On December 19, the CFPB announced that it had filed four complaints in federal court against Virginia pawnbrokers for alleged violations of the Truth in Lending Act (TILA) and the UDAAP provisions of the Consumer Financial Protection Act. Last month, the CFPB brought a very similar action against another Virginia pawnbroker. All five of these pawnbrokers are located within 65 miles of Washington, which gives one the impression that Director Cordray is sending his troops on day trips across the Potomac to scout for troublesome pawnbrokers.
However, what these complaints might best illustrate is the risk to any company that incautiously adopts the practices of its competitors. While the facts varied from one pawnbroker to the next, all of the complaints allege that the companies charged fees that were TILA “finance charges” that were not properly included in the annual percentage rate calculations. Depending on the company, those fees included fees for storage, setup, processing, service, appraisal, “misc,” or an undefined “ERF” fee. The CFPB concluded that all of these fees were charged as a condition to the extension of credit and were therefore TILA finance charges.
There is sometimes an inclination in the financial services industry to seek safety in numbers and match competitor practices. If a company’s competitors are all engaged in the same basic practice, the company might wrongly assume that the practice complies with law. At the least a company might hope that the regulator would warn the industry before pouncing on all of them. But that is not the CFPB’s style. Perhaps the CFPB is driven by its notion of leveling the playing field, or maybe they believe that fairness requires them to punish all offenders more or less equally. In these pawnbroker cases, for example, each of the complaints request the Court to award civil money penalties and court costs, as well as restitution, damages, and such other relief as the Court may determine to be just and proper.
So we see that there probably isn't any safety in numbers if the CFPB concludes that the practices violate consumer protection laws. It therefore is important to reach your own legal conclusions, even if that means your competitors get away with something until the CFPB catches up to them. Unless and until the CFPB is gutted by the new Administration, the CFPB is likely to level the playing field eventually and your company does not need to be in the path of that steam roller.
On November 3, the CFPB announced that it had filed a Complaint in federal court against B&B Pawnbrokers for alleged violations of the Truth in Lending Act (TILA) and the UDAAP provisions of the Consumer Financial Protection Act (CFPA). According to the Complaint, B&B understated the annual percentage rate on closed-end loans by failing to include a finance charge, storage fee, processing fee and monthly renewal fee in the total APR calculation. The CFPB also claims that this alleged disclosure error constituted a violation of UDAAP.
Assuming the allegations to be true, the CFPB’s claim that B&B violated TILA appears to be correct. The fees in question do appear to be charges imposed “as an incident to or a condition of” credit, and thus “finance charges” under TILA. What is more interesting here is the CFPB’s demand for relief and the added UDAAP claim.
The Complaint requests the Court to award civil money penalties and court costs, as well as restitution, damages, and such other relief as the Court may determine to be just and proper. Section 130 of TILA provides for civil money penalties and court costs in actions brought by consumers, but Section 130 does not itself allow the CFPB to bring those actions. Section 108 of TILA authorizes the CFPB to enforce TILA, but primarily focuses on consumer restitution remedies. However, because TILA is a “Federal consumer financial law,” the CFPB relied on its litigation authority under the CFPA to bring this claim, and the CFPA provides a clear path for the CFPB to recover large civil money penalties as well as its costs of prosecuting the lawsuit.
The UDAAP claim seems superfluous in light of B&B’s potential liability under TILA, but the CFPB might have brought that claim to expand the number of covered loans. Restitution under Section 108 of TILA generally cannot be ordered more than two years after the credit agreement was consummated, and lawsuits relating to loans of the type made by B&B generally cannot be brought under Section 130 more than one year from the date of the occurrence of the violation. Under the CFPA, in contrast, the CFPB can bring a lawsuit for up to three years after the date of the discovery of the violation, and the Complaint alleges that the violations began at least as early as January 1, 2013.
For better or worse, the CFPB lawyers are still showing themselves to be strong plaintiffs’ attorneys.
