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On October 22, the Georgia Supreme Court held that legal settlement cash advances are not “loans” under the state’s Payday Lending Act (PLA) and the Industrial Loan Act (ILA) when the obligation to repay is contingent upon the success of the underlying lawsuit. The decision results from a class action lawsuit bought by clients of a legal funding company. After being involved in automobile accidents, appellants signed financing agreements with a legal funding company, which advanced them funds while their personal injury lawsuit was pending. Per the terms of their financing agreements, appellants were required to repay the funds only if their personal injury lawsuits were successful. They were successful and the settlement company soon sought to recover funds pursuant to the terms of the agreement. The appellants objected and brought suit, alleging, among other things, that the financing agreements they executed violated the state’s PLA and ILA because they were usurious loans and a product of unlicensed activity. The state trial court concluded that the PLA applied to the agreements but that the ILA did not. The state appeals court concluded that neither statute applied, determining that because the repayment obligation was contingent on the success of the lawsuit, it was not a “loan” under either the PLA or the ILA. The state supreme court agreed, holding that “an agreement that involves . . . a contingent and limited obligation of repayment is not a ‘contract requiring repayment,’” as required by the ILA’s definition of “loan.” Similarly, the financing arrangement did not constitute an agreement pursuant to which “funds are advanced to be repaid,” which would make it a loan under the PLA. Appellants also argued that the contingent repayment obligation in the financing agreement was illusory, contending that the legal funding company agrees to such an arrangement only when the risk the lawsuit will fail is “close to null.” The court rejected this claim, however, noting that nothing in the pleadings suggested that the agreements were shams.
On September 30, the California governor signed AB 237, which establishes a pilot program under the California Financing Law with the stated purpose of encouraging lenders to provide affordable small dollar loans to consumers. Significant features of the program include: (i) an increase to the upper limit of a permissible loan, from $2,500 to $7,500; and (ii) the authorized imposition of specified alternative interest rates and charges on unsecured loans of at least $300 and less than $2,500.
Under California’s Pilot Program for Increased Access to Responsible Small Dollar Loans (Pilot Program), licensees who choose to participate in the Pilot Program will be required to apply and pay a specified fee to the Commissioner of Business Oversight (Commissioner). Participating licensees will also be required, among other things, to (i) determine a borrower’s ability to repay the loan, factoring in all verifiable outstanding credit and capping total monthly debt service payments at 50 percent of the borrower’s gross monthly income for loans of $2,500 or less and 36 percent for loans greater than $2,500; (ii) establish terms of 180 days or more for loans with principal balances of at least $1,500, but less than $2,500, upon origination; (iii) establish terms of no less than one year and no more than five years for loans with principal balances exceeding $2,500; (iv) implement policies and procedures for the purpose of answering borrower questions and performing reasonable background checks on any finders associated with the licensee’s participation in the Pilot Program (AB 237 permits approved licensees to use the services or one more finders); and (v) reduce the interest rate of each subsequent loan made to the same borrower by a minimum of one percentage point under certain conditions. In addition, AB 237 allows the Commissioner to charge a licensee certain fees associated with the use of a finder, stipulates examinations requirements for licensees and finders, and establishes deadlines and requirements for the Commissioner when submitting required findings from the Pilot Program. The Pilot Program will run through January 1, 2023.
Governor Brown issued a message in conjunction with his signing AB 237 expressing his concern, among others, that increasing the cap on small dollar loans without also providing stricter regulatory oversight may lead to “unintended consequences.” Governor Brown requested that the state’s Department of Business Oversight “increase their vigilance and more carefully oversee both lenders and finders to ensure their actions comply with existing law.”
On September 28, the FDIC announced a list of administrative enforcement actions taken against banks and individuals in August. Included among the actions is a removal and prohibition and civil money penalty assessment issued against an individual acting as an institution-affiliated party of a New Jersey-based bank for allegedly engaging in unsafe or unsound practices and breaches of fiduciary duty while employed as the bank’s chief lending officer. Among other claims, the respondent allegedly “originated loans and extended the maturity dates on existing loans to borrowers despite their inability to repay the loans, and caused inaccurate past-due reports on the loans to be provided to the Board of Directors of the Bank (Board), thereby preventing the Board from discovering that the borrowers were not making their payments to the Bank on a timely basis.”
