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On December 7, the U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland granted a motion for summary judgment filed by a real estate team and title company (defendants), finding that an alleged kickback scheme involving the defendants did not constitute a violation of RESPA, and that the plaintiffs failed to demonstrate that they suffered from any concrete harm. According to the court, the plaintiffs filed a suit on behalf of a putative class more than four and a half years after they purchased their home, claiming the defendants violated RESPA by allegedly “using a ‘sham’ marketing agreement . . . to disguise an illegal kickback scheme,” which provided the real estate team with “unearned fees” through settlement referrals to the title company. The plaintiffs further argued that they were entitled to equitable tolling because the kickback scheme was allegedly concealed in an undisclosed marketing and services agreement, and that even if the agreement had been disclosed, it would have seemingly appeared to be valid. However, the court found “no genuine issue of material fact that the [p]laintiffs failed to exercise reasonable diligence to discover their claim” because at the time of closing, “they knew that they could choose their own settlement and title company” but elected not to. In addition, the court disagreed with the plaintiffs’ argument that they had Article III standing because they were “deprived of impartial and fair competition between settlement services,” finding that the plaintiffs were not overcharged for services due to the alleged kickback scheme and failed to show that the costs of settlement services were unnecessarily increased.
Moreover, the court found that the plaintiffs (i) did not inquire about a potential relationship between the defendants; (ii) did not claim dissatisfaction with the title company services provided; and (iii) did not claim that the fees paid to the title company were “unreasonable or undeserved.” Furthermore, the court found that the claim was barred by RESPA’s one-year statute of limitations and that equitable tolling did not apply.
On November 7, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit affirmed a grant of summary judgment in favor of a mortgage servicer. The court, noting the District Court had concluded there was insufficient evidence to support a claim the servicer had violated RESPA, affirmed the lower court decision that even if such a violation had occurred, the homeowner plaintiff failed to demonstrate any actual harm from the servicer’s alleged failure to fully respond to his qualified written request (QWR). According to the opinion, in November 2012, a state court entered a judgment of foreclosure against a homeowner who struggled to make payments on his mortgage loan; and after numerous reschedulings due to bankruptcy filings, a sheriff sale was set to be conducted in October 2016. In August 2016, the homeowner sent a letter to his mortgage servicer with “twenty-two wide-ranging questions about his account.” The mortgage servicer treated the letter as a QWR under RESPA, acknowledged receipt of the letter and stated it would provide a substantive response by September 30, the deadline under the statute. Two days prior to the statutory deadline, the homeowner and his wife filed a lawsuit against the mortgage servicer, alleging violations of RESPA and Wisconsin law for failing to respond to the QWR, which they argued, would have provided information to assist in their fight against forthcoming sheriff’s sale. The mortgage servicer mailed a response on September 30, consisting of a three-page letter and 58 pages of attachments, which addressed “most of [the homeowner]’s questions to some degree, but not all of them,” and also invited further information from the homeowner to consider further responses. The district court granted the mortgage servicer’s motion for summary judgment, concluding that the homeowner failed to provide evidence the mortgage servicer violated RESPA or state law and failed to show how any alleged failure, even had it occurred, caused harm.
On appeal, the 7th Circuit determined the homeowner had standing to sue the mortgage servicer but his wife did not, as she had no legal interest in the property. As for the alleged RESPA violation, assuming such a violation occurred, the court concluded that the homeowner failed to establish an actual harm that resulted from the mortgage servicer’s alleged violation. Specifically, the appeals court disagreed with the homeowner that the fees paid to an attorney to review the mortgage servicer’s response “could be a cost incurred as a result of an alleged violation” of RESPA. The appeals court also rejected claims of damages for physical and emotional distress because the homeowner’s “stress had essentially nothing to do with any arguable RESPA violations.”
Court approves $17 million class action settlement with mortgage company and real estate service companies for alleged RESPA violations
On August 27, the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California approved a class action settlement agreement resolving allegations against a national mortgage company and a real estate services family of companies (defendants) for allegedly arranging kickbacks for unlawful referrals of title services in violation of RESPA. As previously covered by InfoBytes, the 2015 complaint accused the defendants of violating RESPA by allegedly facilitating the exchange of unlawful referral fees and kickbacks through an affiliated business arrangement, while also directing various banks to refer title insurance and other settlement services to a subsidiary in the family of real estate services companies without informing customers of the relationship between the entities. In a stipulation of settlement filed in 2017 alongside a motion for preliminary approval, defendants indicated that they continued “to deny each and all of the claims and contentions alleged in the [a]ction . . . [but] have concluded that the further conduct of the [a]ction against them would be protracted and expensive.” The stipulation further noted that “substantial amounts of time, energy and resources have been and, unless this [s]ettlement is made, will continue to be devoted to the defense of the claims asserted in the [a]ction.”
The approved settlement class encompasses more than 32,000 transactions related to borrowers who closed on mortgage loans originated by the mortgage company between approximately November 2014 through November 2015, and who paid any title, escrow or closing related charges to the real estate services companies. The defendants will pay $17 million into a settlement fund, which covers payment to class members as well as attorney’s fees and costs.
