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Nearly seven months into Mick Mulvaney’s tenure as Acting Director of the Bureau of Consumer Financial Protection (Bureau), the agency issued just its second enforcement action under his leadership on June 13, 2018. You may have missed it, as the press release was not pushed out through the Bureau’s email notifications and the cursory press release may have flown under your radar. The settlement is with a parent company and its subsidiaries that originated, provided, purchased, serviced, and collected on high-cost, short-term secured and unsecured consumer loans. The consent order contains allegations of violations of the prohibition on unfair practices under the Consumer Financial Protection Act and of the Fair Credit Reporting Act, and requires the respondents to pay a $5 million civil money penalty. Notably, the consent order does not require any consumer redress, despite Mr. Mulvaney’s stated intent to only pursue cases with “quantifiable and unavoidable” harm to consumers.

Debt Collection Practices

The Bureau alleges that respondents engaged in unfair in-person debt collection practices, including discussing debts in public, leaving the respondents’ “field cards” (presumably identifying the respondents) with third parties (including the consumers’ children and neighbors), and visiting consumers’ places of employment. The Bureau alleges that these practices were unfair because they caused substantial injury such as humiliation, inconvenience, and reputational damage; consumers could not reasonably avoid the harm because consumers were not informed of whether and when such visits would occur and could not stop respondents from engaging in the visits; and any potential benefit in the form of recoveries were outweighed by the substantial injury to consumers. The consent order notes that respondent attempted 12 million in-person visits to more than 1.3 million consumers over a five-year period, and requires respondents to cease in-person collection visits at consumers’ homes, places of employment, and public places.

The Bureau also alleges that the respondents made collection calls to consumers at their places of employment even after being told that the consumers could not receive calls at work, and called third parties in a manner that risked disclosing the debts. The Bureau further alleges that respondents did not heed cease-contact requests with respect to these parties. The Bureau alleges that such practices were unfair for the same reasons as the in-person collection practices described above.

Despite Mr. Mulvaney’s emphatic rejection of regulation by enforcement, the debt collection allegations in this consent order center around practices that lack any formal rulemaking. First, it appears that the Bureau is applying the guidance issued in its December 2015 bulletin, regarding unfair, deceptive and abusive acts and practices (UDAAP), which notes that in-person debt collection practices at consumers’ homes or places of employment can result in violations of the prohibition on UDAAP and the FDCPA due to the risk of disclosure of debts to third parties and the risk that such communications are at a time or place known to be inconvenient to the consumer. Second, the Bureau appears to be applying its July 2013 bulletin, which notes that prohibited practices under the FDCPA can be considered UDAAPs when employed by first-party debt collectors. Finally, the allegations suggest that the Bureau believes that debt collectors should inform consumers of their policies or practices regarding in-person collection visits despite no regulatory requirement to do so.

Credit Furnishing Practices

The Bureau alleges that respondents did not have in place any written policies and procedures regarding credit furnishing. The Bureau further alleges that the respondents furnished inaccurate information to credit reporting agencies, were slow to correct errors, overwrote corrected errors, and failed to furnish the date of first delinquency on certain accounts to credit reporting agencies. The consent order requires the respondents to consult an independent consultant to implement and maintain reasonable credit furnishing policies and procedures and to review all information furnished to a credit reporting agency since July 21, 2011.

More of the Same?

The settlement has many of the familiar trappings of the old Bureau in terms of the kind of conduct at issue and the corrective action required of the respondents (a Compliance Plan, etc.). But the consent order also reflects what appear to be new approaches to some issues. The consent order’s description of how the respondents’ actions were unfair, for example, is more fulsome than prior consent orders, including an acknowledgement that the collection tactics at issue may have a “marginal benefit in the form of more recoveries.” While this suggests that Mr. Mulvaney’s Bureau may be more thoroughly considering the third prong of unfairness (which requires a balancing of likely consumer injury with advantages to consumers or competition) than the previous leadership, the consent order still summarily concludes that the “marginal benefit” does not outweigh likely consumer injury. This conclusion is not supported by any empirical findings, notwithstanding Mr. Mulvaney’s assertion that the Bureau will engage in more quantitative analysis and his establishment of an Office of Cost Benefit Analysis. Time will tell whether the move to empirical analysis will be limited to rulemaking or will make its way to the enforcement realm as well.