New Department of Education regulations will impact the terms and conditions of bank accounts that institutions of higher education and postsecondary vocational institutions may offer to students to receive disbursements of Title IV Higher Education Act funds. While the regulations apply directly to colleges, many banks and third-party servicers will need to change their products, services and practices if they want to contract with colleges to offer accounts to students.
The DOE rules require covered colleges to ensure that student account terms are in the best financial interest of students, present Title IV fund disbursement and account options to the student in a fact-based and neutral manner, and ensure that students have access to an appropriate number of surcharge-free ATMs. The rules also prohibit many account fees and impose ongoing monitoring obligations on colleges to ensure that student accounts meet all requirements of the rules.
The CFPB’s new prepaid account rules will further regulate accounts offered to students by imposing Regulation E protections on those prepaid accounts, limiting overdrafts, and highly regulating other credit features on student prepaid accounts. CFPB enforcement actions against colleges relating to consumer financial products and services remind us that even colleges can be subject to their jurisdiction and enforcement efforts.
On November 18, I will be conducting a webinar with Lorman Education Services to summarize the new DOE rules and the key CFPB prepaid account rules as they relate to student accounts. Because I am a faculty member, you can receive 50% off the fee. When registering, use priority code 15999 and discount code Z3098231. Please click on the link for more details:
The CFPB’s August 2016 Complaint Report spotlights bank accounts and services. The Report first notes an increase in complaints about the use of consumer and credit reporting data for account screening. Consumers mention learning of a furnisher’s past negative reporting to checking account reporting and credit reporting companies when they attempt to open a new account, and they express concern over difficulties in addressing potential errors in their reports.
It’s not clear if consumers are objecting to the fact that depository institutions rely on such reports to make account decisions, or if they are primarily objecting to the accuracy of the information in those reports. It is clear, however, that the CFPB is worrying about the accuracy of information provided to credit bureaus.
The CFPB has brought numerous enforcement actions against financial institutions based on, at least in part, inaccurate furnishing of information to credit bureaus or failure to update and correct inaccurate information. A February 2016 bulletin issued by the CFPB also warned depository institutions that they must have systems in place regarding the accuracy of information provided to all consumer reporting companies, and these monthly Complaint Reports consistently show that consumers complain about credit reporting more than almost any other issue (based on category of product). All of this suggests that the CFPB will continue to focus on credit reporting issues in examinations. Credit reporting might not be the first issue they identify during an examination, but, if they have other problems with a product or service, it’s certain that they will also examine the reporting of consumer information to bureaus.
Complaints related to overdrafts are also common, according to the Report, including complaints about the order in which items are paid and the amount of overdraft fees in relation to the amount of the overdraft itself. The class action bar is bringing suit after suit on these issues and, with the CFPB piling on, many banks might be reconsidering the benefits of overdraft fee income.
The Report then cites consumer complaints about delays in the availability of deposited funds, as a “major concern,” and consumer confusion over the availability of deposits. In a certain sense, this shouldn’t be a matter for the CFPB. It’s the Federal Reserve, and not the CFPB, that has the authority to write funds availability regulations and provide model disclosures under the Expedited Funds Availability Act. If the CFPB has issues with those funds availability rules and disclosures, they can complain to the Fed or Congress.
The bigger risk for the industry is that the CFPB might approach the issue indirectly through their broad UDAAP authority. A perfect test case for that approach would be mobile deposits. The Report notes complaints about institutions having different funds availability policies for mobile deposits, presumably as compared to other types of deposit. However, mobile deposits are not subject to the funds availability statute or regulation, as I’ve written before. If the CFPB views that as a regulatory “gap,” these consumer complaints might lead the CFPB to challenge institutions under UDAAP for delaying the availability of mobile deposits for longer periods than other deposits. I can see the CFPB Newsroom headline now:
The CFPB announces Consent Order against X Bank for illegal crediting of deposits. During examinations in 2016, the CFPB determined that the Bank routinely delayed the availability of funds for checks deposited by mobile deposit for a period longer than checks deposited in person. This practice increased overdraft fees, and profits to the bank, which the CFPB determines to have been unfair and abusive in violation of 12 U.S.C. §§ 5531, 5536.