1st Circuit holds homeowners who defaulted on an allegedly unlicensed mortgage loan cannot escape time bars for their claims
On August 23, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 1st Circuit held that homeowners who defaulted on a refinance loan on their Massachusetts property could not void the transaction or enjoin their property’s foreclosure sale. The appellate court determined that the homeowners’ claims that the lender violated the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, the Real Estate Settlement Procedures Act, the Truth in Lending Act, and the Massachusetts consumer protection statute were all time-barred. The homeowners argued that the statute of limitations never began to run because the lender was not licensed to lend money in the state, making the original note and mortgage “akin to forgeries and thus ‘void ab initio,’” but the court held that there was “no authority for this unusual proposition.” The court also refused to toll the limitations period under the doctrine of fraudulent concealment, which requires the plaintiff “to make a threshold showing of due diligence,” because the homeowners filed their claims more than five years after they retained counsel and ten years after they granted the mortgage at issue.
On August 14, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois held that RESPA (and its implementing Regulation X) does not require a plaintiff to wait until a property is foreclosed upon to bring an action for a violation of Regulation X’s loss mitigation requirements. The plaintiff filed a complaint against her mortgage servicer for (among other claims) allegedly violating RESPA when the company initiated a foreclosure action while she had a pending loss mitigation application, even though the company did not ultimately foreclose on the property. The company moved to dismiss the RESPA claim as unripe and the court disagreed, finding there is no language in the statute or implementing regulation that states a plaintiff must wait. Conversely, the implementing regulation “expressly states that the prohibited action is a servicer making ‘the first notice or filing required by applicable law…’” and, therefore, the plaintiff’s claim did not fail for lack of ripeness. The court ultimately dismissed the plaintiff’s action against the company, however, finding the plaintiff did not adequately plead actual damages, and granted the plaintiff leave to file an amended complaint.
On June 7, acting Director of the CFPB, Mick Mulvaney, dismissed the Bureau’s action against PHH, which spawned years of litigation and a constitutional challenge to the CFPB’s structure. In January, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit issued its en banc decision concluding the CFPB’s structure is constitutional but affirmed the October 2016 panel opinion that the CFPB misinterpreted RESPA and its statute of limitations (covered by a Buckley Sandler Special Alert). The $109 million penalty imposed on PHH by the CFPB was vacated and the case was sent back to CFPB leadership for review. On June 6, in response to an order by Mulvaney, PHH and the Bureau’s enforcement counsel filed a joint statement addressing whether further proceedings were necessary and jointly recommended dismissal of the matter.
On June 6, Mulvaney reportedly removed all current members of the Consumer Advisory Board (CAB), the Community Bank Advisory Council (CBAC), and the Credit Union Advisory Council (CUAC). In a blog post, the Bureau’s policy associate director for external affairs noted that the changes to the advisory boards were in response to the comments received from the Bureau’s Request for Information (RFI) on external engagements (previously covered by InfoBytes here). The comment period for the RFI closed on May 29. According to the blog, the Bureau will still continue its statutory obligation under the Dodd-Frank Act to convene the CAB and provide forums for the CBAC and the CUAC. The councils will be re-staffed with a smaller membership from the 2018 application and selection process. The changes come only a few days after it was reported that Mulvaney canceled his meeting with the CAB for the second time since he took on the acting director role.
On May 24, the OCC released its Semiannual Risk Perspective for Spring 2018, identifying and reiterating key risk areas that pose a threat to the safety and soundness of national banks and federal savings associations. Priorities focus on credit, operational, compliance, and interest risk, and while the OCC commented on the improved financial performance of banks from 2016 to early 2018, in addition to the “incremental improvement in banks’ overall risk management practices,” the agency also noted that risks previously highlighted in its Fall 2017 report have “changed only modestly.” (See previous InfoBytes coverage here.)
Specific areas of concern noted by the OCC include: (i) easing of commercial credit underwriting practices; (ii) increasing complexity and severity of cybersecurity threats; (iii) use of third-party service providers for critical operations; (iv) compliance challenges under the Bank Secrecy Act; (v) challenges in risk management involving consumer compliance regulations; and (vi) rising market interest rates, including certain risks associated with the “potential effects of rising interest rates, increasing competition for retail and commercial deposits, and post-crisis liquidity regulations for banks with total assets of $250 billion or more, on the mix and cost of deposits.” Additionally, concerns related to integrated mortgage disclosure requirements under TILA and RESPA previously considered a key risk have been downgraded to an issue to be monitored.
District court sanctions banker for violating consent order issued by CFPB and Maryland Attorney General
On May 21, the U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland granted in part and denied in part a motion for sanctions brought by the CFPB and the Consumer Protection Division of the Maryland Attorney General’s Office (plaintiffs) against a banker (defendant) previously held in civil contempt for violating a final judgment order prohibiting him from participating in the mortgage industry. As previously covered in InfoBytes, in April 2015, a joint enforcement action alleging participation in a mortgage-kickback scheme in violation of RESPA and state law was bought against the defendant, five other individuals, and a Maryland title company. According to the 2018 sanctions order, a stipulated final judgment and order between the parties was approved in November 2015, which, among other things, limited the defendant—who neither admitted nor denied the allegations—from participating in the mortgage industry for two years but did not prohibit him “from acting solely as a personnel or human-resources manager for a mortgage business operated by a FDIC insured banking institution. . . .”
