Enforcement and Prosecution Policy and Trends

In its recently published Fall 2018 Rulemaking Agenda, the Bureau of Consumer Financial Protection announced that it is considering future rulemaking activity regarding the requirements of the Equal Credit Opportunity Act (“ECOA”) – specifically, “concerning the disparate impact doctrine in light of recent Supreme Court case law and the Congressional disapproval of a prior Bureau bulletin concerning indirect auto lender compliance with ECOA and its implementing regulations.”

In May, President Trump signed a joint resolution passed by Congress disapproving the Bureau’s March 21, 2013 Bulletin titled “Indirect Auto Lending and Compliance with the Equal Credit Opportunity Act.” The Bulletin’s purpose was to “provide[] guidance for indirect auto lenders within the Bureau’s jurisdiction on ways to limit fair lending risk under the ECOA.” The Bulletin had been controversial from the start, suggesting that indirect auto lenders — who purchase and service loans made by auto dealers that fit criteria agreed to between the dealer and lender — consider imposing controls on dealer markup and eliminate the dealer’s discretion to markup buy rates.

Acting Bureau Director Mick Mulvaney praised the congressional resolution, continuing the Bureau’s move away from the fair lending enforcement priorities of the Bureau’s first Director, Richard Cordray (who, as an aside, was just defeated this past Election Day as the Democratic nominee for Governor of Ohio). Mulvaney thanked President Trump and Congress “for reaffirming that the Bureau lacks the power to act outside of federal statutes.” Mulvaney also referred to the Bulletin as an “instance of Bureau overreach,” and asserted that the initiative “seemed like a solution in search of a problem.” He indicated then that Bureau rulemaking on disparate impact would reflect another theme of his approach: a move toward formal rulemaking in lieu of bulletin issuance or “regulation by enforcement.”

Although the Bureau’s Rulemaking Agenda does not address the details of the contemplated rulemaking activity around ECOA, the Agenda’s reference to “recent Supreme Court case law” suggests that any rulemaking may be designed to address unanswered questions following the Supreme Court’s 2015 decision in Tex. Dep’t of Housing & Community Aff. v. Inclusive Communities Project, Inc., 135 S. Ct. 2507 (2015), in which the Court upheld the concept of disparate impact liability under the other principal federal lending discrimination law, the Fair Housing Act, but also emphasized that disparate impact litigants must prove causation – in other words, proof of a statistical disparity among racial groups alone is not sufficient. Inclusive Communities also imposed other restrictions on disparate impact liability.

Potential Bureau rulemaking might focus on application of the Court’s holdings to ECOA. Such a rule would be more durable than the Bureau’s earlier fair lending bulletin, remaining in effect unless altered by later rulemaking (and thus surviving any future leadership change at the Bureau). A rule would also be binding on other federal agencies and the courts, and thus could provide much-desired clarity for lenders.

In the latest sign of regulatory scrutiny of asset-advance companies offering consumers what regulators believe are in fact regulated “credit” under federal law and “loans” under state law, the Bureau of Consumer Financial Protection (BCFP) filed its first new lawsuit under Acting Director Mulvaney last Thursday. The complaint, filed in the Central District of California, alleges that a so-called pension-advance company, Future Income Payments, LLC, its President and affiliates falsely marketed high-interest loans as mere purchases of consumers’ rights to future cash income streams on pensions and other assets.

This action continues the Bureau’s and state regulators’ focus on such asset-advance enterprises: see action against Pension Funding, LLC and others here; action against RD Legal Funding, a litigation settlement advance company, here; and the Bureau’s 2015 “Consumer advisory: 3 pension advance traps to avoid.” In its new complaint, the BCFP complaint alleges that the defendants failed to treat their products as “credit” and “loans,” and alleges violations of the Truth-in-Lending Act and the Consumer Financial Protection Act for (i) failure to follow federal credit disclosure requirements, (ii) engaging in deceptive marketing practices, and (iii) failure to follow various state laws governing “loans.”

In this case, the BCFP specifically alleged that Defendants, based in Irvine, CA, lured senior citizens, disabled veterans, and other vulnerable consumers into borrowing money at deceptively high interest rates. The company allegedly offered consumers lump-sum payments of up to $60,000 in exchange for their assigning to the company a larger amount of their future pension and other income streams. Marketing the product as a “purchase” and not a loan, the company allegedly claimed that the advance was interest-free and a useful way to pay off credit card debt. In fact, the Bureau alleges, the discount applied to consumers’ future income streams was a disguised form of interest, equivalent to rates of up to 183%.

Interestingly, though, the Complaint does not address exactly why the challenged transactions are, in fact, extensions of “credit” under the federal Truth-in-Lending Act’s definition of that term and “loans” under state law. We will continue to track the Bureau’s analysis of those issues, because they are arising repeatedly as Fintech and other new companies develop products that seek, in a wide variety of forms, to offer consumers advances in exchange for future cash streams.

In a statement on Thursday, April 26, a key House Republican on CFPB issues effectively admitted that despite his own efforts and those of the Trump Administration including Acting CFPB Director, Mick Mulvaney, Congress will almost certainly make no changes to the structure of the CFPB this year.  As a result, there will probably be no change from a single-Director to a Commission, nor will changes be made to the way in which the CFPB is funded, or to the Director’s independent status.

In remarks to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Jeb Hensarling, Chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, conceded that he is now willing to accept the bi-partisan banking deregulatory bill that passed the Senate recently as S. 2155, which makes no changes to the CFPB’s structure.  As we reported previously, several Senate Democrats who supported S. 2155 have made clear they would not accept amendments to it by the House that would weaken the CFPB.

Chairman Hensarling indicated that he would still like to pursue his CFPB reforms as separate bills, but most observers agree that if those reforms cannot be attached to the Senate bill, they will not become law this year.  White House statements indicate that President Trump would like to sign S. 2155 into law by Memorial Day.

On Wednesday, the U.S. Senate voted almost entirely along party lines to invalidate, under the Congressional Review Act, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau’s (CFPB) (in)famous 2013 Bulletin on lending discrimination in the indirect auto market via discretionary mark-ups and dealer compensation policies.  The 2013 Bulletin, construing the Equal Credit Opportunity Act and its implementing rule, Regulation B, had served as the basis for a number of substantial CFPB enforcement actions against indirect auto lenders, with large fines and loud protests from industry.

The U.S. House of Representatives has been poised to vote down the 2013 Bulletin for some time, and is very likely to follow the Senate’s lead and make the invalidation effective.  If as expected the House does act, this would mark the second time in the past year that Congress has voted to strike down a rule issued by the CFPB.  (Last December, the Government Accountability Office’s General Counsel issued a formal legal opinion concluding that the 2013 Bulletin was, in fact, a “rule” subject to the Congressional Review Act, paving the way for yesterday’s Senate vote.)  The first instance, of course, was Congress’ decision to invalidate the CFPB’s rule regarding arbitration.

Despite the Senate’s action Wednesday, efforts to weaken the CFPB by statute along the lines proposed by its Acting Director Mick Mulvaney and Republican congressmen continue to face challenges in Congress.  While such proposals have passed and would likely easily pass again in the House of Representatives, no such measure was included in the recent package of reforms that passed the Senate with bipartisan support.  Several of the Senate Democrats who voted for that package have indicated that they are not inclined to support measures that would weaken the CFPB structurally.