Maybe I’m overreacting a little with this concern, but only a little. Never underestimate the CFPB’s consumer protection zeal and creativity.
Promotional offers for opening new accounts also generated consumer complaints, with at least some of the complaints relating to the consumer’s eligibility for airline miles or other promotional offers. Last month’s Complaint Report referred to similar issues regarding rewards and benefits programs sold to credit card customers. We continue to see signs that improved disclosures and customer service are needed when offering add-on products.
Finally, it is worth mentioning that consumers complained about error resolution procedures for their deposit accounts. In some cases it appears that better customer service could help. In other cases consumers seem to be expecting banks to protect them from their own bad shopping decisions, apparently believing that the bank should reverse the transaction when the consumer is dissatisfied with the product or service purchased from a merchant. Not much a banker can do about its stupid customers, except hope that the CFPB doesn’t believe otherwise.
Overall a frustrating Complaint Report this month. These Reports will sometimes provide useful guidance to financial institutions on ways in which they might improve their practices, but this one mostly illustrates the irrationality of consumers. Perhaps the best that can be said is that, so long as the CFPB continues to collect these random complaints, at least the industry gets to see what might be influencing the CFPB.
On August 25, the CFPB announced another enforcement action based on the marketing and sales of credit card add-on products. According to this Consent Order, against First National Bank of Omaha, the bank stopped offering these products in the second half of 2012. While it took the CFPB four years to finally issue this Consent Order, this action is simply a continuation of the CFPB’s enforcement actions against banks for practices relating to add-on products that began almost as soon as the CFPB was formed. In fact, the CFPB’s first published enforcement action ever, against Capital One, related to the marketing and sales of credit card add-on products.
Despite these enforcement actions, many banks still market and sell credit card add-on products, including debt cancellation protection and credit monitoring services. There is nothing inherently wrong with that and many of these products provide real consumer benefits. The trick is in doing it in a way that is acceptable to the CFPB. Based on this recent enforcement action and others before it, here are some approaches to consider:
Avoid “stealth” marketing. This is a hard one for a sensible businessman to swallow, but the CFPB really doesn’t like it when companies hide the fact that they are trying to sell a product. In the Bank of Omaha Consent Order the CFPB alleged that the bank misrepresented the nature of the solicitations by stating that the call was to notify the customer of “an important account feature,” or that the offer was the bank’s “way of saying thanks,” when the purpose of the call was really to sell an optional product for a fee. Along the same lines, the CFPB alleged that the bank would “force” customers to listen to a sales pitch by implying that customers had to stay on the phone while their card was being activated, when the activation process was actually nearly instantaneous. It seems to me that any of us can tell very quickly when we are being marketed to, so what’s the point in hiding the ball when the CFPB is objecting?
Be sure consumers get the full benefit of purchased products. In some of the add-on product enforcement actions, the CFPB alleged that consumers were charged for products when the consumers, due to their personal characteristics, were unable to enjoy the full benefit of the product. For example, in some cases consumers without credit files at the major bureaus could not receive full credit monitoring services but were allegedly billed for the services nevertheless. It might be useful to consider more careful application processes to ensure that consumers are actually eligible for the benefits being sold and post-sale processes to ensure that consumers get what they pay for.
Clearly disclose the costs of the product. It should be obvious, but it’s important that consumers understand that they will have to pay for the product or service and what that will cost. CFPB enforcement actions often suggest that consumers thought that the product was free or that they might be able to cancel the purchase without incurring any costs when at least one fee was unavoidable.
Obtain the consumer’s express consent for the product purchase. CFPB enforcement actions relating to add-on products and other products and services frequently allege that consumers really didn’t understand that they were accepting a product for which a fee would be charged. For example, the Bank of Omaha Consent Order alleges that the bank obtained consumers’ consent by telling cardholders that to “verify … approval to enroll” the cardholder needed to provide their city of birth, and that the bank then used the consumers’ confirmation of city of birth as consent to the purchase. Just get the consumer to say, “yes, I want to make the purchase” or “yes, I want to enroll” – after being clear on the costs of the product or service.
