Innovative partnerships between banks and nonbanks have expanded lending services to consumers and small businesses. These partnerships, known as marketplace lending arrangements, offer non-traditional loan products to consumers and small businesses. Significantly, state laws establishing interest rate caps do not apply to marketplace lending arrangements where the bank is the true lender. But with this innovation has come debate about whether the bank is the true lender. The Office of the Comptroller of the Currency’s “True Lender” rule, which became effective on December 29, 2020, was intended to address uncertainties in these partnerships.
Under the “True Lender” rule, a bank is deemed the true lender if, at the time of origination, it is named as the lender in the loan agreement or funds the loan. Proponents of the “True Lender” rule argue that marketplace lending arrangements expand access and that the rule provides necessary guidance to enable banks and their non-bank partners to comply with the law. Others, however, have sharply criticized the rule, arguing it allows payday lenders to circumvent state laws prohibiting predatory ultra-high interest-loans.
Several state attorneys general are challenging the “True Lender” rule in the courts. Earlier this year, District of Columbia Attorney General Karl. A. Racine joined eight other Attorneys General in filing a lawsuit against the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency to stop implementation of “True Lender” rule. This month, the D.C. Office of the Attorney General has taken its challenge to the parties themselves by filing its first lawsuit involving a marketplace lending arrangement since the “True Lender” rule’s enactment.
District of Columbia v. Opportunity Financial, LLC
On April 5, 2021, the District of Columbia (“the District”), by and through AG Racine, filed a complaint in the Superior Court of the District of Columbia against Opportunity Financial, LLC (“OppFi”), an online lending company. The District alleges in its complaint that OppFi violated the District of Columbia Consumer Protection Procedures Act and title 16 of the District of Columbia Municipal Regulations.
According to the complaint, OppFi has engaged in predatory lending practices that target the District’s most vulnerable citizens. Specifically, the District alleges that OppFi has been deceptively marketing illegal, high-interest loans. In 2018, OppFi partnered with FinWise Bank to launch a bank-sponsored product called “OppLoans,” which it offers to D.C. residents. However, OppFi has never held a money lender license as required by D.C. law. OppFi also offers loans to D.C. consumers at interest rates of up to 198%, a rate which dramatically exceeds D.C.’s interest rate cap of 24%. The District also alleges that OppFi falsely represents OppLoans as more affordable than payday loans, tells consumers that taking out an OppLoan will help improve the borrower’s credit score despite OppFi’s knowledge to the contrary, does not adequately disclose that OppLoans are high cost, risky loans that should only be used for emergencies, and fails to tell consumers that refinancing a current loan is often more expensive than obtaining a second loan.
Despite OppFi’s partnership with FinWise Bank, the District asserts that OppFi is the true lender because it has the predominant economic risk, bears the risk of poor performance, and funds the expenses for the provision of OppLoans. Meanwhile, FinWise’s fees and expenses related to OppLoans are capped per its agreements with OppFi. In support, the District also alleges that OppFi is the servicer for OppLoans, controls and pays for all OppLoans marketing, and owns the OppLoans trademark and associated intellectual property rights. Further, potential borrowers are screened using OppFi’s proprietary scorecard and can only obtain an OppLoan through opploans.com. Interested consumers attempting to obtain an OppLoan directly through FinWise Bank’s website are redirected to OppFi’s website.
The District seeks a court order voiding improperly made loans, as well as injunctive relief, restitution for consumers, civil penalties, and costs.
While states challenge the “True Lender” rule in court, Senate Democrats have mounted an attack aimed at overturning it. President Biden has yet to announce his nominee to lead the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, which could provide additional insight on the administration’s direction with the rule. Financial institutions involved in marketplace lending arrangements should pay close attention to litigation that can provide insight into the practical effects of the “True Lender” rule’s bright-line test on state litigation.