Supreme Court to hear CFPB Challenge

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Seila Law, LLC v. Consumer Financial Protection Bureau likely to be heard by mid-2020

CFPB building

The United States Supreme Court announced on Friday, October 18, that it will hear a case challenging the constitutionality of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. The allegation in question is that the structure of the agency grants too much power to its director, in violation of the Constitution’s separation of powers doctrine.

Under the current structure, the director of the CFPB cannot be fired by the president absent “inefficiency, neglect of duty, or malfeasance in office.” The heads of other federal agencies may be removed at the pleasure of the president.

The order posted by the Court last Friday requested that both sides address whether the CFPB can remain in effect if its structure is found to be unconstitutional.

Concern about the structure of the agency has been voiced since its inception based on the fact that such huge power has been placed in the hands of one individual director. The argument continues that the CFPB has more power than any agency ever created by Congress. While most federal agencies are controlled by commissions or by a director who serves at the pleasure of the President, the CFPB’s sole director is removable only for cause. Also, since all of the funding of the agency is not controlled by Congress, there is little legislative oversight.

In previous hearings, when the CFPB has been asked what the appropriate remedy should be if the structure of the agency is held to be unconstitutional, the CFPB has maintained that formative statute would have to be amended to allow the President to remove the director with or without cause.  Some have suggested that all of the actions of the CFPB might be suspect if its structure is held unconstitutional. Others have suggested that agency should be headed by a multi-person, bi-partisan commission rather than a single director for greater transparency and accountability.

If a decision in the case is announced in mid-2020, the presidential election could be affected since Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s role in creating the agency is a central pillar of her presidential bid.

Justice Brett Kavanaugh has made clear in a previous dissent that he believes the structure of the agency is unconstitutional.

Constitutionality of CFPB upheld

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cfpb-logoThe D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the constitutionality of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) in a case decided last week. This decision reverses the October 11, 2016 holding of a three-judge panel which ruled unanimously that the structure of the CFPB allowed its director to wield too much power.

The highly publicized case began when PHH Corp. was ordered by former 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 former 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.

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

The lower Court agreed, writing, “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 lower Court removed the restriction that the Director can only be removed for cause, giving the President the power to remove the Director at will. The lower Court also reversed former Director Cordray’s retroactive applicability of fines.

The Court of Appeals upheld the constitutionality of the CFPB, preserving the single-director leadership and the independence of the agency. The ruling indicates the President can only fire the Director for cause and allows the current five-year terms to remain in place. Five-year terms will, of course, mean that directors of the agency may remain in place after the termination of the term of the president who appointed him or her.

The CFPB is largely the brain child of the Democratic Party, and Acting Director Mulvaney has taken steps to rein in its power since he was appointed by President Trump. The Court of Appeals ruling was mostly decided on ideological lines. One Republican appointee joined the Democratic appointed judges in upholding the CFPB’s structure.

The Court did rule in favor of PHH by rejecting the large penalty imposed by former Director Cordray. The decision requires that the penalty be reviewed again by the CFPB.

Day of the Dead: Director Cordray didn’t get his Halloween wish

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President Trump signed the legislation repealing the CFPB arbitration rule

As we discussed in this blog last week, the United States Senate recently voted to dispose of a Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) rule that allowed consumers the right to bring class action lawsuits to resolve financial disputes. Under that rule, banks and credit card companies could not use mandatory pre-dispute arbitration clauses in the fine print of credit card and checking account agreements.

Day of the DeadThe vote was 51-50 with Vice President Pence casting the deciding vote. The vote in the Senate followed a previous vote with the same result in the House of Representatives, leaving only the stroke of President Trump’s pen to finalize the repeal.

After the Senate’s vote, CPBP director Richard Cordray released a statement stating the action was “a giant setback for every consumer in the country.” “Wall Street won”, he said, “and ordinary people lost.”  Interestingly, Director Cordray wrote a letter directly to President Trump on October 30 pleading with him to save the arbitration rule.

The letter said, “This rule is all about protecting people who simply want to be able to take action together to right the wrongs done to them.” It also appealed to President Trump’s support of veterans and lower income Americans by saying, “I think you really don’t like to see American families, including veterans and service members, get cheated out of their hard-earned money and be left helpless to fight back.”

The letter obviously had no effect. President Trump signed the law on November 1 to the delight of banking and business groups. Director Cordray said, “In signing this resolution, the President signed away consumers’ right to their day in court.”  The Trump administration, however, is clearly in favor of dismantling regulatory efforts it believes may put a damper on the free market in any way.

