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  • Company Accused of Bilking 9/11 First Responders Out of Millions of Dollars Says CFPB Action Unlawful

    Courts

    On May 15, a New Jersey-based finance company and its affiliated parties filed a motion to dismiss allegations that it scammed first responders to the World Trade Center attack and NFL retirees with high-cost loans. As previously covered in InfoBytes, the CFPB and the New York Attorney General’s office (NYAG) claimed the defendants engaged in deceptive and abusive acts by misleading consumers into selling expensive advances on benefits to which they were entitled by mischaracterizing extensions of credit as assignments of future payment rights, thereby causing the consumers to repay far more than they received. The defendants’ motion to dismiss was prompted, in part, by the recent PHH v. CFPB decision in which the court held that the CFPB’s single director leadership structure is unconstitutional and, thus, that the agency must operate as an executive agency supervised by the President. Here, the defendants argue, the complaint issued against them is a “prime example of how the unchecked authority granted to the CFPB leads to administrative overreach that has a profound effect on the businesses and individuals the agency targets.”

    In response to the claims that they mischaracterized credit, the defendants assert that the complaint is “based on the erroneous theory that—despite clear contractual terms and the weight of legal authority to the contrary—these transactions are not true sales, but instead are ‘extensions of credit’ under the Consumer Financial Protection Act [(CFPA)], and therefore the [defendants] deceived consumers by labeling the agreements as sales.” The CFPA defines an extension of “credit” as “the right granted by a creditor to a debtor to defer payment of debt or to incur debt and defer its payment.” In this instance, the defendants contend, there is no debt, no repayment obligation, and no “right granted to defer payment of a debt” because the consumers are the sellers of the asset.

    The defendants argue that (i)“the CFPB’s unprecedented structure violates fundamental constitutional principles of separation of powers, and the CFPB should be struck down as an unconstitutional administrative agency”; (ii) because these transactions do not fall into the CFPA’s definition of credit, the case lacks a federal cause of action; and (iii) “each cause of action in the [c]omplaint individually fails to state a claim for relief, including because the Government is flat out wrong in its contention that the underlying settlement proceeds are not assignable.”

    Courts Consumer Finance CFPB Enforcement State AG PHH v CFPB UDAAP

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  • Ninth Circuit Grants Petition to Hear FTC v. AT&T Appeal En Banc

    Courts

    On May 9, the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit granted a petition for rehearing en banc filed by the FTC in a case involving whether the Commission may regulate an internet service provider’s slowing down of data after a customer has used a specified amount of data under an “unlimited” plan.

    The FTC’s 2014 complaint alleged that AT&T’s practice of “data throttling,” and its subsequent failure to adequately inform its customers of this practice, violated Section 45(a) of the FTC Act. A federal district court dismissed the complaint, rejecting AT&T’s argument that it was exempt from FTC Section 45(a) enforcement because it is a common carrier. Section 45(a) allows the Commission to “prevent persons, partnerships or corporations, except . . . common carriers . . . from using . . . unfair or deceptive acts or practices” (emphasis added). The court held, however, that the common carrier exception applies only when the entity has the status of a common carrier and is engaging in common carrier activity. The district court order also held that “[w]hen this suit was filed, AT&T’s mobile data service was not regulated as common carrier activity by the [FCC],” and that “[o]nce the Reclassification Order of the [FCC] (which now treats mobile data [service] as common carrier activity) goes into effect, that will not deprive the FTC of any jurisdiction over past alleged misconduct as asserted in this pending action.”

    In 2016, a three-judge Ninth Circuit panel reversed, holding that AT&T is exempt from Section 45(a) as a common carrier. See Fed. Trade Comm'n  v. AT&T Mobility LLC, 835 F.3d 993 (9th Cir. 2016). The en banc court’s order vacates that ruling pending review by the full Ninth Circuit. Per the Ninth Circuit’s May 10 order, en banc oral argument will occur the week of September 18, 2017. The exact date and time will be announced in a separate order. Notably, given the recent uncertainty over which regulatory agency will oversee common carriers—the FTC or the FCC—the timing of this ruling is important.

    Courts FTC appellate

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  • Sens. Portman, Bennet Introduce Bipartisan Electronic Signature Standards Act

    FinTech

    On May 9, Senators Rob Portman (R-Ohio) and Michael Bennet (D-Colo.) introduced legislation that would make it easier for taxpayers to be represented in disputes with the Internal Revenue Service (IRS). As set forth in a press release issued by Sen. Portman’s office, the Electronic Signature Standards Act (S. 1074) would amend the Internal Revenue Code of 1986 by providing uniform standards for the use of electronic signatures for third-party disclosure authorizations, and thereby would “make it easier, and faster, for professional tax experts to represent taxpayers before the IRS by instituting electronic signature standards for third party disclosure authorization forms.” Notably, the IRS already uses electronic signatures for Form 4506-T (Request for a Transcript of Tax Return), which is commonly used in the mortgage industry. The use of electronic signatures on these forms has allowed the IRS to process over 20 million of these forms a year, and the Electronic Signature Standards Act would extend similar electronic signature requirements to Form 2848 (Power of Attorney and Declaration of Representative) and Form 8821 (Tax Information Authorization). These forms are required before a professional tax expert can begin representing a taxpayer before the IRS. “Taxpayers deserve quick access to the IRS, and this bill makes that access possible,” said Sen. Portman.

