CFPB rules have been revised

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Are we now free to share Closing Disclosures with real estate agents?

cfpb-logoThe CFPB recently issued amendments to its rules governing residential loan closings, but it did not settle the debate about whether Closing Disclosures can be shared with real estate agents. Traditionally, real estate agents were provided settlement statements both before closings, to give them the opportunity to explain the numbers to their buyer and seller clients, and after closings, to enable them to close MLS listings.

Since we have been operating under the CFPB rules and generating Closing Disclosures, we have struggled with the insistence on the part of real estate agents to receive those documents and the reluctance on the part of lenders to share them.  Most of us have resolved this conflict by providing real estate agents with separate settlement statements, such as ALTA’s Settlement Statements, which are similar to our prior HUD-1 Settlement Statements. It took us awhile to figure out that Closing Disclosures are not traditional closing statements and do not facilitate disbursement. Once we realized separate settlement statements are actually needed to fully inform borrowers, sellers and real estate agents, this issue became less important.

The CFPB has indicated it has received many questions about sharing Closing Disclosures with third parties. The amendment says:

“(T)the Bureau notes that such sharing of the Closing Disclosure may be permissible currently to the extent that it is consistent with (the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act) and Regulation P and is not barred by applicable State law. However, the Bureau does not believe that expansion of the scope of such permissible sharing would, in this rulemaking, be germane to the purposes of Regulation Z.”

Lenders will likely continue to refuse to allow sharing of Closing Disclosures in light of this clear-as-mud directive. Most lenders currently state that the consumer may provide the Closing Disclosure to real estate agents if he or she chooses to do so. That rule is not likely to change.

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IRS issues for tax season…for your reading pleasure

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Just in time for tax season, the IRS announced on April 4 that it will begin using private debt collectors pursuant to federal law enacted late in 2015.

The IRS said that it will begin this month sending around 100 letters per week to taxpayers who have accumulated years-overdue tax debt. If the process goes smoothly, the number of letters will be increased to 1,000 per week.

Outsourcing debt collection will likely provide scammers with new opportunities, so the IRS has provided some advice for the safety of taxpayers.

The taxpayer will hear from the IRS first by letter. The letter will provide the name and contact information for the debt collection firm. After that initial contact, the debt collection firm will send its first letter confirming that it will handle the case. Neither initial contacts will be by telephone.

At this point, only four firms have been identified:  CBE Group of Cedar Falls, Iowa; Conserve of Fairport, New York; Performant of Livermore, California; and Pioneer of Horseheads, New York. Each taxpayer’s account will be assigned to only one of these firms.

None of the firms will ever ask for payments to be made to anyone other than the United States Treasury. If a taxpayer is asked to make payment to anyone else, this is a scam.

In the case of mistreatment under this new program, taxpayers are urged to file complaints with the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.  The IRS and Congress have indicated they will be monitoring this situation carefully.

On a related topic, real estate lawyers should be reminded that the IRS may issue a levy, which is a legal seizure, of a taxpayer’s property to satisfy a tax debt. When a levy is issued, it applies to real property, money, credits and bank deposits. A levy can also reach property held by third parties, such as retirement accounts, dividends, bank accounts, licenses, rental income, accounts receivable, the cash loan value of life insurance policies and commissions.

The IRS issues a levy only after it has exhausted other means to collect a tax debt.

From time to time, a settlement agent will receive a levy for a party involved in a closing. The taxpayer should be sent a notice in writing of the receipt of the levy and should be directed to consult with his or her tax advisor. Remember that a real estate lawyer who is not also competent as a tax lawyer should never offer tax advice. Typically, after the taxpayer has time to seek tax advice, the settlement agent should comply with the levy.

(If I received a levy, however, I would also seek my own tax advice prior to disbursing any funds!)

Wells Fargo distributes new settlement agent memo

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Wells Fargo circulated a new Settlement Agent Communication on December 15, addressing several points that may be of interest to South Carolina closing attorneys. 

  • The Seller Closing Disclosure must be delivered to Wells Fargo prior to closing, and Wells’ performance reports of settlement agents will soon include proper receipt of the Seller CD.
  • Wells Fargo is adamant that the Borrower Closing Disclosure must be the form provided to the closing attorney by the lender. Wells will not tolerate substitutions or additions to the Borrower CD.
  • Closing attorneys are encouraged to communicate with the lender before, during and after closing to insure the accuracy of signing and disbursement dates on the borrower CD.
  • Closing attorneys are instructed to refrain from adding per diem interest charges in the payoff calculations of a Wells Fargo first mortgage when that mortgage is being refinanced with Wells. These payoffs will be net funded and will be the responsibility of the lender.
  • When a title insurance policy is delivered to the lender electronically, there is no need to also provide a paper copy.