Additionally, despite the allegations of substantial injury from the debt collection conduct at issue, the consent order does not require any financial consumer redress or cancellation of debts for impacted consumers. While the Bureau has been inconsistent in this regard in its past debt collection actions, it has typically required such consumer redress. For example, in a prior action involving in-person debt collection, the Bureau required that consumers be refunded any payments made within 90 days of an in-person collection visit.

It is dangerous to read too much into any one enforcement action, but what does appear clear is that the Bureau’s enforcement machinery is slowly creaking back to life after a near-freeze at the beginning of Mr. Mulvaney’s tenure. Future actions will reveal whether he was serious about there being “more math” (i.e., quantitative analysis) in the Bureau’s future and whether this action reflects a new approach to consumer redress.

Despite changes in leadership at numerous federal agencies, Washington D.C. continues to focus on lending to servicemembers. In December, Congress extended the time period for protections against foreclosure under the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act. Otherwise, those protections would have expired at the end of 2017.

In addition, the Department of Defense recently amended its Military Lending Act interpretive rule. Among other topics, the amendments address loans to purchase a motor vehicle or other property, and the extent to which the Act’s requirements exempt loans that finance amounts in addition to the purchase price.

Read more in Mayer Brown’s Legal Update.

In an email to staff, Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) Director Richard Cordray announced on Wednesday, November 15, that he will be stepping down this month.  His departure was widely anticipated.  Because the CFPB is headed by a single director – as opposed to a 5-member commission – the agency’s director wields enormous power. Below we address some of the most frequently asked questions regarding Director Cordray’s resignation.

Continue Reading CFPB Director Richard Cordray to Step Down

On October 5th, the CFPB finalized its long-awaited payday lending rule, reportedly five years in the making. The final rule is substantially similar to the proposal the Bureau issued last year. However, the Bureau decided not to finalize requirements for longer-term high-cost installment loans, choosing to focus only on short-term loans and longer-term loans with a balloon payment feature.

The final rule will be become effective in mid-summer 2019, 21 months after it is published in the Federal Register (except that provisions facilitating “registered information systems” to which creditors will report information regarding loans subject to the new ability-to-repay requirements become effective 60 days after publication).

The final rule identifies two practices as unfair and abusive: (1) making a covered short-term loan or longer-term balloon payment loan without determining that the consumer has the ability to repay; and (2) absent express consumer authorization, making attempts to withdraw payments from a consumer’s account after two consecutive payments have failed. Continue Reading CFPB’s Final Payday Lending Rule: The Long and Short of It

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.

Pay-by-phone fees continue to attract the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau’s attention. Compliance Bulletin 2017-01, issued on July 27, 2017, indicates that the following acts or practices may constitute unfair, deceptive, or abusive acts or practices (“UDAAP”) or contribute to the risk of committing UDAAPs:

  1. Failing to disclose the prices of all available phone pay fees when different payment options carry materially different fees;
  2. Misrepresenting the available options or that a fee is required to pay by phone;
  3. Failing to disclose that a phone pay fee would be added to a consumer’s payment, which could create the misimpression that there is no service fee; and
  4. Lack of employee monitoring or service provider oversight, which may lead to misrepresentations or failure to disclose available options and fees.

The Bureau has previously raised concerns about phone pay fees. In a 2014 enforcement action, the Bureau and the Federal Trade Commission alleged that a mortgage servicer engaged in deceptive acts or practices by misrepresenting that the only payment method consumers could use to make timely payments was a particular method that required a convenience fee. In 2015, the Bureau took action against a bank for allegedly misrepresenting that a phone pay fee was a processing fee rather than a fee to enable the payment to post on the same day. The bank also allegedly failed to disclose other no-cost payment options. This week’s Bulletin 2017-01 suggests that companies should disclose such fees in writing to consumers, as opposed to relying solely on phone representatives to  explain the fees to consumers.