    Fintech Electronic Signatures IRS

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  • Massachusetts Regulator Offers Interpretation of Mortgage Loan Originator Exclusivity Requirement

    State Issues

    On May 10, the Division of Banks of the Massachusetts Office of Consumer Affairs and Business Regulations (Division) issued a letter determining that a professional employer organization (PEO) may provide limited human resources services to Massachusetts licensed mortgage lenders and brokers without violating an exclusivity requirement governing the employment of mortgage loan originators in the Commonwealth. The exclusivity requirement prohibits Massachusetts licensed mortgage loan originators from being employed by more than one “entity,” which, as defined by Massachusetts General Laws Chapter 255F, Section 4(b), effectively prohibits a mortgage loan originator from being employed by more than one mortgage lender or broker. The opinion letter stems from a request made last year from a Massachusetts-based human resources service provider (Service Provider) inquiring as to whether the exclusivity requirement prohibits Massachusetts licensed mortgage lenders and brokers employing mortgage loan originators from outsourcing human resource services. The Service Provider—operating as a PEO—stated that it provides human resources services to small business clients, and while it is deemed the “employer” of the client's employees solely for designated human resource functions, the client remains the employer for all other purposes. Because of this, and since the Service Provider offers functions that are unrelated to a loan originator's mortgage industry work, the Division asserted “that the exclusivity provision . . . operates to limit a mortgage loan originator to a single licensed mortgage broker or lender for purposes of the originator's mortgage industry work.” Accordingly, the Division concluded that the Service Provider may provide its services to Massachusetts licensed mortgage lenders and brokers without violating the exclusivity requirement.

    State Issues Mortgage Origination Mortgage Lenders

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  • FHFA Director Testifies Before Senate Banking Committee, Provides Overview of Housing Finance System and Prospects for Reform

    Federal Issues

    On May 11, the Senate Banking Committee held a hearing at which FHFA Director Mel Watt fielded questions from lawmakers about the conservatorships of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac (the Enterprises) and prospects for housing finance reform. In his opening statement, Committee Chairman Mike Crapo (R-ID) noted that Fannie and Freddie have been in conservatorship for close to nine years, and stated that “a housing finance system dependent on two government sponsored enterprises in perpetual conservatorship is not a sustainable solution.” According to Sen. Crapo, because approximately 70 percent of mortgages are backed by the federal government, “if the housing market experiences a downturn, taxpayers could again be on the hook for billions of dollars.” Ultimately, the Chairman set forth his position that housing finance reform should be considered the “most significant piece of unfinished business following the financial crisis.” 

    Meanwhile, FHFA Director Watt testified that, under his leadership, FHFA has “responsibly balanced” and met its “multiple statutory mandates to manage the Enterprises’ day-to-day operations.” He also identified some of the key changes and reforms that have taken place during the conservatorships, including: (i) requiring the Enterprises to emphasize sound underwriting practices in their purchase guidelines; (ii) reducing the Enterprises’ retained portfolios by over sixty percent since 2009; and (iii) developing effective loss mitigation programs, which include aligning the Enterprises’ loss mitigation standards and developing updated loan modification and streamlined refinance products to follow the Home Affordable Modification Program and the Home Affordable Refinance Program.

    Director Watt also acknowledged that “FHFA knows probably better than anyone that these conservatorships are not sustainable” and urged Congress to act on several issues related to housing finance reform, including:

    • developing a transition process to a new housing finance system to avoid disruption to the housing finance market;
    • determining whether the federal government should provide taxpayer backing for the conservatorship, and if so, in what form;
    • addressing the role the Enterprises might play in the reformed housing finance system and what statutory changes to their organizational structures, purposes, ownership and operations will be needed to ensure that they play their assigned roles effectively; and
    • identifying what regulatory and supervisory structure and authorities will be needed in a reformed system, and who will have responsibility to exercise those authorities.

