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Melanie Brody is a partner in Mayer Brown’s Washington DC office and a member of the Consumer Financial Services group. She concentrates her practice on federal and state government enforcement matters, primarily for banks, mortgage lenders, auto lenders, credit card issuers, student lenders and other financial service providers. She represents clients in investigations, examinations and enforcement actions by the US Department of Justice, Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, Federal Reserve Board, Department of Housing and Urban Development, Federal Trade Commission, state banking regulators and state attorneys general.

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On June 20, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (“HUD”) published an advance notice of proposed rulemaking (“ANPR”) that seeks public comment on whether and how to amend its 2013 rule under the Fair Housing Act (“FHA”). The ANPR follows HUD’s May 10 announcement of its intention to formally seek public comment on the rule in light of the Supreme Court’s 2015 decision in Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs v. Inclusive Communities Project, Inc., in which the Court recognized disparate impact as a cognizable theory under the FHA, but imposed meaningful limitations on the application of the theory.

The ANPR, together with the statement of Bureau of Consumer Financial Protection Acting Director Mick Mulvaney this spring that the Bureau would be “reexamining the requirements of ECOA” in light of “a recent Supreme Court decision” (i.e., Inclusive Communities), signals that the Trump administration is likely seeking to retreat from the Obama administration’s enthusiastic use of disparate impact liability in lending discrimination cases.

The Disparate Impact Rule and Inclusive Communities

HUD finalized its disparate impact rule in February 2013. The rule codified HUD’s Obama-era view that disparate impact is cognizable under the FHA. In contrast to disparate treatment claims, in which a plaintiff must establish a discriminatory motive, a disparate impact claim challenges practices that have a disproportionately adverse effect on a protected class that is not justified by a legitimate business rationale. The rule states that a practice has a “discriminatory effect” where “it actually or predictably results in a disparate impact on a group of persons or creates, increases, reinforces, or perpetuates segregated housing patterns because of race, color, religion, sex, handicap, familial status, or national origin.” HUD explained that it had “consistently concluded” that facially neutral policies that resulted in a discriminatory effect on the basis of a protected characteristic violated the FHA, and that the rule merely “formalize[d] its longstanding view.” The rule also formalized a three-part burden-shifting test for determining whether a practice had an unjustified discriminatory effect.

At the time HUD issued the rule, the nonprofit Inclusive Communities Project, Inc. was embroiled in a lawsuit against the Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs, in which it brought a disparate impact claim under the FHA. After HUD issued the disparate impact rule, the Texas Department filed a petition for a writ of certiorari to the Supreme Court on whether the FHA recognized disparate impact claims. In its 2015 decision, the Supreme Court held that disparate impact claims are cognizable under the FHA, but the Court articulated a rigorous standard for a successful claim. The Court did not explicitly address the merits of HUD’s rule, nor did the rule form the basis of its holding.  Continue Reading HUD Seeks Public Comment on Disparate Impact Rule

 

On May 8, 2018, the United States Department of Justice and KleinBank reached a settlement agreement resolving allegations that the bank engaged in mortgage lending discrimination by failing to adequately serve predominantly minority neighborhoods (so-called “redlining”) in and around the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minnesota. The settlement resolves one of the only redlining investigations to ever land in court, and marks the Trump DOJ’s first fair lending settlement.

DOJ filed its complaint against KleinBank on January 13, 2017, one week before the inauguration of President Trump, suggesting that the Obama administration’s DOJ may have been concerned that the Trump administration would be disinclined to pursue fair lending cases aggressively. Given recent activities at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, this worry may have been well-founded.

The complaint alleges that, from 2010 until at least 2015, KleinBank intentionally avoided lending to residents of predominantly minority neighborhoods in the Twin Cities area because of the race or national origin of the residents of those neighborhoods. Specifically, the DOJ alleged that KleinBank carved majority-minority census tracts out of its Community Reinvestment Act assessment area, located its branch and mortgage loan officers in majority-white census tracts (and not majority-minority census tracts), and directed marketing and advertising predominantly toward residents in majority-white census tracts. While most targets of redlining claims have sought to settle the allegations in short order, KleinBank took the rare step of fighting the DOJ’s claims in litigation.

