Dirt Lawyers: Beware of Marketing Services Agreements

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beware pumpkinsThe Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) is scrutinizing Marketing Services Agreements (MSAs) in a way that appears to be contrary to decades of HUD guidance. In addition to a significant number of enforcement actions involving MSAs, the agency issued Compliance Bulletin 2015-05 on October 8 which casts doubt about whether the CFPB would ever approve an MSA.

CFPB Richard Cordray was quoted:  “We are deeply concerned about how marketing services agreements are undermining important consumer protections against kickbacks. Companies do not seem to be recognizing the extent of the risks posed by implementing and monitoring these agreements within the bounds of the law.”

The bulletin began with a seminar message: “The Bureau has received numerous inquiries and whistleblower tips from industry participants describing the harm that can stem from the use of MSAs, but has not received similar input suggesting the use of those agreements benefit either consumers or industry.”

The Bureau’s position appears to be that MSAs serve no useful purpose.

Let’s look at the background. First, the prohibition against kickbacks: Section 8(a) of RESPA prohibits giving or accepting “any fee, kickback or thing of value pursuant to any agreement or understanding, oral or otherwise, that business incident to or a party of a real estate settlement service involving a federally related mortgage loan shall be referred to any person.” Second, the carve out that MSA participants have relied upon: Section 8(c)(2) provides “(n)othing in this section shall be construed as prohibiting the payment of bona fide salary or compensation or other payment for goods or facilities actually furnished or for services actually performed.”

Based on years of HUD guidance and legal advice from industry authorities, many lenders, real estate agencies, law firms, title agencies and other providers have routinely entered into agreements to pay each other marketing fees. The entities often share office space as well as sophisticated marketing efforts.

The advice of HUD and the experts was, generally:

  • don’t tie the relationship or compensation to sales, referrals or productivity;
  • limit the services to marketing;
  • avoid exclusivity provisions;
  • value marketing services objectively. This requirement was often the sticking point because shared marketing campaigns are difficult to value. Some experts suggested hiring auditing or actuarial companies; and
  • track the services in the event proof is needed.

The bulletin suggested that the kickbacks and referral fees associated with MSAs may result in consumers paying higher prices for mortgages, and that the practice of steering business may indirectly undermine consumers’ ability to shop for mortgages.

Running afoul of the CFPB in this area has resulted in injunctive relief including bans on entering MSAs, bans on working in the mortgage industry for up to five years, and penalties totaling more than $75 million.

Wells Fargo, Bank of America and Prospect Mortgage have announced decisions to discontinue MSAs. The Mortgage Bankers Association, which had asked the CFPB for guidance on this topic, has now warned its members to take the bulletin very seriously because it appears to be a series of warnings rather than the requested guidance.

Because of the possibility of enormous potential liability, I urge South Carolina real estate lawyers to completely avoid MSAs in the current regulatory environment, at least until more guidance is provided either by the CFPB or court action.

Still Need to Reach Out to Your Realtor® Partners About TRID?

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toolboxSome new tools are available!

Residential dirt lawyers may still need to reach out to their real estate agent partners to discuss how the CFPB rules will affect closings after October 3. Some new resources are available to assist in that effort.

I previously blogged about five things real estate agents should know before the new rules become effective. Now there is more useful information in a format that is easy to share.

On September 17, Richard Cordray, Director of the CFPB, met with an officer of the National Association of Realtors® (NAR) to unveil online tools designated to help consumers and real estate professionals navigate the new closing procedures.

The CFPB had previously developed an array of online tools for prospective home buyers, the most important of which is an interactive resource called, “Your home loan tool kit, a step-by-step guide”. This guide allows consumers to perform calculations and obtain information to assist them in understanding their financial prospects for obtaining financing and avoiding pitfalls associated with the process.

The CFPB encourages real estate professionals to consider linking the toolkit on their websites to position themselves as trusted sources of information for consumers.  I encourage residential dirt lawyers to do the same to position themselves for their consumer clients.

Last week’s announcement included a new resource called “Guide for real estate professionals”, the goal of which is to “ensure smooth and on-time closings”.  I encourage real estate lawyers to use this new guide to connect with their real estate agent partners.  Link it on your website. Send the link to you best real estate agent contacts.  Offer to meet with them to answer questions. Your goal is to be perceived as a thought leader and problem solver when questions begin to surface after October 3rd.

we are here to helpSouth Carolina residential real estate lawyers should also keep in mind that their title insurance companies have prepared to assist in the transition. Don’t hesitate to use your title insurance company friends as valued resources. They are ready! Their goal, like yours, is to give their very best customer service as we all navigate these new closing rules together.

Lender Challenges CFPB’s Constitutionality

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On July 30, this blog discussed State Bank of Big Spring v. Lew, a case in which the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia ruled on that day that a small Texas bank had standing to challenge the constitutionality of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB).

The same court was asked on August 5 by mortgage lender PHH Corporation to stay a final decision of the CFPB on constitutionality grounds.

The latter case follows the CFPB’s final decision in an enforcement action against PHH requiring the lender to pay $109 million in disgorgement. The lender was accused of illegally increasing consumers’ closing costs by requiring them to pay reinsurance premiums to PHH’s in-house reinsurance company. The CFPB classified the reinsurance payments as kickbacks.

The court granted the stay, holding PHH “satisfied the stringent requirements for a stay pending appeal.”

PHH argues the CFPB is unconstitutional because Director Richard Cordray 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 states, “Never before has so much authority been consolidated in the hands of one individual, shielded from 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 System’s operating expenses, distancing him from Congress’s power to refuse funding.

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The court issued a one paragraph stay order, and it is not clear whether the motion was successful based on the constitutionality argument because PHH had also argued that Director Cordray misinterpreted settled law on mortgage reinsurance and on how disgorgements are calculated.

The stay is in place pending the appeal. It will now be interesting to see whether the Court of Appeals will reach the constitutionality issue or decide the case on the legal interpretation issues. And, of course, it will be interesting to see whether future constitutionality challenges continue with regard to this powerful agency that is changing the rules for residential closings.