On January 30, 2023, President Biden informed Congress that the COVID-19 National Emergency (the “COVID Emergency”) will be extended beyond March 1, 2023, but that he anticipates terminating the national emergency on May 11, 2023. The White House Briefing Room reiterated the President’s position on February 10, 2023. Given the significant updates mortgage servicers made to their compliance management systems (“CMS”) to ensure compliance with the myriad of COVID-19-related laws, regulations and guidance issued in response to the pandemic, servicers should begin evaluating their CMS now to determine whether updates are necessary to minimize the risk of non-compliance and consumer harm as the COVID Emergency comes to an end. Set forth below, we discuss some of the key areas on which servicers should focus as they develop a plan for winding down COVID-19 protections.
The COVID-19 pandemic created unprecedented operational challenges for mortgage servicers – challenges servicers sought to overcome through significant actions that were taken at the outset of the pandemic and over the last three years to implement the myriad of federal and state laws, regulations, and guidance that were enacted or promulgated in response to the pandemic.
Indeed, in response to the pandemic, the US Congress passed the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (“CARES”) Act, Sections 4021 and 4022 of which provided certain borrowers impacted by the pandemic with certain credit reporting and mortgage-related protections.
Section 4021 of the CARES Act amended the Fair Credit Reporting Act by adding a new section providing special instructions for reporting consumer credit information to credit reporting agencies when a creditor or other furnisher offers an “accommodation” to a consumer affected by the pandemic during the “covered period,” which ends 120 days after the COVID Emergency terminates.
Section 4022 of the CARES Act granted forbearance rights and protection against foreclosure to certain borrowers with a “federally backed mortgage loan.” Specifically, during the “covered period,” a borrower with a federally backed mortgage loan who is experiencing a financial hardship that is due, directly or indirectly, to the COVID Emergency may request forbearance on their loan, regardless of delinquency status, by submitting a request to their servicer during and affirming that they are experiencing a financial hardship during the COVID Emergency. When the CARES Act was enacted, there was uncertainty in the industry as to how to define the “covered period” as the term was undefined. However, because the borrower must attest to a financial hardship during the COVID Emergency, the industry came to understand the “covered period” to be synonymous with the COVID Emergency, such that borrower requests received outside the COVID Emergency need not be granted.
Additionally, under Section 4022, a servicer of a federally backed mortgage loan were prohibited from initiating any judicial or nonjudicial foreclosure process, moving for a foreclosure judgment or order of sale, or executing a foreclosure-related eviction or foreclosure sale (except with respect to vacant and abandoned properties) through May 16, 2020.
In response to the CARES Act, mortgage servicers were inundated with directives issued by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (“HUD”), the US Department of Veterans Affairs (“VA”), the US Department of Agriculture (“USDA”), the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (“CFPB”), as well as the guidelines published by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac (collectively, the “Agencies”), as the Agencies (other than the CFPB) were tasked with implementing the protections afforded by the CARES Act. As result of these directives, servicers were required to quickly implement changes to their servicing operations, while ensuring accurate communication of such changes to its customers. For example, HUD alone issued over 20 mortgagee letters since the outset of the pandemic that were directly related to the operations of HUD-approved servicers.
In addition to the Agencies, several states either passed legislation, promulgated regulations or issued directives that mortgage servicers were required to implement. Servicers were also required to respond to the CFPB’s Prioritized Assessments, inquiries from Congress, and requests from the Agencies. Accordingly, servicers devoted substantial legal, compliance, and training resources to ensure compliance with applicable laws and requirements.
In implementing the foregoing laws and regulations, servicers made significant updates to their CMS and the various components that support an effective CMS, including, among others, policies, procedures, training, scripting, correspondence, system updates, and vendor management. Similarly, now that the COVID Emergency appears to be nearing an end, servicers should reevaluate what updates are necessary to effectively wind-down COVID-19 protections while minimizing regulatory risk and consumer harm.
Below we discuss several issues servicers should be particularly mindful of in developing a plan for winding down COVID-19 protections.