Be honest about free options. The CFPB is well aware that some of the products or services offered by banks and other companies for a fee can be obtained by the consumer without charge through other avenues. For example, any consumer can get a free credit report every 12 months from the major bureaus. It should be fine to include credit reports as part of a bigger package of services, or even to sell a service that consists only of one credit report per month, for example, but it might be a good idea to remind consumers that they also can get a free report each year directly from the bureaus. More generally, if all or a portion of your products or services are available to any consumer without charge, make sure the consumer is getting something extra and valuable for the fees.
Be very cautious about success-based compensation programs. In both the Capital One enforcement action and this recent Bank of Omaha action the CFPB alleged that employees were evaluated based on their ability to persuade consumers not to cancel products, referred to as "saves," and received bonuses based on high save percentages. The CFPB considered the resulting aggressive sales practices to be unfair, deceptive or abusive.
Overall, just be careful. We might be nearing the end of the CFPB’s enforcement in this specific area, but their views of what is unfair, deceptive or abusive have a way of creeping into many areas of enforcement.
The CFPB's Monthly Complaint Report for July 2016 focuses on credit card complaints. To the extent these Complaint Reports have any value it is in alerting the industry to consumers’ concerns and the likely focus of the CFPB in future examinations and enforcement actions. This Report is a bit of a mixed bag, but highlights some areas in which credit card issuers might be able to improve customer service and disclosures and thereby reduce consumer complaints and enforcement risks.
“Billing disputes” leads the list for the most frequent category of complaint. Although the CFPB provides no details as to the nature of these complaints, and many of the complaints might only reflect a consumer tendency to complain about bills, the volume of billing dispute complaints suggests that the industry could use improvements in customer service.
Consumers also complained of difficulties in receiving the promised benefits of rewards programs, and the benefits of travel insurance, warranty extensions, price protection and similar products provided through card programs. Again, improvements in customer service might reduce complaints and risks in this area.
The CFPB also cites consumer complaints about misleading or unclear offers and terms for rewards programs, and unclear terms for deferred interest programs. The industry might be able to reduce these complaints – and the risks of CFPB enforcement – by reviewing and editing their advertisements and program agreements. While maybe counter-intuitive, it can be useful to have these materials reviewed by someone with no prior knowledge of the product. Those persons are less likely to mentally fill in disclosure gaps based on an existing understanding of product terms and can be more likely to identify ambiguities or unfair terms.
One of the more dubious complaints cited in the Report was about the imposition of late charges when an automatic payment failed or the billing statement did not arrive in a timely manner. Automatic payment plans don’t just fail, or very rarely do. It’s much more likely that the consumer simply had insufficient deposited funds to make the payment. Mailed billing statements can be lost or delayed, but I believe that also to be a very rare occurrence. If the consumer does not receive the statement on time, it seems more likely that the consumer was traveling or had moved without notifying the bank. In neither of these cases is it reasonable to expect the bank to waive late charges.
Finally, in the give-me-a-break category, consumers complained about how payments were applied to promotional or deferred interest balances with limited terms. Presumably these consumers wanted their payments applied to lower-rate promotional or deferred interest balances before being applied to other balances. However, Regulation Z sensibly requires card issuers to apply payments to higher-rate balances before other balances, except during the last two months of the term of a deferred interest program. It’s hardly fair of the CFPB to even mention these complaints when the card issuer is doing exactly what is required by law.
The CFPB proposed extensive regulations governing payday, auto title and certain other higher cost loans on June 2, 2016. The first question for every lender, and particularly banks and other main-stream lenders that don’t believe that they make “payday loans,” is which of their current loan products would be subject to the rules. This article outlines the types of loans that would be covered by the rules and the conditions for partial exemptions for otherwise covered loans. This article assumes that you have already read general outlines of what the rules will require for covered loans, but, if you are just beginning to face this issue, a summary of the basic requirements is available at BankBryanCave.com.
