s account all force-placed insurance charges and related fees that the company assessed to the borrower for such period?

And let’s not forget that companies must continue to comply with the above requirements if the company is a debt collector under the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (“FDCPA”) with respect to a borrower and that borrower has exercised a “cease communication” right under the FDCPA.  Of course, failure to comply with the Regulation X requirements could also result in violations of UDAAP and FDCPA provisions.

Takeaway:

Given that the CFPB is telegraphing its upcoming review of servicers’ force-placed insurance practices, now is a good time for companies to ensure that their compliance management programs are robust enough to ensure compliance with all the technical requirements of RESPA’s force-placed insurance requirements. Alston & Bird’s Consumer Financial Services team is happy to assist with such a review.

CFPB Issues Advisory Opinion Warning Against Kickbacks for Mortgage Rate Shopping Platforms

A&B ABstract:

Last week, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) issued an advisory opinion to address the applicability of the Real Estate Settlement Procedures Act (RESPA)’s Section 8 – the anti-kickback provision – to operators of certain digital technology platforms that enable consumers to comparison shop for mortgages and other real estate settlement services. These platforms include those that generate potential leads for the platform participants through consumers’ interactions with the platform, referred to by the CFPB as Digital Mortgage Comparison-Shopping Platforms.

The Advisory Opinion

The Advisory Opinion is an interpretive rule issued under the CFPB’s authority to interpret RESPA and Regulation X, including under section 1022(b)(1) of the Consumer Financial Protection Act of 2010, which authorizes guidance as may be necessary or appropriate to enable the CFPB to administer and carry out the purposes and objectives of federal consumer financial laws.

The Advisory Opinion provides that an operator of a Digital Mortgage Comparison-Shopping Platform violates RESPA section 8 if the platform provides enhanced placement or otherwise steers consumers to platform participants based on compensation the platform operator receives from those participants rather than based on neutral criteria.

More specifically, the Advisory Opinion states that an operator of a Digital Mortgage Comparison-Shopping Platform receives a prohibited referral fee in violation of RESPA section 8 when: (1) the Digital Mortgage Comparison-Shopping Platform non-neutrally uses or presents information about one or more settlement service providers participating on the platform; (2) such non-neutral use or presentation of information has the effect of steering the consumer to use, or otherwise affirmatively influences the selection of, those settlement service providers, thus constituting referral activity; and (3) the operator receives a payment or other thing of value that is, at least in part, for that referral activity. In other words, where the platform’s operator presents lenders based on extracted referral payments rather than the shopper’s personal data or preferences or other objective criteria, the platform has violated section 8 of RESPA. The CFPB provides two (2) examples of prohibited conduct:

  • Platform operator presents a lender as the best option because that lender pays the highest referral fee. However, the shopper is led to believe the lender was selected based on their shared personal data or preferences.
  • Platform receives payments from lenders to rotate them as the top presented option regardless of whether the highlighted lender is the best fit for the shopper.

Furthermore, if an operator of a Digital Mortgage Comparison-Shopping Platform receives a higher fee for including one settlement service provider compared to what it receives for including other settlement service providers participating on the same platform, the CFPB views this as evidence of an illegal referral fee arrangement (absent other facts indicating that the payment is not for enhanced placement or other form of steering). Ultimately, where a platform’s formula is designed to steer shoppers to use providers in which the operator has a financial stake, the platform has violated section 8 of RESPA.

Takeaway

The CFPB is concerned that Digital Mortgage Comparison-Shopping Platforms, particularly popular during a time of increasing mortgage interest rates, may attempt to take advantage of consumers rather than provide them with a neutral and fair presentation of the providers that may best meet their mortgage or other settlement needs. Any entity involved, even tangentially, in the mortgage settlement process, should ensure that services are offered based on neutral criteria rather than the compensation received from a third-party provider.

Alston & Bird Adds Consumer Finance Partner Aldys London in Washington, D.C.

Alston & Bird has strengthened and expanded its capabilities for advising companies on state and federal consumer finance regulatory compliance issues with the addition of partner Aldys London in the firm’s Washington, D.C. office. Her clients include mortgage companies, consumer finance and FinTech companies, secondary market investors, real estate companies, home builders, insurance companies, banks, and other financial institutions and settlement service providers.

“It’s a pleasure to welcome Aldys, who brings deep experience and a sterling reputation for counseling consumer financial service entities as they navigate complex regulatory issues, including licensing, the intersection of state and federal regulatory compliance, and key approvals for transactions,” said Nanci Weissgold, Alston & Bird partner and co-chair of the firm’s Financial Services & Products Group. “With our shared emphasis on collaboration and excellent service, we are confident that she will successfully draw on our firm’s vast resources and expertise to benefit her clients.”

London provides advice on state licensing for mortgage lenders and related service providers, mortgage brokers, FinTech companies, lead generators, servicers, debt collectors, and investors. She is well versed in federal registration and licensing requirements imposed by the SAFE Act, as well as state laws and regulations concerning fees, disclosures, loan documentation, interest rates, privacy, advertising, data breach, and telemarketing.  Her practice also covers seeking and maintaining approvals from state and federal agencies and GSEs.  She is adept at federal laws governing real estate mortgage transactions, including preemption, privacy, fair lending and consumer protection.

In addition, London assists a variety of consumer financial services companies in obtaining regulatory approvals for complex acquisitions, mergers, and asset transfer transactions. She performs due diligence reviews for proposed acquisitions and IPOs, reviews and prepares policies and procedures, conducts regulatory compliance audits of financial institutions, and assists with structuring and developing compliance and training programs. She also assists clients with responses to regulatory audits and investigations by state and federal regulators.

“Clients rely on Aldys’ sound counsel because of her technical rigor and thorough understanding of the consumer finance market,” said Stephen Ornstein, Alston & Bird partner and co-leader of the firm’s Consumer Financial Services Team. “Her legal skills, combined with her excellent business sense and ability to develop strong relationships, make her a valuable asset to our firm and our clients.”

Alston & Bird’s Consumer Financial Services Team focuses on the regulation of consumer credit and real estate, with a broad emphasis on origination, servicing, and secondary mortgage market transactions. This team addresses the compliance challenges of major Wall Street financial institutions, federal- and state-chartered depository institutions, hedge funds, private equity funds, national mortgage lenders and servicers, mortgage insurers, due diligence companies, ancillary service providers, and others.

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.