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On March 21, Federal Trade Commission (FTC) Acting Chairman Maureen K. Ohlhausen and Commissioner Terrell McSweeny testified before the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation’s Subcommittee on Consumer Protection, Product Safety, and Data Security to describe the agency’s law enforcement work to combat fraud. The testimony noted that in the past year, the agency obtained judgments of more than $11.9 billion to consumers “harmed by deceptive and unfair business practices” and received more than three million consumer complaints. Commissioner Terrell McSweeny noted that the “top three categories of complaints were debt collection, impostor frauds, and identity theft,” and that for the first time “imposter scam complaints . . . surpassed the number of identity theft complaints.” FTC Acting Chairman Maureen K. Ohlhausen also presented testimony and emphasized two populations in particular—military consumers and small businesses—both of whom are attractive targets for fraudsters, and for whom the agency actively works with to provide fraud recognition tools to prevent future victims. Also discussed at the hearing was the creation of the Office of Technology Research and Investigation to help the agency “keep abreast of technology changes affecting consumers” as well as the agency’s fraud prevention and education outreach initiatives that impact “tens of millions of people and businesses each year.”
On March 23, the CFPB ordered a nationwide credit reporting company and its subsidiaries to pay $3 million for allegedly deceiving consumers about how credit scores they marketed and sold were used by lenders. The consent order claims the company developed its own proprietary credit scoring model (PLUS Score), which was used to generate credit scores from information in a consumer’s credit file. The company then allegedly deceptively marketed and sold the “educational” credit score as the same type of score lenders use to make credit decisions, when in fact lenders did not use the scores. Moreover, there were instances of significant discrepancies between the “educational” credit scores that the company sold to consumers and the actual credit scores used by the lenders. The Bureau also alleges the company—up until March 2014—violated the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA) by requiring consumers to view advertisements before they could access their credit reports. Pursuant to the consent order, the company must pay a $3 million civil money penalty, truthfully inform consumers about the nature of the credit scores it sells, and develop and implement an effective compliance management system to ensure its advertising practices comply with federal consumer laws. As previously reported in InfoBytes, earlier this year the CFPB issued consent orders against two different nationwide credit reporting companies for similar allegations.
On March 15, the Office of Inspector General for the Board of Governors for the Federal Reserve Board and Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (OIG) issued its findings in the evaluation report titled The CFPB Can Strengthen Its Controls for Identifying and Avoiding Conflicts of Interest Related to Vendor Activities (the Report), stemming from an evaluation of the risk of potential conflicts of interest when using vendors to support fair lending compliance and enforcement analysis. The Report covers the time period of June 2012 through January 2016. To assist the CFPB’s Office of Fair Lending and Equal Opportunity’s fair lending oversight function, the Bureau contracted with vendors to “conduct statistical analysis designed to assess an institution’s compliance with fair lending laws and to serve as an expert witness when needed.” The function of the evaluation was to assess whether the Bureau effectively identified and avoided the risk of potential conflicts of interest for vendors supporting this type of work. Notably, while the OIG concluded that the Bureau’s relationship with one vendor heightened the risk of possible conflicts of interest and increased the need for timelier vendor disclosures and communications—a vendor took nearly two years to disclose a relationship with a firm included on a CFPB task order but later confirmed no work was performed—no actual conflicts of interest were found in its evaluation. The OIG presented the following recommendations:
- Ensure vendors comply with existing documentation requirements;
- Clarify roles and responsibilities; and
- Improve the facilitation of vendor disclosure of potential conflicts or receive affirmation that conflicts do not exist at the start of every task order.