Specifically Excluded Products
Regardless of the loan term to maturity, interest rates, fees, or payment mechanisms, the proposal would not apply to the following loans or lines of credit:
- Credit for the sole and express purpose of financing the consumer’s initial purchase of an automobile or other good when the credit is secured by that property. The amount financed cannot exceed the cost of acquiring the goods to qualify for this exemption.
- Credit secured by real property or by personal property expected to be used as a dwelling. This exclusion would apply to home equity lines of credit, closed-end mortgages, and mobile home loans so long as the mobile home is expected to be used as a dwelling, provided that the lender takes a security interest in the real property or dwelling.
- Credit card accounts as defined by Regulation Z.
- Student loans pursuant to a program authorized by subchapter IV of the Higher Education Act, or private education loans as defined in Regulation Z.
- Non-recourse pawn loans where the lender has sole physical possession of the pawned property for the loan term, so long as the lender’s sole recourse for nonpayment is retention of the property. (While these loan would not be subject to the rules, they would need to be considered for purposes of certain limits on the frequency of covered loans.)
- Overdraft services as defined in Regulation E and overdraft lines of credit governed by Regulation Z.
Covered Short-Term Loans
These are either closed-end, single advance loans that require the consumer to repay substantially the entire amount of the loan within 45 days of consummation, or all other loans (open or closed-end) that require the consumer to repay substantially the entire amount of the advance within 45 days of the advance. Multiple advance loans can be closed-end or open-end, the key difference being that, for open-end credit, the consumer may use the plan, repay, and then reuse the plan.
The Partial Exemption for Short-Term Loans
For short-term loans, interest rates and fees do not determine whether the product is covered by the rules.
The only exemption specific to covered short-term loans is that the ability-to-repay (ATR) requirements, the limits on making loans that are presumed to be unaffordable, and the cooling-off rules do not apply to loans that satisfy specified principal amount limitations and other conditions. The principal amount limits depend on whether the loan is the first, second, or third such loan in the “loan sequence.” The first loan in the sequence can be for no more than $500, and the principal amount of the second and third loans in the sequence cannot exceed a specified percentage of the first loan.
There also are limits on the number of outstanding and recent covered loans, the new loan cannot be structured as open-end credit, the lender would be required to deliver specified disclosures, and the lender could not take an interest in the consumer’s motor vehicle.
Finally, the loan must completely amortize during its term, and the lender must allocate the consumer’s payment to the principal and interest and fees as they accrue by applying a fixed periodic rate of interest to the outstanding balance of the loan principal every scheduled repayment period.
Covered Longer-Term Loans
Loans with terms longer than 45 days are covered if the “total cost of credit” exceeds 36 percent per annum and either the lender obtains vehicle security or a “leveraged payment mechanism.”
- “Total cost of credit” is broadly defined to include, among other things, all interest and other finance charges, certain credit insurance charges and charges for credit-related ancillary products or services, application fees, and participation fees.
- “Leveraged payment mechanisms” would include the right to initiate a transfer of money through any means from a consumer’s “account” to repay the loan, other than a one-time electronic fund transfer initiated immediately after the consumer authorizes the transfer. It would also include the contractual right to obtain payment directly from the consumer’s employer or other source of income, and any requirement that the consumer repay the loan through payroll deduction or deduction from another source of income.
So there are two ways to avoid making a covered longer-term loan: keep the rates and fees low, or don’t take vehicle security and allow the borrower to retain control of making payments.
If these options will not work for your products, it is still possible to qualify for exemptions from the ATR requirements, the cooling-off rule, the prohibition on making loans that are presumed to be unaffordable, and the requirement to provide advance notice before initiating a payment from the consumer’s account. The standards for these partial exemptions are relatively complicated, however, and depend on the loan term to maturity.
Partial Exemption for Closed-End Loans of Six Months or Less
The first partial exemption applies to closed-end loans of not more than six months. The loan amount must be between $200 and $1,000, and it must be repayable in two or more substantially equal payments that are due no less frequently than monthly. As for the exception applicable to short-term loans, the loan must completely amortize during its term and the lender must allocate the consumer’s payment to the principal and interest and fees as they accrue by applying a fixed periodic rate of interest to the outstanding balance of the loan principal every scheduled repayment period.