However, in August 2017, the court held the defendant in civil contempt for failing to comply with the order when it was discovered that the defendant (i) owned and operated mortgage businesses in violation of the order, while claiming to be employed as a human resources professional at one of the businesses; (ii) operated bank branches in Maryland and California; (iii) failed to upload the final judgment and order into the Nationwide Mortgage Licensing System and Registry (NMLSR); and (iv) failed to comply with stipulated reporting requirements. The plaintiffs’ proposed sanctions sought to disgorge all of the defendant’s income from 2015 until the date of compliance and impose a lifetime ban from the industry. In issuing the sanctions, the court ordered that all contemptuous income since the final judgment should be disgorged and extended the original two-year ban another two years—minus the exemption for employment as an HR professional. The defendant is further required to post the sanctions order on the NMLSR within 60 days.
On April 10, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit affirmed the district court’s dismissal of a RESPA action because the plaintiff did not properly establish actual damages arising out of her non-receipt of a response to her Qualified Written Request (QWR) to the bank. The opinion explains that the plaintiff’s property was vandalized in 2014 and the bank received insurance money to escrow for repairs. In 2015, the bank released funds for the repairs and subsequently, the plaintiff’s contractor abandoned the job; the property was then vandalized twice more. On September 5, 2015, the plaintiff sent the bank a letter asking about the status of her loan, specifically regarding how insurance money was being handled. The bank sent a response to the letter on September 25, 2015, but the plaintiff alleges she never received the bank’s response and contends the bank’s failure to respond to her QWR caused her emotional distress and contributed to her divorce. The 7th Circuit agreed with the district court that the plaintiff failed to establish how a response to her QWR would have resolved her financial inability to make the required repairs since RESPA does not require the bank to pay money in response to a written request. Moreover, the Appeals Court held that some of the plaintiffs asserted injuries, such as her divorce, are outside the scope of RESPA.
Court holds lenders may not require borrowers to use an affiliated appraisal management company under RESPA; denies class certification
On February 7, a magistrate judge of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia recommended denial of a motion for class certification in a case alleging that a mortgage lender, an affiliated appraisal management company (AMC), and the individual owner, through trusts, of both the lender and the AMC committed RESPA violations. The plaintiffs alleged that the individual owner received a thing of value, i.e, profit distributions from the AMC, that were generated from the lender’s referrals to the AMC in violation of Section 8(a) of RESPA, notwithstanding the exemption for affiliated business arrangements, (i) because no disclosure of the affiliation was provided to the borrowers, or (ii) because, even when a disclosure was provided, the borrowers were required to use the AMC.
While reviewing whether the class would have standing, the court disagreed with the defendant’s assertion that the affiliated business arrangement exemption under Section 8(c)(4) of RESPA, which generally bans the required use of an affiliate, but permits a lender to impose its choice of an attorney, credit reporting agency, or real estate appraiser to represent the lender’s interest, should be interpreted to permit the mortgage lender’s required use of an affiliated AMC. The defendants argued that allowing a consumer to shop for an appraisal management company would be inconsistent with TILA and Regulation Z, whose official commentary to Section 1026.37(f)(2) lists “appraisal management company fee” as an example of an item that may be disclosed under “services you cannot shop for” in the Good Faith Estimate. The court rejected that assertion, stating that there are multiple settlement services the lender may require the consumer to use which do not run afoul of RESPA or TILA and that Section 8 is only implicated where there is a kickback involved. The court further examined the plain meaning of Section 8(c)(4) and determined that, from a statutory interpretation perspective, an appraiser and an appraisal management company are not “one and the same.”
Additionally, the court disagreed with the defendants argument that the plaintiffs’ payment to the AMC was covered under the exception in Section 8(c)(2) of RESPA because the payment was not a “thing of value” under Section 8(a). In rejecting the defendants’ argument, the court noted the kickback at issue is the profit ultimately paid to the individual owner, not the plaintiffs’ payment to the AMC, and the defendants did not present any authority that the exception applies when the payment is for ownership interest.
The court ultimately recommended the denial of the class certification because plaintiffs did not demonstrate that ascertaining the class was administratively feasible, including the problem of ascertaining which loans were federally related mortgage loan and which were not. The court also concluded that, given the number of individual inquiries in the case, the requirement that common question of law and fact predominate was not satisfied.
- Jonice Gray Tucker to discuss "Trends in regulatory enforcement" at the American Bar Association Banking Law Committee Meeting
- Jessica L. Pollet to discuss "Your career is impacting your life..." at the Ark Group Women Legal Conference
- Jon David D. Langlois to discuss "Successors in interest updates" at the Mortgage Bankers Association National Mortgage Servicing Conference & Expo
- Brandy A. Hood to discuss "Keeping your head above water in flood insurance compliance" at the Mortgage Bankers Association National Mortgage Servicing Conference & Expo