Bulletin 2017-01 also reiterates that certain practices in connection with phone pay fees may conflict with the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (“FDCPA”). For example, Bureau examiners have found alleged violations of the FDCPA where the underlying consumer debt contract did not expressly permit the charging of phone pay fees and where the applicable state law was silent on the fees’ permissibility. The Bureau indicated last year that it may propose rules under the FDCPA to clarify that debt collectors may charge convenience fees only where state law expressly permits them or the consumer expressly agreed to them in the contract that created the underlying debt.

The Bulletin recommends that companies review their phone pay fee practices, including reviewing applicable state and federal laws, underlying debt contracts, service provider procedures, other consumer-facing materials, consumer complaints, and employee incentive plans for potential risks.

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) marks its fifth birthday having made a substantial mark on the consumer financial services marketplace. To mark this event, we have compiled a retrospective of the CFPB’s first five years. The retrospective provides an overview of the CFPB’s actions in the realms of rulemaking, supervision, and enforcement. While it would be difficult to chronicle all of the CFPB’s activities over that period, the articles in the retrospective provide a snapshot of the rules the CFPB has written or proposed, the supervision program it has implemented, and the enforcement actions it has taken across the landscape of consumer financial services. Some of the articles appeared previously on this blog, others appeared as Mayer Brown Legal Updates, and many are new analyses or summaries of the CFPB’s actions.  Read the retrospective, available here.

 

Tomorrow the CFPB will issue an interim final rule that will increase the maximum amount of civil penalties that the CFPB and certain other enforcers can obtain for various consumer protection violations.  The maximum amount for most CFPB civil penalties will increase by about 8%.

A budget bill passed last year instructed federal agencies, including the CFPB, to make a one-time “catch-up” inflation adjustment to the civil penalties that they impose, based on the Consumer Price Index (CPI) in October of the “year during which the amount of such civil monetary penalty was established or [last] adjusted….”  This will be followed by regular inflation adjustments by January 15 of every year.

Most CFPB civil penalties for violations of the various laws that the CFPB administers are assessed under Section 1055(c) of the Dodd-Frank Act.  Because the Dodd-Frank Act was enacted in 2010, the CFPB takes the position that the baseline for the “catch up” should be the CPI in October 2010.  This will result in an 8.475% increase, meaning that that maximum amount will be $5,437 for any “Tier 1” violation; $27,186 for any “Tier 2” violation, which requires recklessness; or $1,087,450 for any “Tier 3” violation, which requires knowledge.  These amounts are calculated “for each day during which such violation continues.”  The CFPB is also adjusting certain other civil penalty authorities that are less commonly used.

Notably, the interim final rule provides that the adjustments “shall apply to civil penalties assessed after [the effective date], regardless of when the violation for which the penalty is assessed occurred.”  The effective date is scheduled to be July 14, 2016.  Thus, the CFPB takes the position that the increased civil penalties will be available for violations that have already occurred, even if they occurred several years ago.

On June 2, 2016, the CFPB proposed new ability-to-repay and payment processing requirements for short-term and certain longer-term consumer loans.  Relying largely on the CFPB’s authority to prohibit unfair or abusive practices, the proposal would generally require that lenders making payday, vehicle title, and certain high-rate installment loans either originate loans satisfying strict product characteristic limitations set by the rule or make an ability-to-repay determination based on verified income and other information.

To facilitate the ability-to-repay determination, the CFPB is also proposing to establish special “registered information systems” to which lenders would have to report information about these loans.  In addition, servicers would have to obtain new payment authorizations from consumers after making two consecutive unsuccessful attempts at extracting payment from consumer accounts, and would be subject to new disclosure requirements related to payment processing. Continue Reading CFPB Proposes Underwriting and Payment Processing Requirements for Payday, Title, and High-Rate Installment Loans