In addition, the total cost of credit to qualify for this exemption cannot be more than the cost permissible for Federal credit unions to charge on “payday alternative loans.” The NCUA periodically adjusts this rate cap, but the current cap is an APR of 28 percent.
Remember that it was possible to avoid the rules entirely for longer-term loans by either limiting rates to 36 percent or not taking vehicle security and not providing for a leveraged payment mechanism. If you are making title loans or decide you must have a leveraged payment mechanism, then this rule would further limit your rates to 28 percent if you want the loan to qualify for this partial exemption to the rules.
Additional conditions for the exemption include:
- The borrower can have no more than three outstanding loans made under this exception from the lender or its affiliates within 180 days.
- The lender must maintain policies for documenting proof of the borrower’s recurring income.
- The lender may not impose a prepayment penalty.
- If the lender holds funds on deposit in the consumer’s name, the lender may not, in response to an actual or expected delinquency or default, sweep the account to a negative balance, exercise a right of set-off, place a hold on the account funds, or close the account.
Partial Exemption for Closed-End Loans of 24 Months or Less
The second partial exemption applies to closed-end loans with terms of up to 24 months, and is even more complicated, but there are no specific limits on the loan amount.
The more straight-forward conditions for this exemption are the same as for loans of up to six months:
- The loan must be repayable in two or more substantially equal payments that are due no less frequently than monthly.
- The loan must completely amortize during its term and interest must be calculated by applying a fixed periodic rate of interest to the outstanding balance of the loan principal every scheduled repayment period.
- The borrower can have no more than two outstanding loans made under this exception from the lender or its affiliates within 180 days. This limit is different from the one for loans of up to six months, which allows up to three outstanding loans in 180 days.
- The lender may not impose a prepayment penalty.
- If the lender holds funds on deposit in the consumer’s name, the lender may not, in response to an actual or expected delinquency or default, sweep the account to a negative balance, exercise a right of set-off, place a hold on the account funds, or close the account.
The remaining conditions are more involved. First, the “modified total cost of credit” must be less than or equal to an annual rate of 36 percent. The modified total cost of credit is generally the same as the “total cost of credit” except that the lender may exclude a single origination fee from the calculation so long as that origination fee either does not exceed $50, which is a safe harbor, or the fee represents “a reasonable proportion of the lender’s cost of underwriting loan” made under this exception. Unfortunately, the proposed rules are less than clear on what a “reasonable proportion” would be, other than to state in the proposed Commentary that the origination fee “must reflect costs that the lender incurs as part of the process of underwriting” these loans.
Perhaps the most difficult of the conditions for this exemption is that the lender must maintain policies and procedures for effectuating an underwriting method designed to result in a “portfolio default rate” of less than or equal to 5 percent per year. The lender would be required calculate its portfolio default rate every 12 months and, if the rate exceeds 5 percent in a year, the lender would be required to refund to each borrower any origination fee imposed on the borrower during that year.
So a lender relying on this exemption would not have to make the standard ability-to-repay determination, but would have to maintain underwriting procedures designed to minimize default rates and refund origination fees if the lender’s procedures did not result in low default rates. An interesting trade-off that might not be very attractive to some lenders.
As the length of this summary suggests, the proposal is extraordinarily detailed. There are of course fine points that are not addressed here, and I expect that we all will discover new and troubling implications every time we read the proposal again.
On June 2, 2016, the CFPB released its long-awaited regulatory proposal for payday loans, vehicle title and certain high-cost installment loans. This is the CFPB’s most ambitious regulatory proposal so far, and this time they might have over-stepped their authority. For an organization that is constantly threatened by extermination or neutering, one might think that they’d approach at least one issue with some degree of moderation. But it’s full speed ahead for Director Cordray.