Prior to the settlement, on March 30, 2018, the district court handling the case adopted a magistrate’s recommendation that KleinBank’s motion to dismiss be denied. The magistrate’s report and recommendation are under seal, making it impossible to fully analyze the rationale underlying the decision. However, the court noted that contrary to KleinBank’s contention, the government had sufficiently plead the intent element of a disparate treatment claim by, among other things, alleging that the bank intentionally drew its assessment area to avoid minority areas and intentionally avoided marketing to such areas.

Under the settlement agreement, KleinBank is required to open (and operate for at least three years) one new full-service branch office in a majority-minority census tract. Redlining resolutions that require banks to open branch offices are noteworthy considering the rapid increase in online banking activities and the cost associated with opening a full service branch.

The settlement agreement also requires KleinBank to invest $300,000 through a special purpose credit program to increase the amount of credit it extends in minority neighborhoods. Further, the bank must invest another $300,000 in advertising, outreach, financial education, and credit repair in order to “assist in establishing a presence in majority-minority census tracts in Hennepin County.

A few aspects of this agreement stand out. First, the DOJ’s use of a settlement agreement rather than a consent decree is notable. Most DOJ cases are resolved using consent decrees, which are generally easier for the government to enforce. Second, many of the settlement agreement provisions are less onerous than the terms of other recent redlining settlements. For example, the agreement does not subject KleinBank to a civil money penalty, and provides for flexibility on the timing of the bank’s advertising and loan subsidy obligations.  This suggests that the Trump DOJ may be taking a more subdued approach to fair lending cases than did its predecessor.

Time will tell if the KleinBank settlement is a red herring or harbinger for more federal fair lending enforcement.

Since the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau’s inception in 2011, the Office of Fair Lending and Equal Opportunity (Office of Fair Lending) has been a powerful force within the agency. This week, Acting Director Mick Mulvaney announced that the Office of Fair Lending will be transferred from where it currently resides – in the Division of Supervision, Enforcement, and Fair Lending (SEFL) – to the Office of the Director, where it will become part of the Office of Equal Opportunity and Fairness. Despite the similar nomenclature, the priorities of the Office of Fair Lending and the Office of Equal Opportunity and Fairness are vastly different, with the latter having oversight over equal employment opportunity and diversity and inclusion initiatives within the CFPB. The move likely signals a substantial curtailment of CFPB fair lending enforcement activities.

Section 1013 of the Dodd-Frank Act mandated the establishment of an Office of Fair Lending and the statutory language provides that the Office of Fair Lending “shall have such powers and duties as the Director may delegate to the Office, including”:

  • Providing oversight and enforcement of federal fair lending laws (including ECOA and HMDA);
  • Coordinating fair lending efforts with other federal agencies and state regulators;
  • Working with the private industry and consumer advocates on the promotion of fair lending compliance and education; and
  • Providing annual reports to Congress on the Bureau’s efforts to fulfill its fair lending mandate.

The CFPB to date had in fact given the Office of Fair Lending the powers and duties listed in the statute, and Office of Fair Lending attorneys played a substantial role in overseeing fair lending examinations and bringing fair lending enforcement actions. Indeed, the Office of Fair Lending has come under fire for “regulation through enforcement” and for “pushing the envelope” through its aggressive enforcement of federal anti-discrimination statutes against lenders on the basis of statistical analyses (i.e., dealer markup and redlining). It is clear that, as a result of the restructuring, the Office of Fair Lending will no longer have supervisory or enforcement responsibilities. According to an email sent by Mulvaney to CFPB staff that was leaked to several news outlets, the Office of Fair Lending’s new focus will be on advocacy, coordination, and education. Although SEFL as a whole still maintains responsibility for fair lending supervisory and enforcement matters, this restructuring signals a de-emphasis on fair lending and likely will lead to a significant decrease in the number of fair lending examinations, investigations and enforcement actions brought by the Bureau. Indeed, Congress presumably required the establishment of a separate fair lending office out of recognition that having such an office would ensure a persistent attention to fair lending issues. Stripping the office of supervisory and enforcement responsibilities will similarly result in less of a focus on those issues. While SEFL leadership and staff are likely to continue to pursue fair lending matters, those matters will now compete for attention and resources with the myriad other issues over which the CFPB has jurisdiction.