Key Areas of Focus for Servicers
Agency/GSE Guidelines: The myriad of Agency guidance issued in response to the pandemic included new and evolving requirements regarding the offering of COVID-19 Forbearance Plans, COVID-19-specific loss mitigation options, and other COVID-19-related borrower protections. For example, HUD, VA, and USDA have largely tied a borrower’s ability to request an initial COVID-19 Forbearance to the expiration of the COVID Emergency. HUD has indicated that a borrower may only request an additional forbearance extension of up to six months if the initial forbearance will be exhausted and expires during the COVID Emergency. On the other hand, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac have previously informally indicated that servicers should continue to process borrower requests for COVID-19 Forbearances until the GSEs announce otherwise. Moreover, there is the possibility that all or some of the Agencies will expand post-forbearance COVID-19 protections to a broader class of borrowers given the apparent success of the streamlined options. On January 30, 2023, HUD issued a mortgagee letter (which was corrected and reissued on February 13th) extending its COVID-19 Recovery Loss Mitigation Options to include additional eligible borrowers, increase its COVID-19 Recovery Partial Claims, and add incentive payments to servicers. Notably, the mortgagee letter does not appear to update HUD’s existing guidance on the availability of COVID-19 Forbearance Plans, and it temporarily suspends several of HUD’s non-COVID-19 loss mitigation options, such as all FHA-HAMP options. In preparing for the end of the COVID Emergency, servicers should ensure that they identify and carefully review applicable Agency guidelines to determine what, if any, updates to existing processes are necessary.
Policies, Procedures, and Training: Whether a servicer created a specific COVID-19/CARES Act policy and/or updated its existing policies to reflect applicable COVID-19 protections, servicers must now review and update those policies to ensure they do not inaccurately reflect requirements no longer in effect as a result of the termination of the COVID Emergency. As a reminder, Regulation X requires servicers to maintain policies and procedures that are reasonably designed to achieve the objectives in 12 C.F.R. § 1024.38. Commentary to Regulation X clarifies that “procedures” refers to the actual practices followed by the servicer. Thus, servicers should ensure that its procedures reflect its policies. It is also important that updated and accurate training and job aids are provided to servicing employees, particularly to consumer service representatives, to ensure clear, accurate, and up to date information is communicated to consumers. It’s also a good time to ensure that policies, procedures, and training reflect the expiration of certain CFPB COVID-19-related measures. For example, the enhanced live contact requirements for borrowers experiencing COVID-19 related hardships were in effect from August 31, 2021 through October 1, 2022.
Scripts, Letters and Agreements: The CFPB called for mortgage servicers to take proactive steps to assist borrowers impacted by COVID-19 including prioritizing clear communications and proactive outreach to borrowers. In response, servicers updated communications through emails, texts, letters, loss mitigation agreements, buck slips, periodic statements, and other standard communications alerting borrowers of requirements for accepting and processing requests for forbearance, approving forbearance requests, providing credit reporting accommodations, and providing information on post-forbearance loss mitigation options and foreclosure. One of the standards the CFPB uses in assessing whether an unfair, deceptive, or abusive act or practice (“UDAAP”) occurred is whether a representation, omission, act or practice is deceptive, meaning that it misleads or is likely to mislead the consumer, the consumer’s interpretation of the representation is reasonable under the circumstances, and the misleading representation, omission, act or practice is material. Thus, it is important for servicers to review their communication library to make sure outdated CARES Act and other COVID-19-related information is not included in borrower communications.
System Updates: Throughout the last three years servicers were required to implement substantial system enhancements to ensure compliance with the myriad of requirements that arose in response to the pandemic. These enhancements included, among others, stop codes to ensure compliance with applicable foreclosure moratoria; changes to loss mitigation decisioning systems to reflect new and revised loss mitigation waterfalls; updates to borrower-facing websites and interactive voice response (“IVR”) systems to provide borrowers with information on available COVID-19 protections and to facilitate a borrower’s ability to self-serve when requesting a COVID-19 Forbearance; enhancing credit reporting systems to ensure accurate credit reporting for borrowers who are provided an accommodation under the CARES Act; and implementing system updates to ensure compliance with applicable fee restrictions. Given the significant time, effort, and resources required to implement the foregoing enhancements, servicers should begin evaluating their systems now to determine what changes are necessary to reflect that some or all of these protections will no longer be in effect.
State Law: In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, several states (including but not limited to California, the District of Columbia, Maryland, Massachusetts, New York, and Oregon) enacted their own protections, most of which have since expired. Now is the time for servicers to ensure that their CMS is updated to reflect that these laws are no longer in effect.
Instructions to Service Providers: Many servicers rely on third-party service providers to provide certain support functions. During the pandemic, reliance on such service providers was even more critical as servicers worked to implement the above-referenced requirements. Such service providers include, among others, print/mail vendors, foreclosure counsel, and third-party customer support representatives. In preparing for the end of the COVID Emergency, servicers should ensure accurate and consistent instructions are provided to, and appropriate oversight is exercised over, service providers to ensure compliance with applicable law and to minimize UDAAP risk.
The implementation of federal and state COVID-19 protections required that servicers devote substantial time, effort, and resources to ensure consumers could avail themselves of available protections and to minimize the risk of harm. Unfortunately, when the pandemic first began, servicers did not have the luxury of time when implementing these measures. However, given that the end of the COVID Emergency is not until May 11th, servicers should utilize this time to think through what impact the termination of the emergency will have on their current processes and controls, and begin making necessary updates.