Under the proposed rules, lenders would be required to perform an ability-to-repay (ATR) analysis before making a covered loan. Presumptions of unaffordability would arise when the consumer already has an outstanding loan, from any lender, and for 30 days thereafter. For shorter-term loans (45 days or less), a lender could not make the loan if it would be the fourth in a sequence of loans during a period in which the borrower never had more than 30 days without an outstanding covered loan from at least one lender.
Complying with these rules would of course require a mechanism to allow lenders to know about the consumer’s other loans. Because the CFPB recognized that lenders do not consistently report borrower information to the major credit bureaus, their solution was the formation of an entirely new credit reporting system to which all lenders would be required to submit their covered loan data. The CFPB would determine which entities were qualified to be these reporting systems, and would require them to register with the CFPB, and the CFPB would have the authority to suspend or revoke the registration of those entities that failed to perform to regulatory standards.
Given the importance of full credit information to this whole regulatory scheme, one might ask why the CFPB didn’t simply require all lenders to report loan information to the credit agencies under the Fair Credit Reporting Act. That, however, is where the CFPB’s authority falters. The FCRA itself states that lenders are not required to report negative information to the agencies. Lenders that do furnish information to the agencies must comply with certain accuracy and integrity rules, but there is no general requirement in the FCRA for lenders to report information to the credit agencies.
Because only Congress can amend the FCRA, the CFPB apparently decided to use its broad authority under the UDAAP provisions of the Dodd-Frank Act to regulate credit reporting indirectly. Although this new credit reporting system is clearly the centerpiece of the whole regulatory proposal, the CFPB’s press release and fact sheet for the proposed rules refer to it only in passing. It’s almost as if they didn’t want to draw attention to it. No wonder.
A more detailed summary of the proposal is available at BankBryanCave.com.
On May 11, 2016, the CFPB filed a Complaint in federal court against All American Check Cashing and its owner, alleging unfair, deceptive and abusive acts in connection with All American’s check cashing and payday loan business. We all know of a few financial services companies that are less careful than they should be, and we know some companies that get a little close to the regulatory lines. But the alleged actions of All American are simply outrageous.
According to the Complaint, employees were prohibited from disclosing check cashing fees, even when directly asked by the consumer. The company produced training materials, that it unwisely did not burn immediately following each training program, instructing employees to “NEVER TELL THE CUSTOMER THE FEE.” The company instructed employees to count money out over the receipt so as to block the consumer’s view of the fee, to distract consumers from finding out the fee by engaging in small talk, and to provide constant information to consumers (unrelated to the fees) so as to overwhelm the consumer with info. To ensure that all employees strictly adhered to these policies, the company devoted “substantial resources” to conducting regular audits of employee conduct. I don’t think that’s what the CFPB means when they encourage companies to perform compliance audits.
Based on the CFPB's allegations, All American’s payday loan business was equally predatory (I know, it’s an over-used word, but sometimes it’s the right word). For consumers who were paid monthly, instead of offering the consumer a 30-day loan where the payment due date would sensibly coincide with their payday, the company allegedly pressured consumers into taking three or more two-week loans. Each loan would be used to pay off the prior loan, and separate fees would be charged for each loan. The result would be almost 40 percent more in fees for the same total amount borrowed. The company internally referred to this scheme as a “huge income booster.” The company apparently thought this was such a jolly idea that one supervisor sent an email to all stores with a cartoon depicting an employing pressuring a consumer to accept the loan program by gunpoint.
As shown in the Complaint:
While reading these allegations, I’m shocked that this company actually has employees that would participate in the alleged activities. Given their line of business, I imagine their employees are not well paid and I expect that most of them are one pay check away from being in the same miserable position as their customers. How can anyone be this devoid of empathy? It sometimes takes an enforcement action like this to appreciate consumer protection laws.
Well, they’ve done it, though it’s not much of a surprise. On May 5, 2016, the CFPB issued proposed rules to prohibit pre-dispute arbitration agreements in connection with consumer financial products or services if those agreements would prevent class actions. Of all of the CFPB’s actions that the financial services industry has complained about – qualified mortgages, aggressive UDAAP enforcement, proposed rules that could effectively ban short term loans in connection with prepaid cards, this might be the one action that will really harm the industry. But it’s party time for the plaintiffs’ bar.