The memo also contained a brief RESPA update indicating that despite the July 11 ruling against the CFPB by the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals in the PHH Corp. v. CFPB case, Wells will continue to adhere to the 2015 bulletin distributed by the CFPB indicating Marketing Service Agreements are in disfavor.

What’s in Store for Dodd-Frank and Seller Financing?

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The Washington Post and The New York Times are both reporting on potential restructuring of the financial system when the new administration takes over in January.

We all heard President-Elect Donald Trump call the Dodd-Frank Act a “disaster” during his campaign. The Washington Post article reports his transition team has a stated goal, “to dismantle the Dodd-Frank Act and replace it with new policies to encourage economic growth and job creation.” What, exactly, does this mean?  At this point, we don’t know.

But The New York Times article states Representative Jeb Hensarling, a Texas Republican who chairs the House Financial Services Committee, has long been an opponent of Dodd-Frank and has introduced his idea for reform, the Financial Choice Act. “Choice”, according to the article, stands for Creating Hope and Opportunity for Investors, Consumers and Entrepreneurs.

financial-systemIt seems clear that the Republican controlled Congress will work hard to make sweeping changes to this legislation that has basically rocked our collective worlds with the implementation of new forms and rules for closings. We promise to keep everyone up to date as this drama unfolds. We can only hope that, from a closing standpoint, the changes won’t be as sweeping as those we have just tackled!

In other CFPB news, the Bureau is investigating seller financing situations involving National Asset Advisors LLC, National Asset Mortgage LLC and Harbour Portfolio LLC. Orders involved in these investigations can be read on CFPB’s website.

We should pay attention to these enforcement proceedings because seller financing for residential owner-occupied residences has become a concern in South Carolina as a result of the interplay of the federal and state SAFE Acts, HUD’s final rule, released in 2011, and Dodd Frank’s Consumer Financial Protection laws.

The interplay between these laws appears to require licensing and registration of mortgage loan originators for mortgages of owner-occupied residences other than the sale of the seller’s residence. Clients who fail to become licensed as loan originators or fall into an exemption may find they are unable to close, and may, along with the attorneys who closed the transactions, be subject to claims and litigation.

The CFPB has broad enforcement powers, including the power to impose civil monetary penalties ranging from $5,000 to $1 million per day. South Carolina’s legislature could improve this situation greatly by addressing certain inconsistencies between our version of the SAFE Act and the federal version. Again, we will attempt to keep everyone up to speed on this issue as it develops.

CFPB Structure Held Unconstitutional in PHH Case

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Don’t get excited; this shouldn’t change much for SC dirt lawyers.

A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia ruled unanimously on October 11 that the structure of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau allows its director to wield too much power.

This highly publicized case began when PHH Corp. was ordered by CFPB Director Richard Cordray to pay $109 million in restitution resulting from illegal kickbacks to mortgage insurers pursuant to Section 8 of RESPA. An administrative law judge had ordered a $6 million penalty at the trial level, but Director Cordray apparently wanted to set an example and ordered the “ill-gotten gains” to be disgorged. The trial court had limited the violations to loans that closed on or after July 21, 2008. Director Cordray applied the fines retroactively.

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PHH brought suit, arguing that the CFPB is unconstitutional because Director Cordray has the sole authority to issue final decisions, rendering the CFPB structure to be in violation of the separation of powers doctrine. The petition stated, “Never before has so much authority been consolidated in the hands of one individual, shielded from the President’s control and Congress’s power of the purse.” The petition argues that the Director is only removable for cause, distancing him from the power of the President, and is able to fund the agency from the Federal Reserve’s operating expenses, distancing him from Congress’s power to refuse funding.

The Court agreed. It wrote, “Because the Director alone heads the agency without Presidential supervision, and in light of the CFPB’s broad authority over the U.S. economy, the Director enjoys significantly more unilateral power than any single member of any other independent agency.”

The restriction that the Director can only be removed “for cause” was severed, giving the President the power to remove the Director at will. This decision effectively makes the CFPB an agency of the Executive Branch rather than an independent agency.

The Court did not agree with Director Cordray imposing the huge fine retroactively. The Court explained:

“Put aside all the legalese for a moment. Imagine that a police officer tells a pedestrian that the pedestrian can lawfully cross the street at a certain place. The pedestrian carefully and precisely follows the officer’s direction. After the pedestrian arrives at the other side of the street, however, the officer hands the pedestrian a $1,000 jaywalking ticket. No one would seriously contend that the officer had acted fairly or in a manner consistent with basic due process in that situation. Yet that’s precisely this case. Here, the CFPB is arguing that it has the authority to order PHH to pay $109 million even though PHH acted in reliance upon numerous government pronouncements authorizing precisely the conduct in which PHH engaged.”