Also on the FDIC’s list of August orders are five Section 19 orders, which allow applicants to participate in the affairs of an insured depository institution after having demonstrated “satisfactory evidence of rehabilitation,” six terminations of consent orders, and three terminations of orders for restitution. The FDIC database containing all August enforcement decisions and orders may be accessed here.
There are no administrative hearings scheduled for October 2018.
District Court denies service provider’s motion to dismiss on several grounds, rules Bureau’s structure is constitutional
On August 3, the U.S. District Court for the District of Montana denied a Texas-based service provider’s motion to dismiss a suit brought by the CFPB over allegations that the service provider engaged in unfair, deceptive, and abusive acts or practices in violation of the Consumer Financial Protection Act (CFPA) by assisting three tribal lenders in the improper collection of short-term, small-dollar loans that were, in whole or in part, void under state law. (See previous InfoBytes coverage here.) The defendants moved to dismiss the claims on multiple grounds: (i) the Bureau’s structure is unconstitutional; (ii) the claims are not permitted under the CFPA; (iii) the complaint “fails to, and cannot, join indispensable parties;” and (iv) certain claims are time-barred.
In answering the service provider’s challenges to the Bureau’s constitutionality, the court ruled that the CFPB’s structure is legal and cited to orders from nine district courts and an en banc panel of the D.C. Circuit Court, which also rejected similar arguments. (See Buckley Sandler Special Alert.) Addressing whether the Bureau’s claims were permitted under the CFPA, the court ruled that other courts have held that enforcing a prohibition on amounts that consumers do not owe is different from establishing a usury limit, and that moreover, “[t]he fact that state law may underlie the violation . . . does not relieve [d]efendants . . . of their obligation to comply with the CFPA.” Regarding the defendants’ argument that the complaint should be dismissed on the grounds of failure to join an indispensable party because the tribal lenders possess sovereign immunity to the suit, the court wrote that “[u]nder these circumstances, the Court will not create a means for businesses to avoid regulation by hiding behind the sovereign immunity of tribes when the tribes themselves have failed to claim an interest in the litigation.” Furthermore, the court found that the remedies sought by the Bureau would not “impede the [t]ribal [l]enders’ ability to collect on their contracts or enforce their choice of law provisions directly.” Finally, the court stated that, among other things, the service provider failed to show that the Bureau’s suit fell outside the CFPA’s three-year statute of limitations for filing claims after violations have been identified.
On May 15, the Louisiana governor signed SB171, which amends a state statute that prescribes when a person acquiring or controlling ownership interest in a consumer loan licensee must obtain approval from the state’s commissioner. Under SB171, written approval by the commissioner must now be received for any person acquiring or controlling “ percent or more of the ownership interest in a licensee”—an amount previously set at 50 percent or more. The amendments also strike the requirement that “[a]ny person who acquires or anticipates acquiring a  percent interest in a licensee shall file for a new license prior to acquiring ownership of said interest either incrementally over a period of time or as one transaction.” The amendments became effective upon signature by the governor.
On April 25, the Oklahoma governor signed into law an act that allows lenders to charge borrowers convenience fees for making payments via debit card, electronic funds transfer, electronic checks or other electronic means. SB 1151 provides that the nonrefundable fees shall not exceed the lesser of (i) the actual third party costs incurred by the lender for accepting and processing electronic payments; and (ii) four percent of the electronic payment transaction. Lenders must notify borrowers of the amount of the fee prior to completing a transaction and provide an opportunity to cancel the transaction without a fee. The law takes effect November 1.
On November 9, the CFPB filed a brief with the Supreme Court opposing the petition for a writ of certiorari submitted by online tribal lending entities. The lenders are challenging a January decision by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, which ordered the entities to comply with a CFPB investigation (previously covered by Infobytes). The litigation stems from the issuance of a civil investigative demand (CID) by the CFPB to online lending entities owned by Native American tribes. The entities argue that due to tribal sovereignty, the CFPB does not have jurisdiction over the small-dollar lending services in question. The district court and the Ninth Circuit concluded that the Consumer Financial Protection Act (CFPA) did not expressly exclude tribes from the CFPB’s enforcement authority and therefore, the entities cannot claim tribal sovereign immunity.
In its brief opposing the certiorari petition, the CFPB argues that the Ninth Circuit’s holding does not conflict with any prior Supreme Court or court of appeals decision, making further review unwarranted. The CFPB also argues, among other things, that Supreme Court review is unnecessary because “[t]he question at this juncture is solely whether the Bureau may obtain information from petitioners pursuant to a CID,” not “whether petitioners are subject to the Bureau’s regulatory authority.”