The proposed rules would apply to virtually any consumer financial product or service, including loans, deposit accounts, funds transfers, check cashing and guaranty services, debt management or settlement, debt collection, and automobile leases. Merchants extending credit for the purchase of their products are exempted in limited circumstances, as are securities broker-dealers if they are already subject to SEC rules prohibiting anti-class action arbitration clauses.
There are really only two meaningful exemptions, and one of those is for a limited time only. First there is a small company exemption. Companies are exempt from the rule if they, together with their affiliates, provide a consumer product or service to no more than 25 consumers in each of the current and preceding year. Apparently the CFPB’s compelling reasons to preserve class actions weren’t so compelling for small groups of consumers (or maybe the CFPB is just throwing a bone to their opponents who complain about regulations killing small businesses).
The short-term exemption is for providers of general-purpose reloadable prepaid cards that sell their cards through retailers. If the consumer acquires the card in person at the retailer, the arbitration agreement was included in the card packaging, and the agreement was packaged prior to the compliance date for the rule, the provider would not be required to pull the packages and amend the arbitration agreement. However, if the provider can contact the consumer in writing, the provider would be required to notify the consumer in writing and amend the arbitration agreement to comply with the proposed rule. It’s not clear if the ability to contact the consumer “in writing” would include by email, but, if that is the CFPB’s intent, they might want to specify that the amended arbitration agreement can be provided electronically without the need to follow the cumbersome E-Sign and related consumer consent rules.
While the proposed rule is distressing on many levels, perhaps the most troubling aspect is the implication that the CFPB will not stop here. For those companies that continue to require arbitration of non-class action claims, the proposal would require the companies to provide the CFPB with detailed records regarding any arbitration that does take place. Those records would include a description of the consumer’s claim and any counterclaim, the arbitrator’s judgment or award, any communication from an arbitrator to the provider regarding the arbitrator’s dismissal of a claim due to the provider’s failure to pay applicable arbitration fees, and any communication from the arbitrator that the arbitration agreement does not comply with the arbitrator’s “fairness principles” or similar requirements.
Director Cordray’s prepared remarks suggest that one purpose of this requirement is so that the CFPB will have sufficient data about individual arbitrations to determine whether they also should be restricting them. If even individual arbitrations offend their sense of fairness, we can expect further restrictions on pre-dispute arbitration agreements.
And worst of all, his comments suggest that they might override an arbitrator’s judgment and impose bigger penalties on the financial services provider. He states that the data would “enable further review of the substantive allegations raised in these arbitration processes to see if they warrant action by the Bureau.” Maybe they’d allow the individual arbitration decision to stand, but it appears that they wouldn’t hesitate to bring their own enforcement action, whether that is to collect civil money penalties or to require restitution to those consumers who haven’t yet sought arbitration.
And in the interest of “transparency,” the CFPB is considering publishing all of these arbitration records on its website. I guess that’s to ensure that every other consumer knows to bring a claim and the class action bar has its bite at the apple.
The CFPB justifies all of the proposed rules based in large part on the idea that consumers who have lost only “small amounts of money” or experienced only “small amounts of harm” have no prospects for meaningful relief if class actions are unavailable to them. In his prepared remarks, Director Cordray stated that certain corporate practices can be “lucrative to businesses” but harm individuals “only on a minor basis,” and that arbitration clauses banning class actions give these companies “less reason to ensure that their conduct complies with law.” I suppose the Director believes that bank executives across the country are calculating how much they can steal from consumers without getting caught. In my experience, consumer over-charges usually are the result of honest errors.
Look, I understand the value of consumer class actions. I’ve seen Erin Brokovich. But enough already. If the CFPB continues down this path, even our dysfunctional Congress will eventually limit class action awards, and then the class actions that really matter will be limited because the CFPB wanted to ensure that consumers could easily recover their small amounts from supposedly unscrupulous bankers.