Trick or Treat!

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Senate votes to rescind CFPB class action rule

Is this action scary for consumers?

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The United States Senate voted last week to dispose of a Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) rule that allowed banks and credit card companies to use mandatory pre-dispute arbitration clauses in the fine print of credit card and checking account agreements to deny consumers the right to bring class action lawsuits to resolve financial disputes.

The vote was 51-50 with Vice President Pence casting the deciding vote. Lindsey Graham voted against the repeal. The House of Representatives had already voted to rescind the rule, and President Trump is expected to sign the bill into law.

When the rule was passed last year, CFPB Director Richard Cordray said the purpose was aimed at giving consumers more power by discontinuing the abusive practice of banks inserting arbitration clauses into their contracts for consumer financial products and services and literally “with the stroke of a pen” blocking any group of consumers from filing class action lawsuits. He also said CFPB’s research indicated that these “gotcha” clauses force consumers to litigate over small amounts ($35 – $100) acting alone against some of the largest financial companies in the world. Consumers are forced, he said, to “give up or go it alone.”

After the Senate’s vote last week, Director Cordray released a statement stating the action was “a giant setback for every consumer in this country.”  “Wall Street won”, he said, “and ordinary people lost.”

HousingWire reported on October 30 that Director Cordray wrote a letter directly to President Trump pleading with him to save the arbitration rule. According to the HousingWire report, the letter said, “This rule is all about protecting people who simply want to be able to take action together to right the wrongs done to them.” It also said, “I think you really don’t like to see American families, including veterans and service members, get cheated out of their hard-earned month and be left helpless to fight back.”

Time will tell whether the President will listen to Director Cordray. But it is clear that the CFPB continues its efforts to shake up the market. It has also been clear up to this point Republicans are seeking to dismantle those efforts that they feel hurt the free market.

CFPB announces top TRID mistakes

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cfpb-logoWe’re learning for the first time what the CFPB considers the top mistakes being made by lenders in mortgage originations under TRID. CFPB’s September 2017 Supervisory Highlights reports on the Bureau’s first round of mortgage origination compliance examinations. Prior to these examinations, the Bureau refused to provide a grace period for lender compliance but stated publicly that it would be sensitive to the progress made by lenders who focused on making good faith efforts to comply with the rule.

Some of these mistakes may be attributed, at least from the viewpoint of the lenders who were pinpointed by CFPB, to settlement service providers (real estate lawyers in South Carolina), so we should pay close attention to this list. Failure to pay attention to it may place some of us squarely on lenders’ naughty lists.

This report indicates most lenders were able to effectively implement and comply with the rule changes, but the examiners did find some violations. The following list contains the most common mistakes:

  • Amounts paid by the consumers at closings exceeded the amounts disclosed on the Loan Estimates beyond the applicable tolerance thresholds;
  • The entity or entities failed to retain evidence of compliance with the requirements associated with Loan Estimates;
  • The entity or entities failed to obtain and/or document the consumers’ intent to proceed with the transactions prior to imposing fees in connection with the consumers’ applications;
  • Waivers of the three-day review period did not contain bona fide personal financial emergencies;
  • The entity or entities failed to provide consumers with a list identifying at least one available settlement service provider in cases where the lender permits consumers to shop for settlement services;
  • The entity or entities failed to disclose the amounts payable into an escrow account on the Loan Estimate and Closing Disclosure when consumers elected to escrow taxes and insurance;
  • Loan Estimates did not include dates and times at which estimated closing costs expire; and
  • The entity or entities failed to properly disclose on the Closing Disclosures fees the consumers paid prior to closing.

The report boasts that the CFPB examiners worked in a collaborative manner with one or more of the entities to identify the root causes of the violations and to determine appropriate corrective actions, including reimbursements to consumers.

The report also covered the Bureau’s supervisory activities outside the mortgage origination arena and indicated nonpublic supervisory resolutions have resulted in total restitution payments of approximately $14 million to more than 104,000 consumers during the review period (January through June, 2017). The CFPB also touted resolutions of public enforcement actions resulting in about $1.15 million in consumer remediation and an additional $1.75 million in civil penalties during the review period.

Despite the notion that the CFPB may be in disfavor in the Trump administration, it remains a powerful body in our industry. Compliance with its directives is crucial to remain in the residential closing business at this point.

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.

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!)