    Furthermore, Director Watt noted that under the provisions of the Enterprises’ Preferred Stock Purchase Agreements, on January 1, 2018 the $1.2 billion buffer protecting the Enterprises against having to make additional draws of taxpayer support in the event of an operating loss in any quarter would be reduced to zero, at which time “neither Enterprise will have the ability to weather any loss it experiences in any quarter without drawing further on taxpayer support.” Director Watt warned that such a situation could erode investor confidence and “stifle liquidity in ways that could increase the cost of mortgage credit to borrowers.” Accordingly, the Director argued that the Enterprises “need some kind of [capital] buffer to shield against short-term operating losses” that could “result in an additional draw of taxpayer support and reduce the fixed dollar commitment Treasury has made to support the Enterprises.”

    Reaction of Industry Organizations. In a statement issued shortly after the hearing, Camden R. Fine, President and CEO of Independent Community Bankers of America (ICBA), expressed support for Director Watt after his testimony, agreeing about the need for Fannie and Freddie “to retain their earnings and to start rebuilding their capital buffers.” Meanwhile, Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI) financial policy expert John Berlau was critical of what he called “an unfair, ongoing government policy of confiscating all Fannie/Freddie shareholder profits.” According to Mr. Berlau, the Enterprises’ “perilous financial state is the direct result of the Obama administration’s 2012‘Third Amendment’ policy, which confiscates all of Fannie and Freddie’s profits for the US Treasury.” He argued that curtailing this policy would allow the Enterprises to “retain some earnings and build capital to spare taxpayers another bailout.”

    Federal Issues FHFA Senate Banking Committee Fannie Mae Freddie Mac ICBA Treasury Department

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  • FDIC Vice Chairman Discusses Forces of Change in Banking Industry, Proposes Regulatory Relief

    Agency Rule-Making & Guidance

    On May 12, FDIC Vice Chairman Tom Hoenig spoke at the Systemic Risk and Organization of the Financial System Conference in California. He delivered prepared remarks on “Financial Markets and Accountability: A Better Way Forward.” Specifically, Hoenig discussed his views on the need for change in the banking industry and how his recently introduced reform proposal would strengthen the financial system and provide regulatory relief and long-term economic growth.

    Hoenig argued that his proposal, “Regulatory Relief and Accountability for Financial Holding Companies Engaged in Nontraditional Banking Activities,” would help cure the ills and vulnerabilities of the current U.S. financial system, in which the largest banks have grown disproportionately big with activities that are too consolidated, resulting in a financial system that remains “heavily subsidized, increasingly concentrated, and less competitive.”

    Hoenig’s proposal outlines ideas to address too-big-to-fail, enhance financial stability, and return the “safety net to its original purpose of depositor and payment system protection.” The proposal requires the largest banks to hold more capital, while partitioning nonbank activities away from the safety net. Hoenig stated that his proposal is intended to enhance competition by creating a more level playing field between insured and noninsured financial firms. The proposal also inhibits the intermingling of funding and operations between affiliates, which, while advantageous during good times, provides “far greater advantages” during bad times. Hoenig stated this would provide more stability and more consistent economic growth, and facilitate resolution using bankruptcy.

    ICBA Support. Independent Community Bankers of America President and CEO Camden R. Fine issued a statement on Hoenig’s remarks, agreeing that “excessive regulatory burdens have exacerbated the dangerous consolidation of the banking industry into fewer and fewer hands,” and that “[t]o combat excessive consolidation and concentration of resources in the largest and most systemically risky financial firms, ICBA advocates comprehensive regulatory relief for community banks.” ICBA recently published a white paper entitled Community Bank Regulatory Relief: A Roadmap to Economic Growth and Prosperity outlining its views on regulatory reform.

    Agency Rulemaking & Guidance FDIC ICBA Bank Regulatory

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  • FTC, Federal, State, and International Partners Announce Crackdown on Tech Support Scams

    Privacy, Cyber Risk & Data Security

    On May 12, the FTC, along with federal, state and international law enforcement partners, announced new enforcement actions in its “Operation Tech Trap” program. The program is designed to crack down on tech support scams that, among other things, deceive consumers into believing their computers are infected with viruses and malware and then charge them for unnecessary repairs. According to FTC, its Operation Tech Trap partners have brought 29 law enforcement actions against deceptive tech support operations in the last year. Among the four new complaints announced on May 12, the FTC has already been granted temporary restraining orders in three of the cases to stop the tech support companies’ deceptive practices, freeze their assets, and appoint a temporary receiver to take control of them.

    The FTC also announced a settlement in a pending action brought by the FTC and the Attorneys General of Connecticut and Pennsylvania against two defendants who allegedly participated in deceptive acts and practices in connection with the advertising, marketing, and sale of computer security or technical support products and services. Under the terms of the settlement, the defendants are subject to a money judgment in excess of $27 million. The stipulated final order has been entered by the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania. In addition to the FTC and state cases, DOJ brought federal criminal charges against seven individuals, two of whom have entered guilty pleas, for their participation in an international “Tech Support Scam.” Moreover, with respect to its international efforts, Operation Tech Trap is working with authorities in India to crack down on tech support scammers, and have also instituted consumer and business education outreach initiatives with Australia and Canada.