Furthermore, the OIG recommended evaluating the costs and benefits of performing more fair lending analysis internally, which may effectively mitigate such risks
On March 20, the CFPB issued a request for comment on its plan for assessing the effectiveness of its May 2013 final rule governing consumer remittance transfers. According to a March 17 blog post on the CFPB’s website, the self-assessment—which is required under Section 1022(d) of the Dodd-Frank Act—will focus on, among other things: (i) “whether the market for remittances has evolved . . . in ways that promote access, efficiency, and limited market disruption”; and (ii) whether the Remittance Rule (and other CFPB regulatory activity) has “brought more information, transparency, and greater predictability of prices to the market.” In describing the approach it planned to take in conducting its evaluation, the CFPB explained that it would seek to “compare consumer outcomes to a baseline that would exist if the Remittance Rule’s requirements were not in effect.” Comments on the plan will be due 60 days following the notice’s publication in the Federal Register.
House Financial Services Committee Holds Hearing to Consider the “Unconstitutional Structure of the CFPB”
On March 21, the Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee of the House Financial Services Committee held a hearing entitled “The Bureau of Consumer Financial Protection's (CFPB's) Unconstitutional Design.” The majority staff memorandum issued prior to hearing stated that its purpose was to: (i) “examine whether the structure of the [CFPB] violates the Constitution,” and (ii) consider potential “structural changes to the Bureau to resolve any constitutional infirmities.”
Chairwoman Rep. Ann Wagner (R-Mo.) introduced the proceeding by describing the CFPB as a “an unconstitutional behemoth” with a 'Washington knows best' mindset,” that “side-steps accountability to Congress and the President.” Three of the four witnesses called to testify before the panel shared the general position that the CFPB is unconstitutional as currently structured.
- The Honorable Theodore Olson , a partner at Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher LLP and lead counsel for PHH in its suit against the CFPB, shared his personal opinion that the Bureau, “[m]ore than any other administrative agency ever created by Congress,” is “far outside of our constitutional structure, holds the potential for tyrannical governance, and obscures the lines of governmental accountability. [T]he CFPB’s structure is the product of aggregating some of the most democratically unaccountable and power-centralizing features of the federal government’s administrative state.” Particularly with respect to the President, Mr. Olson noted that “by preventing the President from removing the head of the Bureau except for very limited circumstances,” the President is effectively “stripped of the power to faithfully execute the laws in these circumstances.”
- Professor Saikrishna Prakash, a Law Professor at the University of Virginia School of Law questioned the Bureau’s constitutionality, characterizing the Director of the CFPB as “the second most powerful officer in the government for he serves under no one’s supervision, enjoys a vast budget not subject to the appropriations process, and exerts enormous influence over several prominent aspects of the economy.”
- Adam White, a Research Fellow with the Hoover Institution similarly urged Congress to reform the CFPB while also cautioning against allowing the “CFPB’s original structure to . . . become the new benchmark for the next generation of ‘independent agencies.’”
Meanwhile, offering several arguments in support of the Bureau’s current structure was Brianne Gorod – a public interest attorney who has helped prepare briefing in the PHH v CFPB matter on behalf of “current and former members of Congress, who were sponsors of Dodd-Frank” and “participated in drafting it,” and “serve or served on committees with jurisdiction over the [CFPB].” (See, e.g., Motion for Leave to Intervene in Support of the CFPB). Ms. Gorod argued, among other things, that “the President’s ability to remove the Director [of the CFPB] only for cause does not ‘impede the President’s ability to perform his constitutional duty[,]’” but rather, to the contrary, “provides the Executive with substantial ability to ensure that the laws are ‘faithfully executed.’” For this reason and others, Ms. Gorod argued that “the CFPB’s leadership structure . . . is consistent with the text and history of the Constitution, as well as Supreme Court precedent.”
CFPB’s Credit Union Advisory Council to Hold Public Meeting on March 30; Will Discuss Alternative Data and Consumer Access to Financial Records
In a Notice of Public Meeting published in the March 14 Federal Register, the CFPB announced that its Credit Union Advisory Council will hold a public meeting on March 30 from 3:15 to 4:45 pm EDT. According to the Notice, the Advisory Council plans to focus on “alternative data and consumer access to financial records.” Attendees should RSVP by noon on March 29.