On November 6, the Federal Reserve Board (Fed) released its October 2017 Senior Loan Officer Opinion Survey on Bank Lending Practices. Responses came from both domestic banks and U.S. branches and agencies of foreign banks, and focused on bank loans made to businesses and households over the past three months. The October survey results indicated that over the third quarter of 2017, on balance, lenders eased their standards on commercial and industrial loans with demand for such loans decreasing. However, lenders left their standards on commercial real estate (CRE) loans unchanged and reported that demand for CRE loans weakened. As to loans to households, banks reported that standards for all categories of residential real estate (RRE) lending “either eased or remained basically unchanged,” and that the demand for RRE loans also weakened.
The survey also included two sets of special questions addressing changes in household lending conditions.
The first set of these special questions asked banks to specify the reasons for changing this year their credit policies on credit card and auto loans to prime and subprime borrowers. Respondents’ most reported reasons for tightening standards or terms on these types of loans were (i) “a less favorable or more uncertain economic outlook”; (ii) “a deterioration or expected deterioration in the quality of their existing loan portfolio”; and (iii) “a reduced tolerance for risk.” Auto loan reasons also focused on “less favorable or more uncertain expectations regarding collateral values.”
The second set of these special questions asked banks for their views as to why they have experienced stronger or weaker demand for credit card and auto loans over this year. Respondents’ reported that a strengthening of demand for credit card and auto loans from prime borrowers could be attributed to customers’ confidence as well as their improved ability to manage debt service burdens. The most reported reasons for weakened demand for credit card and auto loans from prime borrowers were an increase in interest rates and a shift in customers’ borrowing “from their bank to other bank or nonbank sources.”
For additional details see:
- Table 1 – Opinion Survey on Bank Lending Practices at Selected Large Banks in the U.S.
- Table 2 – Opinion Survey on Bank Lending Practices at Selected Branches & Agencies of Foreign Banks
- Charts – Measures of Supply and Demand for Commercial & Industrial Loans
On July 7, the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency (OCC) announced the release of its Semiannual Risk Perspective for Spring 2017 indicating key risk areas for national banks and federal savings associations. Acting Comptroller of the Currency Keith Noreika pointed out in his remarks that, “[w]hile these are risks that the system faces as a whole, we note that the risks differ from bank to bank based on size, region, and business model. Compliance, governance, and operational risk issues remain leading risk issues for large banks while strategic, credit, and compliance risks remain the leading issues for midsize and community banks.”
The report details the four top risk areas:
- Elevated strategic risk—banks are expanding into new products and services as a result of fintech competition. According to the report, this competition is increasing potential risks. The OCC hopes to finish developing a special purpose banking charter for fintech companies soon.
- Increased compliance risk—banks must comply with anti-money laundering rules and the Bank Secrecy Act in addition to addressing increased cybersecurity challenges and new consumer protection laws.
- Upswing in credit risk—underwriting standards for commercial and retail loans have been relaxed as banks exhibit greater enthusiasm for risk and attempt to maintain loan market share as competition increases.
- Rise in operational risk—banks face increasingly complex cyber threats while relying on third-party service providers, which may be targets for hackers.
The report used data for the 12 months ending December 31, 2016.
FTC Announces Settlement of More Than $104 Million with Company for Selling Sensitive Financial Information
On July 5, the FTC issued a press release announcing a settlement of more than $104 million with a lead generation company for allegedly misleading loan applicants with promises of matching consumers with lenders that could offer the best loan terms. Actually, the FTC asserts, defendants were selling the applications, including sensitive personal information such as Social Security numbers and bank account numbers, to anyone who would pay for them “without regard for how the information would be used or whether it would remain secure.”
The proposed order accompanying the settlement states that defendants used deceptive and unfair acts or practices in the course of their lead generation activities, and permanently prohibits defendants from misrepresenting financial products or services to consumers. It also enjoins defendants from selling or transferring a consumer’s personal information unless the consumer has provided consent and provides that defendants may not benefit from any consumer information collected before the entry of the order. Further, defendants must destroy all personal consumer information in any form within 30 days after the order.
In addition to the above settlement terms, the defendants agreed to (i) compliance monitoring, (ii) creating certain records for ten years after the date of entry of the order, and (iii) compliance reporting
Although defendants have filed for bankruptcy, they agreed that the amount owed to the FTC in the settlement will not be dischargeable.