    Privacy/Cyber Risk & Data Security FTC Enforcement State AG DOJ

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  • CFPB, DOJ Argue Against State AGs Request to Redirect Unused Consumer Redress Funds

    Courts

    On May 10, the CFPB filed a brief and the DOJ filed a separate “Statement of Interest of the United States of America” opposing a request by the Attorneys General of Connecticut, Indiana, Kansas, and Vermont (State AGs) to intervene in a CFPB lawsuit to address the distribution of unclaimed settlement funds.

    As previously reported in InfoBytes, in December 2014 the CFPB sued a telecommunications company over allegations that it violated Dodd-Frank and the Consumer Financial Protection Act by knowingly allowing third-party aggregators to bill unauthorized charges to its wireless telephone customers and failing to respond to consumer complaints for nearly a decade. Under the terms of the 2015 Stipulated Final Judgment and Order, the company was required to set aside $50 million for consumer redress. The consumer claims period expired with approximately $15 million remaining unclaimed, and the State AGs sought to have those funds deposited with the National Association of Attorneys General to be used for “consumer protection purposes.” Specifically, in their  January 3 Memorandum in Support of Joint Motion to Intervene to Modify Stipulated Final Judgment and Order, the State AGs asked that, “[a]ny funds not used for such equitable relief will be deposited . . . with the National Association of Attorneys General”—instead of being deposited in the Treasury as disgorgement—to be used to “train, support and improve the coordination of the state consumer protection attorneys charged with enforcement of the laws prohibiting the type of unfair and deceptive practices alleged by the CFPB in this [a]ction.”

    In its memorandum opposing the joint request to intervene, the CFPB countered that although the redress plan provides that the Bureau may, in consultation with certain states and the FCC, apply unused redress funds to “other equitable relief reasonably related to the Complaint’s allegations,” it has not proposed doing so and any undistributed amounts are to be directed to the Treasury. The DOJ supported the CFPB’s position, arguing that the State AGs’ motion is untimely because that the States were “well aware of this action” over 18 months before filing their motion. The DOJ further asserted that “beyond being consulted by the CFPB if remaining funds were to be devoted to further equitable relief, the Consent Order afforded the States no role with respect to distribution of the remaining Redress Amount funds.”

    Courts Consumer Finance CFPB DOJ State AG

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  • FDIC Fines Wisconsin Bank and Affiliated Lenders for Overcharging Military Members

    Consumer Finance

    On May 11, the FDIC announced that a Wisconsin-based bank and its two institution-affiliated parties agreed to settle allegations of unfair and deceptive practices in violation of Section 5 of the Federal Trade Commission Act. According to the FDIC, the unfair and deceptive practices, which harmed consumers including military service members and their families, included: (i) charging interest on loans that were marketed as interest-free if they were repaid within six months; (ii) selling add-on products without clearly disclosing the terms; and (iii) not allowing consumers the opportunity to use the monthly premium-payment option when they bought debt cancellation products. Under the terms of the settlement with the FDIC, the bank will establish a $3 million restitution fund for eligible consumers (and has agreed to add more if that amount is insufficient to make all of the required payments). In addition, the bank and its institution-affiliated parties are required to: (i) prepare a comprehensive restitution plan; (ii) retain an independent auditing firm to determine compliance with the plan; and (iii) provide the FDIC with quarterly written progress reports describing the actions taken by the parties to comply with the terms of the settlement. The settlement also requires the bank to pay a civil penalty of $151,000, and the institution-affiliated parties to pay civil money penalties of $54,000 and $37,000 respectively.

    Consumer Finance FDIC UDAAP FTC

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  • DOJ Issues Strict Charging and Sentencing Policy for All Federal Crimes

    Financial Crimes

    On May 10, 2017, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions issued a memorandum ordering all federal prosecutors, in all criminal cases, to “charge and pursue the most serious, readily provable offense,” and to “disclose to the sentencing court all facts that impact the sentencing guidelines or mandatory minimum sentences.” The new policy – which immediately rescinds Obama-era leniency policies – is likely primarily aimed at drug-related cases, but it will impact white collar and FCPA cases as well. For instance, under the policy, prosecutors may charge more defendants with money laundering or wire fraud in addition to FCPA violations, taking into account the FCPA’s relatively low five-year maximum sentences. Prosecutors seeking an exception must secure supervisory approval and document their reasoning in the case file, which may complicate plea deals. In a May 12 speech, Sessions said of the new policy: “Charging and sentencing recommendations are bedrock responsibilities of any prosecutor. And I trust our prosecutors in the field to make good judgments. They deserve to be unhandcuffed and not micro-managed from Washington.”

    Financial Crimes DOJ Sessions

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