In its Fair Lending Report released last year, the Bureau’s then-Director Cordray touted its “historic resolution of the largest redlining, auto finance, and credit card fair lending cases.” Cordray also identified redlining, mortgage loan servicing, student loan servicing, and small business lending as the Bureau’s fair lending priorities going forward. Under the Bureau’s new leadership, fair lending issues evidently will no longer be a top priority. With the rollback in the CFPB’s fair lending enforcement activities, there may be an uptick in consumer advocacy groups seeking other avenues for fair lending relief, such as class action litigation and complaints filed with HUD and state agencies tasked with enforcing state anti-discrimination laws.

Yesterday, the CFPB issued two HMDA-related items – a final rule amending federal Regulation B’s information collection provisions and a proposed policy document addressing which HMDA data fields the Bureau intends to make public beginning in 2019.

The Regulation B amendment is intended to facilitate compliance with the new version of Regulation C going into effect on January 1, 2018.   The final rule provides creditors with flexibility in complying with Regulation B’s information collection requirements and restrictions for certain dwelling-secured loans. This will allow lenders to use uniform information-gathering practices and consistent forms without running afoul with Regulation B, even when their loan volume or other circumstances exempts them from data collection and reporting under Regulation C.  The final rule can be found here.

The policy guidance document sets out how the CFPB proposes to balance the competing goals of making HMDA data available to the public while also protecting loan applicant privacy. The Bureau believes that public disclosure of HMDA data is critical to advancing HMDA’s goals, including the identification of possible lending discrimination.  On the other hand, there is a risk that the expanded list of HMDA fields that will be collected next year under amended Regulation C could reveal loan applicants’ identities and other personal information.  The CFPB therefore proposes to exclude certain fields from public disclosure and to modify certain others so they are less specific.  The proposed guidance can be found here. The Bureau will accept comments on the proposal for 60 following its publication in the Federal Register.

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (“CFPB”) has issued its first No-Action Letter (“No-Action Letter” or “Letter”) in response to a request from Upstart Network, Inc. (“Upstart”). The No-Action Letter means that CFPB staff currently has no intention of recommending enforcement or supervisory action against Upstart. This decision is limited to the application of the Equal Credit Opportunity Act (“ECOA”) and its implementing regulation, Regulation B, to Upstart’s automated model for underwriting applicants for unsecured, non-revolving credit (“automated model”).

Upstart is an online lending platform that, working with a bank partner, uses alternative data to facilitate credit and pricing decisions for consumers with limited credit or work history. In addition to relying on traditional credit information, Upstart uses non-traditional sources of information to evaluate a consumer’s creditworthiness. For instance, Upstart might look at an applicant’s educational information, such as school attended and degree obtained, and the applicant’s employment to determine financial capacity and ability to repay. Upstart submitted a Request for No-Action Letter (“Request”) in relation to its automated model to the CFPB pursuant to the agency’s no-action letter policy.

According to the CFPB, the no-action letter policy is intended to facilitate consumer-friendly innovations where regulatory uncertainty may exist for certain emerging products or services. In practice, however, the process has presented significant challenges for companies that might seek to benefit from it. Continue Reading CFPB Issues No-Action Letter to Alternative Credit Lending Platform

The ABA Business Law Section is holding its 2017 Annual Meeting in Chicago next week and will offer over 90 CLE programs and many more committee meetings and events.

Mayer Brown’s Financial Services Regulatory & Enforcement (FSRE) partner David Beam (Washington DC) will moderate a panel on payment network rules and their impact in the marketplace. FSRE partner Melanie Brody (Washington DC) will participate on a panel on how fintech is changing the way consumer credit offerings work.

FSRE associate Matthew Bisanz (Washington DC) will co-moderate, and FSRE partner Stephanie Robinson (Washington DC) will participate on, a panel discussing innovative enforcement techniques being employed by bank regulators and how the industry can adapt to them. FSRE associate Eric Mitzenmacher (Washington DC) will participate on a panel on bank technology services and marketplace lending developments.

Mayer Brown’s Government Relations partner Mitchell Holzrichter (Chicago) will participate on a panel discussing the life-cycle of public-private partnership projects.