On March 17, the Trump Administration’s Department of Justice (“DOJ”) filed its amicus brief in the D.C. Circuit’s en banc review of the CFPB’s enforcement action against PHH Corporation for alleged violations of the Real Estate Settlement Procedures Act (“RESPA”). In October 2016, a panel of the D.C. Circuit concluded that the CFPB misinterpreted RESPA and that its single-Director structure violated the constitutional separation of powers. The DOJ brief states that, “[w]hile we do not agree with all of the reasoning in the panel’s opinion,” the DOJ agrees with the panel’s conclusion that “a removal restriction for the Director of the CFPB is an unwarranted limitation on the President’s executive power” and that “the panel correctly concluded … that the proposed remedy for the constitutional violation is to sever the provision limiting the President’s authority to remove the CFPB’s Director, not to declare the entire agency and its operations unconstitutional.”
Like the brief filed in this case by the Obama Administration DOJ before the change in administration, the current DOJ brief states that “[t]he United States takes no position on the statutory issues in this case, but in the event that the ultimate resolution of those issues results in vacatur of the CFPB’s order [against PHH], it is within this Court’s discretion to avoid ruling on the constitutional question.” However, the brief goes on to state that, because the issue is already before the en banc court and the “question is likely to recut in pending and future cases, it would be appropriate for the Court to provide needed clarity by exercising its discretion to resolve the separation-of-powers issue now.”
On March 16, the U.S. House of Representatives Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations announced it will hold a hearing on Tuesday, March 21, at 10:00 a.m., entitled “The Bureau of Consumer Financial Protection’s Unconstitutional Design.” According to a March 16 Committee Memorandum, the hearing—which will be held in room 2128 of the Rayburn House Office Building—will examine, among other things, “whether the structure of the CFPB (Bureau) violates the Constitution as well as structural changes to the Bureau to resolve any constitutional infirmities.” The following witnesses are scheduled to testify:
- The Honorable Theodore Olson, Partner, Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher LLP
- Professor Saikrishna Prakash, James Monroe Distinguished Professor, University of Virginia School of Law
- Mr. Adam White, Research Fellow, Hoover Institution
- Ms. Brianne Gorod, Chief Counsel, Constitution Accountability Center
In February, Rep. Mia Love (R-Utah) introduced the Stop Debt Collection Abuse Act of 2017 (H.R. 864)—legislation seeking to extend the scope of the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (“FDCPA”) to cover the activities of private debt collectors working on behalf of federal government agencies. Specifically, the proposed bill expands the definition of debt subject to the FDCPA to cover obligations—including loans, overpayments, fines, past-due penalties, and late fees—owed to a federal agency. Under the proposed new law, a debt collector includes any person who regularly collects debts currently or originally owed or allegedly owed to a federal agency. Moreover, the bill also requires that any fees charged by private debt collectors seeking to collect debt owed to a federal agency are limited to: (i) reasonable amounts in relation to the actual costs of the collection; (ii) fees authorized by a contract between the debt collector and the federal agency; and (iii) amounts not greater than 10 percent of the amount collected by the debt collector. H.R. 864, which is currently pending before the House committee on Financial Services, is co-sponsored by Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), French Hill (R-Ark.), and Emanuel Cleaver II (D-Mo.).
On March 14, the FTC announced that it reached a settlement with a Los-Angeles-based auto dealership group over charges that the group engaged in deceptive and unfair sales and financing practices, deceptive advertising, and deceptive online reviews. The settlement, in the form of a stipulated final order, requires that the auto group pay more than $3.6 million in consumer remediation and is pending approval by the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California. The complaint, which was filed in September of last year, also alleged the defendants participated in deceptive and unfair practices related to add-on products that consumers did not authorize. Furthermore, the FTC claimed the defendants violated TILA and Regulation Z, as well as the Consumer Leasing Act and Regulation M, for “failing to clearly disclose required credit information and lease information in their advertising.” The proposed settlement order prohibits “the defendants from making misrepresentations relating to their advertising, add-on products, financing, and endorsements or testimonials,” and also bars “the defendants from engaging in other unlawful conduct when a sale is cancelled.”