It is not likely that this landmark decision will make any changes in our current closing practices. The Court stated specifically that the ongoing operations of the agency will not be affected. The Court vacated the CFPB’s order and remanded the case for further proceedings. We might also see an appeal. Regardless, the CFPB is still in charge of the closing process, and all the rules remain in place.

New Settlement Agent Communication from Wells Fargo

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Seller CD must be provided to Wells prior to disbursement

Wells Fargo communicated with its settlement agents (closing attorneys in South Carolina) by memo dated September 22. In case you missed it, you can read it in its entirety here.

The biggest news is that Wells will now require a copy of the seller Closing Disclosure along with the other documents required prior to disbursement. Apparently, receipt of the seller CD has been a challenge, necessitating the procedural modification.

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Another challenge has been the process for handling changes to the borrower’s CD. The memo stated that any changes known prior to closing, including changes to the closing numbers, the closing date and the disbursement date, must be communicated to the Wells Fargo closer.  Wells Fargo’s closer will provide an updated borrower CD and any other updated documents for closing.

Any changes detected at or post-closing should be communicated to:  SAPostClosingCommunications@wellsfargo.com.

The memo also discussed the phased rollout in progress for delivering training materials and other support for the use of Closing Insight™.  We encourage closing attorneys to read and comply with this information to avoid being left out when this process is fully implemented.

Upscale Mt. Pleasant Condo Project Subject of Arbitration Clause Dispute

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Court of Appeals sides with roofing supplier

The South Carolina Court of Appeals handed down a decision on June 1 that will delight the drafters of corporate contracts who imbed arbitration clauses within their warranty provisions.  Whether the South Carolina Supreme Court will approve remains to be seen.

The dispute arises over the construction of One Belle Hall, an upscale condominium community in Mt. Pleasant. Tamko Building Products, Inc. was the supplier of the asphalt shingles for the community’s four buildings, and placed a mandatory binding arbitration clause within its warranty provision. The warranty purported to exclude all express and implied warranties and to disclaim liability for all incidental and consequential damages.

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At some point after construction was completed, the owners’ association determined that the buildings were affected by moisture damage, water intrusion and termite damage, all resulting from various alleged construction defects. The developer contacted Tamko to report a warranty claim on the roof shingles, contending they were blistering and defective.  Tamko sent the developer a “warranty kit”, requiring the claimant to provide proof of purchase, samples of the allegedly defective shingles and photographs. The developer failed to respond.

Two years later, the owners’ association filed a proposed class action lawsuit on behalf of all owners, alleging defective construction against the community’s various developers and contractors. Tamko filed for a motion to dismiss and compel arbitration.

Circuit Court Judge J. C. Nicholson, Jr. denied the motion and ruled that Tamko’s sale of shingles was based on a contract of adhesion and that the condominium owners lacked any meaningful choice in negotiating the warranty and arbitration terms. The trial court held the arbitration clause to be unconscionable and unenforceable because of the cumulative effect of several oppressive and one-sided terms in the warranty.

The Court of Appeals begged to differ. It held that the circuit court erred in finding the arbitration clause in the warranty was unconscionable. It stated that our supreme court has made it clear that adhesion contracts are not per se unconscionable. The underlying sale of Tamko’s shingles was stated to be a typical modern transaction for goods in which the buyer never has direct contact with the manufacturer to negotiate warranty terms.

The court found it significant that the packaging contained a notation: “Important: Read Carefully Before Opening” providing that if the purchaser is not satisfied with the terms of the warranty, then all unopened boxes should be returned. The court pointed to the standard warranty in the marketplace that gives buyers the choice of keeping the goods or rejecting them by returning them for a refund.

The appellate court also found it significant that the arbitration clause did facilitate an unbiased decision by a neutral decision maker and that the arbitration clause was separable from the warranty.

Consider the exact opposite approach of the CFPB’s recently-announced proposed rule that would ban financial companies from using mandatory pre-dispute arbitration clauses to deny consumers the right to join class action lawsuits. That proposed rule can be read here and is the subject of a May 12 blog entitled “CFPB’s proposed rule would allow consumers to sue banks”.

It’s interesting to see such different approaches by two authorities on an issue affecting consumers in the housing arena. I wouldn’t be surprised to see more to come from either ruling.

* One Belle Hall Property Owners Association, Inc. vs. Trammell Crow Residential Company, S.C. Ct. App. Opinion 5407 (June 1,2016)