For more information, please visit the event webpage.

The long awaited en banc oral argument in the PHH v. CFPB appeal was heard this morning.  Based upon the questions asked by the judges, and with the caveat that such questioning is not always an indicator of how a court will rule, it seems likely that the D.C. Circuit will not find the CFPB to be unconstitutionally structured.  While Judge Kavanaugh, author of the roughly 100-page 3-judge panel decision last October, tried mightily to defend his position that a single director removable only for cause thwarts the President’s Article II authority, most of the judges did not seem to share his views.  Some judges, like Judge Griffith, implied that the Court was bound by the Supreme Court’s decision in Humphrey’s Executor v. United States, which upheld the constitutionality of removal-for-cause provisions as pertains to the multi-member Federal Trade Commission.  Other judges appeared to believe there was sufficient accountability for the CFPB Director because he or she can be removed for cause.  Judge Pillard defended the independence of financial regulatory agencies such as the CFPB.  On the whole, fewer judges seemed inclined to declare the for-cause provisions unconstitutional than to keep the status quo.

Notably, only about 60 seconds of the 90 minute oral argument addressed RESPA concerns, in particular Section 8(c)(2).  The judges’ RESPA-related questions concerned whether the industry had notice that RESPA prohibited the conduct in question (which had been blessed by a 1997 Letter from HUD permitting captive reinsurance if the Section 8(c)(2) safe harbor provisions were met) and whether the CFPB was bound by RESPA’s 3-year statute of limitations.  Questions about both issues were directed to CFPB counsel.  He stated that the statute itself provided ample notice of its prohibitions in Sections 8(a) and 8(c)(2). He also said the Bureau was bound by the generally-applicable 5-year statute of limitations at least insofar as penalties are concerned, but he did not concede the Bureau was otherwise bound by RESPA’s limitations period in an administrative proceeding.  That said, given how little attention was directed to the RESPA questions, it is likely that the full 11-member panel will affirm the 3-judge panel’s views on RESPA expressed last October.

It would appear that Director Cordray will remain at his desk until his term expires in July 2018.  He may, however, need to revise his interpretation of Section 8(c)(2).

 

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (“CFPB”) announced a Request for Information (“RFI”) about alternative data on February 16, 2017, seeking insights into the benefits and risks of using unconventional financial data in assessing a consumer’s creditworthiness. On the same day, the CFPB held a hearing in Charleston, West Virginia, inviting consumer groups, industry representatives, and others to comment on the use of alternative data.

The CFPB estimates that 45 million Americans have difficulty getting a loan under traditional underwriting criteria, because they do not have a sufficient credit history. According to the CFPB, the use of alternative data may support those Americans’ creditworthiness and allow them better access to financing at more affordable rates. Alternative data includes sources such as timely payment of rent, utilities, or medical bills, as well as bank deposit records, and even internet searches or social media information—data that credit bureaus do not traditionally consider. However, a consumer who lacks a credit history but who makes timely rent and utility payments may be as likely to repay a loan as another consumer with a higher credit score. Continue Reading CFPB Calls for Comment on Alternative Data

On Friday, January 13, the Department of Justice (“DOJ”) filed a lawsuit against a Minnesota bank in which it alleged that the bank violated the Fair Housing Act and the Equal Credit Opportunity Act by unlawfully redlining in the Minneapolis-St. Paul-Bloomington metropolitan statistical area (“Minneapolis MSA”).  The complaint, filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Minnesota, claims that from 2010 to at least 2015, the bank purposely avoided serving the credit needs of residents in majority-minority neighborhoods while meeting the credit needs of residents in majority-white neighborhoods.  The DOJ is seeking damages for aggrieved persons, civil money penalties, and injunctive relief. The bank has chosen to litigate, rather than settle, as it believes the DOJ’s claim is baseless. Continue Reading Redlining Revelations: DOJ Lawsuit Alleges Discriminatory Practices by Bank

New regulations will impose increased inspection, reporting, and maintenance obligations on mortgagees and servicers of defaulted residential mortgage loans in New York.  You can learn more about the regulations of the New York Department of Financial Services for “zombie” properties in Mayer Brown’s latest Legal Update.  The regulations become effective today, December 20, 2016.